A critical analysis of archeology leads to rejection of astrology, conspiracies, etc.
The world as a whole has become increasingly reliant on science to provide its technology and inform its policy. But rampant conspiracy theories, fake news, and pseudoscience like homeopathy show that the world could use a bit more of the organized skepticism that provides the foundation of science. For that reason, it has often been suggested that an expanded science education program would help cut down on the acceptance of nonsense.
But a study done with undergrads at North Carolina State University suggests that a class on scientific research methods doesn’t do much good. Instead, a class dedicated to critical analysis of nonsense in archeology was far more effective at getting students to reject a variety of pseudoscience and conspiracy theories. And it worked even better when the students got their own debunking project.
The study, done by Anne Collins McLaughlin and Alicia McGill, lumps together things like belief in astrology, conspiracy theories, and ancient aliens, calling them “epistemically unwarranted.” Surveys show they’re widely popular; nearly half the US population thinks astrology is either somewhat or very scientific, and the number has gone up over time.
You might think that education, especially in the sciences, could help reverse this trend, but McLaughlin and McGill have some depressing news for you. Rejection of epistemically unwarranted ideas doesn’t correlate with scientific knowledge, and college students tend to have as much trouble coming to grips with reality as anyone else.
Some people would call David Icke controversial. I would call him a brilliant psychotic.
His ability to speak for hours on an incomprehensible doctrine is stunning. But listen carefully and the methods of his madness become apparent.
He has a brilliant talent for the subtle interweaving of plausible with crazy, and packaging the in-between gray areas as thought-terminating clichés like “secret societies”, “brotherhood”, “free masons” and other slogans and catchphrases popular with modern conspiracy thinking.
The magic is in his ability to dispense seemingly innocuous tidbits of (allegedly true) earth history one moment, then slipping in talk of aliens crossbreeding with humans the next moment. Talk sane, touch on some crazy, go back to the safety of sane. Rinse and repeat until the listener can swallow the crazy with the sane.
This ability to subtlely slide in and out of the realm of plausible is the same potent cocktail used by science fiction writers to blur the lines between the possible and the impossible to keep viewers coming back for more.
This 25 minute video has been distilled from a 217 minute video. I’ve removed the plausible to expose the rest. Enjoy.
Deconstructing a wild tale about a Nazi military base deep inside Antarctica.
It’s a story that reads like a Captain America comic book: American firepower going after the Nazi super-villain in a remote fortress. Despite World War II having ended, Third Reich scientists were still soldiering on at their hidden lair, planning the doom of civilization. New Berchtesgaden was said to be a Nazi base in Antarctica, established in 1939. Then during World War II, the British launched at least one assault against it. In 1946 the Americans tried the same thing. It wasn’t until 1958 that three nuclear bombs finally destroyed New Berchtesgaden, putting a final end to the Nazi regime. It’s a story so wild that you can scarcely believe you haven’t heard of it before. But believe it you must; because as bizarre as it sounds, parts of this insane tale are actually true.
The story goes that in 1938, the Nazis sent a ship called the Schwabenland to Antarctica to set up a military base, on the orders of Admiral Dönitz. It landed at that sector of Antarctica called Queen Maud Land, and they named their area New Schwabia, after their ship. Deep in the interior of the continent, they established a permanent base and named it New Berchtesgaden, after the Bavarian town overlooked by the Kehlsteinhaus “Eagle’s Nest” retreat.
Nazi surveyors discovered a vast network of underground tunnels including a warm geothermal lake, and some say alien technology was found there. The Nazis used this resource to construct a large underground city, variously called New Berlin or Base 211.
Joe and Neil discuss a wide variety of topics, including the flat earth conspiracy theory.
Pointing out logical inconsistencies in conspiracy theories can be an effective method of discrediting them, according to new research published in Frontiers in Psychology.
The researchers had 813 Hungarian adults listen to a speech outlining a made-up conspiracy that purported to explain how hidden Jewish groups and international financial powers were secretly shaping the fate of Hungary. The speech emphasized that “nothing happens by chance, nothing is what it seems, everything is interconnected with everything, and the world is divided into good and evil.”
The participants then listened to another speech which either: pointed out the logical flaws of the conspiracy theory, mocked the ridiculousness and irrationality of those who believed the conspiracy theory, or called attention to the dangers of scapegoating while attempting to increase empathy for Jews. A fourth group of participants, who were used as a control, listened to a weather forecast.
