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Page last updated at 09:47 GMT, Tuesday, 6 October 2009 10:47 UK

When sceptics fight back

Princess Diana, the Moon landing, the Kennedys
Some events attract rafts of conspiracy theories

By Arran Frood

Conspiracy theorists have used the internet to co-ordinate increasingly slick attacks on the accepted versions of events, but now a group of scientists and sceptics has decided it's time to organise and fight back.

Conspiracy theories are pervasive and popular.

A poll for the Scripps Howard media organisation in 2006 suggested 36% of Americans suspected government involvement or deliberate inaction in the 9/11 attacks, and belief in a Kennedy conspiracy ran at 40% in the same poll.

World Trade Center: Destroyed by controlled explosions or using thermate
Pentagon: Hit by missile rather than airliner
Princess Diana: Murdered rather than being killed by reckless driving on part of Henri Paul
Apollo 11: Moon landings never took place, were staged on Earth
JFK: Lee Harvey Oswald not acting alone, part of underworld or wider conspiracy

A decade after Princess Diana's death, one survey found a fifth of Britons believed she was murdered. And to millions across the world, 2009's Apollo Moon landing 40th anniversary was a hollow sham because we have never been there.

Conspiracy theories predate the internet but the web has provided a fast, accessible platform for groups to unite, gather research and disseminate information without even meeting or leaving their houses.

While many people find them harmless fun, others believe there is a darker truth - that conspiracy theories are rewriting history, warping the present and altering the future. Enough is enough they say - it's time to fight back.

Isolated sceptics

Enter the sceptics with the gathering of The Amazing Meeting (TAM) in London, the first of the conferences outside the US. A fundraising offshoot of the non-profit James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), TAM London saw scientists, writers and comedians target conspiracy theories - and their close cousins pseudoscience and medical quackery - in front of an audience loosely allied by their desire for more rational, critical thinking.

"A lot of sceptics feel very isolated," says psychologist and magician Prof Richard Wiseman. "It's not a popular position to be saying 'Father Christmas does not exist' so it motivates people and acts as a springboard for people to see what we're up to."

Many conspiracy theorists believed the government was complicit in 9/11

This brand of scepticism is not new. The movement was first galvanised in the early 80s when spoon-benders like Uri Geller claimed not to be magicians, but to really have paranormal powers. It was an age that saw a test of Geller's abilities make its way into the prestigious journal Nature.

The internet era has changed everything. The web-only film Loose Change, which questions the findings of the 9/11 commission, had already been viewed 10 million times by May 2006. It has had a massive impact. But the sceptics are also using the internet to organise loose networks of informal meetings.

In one theory the Pentagon was hit by a missile not a plane

However, using the same medium to fight back is not easy, as British investigative journalist Jon Ronson found when he posted on the British 9/11 Truth Campaign website. Abused and ridiculed, his integrity was questioned because he is Jewish. "When I found myself being attacked by 9/11 conspiracy theorists I found the sceptical community very supportive," says Ronson. "When believers turn on you it is horrible. I've stopped engaging with them because it's like prodding a snake."

Ronson has spent a lifetime lifting the lid on the unusual. He is about to come to greater prominence after being portrayed by Ewan McGregor in the upcoming film, The Men who Stare at Goats, also starring George Clooney. Ronson's book of the same name revealed that the US operated a secret army of psychic spies in the 1970s and 80s.

But the sceptics movement is not just about tackling conspiracy theorists who spread their message by independent means on the internet; there is also a drive to tackle bad reporting of science in the mainstream media.

Direct access

Dr Ben Goldacre's Bad Science website has served as a conduit for those who want to help counter the ceaseless torrent of articles pushed out by snake oil sellers, lazy journalists and badly behaved editors. He has been the leading critic of the media's treatment of the MMR scare.

His solution is to bypass conventional routes to the public. "Mainstream media has repeatedly shown itself to be worse than useless in reporting science and health in many, many fields," says Goldacre. "Scientists should communicate directly with the public via blogs."

These sceptics can garner a good deal of public support. David Aaronovitch has given popular talks to accompany his anti-conspiracy theory book, Voodoo Histories. Goldacre speaks at contemporary music festivals.

Glenn Hil
Glenn Hill, son of one of the fairy hoaxers, addressed the sceptics

And TAM London's 600 seats - at £175 a pop - were snapped up in 52 minutes - despite sceptics' high priest James Randi not attending due to ill health. Instead, Randi addressed an enraptured audience via video link like a general before battle, telling delegates that "it wasn't easy to get people out of beliefs in the woo-woo world".

Randi's foundation was established in 1996 to help debunk paranormal and pseudoscientific claims, but his Paranormal Challenge prize dates back to 1964 when the sceptic offered $1,000 to anyone who could prove the paranormal was real. Donations swelled the booty to more than a million dollars, but no applicants have passed the preliminary test.

