Is there Science in Conspiracy Theories?

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There is a high probability that you’ve already come across titles on the internet which left you agape. There’s Obama being the Antichrist, or the Gulf Nations orchestrating the current European migration crisis. You might have also read posts about people reporting sightings of creatures out of a Tim Burton movie. If you still do not get the gist, try to type “Bermuda Triangle” in your search engine. Yes, you just opened a can of worms about the already mysterious and sinister place.

From the way the entertainment industry works to the mechanism of global organizations, people come up with otherworldly ideas. They are coined as conspiracy theories, as you probably already know. It is also highly possible that you dismissed these ideas, as is you are a believer.

Maybe we reached the point where some believe there’s an invisible hand that manipulates everything. We felt a need to think about power relations in a group, and that someone behind is playing the strings. It is also convenient to resort to building an evil force, to create a reason for the existence of something that we cannot otherwise explain. To totally believe these views might lean too much towards paranoia, but to dismiss these entirely sounds unreasonable too. Also, dismissing these theories becomes harder as time passes, given the all-presence of groups trying to correlate things that go off-tangent.

The Origin of the term “Conspiracy Theory”

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Conspiracy theories have been around ever since we built communities. The infamous witch hunt in the Middle Ages and the reactions regarding Bubonic Plague filled people with paranoia. The early days of United States were also muddled with assassination theories. However, the term “conspiracy theory” was not officially used in publications until 1870s.

The way it was portrayed was similar to what we understand it as today – a seemingly impossible explanation of an event. The term’s popularity rose in the 1960s, when CIA used it in a more negative context. A more intense sense of paranoia and malevolent organizations controlling these events were added to the term. It’s easy to see why, though: the tensions of the Cold War reached an all-time high, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and NASA was busy searching for alien life.

As they say, mass paranoia is a thing in the United States. Perhaps that changed the term’s definition from ‘an unlikely explanation’ to a paranoia-charged phrase, about malevolent individuals who control the world. However, those conspiracy theories which are actually proven to be true are coined as historical analysis or investigative journalism.

Not everyone agrees with the terms negative usage, though. Some argue that conspiracy theories are rather stigmatized knowledge, or information those in power do not want you to know.

The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories

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The concept of moral panic becomes relevant when we are discussing this topic. This occurs when our fear is distorted (or exaggerated), thanks to mass hysteria and social institutions. A major feature of moral panic, when speaking of ‘conspiracy theories’, is the idea that a wicked end result is caused by a devious and influential body. What’s worse is the portrayal of this evil, which will surely be sensationalized. This body takes the form of famous organizations, satanic cults or the government. Even Hollywood is often referred to as the gateway for selling one’s soul to the devil.

However, there will always be rational people who will downplay the scenario, and the mileage of believing these claims varies. Then, there are also experts who give their respective opinions and solutions to the matter. Eventually, the conspiracy theory dies or it becomes more apparent. For instance, there was a time when people were speculating that the US government was actually poisoning alcohol drinkers during the Prohibition Era. It turns out, the claim was true.

Dr. Sander van der Linden postulates, in a 2013 article on Scientific American Mind, that there are common traits for people believing in conspiracy theories. He argued the following:

  • An avid conspiracy theorist will likely believe in other conspiracies, even if these are contradictory in nature.
  • The creation of conspiracy theories is associated with paranoia and schizotypy.
  • There is an apparent mistrust with universal scientific laws, such as the Flat Earth Hypothesis and smoking and lung cancers.
  • Lastly, people tend to think they see patterns in a totally random event.

The last indication is common in all humans. Apophenia is a genetic trait that allows us to see patterns in coincidence. That alone may give birth to conspiracy theories. There is also a correlation between people who believe in conspiracy theories and non-participation in social activities. Perhaps it is due to their distrust with the government and wrapping themselves with their own set of truths. It was also suggested that, once they are exposed to conspiracy theories, people might actually change, even without realizing that they did.

On a more positive note, the fever of feeding us conspiracy theories has reached such a high point that we actually resorted to believing scientific facts. Although access to these once esoteric views is now easy, the vast majority lack credibility and empirical evidence. Worse, many now believe that these invoke political and race-related violence.

A deeper interpretation lies with our subconscious projecting our belief that we, humans, are not totally hopeless. Believing in a hidden ruler is a bit consoling, because we place humans behind these actions, and not some mechanisms beyond our control. It makes us think that this is something we can still explain. In the end, a conspiracy theory renders everything under control and builds the hope that we can break the cabal acting behind the scenes.

Famous Conspiracy Theories

These are some of the most famous conspiracy theories we come across the news and internet. They are fascinating readings, at worst, and unnerving truths, at best. It depends on whether you will actually believe them or not.

The 9/11 Attack

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The whole world witnessed the horrors of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and Pentagon in Washington, in 2001. Al Qaeda claimed the planning and the execution of the attacks. Investigations revealed that structural failure caused the building to collapse. However, these facts did not stop people from spewing conspiracy theories.

Some believe that the United States government had knowledge of the attack beforehand, but did not act. There are others who believe that ex-President George Bush ignored the warnings and started a war in Middle East, under the guise of controlling the oil-rich region of Iraq.

An association called the 9/11 Truth Movement was actually established for that matter. The organization believes that the towers could not have been brought down by plane impact and aviation fuel alone. Hence, they connote that the 9/11 attack might even be an inside job or propaganda to get the sympathy of the people. They based their claims on the stories of firefighters who were inside the burning towers that time and heard explosions even down below the impact zone.