The researchers found that the rationality speech and the ridiculing speech — but not the empathetic speech — were effective in reducing belief in the conspiracy theory.
PsyPost interviewed Peter Kreko, a visiting professor at Indiana University, assistant professor at Eötvös Loránt University of Sciences and senior associate to Political Capital Institute. Read his explanation of the research below:
The Beatles, for all their utopian good vibes, were no strangers to the dark side of the ’60s. They were, of course, at the center of a rather obsessive conspiracy theory — the first one after the JFK assassination to indicate that conspiracy theory had joined the flow of the times, and that it wasn’t just limited to the murder of a president. That theory said that Paul McCartney was dead, that he’d been killed in a car crash in 1966 and replaced by an imposter. (The incident that touched this off was a traffic accident, early in 1967, that involved McCartney’s Aston Martin.)
If the Paul Is Dead rumor was true, then an awful lot of people had to be in on pretending that the fake Paul was the real Paul. To me, though, the ultimate proof that the conspiracy theory was false always came down to Paul McCartney’s eyes. Just study them sometime; they’re among the most distinctive set of celebrity peepers of the 20th century. They are ever so slightly, and beautifully, cockeyed — Paul’s left eye slopes down, and his right eye tilts up just above the other one. They’re the special soul of his Cute One factor. Does anyone really think that a replacement Paul McCartney could have been found who had those exact eyes? As is so often the case, there’s only one thing you should ever lean toward believing about conspiracy theory, and that’s that when you look at it closely, it tends to fall apart.
Yet “The Sixth Beatle,” a documentary about the group’s earliest days, is rooted in a conspiracy theory.
What it means to believe that “real” trees no longer exist
Something tremendous is happening; over the last few weeks, without too many of its globe-headed detractors noticing, a surprisingly vast community on the tattered fringes of intellectual orthodoxy is in turmoil. A bizarre new theory has turned the flat earth upside down. The flat earth is still flat, but now it’s dotted with tiny imitations of the truly enormous trees that once covered the continents, and which in our deforested age we can hardly even remember.I’ve always been mildly obsessed with the flat-earth truth movement, the sprawling network of people utterly convinced that the world has been lied to for centuries about its own physical shape. The particulars differ, but here everyone takes it as a given that a conspiracy reaching from your first schoolteacher to NASA to the metaphysical Beyond has deluded humanity, making us believe that we’re nothing more than something that grew on a rock, a layer of biological grease mouldering on the surface of a ball suspended in empty space, when we’re actually living on a flat plane.
Part of this fascination is anthropological: once, if you wanted to encounter an entirely different ontological system, you had to probe deep into jungles and deserts, pith helmet capping your Western arrogance. Now, with the peculiar cosmology of capitalist production subsuming an entire planet into its logic, mythological worlds are increasingly homogenized, and all that difference and weirdness is no longer geographically extensive. If you want to encounter very different realities, you can find them online, and each time the world reveals itself to be a little richer than you’d thought.
Still, among all the bizarre, self-enclosed universes the internet has to offer—gold-standard bores, UFO chasers, people who believe that cartoons are real in a nearby dimension or that the secret rulers of the world are betraying their existence by leaving little clues on the currency—the flat-earthers are special.
The Life and Times of the Moon Hoax Conspiracy
Yes, it’s a 3-part Skeptoid episode, the first one ever, and it took more than 500 episodes to get me to finally address the moon landing hoax conspiracy. To those who follow science, the claims that we never went to the moon are the most tiresome and foolish of the conspiracy theories; but to those who believe them, they are absolute religion, and the ultimate token of their conviction that anything coming from official sources is a lie. Today we’re going to begin our in-depth analysis of the Moon Landing Conspiracy, of those who believe in it, and a survey of the facts and figures of the basic narrative.
Today we’re going to talk about the history and cultural impact of the claim; next week we’ll go into the most popular evidentiary claims said to prove that we never went to the moon (hopefully including some you haven’t heard before); and in the final installment, we’ll look at the hard physical proof that we did go.
