Parts Unknown: Foreign Conspiracy Theories
We talk about conspiracy theories a lot here on Skeptoid; their history, whatever truths may underlie them, the reasons people believe them, and the way they are shaped by popular culture. But with apologies to more than a third of my listeners, these conspiracy theories are nearly always US-centric. As an American, it's easy for me to grasp the cultural context of such stories that originate and propagate domestically, and it would be correspondingly much harder for me to have a very useful perspective on a foreign conspiracy theory that was born among the influences of a very different environment. So, with the proviso that I won't attempt to give the full Skeptoid treatment to each of these, I hereby present a roundup of conspiracy theories from outside the US sphere of influence.
This episode will almost certainly have some sequels, as I fully expect listeners from every country I mention to say "Hey, you missed the most important one!" and the same from listeners from the many countries I don't have anything for today. We're going to begin at the Atlantic Ocean and circumnavigate from west to east (more or less, since many countries overlap), stopping to survey the most outrageous and popular conspiracy theories in every country we visit. Beginning with:
We've talked about the death of Princess Diana in Skeptoid #414, about whether Paul McCartney died and was replaced with a lookalike in Skeptoid #594, and about David Icke's belief that world leaders are actually reptilians wearing electronic disguises in Skeptoid #46, so conspiracy theories from the United Kingdom are not new here. But there's one that we haven't horsed around with yet.
In 1983, the famous racehorse named Shergar was kidnapped from his stables by a large group of gunmen, probably of the Irish Republican Army, and was held for a £2 million ransom. Shergar was owned by a syndicate that included the famous billionaire the Aga Khan, and so was a logical ransom target. The investigation was greatly hampered by distrust between Irish and British police. The ransom was not paid and the kidnappers (who were never caught) killed the horse. Ever since, conspiracy theories about the actual reason for the kidnapping have swirled. One of these is that Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi ordered the ransom to pay for arms which he sold to the IRA. Another holds that the Mafia did it to retaliate for an earlier equine transaction with the Aga Khan that had gone badly. Yet another holds that Shergar was never killed at all, but lived a long and happy life as a stud bringing in vast sums of money for the IRA.
While many Germans smirk at the satirical conspiracy theory claiming the town of Bielefeld doesn't exist, there is a very real current of true conspiracy mongering lurking beneath the surface.
Germany has what amounts to their version of the American "sovereign citizen" movement; people who reject the legitimacy of their government and refuse to consider themselves citizens of it. They call themselves the Reichsbürger, citizens of the Reich. There are a number of such groups, but they generally all agree that Germany's true legal status is as was established in the 1919 Weimar Constitution, and the Federal Republic of Germany established after WWII is not a legitimate state, often based on some fringe interpretation of the Cold War treaty between East Germany and West Germany. Some of these Reichsbürger issue their own currency and identification papers — and, not surprisingly, end up in jail for refusing to abide by various German laws.
Not to be dismissed, their numbers are growing fast, especially since the worldwide rise of populism in the mid-20-teens. Numbers of adherents to the various groups are currently estimated at over 20,000, with anti-Semitism and neo-Naziism (unsurprisingly) being prominent features.
In 1994, the passenger ferry MS Estonia sank in the Baltic Sea, killing 852 people, one of the worst peacetime maritime disasters. Heavy seas damaged the large bow door and caused it to break off, exposing the ship's vehicle decks to the open seas. It quickly filled with water and sank. Poor reaction from the crew contributed to the loss of life. Examination of the wreckage proved every detail of exactly what happened and how and why.
Nevertheless, conspiracy theories rose immediately, with various claims that the ship was deliberately sunk, either with explosives or by someone onboard deliberately opening the forward door. Most of these claims center on two Swedish military trucks that had been among the vehicles being ferried, but more than a week before the sinking. Conspiracy theorists say they were aboard when it sank. One claim says the Russians sank it to prevent the Americans from getting ahold of the trucks. Others say organized crime sank it to cover up their military smuggling operation. Another claim is that some submarine accidentally collided with it, which then silently escaped to cover up its role in the disaster. Like all competing conspiracy theories, the one thing they all have in common is that the "official story" is a lie concocted to cover up the truth.
Throughout parts of many Sub-Saharan African nations, public health emergencies are a daily way of life. Combined with a lack of education and the proliferation of medieval beliefs like witchcraft among the poorest of the population, conspiracy theories there are no joke, as they do unspeakable harm.
