BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
PETER JENNINGS: Hello. I'm Peter Jennings. We begin this program knowing from the research that most of us believe that we're not alone - that there is other intelligent life in the universe.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: On Thursday night, ABC's Peter Jennings hosted a two hour special devoted to one of mankind's most enduring questions - Are we alone? Enduring questions tend to give rise to enduring conspiracy theories.
MAN: It's quite natural to wonder about our place in the universe. To suggest that we're alone is inexcusably ego-centric.
MAN: The federal government knows fully well what is taking place with regard to the UFO phenomenon. They're not sharing that with the American people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A churlish reviewer in the Denver Post said that Jennings should be covering the Social Security debate instead of hosting a sweeps week special, but wait - he notes that if you report a UFO to the government, you will be informed that the Air Force conducted a 22 year investigation that ended in 1969 and concluded that UFOs are not a threat to national security and are of no scientific interest. Some people - people we might call conspiracy theorists - could see that as a classic non-denial denial - a sure sign of a coverup. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] Are these people nuts? And, if they are, who made them that way? [STREET AMBIENCE]
MAN: No, you - July 8th, 1979, all the fathers of Nobel Prize Winners were rounded up by United Nations military units. All right? And actually forced, at gunpoint, to give semen samples in little plastic jars which are now stored below Rockefeller Center, underneath the ice skating rink. Wouldn't want to be there for the thaw. [LAUGHS] Ugh. I mean it's disgusting. You know what they put in the water, don't you. Fluoride. Yeah. Fluoride. On the pretext that it strengthens your teeth. That's ridiculous. You know what this stuff does to you? It actually weakens your will, takes away the capacity for free and creative thought, and makes you a slave to the state.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When the usual mechanisms - media and congress, for instance - malfunction and fail to adequately inform the public, sometimes citizens take it upon themselves to find the answers. Conspiracy theory has a long tradition as a popular entertainment - for instance the belief that the moon walk was faked in a studio, but anthropologist George Marcus of Rice University isn't interested in fringe theorists. He's fascinated by those times when conspiracy theory is taken up by reasonable people to explain real events, when the official explanation just doesn't hold together.
GEORGE MARCUS: It's up to the individual citizen to figure out [LAUGHS] why the Californians are paying more for energy or why we're in Iraq, and I believe that these basic questions that are with us from day to day and actually have long-term consequences for every one of us and shape our lives require the kind of speculation that conspiracy thinking gives rise to.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But don't you think the media are supposed to be explaining these things?
GEORGE MARCUS: The media are, but when the media is doing its job in unveiling scandal or questioning the reasons of power, be it private or public, and the answers are not totally clear, people are not just going to leave things as puzzles; they're going to speculate. [LAUGHS] I don't consider conspiracy theories within this frame of reason or plausibility to be a bad thing at all. I consider it to be one aspect of the right of a democratic citizenry to question or figure out the exercise of power. I consider a little bit of paranoia within reason to be a valuable thing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Are you suggesting, then, that perhaps conspiracy theory and the media can nudge each other along? For instance, the conspiracy theory about the control of energy, to push up prices in California preceded the actual investigation that suggests that that scenario is actually true. There are a lot of theories about the fall of the Allende regime in Chile, which subsequent investigation turned out to be true. Is there some sort of give and take here?
GEORGE MARCUS: Oh, absolutely. I think that one enhances the other, and that both have a role to play in the functioning of democracy in difficult times.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And is this a difficult time?
GEORGE MARCUS: Extraordinarily. Well, take the current moment. There is a war going on against hard to detect forces that could harm us all, as stunningly initiated by the World Trade Center destruction, and the media is following this and reporting it. But it's all about a secret world of the exercise of power for which our civil rights have to be qualified or changed so that this war can proceed. And increasingly, as we move away from the World Trade Center, people are becoming very critical and suspicious of their government in the United States, and it seems to me that the media is doing what it can to cover this story. But it is creating as many questions as answers. So, by informing, it's fueling a period of uncertainty, but what else could it do? It's doing what it can do.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Professor Marcus, thank you very much.
GEORGE MARCUS: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: George Marcus is a professor of anthropology at Rice University and editor of Paranoia within Reason: A Casebook on Conspiracy as Explanation. [MUSIC]