10/23/2014 06:00 pm ET Updated Dec 23, 2014

Ebola Crisis Sparks Need to Address Conspiracy Theories

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The current Ebola crisis has revealed the power of conspiracy theories and how they can prevent meaningful engagement in crisis situations. A major Liberian newspaper continues to churn out bizarre conspiracy theories about the mortality of Ebola patients and remains extremely popular. Pathogens seem to provide fertile ground for conspiratorial thinking as exemplified by similar challenges in eradicating polio in Pakistan and Nigeria due to conspiratorial rhetoric. It is easy to get exasperated at these conspiracy spinners but a more considered and analytical response is in order.

Conspiracy theories are a symptom of powerlessness. When people are unable to find answers or make sense of turmoil they latch on to whatever fanciful explanation makes sense. Several brands of conspiracy theories exist in modern societies. Some are fueled by a suspicion of science and an inability to reconcile complexity of knowledge. For example, questioning the lunar landing has created an entire industry of books and websites in the U.S. where people question whether science could achieve such a feat. Skeptics couple a suspicion of science with a suspicion of government; suspicion of authority is central to conspiracy theories.

There are theories that claim far more has been achieved in scientific knowledge than what the government is willing to reveal. This brand of conspiracy theorists is also very popular in the U.S. through a blend of science-fiction pop culture and clandestine military activities in the south-western part of the country. Contact with extra-planetary alien cultures is central to this group's narrative. The town of Roswell, New Mexico, has become ground zero for this counter-culture. Hollywood has capitalized on this suspicion, perhaps even fueled it through popular TV series like The X-Files. I must confess being a fan of this series which ran for almost a decade. What fascinated me was how it took a grain of scientific fact or a true historic episode and wove a fictional web around it so deftly that even the most outlandish material could seem appealing to an informed audience.

Central to the success of conspiracy theories is some element of truth which may be stranger than fiction. Consider theories about doctored videos from Syria and Iraq which have surfaced in recent months. While there is little doubt regarding atrocities committed against women and minorities in the ISIS dominion, we should not dismiss the propensity for propaganda on all sides. For example, The Guardian revealed some years ago that during the Iraq war the Pentagon had entertained a suggestion to make a false video of Saddam Hussein having sex with a man which could be broadcast to discredit him. In another case, a photo-shopped video of an Osama bin Laden look-alike in a drunken stupor was actually filmed. According to The Guardian, the video "used some of the CIA's darker skinned employees as extras playing the terror chief's henchmen." Thankfully, none of these ideas went forward but the mere fact that they were proposed gives us reason to pause.

One of the key reasons for the persistence of conspiracy theories has been the revelation that Cold War propaganda stories were actually true. 9/11 conspiracy theorists have capitalized on the existence of a CIA plan known as Operation Northwoods which aimed to commit terrorist acts in the US and blame it on the Cubans in order to gain sympathy for the US position on Cuba. President Kennedy rejected this plan but its consideration in declassified documents has been enough to give spur to 9/11 conspiracy theorists. Even with the current Ebola epidemic, one cannot ignore the perfidious history of pathogenic experimentation in which the US has been culpable in the past such as the syphilis experiments in Guatemala. Although times have changed, people need to be convinced cogently of the safeguards against such past indiscretions.

If there is any silver lining to conspiratorial thinking, it is a willingness to question what might seem obvious to the linear observer. As a scientist, I always consider such questioning to be positive. But when this curiosity becomes laced with predisposed dogma that has theological roots, it loses any charm. So let us all feel comfortable in questioning the establishment but not be paralyzed by paranoia. International behavior changes just as much as human behavior and we should always be willing to embrace positive change among countries. Countries such as the U.S. have to confront conspiracy narratives head-on and show how they have clearly changed in their modus operandi over the years. Foes of yesteryears can become friends today and we should cautiously focus on such positive transformation rather than languishing in the past.