Somebody's out to get me...

The week on radio
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The Independent Online
If God did not exist, said Voltaire, who wasn't himself very convinced that God did any such thing, it would be necessary to invent him; and you could say roughly the same about freemasons. Leaving aside the eternally vexed question of their actual status, both God and the Masons - or whatever secret cartel for world domination takes your paranoid fancy - are invaluable conceptual tools, ways of filling in the gaps in our explanations of why things work or fail to work. In the long run, of course, we need to come to some kind of decision about what we actually know, sorting out which parts of our explanations are false or vacuous. In the short term, mysticism of one kind or another, a conspiracy theory just as much as a religion, can be a fence between you and the abyss of self-doubt or sheer incomprehension. Even for the most rational of us, it makes the world bearable.

The new series of On the Ropes (Radio 4, Thursday) has provided some nice illustrations of this. Last week we had Simon Dee, the former television superstar playboy, who turned out to be the soulmate Oliver Stone has been looking for all these years. The reason the BBC fired him, it turned out, was that he dared to challenge official accounts of the shooting of JFK. He tried to become a bus-driver, but failed his test; the reason for this was that he had antagonised the unions.

Martin Fleischmann's tale of his misfortunes was more plausible and less self-pitying than this. It was Fleischmann who, with his colleague Stanley Pons, turned the world of science upside down in 1989 by announcing the discovery of "cold fusion" and, with it, the possibility of limitless cheap energy. Unfortunately, nobody else could reproduce their experimental results, and Fleischmann and Pons were swiftly discredited, denounced as incompetents or frauds.

Fleischmann stuck to his guns, maintaining that the reasons nobody had confirmed his results were faulty equipment and flawed analysis of data. He sounded bitter and a little touchy, true, but he also sounded perfectly reasonable, chuckling at the notion that his downfall had been engineered by a conspiracy of vested interests (oil, automobile, electricity). Unfortunately, he took the edge off this by adding that a friend of his had said that if a single explanation covers all the facts, you have to take that explanation seriously, and a conspiracy theory certainly covered the facts of his case. Well, of course it did: covering the facts is what conspiracy theories are there for.

At this point we might bring in Chuck Missler, who turned up on James Whale's Thursday night show on Talk Radio. Chuck is an American evangelical broadcaster and writer who has theories to cover every conceivable fact. He is very keen on cabalistic interpretation of Scripture, and enjoyed a fascinating discussion of the Bible's hidden prophecies with Mike, who called from Glossop, and Richard, who also called from Glossop, a town one feels one ought to know more about.

This was mostly amusing and intriguing (and, for all anyone can prove, true), but there are three things one should know about Chuck: 1. He believes that the Democrats and the Republicans may as well be renamed Socialist Party A and Socialist Party B; 2. He believes that Islam and Christianity have "a destiny of conflict" (although, as he told a caller named Tariq, he is "eager not to offend anyone"); and 3. He was formerly Branch Chief of the Department of Guided Missiles in the US Air Force. As I say, conspiracy theories can be very comforting; I haven't yet come up with one that takes the sting out of that piece of knowledge.

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