Event – Conspiracy Theory Day, 25th September, London

CFI UK and SPES present


Sunday 25th September 2011
Conway Hall, 25 Red Lion Square, Holborn, London WC1R 4RL.

9/11, alien visitation, Jewish cabals and global warming – why are people drawn to conspiracy theories, and what holds them captive? What are the warning signs of a dodgy conspiracy theory? What conspiracy theories are actually credible, and why? Spend an entertaining and informative day with some if the world’s leading experts.


10.30 Registration

10.45-11.55 Chris French and Robert Brotherton “Conspiracy Minded: The Psychology of Belief in Conspiracy Theories”

12.00- 1.10 Karen Douglas “A Social Psychological Perspective On Conspiracy Theories”

2.00-3.10 David Aaronovitch “Do Conspiracy Theories Have Common Characteristics Over Time And Space?”

3.10-4.10 Jamie Bartlett and Carl Miller “Truth And The Net”

4.10 End


Venue: Conway Hall, 25 Red Lion Square, Holborn, London WC1R 4RL.

Cost £10, £5 to students.

Booking in advance available at the BHA website. Remaining tickets will be for sale on the door.

Organized by Stephen Law, Provost CFI UK.  Media can contact Stephen on think@royalinstitutephilosophy.org.


10.45-11.55 Chris French and Robert Brotherton, “Conspiracy Minded: The Psychology of Belief in Conspiracy Theories” This talk will introduce the topic of conspiracy theories and outline the difficulties that arise when trying to formulate a universally acceptable definition of this deceptively complex concept. Conspiracy theories have come to play a prominent role in contemporary culture. It is almost inevitable that any significant event will become the subject of conspiracy theorising, and considerable numbers of people endorse such theories. Although the psychology behind belief in unsubstantiated and implausible conspiracy theories is not yet well understood, social scientists are now beginning to address this important topic. A summary of theories and empirical findings to date will be presented.

12.00-1.10 Karen Douglas, “A social psychological perspective on conspiracy theories”. Karen will give some background on the psychological correlates of conspiracy theories (e.g., personality characteristics, motivations) before going on to discuss some of her own and her students’ research. She will talk about research showing that conspiracy theories are persuasive and change people’s opinions about what happened in major world events such as the death of Princess Diana. Karen will also explain research showing that people tend to believe in conspiracy theories when they lack information and fill in the gaps by ‘projecting’ their own moral tendencies onto the alleged conspirators, and will discuss some of the features that make conspiracy theories persuasive vs. those that are less effective. Finally, she will talk about the beginning of a research programme examining some of the consequences of beliefs in conspiracy theories. For example, she has some data showing that exposure to conspiracy theories makes people feel less powerful and therefore less likely to want to vote.

2.00-3.10 David Aaronovitch, “Do conspiracy theories have common characteristics over time and space?” Details to follow.

3.10 Jamie Bartlett and Carl Miller, “Truth and the Net”. Jamie and Carl will talk about their forthcoming (August 2011) report ‘Truth and the Net’ which examines the extent that conspiracy theories and misinformation are entering the classroom; how far young people are equipped with the digital literacy required to confront them. This is based on a large national survey of teachers on the subject. They’ll sketch out the critical thinking skills, habits and knowledge young people need.


David Aaronovitch, author of Voodoo Histories (further details to follow.

Jamie Bartlett is the head of the Violence and Extremism Programme at the think tank Demos. He researches and writes about a wide variety of extremist groups. He recently authored a major paper on al-Qaeda terrorism, which included living alongside radical Islamists. He is currently leading a research team conducting the largest ever survey of the far-right in Europe.

Robert Brotherton is a member of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is conducting a PhD, funded by the ESRC, on the psychology of belief in conspiracy theories. He also teaches as part of the anomalistic psychology undergraduate module at Goldsmiths. Robert is currently acting as assistant editor of The Skeptic and convenes the Anomalistic Psychology Interest Group, a seminar group for academic discussion of topics within anomalistic psychology.

