6 Conspiracy Theories That Turned Out to Be True

Barney Wayne/Getty Images
Barney Wayne/Getty Images

Humans love conspiracy theories, and always have—there’s even evidence that ancient Romans had a few. Today, with the advent of the internet, they seem to be everywhere. But even though the term is generally pejorative, that doesn’t mean people aren’t out to get you. What follows are some conspiracy theories that turned out to be (at least partially or presciently) true.

1. It wasn't a weather balloon that crashed in Roswell, New Mexico.

In 1947, the Army Air Forces announced that a mysterious object that had crashed in the desert outside Roswell, New Mexico, was not a flying saucer but in fact a weather balloon. As the years went on, interest in the crash site waxed and waned, but from the late '70s to the '90s, interest surged, and many believers alleged that the government was covering up what really crashed at Roswell. As the Los Angeles Times noted in 1994, “The ‘Roswell incident’ has been repeatedly dismissed by the Defense Department as nothing more than UFO fantasies triggered by the discovery of a downed weather balloon.”

As it turned out, there was a cover-up: What had crashed in the desert wasn't a weather balloon. But it wasn't a UFO, either. Instead, it was probably a balloon from Project Mogul, a Cold War attempt to spy on Soviet nuclear weapons development that used balloon-borne acoustic detection.

The cover-up came to light in the early ‘90s, after a New Mexico representative asked the General Accounting Office to pressure the Pentagon into declassifying documents related to Roswell. According to The New York Times, that led to an Air Force report on the subject, which was released in 1994. It concluded that the Roswell find was “most likely from one of the Mogul balloons that had not been previously recovered” [PDF]. According to a journal maintained by one of the people working on Project Mogul in New Mexico, one of the balloons launched in June '47 was never recovered after its mission. The Air Force report considered it probable that it was this balloon, battered by surface winds, that landed on a ranch in 1947. (Also, according to the report, "Air Force research efforts did not disclose any records of the recovery of any 'alien' bodies or extraterrestrial materials.")

The report also speculated that the weather balloon story could have been chosen as the official line either because the relevant authorities actually thought it was a weather balloon or perhaps because they knew of the highly classified Project Mogul and were trying to cover it up. The military would not have wanted its spy activities or technology to come to light, so even UFOs would have been a better option than the truth.

Of course, some think that the cover-up remains.

2. American scientists militarized the weather.

As part of their 2014 book, American Conspiracy Theories, Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent trawled through thousands of letters to the editors from over a century of newspapers to determine which ones had a conspiratorial slant to them. The letters either proposed a conspiracy or argued against a conspiracy that seemed to be in the air at the time. They found writers proposing or debunking conspirators as diverse as the Boers, conservationists, both Theodore and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and even the Prime Minister of Malta. One of the letters they discuss is a 1958 comment about “American scientists trying to find [a] method for controlling the weather.”

In the 1950s, controlling the weather was a major topic of discussion: There were Congressional hearings and articles in major publications about how such a thing might be possible. In 1963, Fidel Castro accused the United States of weaponizing Hurricane Flora, which killed at least a thousand people in Cuba. According to an article in a 1958 issue of Popular Science, American scientists worried that “[t]he Russians may be ahead of us in weather control.”

Publicly, weather modification was moving merrily along—and the threat of weather warfare was being downplayed. One expert during this time reassured a Senate Select Committee, “I would like ... to emphasize again that I consider it highly improbable that advances in the science of weather modification will make possible any extensive use of 'weather warfare.’” The expert cautioned that it couldn’t be completely ruled out, however, and said more research was needed.

Years later, rumors began emerging of weather warfare in the Vietnam War, with a 1972 Science article saying, “For the past year, rumors and speculation, along with occasional bits of circumstantial evidence, have accumulated in Washington to the effect that the military has tried to increase rainfall in Indochina to hinder enemy infiltration into South Vietnam.” But Nixon’s Secretary of Defense, Melvin Laird, flatly told a senator “we have never engaged in that type of activity over North Vietnam.”

It didn’t take long for people to recognize that this was not a denial of potential activity in Laos, Cambodia, or South Vietnam. While the senator didn’t follow up with Laird, reporters asked a Pentagon spokesperson, who also denied rain-making over North Vietnam. But when pressed about other regions, the spokesperson responded, "I can't enlarge on that.”

In 1974, they were forced to. That year, the government admitted to attempting to make it rain to slow down movement along the Ho Chi Minh trail, and Laird apologized for misleading Congress, saying that he had “never approved” the efforts. The New York Times also reported he wrote a 1974 letter to a subcommittee saying, contrary to his earlier denials, he had “just been informed ... such activities were conducted over North Vietnam in 1967 and again in 1968.”

3. The U.S. government has investigated UFOs for years.

What could be a more definitive conspiracy theory than the U.S. government spending millions of dollars on UFO research? As the Washington Post’s Cleve R. Wootson Jr. put it in 2017, “For decades, Americans were told that Area 51 didn’t really exist and that the U.S. government had no official interest in aliens or UFOs. Statements to the contrary, official-sounding people cautioned, were probably the musings of crackpots in tinfoil hats.”

