Conspiracy theories come in many varieties, but most have this in common: they tell a story about how a group of powerful people have gotten together to conceal the truth about an event (say, 9/11, Obama's birth) or a process (say, how they plan to enslave humanity), or both; they make sense of the world, or seem to. Millions of people – dumb or smart, but rarely crazy – believe in them. Modernity was supposed to kill off conspiracy theories, but they're sturdier and more virulent than ever (thank you, Internet). Here, a look at some of the most popular fantasies of recent times.
1. 9/11 was an "inside job"
Some 9/11 conspiracy theorists believe the U.S. government had advance warning of the attacks but didn't do enough to stop them; others, that the Bush administration let them happen so it would have it wanted a pretext to wage war in the Middle East and thus dominate the region. At the extreme end of the spectrum, 9/11 Truthers claim that an airliner didn't hit the Pentagon and the Twin Towers couldn't have been knocked down by planes alone, but were destroyed deliberately via "controlled demolition." Many believe that on September 11, 2001 the U.S. "Air Force was deliberately stood down or sent on exercises to prevent intervention.
2. JFK was assassinated by ...
The assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963 has spawned no end of conspiracy theories. Most conspiracists believe Lee Harvey Oswald did not shoot Kennedy; others, that he did, but had help, be it from the Mafia, the FBI, or the KGB. The Zapruder film supports the idea that at least four shots were fired, not the three claimed by the official Warren Commission investigation, and that at least one of the shots came from a different direction to those fired by Oswald. In 1979, a congressional committee found fault with both the original FBI investigation and the Warren report, and concluded that there were at least four shots fired and that a conspiracy probably existed. Later investigations in turn cast doubt in turn on that one.
3. Doctors concocted the AIDS virus
Among the numerous AIDS-related conspiracy theories are one that claims the virus was created by the U.S. government as a biological weapon to control the population of the urban underclass; another that it was accidentally created by a scientist who was working on a polio vaccine; and another that HIV was was genetically engineered by the World Health Organization and then unleashed upon Africa.
4. Aliens crashed in New Mexico
Something did crash close to the Roswell Army Air Field in New Mexico in July 1947, and the Army stated explicitly they had recovered a "flying disc" from a nearby ranch. Numerous witnesses reported seeing metallic debris scattered over a wide area, and at least one reported seeing a blazing craft crossing the sky shortly before it crashed. Very quickly the military changed its story, producing evidence that the crashed disc was actually a weather balloon; but some smelled a cover-up. In 1989, a former mortician, Glenn Dennis, came forward and announced that alien autopsies had been conducted at the Roswell Army base.
5. The moon landing was staged
Conspiracy theorists believe that NASA faked some or all of the Apollo moon landings (1969-72) and that astronauts did not walk on the moon. Pointing to inconsistent shadows, strange marks, and the absence of stars, they say film and photographs supposedly documenting the missions were shot on stage sets. Why the elaborate deception? To conceal America's technological inferiority from the Soviets, to secure continued NASA funding, or to distract the nation from Vietnam.
6. FEMA has death camps at the ready
A lively community of conspiracists believe that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has set up around 600 concentration camps all around the country to be used against U.S. citizens when the government, on some pretext such as, say, the financial crisis, declares martial law.
7. The government is spraying us with chemicals
The white trails you see up in the sky behind planes? They're chemicals and biological agents, say "Chemtrails" conspiracy theorists, and they're being deliberately sprayed at the direction of shadowy forces within the government for purposes of population control, weather control, or biowarfare. The white streaks are in fact condensation trails (contrails), ice crystals or water vapor condensed a result of normal emissions from the aircraft engines' exhaust.
8. Global warming is a hoax
A subset of climate change deniers think global warming is a conspiracy designed to justify to higher taxes, more intrusive government regulations, and tyranny generally. They often point to the fact that global temperatures haven't risen every single year in recent times (which is true; but the overall trend is unmistakably upward). Climate change conspiracists in the developing world see global warming as a Western plot designed to keep them down; in the West, some think it's a developing-world plan to weaken industrial countries.
9. A shadowy elite is plotting world domination (New World Order, One-World Government)
Like most conspiracy theories, this one comes in many varieties, but the basic idea is that a secretive power elite – comprising Wall Street bankers, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Bilderberg Group, and the Trilateral Commission – is conspiring to eventually rule the world through a tyrannical one-world government.
10. Government fluoridates the water supply to make us sick and/or docile
Fluoride is commonly added to the water supply as a dental health measure. During the Cold War, right- wing conspiracists said fluoridation was the first step in a communist plot to control the American people, by first making them sick and weak. Later conspiracists claimed the practice was engineered for the benefit of Big Pharma, which stands to do a brisk trade in drugs to an ailing population.
Other assorted conspiracy theories
• Elivs lives (he faked his 1977 death)
• "Peak oil" is a fraud concocted by oil companies to inflate energy prices
• Princess Diana was murdered
• Paul McCartney died long ago and was replaced by a look-and-sound-alike
• Jesus married Mary Magdalene and their children or their descendents settled in Southern France (cf. The Da Vinci Code)
• Jews control the world, or have a plan to (see The Protocols of the Elders of Zion); often overlaps with New World Order theory
• Shakespeare (the Bard of Stratford-Upon-Avon) didn't write "Shakespeare"'s plays; somebody else did, possibly a woman
• U.S. scientists rendered a Navy destroyer invisible and sent it hurtling through time and space, in an experiment gone awry (The Philadelphia Experiment)
• The Holocaust never happened