WHAT a week for conspiracies. Prince Andrew’s ears were not just burning, they were a roaring conflagration of scandal, innuendo and unblemished loathing. The least useful of Royals – in what is admittedly a highly competitive league – was at the centre of indecorous speculation in the aftermath of the suicide of the billionaire sex-trafficker Jeffrey Epstein.

Multiple media outlets have since confirmed that Epstein died by apparent suicide while in jail, but do you believe them? He was a convicted sex offender who had previously served 13 months in a Palm Beach jail after pleading guilty to charges related to prostitution, and among his former associates were Bill Clinton, Donald Trump and a tax-burden from the House of Windsor known as Prince Andrew, Duke of York, KG, GCVO, CD, ADC.

I will leave readers to deduce what ADC is short for – but in these days of gender anxiety be careful with the last word.

Social media was alive with speculation about Epstein’s death and one recurring pattern of satire seemed to blame the royals for his convenient exit, suspecting that Epstein’s passing would bring an end to Prince Andrew’s discomfort. A photograph taken in 2001 showed the Royal grinning to camera with his arm around Virginia Giuffre – a 17-year-old who was then known as Virginia Roberts. She has alleged in court documents that Epstein coerced her into “sexual relations” with Andrew in London, New York and on Epstein’s private island Little Saint James in the US Virgin Islands.

Keeping pressure up on Epstein’s set, the FBI has since raided the island, if only to support the promise that his death will not halt their enquiries. Jeffrey Epstein’s death has unlocked the mother of all conspiracy theories, and you would need to ring the 0800 number at Illuminati to ask which one of the current theories to believe.

Conspiracy theories are at an all-time high and among the most virulent are the Illuminati, the 9/11 Truth movement, the QAnon movement and a conspiracy that claims the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) is building concentration camps on US soil, in advance of the imposition of martial law and genocide.

Although the web and social media have allowed them to mutate and spread, they are visible across all forms of popular media. TV shows such as 24, the spy thriller Homeland and the American presidential thriller Designated Survivor all hinge on storylines where a mysterious higher force is controlling events.

Conspiracy-based video games are big business too, be they about shadowy multinationals, crooked weapons scientists or KGB plots.

Students of conspiracy theories have returned to the subject with a renewed sense of urgency. It is now settled opinion that Donald Trump is the first US president to be in part voted into office on the back of a conspiracy theory, the so-called Birther movement, which argued that Barack Obama had falsified his birth certificate to become eligible for the presidency.

This week Trump delved even deeper into the mangrove swamps of conspiracy when he tweeted about the Clinton family’s connections to Epstein. CNN referred to his tweets as “drenching out fire with lighter fluid”.

The Epstein case has many of the classic elements of conspiracy theory. It involves a coterie of famous people with connections to global power, it has the very contemporary theme of sex trafficking, it involves distrusted agencies such as the New York Police Department and the FBI and it features an unexplained death. We now know that the security detail tasked with keeping watch over Epstein were posted missing, falsified documents and failed to prevent his death.

In a fascinating twist on the conspiracy, Epstein’s death was announced on 4Chan, the image board website loved by conspiracy theorists, a full 40 minutes before it began to be reported by conventional media channels.

It seems that someone who was sent to give emergency treatment to Epstein went live with the news. The first post said Epstein “died an hour ago of hanging, cardiac arrest...” There is not a single piece of evidence that Epstein was murdered, but that genie is so far out of the bottle it will never go back. The questions now being posed are of who killed him, and why?

Conspiracy theories work best within a global context where the big players in world power can be invoked as suspects: when the CIA, the Vatican, Big Pharma or Moscow can all be implicated.

They are rarely if ever local. Unsolved deaths, such as that of Karen Silkwood, the anti-nuclear trade unionist in Oklahoma, or Willie McRae’s death in Wester Ross against a murky backdrop of atomic waste dumping, fall short of being major conspiracy theories and are probably better described as being geo-specific controversies.

Professor Karen Douglas of the University of Kent’s Department of Social Psychology is one of the UK’s leading experts on the psychology of conspiracy theories. Douglas is tracking the various strands of academic thought worldwide. Her published summary, The Psychology Of Conspiracy Theories, suggests that conspiracy theories are co-related to people with lower levels of analytical thinking and education. Set against that are people who have invested significant time and energy researching a subject and are often “experts” in their field.

I have two friends who have wasted years of their lives trying to connect the Mexican undercover CIA operative David Sanchez Morales to the assassination of President Kennedy. No amount of blaming a lone gunman will dampen their zeal.

Conspiracy theories are often false beliefs, but they are sometimes perpetuated by people who have a vested interest in maintaining them, often because they have put effort into understanding the conspiracy, whether by reading books, going to websites or watching TV programmes that support their suspicions. Uncertainty is an unpleasant state and conspiracy theories can provide us with a sense of understanding and a certainty that can be comforting.

Another facet of the growing academic interest in conspiracy theories is the study of intelligent and disillusioned people who are frustrated by being on the losing side of political processes. You can sense this in the Brexit debate and in the hunt to prove there were stacks of abandoned Yes votes in 2014’s indyref.

There are also those who rely on a “collective narcissism”, which fuels a group’s belief that they have greater wisdom than the wider society. Much of the journalism of Scottish unionism draws on this narcissism: no matter what the question, staying in the UK is inevitably the answer.

The virulence of conspiracy theories among Donald Trump’s supporters fulfils many of the current academic trends. He has drawn significant support from the less well-educated. Sixty-one per cent of non-college-educated white voters cast their ballots for Republicans, but they are often led by leading strategists and psychologists such as Steve Bannon, who formerly ran the conspiracy-prone Breitbart News. Although Trump won the election, his supporters still see themselves as alienated outsiders, rallying against the Washington elite.

Returning to Epstein, his death, his autopsy and the criminal pursuit of those closest to him will feed the conspiracy mill for many months yet to come, but if Prince Andrew is out of the firing line it will quickly fade and will not grab my attention ... unless a list MSP is implicated in the scandal.

Whoever could that be? You decide.