We all love a good conspiracy theory, even it if it might kill us

At the weekend ‘thousands of people took to the streets of central London and held a rally in Trafalgar Square. The numbers involved are disputed: ‘about a 1,000’ said most news reports, but I’ve seen posts on social media saying that there were 35,000 protesting in Nelson’s shadow. 

They were there to protest about the ‘loss of freedoms’ that they say have occurred as a result of the restrictions imposed on society by government reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The crowds were made up of a small cross section of people from different backgrounds and with different views, but they seem to have been united by a belief that CV-19 is either not real or that it has been wildly exaggerated or even deliberately manufactured. The blame is thrown at China, at 5G, and/or at Bill Gates. 

In short CV-19 is a conspiracy and we are being fooled (again). Those protestors refuse to wear masks and refuse to believe that the 850,000 (and rising) global deaths from CV-19 are either real, or claim that there is nothing unusual in them; deaths from flu occur every year, this is no different they say. 

I’m not about to enter a debate about the origins of CV-19 or engage in discussion of whether it is ‘real’ or not. I am a historian not a scientist; so my default position is to listen to those experts who know much more than I do. I listen to the scientists; to epidemiologists who understand disease and are experts in the spread of pandemics. 

If they say that wearing a mask can help reduce the spread of a disease which I can see is affecting millions across the world then I’ll wear a mask. If they say my chances of catching CV-19 are reduced by washing my hands, then I will. If science produces a viable vaccine then, just as I take the flu vaccine I will happily be vaccinated. 

For me that is what I would call an ‘informed common sense’ position. So why do a significant minority of people in this country (and elsewhere) choose to believe something else? Why are conspiracy theories so popular even when they fly in the face of what we think we know to be true? 

Let’s take an area I do know something about; – the Whitechapel (or Jack the Ripper) murders of 1888. Most people think they know something about the brutal murders that occurred in London’s East End and claimed the lives of five or more poor working-class women. 

The murderer was never caught (or rather, never prosecuted and convicted – it’s not the same thing) which has allowed over 130 years of speculation as to his (or her) identity. I think most ‘experts’ (historians of crime like myself and Ripperologists who study the case and its context) would agree that the killer was most likely someone fairly ordinary and someone very familiar with the area in which the murders took place. 

From what we know of serial killers over the past century or so they tend to be ordinary men who do extraordinary things. They are often psychologically damaged individuals with underlying causes that underpin their offending. And yet in the case of the late Victorian Ripper it has been fashionable to propose suspects that step well outside of the ‘ordinary’ label. 

Which is why one of the most persistent solutions to the Whitechapel mystery was that the killings were part of a conspiracy that touched the ‘very highest in the land’. The story goes that Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale, eldest child of Edward Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) was the reason for the Whitechapel murders. The prince, known as ‘Eddy’, is supposed to have begun a relationship with a working-class woman named Annie Crook with whom he had a child. The couple married in secret and the child was given into the care of one of Annie’s friends, Mary Kelly.

In one version, when Queen Victoria learned of the prince’s dalliance, she instructed the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, to make the problem disappear.  In others it was the PM that, having discovered the affair, decided to take action to protect the monarchy and state. Not only was Crook a working-class girl, she was also a Catholic, and no one tainted by Catholicism could rule. 

Salisbury engaged Sir William Gull, one of the queen’s physicians to spirit Annie away to an insane asylum and hunt down all those that knew about the case. Perhaps Kelly had blabbed to her circle of fellow prostitutes, maybe they were blackmailing the government, it hardly matters, the result was the murder of five women. The murders were covered up (by the involvement of a cabal of Freemasons) and blamed on a faceless monster – ‘Jack the Ripper’. 

Despite there being no evidence to support this theory it has persisted. This is largely down to the combination of a variety of things that make it work as a conspiracy thesis. 

First you have the involvement of people in power, who have the ability to cover things up. So, the absence of evidence is actually a positive; after all, if the royal family and/or government were performing a cover-up there wouldn’t be any evidence, would there? 

Secondly, we have the role of Freemasonry, a secretive organisation that some like to believe runs the world. The notion that there is a worldwide conspiracy (such as the Illuminati) that exists above the level of nation states is persuasive and enticing. The fact that it cannot be either proved or disproved is all part of its attraction. 

Third, and perhaps most powerful, is the idea that the killer was not ‘one of us’. Gull (or even Eddy himself) was ‘other’ in Victorian society. Blaming a ‘toff’ or a doctor, or an immigrant (the other ‘usual suspect’ in the Ripper mythos) was and is a convenient means of absolving ‘us’ of the blame for the murders. Throughout history societies have preferred to point the finger of blame at outsiders rather than looking for explanations closer to home. 

This is just as true today where those gathered in Trafalgar Square suggested that the pandemic we are experiencing is either the creation of someone like Bill Gates or the Chinese, or is being used to impose restrictions on freedoms by an overarching ‘fascist’ state. Conspiracy theorists and those they convince will always look for the nearest scapegoat rather than choose to accept what is, to most of us at least, the self-evident truths expressed by experts.   

In the end we will all believe what we want to. After all that is how religion has endured for so many thousands of years, despite a lack of concrete ‘scientist’ evidence to support the existence of any gods, let alone one ’true’ god. All the rest of us can do is hope that the seemingly ‘mad’ actions of a tiny minority of people don’t (literally) infect the rest of us. After all we live in a society that allows free speech and free thought. 

If some people would rather believe David Icke (a former footballer and TV presenter who avows that the Queen and Prince Phillip belong to a race of 12-foot lizards) over the expertise of the world’s leading epidemiologists then I really can’t do much to change their minds. I just very hope that for their sakes that no one close to them catches CV-19 and dies, but then that is the same wish I have for everyone on the planet.  

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