The basic narrative of the Moon Truth conspiracy theory, as you probably know, is that NASA faked the Apollo missions and nobody ever actually went to the moon. As with most conspiracy theories, there are all sorts of variations on the claims of what actually did happen, while the only thing they have in common is that no men actually landed on the moon. Some believe the Apollo missions orbited the moon but did not land; some believe they never went farther than Earth orbit; some believe the Apollo spacecraft flew but were unmanned; some believe they never launched anything at all. The astronauts performed their moonwalks on a movie set, and fake transmissions were provided to the TV networks for broadcast. The reasons given for why the government would have gone to all this trouble range from simply distracting Americans’ attention from the unpopular war in Vietnam, to fooling the Soviets into thinking they lost the Cold War, to protecting NASA’s budget by appearing to spend it on something supremely impressive.
A big question we have to answer is what’s the point of even talking about this? The people who believe it have already heard the science-based responses to their claims a hundred times, and rejected them a hundred times. Their minds are riveted shut to anything but their preferred narrative. We’ll not be changing any of their minds today. And the rest of us aren’t in denial, and aren’t asking these made-up, shoehorned questions that try to raise doubt where none exists. So who is this episode for, nobody?
Well, maybe for somebody. Polling data has, for decades, consistently shown that some 6-7% of Americans believe the moon landings were faked; and even scarier, about four times as many Europeans agree with them. That’s a lot more people than the hardcore YouTube-obsessed serial conspiracists; it includes tens of millions of ordinary folks who are otherwise as rational as you or I. It seems there must be something deeply compelling about this odd belief.
When Malachi Henderson went skydiving a few weeks ago, he noticed that the Earth looked flat, even from the plane. He mentioned it to the pilot. “The higher you get, the flatter it looks,” the pilot replied. Henderson wasn’t surprised: The pilot’s response was evidence of something he’d been researching for years.
Henderson is one of a growing movement of Americans who believe that the Earth is flat. They refer to themselves as flat Earthers.
Flat Earthers have a wide range of convictions. Some come to the movement from a religious place, others from a scientific one. But most believe in one simple principle: that NASA and everyone involved in space exploration are liars and that there is a massive conspiracy to hide the fact that the Earth is flat.
Mic spoke with four flat Earthers from across the country, representing a range of ages and religious backgrounds: Henderson, a 34-year-old bartender; Patrice, 57, a business owner from Florida; Walt Johnson, a 49-year-old disabled former disk jockey from Louisiana; and Ben Long, in his 20s.
These are their stories.
For all those conspiracists who believe the moon landing was a hoax.
Conspiracy theories can be stubborn, particularly in the echo chamber of the internet.
One persistent belief in some quarters is that the government — or business, perhaps — is deploying a fleet of jet aircraft to spray chemicals into the sky to control the population, food supply or other things.
As evidence, they point to what they call “chemtrails,” which are more commonly known as contrails, or condensation trails, produced at high altitudes as water vapor in jet engine exhaust condenses and freezes.
Adding fuel to the chemtrails theory is the fact that there are a few legitimate reasons for atmospheric spraying — “seeding” clouds to make rain, for example — and in recent years there has been some research on the idea of spraying chemicals as a potential way to fight global warming.
But now, scientists have become more organized in their efforts to shoot down the idea, conducting a peer-reviewed study in Environmental Research Letters that debunks chemtrails supporters’ claims.
The goal, the researchers say, is not so much to change the minds of hard-core believers, but to provide a rebuttal — the kind that would show up in a Google search — to persuade other people to steer clear of this idea.
Steven J. Davis, a climate scientist at the University of California, Irvine, said he had the idea for the study after a conversation with a salesman at a mattress store.
When the man found out what he did for a living, Dr. Davis said, “he had very serious questions about what we were going to do about the chemtrails problem.”
Dr. Davis said that when he got home, he searched the internet for peer-reviewed studies on the conspiracy theory, but found none.
The theory has been popularized on websites that display photographs of contrails but are described instead as chemtrails that persist in the atmosphere and contain harmful chemicals like strontium, barium and aluminum.
Source: Butte College
You say you believe the government is hiding something at Area 51–captured alien spacecraft, perhaps? The conjectures and rumors surrounding Area 51 comprise a revered conspiracy theory (many theories, actually). Do you believe the aliens among us are the hidden driving force in human history? That top world leaders (and they aren’t who most people think they are!) are cooperating for personal gain with the alien “reptile overlords” to bring about the enslavement of our species? You might be a conspiracist.
