How easy it is to be deceived – we seem to have an innate need to find patterns and connections, even where they do not exist. Elsewhere we may not see a connection, which does exist but is hidden deliberately.
During the holidays, in a vain attempt to get the conversation with our children away from crucifixion, death, rebirth and what exactly happened to Jesus on Easter Monday (nothing apparently), I found myself wondering out loud what was the connection between Easter bunnies and Easter eggs, thinking that there was none and it was a semiotic coincidence.
I was informed by my better half (via wikipedia) that there was indeed a connection, as in mediaeval times people believed that Hares (the Easter bunny was a Hare not a rabbit) laid eggs because sometimes Plovers (lapwings) would take over a Hare’s form and use it as a nest. Whether this is true or not doesn’t really matter, as it’s a great story.
Imagine walking through a pasture and finding a Hare’s form with newly laid eggs in it, before the days of Darwin, evolution or the enlightenment. Naturally you would think that the Hare had laid eggs. Hares were also thought by the Romans to be hermaphrodites and virgin birth naturally lead to their association with the Virgin Mary, but they were also revered as symbols of fertility long before Christianity, so there was a natural connection with Spring and the Spring festival we call Easter.
What are the chances these days of finding a Hare’s form with plover’s eggs in it in an English pasture?
Intentional deceptions take on all sorts of forms.
Take Operation Fortitude in the second world war, when the Allied Forces used deception time and again to mask their real intentions. During Operation Overlord, the allied landings in Normandy, a large scale deception was organised to make it appear that the fictional First US Army Group was intending to land on the Pas de Calais, not Normandy. Although the Axis forces suspected some subterfuge, there was sufficient uncertainty that they retained large numbers of defending forces there, even when intelligence increasingly pointed to Normandy as the real debarkation point. One of the subterfuges that was used was inflatable dummy tanks.
a dummy tank
While the deceptions created by the Allies during WW2 were elaborate and imaginative, things have moved on quite a bit in the last 70 years.
Take astroturfing. This is where a powerful corporation or a PR company acting on its behalf, sets up a fake grassroots organisation (fake grass – astroturf – you saw that already) to lobby for something, like funding for a new expensive but unproven drug to be bought by the NHS, for example. It looks to the decision makers as though they are being lobbied by a genuine interest group, but in fact this is a deception and the big player sits in the shadows manipulating events to their own advantage.
And what about “Think Tanks” which purport to be independent policy development organisations – you know, the sort of people who are always popping up in the press and media, giving an opinion about some political development or policy proposal – are they independent and objective or are they peddling someone else’s messages. There are an awful lot of them in the UK. Some like Policy Exchange, the Institute of Economic Affairs, The Taxpayers Alliance and the Centre for Policy Studies have profoundly influenced and continue to influence the Government’s policies and positioning.
Where do all these Think Tanks get their funding? George Monbiot asked that question of a number of them following his Guardian article back in February, but very few provided any answers. I am sure that many are truly independent and are untarnished by the influence of their funders. But I wonder how many of them are, like our inflatable friend above, not Think Tanks but Dummy Tanks. And we really need to know which are which.