Dr Karen Douglas is a Reader in Psychology at the University of Kent. She is Associate Editor of the European Journal of Social Psychology and Social Psychology. Karen is also a Fellow of the Society of Experimental Social Psychology and a member of learned societies in social psychology and communication studies. She has published widely on topics such as language and communication, the psychology of the Internet, feedback, and the social psychology of conspiracy theories, and her research has been funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, the Australian Research Council and the British Academy. She is the co-author of a forthcoming social psychology text to be published by Palgrave MacMillan and the first volume on feedback to be published by Peter Lang Publishers. Karen’s research on conspiracy theories focuses on the social psychological processes and consequences of beliefs in such theories, and the factors that make conspiracy theories so appealing.

Professor Chris French is the Head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit in the Psychology Department at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is a Fellow of the British Psychological Society and of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, as well as being a Distinguished Supporter of the British Humanist Association and a member of the Scientific and Professional Advisory Board of the British False Memory Society. He has published over 100 articles and chapters covering a wide range of topics within psychology. His main current area of research is the psychology of paranormal beliefs and anomalous experiences. He frequently appears on radio and television casting a sceptical eye over paranormal claims, as well as writing for the Guardian’s online science pages. For more than a decade, he edited of The Skeptic and his latest book, co-edited with Wendy Grossman, is Why Statues Weep: The Best of The Skeptic (London: The Philosophy Press).

Carl Miller is an Associate at Demos and a researcher at King’s College London. He is interested in extremism, dissent, the Internet and social media. In 2010 Jamie and Carl authored The Power of Unreason, about the relationship between conspiracy theories and terrorist ideology. Following this paper, both spent months debating with 9/11 Truthers.

16 Responses to “Event – Conspiracy Theory Day, 25th September, London”

  1. Curious Says:

    Thank you for this.
    In preparation, I would like to read some works on conspiracy theory.
    I am aware of many, but they just seem to propagate conspiracy theories. Are there any decent analysis of conspiracy theory as a phenomenon?

  2. Curious Says:

    Apologies, I have now had a chance to look at the references in “The Power of Unreason”. If anyone knows of works not listed there, if they could let me know.

    • Mira Vogel Says:

      Not sure whether listed in ‘The Power of Unreason’ but Mark Fenster’s Conspiracy Theories – Secrecy and Power in American Culture examines the phenomenon rather than the theories, and is relatively sympathetic to those holding the beliefs – tinfoil hat treatment completely absent. I can’t remember the extent to which he reproduced the theories. I think he is a cultural theorist.

      From a psychological perspective, there’s a Channel 4 documentary Conspiracy – who really runs the world viewable on Google too.

      But Curious – isn’t that the same as saying (as somebody said to me on Greens Engage yesterday) that drawing attention to certain people with antisemitic beliefs is the same as promoting them? Are there to be no case studies?

  3. Curious Says:

    Thank you for this Mira.

    “isn’t that the same as saying (as somebody said to me on Greens Engage yesterday) that drawing attention to certain people with antisemitic beliefs is the same as promoting them? Are there to be no case studies?”

    I think you may have misunderstood my first comment. “Case studies” are vitally important and cannot but “draw attention” on the “theory” in question. A “case study” on “the Israel Lobby” say, or on “Islamification” would have to “draw attention” to the works and authors that spout such nonsense. In both instances reference to these “theories” (if you forgive the term in these contexts) and examples are essential otherwise how could one expose them for what they are (i.e. show not just that they are nonsense, but why people believe them, etc.)?

    My point was that there are many books out there that refer to conspiracy theories but they are not case-studies. They are rather examples of the theories themselves.

    I hope this makes my comments clearer.

    • Mira Vogel Says:

      Ah, I see Curious.

    • Bill Says:

      I see where you’re coming from, Curious. But you can’t control crazy, so-to-speak. Conspiracy nuts collect them like chachkies, and having a meeting to discuss and explore a wide range of them will neither legitimize them to the sane nor introduce crazies to new ones (unless it’s the ones that’s too strange even for Coast-to-Coast AM and you have to be on seriously entertaining pharmaceuticals to come up with one too crazy for them).

      More importantly since the more wide-spread conspiracies are believed because they latch into internalized biases found people who are otherwise right-in-the-head, you can’t explore the phenomena of conspiracies without exploring those biases. And you can’t do that without taking out the knife and fork and cutting into the steak. From the Jewish Lobby (antisemitism) to Trig Truthers (misogyny) to Birthers (once Islamophobia but now it’s become something more mundane but maybe even more “damaging” to the Obama Mystique — the transition makes for an entertaining study in itself!), people who are entrained into these theories already have processes running in the background that make them prone to accepting to them.