The basic manifestation of these theories is that public health initiatives originating from the northern hemisphere, like vaccines and drugs to treat HIV, Ebola, and other conditions, secretly contain poisonous payloads intended to wipe Africans from the Earth. As an example, one Nigerian doctor is quoted in a journal article as saying:
The inevitable result is that some Africans avoid vaccines and shield their children from them, allowing diseases like polio to surge. Birth control methods in particular receive skepticism, as they appear to many Africans to be part of a thinly veiled genocide against them.
Alternate histories and bizarre claims pertaining to South African apartheid and its aftermath could fill a volume, so today we'll stick to a more conventional conspiracy theory.
South African Airways Flight 295 was a Boeing 747 that developed a fire onboard and soon broke apart and crashed into the Indian Ocean in 1987, killing all 159 people onboard. As the cause of the fire was never determined, conspiracy theorists soon provided their own. One investigator, David Klatzow, criticized the inquiry for not trying very hard to find the cause of the fire. As South Africa was under an international arms embargo and was widely believed to be smuggling in weapons clandestinely, Klatzow's charge led to endless unevidenced speculation that weapons hidden onboard the plane were the cause of the fire, a fact which the conspiracy theorists believe was known to the investigators who were deliberately covering it up.
Even Nepal has a pet conspiracy theory. In 2001, Prince Dipendra — son of the much beloved king and queen — shot dead his parents and seven other members of his family while drunk, then shot himself. No motive was ever proven, but it's known that Dipendra had both personal and governmental disputes with his family. He reigned for three days in a coma as king before dying of his head wound.
The obvious conspiracy theories center around his uncle who assumed the throne, Gyanendra. The leader of Nepal's opposition party publicly charged Gyanendra with working with either Indian or American intelligence agencies to commit the assassinations in order to become king. One report claims that an assassin wearing a Dipendra mask came in, killed the real Dipendra, then killed everyone else. Distrust of the official findings that Dipendra was the killer are nearly universal in Nepal.
Although China is often implicated in others' conspiracy theories, they are not to be outdone, and have a few of their own. One of these centers on genetically modified crops; it's no secret that the Chinese are broadly mistrustful of biotechnology. This conspiracy theory, most loudly trumpeted by a prominent Chinese Army major, holds that GMOs are a bioterrorism weapon developed by the United States to kill Chinese people. A survey of thousands of Chinese from every province found that 13.8% of Chinese believe this, which extrapolates to 190 million people.
Further, many of them believe that Chinese scientists working on Golden Rice — which has the potential to save tens of thousands of Chinese lives annually — were educated in the United States, and have become brainwashed to be complicit in the plan.
Although we covered Australia's most notorious conspiracy theory surrounding the Port Arthur Massacre in Skeptoid #253, there is another that is longer-lived and has at least as much appeal to the conspiracy minded.
In 1967, Australia's 59-year-old Prime Minister, Harold Holt, went for a swim at the beach, and never came out of the water. No body was ever found.
Obviously, any world leader's death is going to produce conspiracy theories. Some say he faked his own death so he could escape with his mistress, and others point to various Cold War plots to kidnap him and take him away via a submarine — either to the Soviet Union or to China, perhaps to torture him for information about NATO or his close friend, American President Lyndon B. Johnson.
To the surprise of many Westerners who see the Japanese as tech savvy and always into the latest and greatest innovations, it turns out that vaccine denial is rampant in Japan, particularly the important HPV vaccine. (Many are equally surprised to learn that Japanese share this pseudoscientific paranoia with Denmark, often seen by Americans as supremely enlightened.)
But there's another conspiracy theory that's uniquely Japanese, and it has to do with historical genocide, as do so many conspiracy theories. Skeptoid #480 was about the Nanking Massacre during World War II when Japanese soldiers butchered some 300,000 Chinese civilians, as described in the late Iris Chang's book The Rape of Nanking (which everyone should read), and as confirmed by a postwar Japanese tribunal. Yet today a core of Japanese conspiracy theorists believe that no such thing took place and it is nothing more than anti-Japanese propaganda cooked up by the Chinese. A somewhat larger group believes the episode has been greatly exaggerated. Some of the denialist authors even make the bizarre charge that a few Chinese proven to have died were killed by Chinese soldiers. Most Japanese historians and sociologists, however, accept the historical account and are critical of the denialism.
Yet, so deep is the rift between the two sides that the education system tends to stay out of the fray. To this day, a majority of history textbooks in Japan either omit, gloss over, or minimize the event.
This completes one lap around the globe, a quick survey of the world as conspiracy theorists see it. Not a very nice place. Lots of secret cabals of evil hiding everywhere. Although we can hope that the world becomes a more rational place, the evidence before us shows we've got a long way to go.
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