Conspiracy theories assume too much control and don't allow for the idea that most conspiracies - from the assassination of JF Kennedy to Damian McBride's recent revelations - are more about covering up past mistakes, according to a leading academic at the University of Cambridge.

Professor David Runciman is part of a new Leverhulme-funded interdisciplinary, collaborative project on conspiracy theories at the University of Cambridge.

He, Professor Richard Evans and Professor John Naughton, who lead the project, will be speaking on 23rd October at a debate on the history of conspiracy theories as part of this year's Cambridge Festival of Ideas. Professor Tony Badger will also be joining the panel to talk about the history and legacy of McCarthyism.

Professor Runciman will examine the relationship between conspiracy and cock-up. He says: "People usually assume you have to subscribe to one or the other - either the conspiracy or the cock-up view of history - but in fact they are closely related, because lots of conspiracies are attempts to cover-up cock ups. The mistake conspiracy theorists make is to assume that conspiracies are all about controlling the future instead of about covering up the past. They assume too much control and not enough chaos." Professor Evans will argue that conspiracy theories are in part an inevitable consequence of our democratic system. He says: "History is littered with conspiracies. In dictatorships, when criticism of government is outlawed, opposition has to be clandestine, and government constantly suspects the people of conspiring against it. With the growth of a public sphere comes a democratic demand for transparency which governments can never fulfil, so the people begin to suspect the government of conspiring against it, and conspiracy theories proliferate, undermining the legitimacy of the democratic political system."

Professor Naughton's interest is in the effect the Internet has had on the emergence, dissemination and impact of conspiracy theories. His talk will cover a comparative study of some pre- and post-Internet conspiracy theories; large-scale empirical studies using network-analysis tools of how ideas, rumours and theories spread across the Net ; computer simulations of how conspiratorial-like behaviours may be emergent properties of complex networks; and an exploration of the impact of ubiquitous networking on the ‘public sphere’.

The Cambridge Festival of Ideas, which runs from 23rd October to 3rd November, was the first public engagement initiative by a UK university to bring together an extensive programme of public events exploring the arts, humanities and social sciences. Events are held in lecture halls, theatres, museums and galleries around Cambridge and entry to most is free.

*Conspiracy theories: the impact on world history will take place at Mill Lane Lecture Room 3 on 23 October, 5-6.30pm.

The Festival of Ideas is sponsored by Barclays, Cambridge University Press and Anglia Ruskin University, who also organise some of the events during the Festival. Event partners include Heffers Classics Festival, University of Cambridge Museums RAND Europe, the Goethe-Institut London and the Junction. The Festival's media partner is BBC Radio Cambridgeshire and its hospitality partner is Cambridge City Hotel.

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