But according to Albert Greco in his 2004 book Conspiracy 101: Beginning to Be Crazy (according to the foreword, "a beginner course in the world of conspiracy theory"), the Air Force, and then the CIA, had been actively investigating UFOs, at taxpayer expense, since the late '40s. Greco also noted, with more than a little sarcasm, that the 1950s “were filled with more government investigations into easily explainable, totally natural, anything but alien events. According to the government there was no validity to these reports of UFOs; but they were going to continue to spend millions of American tax dollars to investigate them.”

And in 2017, conspiracy theorists got official confirmation that the government was, in fact, looking into UFOs—or at least it had been, for a time.

That year, the Pentagon confirmed the existence of the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, which The New York Times reported was a $22 million program in a $600 billion budget. Started at the behest of then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in 2007, the program was reportedly shut down in 2012 (though The New York Times says that some officials have worked on it on the side since). According to the Washington Post, the purpose of the program was “collecting and analyzing a wide range of 'anomalous aerospace threats' ranging from advanced aircraft fielded by traditional U.S. adversaries to commercial drones to possible alien encounters." Experts were quick to discount the little green men part of the UFO research, though, with former space shuttle engineer James E. Oberg saying, “There are plenty of prosaic events and human perceptual traits that can account for these stories ... Lots of people are active in the air and don’t want others to know about it. They are happy to lurk unrecognized in the noise, or even to stir it up as camouflage.”

4. Magnetic materials in money can be used to determine the number of bills a person is carrying.

The Lone Gunmen, from TV's The X-Files, might be pop culture's most famous conspiracy theorists. (They took their name from the conspiracy surrounding president John F. Kennedy's assassination.) In the season one episode "E.B.E.," Lone Gunman John Fitzgerald Byers tells Mulder and Scully about "a dark network, a government within a government, controlling our every move." The proof, he says, can be found in a $20 bill. He takes one from Scully and rips it up, revealing the anti-counterfeiting strip: "They use this magnetic strip to track you. Whenever you go through a metal detector at an airport, they know exactly how much you’re carrying.”

Snopes has debunked this story, saying that according to rumors, the security thread is “to allow the government to know exactly how much money anyone is carrying at any particular moment ... The rumor is bunk. The strip’s sole purpose is the foiling of counterfeiters.” But while that last statement is likely true, there's also evidence that the Lone Gunmen were technically kind of right.

In 2011, Christopher Fuller and Antao Chen, both of the University of Washington, released a study called “Induction detection of concealed bulk banknotes.” They reasoned that because American currency has magnetic materials it should be possible to detect how much money someone was carrying on them. According to a 2012 New Scientist article, the physicists “found an ordinary handheld metal detector was able to pick up a dollar bill from 3 centimetres away, and placing the notes behind plastic, cardboard and cloth did little to block the signal. Adding further bills in $5 increments increased the strength of the signal, making [it possible] to count the number of bills,” though they do caution that denominations couldn’t be determined from this technique. According to New Scientist, "large bundles of notes would contain enough magnetic material to be detected at a distance, potentially allowing police to catch people attempting to smuggle cash over the border."

5. People who are "chipped" can be tracked by satellites.

According to the Detroit Free Press, the '90s publication Relevance, with its high quality paper and nice layouts, was “one of the slickest examples of conspiracy theorizing.” Physician Philip O’Halloran, the man behind the publication, wrote in one issue that biochips, implanted under the skin, “will emit low-frequency FM radio waves that can travel great distances, e.g., several miles up into space to an orbiting satellite. The transmission would provide information on the exact location of the ‘chipee.’" A year later, a psychologist writing in a New York newspaper said that mental health professionals who heard someone describing what O'Halloran proposed “might make a diagnosis that the person was suffering from a severe paranoid disorder,” before going on to discuss the origins of these kinds of views.

But O'Halloran's idea was prescient: Just three years later, in 1998, a professor of cybernetics at Reading University in England named Kevin Warwick received a chip implant, which according to a contemporary Independent article “emits a unique identifying signal that a computer can recognise to operate various electronic devices, such as room lights, door locks or lifts.” While that was still a long way off from what O’Halloran was proposing, in 2018 The Atlantic reported on a group that is working on making GPS-enabled chips to track relatives with dementia. In the future, there might be GPS tracking of other groups—something that was dismissed as a paranoid disorder just a few decades ago.

6. The government poisoned alcohol during Prohibition.

Just because the government made booze illegal doesn't mean people stopped drinking during Prohibition. But when those who chose to get tipsy started dying, accusations flew that the government was poisoning alcohol to enforce Prohibition. “When the government puts poison into alcohol, a large percentage of which the government knows will ultimately be consumed for beverage purposes, such action is reprehensible and tends to defeat the very purpose of prohibition,” a 1926 issue of The Camden Morning Post opined. A number of people, including a senator, put the blame for the deaths firmly at the hands of the government, and said that the practice was, essentially, "legalizing murder."

