I want to answer a question that I’m asked over and over again: are there any conspiracy theories that turned out to be true?
That is, are there any popularly held beliefs that a group of powerful people secretly worked together to do something harmful, that were later proven with compelling evidence to be real?
It’s a given in the conspiracy theory community that history, particularly recent history, is full of conspiracy theories that were proven right or came true.
Indeed, a simple search on Google reveals page after page of listicles proclaiming all of the “insane conspiracy theories that were real” or “government conspiracy theories that turned out to be true.” I’ve even written a few, trying to find the sweet spot between things that we know happened, and things we think happened.
You tend to see the same ones over and over again on these lists, almost always taking world events and trying to find the worst possible interpretation for them.
The Government conspired to use the Gulf of Tonkin Incident to start the Vietnam War! The government poisoned alcohol during Prohibition! The CIA tested LSD and mind control techniques on ordinary Americans, while it was running drugs and assassinating JFK and MLK with a heart attack gun! Northwoods! Mockingbird! AHHH!
It’s true that many of these represent the worst, darkest impulses of our government.
But almost every single item on every single one of these lists makes a couple of fundamental mistakes that mostly invalidates them.
One: they don’t understand the difference between a conspiracy and a conspiracy theory.
Two: they don’t understand the difference between a government conspiracy theory, and a horrible thing the government did that we only found out about after the fact.
First, let’s establish very clearly that conspiracies are real. A conspiracy is simply a secret plan by a group to do something unlawful or harmful. And there are countless real conspiracies.
Roman lawmakers conspired to murder Julius Caesar. Confederate sympathizers conspired to kill Abraham Lincoln and behead the federal government. The Nazis conspired to wipe out European Jews. Cigarette companies conspired to hide the ill effects of their product.
All real, not theories.
A theory, at least in the non-scientific sense, is a hypothesis assumed for the sake of argument or investigation.
A conspiracy theory, then, is a hypothesized conspiracy. One which is believed, but not known, to exist.
These include 9/11 being an inside job, the moon landings being faked, Hillary Clinton running a sex trafficking ring out of a pizza shop, the government putting us all in FEMA camps, and the government making up the second Gulf of Tonkin attack as a way to justify war in Vietnam.
None have been proven to have actually taken place, all are theories.
A “conspiracy theory” is also not just “something bad the government did.” Many of the items on these lists are uncovered government chicanery, revealed by dogged journalism and fact finding.
The government poisoning alcohol, spying on or experimenting on innocent people, mucking about in foreign elections, or assassinating world leaders in the guise of keeping our control over their government are all bad things.
But they weren’t theorized before they were proven to have happened, at least not with any specificity beyond “the government, man.” We found out about them years or decades after they happened – because of media reporting or popular outrage.
So these lists of “conspiracy theories that came true” are almost always actually just lists of Bad Stuff the Government Did.
And the government has done bad stuff. It’s doing plenty of bad stuff right now, like pulling out of the Paris climate accords and turning the US/Mexico border into a post-apocalyptic prison camp.
But this is not the stuff speculated about in conspiracy theories. At least not that we can prove to the point where it’s not a theory anymore.
So by definition, a conspiracy theory can’t be true – otherwise, it’s simply a conspiracy. And there are many real conspiracies – but not the items on these lists.