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Believing the ridiculous

The Bush administration blew up the twin towers; a nuclear test caused the Asian Tsunami; UK scientist David Kelly was murdered for what he knew about the "sexing up" of dodgy dossiers; JFK was assassinated by the mob; the Holocaust did not happen. Whether far-fetched or plain ridiculous, all conspiracy theories take root in one of four environments, argues Gideon Rachman in today's Financial Times.

First, closed societies tend to provide fertile soil for paranoia. The lack of free press encourages people to accept the illogical. "If you start with the notion that the mainstream news is nonsense, then almost anything can be true," writes Rachman. So in Egypt, the idea that the Mossad or Bush caused 9/11 becomes a distinct possibility. Add to this the legacy of a colonial past in which the British and French attempted to win back the Suez Canal under dubious pretence, and where the CIA helped overthrow the Iranian leadership in 1953, and it becomes easier to understand why so many in the Middle East do not accept conventional wisdom on al Qaida.

Countries with a history of dictatorship and of secret police readily lend themselves to believing in conspiracy theories, not least because there is often a modicum of truth in the tale. In Russia, where Stalin once encouraged children to spy on their parents, is there any wonder that Putin's intelligence agencies have been linked to poisoning critics in a London restaurant? Or of blowing up apartment buildings as an excuse to crush the separatists in Chechnya?

Yet conspiracy theories thrive in wealthy countries too, especially in those which are divided ideologically. In the US, the differences between conservatives and liberals are becoming ever more stark, a trend played out with Republicans labelling CNN the Clinton News Network, while the Clintons often speak of the great right wing conspiracy that attempted a coup-by-sex scandal.

Lastly, and perhaps most tellingly, there will always be people who will be drawn towards fiction over fact, and prefer hunches over evidence. We can only hope that such people do not get to lead nations into war. Alas, it was the Bush administration that swallowed in full the idea that Saddam did indeed blow up the twin towers.

The world has paid a costly price for those who believe in the ridiculous.

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