What Keeps Conspiracy Theories Alive?

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Conspiracy theories surrounding the crash of TWA Flight 800 in 1996 have circulated widely in recent weeks, with a former investigator claiming the plane was brought down not by an accident but instead either a terrorist attack or “a military operation that went wrong.”

Such claims have been long investigated — and debunked. “It’s just outrageous and preposterous,” said James Kallstrom, who headed up the investigation into the 1996 crash for the FBI and was quoted in an ABC News story. “It has absolutely no connection to the truth, and…will not stand the test of time and will not stand the test of experts.”

The National Transportation Safety Board issued a statement that “The TWA Flight 800 investigation lasted four years and remains one of the NTSB’s most detailed investigations. Investigators took great care reviewing, documenting and analyzing facts and data and held a five-day hearing to gather additional facts before determining the probable cause of the accident.”

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So why is this coming up again, and what keeps these conspiracies alive? There are many reasons why conspiracy theories gain traction with the public, including that they tap into a widespread distrust of the government (fueled by both real and imagined transgressions such as the recent revelations about public surveillance). Here are other reasons why conspiracies don’t seem to fade away.

Conspiracies are Permanent

Conspiracy theories, by their nature, cannot be conclusively disproven since any evidence contradicting them can be dismissed or ignored as part of the conspiracy itself. Because it’s never “case closed,” the door for further discussion and inquiry is always left open.

Books about conspiracy theories don’t have sections on disproven conspiracy theories. A few conspiracy theories have fallen out of favor (such as the “Paul McCartney is dead” hoax/urban legend in the late 1960s), but most modern conspiracies last decades or longer.

One of the oldest conspiracy theories is the hoaxed book “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion” supposedly revealing a secret Jewish conspiracy to take over the world. It first appeared in Russia in 1905, and though the book has been discredited as a forgery, it is still in print.

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Even when one part of a conspiracy theory has been definitively disproven to the satisfaction of most reasonable people, hardcore conspiracy theorists will continue in their beliefs. Rarely if ever do you hear a prominent conspiracy theorist or advocate make a public statement admitting that he (it’s almost always a male) was totally wrong about something. At best, the claim will be quietly dropped (while being careful not to acknowledge how solid the evidence for it was once claimed to be), though usually the disproven claim is simply repeated and thrown back into the mix.

Credible Believers

Most high-profile conspiracies have a handful of otherwise reputable, respected authorities (often former government officials) who endorse them.

Astronaut Edgar Mitchell, for example, has publicly stated that he believes that aliens crashed in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947 and that the U.S. government covered it up. A few self-described maverick scientists and engineers have claimed that their research casts doubt on what caused buildings to collapse in New York on September 11, and what caused the TWA 800 explosion.

Whether the topic is the existence of psychic powers, global warming, UFOs, or conspiracy theories, it’s always possible to find a few reputable people whose opinions contradict conclusions drawn by the vast majority of other scientists and engineers who looked at the same evidence.

This is not surprising, since in science there is no complete consensus or agreement about anything (including whether the speed of light can be exceeded). Different people — even smart, credentialed ones — can look at the same evidence and come to different conclusions; this is human nature, not evidence of a cover-up.

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Recycled Information

When conspiracies resurface in the public sphere after being out of the spotlight for years, there’s always a reason for it. Usually it’s simply the result of a publicity ploy; for example it’s not uncommon for UFO promoters (or even Bigfoot believers) to call a press conference announcing that new evidence has been found (or old witnesses are now coming forward) to offer stunning, long-awaited proof of their claims. The “breaking news” invariably consists of familiar witnesses rehashing long-discredited theories with nothing to add.

Sure enough, many news stories, such as by Brian Ross of ABC News, claim that “former investigators who looked into the mysterious crash of TWA Flight 800…are breaking their silence” to reveal previously unknown information and details about the explosion. However there’s no “silence” to be broken: most of the claims being mentioned have circulated widely in conspiracy circles for over a decade.

If new, valid information has really been uncovered the National Transportation Safety Board will be happy to look at it. In a statement earlier this week the NTSB noted that “our investigations are never closed and we can review any new information not previously considered by the Board.”

Follow the Money!

One conspiracy canard is that, if you want to get to the truth of something, you need to see who benefits from promoting a given story. Who profited from faking the moon landings, staging the September 11 attacks, or faking the Sandy Hook school shootings?

Follow the money is a legitimate (if rather obvious) directive, though it can be misleading because people do things for many reasons other than to gain money or power.

Some people do things as a prank, or just for fun, boredom, or curiosity; other times — especially when drugs or mental illness is involved — there is no rational reason. And many times (such as the death of Princess Diana or the explosion of TWA Flight 800) the conspiracy-spawning event was an accident, so looking for a personal, financial or other motive behind it is pointless.

Of course the same principle cuts both ways, and there is money to be made from promoting and perpetuating conspiracy theories. Broadcasters and writers such as Alex Jones, Jim Marrs, Art Bell, George Noory, Jesse Ventura, and others have made millions of dollars mystery mongering and offering their audiences what they promise is the “real deal” behind the smokescreen of official misinformation.

In the case of the TWA Flight 800, we can easily follow the money back to Kristina Borjesson, the writer and director of an upcoming documentary film on the incident. Borjesson’s publicity team has done their job drumming up a “controversy” and rehashing long-discredited conspiracy theories to promote her upcoming film.

Follow the money indeed.

Photo: An archive photo shows debris from TWA Flight 800, which crashed in 1996. Credit: Corbis

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