The JFK assassination. UFO landings. The Illuminati.
These three subjects have been the focus of conspiracy theories for many years, and there is no indication that they are about to subside any time soon. But are these theories based in fact, or are they merely the racing thoughts of wild imaginations?
Students at Southern are examining these and other conspiracy theories in a new course being offered called, “The Class They Don’t Want You To Take: American Conspiracy Theories in History and Photography.”
“We want students to hone their skills of assessment and analysis to prove or disprove their ideas, or to reach a conclusion that is inconclusive,” said Troy Rondinone, professor of history who co-teaches the class with Jeremy Chandler, associate professor of art and an expert on photography. “But wherever they may fall on a conspiracy theory, one of the main goals is to sharpen their skills of critical thinking.”
Chandler agreed. “We even encourage students to bring their own conspiracy theories with them to class,” he said.
Rondinone said many of the Founding Fathers were conspiracy theorists. “George Washington had references to The Illuminati in his writings,” he said. “And Thomas Jefferson wrote that King George III was systematically trying to enslave the American colonists. The Founders’ talk about conspiracy theories actually helped muster support for the American Revolution.”
He said theories have abounded throughout American history. “In the case of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, there actually is strong evidence of a conspiracy to overthrow the government,” Rondinone said.
But he said typically, though not always, there are logical fallacies espoused by conspiracy theorists. “The specific theories change, but the same patterns are pretty consistent,” he said. “If often gets to the point where some people will not change their minds when faced with facts that disprove their theories, even insisting that the evidence is actually falsified by those involved in the conspiracy.”
Rondinone said that in addition to the conspiracy theories embedded in history, the class will look at modern theories – such as those who believe that the government was behind the 9/11 tragedies (sometimes known as Truthers), and that President Obama was born in Kenya (commonly known as Birthers).
Chandler said the students also will study photographs involved in conspiracy theories, and learn how today’s cell phones take photos and how those pictures can and can’t be doctored.