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Conspiracy theories

"Secrecy, being an instrument of conspiracy, ought never to be the system of a regular government." Jeremy Bentham, jurist, philosopher, legal and social reformer. Well it looks like we all made it through the end of the world... again.

"Secrecy, being an instrument of conspiracy, ought never to be the system of a regular government."

Jeremy Bentham, jurist, philosopher, legal and social reformer.

Well it looks like we all made it through the end of the world... again. It is easy to laugh off these ideas as crazy conspiracy theories but many thousands of people take them seriously, quit their jobs, sell everything they have waiting for "rapture." When it doesn't come, some take their own lives, so despondent are they over what they see as a broken promise of a better life.

The darker side of this, of course, is that others prey on these people and there is a loss of the basic notion some have that what they are hearing from people they trust is truth.

This small fact underlies all conspiracy theories to some degree.

National Public Radio interviewed 27-year-old New Yorker Adrienne Martinez, who gave up her plans to go to medical school after learning about the coming rapture.

Instead, she and her husband moved to Orlando, where they spent their "last" days giving out literature about the end of the world. Eight months pregnant, she has a two-year-old daughter as well. She told the radio host that they had no use for money either: "...why are we going to work for more money? ... We budgeted everything so that, on May 21, we won't have anything left," she said.

I wonder what they are living on now?

It seems hard to turn around these days without coming across conspiracy theories, from big ones - Osama bin Laden still lives - to the niggling ones many entertain as they think about politics and the business of life.

Even here in Whistler, conspiracy theories are whispered quietly, whether it be about the ongoing saga of the asphalt plant, pay parking, bed units, the "handbook" or any number of issues. It's about who knew what when.

Readers of Pique are given many of the facts of these stories, as many as reporters can report responsibly. But sometimes people believe the facts just don't entirely add up to the reality of the situation.

Other times it appears as if the protagonists in the story are speaking or representing conflicting parties, making it difficult for people to ascertain what the facts of the issue might be.

What is it about conspiracy theories of any description that make them appealing?

Managing Editor of the National Post and author Jonathan Kay - Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America's Growing Conspiracist Underground - spent three years researching and interviewing conspiracy theorists, studying the motives and belief systems of various branches, from Moon landing deniers through the JFK assassination, to 9/11, to the death of Princess Di to Truthers - people who believe the U.S. carried out the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.

As Kay sees it, conspiracy thinking is becoming more and more widespread, especially with the growth of the Internet.

He has found that virtually all conspiracy theorists are older, say over 55 or 60 years of age, and most have at some point in their lives lost faith in public institutions.

"What happens is that once someone embraces one conspiracy theory, it shapes their entire view of the world," Kay told Rolling Stone recently.

"Conspiracism is a sort of creed; it's the idea that there is a secret power in the world that can't be changed by elections, that it has evil motivations and that it's trying to destroy our way of life. They come to see the world as presented by the mainstream media and other institutions as sort of a counterfeit hoax. And their minds start digging behind everything, and they stop trusting anything. Which is actually very sad, because in a lot of cases it consumes their whole lives."

Maybe conspiracy theories are attractive because they seem to offer order out of chaos - if you like - they connect dots into meaningful patterns.

And there is no doubt that there have been some significant conspiracies, such as Watergate, as Kay will readily attest to. And there is no doubt that in office politics or any bureaucracy, people conspire to achieve certain results.

But generally the more complex a situation the less likely it is to be a true conspiracy because for the most part people aren't going to stay quiet and "government" workers aren't going to cover up in large numbers. Some may suggest many workers are too incompetent to even do so.

But nevertheless we as a society are captivated by these ideas. Just look at the popularity of books such as Angels and Demons by Dan Brown or Alan Moore's From Hell - fictional, but fantastic.

Some theories can be very dangerous as they cause strong feelings of hate and distrust, which can breed violence. These types are found at the root of many assassinations of political leaders and terrorist attacks.

And before you laugh them off ponder this: in August 2004 a poll by Zogby International found that 49 per cent of New York residents believed that officials of the U.S. government knew in advance that attacks were planned on or around September 11, 2001, and that they consciously failed to act.

In September 2006 news agency Reuters reported on a Canadian poll that found that 22 per cent believed that the 9/11 attacks had nothing to do with Osama bin Laden and were actually a plot by influential Americans.

It is clear that one of the only ways to combat conspiracy theories is to demand truth where it can be found and keep the idea of accountability front and centre.