You might buy into one or more conspiracy theories without being an all-out conspiracist. Conspiracism is a world view that sees history as driven primarily by interwoven webs of secret conspiracies. Conspiracy theories are leaner, more restrained, more limited in scope than conspiracism. A conspiracy theory alleges that a secret conspiracy involving hidden actors is behind particular historical events. Its explanation for events usually runs counter to the official or mainstream account, which is itself seen as an elaborate fabrication.
Test your favorite conspiracy against the following components typical of conspiracism and conspiracy theories:
- THEY (the conspirators) are a relatively small group, but powerful and corrupt. They are evil, or at least selfish, acting in their own interest and against the public interest. They have great foresight, patience, and deviousness. Nevertheless, they are not all-powerful or even that smart, really, since WE have figured them out.
- WE are a small, dedicated group of freedom fighters and freethinkers. We are soldiers, rebels in the fight for good against evil.
- YOU are clueless. Why can’t you see what’s going on here? (Conspiracy theorists place most people in this group.)
- THEY have hidden or destroyed all the evidence that would implicate them and have manufactured false evidence that exculpates them.
- YOU are close-minded. In fact, you are probably one of THEM.
The comfort of conspiracy theory is that it provides a well-defined enemy and a sense of control (or at least structure) in the face of upheaval and disempowerment; the tendency to perceive conspiracy is more common in groups experiencing social isolation or political marginalization. The freedom fighters of conspiracy theory need not see themselves as being at the mercy of irresistible, inexplicable, or random natural or social forces, but as soldiers in a just cause. Many, if not most, conspiracy theories probably result from the human tendency to look for pattern in chaos-even if there isn’t any.
Conspiracy theories and conspiracism share three problems:
The main problem with any particular conspiracy theory is not that it’s wrong, but that it’s inarguable; not that it’s false, but that it is unfalsifiable. Because it is unfalsifiable, a conspiracy theory is not provable or disprovable.
One Week on a Cruise for Conspiracy Theorists
By the time intergalactic warfare historian Laura Eisenhower told me that she was secretly recruited to go to Mars, I was way past the point of being surprised. I’d simply heard so much of this kind of talk over the past few days that it seemed totally normal. It was day five of the week-long Conspira Sea Cruise, a gathering of conspiracy theorists (for lack of a better umbrella term) and 80 or so curious followers. We had all boarded a massive cruise ship to listen to the speakers’ musings and philosophies on a range of topics — ancient intergalactic warfare, crop circles, magical vibrations, chemtrails, the government’s control of the weather, alien politicians, and wishing boxes — your normal vacation chatter. And all of this was more or less unbeknownst to the other 2,900 cruise passengers who were oiled up, buffet-ready, and vacationing all around us. For my part, I was there to host and produce a video on the seminar and its characters, and thus, I had been inundated with far-out tales since the moment I stepped onboard the massive, 18-deck ship, which was, at the time that Laura and I eventually sat down by the adults-only hot tub, hurling its way, well-announced by Motown music and exhaust smoke, towards Cabo San Lucas.
It was too late, also, to have the kind of out-of-body, how-the-hell-did-I-get-here moments you might think I’d be having. (That moment had come the night before, at the cruise’s Love Boat-themed disco, where I found myself doing the Hustle, as instructed by motivational dancers, alongside the self-proclaimed leading expert on Area 51.) Instead, what happened when Laura told me that she had been contacted to go to Mars was that I nodded my head, squinted into the sun, smiled, and leaned back on my sun-deck chair, not significantly more taken by the notion of her potential inter-stellar venture than I was by, say, the whereabouts of that evening’s bingo game.
I wanted to know what Laura knew, to understand what she experienced, but I didn’t want to tiptoe further into the complicated attic of her memory by asking skeptical or damning questions, for fear of putting her too pointedly on the spot. What I came to find out was that she was targeted to “travel off-planet” by a man she dated. That she did not, in fact, fulfill the request to go to Mars because it felt like a dark journey with untrustworthy people.
Conspiracy theorists have a reputation for being angry and relentless . . .
Today we’re going to follow up on an older Skeptoid episode from a few years ago, the Flat Earth Theory. In that episode we looked at the history of belief in a flat Earth, which was mainly driven by 19th and 20th century Christian fundamentalism driving clumsy efforts to prove the literal truth of the Bible. That era ended when the last of the well known proponents, an elderly couple who called themselves the Covenant People’s Church, died after their house burned down in 1996, taking with it the archives of their International Flat Earth Research Society of America. And where their story ended, today’s story begins, with a new, reinvented version of the Flat Earth theory.
