In Skeptoid #364, Brian Dunning made a statement regarding conspiracy theories that I’ve since used many times in my continued battle against tinfoil-helmeted nonsense. It’s simple, direct, and 100% true:
No conspiracy theory has ever been proven true.
A wordier and less elegant way to say this is: there has never been a popularly held conspiracy theory–i.e., a non-evidenced belief that a group of powerful people are secretly working together to do something harmful–that was later vindicated by compelling evidence that proves the theory was true.
Whenever I use this argument in social media, I’m invariably sent one of about half a dozen different internet listicles that attempt to prove me wrong by going through a number of conspiracies or conspiracy theories that were later proven to be real. One is a really long slog from Infowars. Another is from Cracked. There are still others from Listverse, Style Slides, and True Activist.
What much of the content on these lists, as well as those who send them to me, get wrong on a pretty consistent basis is that there is a difference between a conspiracy and a conspiracy theory. As Brian elaborated:
Conspiracies, as we refer to them, are crimes or schemes carried out in secret by a group of conspirators. Sometimes they are discovered, like the three I just mentioned; and others have undoubtedly successfully remained undetected. These clearly exist. But they are quite distinct from what we colloquially call a conspiracy theory, which is claimed knowledge of a conspiracy that has not yet been discovered by law enforcement or Congress or the newspapers or the general public. They are, in fact, future predictions. They are the beliefs or conclusions of the theorist that they predict will eventually come true or be discovered.
Conspiracies are real, and many of them have been proven conclusively to have taken place at all times throughout history. Some of these include the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln, the conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler (the so-called July 20th plot), the conspiracy to throw the 1919 World Series, American tobacco companies conspiring to suppress scientific research that painted their products as harmful, and so on. All of these are real, and none of them are conspiracy theories.
Likewise, things like 9/11 being an inside job, JFK being shot by multiple gunmen, chemtrails, the existence of an all-powerful New World Order, FEMA camps, and any number of banking and currency related plots are all conspiracy theories. That is to say, they are all theories that a yet-undiscovered conspiracy took place – and most have little to no evidence supporting those theories.
Not only is there a difference between a conspiracy and a conspiracy theory, there are all manner of reasons why people would conceal something – and they’re not all bad or harmful. There are perfectly legitimate reasons why a government or corporation would want to keep something secret, whether it’s a patented technology, proprietary research or a sensitive national security matter. Like it or not, nobody gets to know everything.
With all of this in mind, I want to take a look at one of the lists I’ve been sent a couple of times. It’s representative of the general tone and content of the other lists and has the added advantage of being from a reputable source, Business Insider. This is a good example of a list of conspiracies that are either not a conspiracy theory, not true, or not even a conspiracy.
That’s a lot of qualifiers. To be on this list, the plot has to be huge (whatever that means), driven by the government, and proven to be a conspiracy that with compelling evidence to support its existence.
1. The U.S. Department of the Treasury poisoned alcohol during Prohibition — and people died.
This is completely true. The Treasury, in its capacity to enforce the Volstead Act, added deadly chemicals to the industrial alcohol that was being used by bootleggers as a substitute for grain alcohol. While the poisoning became public knowledge very quickly, over 1,000 people still died in New York alone.
2. The U.S. Public Health Service lied about treating black men with syphilis for more than 40 years.
Another true conspiracy, and one that the CDC openly acknowledges – after decades of knowingly sickening hundreds of poor black men. But even during the heyday of the experiment, it was never a popularly discussed theory, and it’s been public knowledge for four decades.
3. More than 100 million Americans received a polio vaccine contaminated with a potentially cancer-causing virus.
Here’s a perfect example of something that’s not a conspiracy, certainly not a government conspiracy, and not even true. The Business Insider piece relies on debunked testimony from anti-vaxxer Barbara Loe Fisher to back up the pseudoscience claim that millions of doses of Jonas Salk’s original formulation of the polio vaccine contained the “cancer causing virus” SV40. But no compelling evidence exists that SV40 actually causes any harm in humans (SV stands for simian virus), and virtually every source that makes this claim is strongly anti-vaccination.
The author of the piece is either anti-vaccine or fell for anti-vaccine propaganda.
4. Parts of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, which led to U.S. intervention in Vietnam, never happened.
This would indeed be a “huge government conspiracy” if it were true. As I wrote about in my piece on false flag attacks, the Gulf of Tonkin Incident was actually two separate attacks on a US destroyer by North Vietnamese torpedo boats in August 1964. The first was an actual attack, with bullet holes in both the destroyer Maddox and the North Vietnamese boats to prove it.
The second was theorized even at the time to be a phantom attack, featuring jittery US sailors shooting at shadows. While we now know that this “attack” didn’t happen, there was a tremendous amount of confusion in the White House shortly afterwards, and subsequent tapes show President Johnson openly wondering what happened. While it could be argued that there was a conspiracy to make the incident fit the Johnson administration’s desire to expand US involvement in Vietnam, that’s a conspiracy of a different color.
5. Military leaders reportedly planned terrorist attacks in the U.S. to drum up support for a war against Cuba.
Operation Northwoods is frequently cited by conspiracy theory believers as “proof” of the US government’s ability to perpetrate false flag attacks. But the plan to stage terrorist attacks in the US and blame it on Cuba as a pretense for military action never made it past the desk of President Kennedy, who scuttled the plan before any of it could be implemented.
It could be considered a “huge government conspiracy.” But it’s not evidence of any other event being a government conspiracy.
6. The government tested the effects of LSD on unwitting U.S. and Canadian citizens.
Brian dedicated an entire Skeptoid episode to MKULTRA, so I won’t dwell on it too much here. The short version is that the CIA contracted out medical experiments using LSD to effect mind control. It didn’t work, and they stopped doing it. This hasn’t stopped MKULTRA from being thrown into numerous unrelated conspiracy theories as an example of government chicanery. Technically, this is a government conspiracy, and definitely unethical, though how “huge” it was is debatable.
7. In 1974, the CIA secretly resurfaced a sunken Soviet submarine with three nuclear-armed ballistic missiles.
This is not a conspiracy. It’s a secret military operation.
8. The U.S. government sold weapons to Iran, violating an embargo, and used the money to support Nicaraguan militants.
Definitely a conspiracy by senior Reagan administration officials – one that came to light very quickly and very embarrassingly.
9. A public relations firm organized congressional testimony that propelled U.S. involvement in the Persian Gulf War.
The infamous “Nayirah” testimony, a teenaged Kuwaiti girl telling Congress of Iraqi soldiers pulling babies out of incubators and perpetrating other horrors, played a major role in ginning up support for Operation Desert Storm. It was also a classic case of wartime propaganda: the girl was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the US, and the entire thing was put together by a US PR company.
The “government conspiracy” angle comes from Nayirah’s fake testimony being organized by Tom Lantos, a Democratic representative from California. But it’s not clear that Lantos knew the girl was giving false testimony, and there’s still no indication of a government conspiracy – only one Congressman acting on his own.
The accuracy rate of this list, with only five of the “huge government conspiracies” actually being that, is typical of sources like this. So when you see a list of purported conspiracies or conspiracy theories that are either not theories or not conspiracies, it’s best to be extremely skeptical.
About Mike Rothschild
Mike Rothschild is a writer and editor based in Pasadena. He writes about scams, conspiracy theories, hoaxes and pop culture fads for Skeptoid.com. He’s also a playwright and screenwriter.
Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/rothschildmd.