2017: An Unlikely World


History of Conspiracy

Introductory Questions

    • Why do people choose to believe in unlikely things, even in defiance of established fact?
    • Why do people sometimes refuse to believe in likely things, even when confronted with significant evidence?
    • When is it acceptable for a government to hide facts from the public?
    • Do we have a moral responsibility to expose conspiracies?
    • Have you ever questioned something you felt didn’t quite make sense?

The Theory of Conspiracy Theory

    • Explore the work of theorists in the field—how do they categorize different kinds of conspiracies?
    • Example theorists to research: Michael Barkun | Jesse Walker | Rob Brotherton | Frank Mintz
    • Investigate the psychology of conspiracy believers—do believers in conspiracy theories tend to share certain traits?
    • Are conspiracy theories a relatively new phenomenon, or have they been around for a long time?
    • What is the difference between conspiracy and collaboration? How about between a conspiracy and a misconception? Does there need to be intent to deceive for something to be a conspiracy?

By Any Means Necessary | Confirmed Historical Conspiracies

    • Death of Julius Caesar | Assassination of Abraham Lincoln
    • The Chemist’s War | July Plot | Rawalpindi Conspiracy
    • Gunpowder Plot | Newburgh Conspiracy | Magnate Conspiracy
    • Watergate | Russian “doping scandal”

Challenging the Narrative | Conspiracies Against History

    • The “Faked” Moon Landing | Ghost Cosmonauts of Sputnik 4
    • Pearl Harbor | Sydney Hilton Bombing | 9/11

The Lie at the End of the Tunnel | Conspiracies Around Life and Death

    • Deaths: JFK | Princess Diana | Subhas Chandra Bose | Paul McCartney
    • Deaths?: Adolf Hitler | Elvis Presley | Tupac | Kurt Cobain

Of Profit and Privateers | Conspiracies for Profit

    • Streetcar conspiracy | Hemp conspiracy | Sugar conspiracy
    • Lysine price-fixing conspiracy | Apple e-book pricing

Chasing the Absurd | Conspiracies Against Reason

    • Illuminati | Black Helicopters | Lizard People
    • Aliens in the Ancient World | Global Warming “Hoax”
    • Area 51 | Origins of HIV/AIDS | The Montauk Project
    • New World Order | “Pizzagate” | Pokemon Go | Zika Immunity

Additional Terms to Research (examples)

    • conspiracism | bias confirmation | falsifiability | pseudohistory
    • truthiness | post-truth | false flag | mainstreaming
    • attitude perseverance | illusory correlation | selective exposure
    • schema theory | apophenia | pareidolia | gaslighting

Select Guided Cases (Explore Others in Similar Ways)

    • Consider the Moai statues of Rapa Nui—a seemingly unlikely achievement by a seemingly unlikely civilization. Do we know with certainty how they came to be, or what happened to the people who created them? Are there works elsewhere that have inspired similar historical controversy?
    • Look into the alleged UFO crash in Roswell in 1947 and at the many conspiracy theories it inspired. Also investigate "Area 51" and other alleged cover-ups of extraterrestrials among us. Discuss with your team: do you think there is any truth to them? Does the government have a responsibility to release all information related to UFO "sightings" to the public?
    • Have any of you played Pokemon Go in China? If so, you might be helping enemies of China (including the governments of Japan and the United States) locate Chinese military bases - at least, according to one widespread conspiracy theory last summer. Discuss as a team: does this theory seem plausible? Who, if anyone, is responsible for responding to theories like this one? What do you think motivates them in the first place?
    • Consider the Internet conspiracy theory - seemingly originating, not unlike a virus, from a single tweet - that Americans were somehow immune from Zika. What can we learn from the existence and widespread propagation of such a theory?
    • That humans never actually landed on the moon is only the most famous conspiracy theory related to the space race. Consider this claim—popularized by a science fiction writer—that the first person in space was sent out there to die. Then discuss as a team: why would it have been considered such a disgrace for the Soviet Union to launch such a mission? Would it have made a difference if the cosmonaut in question had chosen to make the sacrifice.
    • Some historians have argued that the thriving streetcar networks in early 20th century American cities met their demise at the hands of a conspiracy—one led by a company, General Motors, with a vested interest in selling buses and private cars. Read the attached article, then discuss as a team: who was really to blame for the death of the American streetcar, and could it have been saved? Is this story an example of people wanting simple explanations for complex events? And have there been any similar developments in the history of public transportation in your own cities and countries?
    • Some philosophers and scientists sincerely believe that we are all very likely to be living inside a vast computer simulation. Discuss with your team: why is this arguably outlandish theory generally *not* seen as a conspiracy theory?

Questions for Further Discussion

    • From Pearl Harbor to the bombing of the Sydney Hilton in 1978, conspiracy theories have suggested that governments have allowed (or even perpetrated) attacks on their own soil to benefit their political agendas. Research these and similar examples, then discuss as a team: what do you think motivates such seemingly extreme theories? Would, in fact, a government ever be justified in allowing an attack to take place?
    • Many people conflate conspiracy theories and allegations of covert operations by intelligence agencies such as the CIA and MI6—for instance, the confirmed John Wilkes Booth-led conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln versus also-confirmed CIA involvement in the military coup that overthrew Chilean president Salvador Allende. Is there a meaningful difference between these two categories of activities? If so, what is the line between a conspiracy and a secret government operation?
    • If a tendency to believe in unfounded conspiracy theories is in part the result of underlying psychiatric conditions (such as a tendency toward paranoia), should particularly devoted conspiracy theorists be offered medical treatment?
    • Should people who propagate conspiracy theories knowing they are false be subject to criminal prosecution or some other kind of punishment?
    • Whenever two or more companies agree to fix prices in a market, or to engage in other non-competitive behavior, are they conspiring against the public interest? In other words, are all economic cartels examples of conspiracies?
    • Should terrorist groups and other dissident movements consider using conspiracy theories as a way to undermine faith in economic and governmental institutions?
    • Not all conspiracy theories are tremendous in scale. What are some examples of smaller conspiracies (confirmed or theorized) you have come across in your own school or community?