The Biblical literalists have moved from the center of Flat Earth belief to its fringe, and their place has been taken by believers in conspiracy theories and alternate science. 21st century Flat Earthers are less likely to recite Bible verses and more likely to oppose vaccination, to charge that 9/11 was an inside job, and to claim the government is drugging the population with chemtrails sprayed from airliners. Flat Earthing is now entwined with perpetual motion machines, with a belief that Nikola Tesla held the secrets to free energy now suppressed by the global elite, cold fusion and zero point energy, and declare that it’s all part of the grandest coverup of all: that the Earth is actually a flat disk and not a globe.
An excellent resource for tracking the popularity of ideas is Google Trends, which tells us that Internet searches for the term “Flat Earth” began a sharp increase at the beginning of 2015. The popularity of this search term is still rising, and is presently at its greatest over the course of Google’s entire tracking history. This is with the exception of January 2016 which saw a tremendous spike. By then a pair of fringy C-list celebrities had been trumpeting the Flat Earth and declaring their rejection of the Earth as a sphere loudly and proudly, though it’s never been clear whether they actually believed this or were just bucking for attention. One of these was a rapper named B.o.B, who had been among the most vocal; and to the delight of the Internet, astronomer and beloved science personality Neil deGrasse Tyson began correcting him over Twitter. Within a short time it developed into a rap battle, with Tyson’s nephew providing the rhythm. The other was celebrated salacious person Tila Tequila, for whose Twitter feed the Flat Earth tweets constituted the most intelligent and weighty content.
If the new Flat Earthers were limited to these two “celebrities” and the handful of remaining Christian Flat Earth fundamentalists, that would be one thing. But they are not. Google Trends proves that B.o.B and Tila Tequila were only riding a wave that had been building for the better part of a year. Where was it building? YouTube provides another indicator. Search YouTube for “Flat Earth” and you’ll find countless videos, mainly amateurish explainers full of gross misunderstandings and misinformation, yet many with tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of views. Most of these were posted throughout 2015 and 2016. What triggered the sudden renewal of interest?
Why can we find geometric shapes in the night sky? How can we know that at least two people in London have exactly the same number of hairs on their head? And why can patterns be found in just about any text — even Vanilla Ice lyrics? PatrickJMT describes the Ramsey theory, which states that given enough elements in a set or structure, some interesting pattern among them is guaranteed to emerge.
There are some events in history so profound and personal that they govern the courses of lives even generations later. History tells us that a tenth of the 60 million human beings killed in World War II were Jewish civilians who were murdered for no reaon other than being Jewish. Decades later, some promote an alternative view, a “revisioning” as they call it; a view that claims these people did not die, but that it is a myth created by the Jewish people themselves in order to win unearned sympathy. Today we’re going to take a look at Holocaust denial.
Let’s say an intelligent person decides to sit down at the computer and spend a few hours making an honest and thorough assessment of the evidence, to decide whether the Holocaust happened, and if it did, whether it was really as big as 6 million. I’ll tell you right now: by no means is that person necessarily more likely to conclude the Holocaust was real. For every piece of evidence one can find, thorough and well-reasoned counter arguments exist to contradict it, and are often easier to find. Complicating things further is that any given single piece of information, supporting either argument, can be fairly described as an out-of-context cherrypick. It’s dangerous to assume that the Internet provides a consensus perspective.
I quickly grew conscious of this as I was planning how to frame this episode. My initial idea was to lay out what we know, and how we know it. Pretty basic. However, I have plenty of experience with anti-Semitism, having done episodes on the Rothschild banking family, the Zionist conspiracy, and other topics sure to attract the bigots, so I’m well aware of how the comments are likely to go on this episode. If I were to merely describe the evidence, the comments would be overloaded with contradicting claims so specific and diverse that it’s virtually impossible to respond. So we will take a quick skim over some of that evidence, but my experience is that the more useful strategy in discussing this topic is to prepare the honest researcher for the broader task of being prepared for the incoming onslaught of pseudohistory, and be ready to recognize it for what it is.
In 1871, Albert Pike published a book called Morals and Dogma.
Conspiracists call this book a manifesto, a primary doctrine for Masons and, contained within its pages is absolute proof Albert Pike was a Satanist who wrote secret Satan worship into the degrees of the Scottish Rite.
