Debunked: The Truth Behind Popular Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracy theories abound in the information era – or so it may seem. The digital age has ushered in an age where false information and hoaxes spread faster than ever. As a result, combating the flow of misinformation can seem like an impossible task. 

Nevertheless, an interesting 2017 paper examining the history of conspiracy theories reveals that this has always been the case. Humanity has created narratives to explain the unexplainable for all of written history. 

A quick Google search can turn up hundreds of theories around confounding occurrences and their purported explanations. In this article, we expose three such theories that have been disproven.

What Are Conspiracy Theories?

In their 2017 research, psychology professors Jan-Willem van Prooijen and Karen M Douglas propose that conspiracy theories are a response to societal crisis situations. They say this reaction takes the form of “explanatory beliefs of how multiple actors meet in a secret agreement to achieve a hidden goal that is widely considered to be unlawful or malevolent.” 

While this may seem like a modern invention, van Pooijen and Douglas point to the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD as a historical conspiracy theory example. The ten-day fire, which destroyed 70% of the city, was widely blamed on Emperor Nero. 

Various narratives emerged regarding his alleged intentions, one being that Nero ordered the fire’s ignition and watched from a nearby hilltop. Another claims the fire was intentionally set to make way for a new palace. Yet another speculates that Nero burned Rome to rebuild it according to his own plans.

Modern conspiracy theories, although frequently debunked, often continue to spread, partially fueled by the few that are true. These include the MKUltra experiments and the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, which are both examples of the US government performing secret and illegal experimentation on citizens.

1. Chemtrails

“Chemtrails refers to the theory that governments or other parties are engaged in a secret program to add toxic chemicals to the atmosphere from aircraft in a way that forms visible plumes in the sky, somewhat similar to contrails,” says David Keith’s Research Group at Harvard. 

Contrails, a portmanteau of “condensation” and “trails,” are a phenomenon caused by the heated exhaust of jet planes coming in contact with frigid air at high altitudes. The water vapor and carbon dioxide in the exhaust freeze instantly, creating long plume-shaped clouds. 

Theorists believe that long-lasting contrails are actually “chemtrails,” but contrail dissipation is linked to how humid the atmosphere is when the trail is formed. The wetter the air, the longer it takes a contrail to evaporate.  

Believers in the chemtrails conspiracy offer various reasons why the government would spray toxic chemicals among citizens, including sterilization for population control, mind control, and weather control.  

The theory began with a 1996 United States Air Force report on weather manipulation and was popularized on the paranormal entertainment program Coast to Coast AM by its host, Art Bell.

Various government agencies, including the USAF, NASA, and the EPA, have addressed the theory over the years. In 2015, the EPA once again released a fact sheet about contrails in an effort to debunk the theory once and for all.  

While generally associated these days with “crazy conspiracy theorists” in news coverage, a 2019 survey by Statista found that 11% of the population “somewhat believe” in chemtrails, while 8% “strongly believe” the theory. 

2. New World Order (NWO)

In the early 20th century, politicians like Woodrow Wilson and Winston Churchill began using the phrase “new world order” to describe their efforts to create a democratic global governance body. This vision materialized through initiatives such as the League of Nations in 1920 and the formation of the United Nations in 1945. 

During the Second Red Scare, a period of fear that leftist ideology was on the rise, the term was hijacked by American conservatives. It was used to accuse a wide range of groups, including Jews, communists, the Illuminati, and Freemasons, of being part of a secretive “global elite”. Their alleged aim was to control the world and establish a world government that would oppress the masses. 

NWO conspiracy theories recur frequently, with Jewish people often painted by apocalyptic Christian conservatives as evil elites that secretly rule the world. Conspiracy theories about those of Jewish descent are very old, dating back to the medieval era, notably with the Blood Libel myth. This was an unfounded belief that accused Jews of killing Christians and drinking their blood in secret rituals. 

Modern antisemitic conspiracy theories can be traced back to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a text first published in Russia in 1903. The fabricated document purports to be the minutes of a meeting between the leaders of an international Jewish-Masonic cabal that sought world domination. The Protocol’s writings were a major influence behind the Holocaust and have most recently been used by Hamas to justify terrorism against Israelis. 

Michael Barkun, professor emeritus of political science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, argues in his 2003 book, A Culture of Conspiracy, that NWO conspiracists use “furtive fallacy. He describes this as an informal, logical fallacy that causes a conspiracy theorist to see hidden meaning and malice behind major historical events. 

3. Vaccines Cause Autism

Today, the anti-vaccination movement encompasses a spectrum of beliefs, from those who believe that vaccines contain microchips to those who argue that vaccines are more dangerous than the diseases they prevent. 

However, the origins of the movement can be traced back to a fraudulent 1998 paper published in The Lancet by Andrew Wakefield. In the paper, Wakefield claimed to have found a causal link between the three-part measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine (MMR) and autism. 

The paper was widely reported by the media and triggered multiple international news cycles, but researchers quickly began finding problems with its supposed conclusions. Studies were undertaken by multiple governmental organizations, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the UK National Health Service. All of these ultimately revealed that there was no link between autism and the MMR vaccine. 

In 2004, journalist Brian Deer published an article exposing Wakefield as a fraud. Wakefield had performed the study upon which the paper relied, and he did so without ethical oversight. He secured funding for his research through Richard Barr, a lawyer trying to file a class-action lawsuit for supposed victims of the 1994 British Health revaccination campaign. This campaign aimed to vaccinate 92% of British children in response to a severe measles outbreak. 

However, problematically, for Barr, there were no victims. The funding agency, the UK Legal Services Commission, closed the case in 2003, citing overwhelming evidence that the vaccines were safe. 

In February 2010, The Lancet formally retracted the paper as “wholly false” and claimed they had been deceived.

In 2011, Deer reported that Wakefield had planned to sell a new diagnostic kit for a condition he termed “autistic enterocolitis.” This diagnosis, invented by Wakefield, was claimed to affect children with autism and was actually the primary focus of the 1998 article despite being overshadowed by the vaccination claims.

At one point, Wakefield claimed he could potentially earn up to $43 million a year selling diagnostics for this syndrome. However, the subsequent follow-up testing consistently failed to confirm the existence of this condition.


This article was produced by TPR Teaching.

Caitriona Maria is an education writer and founder of TPR Teaching, crafting inspiring pieces that promote the importance of developing new skills. For 7 years, she has been committed to providing students with the best learning opportunities possible, both domestically and abroad. Dedicated to unlocking students' potential, Caitriona has taught English in several countries and continues to explore new cultures through her travels.

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