[MUSIC] [CLIP PLAYS - SOFT MUSIC, CITY TRAFFIC AMBIENCE]
MAN: So 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. We're going 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. [MUSIC CRESCENDOS]
BBROOKE 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 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.
BBROOKE 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.
BBROOKE GLADSTONE: Are you suggesting, then, that perhaps conspiracy 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.
BBROOKE 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 change 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, what else could it do? It's doing what it can do.
BBROOKE GLADSTONE: Professor Marcus, thank you very much.
GEORGE MARCUS: Thank you.
BBROOKE GLADSTONE: George Marcus is a professor of anthropology at Rice University and editor of Paranoia Within Reason: A Casebook on Conspiracy as Explanation. [MUSIC]
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, why local TV is practically apolitical, and the media's use and abuse of polls.
BBROOKE GLADSTONE: This week's show is part of public radio's special coverage "Whose Democracy Is It?" You're listening to On the Media, from NPR.