Conspiracy. Just saying the word in conversation can make people politely edge away, looking for someone who won’t corner them with wild theories about how Elvis, John F. Kennedy, and Bigfoot are cryogenically frozen in an underground bunker.
Yet conspiracies do exist. In the corporate world, major companies we buy products from everyday have been found guilty of conspiring to fix prices and reduce competition. Just about any planned criminal act committed by more than one person could be considered a conspiracy, from simple murder-for-hire to the Watergate break-in.
Many conspiracy theorists go much further, though, and see a hidden hand behind the world’s major events. While some of the theories have a grain of truth to them, conspiracy theories are impossible to disprove, because the hardcore believers will find some way to rationalize away evidence that contradicts their beliefs. Eyewitnesses who dispute their conclusions are mistaken—or part of the conspiracy.
At least that’s what they want you to think …
The 9/11 Conspiracies
The evidence is overwhelming that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were indeed the result of a conspiracy. There’s no doubt about it: A close (or even cursory) look at the evidence makes it clear that it was carefully planned and executed by conspirators. The question, of course, is who those conspirators were. Osama bin Laden and the crew of (mostly Saudi) hijackers were part of the conspiracy, but what about President Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney? Did top Bush advisors, including Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld, either collaborate with bin Laden, or intentionally allow the attacks to happen?
Put another way, was it an inside job? Conspiracy theorists believe so, and point to a catalog of supposed inconsistencies in the “official version” of the attacks. Many of the technical conspiracy claims were debunked by Popular Mechanics magazine in March 2005, while other claims are refuted by simple logic: If a hijacked airplane did not crash into the Pentagon, as is often claimed, then where is Flight 77 and its passengers? Are they with the Roswell aliens at Hangar 18? In many conspiracy theories, bureaucratic incompetence is often mistaken for conspiracy. Our government is so efficient, knowledgeable, and capable—so the reasoning goes—that it could not possibly have botched the job so badly in detecting the plot ahead of time or responding to the attacks. I find that hard to believe.
Princess Diana’s Murder
Within hours of Princess Diana’s death on Aug. 31, 1997, in a Paris highway tunnel, conspiracy theories swirled. As was the case with the death of John F. Kennedy, the idea that such a beloved and high-profile figure could be killed so suddenly was a shock. This was especially true of Princess Diana; royalty die of old age, political intrigue, or eating too much rich food; they don’t get killed by a common drunk driver.
Unlike many conspiracy theories, though, this one had a billionaire promoting it: Mohamed Al-Fayed, the father of Dodi Al-Fayed, who was killed along with Diana. Al-Fayed claims that the accident was in fact an assassination by British intelligence agencies, at the request of the Royal Family. Al-Fayed’s claims were examined and dismissed as baseless by a 2006 inquiry; the following year, at Diana’s inquest, the coroner stated that “The conspiracy theory advanced by Mohamed Al Fayed has been minutely examined and shown to be without any substance.” On April 7 of this year, the coroner’s jury concluded that Diana and Al-Fayed were unlawfully killed due to negligence by their drunken chauffer and pursuing paparazzi.
Ever been watching a movie and suddenly get the munchies? Or sitting on your sofa watching TV and suddenly get the irresistible urge to buy a new car? If so, you may be the victim of a subliminal advertising conspiracy! Proponents include Wilson Bryan Key (author of “Subliminal Seduction”) and Vance Packard (author of “The Hidden Persuaders”), both of whom claimed that subliminal (subconscious) messages in advertising were rampant and damaging. Though the books caused a public outcry and led to FCC hearings, much of both books have since been discredited, and several key “studies” of the effects of subliminal advertising were revealed to have been faked.
In the 1980s, concern over subliminal messages spread to bands such as Styx and Judas Priest, with the latter band even being sued in 1990 for allegedly causing a teen’s suicide with subliminal messages (the case was dismissed). Subliminal mental processing does exist, and can be tested. But just because a person perceives something (a message or advertisement, for example) subconsciously means very little by itself. There is no inherent benefit of subliminal advertising over regular advertising, any more than there would be in seeing a flash of a commercial instead of the full twenty seconds. Getting a person to see something for a split-second is easy; filmmakers do it all the time (watch the last few frames in Hitchcock’s classic “Psycho”). Getting a person to buy or do something based on that split-second is another matter entirely. (The conspiracy was parodied in the 1980s television show Max Headroom, in which viewers were exploding after seeing subliminal messages called “blipverts.”)
The Moon Landing Hoax
In the 1978 film Capricorn One, American astronauts and NASA faked a Mars landing. Though a mediocre film, it was an interesting idea, and one that would endure for decades. In 2001, Fox television aired the program “Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon?,” which rehashed many discredited “discrepancies” between the official version of the moon landing and photographs of the landing. (Curiously, they never explain why NASA would distribute photographs that would “prove” that they had faked the moon landing.) Websites such as BadAstronomy.com have pages and pages of point-by-point, detailed refutations of the Fox claims.
Of course, even if there was some credible evidence showing that the 1969 Apollo moon landing was a hoax, conspiracy theorists must also account for later moon missions, involving a dozen astronauts. And there’s the issue of the hundreds of pounds of moon rocks that have been studied around the world and verified as of extraterrestrial origin… how did NASA get the rocks if not during a moon landing? Many astronauts have been offended by the implication that they faked their accomplishments. In fact in 2002, when conspiracy theorist Bart Sibrel confronted Buzz Aldrin and called him a “coward and a liar” for faking the moon landings, the 72-year-old punched Sibrel in the jaw.
