George Orwell once asked readers of his column in Tribune whether they had any good reason for believing that the earth was round. His point, borrowed from George Bernard Shaw, was that people who argue “the world is round because scientists say so” are intellectually equal to those who insist “the world is flat because priests say so”. Both are similarly credulous, and dependent on authority.
It is worth reminding oneself of this dependence from time to time, but there is little one can do about it. The vast majority of our knowledge is learned by rote. I believe the Battle of Waterloo took place in 1815, but I have never troubled to check from primary sources that this is the case. It is simply what I was told by my history teacher at school. If you ask me why I believe him, I respond with another question: What possible motive could he have had to deceive me? Why would all the history teachers and professors, the authors of textbooks, and museum curators conspire to mislead the public about the date of a battle?
It is precisely when such trust in authority breaks down that conspiracy theories flourish. The conspiracy theorist can always tell you why he (and it generally is he) will not trust the government, or the scientific establishment, or whoever else claims to have the true facts. The trouble is that this initial stage of the conspiracy theory is often seductively reasonable. Governments lie and cover up the truth all the time. We have no reason to trust them.
In a purely negative sense, therefore, the proliferation of conspiracy theories around the coronavirus pandemic is instructive. It suggests that there is something left unexplained. Marginal conspiracy theories can flourish around major events even when the official explanations are reasonable. There are people who believe that the Bush administration orchestrated the 9/11 terrorist attacks and that the Obama administration carried out the Sandy Hook massacre. The reason why these theories tend to appeal only to the tinfoil hat brigade is that the mainstream media explanations are entirely plausible. It is not difficult to believe that Osama bin Ladin attacked high-profile targets in the United States, and even easier to accept that a school shooting took place. In both cases, Occam’s razor makes short work of the conspiracy theories.
Consider, however, a case such as the suicide of Jeffrey Epstein. Here, we are asked to believe that an influential billionaire who had previously escaped punishment for his crimes managed to kill himself by mysterious means in a prison environment where stringent measures were taken to prevent him from doing so, thereby sparing some of the most powerful people in the world from embarrassment or worse. The point is not that I have a better explanation. Nobody tells me anything. The point is that an explanation of some kind is required. This is why conspiracy theories about Epstein’s suicide are legion, and are accepted as fact by a great many people who dismiss theories about 9/11 or Sandy Hook out of hand.
If you want to know why there are so many conspiracy theories surrounding the pandemic, and specifically about lockdown, consider the weakness of the official explanation, which goes something like this: “Putting everyone in the country under house arrest is a reasonable and proportionate public health response to a new virus. The scientific consensus is that this is how viruses should be treated, and anyone who disagrees is a depraved maniac who has probably been stabbing pensioners for years under cover of darkness.”
It is worth noting that there is literally no conspiracy theory more improbable than this explanation. If you tell me that the Chinese are planning to kill everyone with telephone masts, I can only repeat that nobody tells me anything, least of all the Chinese government. If you suggest that little green men from Betelgeuse are spreading the virus as a prelude to conquering the earth, I remain sceptical, but ultimately agnostic, for the ways of little green men are a closed book to me. If you tell me, however, that the normal response to a pandemic is to shut down all economic activity and imprison people within their homes, I am well aware from my own knowledge that this is not true. I do not have an alternative theory, but I do not need one in order to dismiss such an obvious falsehood.
Meanwhile, the phrase “conspiracy theory” has become a convenient way for those who object to a particular line of enquiry to shut it down as quickly as possible. There are several points which should be made in response to this tendency. The first is that some conspiracy theories are correct. The soothsayer who advised Caesar to beware the Ides of March was presumably dismissed as a conspiracy theorist but, as matters turned out, he was onto something rather significant. The second point is that the people who have the greatest interest in denying all conspiracies as a matter of policy are, of course, those involved in conspiracies.
The third point, however, is perhaps the most salient. It is becoming more and more common for a question or an objection to be construed, stupidly or maliciously, as a conspiracy theory. One of the first time I voiced my objections to lockdown as a policy in public, the immediate response I received was “Oh, you’re a QAnon believer.” I had not the faintest idea what this meant and, when I found out what QAnon was (if you are fortunate enough not to know, I really don’t recommend going down this particular rabbit-hole) replied that of course I did not believe such an obvious farrago of nonsense. My opponent, however, had already committed himself to refuting a whole network of beliefs that no one but a lunatic could possibly have held, so I left him alone to chase his own tail.
I do not believe the British government’s explanation for the lockdown. This does not mean that I have an alternative explanation involving blood-drinking lizards from another planet. One of the most difficult exercises in the world is to cultivate in oneself the quality that Keats identified as Negative Capability, “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” It is irritating to have to admit to ignorance, but honest bewilderment is preferable to the illusion of certainty. It is worth pointing out the straw man when one state of mind is mistaken for the other by a lockdown zealot who accuses you of pedalling conspiracy theories, when all you have done is to display a reasonable degree of scepticism about the hypothesis he favours.