Thursday, January 12, 2012

Conspiracies Are Mostly Nonsense

One of my university students is the contrary type and an easy target for conspiracy theories.   His latest involves the Moon and claims that no one actually landed there.  According to him, this country spent billions of dollars to fake the various trips there and the initial 1969 landing.

He points to the fact no stars appear in the lunar images taken from the Moon.  After all, we can see there are billions of stars.  Guess what?  As any photographer knows, when something is really bright, like a spacesuit, dimmer objects – like distant stars – faded into obscurity.  We just don’t have film that can simultaneously handle something very bright and something else very dim.

How about the ripples seen in the flag when there are no breezes on the Moon?  That one’s easy, too.  The astronauts had to rotate the flagpole to insert into the soil, creating ripples from the stored angular momentum.

On top of that, thousands of people were involved in the flights.  Moon rocks were brought back and studied extensively by scientists worldwide.  Astronauts who went there are still available.  No one has claimed the trips were faked.  That’s impossible if they weren’t real.  Conspiracies with more than two people invariably fail because someone reveals what has really happened.  That’s human nature.

Even the plane-hijacking scheme that ended in 9/11 -- planned by a small band of closely knit conspirators in far away Pakistan or Afghanistan -- was known by the FBI before the terrorists struck.  The warning just got overlooked in the steady stream of anti-American threats that continue to flow.

There are plenty of other conspiracies anyway.  Who shot President John Kennedy?  What about a second shooter hiding behind the grassy knoll?  Conspiracy buffs have been chewing over this idea since 1963, a process enhanced by disagreement with the government’s official Warren Report on the shooting that placed sole blame for the assassination on Lee Harvey Oswald.

I just read a book that claimed a Secret Service agent seated behind the First Family actually killed Kennedy when responding to Oswald’s shot and that his own gun went off accidentally.  That’s just one of many conspiracy theories.  In a widely studied book, prominent criminal attorney Frank Ragano claimed that a former Mafia leader on his deathbed confessed to arranging for the assassination.

Was James Earl Ray a lone assassin who shot Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 or was he only a link in a yet-unidentified network of sinister schemers?  Were American troops sent to Afghanistan in part to revive the poppy crop suppressed by Taliban leaders?  I saw an extensive program claiming the CIA is funding its operations by selling heroin derived from those flowers.  No, it’s not.

Why stop there?  What’s in Area 51, the secretive portion of Edwards Air Force Base in Nevada?  Aliens?  What crashed in Roswell, New Mexico back in the 1940s?  Is the U.S. covering up alien landings?  No, there have been no alien landings.  Misguided military experiments are far more likely given the vast distances in space.

Conspiracies have no time limits either.  There are still scholarly debates about who really was behind the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865.  Lincoln’s son, Robert, burned records, supposedly muttering that there were things in them people shouldn’t know.  His efforts launched a thousand tales about then-Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and others who may have conspired to kill the president. Actually, based on the records of what was burned, the younger Lincoln destroyed only his own personal files – old checks and the like.

What remained of his father’s papers was actually incinerated during the 1871 Chicago Fire.

Squashing conspiracy theories raises a question:  Why do people continue to believe such nonsense?

The answer is simple:  The facts are not convincing, alternative facts seem plausible and/or some people deliberately distort the facts.  That’s the entire recipe for the idea of a conspiracy to flourish.

For example, in the distorted facts category, Arabs, not wanting to be saddled with 9/11, blamed Jews, insisting Jewish employees in the World Trade Center had been warned about the bombing and gotten out.  Not true.  The percentage of Jewish deaths in that tragedy matched the percentage of the population.  Holocaust deniers, too, invariably are pushing their own contrary theories – a great way to get a lot of money at the expense of ethics -- or simply dislike Jewish people.

Facts are skimpy on early cultures.  Time and environment have seen to that.  So, some people are convinced that ETs created the pyramids, even started life on this planet.  They need proof, of course, and will go to any means to “prove” their point. Erich von Däniken’s 1968 book, The Chariot of the Gods, which made up information to support an argument for alien visits, gave a boost to such claims and has helped sustain the belief in a conspiracy to erase the “truth.”  

Actually, there’s plenty of evidence of how the Egyptian culture developed to the point of being able to erect a pyramid without other-worldly influences.   

The same is true with conspiracies related to the origins of Christianity.  There are multiple conflicting facts, so The DaVinci Code, with its secret organization, somehow seems possible.  Could Jesus have survived, married Mary Magdelene and fathered a line that had to be protected, thereby engendering much of European history?  No, not a chance, except in a novel.  The Priory of Sion – the centerpiece of author Dan Brown’s conspiracy -- never existed; it was invented in a separate 1960s book.  Besides, if Jesus had children, then he could no longer be God, making his protection unnecessary.

However, the failure of historical research to collaborate Christian historic claims has created an opening for conspiracy theorists.  That’s equally true for the deaths of Lincoln and Kennedy. Since it’s impossible to answer all concerns, there’s always space for an alternative explanation that is surely being “covered up” to prevent the “truth” from emerging.

Nor does logic and supported evidence make any difference.  My student is not convinced anyone landed on the moon no matter that his concerns have been factually and fully answered.  He has lots of company in the shadowy world of conspiracies. Some of our political candidates are convinced that gays can be changed – but prevented by a scientific conspiracy to hide the truth; that socialists are trying to take over government – based on disagreements over policy decisions not on any factual evidence that either people are actually trying or that socialism, in moderation, is a bad idea; and many more. 

They shout their claims, and, voila, a conspiracy is born that ensnares people like my student.

Are there conspiracies?  Sure.  Do they succeed?  Maybe once in a Blue Moon.

Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  Many of his essays are posted at

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