      The attention has already been drawn. It’s time for people who taste the kool-aid to see why and take a good look at themselves in the mirror as to why they are drawn to their hobby horses.

  4. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    Curious, have you noted Michael Shermer “Why People Believe Weird Things”, which includes a section on conspiracy theory? I assume that you are aware of David Aaronvitch “Voodoo History”?

  5. jams o donnell Says:

    Sounds like an interesting day out. Shermer’s book is well worth a read

  6. Curious Says:

    Thanks, I know Vodoo History, but not the other book.

  7. Curious Says:

    Apologies for my lack of clarity, but I thought that what I wrote was more or less what you said!

  8. Thomas Venner Says:

    I wonder how many people get involved with conspiracy theorists just because they find the theories funny. I remember watching a documentary about David Icke a while ago, where he talked enthusiastically about the huge audiences his lectures always drew in, not realising for a second that most of the people in attendance were there just because they thought his crazy theories were a good laugh.

  9. goodwin sands Says:

    If you’d rather hear the conspiracy theories woven than exposed, here’s an event for you:


    Gilad Atzmon will speak on “Truth, History, and Integrity,” which — if it follows his essay of the same name — will be buckets of Holocaust denial wrapped in anti-Zionist veneer: “It took me years to accept that the Holocaust narrative, in its current form, doesn’t make any historical sense. Here is just one little anecdote to elaborate on: If, for instance, the Nazis wanted the Jews out of their Reich (Judenrein – free of Jews), or even dead, as the Zionist narrative insists, how come they marched hundreds of thousands of them back into the Reich at the end of the war?”

    Like Deborah Lipstadt, I’m opposed to laws forbidding Holocaust denial, but if I had to pick someone to be arrested for falling afoul of such a law, I’d have a hard time not choosing Atzmon. Let us hope he is dumb enough to try it.

  10. Absolute Observer Says:

    And talking of conspiracy theory. Here is a post from Jews for Justice for Palestine,

    Heading include,
    “Bowing to the Zionist lobby”
    “Freedom of information denied”

    What a pity that a subject ripe for serious discussion is tainted by antisemitic conspiracy theory.
    One would have thought JfJP would have been smart enough to find a post on this matter that is free of this nonsense.
    But, then again, they have never been too pickie on who they run with.

    • Bill Says:

      This doesn’t look so much as conspiracy fodder as much as it is “Free Speech for Me But Not for Thee.” Or on this case “OCR Protection for Me…”. I think the Santa Cruz Title VI action was discussed briefly here a while back. The plaintiffs may be overreaching but they are using the right language with respect to established law. Now, I’ve got serious issues as does the AAUP (not the presidents’ “union” but the professor’s) over some of the recent creative, shaky and possibly tortable interpretations from the US Dept of Ed on OCR guidelines which may be putting schools in legal liability. But the story in question ironically points out a continuation of the classic well-defined and broadly accepted guidelines on discrimination and harassment. If Jewish students and faculty, as members of a distinct group within a protected classification can’t claim hard won protection against harassment and discrimination, then these guidelines and their enforcement are travesty. Additional irony comes in since like the UCU, people whinging about the guidelines biting back at them are not interested in establishing benchmarks as to where “legitimate criticism of Israel” moves into antisemetism and EEOC/OCR (and more importantly established case law), yet when campus conservatives do their own identical-but-opposite protest theatre in this area, all hell breaks loose (e.g, burning a Hamas flag=blasphemy at SFSU). You can’t reject the reasonable person test or academic freedom or any other safety valve at your convenience and then run back behind it when you want to use it to harass and discriminate yourself.

      • Bill Says:

        Moderator please replace – with this… sorry’bout’that. (Also the “spooky” FOI denial is increasingly par-for-the course in these types of proceedings. In some cases, even the accused may not have access to all information being presented against them. And if the shoe were on the other foot with a student harassing a member of AMP and someone wanted to review the complaint, they would likely get the same stonewalling. The problem isn’t a big bad lobby but a seriously flawed process.)

        • Brian Goldfarb Says:

          Given the discussion going on on the thread a couple below this one (featuring Philip Blue), that it surface on the JfJfP site is hardly surprising. Nor should we be particularly surprised they are cross-postying an electronic intifada article, given the comments posted here by prominent members of JfJfP in the past.

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