"Don't read this, I've been abducted by aliens" - Richard Handler, IDEAS, CBC Radio

[Let's post some comments on CBC's site debunking this ridiculous diatribe by a long-time producer at "CBC Radio's premier program of contemporary thought"]


The Ideas Guy
Richard Handler

Don't read this, I've been abducted by aliens

Last Updated: Tuesday, May 5, 2009 | 1:15 PM ET
By Richard Handler CBC News

On May 15, the world will be presented with another conspiracy theory in the form of Hollywood entertainment as Dan Brown's novel, Angels and Demons, finds its way to the big screen.

In the movie (as in the novel), an ultra-secret group called The Illuminati are preparing to blow up the Vatican. They murder cardinals and fool around with weapons of mass destruction. (Perhaps that is why George W. Bush never found them in Iraq: they were right under our noses in Rome, maybe under an ancient statue or a café.)

Brown is, of course, the author of The Da Vinci Code, the phenomenal bestseller that claims Mary Magdalene married Jesus and gave birth to a line of descendants. Tom Hanks, saving the world from conspiratorial religionists in Angels and Demons. (Sony Pictures)Tom Hanks, saving the world from conspiratorial religionists in Angels and Demons. (Sony Pictures)

In that movie (and book), the ultra-conservative organization Opus Dei tries to keep this conspiracy quiet and dispatches a blond, constantly-bleeding sadomasochist to silence our hero, Tom Hanks, and his beautiful French girlfriend.

Good thing the bad guys were foiled (Angels and Demons is actually a precursor to The Da Vinci Code and the Hanks character is a constant in both). But apparently a good number of people now believe Jesus was a married man.

If you're not a serious, believing Catholic you can have fun with all this hokum. After all, the Church is a relatively safe target after its endless sex scandals, let alone the Inquisition, Galileo and a bureaucracy at war with modernity.


But conspiracy theories can be a useful invention. They help us make sense of a world that is uncomfortably random.

As a fan of the old TV show, The X-Files, I tried using the excuse that I had been abducted by aliens whenever I was late for a CBC story meeting. No one believed me. Even when I cited a Harvard psychiatrist, the late John Mack, who thought alien abduction was a real possibility.

But conspiracy theories can also infuriate some people, like Michael Schermer, the editor of Skeptic magazine.

For Schermer and his skeptical legions, conspiracy theories are simply overwrought fantasies and downright lies. What's more, they are an affront to the real god, science.

That's the same reason Damian Thompson dislikes them. Thompson is the author of a new book called Counterknowledge: How We Surrendered to Conspiracy Theories, Quack Medicine, Bogus Science and Fake History.

He also helps edit awebsite where he keeps readers apprised of the latest conspiracy theories and medical absurdities.


In his attack on quacks, Thompson conflates two issues, as many skeptics do: lousy science and mass incredulity.

In fairness, they do go hand in hand. But it's one thing to point out a shyster selling a pill to cure heart disease (a recent posting on his site). That's not a conspiracy, just old-fashioned snake oil salesmanship. It's another to believe that the World Trade Centre was blown up by CIA.

It is a sad fact, but the 9/11 conspiracy theory persists even in the face of the many investigations and commissions surrounding the event. (Perhaps the best argument against it is that the CIA is simply not competent enough to pull it off.)

The official record, of course, won't deter the "Truthers" as they assemble their exacting facts and arguments to buttress their side of the story.

Jonathan Kay of the National Post went to a Truther meeting in Montreal recently where Richard Gage, an architect, presented a detailed presentation of what really happened on 9/11, with 527 PowerPoint slides.

All and all, says Kay, the talk turned out to be mighty dry. But at the end of the evening, even Kay's companion, also a skeptic, wasn't sure what to believe anymore.

Apparently, sheer, numbing dullness adds to the authority of conspiracy theorists. Information overload is the rhetorical weapon of choice and audience fatigue, a sign of credibility.

When experts lie

When it comes to conspiracy theories, it is easy to dismiss the nut jobs who dwell in realms of fantasy. But it's harder to push aside the really creative conspiracy advocates who swim in a sea of seeming scientific "fact."

After all, the average person isn't an expert. Except for the evidence of our senses, almost all we know comes from what philosophers call "the argument from authority." We believe those we are supposed to trust — the experts.

But when our traditional authorities have been caught out in lies, well, we go fishing for other explanations. Everything is plausible once you know you've been had.

Along with other skeptics, Damian Thompson is quite dismissive of the many quack theories floating around out there, from homeopathy and scares about autism-causing vaccines to the 9/11 conspiracy and, alas for me, alien abduction.

He also believes we live in a world where these conspiracies spread like flu epidemics, on a wing and a scare.

The fact is, we really are at the mercy of our own personal ignorance about almost everything, a situation that everyone from telephone sales people to Truthers seek to exploit.

We also live in a world of competing, fragmented authority — the perfect intellectual stew for conspiracists. Fire up your computer and the web will bathe you in an ever expanding field of ersatz wisdom.

Don't believe doctors

To get through this swamp of information, we're told we must be our own "aggregator," our own selective editor. But for the busy person today, that's tough.

Reading Thompson, you get the feeling it would nice to have an all-knowing Scientific Academy to arbitrate conspiracy theories, like the Académie française is supposed to do for the French language.

That is not going to happen, of course. And the problem isn't just the attention span of your average, busy human.

A while back, a former colleague of mine, a very bright fellow, became convinced that AIDS wasn't caused by HIV. I'd heard him argue articulately that AIDS was caused by other things, maybe syphilis, or a combination of factors such as malaria and malnutrition.

To which I had no answer except, "well, what about the doctors who investigate this stuff?"

Don't believe all those doctors, he told me, they all suffer from groupthink. Haven't doctors been wrong in the past? In the 19th century, they let women die in childbirth because they didn't believe in germs. They refused to wash their hands before deliveries or operations.

(I suppose he's still waiting for a Louis Pasteur to set us all right.)

My friend's ramblings are a considerable notch beyond my own excuses for being late for meetings and are the kind of talk that can do damage in the wrong hands. For example, for almost a decade, the HIV link to AIDS was discounted by the top leaders in South Africa. People died because of that.

Conspiracy theories can have real world consequences. And unfortunately they can't be stuffed back into a comfy Pandora's box.

Richard Handler is a producer with the CBC Radio program Ideas.