We live in conspiratorial times. Deeply sinister
motives appear to be at work everywhere beneath the surface. No one, however high their reputation,
is entirely beyond suspicion. Every institution, even the most venerable, may be at it. Whatever
may publically be said, something a whole lot ghastlier is probably going on in private.
Taking anything on good faith seems a sure route to naivety and disillusion. It’s never
been a more tempting moment to become a conspiracy theorist. But the real choice isn’t between
naivety on the one hand and conspiracy theory on the other. The task is to find our way
to an often-elusive third option: intelligent scepticism. Both the intelligent sceptic and
the conspiracy theorist start from the very same place: with an awareness that things
may well not be what they seem, and that what is widely believed may be patently false.
This is – in itself – no sign of madness or delusion. It’s the basis of some of humanity’s
greatest discoveries and insights. To claim that the earth orbits the sun would have sounded
the height of delusion in 1473. It would have sounded no less peculiar to maintain, in the
late 1950s, that the UK security services were largely in the hands of a group of people
working for the Soviet Union. A hypothesis can be thoroughly outlandish, very unpopular
– and still correct. What separates the conspiracy theorist from the intelligent sceptic
is not the possession of some odd-sounding hypotheses; it’s what they then go on to
do with these hypotheses. Here are some of the key differences: – Evidence Intelligent
sceptics know that hypotheses cannot be sustained indefinitely without evidence. They can be
trialled for a time, but eventually have to be positively backed up by concrete proof
or else graciously and uncomplainingly abandoned. – The Burden of Proof Intelligent sceptics
know that the burden of proving a hypothesis must invariably fall on them, as the challengers
to the status quo, and not on the upholders of the established ideology. They accept that
it is their duty to show that ghosts really do exist; and not the responsibility of everyone
else to prove that they don’t. Upholding quarrelsome
hypotheses delivers some hugely redemptive emotional pleasures. One often feels empowered
and superior to all those who still blindly trust in the status quo. They, the idiots,
may well think the rocket went to the moon; we know the whole thing was filmed in a downtown
studio. Our job may not be so significant nor our house very grand, but we – unlike
the stuck-up professors – know what really happened to the Fuhrer after the war. Intelligent
sceptics certainly know how nice it would be if they were proved right; but they can
bear the humiliation of turning out to be miserably wrong. It would of course be deeply
emotionally convenient if they really were to discover the secrets of cheap nuclear fission,
if the elderly, rich man was in truth a sexual predator or if climate change did turn out
to be a hoax. But they are also wise enough never to let their wishes overpower the more
stubborn and unyielding claims of reality. – Basic Trust The conspiracy theorist sees
skullduggery everywhere; their default position is that everyone must be a liar and that simply
everything is a cover up. Their fear of being taken for a dupe is so great, there can be
no glimmer of trust. For their part, the intelligent sceptic proceeds through the world with an
attitude of basic credence and initial benevolence. They dare to take things at face value, confident
in their power to alter their views – perhaps quite quickly – in a much darker direction
were the facts to demand it. They are internally strong enough to take a chance to believe
in the goodness and truthfulness of strangers. Conspiracy theory is never really a problem
of intelligence. It’s an emotional wound that overpowers the higher faculties of the
mind – and is therefore best treated not with a barrage of countervailing facts, but
with reassurance, kindness and love, for it’s here that the problem invariably began. The
choice we face isn’t between naive credulity and conspiracy theory. By understanding the
fragility of our psyches, we have the option of navigating our perilous times with a judicious
mixture of doubt and trust.