There was a report this week in the UK about the popularity of conspiracy theories. The latest one was that the police deliberately held back in the early days of the London riots because they wanted to fuel a backlash so they could arrest more young people later. Not surprisingly the adherents of this theory were predominantly young. And the internet got most of the blame. There are now moves to add ‘internet awareness’ classes to the school syllabus – to teach children that ‘not everything you read on the internet is true.’ (Gasp! Say it ain’t so! – ed)
Alas, I don’t think it’ll work. The internet may make the dissemination of (mis)information faster and wider, but it’s the human brain’s love of joining up the dots to find pretty patterns that’s the problem. It’s said that our brains are wired to detect patterns out of incomplete information. Some say it’s our desire to find order out of chaos. The only problem is that one person’s order is another person’s fantasy. Our brain’s have baggage – our prejudices, our beliefs, our suspicions – and when we look for order … we see it through a series of filters.
Some people see the hand of the police, the government, the CIA, the Illuminati – or even the Lizard People who inhabit the Earth’s hollow core – everywhere. Shadowy figures seeking to manipulate and control our lives. A few hundred years ago we would have called them devils or demons or witches. They’ve always been around. Curdling our milk, flooding our fields, killing our children. The only difference is that today – with the exception of the Lizard People – we tend to give them human form.
And the ones we hear about – the faked moon landing, the Princess Diana murder, the 9-11 conspiracy – are only the tip of the iceberg. There are millions out there. I expect we all know one or two from a friend or family member – a weird conviction that not only defies logic but stubbornly refuses to yield to counter-argument.
My mother had several. One was my nephew’s fault. She’d just moved into a new bungalow and was complaining about a strange smell in one of the wardrobes. She’d cleaned it several times and it wouldn’t go away. My nephew, jokingly, said it was probably lemmings. It didn’t get the reaction he’d hoped for. What he should have realised was that my mother was desperate for an answer to a problem that had been eating at her for days. And her clever nephew had just given her one. The fact that there were no lemmings in Bournemouth – or anywhere else in the UK outside of a zoo – was immaterial. She had an answer. And she was sticking to it. No amount of argument, or confession, could dissuade her. She had lemmings.
Then there was my mother-in-law’s musical electrical socket. Last year we got an irate phone call from her complaining about an electrician who had moved a phone socket for her.
“What’s wrong with it?”
“It has music coming out of it.”
What? Several questions later we ascertained that at six o’clock every evening the electrical socket played the carol ‘We wish you a Merry Christmas.’ Was there nothing the Lizard People wouldn’t stoop to!
Naturally, it being early January, we suggested the more likely explanation was that someone had sent her a musical Christmas Card and it was coming from there and not the socket. She would have none of it. It started the day after the socket was moved. End of discussion.
Every week for six months we had a similar conversation. Electrical sockets don’t play music. This one does! No, it doesn’t! Yes, it does!
She wanted to confront the electrician and ask him what he was playing at. You shouldn’t go around installing sockets that sing at people. You should be arrested! Every week we persuaded her not to. We phoned her at six o’clock so we could listen, we asked her to move the phone around the room so we could track it down. I don’t need to. I’m sat right here! It’s coming from the socket. We asked her to invite friends round at six o’clock so they could confirm it. She did and they were as confused as she was. Were there Wise Men trapped in the wall cavity?
When we arrived at her house last summer, our first task was to track down the lurking carol singers. There were no Christmas cards, but the living room was somewhat cluttered – my mother-in-law was 95 and not a believer in minimalist furnishing. There were display cabinets and knick-knacks and piles of unopened small boxes of free gifts from catalogues.
Six o’clock came and so did the carollers. It was an alarm in an unopened plastic clock cum thermometer cum Godknowswhat gadget from Taiwan. Shelagh took it out of the box and switched it off. One less conspiracy – the Christmas Carolling Lizard Electricians Plot To Take Over the World – was thwarted.
Chris Dolley is an English author living in France with a frightening number of animals. More information about his other work can be found on his BVC bookshelf .