Who is Albert Pike? What is his book about? What was the extent of his influence? Do Freemasons worship Satan?
Stephanie Wittschier believed in the Illuminati and chemtrails, and even tried to convert people online. But then she started to have doubts.
Stephanie Wittschier believed in a lot of different things throughout her life: that aliens were locked away in Area 51; that the Third Reich was alive and well, along with the Illuminati, and—last but not least—that ruling elites were using chemtrails to poison humanity.
The 35-year-old German was deep into the conspiracy theory scene for years before she dropped out, turning her attention to educating outsiders about the sinister truth behind Third Reich truthers and “chemmies” a.k.a people who believe the government is dumping toxic agents in plane vapor trails. Now she and her husband, Kai, run a Facebook page and Twitter account called Die lockere Schraube (“The Loose Screw”). And they’ve since incurred the wrath of their former conspiracy colleagues.
Wittschier’s journey into the world of conspiracy theories began when she watched a documentary about the alleged inconsistencies in the 9/11 attacks. “Immediately afterwards she went online and googled ‘conspiracy’ and ‘9/11,'” Kai told Broadly. Wittschier got hooked. “She started to talk about elites, the Illuminati… At a certain point it stopped being fun, as it became impossible to talk to her. She stopped listening and seemed closed off to any reasonable discussion.”
On the internet, Wittschier found people who shared her convictions. “That’s how it was,” she writes via email. “Back then, I had a friend who was into the same ideological conspiracy [stuff] and we got along pretty well. We believed in the same stuff, browsed the same forums, we used to talk about all sorts of things and most of the time we shared the same opinion.” Wittschier felt accepted among these like-minded people, who would ridicule outsiders’ attempts to re-educate them: “Those people [with different opinions] are representatives of the system or get paid; so-called sheep, people who don’t think.”
At the height of her obsession—especially when it came to chemtrails—Wittschier was part of various groups on Facebook, participated in a forum called Allmystery, and was active on YouTube. But in August 2012, her best friend in the conspiracy world started to question and oppose certain theories, and began the slow process of dissociating herself from the world she shared with Wittschier.
Psychologists are trying to determine why otherwise rational individuals can make the leap from “prudent paranoia” to illogical conspiracy theories
According to a Public Policy Polling survey, around 12 million people in the US believe that interstellar lizards in people suits rule our country. We imported that particular belief from across the pond, where professional conspiracy theorist David Icke has long maintained that the Queen of England is a blood-drinking, shape-shifting alien.
Conspiracy theories in general are not necessary bad, according to psychologists who study them. “If we were all completely trusting, it would not be good for survival,” explains Rob Brotherton, an academic psychologist and author of Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories. “Sometimes people really don’t have our best interests in mind.”
But when people leap from thinking their boss is trying to undermine them to believing their boss might be a secret lizard person, they probably cross from what psychologists refer to as “prudent paranoia” into illogical territory.
And there are a lot of illogical ideas to pick from. Around 66 million Americans believe that aliens landed at Roswell, New Mexico; around 22 million people believe that the government faked the moon landing; and around 160 million believe that there is a conspiracy surrounding the assassination of former US president John F Kennedy.
While aliens and fake moon landings probably trigger eyerolls in many of us, defining what constitutes a conspiracy theory is difficult, Brotherton says. The government, for example, does sometimes conspire to do the unspeakable, such as the infamous 1930s Tuskegee study, initiated by the US government to examine untreated syphilis in African-American men. Researchers blocked research participants from receiving penicillin or exiting the experiment to get treatment. The study continued until a media report made it public. In this case, believing that the government was conspiring to keep people sick would have been completely accurate.
There are characteristics that help differentiate a conspiracy theory from prudent paranoia, Brotherton says. Conspiracy theories tend to depend on conspirators who are unduly evil, he explains, with genocide or world domination as a motive. Conspiracy theories also tend to assign an usually high level of competency to the conspirators, Brotherton adds, pointing out that when the government really does “shady stuff” it often isn’t able to keep it secret.
Chances are, we all know someone who believes some version of a conspiracy theory, which is why psychologists have been trying to understand what makes someone jump from logically questioning the world to looking for signs of lizard teeth in public figures. Research has shown that feelings of powerlessness and uncertainty are associated with a tendency to believe in conspiracies, says Karen Douglas, professor of social psychology at the University of Kent in the UK. Or as Joseph E Uscinski, associate professor of political science at the University of Miami and author of American Conspiracy Theories, puts it, “conspiracies are for losers”.