Of course, the theories held on until now thanks to the persistent rejection of government-issued reports and a joint distrust in experts. Nonetheless, a fair amount of empirical articles debunked these theories.

Fake Moon Landing

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The Apollo missions are iconic moments of our history. The Apollo 11 mission is the only one which allowed humans to make their first successful landing on the Moon. However, some people think that NASA actually staged the mission, right here, on Earth. Powerful organizations deceived the public by tampering with evidence, photos and rock samples. What can undermine their ploy was destroyed, at least according to these theorists.

Ironically, they built their accusations based on official photos. They claimed to see camera crosshairs on lunar surface and flag movement, which would not be possible, since there is no wind on the moon. Added to their suspicion is the lack of stars in the lunar sky, the fact that shadows cast in different directions and many other oddities. There are plethora of articles refuting these theories, but they still live on, to this day.

Who is William Shakespeare?

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Very little information was available about the history’s greatest playwright. Conspiracy theories believe his existence is merely fictional and that the name was just a pseudonym, used to conceal the identity of the real writer or writers. Names like Francis Bacon, 17th Earl of Oxford and Edward de Vere are just a few of those considered to be the actual Shakespeare. Because there is too little known of Shakespeare’s life, some believe it is proof against his origin. The lack of evidence concerning his attendance for Stratford’s Grammar School made the anti-Stratfordians wonder how did the presumed writer manage to master such a far-reaching vocabulary.

However, when compared to the works of other writers, it was discovered that, even if his vocabulary was vast, it was due to a larger number of pays than those of his contemporaries. Also, the wide range of themes, settings and characters place Shakespeare among his contemporaries, instead of setting him apart.

AIDS is a Synthetic Disease

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Conspiracy theorists claim that AIDs was created in a laboratory by the World Health Organization. It was claimed that they wanted a killer virus, to eliminate the African population. Some believe that it was a product of American-Soviet collaboration, to curb population growth. People argued that AIDS could not have merely started with an accidental contact. At least 10 epidemics were reported in Africa in 1970s, which made it likely to believe this disease was manmade.

However, researchers identified the virus as a version of the SIV (simian immunodeficiency virus). The SIV was transmitted from chimpanzees to humans and mutated into HIV when humans came in contact with the infected meat and blood of the hunted apes.

Some Conspiracy Theories That Are Actually True

It is really easy to dismiss outrageous theories as sensationalized piece of media these days. People blur the boundary between fiction and reality. The fact that they associate almost everything to an evil force makes detractors all the more credible. However, there are equally shocking tales which are actually true.

North Korea Kidnapping Japanese Citizens

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Several hundred people went missing in coastal towns of Japan, between 1977 and 1983. It was long believed that agents from North Korea were abducting these people. North Korea was blamed, but the government itself vehemently denied it. Although it was deemed highly unlikely, the General Association of Koreans in Japan and the Japanese Socialist Party also consistently argued against these claims. Why would North Korea resort to such a deed? Perhaps they needed younger people to teach Japanese in North Korean schools. For the older ones? Probably they wanted their identities, to infiltrate the Japanese community. Hence, this became a conspiracy theory and remained so for decades.

Except that the late Kim Jong-Il actually admitted, in 2002, that North Korea had kidnapped 13 citizens. The Japanese government only recognized 17 persons as being abducted, related to this case. So far, five have been returned to Japan. The Japanese government is still seeking answers as to what happened to the other abductees. The fate of these people is still unknown, up to this day.

The United States Employed Nazi Scientists after World War II

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This theory is one of the hardest to believe, given the volume of nonsensical Nazi theories and the United States. The most popular one claims that Adolf Hitler and other Nazi officials changed their identities and lived a quiet life, somewhere in South America. These theories are far-fetched, but it is also true that many of those who committed atrocious acts against humanity escaped justice, after the war.

In fact, Operation Paperclip employed more than 1,500 scientists from Nazi Germany after World War 2. The then-President Harry Truman claimed that they excluded anyone who’s connected or a supporter of the Nazi Party. The truth couldn’t be farther, though, since numerous Nazi scientists were included in the group. Among those 1,500 were Dr. Hubertus Strughold and Dr. Kurt Blome. The former was accused of conducting experiments on humans and the latter was responsible for Nazi’s plan to make biological weapons in the form of plagues. As regards the reason, the United States employed their help in developing techniques to squeeze truth from Soviet prisoners. Part of these developments include the invention of the truth serums and mind control experiments.

The Big Brother Phenomenon and Vilifying the Government

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As stated earlier, many conspiracy theories develop from mass paranoia. And it seems there’s no better organization to suspect than the government. People long believed that we are being watched and that our privacy is under threat. There are equally many who dismiss this claim, thinking the government does not have the time, nor the resources to do this. Except that we are being watched, similar to a Big Brother show.

You may still be able to remember Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. The former is an ex-US contractor who revealed that over 60 nations are being monitored by United States’ CIA and the Great Britain’s GCHQ. Certain European leaders are also spied, yet what resonated more was their way of monitoring citizens. A research conducted by the Washington Post revealed that 90% of the people under surveillance are not actually the target. It is as if the American government employed a shotgun approach. The exact number of people spied may be never known, yet it is safe to assume the figures reach hundreds of thousands.

Julian Assange is more known for WikiLeaks, which released tens of millions of classified documents concerning the US government. A sizable group decry the 2003 Iraq Invasion, as they claim the abuses conducted by US soldier to Iraqi citizens. They aren’t wrong. Assange released documents detailing the atrocious acts committed from 2006 to 2009. Both are currently exhausting their legal rights to avoid persecution.

What’s your take on conspiracy theories? Are you a believer? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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