Saturday 8 February 2014

Rob Brotherton and the Psychology of Conspiracy

“Oh my stars and garters!” is an expression of astonishment that I’ve noticed is commonly used by forum Skeptics. Therefore it seemed apt and synchronous that the Greenwich Skeptics in the Pub group’s pub is called The Star and Garter. The meeting I went to attend was this one: Several times in the days leading up to the event I almost gave up on the idea. The weather forecast was atrocious, predicting very heavy rain and high winds; this has been the norm for this entire “winter”, whether that’s just a natural freak occurrence or evidence of geoengineering is a separate subject. At the same time the Underground was on strike and the Tube service was down to a bare minimum. Greenwich is in east London, a long way from Victoria where the coach from Oxford stops. I got off the coach wondering whether I’d be able to reach the venue on time and, more importantly, whether I’d be able to get home again afterwards. As it happened I did both easily, and in doing so made a delightful new discovery. I travelled to Greenwich by boat. There is no nicer way to see London than from the river; away from all the noise, confinement and traffic in the fresh open air of the Thames its architectural landscape is spectacular. The riverboat services run from the Embankment regularly to numerous destinations through the whole of the docklands and also as far upriver as Kew. I’ll definitely use it again as often as is convenient. The Star and Garter is in an old backstreet tucked behind the Maritime Museum and is almost exactly on the Meridian. It was dark by the time I stepped inside and the sound of raucous laughter assailed my ears. A woman holding a wineglass rather precariously walked past; she grinned flirtatiously at me and staggered away. She wasn’t the only one who’d clearly been drinking heavily; almost everybody in the bar looked as if they had been on a bender. I then noticed that they were all dressed formally in black suits and dresses, although these were stained and crumpled in most cases. I found out from the barmaid that a wake was in progress; I wonder if people will celebrate my own demise in the same way when it comes. I also wondered what effect this would have on the evening to come.
I decided to attend the event incognito because the speaker knows me and has exhibited little affection as a result. In fact we had an online argument a few months ago, see: I had ended up apologizing to him, but I still wasn’t sure how he’d react to me being there. The last thing I wanted was to be refused entry to the event after travelling so far. My disguise was fiendish; I shall omit details of it in case I need to use it again, but I’d challenge my best friends to recognize me that evening. The speaker was Rob Brotherton, here’s his blogsite where he writes along with three of his friends: He’s a psychology lecturer at Goldsmiths College in London and if that name sounds familiar to you it’s because I’ve mentioned it before; it’s where Prof. Chris French is based at the Department of Anomalistic Psychology, in fact Brotherton is one of his postgraduate students. I encountered both Brotherton and Frenchie before a couple of years ago at this highly successful event: I think my decision to go in undercover was also inspired by the fear many Skeptics feel towards conspiracy theorists. This is perfectly justified in some cases; the conduct of some people in the Truth movement has been shameful, see: But I’ve always spoken out against such behaviour and would never dream of being disruptive or hostile at a Skeptic meeting. In fact at the BHA conference in the link Dr Stephen Law said that he was worried when he heard that “some conspiracy theorists were attending!”, when in fact his misgivings were proven unfounded. Everybody got along just fine and the controversy between us made for fun not fury. However, as Brotherton related, some of the conspiracy theorists there did not like Ian R Crane and later related to him their suspicions that Ian is secretly working for the other side!
Rob Brotherton is leaving these shores soon for a teaching position in New York; his speciality has been the psychology of conspiracy theories, a field of study that he believes has been neglected. But he thinks the subject matters because conspiracy theories are everywhere and that they can do harm. One might make decision that could be a detriment to the lives of oneself or others if one believed in a conspiracy theory regarding HIV not causing AIDS or climate change being a hoax, or vaccines being dangerous. Of course this concern is built on the assumption that none of the above are true, and that is the underlying premise of Brotherton’s lecture; he assumes conspiracy theories are a delusion and therefore asks why people believe in them despite that. As regular HPANWO-readers will have guessed, this is my fundamental disagreement with him. Brotherton also worries that conspiratorial delusions could lead to radicalization involving racism, anti-Semitism and the far right; of course Adolf Hitler believed in a Jewish conspiracy, as did Timothy McVeigh, the man supposedly behind the Oklahoma bombing (although he was not in my view, see: I’d like to be able to tell you that there are no racists in the Truth movement; unfortunately there are, but not as many as some would have you believe. I’ve written criticisms of their ideas and always debate with them, see: “Conspiracy Theory” is not an easy word to define, almost as difficult as “Skeptic”. In this aticle I shall use the term "conspiracy theory" purely for convenience, although I know it has the connotations of a dysphemism and is very much a loaded word. Brotherton does not accept that the official story of 9/11, a conspiracy of Muslim hijackers, should be equated with the notion that it was an inside job. He goes along with David Aaronovitch’s definition, that a conspiracy theory is an idea that is used to explain something in place of a better explanation. I disagree, I’d call that just being wrong. Again, we come back to the issue of whether conspiracy theories are actually true or not, a question that lies outside the domain of that evening’s discussion; and in fact Rob reinforced the remit when he said that conspiracy theories are always unsubstantiated and incomplete allegations without evidence; they pick bitty holes in the narrative and drive upstream against the consensus of experts. The imperative of believing a consensus of experts appears superficially reasonable. After all, I’m not an architect; how can I possibly state that the hundreds of architects and engineers who all agree that the Twin Towers fell to the ground because of the impact from two jet aircraft and the fires that followed are all incorrect? Well, firstly that verdict is not unanimous; there are many people in the building trade who don’t go along with that; there’s even an organization representing them, see:, although I’m personally very suspicious of the individuals running it and think that they may well really be “working for the other side!”. A highly detailed and comprehensive analysis of the destruction of the World Trade Centre has been written by Dr Judy Wood, see: Also I’ve closely studied the way our minds are manipulated, as individuals, a culture and a society. I can see how quickly false and pathological ideas become so quickly established among the majority of people. Our world is run by those who employ experts in psychological warfare, see: All the manipulators have to do is make a notion “normal” and a sizeable majority of the population will uphold it without any reason to at all, in fact even in the face of reasons not to. I’ve seen the results of this in my own hospital and will be writing a lot more on that subject in the future.
Another feature of conspiracy theories, according to Rob, is that they only ever pertain to significant events. For example, the assassination of John F Kennedy has bred more conspiracy theory than any other incident in history, see:, yet the attempted and unsuccessful assassination of President Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley Jr. is hardly questioned. Was this because it failed? I don’t think that’s a very good gauge to judge the validity of conspiracy theories because it’s only natural to expect that events with more impact will inevitably lead to more attention, more research and more revelation. Conversely there are many world-shaking events that take place which are not conspiracies. I don’t think the Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster was a conspiracy; it looks as if the spacecraft was simply struck by lightning. Also, and I disagree here with many of my peers, I doubt the Titanic sinking was anything more than a tragic accident, see: Conspiracy theories are also supposedly always done by hypercompetent individuals with unusually malign intent, as with the atrocity of 9/11. Well, I don’t think it’s unusually malign at all for governments to murder a few thousand people in pursuit of a political goal. History has shown that they will slaughter many times that toll quite openly and without a qualm; do you really need me to give you an example? As for hypercompetent, they are definitely not that, in fact they make some terrible gaffs at times and I’ve directed readers’ attention towards some of them, see: and: I suspect that the perpetrators of 9/11 have underestimated the level of awareness that resulted from their attack and are now engaged in damage control. Rob also claims that conspiracy theories are self-insulting against change and unfalsifiable; again this is unfair, see:

 “Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?” Rob Brotherton asks, when there are so many reasons that we shouldn’t. Conspiracy theorists are also very demographically homogenous; an old person is as likely to believe in them as a young person, a black man as much as somebody white, rich and poor are equally drawn to accept them. Conspiracy theories tend to correlate into a single structural set of ideas, what Michael Barkun calls “the Cultic Milieu”. Somebody who thinks 9/11 was an inside job is far more likely to believe in UFO’s and that JFK was shot by a conspiracy. There’s also a huge crossover with belief in the paranormal. Of course readers will expect me to admit that I myself am a textbook specimen and I do. Conspiracy theorists also tend to be ruled by intuition and openness. We also apparently feel “powerless” over our own lives and project this onto the world, seeing intention where there is none as a reaction to that. This is what Michael Shermer calls “patternicity”, the way we make the mistake of seeing pattern and organization in random noise. The problem with this patternicity theory is that it’s a bit of a trump card. I can’t prove that the patterns of paint on the Sistine Chapel ceiling are not just random splatters. How do we know Michelangelo didn’t just kick a few tins of paint around for a while and decided he liked the result? This is a point I tried to make to Dr Paul Rogers at the Seriously Strange conference: Luckily there were some good questions raised in the Q and A. One man differed with Rob’s dismissive definition of conspiracy theory; he rightly pointed out that the Watergate Affair was at one point a conspiracy theory, it fitted in with Rob’s statement about them, and yet it was proven true. And I’ve often thought this myself, so much of accepted history is conspiracy theory found to be real with hindsight; see: Another man, (a rather large bald man wearing sunglasses who looked a lot like me actually; I see a new conspiracy theory looming!) asked a very good question: a large proportion of the population actually believe in conspiracy theories, see:, however only a small minority of those people are at all outspoken about their beliefs. They’re the tip of a huge iceberg. What makes those people different from the majority of conspiracy theory-believers who are still in the closet? Rob said that more research needed to be done on that and quipped: “maybe those people have fewer distractions in their life.”
I’m glad I braved the elements and the industrial militants to attend this event. Thanks to Rob Brotherton and everybody who organizes Greenwich SiTP, as much as I disagree with their conclusions. I’ve always needed to hear both sides of every argument and this is not the first time I’ve been to Skeptics in the Pub. The more I do so the more sure I am that I’m taking the right line.
See here for my previous reports on SiTP:

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