How much truth is there to the conspiracy theories that the FBI deliberately killed the Branch Davidians?
Today we’re going to delve into the deepest, ugliest corner of urban legendry: conspiracy theories claiming that the US government deliberately attacks and kills its own citizens. In this case it’s the infamous 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian religious sect near Waco, Texas resulting in the deaths of some 75 people inside. The accepted narrative is that the Davidians, intent on apocalyptic death according to their prophecies, committed mass suicide as the federal agents entered the compound with armored vehicles; while the conspiracy theory holds that it was the federal agents who set the fires in a successful effort to murder the entire population inside. Today we’re going to examine the claim, and find out how we know what we know.
The Branch Davidian sect, originally an offshoot of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, had been on its land outside Waco for nearly 60 years when young Vernon Howell took it over in the aftermath of a 1987 armed raid. He luckily escaped conviction, changed his name to David Koresh (telling his followers that Koresh meant “death”), and assumed the role of prophet. A few years later, a confrontation with federal authorities led to a six week siege that ended with the complete destruction by fire of the compound as tanks rolled in with tear gas, killing Koresh and 75 other Branch Davidians inside.
The conspiracy theories came thick and fast. The most prominent were popularized by a pair of independent filmmakers, Linda Thompson (who was a full-throttle conspiracy theorist best known for her film Waco: The Big Lie) and Mike McNulty (who was more measured, and received an Academy Award nomination for Waco: The Rules of Engagement). We’ll take a look at the two most commonly repeated claims:
Claims that the Moon landing was faked or that lizard people are taking over the world might seem harmless and even humorous, but philosopher Patrick Stokes argues that every conspiracy theory comes with a moral cost.
Earlier this year, the world marked the 30th anniversary of the Challenger space shuttle disaster and the loss of all seven crew. With the public captivated by the story of Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher in space, some 17 per cent of the entire American population watched in horror as Challenger exploded live on television.
Except it didn’t really happen. The tragedy was faked. At least six of the astronauts are alive and well and hiding in plain sight. Why, they’re even still using their real names, or variations thereof. Sharon Christa McAuliffe is now Sharon A. McAuliffe, an adjunct professor of law at Syracuse University. The public has been duped by a massive conspiracy for three decades, one finally exposed thanks to intrepid amateur sleuths scouring the internet for clues.
These claims are, needless to say, utter hogwash; the evidence offered is not merely flimsy, but laughable. (At least two of the people alleged to be Challenger survivors are actually siblings of Challenger crewmembers). And what sort of conspirators would fake their own deaths in front of millions of viewers but then keep their real names?
Even so, it’s yet another illustration of the pervasiveness of conspiracy theory as a social practice—and the widespread desire to believe in them. If you think this all sounds like some fringe belief that nobody could buy into, consider this: for this theory to hold, NASA would have had to somehow keep a conspiracy involving thousands of people secret for three decades. Yet upwards of 6 per cent of Americans believe that NASA pulled off the far greater feat of faking the moon landings.
Individuals who hold strong beliefs in conspiracies often also score high in narcissism and low in self-esteem, according to 2015 research.
The series of studies, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, examined individuals to determine whether self-evaluation plays a role in predicting conspiracy beliefs.
“Previous research linked the endorsement of conspiracy theories to low self-esteem,” said Aleksandra Cichocka, principal investigator and corresponding author of the study.
“We propose that conspiracy theories should rather be appealing to individuals with exaggerated feelings of self-love, such as narcissists, due to their paranoid tendencies,” she continued.
In the first study, 202 participants completed a conspiracy beliefs questionnaire, a self-esteem scale, and an individual narcissism questionnaire. In the conspiracy beliefs questionnaire, participants rated the extent to which they agree with such statements as “A small, secret group of people is responsible for making all major world decisions, such as going to war” and “The American government permits or perpetrates acts of terrorism on its own soil, disguising its involvement.”
Scientists found that among participants, high individual narcissism and low self-esteem significantly predicted conspiracy beliefs.
In the second study, scientists sought to rule out the possibility that collective narcissism contributed to the results of the previous study.
“Because conspiracy theories often refer to malevolent actions of groups, we wanted to distinguish whether it is a narcissistic image of the self or the group that predicts the endorsement of conspiracy theories,” said Cichocka.
“For example . . .