Al Jazeera Blogs


Americas

Imagination over information in Boston

Predictable and easily refuted conspiracy theories quickly emerged after the city's deadly Marathon bombings.
Last modified: 24 Apr 2013 23:59
A professor in Florida insisted the scene in Boston was 'not bloody enough' to be real [EPA]

Within minutes of the bombings at the Boston Marathon, the conspiracy theories began.

People took to the internet, they posted on Facebook and began to tweet how something was wrong about the timing of the explosions; how the blasts coincided with an FBI training exercise in Boston; how loudspeaker announcements warned people to keep calm seconds before the blasts.

There is nothing new in such things.

I remember being told how the British Secret Service killed Princess Diana. I drove the exact same route she took just 24 hours after her death in Paris in August 1997. I remember keeping my speed within the limit, not least because I had a cameraman sticking out of the sunroof filming. I took the turn and the dip into the Pont De L'Alma and thought someone traveling at speed would have trouble keeping control of the vehicle, especially if they had been drinking.

I also found it fanciful the British Secret Service would try to kill the mother of the future king in a busy street in the centre of Paris surrounded by photographers. And they would bank on her not fastening her seatbelt. 

People have claimed the moon landings were faked. The attacks on the transport system in London were not the work of four suicide bombers. 9/11 was an inside job.

Dangerous theories

The thinking is that dozens planned, participated and carried out the mass slaughter of more than three thousand people, yet not one of them voiced concern or has spoken out since. And while there's now little doubt that the invasion of Iraq was waged on seriously flawed intelligence from around the world, if the US government was truly smart enough to organise such a massive conspiracy, why wasn't it able to plant weapons of mass destruction somewhere in the vast expanse of the Iraqi desert.

Conspiracy theories can be dangerous. Dr Andrew Wakefield published a research paper in the United Kingdom in 1998 which claimed the triple mumps, measles and rubella vaccine (MMR) was linked to autism. His findings have been discredited, his research rejected as fraudulent, but the panic he created in many parents stopped them giving their children the vaccine which in turn led to measles being reintroduced into the population having been all but eradicated in previous years. Children died.

In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting, theorists claimed that grieving parents were played by actors and the event was staged to create a situation where people would support massive changes in America's gun laws.

Many of the theories surrounding events like the Boston bombing are based on the early news reports. Journalists chase rumours and talk to sources, and as we've seen in the past ten days or so, they get it wrong. But often these become the basis of alternative narratives, which go off in interesting and sometime ridiculous directions.

One of the first theories to emerge on Boston came from a professor in Florida who insisted the scene was 'not bloody enough' to be real. That fact he had a PhD adds to his credibility right? But his degree is not in forensics or biology or medicine. He teaches communication. He is constantly being quoted on numerous 'conspiracy' websites.

Occam's Razor

I've tried engaging theorists when they've contacted me over something I've written or reported. I've pointed out the flaws in their story or that they've cherry picked one part of the story to try to prove their point. Too often they begin with a conclusion such as "9/11 was an inside job". They then take the existing data and manipulate it to fit their thesis. Logic disappears. Scientists call it confirmation bias. There is no room for accident or incompetence or coincidence. As a journalist, I try to let the facts steer me in the right direction and then reach a conclusion.

I've been accused of pedaling the government line in exchange for money, being part of the military industrial complex or just being too stupid to see what is obvious to anyone with a skeptical, inquiring mind. Therefore I am part of the problem.

Many of those who push conspiracy theories in the media have gotten rich doing it. They take to the airwaves, sell their books or tours or websites and watch the money in their bank accounts tick up.

People can believe what they want to believe. No one has to accept what others say, and that includes me and that includes this. Some will hate this.

I hold to Occam's Razor, a scientific theory that says the explanation requiring the fewest assumptions tends to be correct. Sometimes it's that simple.