Student Questions: College of Central Florida, Part 2
Today we're going to continue with Part 2 of Answering Student Questions from the College of Central Florida, where I visited a few weeks ago and was deluged with questions to be answered right here. My main talk at the campus was on conspiracy theories. We gave out copies of my book Conspiracies Declassified and I spoke in a number of classrooms, so most of the questions today are related more or less to conspiracy theories and conspiracy theory culture.
I regret to inform you that we're going to get started today in a pretty rough place, with a question about full-spectrum conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. But at least it can only get better from here:
So as a general policy, I don't do episodes attacking specific living individuals. There's a liability angle, but there's also — I don't know — people aren't the problem so much as bad ideas are. It's more useful to study bad ideas, find out why they exist, and solve that; rather than blaming the people who have bought into them. Arguably, Alex Jones is someone who doesn't fit this mold. It seems clear from the court records of all the lawsuits he's brought down upon himself and lost, that he's a deliberate creator of disinformation, not an innocent believer in it.
Earlier in his career, Alex Jones promoted any conspiracy theory, whether it was far left or far right. But later, likely in his response to the Sandy Hook event, he found his most passionate supporters were on the far right and he seems to have made a business decision to align himself with that fringe.
In short, the reason Sandy Hook appealed to the right wing more than the left wing has to do with the fact the left wants more gun control. Alex Jones' narrative is that Sandy Hook was staged by the government to fire up anti-gun sentiment, and make it easier for the government to seize all privately owned firearms. This would be an affront to the right, which favors less gun control. So Alex Jones immediately became a darling of the right, and that's where he's stayed. My sympathies to that group.
The Bell Witch Cave
Next we have a question regarding a famous ghost story from Tennessee:
Even though this one wasn't exactly in the form of a question, we'll still allow it. The Bell Witch is a very famous ghost story about an invisible witch that harassed the Bell family in the early 1800s, and even includes an apocryphal anecdote that future US president Andrew Jackson passed through, and was chased away by the witch. There's a complete Skeptoid episode on The Bell Witch, episode #118, and it's a fun one. You should check it out.
So about this cave. There is indeed a natural cave not too far away from the Bell family homestead. It's privately owned and operated, open for cave tours, and was cleverly named The Bell Witch Cave by its original operators in order to capitalize off the legend. No caves played any role in the original Bell Witch stories, despite everything you'll read today. All the cave adventures by the Bell children are fictional, and were written many years after the actual events, to promote cave tours. Nothing more.
And speaking of being fictional — as you'll learn if you check out the full Skeptoid episode — substantial historical and documentary investigation has been done by many talented researchers over the years, and it turns out that virtually the entire Bell Witch mythology was the invention of one newspaper editor who novelized it. That detective story, the story of how we learned that it was fiction, is really the best part of the legend. So you can probably visit the cave without serious concerns of witchcraft.
Next a question that is a true sign of the times:
Absolutely, echo chambers are like the gas stations where conspiracy theories stay fueled up. Echo chambers take many forms: online communities, circles of actual real-world friends, even certain TV channels. They're places where everyone believes the same things, and everyone repeats versions of events that thrive in that ideological environment. Being in any echo chamber is sure to instill and reinforce both your conspiratorial tendencies and specific narratives — usually false ones, because these communities thrive best when the content is the most extreme.
How to avoid? Get out of that comfort zone of content tailor made to outrage you. Try to keep people around you with whom you disagree, and practice living with peaceful disagreement. Unless you're doing that, you probably believe a lot of stuff that's false.
Here's a question about who really controls world events:
It is true that there's an organization called BlackRock. BlackRock (BLK on the NYSE) is the world's largest investment management company, with $8.66 trillion under management as of the end of 2022. There's never been anything secret about it; they have 70 offices in 30 countries. One of the problems with being so big is that they have ownership stakes in so many companies and so many funds, that at some level they have a share in just about everything. So, by their very nature, they have stakes in fossil fuel companies, in pharmaceutical companies that make COVID vaccines, in arms manufacturers, so immediately they're open to all manner of conspiratorial charges. In recent years, BlackRock has been trying to reduce their investments in industries that contribute to climate change and have been promoting gender diversity within their company, and so they've become something of a bogeyman to the American right wing, and we've seen them pegged as the villain in various right wing conspiracy theories.
