A Real Conspiracy
On a May 16, 1997, gathering at the White House, then-U.S. President Bill Clinton made an apology to victims of a top-secret forty-year study that left lasting scars. Speaking directly to the handful of living survivors, including a 110-year-old man, Clinton acknowledged that the U.S. government “…did something that was wrong — deeply, profoundly, morally wrong … The people who ran the study at Tuskegee diminished the stature of men by abandoning the most basic ethical precepts. They forgot their pledge to heal and repair. They had the power to heal the survivors and all the others, and they did not. Today, all we can do is apologize.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an arms-length agency of the U.S. government, details the events of the Tuskegee study. By the mid-1920s, 30 per cent of adults in reproductive age were infected with syphilis (this stat presumably reflects the United States). Most infected people do not progress beyond the disease’s secondary stage, which involves a horrible outbreak of skin rashes and mucous membrane lesions; however, if the disease is left untreated, it can progress to more serious symptoms, including paralysis and dementia. Internal organs can also be damaged, leading to death. By 1929, doctors were treating the disease with mercury and bismuth; it had a success rate of less than 30 per cent and could cause toxic or fatal side effects. So in 1932, a program called “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” began. Although the study was run by the Public Health Service, the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), an historically black-American college, co-sponsored it in hopes of employing black American doctors and receiving the study’s credit. Set in Alabama, the study found 600 men, all black American, to volunteer. Two thirds had syphilis; the rest did not. The volunteers were told they were being actively treated for various diseases, including syphilis; however, they were only monitored for the progress of syphilis. Despite being designed to run six months, the study ran for four decades, and even though penicillin became an effective treatment for the disease by 1945, the men were never treated. The study didn’t end until 1972, when the Associated Press caught wind of what was happening. In subsequent years, the government was forced to pay the volunteers millions of dollars in compensation and to provide free lifetime medical care to the volunteers, their spouses, and their children.
The events in Tuskegee prove that actual conspiracies have taken place. Most people, when pressed to think of a conspiracy, think of over-the-top, extra-ordinary events such as the JFK assassination, dead alien bodies in Nevada, or the 9/11 Truth Movement. However, provable conspiracies have taken place around the world and across history, and although some have had some degree of outlandish detail, the vast majority are much more grounded in reality than alien-lifted military technology at Area 51.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines conspiracy as “the activity of secretly planning with other people to do something bad or illegal.” By definition the above-mentioned Tuskegee saga is a conspiracy. And other historical events, such as Watergate, which covered up a U.S. president’s criminal activity; and the Manhattan Project, which developed the nuclear bomb, are conspiracies. Some, like the Nazi’s Final Solution, are even more breathtaking in scope. But they all did real, measurable damage and became public knowledge in relatively short times. But most importantly, they all have an ending. That is to say that they became a part of history.
Conspiracies Are the New Religions
The world’s major religions, such as Christianity and Islam, developed at a time when people had no idea where the sun went at night or why people got sick. So stories of Jesus curing lepers or God sending plagues and famines to punish people could be seen as ways of explaining what was then unknowable and scary. But in the four-and-a-half centuries since Copernicus’s observations of the solar system sparked the Scientific Revolution, people like Newton, Darwin, and Einstein championed the Scientific Method as a way of understanding the world and the universe through observation and experimentation. Today’s luxuries — heated homes, global travel, modern medicine — were all developed through modern scientific understanding. Intuition has given way to deduction. Spirituality has given way to rationality. And religion has given way to secularism.
In developed countries, most people have at minimum a high school-level math and science education. Yet people are still susceptible to irrational beliefs and superstitions. These modern irrational beliefs — for example, chemtrails and crop circles — indeed cloak themselves with a scientific facade, but they have much more in common with religious dogma than science. Like religion, they offer a universal explanation riddled with faulty logic and little evidence. Their believers dismiss any evidence that disproves their explanations. And like all religions, they are conspiratorial in nature. (If you don’t think that religions are conspiracy friendly, consider that the Abrahamic religions are named after a prophet who plotted with God to sacrifice a baby.)
Flat Earth Theory as a Religion
On November 27, 2017, 61-year-old Californian “Mad” Mike Hughes was prevented from launching his homemade rocket by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The limo driver, who once told the Associated Press, “I don’t believe in science,” had reportedly spent over $20,000 (U.S.) to build a rocket that would blast into space with the aid of a rocket launcher made from a used motor home. The government apparently didn’t take too kindly to Hughes’s use of public land to soar his amateur rocket at 500 miles per hour in Amboy, California, in his quest to prove that the Earth is flat. Hughes, who wasn’t fazed by the immense odds stacked against him, said that aerodynamics and thrust are “…not science, that’s [sic] just formula.” Hughes is taking the setback in stride, telling NPR that he would be launching shortly on private property near where he originally intended to launch.
What would cause somebody to discount thousands of years’ worth of observation and evidence? Many scholars believe that the ancient Greeks probably understood that the world was round six centuries before the Common Era; Ancient Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle offered observations of stars and lunar eclipses to prove the spherical shape of Earth. And as the Greeks’ observations spread throughout the Mediterranean and beyond, Indian mathematician Aryabhata accurately calculated the circumference of the Earth to within 100 kilometres a millennium before the Age of Exploration. And Columbus used the ancient Greeks’ observations when he “discovered” the Americas. But most importantly, in the last six decades, countless satellites and people have taken pictures of Earth from space. Who can deny the haunting pictures of the earthrise taken from the moon’s orbit by the crew of Apollo 8?
Hughes is apparently financed by Research Flat Earth, an organization that has barely an online presence, save a YouTube channel featuring videos that, although they are created to appear scientific, are more amateurish than true. The videos offer scant evidence and little justification for their conclusions. They are neither peer reviewed nor validated by any scientific research. Yet if their evidence is refuted, it is further proof that they are right. And how does knowledge of a spherical Earth hurt anybody?
Then there is the strange Twitter reply to Telsa and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, who, after tweeting “Why is there no Flat Mars Society!?” received the following tweet back from the Flat Earth Society: “Unlike the Earth, Mars has been observed to be round. Have a nice day!” The society’s webpage, which doesn’t identify who the society is or how to contact them, is a barebones site that offers little concrete proof or scientific evidence, yet it includes basketball star Shaquille O’Neill as the biggest (pun intended) proponent of flat earth theory.
Why It Matters
To give flat earth theory any more attention would be a distraction from the victims of actual conspiracies, like the men in the Tuskegee study. The people who buy into flat earth theory are not too different from those who send money to televangelists, for just as TV viewers cling to hope that televangelists can cure cancer, proponents of flat earth theory cling to a fantasy in which the pain of the real world is suspended. They believe in a truth that, if revealed, would make the world better. They fear those things for which fact and science cannot presently provide an answer. It’s an unprovable concept that will never make the world better; consequently, it’s the hope that makes them happy. But let’s not give these people much attention. Let them be wrapped up in their own personal religion, the religion of the fake conspiracy. Instead, let’s remember real victims of harmful conspiracies: the victims of the Holocaust, victims of the two atomic bombs, and the loss of innocence from the Watergate fallout. For when people do conspire, bad things almost always happen. It’s not about a flat Earth. It’s about the victim.