In Skeptoid Episode #364, Brian 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:
A less-elegant and wordier way to say this is that there has never been a popularly held conspiracy theory, ie, a non-evidenced belief that a group of powerful people secretly worked together to do something harmful, that later had compelling evidence to prove that said conspiracy was real.
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. 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 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 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 “conspire” about 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, not everyone 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 is not a list of conspiracy theories, and isn’t even all “conspiracies.”
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.
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, thanks to this true conspiracy.
Another true conspiracy, and one that the CDC openly acknowledges – making up for 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.
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 BI piece is either anti-vaccine or fell for anti-vaccine propaganda.
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. 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.