But what you mention specifically is the 2008 housing crisis, when banks failed and we had the bailout. Was BlackRock behind it all? Well, they definitely did well from it, because the US Treasury Department hired them to sort it all out. BlackRock was so big, so wealthy, and had so much expertise, that they were much better positioned to acquire all the bad debt and broker it off.
This was a great example of the old "follow the money" trope in solving conspiracy theories. Something bad happened, and someone made money off of it? Well then, they must have caused it. Regular Skeptoid listeners have heard me criticize "follow the money" before. The example I always give is that ambulance companies must be causing all the car accidents and heart attacks out there, because they make money every time one happens. BlackRock did not need to be the cause of the 2008 financial crisis to have played a profitable role in helping to resolve it. "Follow the money" is a terrible strategy. Cross it off your list.
Next, we have a question from Lisa:
No, he's dead. He crashed his plane into the ocean in July 1999 when flying in conditions for which he was not rated. His wife and sister-in-law died with him. Their identities were proven by the medical examiner, and his ashes were scattered at sea. As one of the world's most recognizable celebrities, it strains credulity to think that all the people involved in his death and burial were all in on a conspiracy for no clear reason.
Correction: In the episode I said he crashed in conditions for which he was not rated. Technically not true. Although the poor visibility was at the bottom end of VFR (Visual Flight Rules), they were still VFR, which was JFK Jr.'s rating. —BD
Yet that's what many in the far-right Q-Anon movement think. It is their belief that John John will come forward and reveal himself to be Q, and take his place as Donald Trump's running mate to retake power. Why Kennedy, who had been a lifelong Democrat, would do this has not been convincingly argued. The sole source seems to be a 2018 YouTube rant by unhinged Q-Anon conspiracy theorist Liz Crokin. I wouldn't put too much stock in it.
Pan-Am Flight 914
Next we have a question about a famous urban legend:
Flight 914 was a Pan-Am DC-4 with 57 passengers. According to the story, it took off from New York in 1955, destined for Miami; but it disappeared, and landed in Caracas, Venezuela in 1985 — having completely vanished for those 30 years. YouTubers, UFO enthusiasts, and conspiracy theorists have made much of the tale. It is, however, a fictional piece, written by the Weekly World News tabloid, famous for such fantasy pieces. It was basically a ripoff of the 1961 Twilight Zone episode "The Odyssey of Flight 33."
The editors at Weekly World News must have really liked it, because they ran it three times: once in 1985 claiming the plane disappeared for 30 years; again in 1993 claiming the plane disappeared for 37 years; and again in 1999, still saying 37 years. One tipoff that it's fiction is that the amazing incident does not appear in any legitimate press.
The story ends with the panicked pilots taking off again and then disappearing from radar... no doubt leaving the story open for more imaginative authors to bring it back to Earth again at some future date.
It's always best to end on a high note; or in this case, a somewhat sagging note:
This is one I'm going to answer without doing any personal experimentation. This stems from an urban legend that's been floating around for at least a quarter of a century, which claims that the popular food coloring Yellow #5, aka tartrazine, has negative impacts on the male reproductive system — depending on which version of the legend you might hear, it either reduces your sperm count, or it makes the testicles and penis shrink. Originally the urban legends always mentioned Mountain Dew, but Yellow #5 is one of the most common food colorings out there, and it's in many, many foods — including yellow Gatorade. Pretty much all men everywhere would be significantly diminished down below if there were any truth to this.
Considering how ubiquitous it is, and considering that it's been in wide use in the food industry since 1916, it seems unlikely that Yellow #5 has always had this effect but that it's escaped the notice of everyone except legend tripping kids. In fact, the FDA's approval of Yellow #5 states that it's safe when used properly. So fear not, and hydrate away.
And so there's another Student Questions episode in the books. I want to say thanks once again to everyone at the College of Central Florida (Ocala campus). I had a really great time there, giving the talks and speaking with so many classrooms of students, and taking all these questions back home to make this episode. I hope to do it again!
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