The energy at events like TAM London is tangible, but are sceptics just preaching to the choir and can their success be measured?

JREF president Dr Phil Plait cites the myth that an egg laid on the first day of spring will stand on one end. Plait says that 10 years ago half of his audience had heard of the story - now that figure is less than 10%, which he says is down to using the web to disseminate articles that prove the claim is nonsense. "Legends do die," he says.

Then there is the image or branding problem. Not all delegates like the term "sceptic" because it has negative, "anti" connotations, similar to the way atheists are defined by something they don't believe in.

As a result, some delegates prefer to call themselves rationalists, free thinkers or Brights. "Out there in the audience is the next generation of bloggers and media professionals," Plait says.

But even if the word is spread, will conspiracy theory believers ever listen?

Adam Savage, presenter of the television programme Mythbusters, which uses science to challenge urban legends, is not overly optimistic. He says he doesn't know of any conversions following his Emmy-nominated programme that tested Moon hoax theories.

"They want to believe desperately that someone is in charge," he says. "Even if it is someone who is working against us."

Send us your comments using the form below.

I am a confirmed sceptic and a firm believer in Hanlon's Razor: "Never attribute to malice, that which can be adequately explained by stupidity."
Nick, Sheffield, UK

I really despair at the way everybody has to be lumped into polar opposite pigeon holes. I firmly believe SOME of the so-called conspiracy theories in your article are true, but it seems if I speak out about them, I'm also declaring a firm belief in spiritualism and homeopathy ("conspiracy theories - and their close cousins pseudoscience and medical quackery").

I certainly don't believe ALL the conspiracy theories on this page. Why should I then have to be herded into a convenient holding pen with a loose grouping of not only genuine truth-seekers, but also various assorted nutters too? If any of the popular "conspiracy theories" do have a basis in fact, those who have something to hide will be delighted at this blanket ridiculing of healthy scepticism.
Nick Hughes, Bushey, UK

So I guess you're also including the "House Select Committee on Assassinations" who in 1970 concluded that "The committee believes, on the basis of the evidence available to it, that President John F. Kennedy was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy. The committee was unable to identify the other gunmen or the extent of the conspiracy." This was a three-year investigation carried out by the US Government. Those loony conspiracy nuts.
Rob Leather, Manchester, UK

Part of the problem - and something that often makes conspiracists impossible to convert - is that whilst science offers a rationalist approach supported by quantification and measurement, many people want to add a sixth sense of intuition. Like a gambler whose addiction is reinforced by sporadic wins, some addictive conspiracists hang on to all of their beliefs because occasionally one is proved to have some merit. On top of this we live in a world where "experts" can be seen to get it wrong - experts tell us that people are great artists, when "we the people" think they are talentless self-publicists; experts tell us "war is justified" when "we the people" have our doubts. Unfortunately, some people take this a step too far and believe that the same applies to science and rational knowledge, and that like some real-world matrix we are all being deluded and defrauded by a malevolent "Them". Power to the Brights, I say, but don't hold your breath.
Kevin Friery, Portsmouth UK

Some conspiracy theorists are plain nuts, but the ability and right to question what is commonly taught is extremely important. To assert that all conspiracy theories are bunk is the same as saying "believe what you are told". Surely this is dangerous thinking?
Darrell, Blackpool

Human beings are not clever or together enough to organise massive conspiracies. Tiny conspiracies involving 2-3 people 'in-the-know': yes. Large conspiracies: no.
Pete, Lincoln, UK

No rational person can fully believe what politicians say; their lack of full disclosure leaves room for these theories. Many years after "big events" that occurred in the past the truth is revealed that show that governments either lied or withheld vital facts from the public. For example the British government always denied that there was any official investigation into UFOs but we know know that was untrue.
Bo Tsang, Wallasey, Wirral

I have a friend that does not believe there has been a flu outbreak - it's a conspiracy between government and drugs companies. What can you say?
Peter Bird, Manchester, UK

Conspiracy theories are excellent entertainment, a great exercise in letting your imagination run wild. However, reality usually dictates that at the heart of these theories you'll actually find cock-ups and frantic blame-evasion, the latter being responsible for the cries of "they're hiding the truth from us". Yes, often they are, but almost always because someone cocked-up.
Nick Rowe, Nottm, UK

"They want to believe desperately that someone is in charge," he says. "Even if it is someone who is working against us."

That final comment from the article says it all. Conspiracy theorists always strike me as being slightly loopy and very easily persuaded that ridiculous theories without any scrap of evidence or logic must be true - and they'll argue it with anyone who does not also believe in the "truth". It's an extreme form of religion and uses the same thought process that used to result in "witches" being burned at the stake.
Mark, Liverpool, UK

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