From how long a “hoax” like the Apollo 11 moon landing could actually stay a secret to the conspiracy theory involved Queen Elizabeth I, check out some fascinating facts about conspiracy theories, adapted from an episode of The List Show on YouTube.
In 2002, a man who believed in the conspiracy theory that the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing was faked by the government confronted astronaut Buzz Aldrin about it. As Aldrin walked outside a hotel in Beverly Hills, the man thrust a Bible at him and demanded that the septuagenarian spaceman swear on it that he had, in fact, gone to the moon.
Having risked his life and sacrificed much to achieve his mission, Aldrin was understandably annoyed. He handled it pretty well until the stranger called him a coward, a liar, and a thief. At that point, the then-72-year-old Aldrin socked his sidewalk interrogator in the face. The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office declined to press charges against Aldrin.
Speaking of the Apollo 11 moon landing “hoax”: To keep a secret of that magnitude would have been pretty difficult—even more difficult than you probably imagine. Physicist and cancer biologist David Robert Grimes published a mathematical equation that estimates how many people it would take to keep a conspiracy secret, and how long it would take before that conspiracy was exposed to the public. The formula takes into account the number of conspirators, how much time has passed, and the probability of a whistle-blower. He used three real-life conspiracies to hone his results: the Edward Snowden NSA scandal, the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, and an FBI forensics scandal that ultimately revealed pseudoscientific evidence being used to detain a large number of innocent people.
Using his formula, if the moon landing had been a hoax, it would have required 411,000 people to keep quiet—and by his math, someone would have spilled the beans in less than four years.
While there’s no universally accepted definition of what a conspiracy theory is, a good guideline is that a conspiracy—and thus a conspiracy theory—involves a group of people doing secretive things that infringe on the rights of others or put them at a disadvantage.
Even Queen Elizabeth I was dogged by a conspiracy theory: that she was actually a man. Nicknamed “The Virgin Queen,” Elizabeth rejected every marriage proposal that came her way. Though there are many, many reasons she might have avoided marriage, her staunch refusal made tongues wag, even centuries later. One explanation that was offered up was that she was a man the whole time. Dracula author Bram Stoker became a prominent believer of this theory after visiting the village of Bisley in England, where—according to local lore, anyway—Elizabeth I had died while visiting as a child.
As we know, Elizabeth’s father, King Henry VIII, loved to behead people—one estimate says more than 70,000 people lost their heads during his reign (although the real number is more likely measured in the hundreds). According to the legend, rather than face the king’s wrath and possibly lose her noggin, Elizabeth’s governess found a little boy who looked a lot like the future queen, dressed him as a girl, and had him stand in for Elizabeth. Not only did this supposedly explain the never-married thing, it was also supposed to explain why Elizabeth preferred wigs and caked-on makeup. The real reason for Elizabeth’s heavy-handed beauty routine? She was reportedly trying to cover smallpox-scarred skin and thinning hair.
If you think people who believe in conspiracy theories are in the minority, you’re wrong—at least, according to one study. In 2014, political scientists J. Eric Oliver and Thomas Wood announced that about half of the American public supports at least one conspiracy theory. Their findings were based on national surveys conducted over a number of years. Rather than viewing conspiracy theorists as paranoid loners, Oliver said, “We think of conspiracy theories as simply another form of magical thinking.” According to their research, people who engage in other types of magical thinking—for example, the paranormal or the supernatural—are more likely to believe in conspiracies.
According to John Cook, an expert on misinformation with George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication, a calamitous event makes for a “very fertile breeding ground for conspiracy theories.” He explains that when people feel threatened or they can’t fully comprehend a significant event, conspiracy theories can somehow help them make sense of it. Take, for example, the JFK assassination. When the world seemed scary and out of control, it was easier to imagine that “shadowy groups and agencies” were controlling things behind the scenes. Cook explained that, “Randomness is very discomforting to people.”
Part of our propensity to believe in conspiracy theories could be based in a social psychology bias that fits right in with our dislike of random events. Fundamental Attribution Error is the tendency to believe that the actions of others are intentional as opposed to simply being the product of external circumstances. Hence, when things happen that are random or unplanned, we may have the urge to find an intentional reason behind them. This could theoretically help lead to the invention of conspiracy theories.
According to a 2010 study, it’s almost impossible to sway someone’s opinion after they believe in a conspiracy theory. As part of the research, test subjects were given corrections after reading misleading claims. Reading the corrections was not only ineffective, it actually increased their belief in the misleading claims, especially if they had believed it strongly to begin with. Psychologist Leon Festinger wrote about a kind of precursor to the so-called “backfire effect” in the 1956 book When Prophecy Fails, which monitored the beliefs of a UFO cult after the mothership failed to show up on the predicted date. Instead of admitting that they had been mistaken, members made more predictions, convinced that one of them would come to fruition.
Another study, however, reports that facts do help. In a study published in 2018, researchers studied how more than 10,000 participants reacted to 52 different claims and corrections. That in-depth study showed no backfire effect at all; in fact, it concluded just the opposite: People heed factual information, and fact-checking and pointing out logical inconsistencies does have the potential to reduce the belief in conspiracy theories.
