What if the moon is made of cheese?

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    My first real job, weeding in my uncle’s nursery, got off to a dramatic start after I accidentally pulled out a long line of healthy camellia seedlings. I might have been an air-headed 12-year-old, but I remember the joy of getting my first pay cheque – and also my uncle’s distinct reluctance in writing it. 

    My 11-year-old brother Geoff and I worked in his nursery during the school holidays. I remember snail races in the potting shed and my father telling us to mind our own work and nobody else’s. 

    A love of horticulture failed to take root.

    Fortunately for the health of Uncle Geoff’s business, his other hires were a capable bunch. One of them, Vincent, was our hero. At 17, Vincent could execute a three-point tractor-trailer turn in seconds, pot 50 Phebalium in minutes and scamper up a shelterbelt poplar like a squirrel.

    Vincent’s radiance did flicker briefly when he told us that the sun revolved around the earth. My brother and I were aghast, but Uncle Geoff’s stout defense of the heliocentric solar system did not impress Vincent. “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”, he said.

    Not knowing the earth orbits the sun isn’t a ‘conspiracy theory’ in itself. It’s just a bit sad. Insisting that the solar system is an elaborate hoax would be. Countering conspiracy theories like this is like pushing compost uphill – any evidence is all part of the cover up. 

    Are conspiracy ‘theories’ becoming more common? Writer and analyst Naomi Klein thinks so. The spread of nutty online fantasies is now so rampant, she says, that they threaten public health “and, quite possibly, the survival of representative democracy”.

    I’m not sure about that. Humans have always shared far-fetched conspiracies, some of them disgustingly antisemitic and misogynist. Do more people believe in crackpot theories now than in previous centuries? I’d like to think not. They still have real world consequences, though. 

    The Christchurch shooter’s anti-Muslim delusions led to a terrorist massacre; anti-vaccine misinformation fuels the spread of disease, as it did in the 2019 Samoan measles outbreak in a chronically under-vaccinated population which killed more than 80 people, most of them children. 

    And there are New Zealand politicians in power today because a minority of voters think climate change was invented by scientists for money, or, supposedly, to increase taxes (I never understand that part). 

    Some conspiracies, of course, turn out to be true. The police really did plant evidence in the Arthur Allan Thomas case, and in 2014 author and investigative journalist Nicky Hager uncovered that confidential information from the Security Intelligence Services was being purposefully leaked to Cameron Slater who used it to smear political opponents of the National Party.

    Fantasists, though, seem oddly disinterested in genuine scandals. 

    “Those who believe unevidenced stories about hidden cabals and secret machinations,” writes journalist George Monbiot, “tend to display no interest in well-documented stories about hidden cabals and secret machinations.”

    Instead, we get: Taylor Swift is a Pentagon asset; the earth is flat; Aircraft vapour trails consist of mind-altering chemicals; Paul McCartney died in 1966 (listen to ‘I Am the Walrus’); Donald Trump won the 2020 US presidential election; Reptilian humanoids secretly control the world. 

    Perhaps we need to adjust our language. A genuine theory is, after all a rational explanation open to disproof. “We need better terms,” argues Monbiot, “that distinguish wacky and often malign fairytales from the very essence of democracy: the reasoned suspicion of those who exercise power over us. I prefer to call the fairytales ‘conspiracy fictions’ and those who peddle them ‘conspiracy fantasists’.

    “Conspiracy fictions are the fuel of far-right politics. It cannot operate without them… People who recite them might imagine they’re sticking it to The Man. In reality, they’re serving him. 

    “I see conspiracy fictions as a form of reassurance,” he says. “This might sound odd: they purport to reveal ‘the terrifying truth’. But look at what they’re actually saying. Climate breakdown? It’s a hoax. Covid? All fake. In other words,” he says, “our deepest fears are unfounded… These fictions are highly conservative.” 

    How much has a belief in these fantasies eroded trust in the media? Conspiracy theorists genuinely think that the mainstream media lies – but if newspapers reported their beliefs as fact, they would lose the rest of their audience by shredding a fundamental reason for their existence: accurate reporting. 

    RNZ Mediawatch’s Hayden Donnell talked to Otago Daily Times editor Paul McIntyre about this ‘meat-in-the-sandwich’ dilemma. 

    What would he do, asked Donnell, if a large section of his audience believed the moon was made of cheese? Would he risk losing their trust by not reporting the belief the moon is made of cheese?

    “I believe that [mostly], mainstream journalists work really hard to do a good job,” McIntyre said. “And some people will not believe what they say, even if it is the truth. And that is a really difficult thing because we shouldn’t be going ‘the moon is made of cheese’.”

    No indeed. As Christopher Hitchens once purred, “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence”. • Jenny Nicholls

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