Skeptoid listeners are always asking for conspiracy theories that turned out to be true. Here’s the best I could come up with.
Ever since the earliest days of Skeptoid, listeners have been asking me for two things: Do an episode on paranormal claims that turned out to be true, and do an episode on conspiracy theories that turned out to be true. For both types of requests, I’ve always answered “Great, just find some for me.” Nothing. Ever. Crickets chirping. So when I went on the Joe Rogan podcast, which has an enormous conspiracy theory following, I asked straight out: Please send me examples of conspiracy theories that turned out to be true. I was buried in email… to the degree that such a thing is possible.
Judging conspiracy theories can be a tricky business. For one thing, they’re often uselessly vague. I can say “The government does things we don’t know about,” and then virtually anything can come out in the news and I can claim to have been right. For another thing, the world is full of real criminal conspiracies, and I can always point to any one of them and claim “Hey, this is a conspiracy theory that was proven true.” So I have a simple pair of requirements that a conspiracy theory must adhere to in order to be considered the type of conspiracy theory that we’re actually talking about when we use the term.
- First, it must be specific enough to be falsifiable. This is the fundamental requirement that every scientific theory must comply with to be considered valid. By way of example, compare a vague version of the chemtrails conspiracy theory to a specific disprovable claim. You can’t just say “Some airplanes spray some unknown chemical.” That’s so vague that you could claim you were proven correct the next time a crop duster sprays a field. But if you say “United Airlines tail number NC13327 is equipped to spray VX nerve gas, and that one right there is spraying it right now,” then that’s a claim that can be disproven with a single inspection. You make a claim that specific, you’re proven right, I’ll stand behind you 100%.
- Second, it must be known to the conspiracy theorist before it’s discovered by the media or law enforcement. Simply repeating what someone else’s proper investigation has led them to does not constitute developing a theory. Woodward and Bernstein did an intense investigation and put together evidence bit by bit until they had the whole story of the Watergate scandal; at no point did they sit back in their chairs, propose an elaborate conspiracy, then watch as every detail unfolded exactly as they predicted. If you want to impress me with your conspiracy theory, you have to discover it (in detail) before other investigators piece together the proof and make it public for you. Otherwise you’re just claiming credit for reading the newspaper.
So now let’s look at the most common “conspiracy theories proven true” that I was sent:
1. The Gulf of Tonkin
This was overwhelmingly the most common story sent to me from listeners of the Rogan podcast. It was the American excuse to enter the Vietnam War. A small naval battle took place between US forces and North Vietnamese torpedo boats, after which Congress gave President Lyndon B. Johnson the authority to order military action in support of certain Southeast Asian countries who were threatened by Communist forces. Basically, a thinly-veiled authorization for Johnson to go to war with North Vietnam.
The conspiracy part comes from the claim that the naval battle never actually took place, or that it was a fake “false flag” attack by American conspirators trying to give Congress the excuse they wanted. There’s probably a grain of truth to this. There was indeed one real engagement on August 2, 1964, in which planes and ships were damaged on both sides and the North Vietnamese suffered a number of casualties. There’s no doubt there. But it was the second attack two days later on August 4 that was fishy. American forces fired heavily on radar targets only, and nobody ever reported any visual sightings of North Vietnamese forces.
Throughout the day on August 4, as the action was unfolding, Captain Herrick of the destroyer USS Maddox cabled Washington a number of times, and reported in no uncertain terms that he believed there were no enemy forces. This information was public from the beginning. Even as Johnson was drafting his resolution, Senator Wayne Morse was holding public press conferences to reveal that the second attack was without evidence.
Provoking attacks may seem pretty unethical to most of us, but the fact is it’s been a common military tactic since the Romans and the Carthaginians. At no point were the details of the Gulf of Tonkin incident unknown, so it never existed as a conspiracy theory.
The FBI’s domestic Counter Intelligence Program was a terrible thing from the beginning. It operated since 1956, and also less formally for nearly 50 years before that. Their purpose was to discredit and harm American groups mainly associated with civil rights, characterizing them as hate groups that threatened national security. The program was blown in 1971 when a group of eight men, calling themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, broke into a small FBI office in a perfectly planned and executed raid. They seized some 1,000 documents detailing COINTELPRO operations and mailed them to newspapers. The FBI was unable to identify any of the burglars before the statute of limitations ran out, so they got away with it clean. As a result, the FBI was forced to terminate this often-illegal program.