It may seem like there’s a conspiracy for everything, but we’re no more paranoid today than we were 130 years ago. To prove this, researchers combed through The New York Times and Chicago Tribune to read more than 100,000 letters to the editor from 1890 to 2010. The Washington Post reported that the study revealed “a stable background hum of conspiracy theorizing, not an ever-increasing cacophony.” Of course, this doesn’t discount the possibility that things have changed within the last 10 years, but the data we do have suggests that we’re holding pretty steady. The internet may make researching and reading about conspiracies more readily available, but we believe them and create them at a pretty consistent rate.
In fact, here’s a conspiracy theory that would have been right at home in the late 1800s: Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, was Jack the Ripper. Carroll, whose real name was Charles Dodgson, famously loved wordplay such as anagrams. In 1996, Lewis scholar Richard Wallace wrote a book about his theory that Dodgson had committed the murders, then confessed to them in anagram form in a children’s book called The Nursery Alice. In one passage from the book, a paragraph about a dog’s dinner that added little to the story, Wallace was able to rearrange the letters into a rather graphic confession from Dodgson and his purported accomplice, Thomas Bayne. Other pieces of the puzzle seemed to fit, including the geographic location of his home and the fact that his home library contained more than 120 books on medicine and anatomy. Nothing has ever been proven, of course, and there’s virtually no real evidence, but there’s still a subsection of conspiracy theorists out there who believe that Jack the Ripper wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
You might accuse a conspiracy theorist of wearing a tinfoil hat. If so, you may want to thank Brave New World author Aldous Huxley’s brother, Julian, who popularized the idea in his 1926 short story, The Tissue-Culture King. In it, Huxley’s characters discover that metal is effective at blocking attempts at telepathy and craft “caps of metal foil” for themselves.
The scientific reasoning behind the supposed effectiveness of tinfoil hats is that the foil acts as a Faraday cage, shielding the wearer from any electromagnetic radiation. Theoretically, this would prevent evil-doers from reading your thoughts. To really work, though, a Faraday cage has to completely enclose the thing it’s supposed to shield—and tinfoil hats don’t do that. In 2005, MIT grad students conducted a study to see if partially wrapping one’s head in foil was at all effective, crafting helmets in three different shapes to test the idea. Then they looked at the strength of transmissions between a radio-frequency signal generator and receiver antenna placed at different spots around test subjects’ heads, both with and without the helmet. They found that the metal actually improved certain frequencies, including those allocated for mobile communications, broadcast satellites, aeronautical radionavigation, and space-to-Earth and space-to-space bands. In other words, exactly the frequencies that most conspiracy theorists would be trying to protect themselves against.
The researchers released this tongue-in-cheek statement with their findings, likely teasing the paranoid audience they had been studying: “The government may in fact have started the helmet craze for this reason.”
Series creator Chris Carter says he got the idea for The X-Files after reading a scientific survey by Harvard psychiatrist John Mack—the results showed that 10 percent of Americans believed in extraterrestrials, even up to the point of being contacted by them. In 2019, a Gallup poll showed that 68 percent of Americans believe that the government knows more about UFOs than it’s letting on. However, only something like half of those skeptics think that the cover-up involves an actual alien landing of some sort.
The FBI has officially announced that they don’t actually keep any “X-files” to investigate supernatural events. “We do have some files on some unusual phenomena,” their website states. “But generally only because people reported something and we made a note of it.”
When the whole Roswell incident went down in 1947, the Army Air Forces was pretty quick to announce that what had been found wasn’t a UFO at all, but simply a weather balloon. Sound like a flimsy excuse? A lot of other people thought so, too. As it turns out, that’s one conspiracy theory that has since been confirmed: What crashed in the desert wasn’t a weather balloon. But hold your horses, E.T. fans—it wasn’t a UFO, either. Today, we think it was probably a balloon from Project Mogul, an American attempt to spy on Soviet nuclear weapons development during the Cold War. In the early ‘90s, documentation revealed that one of the balloons from Project Mogul was never officially recovered, and the New Mexico launch point makes it entirely plausible that it ended up somewhere in the desert near Roswell. Here are a few other conspiracy theories that turned out to be true.
The term conspiracy theorists tends to be used in a derogatory way pretty consistently. Some people believe that’s on purpose—that the CIA invented the term to downplay and discredit people who believed in the numerous stories circulating after JFK’s assassination. It sounds plausible, but in reality, we have print evidence that the term has been around since at least 1870, and began to be used more regularly during the 1950s.
History tells us that John Wilkes Booth went on the lam after killing Lincoln, but died after being shot in the neck 12 days later. But some people believe that Booth managed to escape to Texas, where he changed his name to John St. Helen and lived almost four more decades before dying in 1903. This theory was first floated in a 1907 book called The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth. In it, author Finis L. Bates said St. Helen confessed to him around the 1870s, claiming that the assassination was largely the idea of Vice President Andrew Johnson who was just picking up some things for a hiding Booth. Bates—who was Kathy Bates’s grandfather, by the way—claimed to have also learned that Booth, now going by another alias, confessed to the crime again in 1902. Several months later, he died by suicide. Bizarrely, the embalmed body ended up becoming mummified and was exhibited at carnivals around the U.S. well into the 1950s. The macabre exhibit has since disappeared, so we may never know the truth. Booth’s descendants have requested that the body in Booth’s grave be exhumed and tested, but so far, they’ve been denied.