Paul McCartney’s Death
According to many stories and conspiracy theories that circulated in the late 1960s, Beatles guitarist Paul McCartney died in 1966. The remaining members of the Beatles — along with their manager and others — conspired to keep McCartney’s death a secret, going so far as to hire a look-alike and sound-alike to take his place in the band.
Well, kind of: In a case of seriously twisted logic (even by conspiracy theory standards) the conspirators in this case took great pains to keep the press and public from finding out about McCartney’s demise—yet they also wanted fans to know about it, and placed clever clues in album covers and music giving details about McCartney’s death. For example, on the cover of the Abbey Road album, all four Beatles are photographed striding across a zebra crossing, but only McCartney is barefoot, and out of step with the other three. This must mean something, right? Despite public denials by the band, fans couldn’t just let it be, and came together to look for more clues.
John F. Kennedy’s Assassination
John F. Kennedy was killed in 1963 in a Dallas motorcade. Who killed Kennedy? Most (though not all) conspiracy theorists acknowledge that Lee Harvey Oswald shot Kennedy from a book depository. Beyond this fact lies a vast area of conspiracy theory that has spawned endless speculation and hundreds of books, articles, and films. Was there a second assassin, perhaps one at a nearby “grassy knoll”? And if Oswald did act alone, who gave him the orders? Activists against Fidel Castro? Organized crime bosses? A jealous husband upset with Kennedy’s philandering? Though the Warren Commission report concluded that Oswald acted alone, a 1979 report by The House Select Committee on Assassinations suggested that there was in fact a conspiracy, and likely more than one shooter. In such a complex and sensational case, the conspiracy theories will live on.
The Roswell Crash Cover-Up
There is one fact that almost all skeptics and believers agree on: Something crashed on a remote ranch outside of Roswell, New Mexico in 1947. The government at first claimed it was some sort of saucer, then retracted the statement and claimed it was really a weather balloon. Yet the best evidence suggests that it was neither a flying saucer nor a weather balloon, but instead a high-altitude, top-secret military balloon dubbed Project Mogul.
As it turns out, descriptions of the wreckage first reported by the original eyewitnesses very closely match photos of the Project Mogul balloons, down to the silvery finish and strange symbols on its side. The stories about crashed alien bodies did not surface until decades later and in fact no one considered the Roswell crash as anything extraterrestrial or unusual until thirty years later, when a book on the topic was published. There was indeed a cover-up, but it did not hide a crashed saucer, instead it hid a Cold War-era spying program.
Protocols of the Elders of Zion
“The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion” is a hoaxed book that purported to reveal a Jewish conspiracy to achieve world domination. It first appeared in Russia in 1905, and described how Christians’ morality, finances, and health would be targeted by a small group of powerful Jews. The idea that there is a Jewish conspiracy is nothing new, of course, and has been repeated by many prominent people including Henry Ford and Mel Gibson. In 1920, Henry Ford paid to have half a million copies of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” published, and in the 1930s, the book was used by the Nazis as justification for its genocide against Jews (in fact, Adolph Hitler referred to the “Protocols” in his book “Mein Kampf”).
Though the book has been completely discredited as a hoax and forgery, it is still in print and remains widely circulated around the world.
Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, a rash of child abuse cases horrified America. Children accused adults of ritual rapes, torture, and abuse, and the news media reported the sensational stories. Often the accusations included charges of Satanism.
The pinnacle was Geraldo Rivera’s infamous NBC special “Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground,” which aired on Oct. 28, 1988. Rivera relied on self-proclaimed “Satanism experts,” misleading and inaccurate statistics, crimes with only tenuous links to Satanism, and sensationalized media reports. In what was the largest viewership for a documentary in television history, Rivera claimed that an organized, Satanic conspiracy was at work killing babies, murdering innocents, and conducting ghastly rituals. “There are over one million Satanists in this country,” Rivera said, adding that “The odds are, [they] are in your town.” Rivera presented no proof; the lack of evidence was seen as proof of how well organized and shrewd the Satanic conspiracy really was.
Yet little evidence supports claims about Satanic cults or conspiracies. In a 1992 report on ritual crime, FBI agent Kenneth Lanning concluded that the rampant rumors of ritual murders, cannibalism, and kidnapping were unfounded. Phillips Stevens, Jr., associate professor of anthropology at the State University of New York at Buffalo, said that the widespread allegations of crimes by Satanists “constitute the greatest hoax perpetrated upon the American people in the twentieth century.”
Almost everybody (except investors) loves to hate the drug companies. Drugs cost too much, drug company profits are obscene, and it seems that every few months some drug once claimed to be safe is yanked off the shelf after patients die. It’s little wonder that the drug industry (“Big Pharma”) is looked upon with suspicion. But some proponents of “alternative medicine” believe that drug companies actually conspire to keep people sick to reap profits.
For example, Kevin Trudeau (bestselling author of “Natural Cures They Don’t Want You To Know About”) claims that important medical information is being kept hidden by a conspiracy between the medical establishment and big drug companies. According to Trudeau, “There are certain groups, including… the drug industry… that don’t want people to know about cures for diseases…” Actress and model Jenny McCarthy appeared on “Larry King Live,” accusing doctors and the pharmaceutical industry of conspiring to suppress evidence of a link between childhood vaccines and autism.