In fact, the government was poisoning alcohol, and freely admitted to it—and even published an entire short book on the subject. However, according to the government, the purpose wasn't to enforce Prohibition, but for Federal Revenue purposes: Booze meant for consumption would have to be taxed, but denatured booze was tax-free.

In 1906, Congress passed the first tax-free denatured alcohol act, which was designed to safeguard industries that required industrial alcohol. In order to keep suppling the industries that required alcohol, the government began to denature the alcohol (adding something to make the alcohol unfit for consumption) to make it “wholly unfit for beverage purposes.”

After reports of several deaths in the 1926 holiday season, the poisoning became an increasingly controversial tactic, though the government denied that their denaturing of the alcohol had anything to do with it. According to a 1929 Congressional Record, an expert who testified regarding deaths in New York City said that “There was not the slightest evidence adduced at any point, so far as I am aware, that these deaths were caused by industrial alcohol, either in the form in which it was denatured under Government supervision or after it had been manipulated by criminals.” Instead, the expert said, the deaths were caused by drinking straight wood alcohol. In the Minerva's Mail column in Nebraska's The Lincoln Star, Minerva drove the point home, saying, "The thing that kills the unfortunate, who in his craving will drink anything, is the alcohol itself in its raw state ... it is hard and raw and disastrous in its effects on the stomach."

10 Fascinating Facts About Chinese New Year

iStock.com/aluxum
iStock.com/aluxum

Some celebrants call it the Spring Festival, a stretch of time that signals the progression of the lunisolar Chinese calendar; others know it as the Chinese New Year. For a 15-day period beginning January 25 in 2020, China will welcome the Year of the Rat, one of 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac table.

Sound unfamiliar? No need to worry: Check out 10 facts about how one-sixth of the world's total population rings in the new year.

1. Chinese New Year was originally meant to scare off a monster.

Nian at Chinese New Year
iStock.com/jjMiller11

As legend would have it, many of the trademarks of the Chinese New Year are rooted in an ancient fear of Nian, a ferocious monster who would wait until the first day of the year to terrorize villagers. Acting on the advice of a wise old sage, the townspeople used loud noises from drums, fireworks, and the color red to scare him off—all remain components of the celebration today.

2. A lot of families use Chinese New Year as motivation to clean the house.

woman ready to clean a home
iStock.com/PRImageFactory

While the methods of honoring the Chinese New Year have varied over the years, it originally began as an opportunity for households to cleanse their quarters of "huiqi," or the breaths of those that lingered in the area. Families performed meticulous cleaning rituals to honor deities that they believed would pay them visits. The holiday is still used as a time to get cleaning supplies out, although the work is supposed to be done before it officially begins.

3. Chinese New Year will prompt billions of trips.

Man waiting for a train.
iStock.com/MongkolChuewong

Because the Chinese New Year places emphasis on family ties, hundreds of millions of people will use the Lunar period to make the trip home. Accounting for cars, trains, planes, and other methods of transport, the holiday is estimated to prompt nearly three billion trips over the 15-day timeframe.

4. Chinese New Year involves a lot of superstitions.

Colorful pills and medications
iStock.com/FotografiaBasica

While not all revelers subscribe to embedded beliefs about what not to do during the Chinese New Year, others try their best to observe some very particular prohibitions. Visiting a hospital or taking medicine is believed to invite ill health; lending or borrowing money will promote debt; crying children can bring about bad luck.

5. Some people rent boyfriends or girlfriends for Chinese New Year to soothe their parents.

Young Asian couple smiling
iStock.com/RichVintage

In China, it's sometimes frowned upon to remain single as you enter your thirties. When singles return home to visit their parents, some will opt to hire a person to pose as their significant other in order to make it appear like they're in a relationship and avoid parental scolding. Rent-a-boyfriends or girlfriends can get an average of $145 a day.

6. Red envelopes are everywhere during Chinese New Year.

a person accepting a red envelope
iStock.com/Creative-Family

An often-observed tradition during Spring Festival is to give gifts of red envelopes containing money. (The color red symbolizes energy and fortune.) New bills are expected; old, wrinkled cash is a sign of laziness. People sometimes walk around with cash-stuffed envelopes in case they run into someone they need to give a gift to. If someone offers you an envelope, it's best to accept it with both hands and open it in private.

7. Chinese New Year can create record levels of smog.

fireworks over Beijing's Forbidden City
iStock.com/lusea

Fireworks are a staple of Spring Festival in China, but there's more danger associated with the tradition than explosive mishaps. Cities like Beijing can experience a 15-fold increase in particulate pollution. In 2016, Shanghai banned the lighting of fireworks within the metropolitan area.

8. Black clothes are a bad omen during Chinese New Year.

toddler dressed up for Chinese New Year
iStock.com/lusea

So are white clothes. In China, both black and white apparel is traditionally associated with mourning and are to be avoided during the Lunar month. The red, colorful clothes favored for the holiday symbolize good fortune.

9. Chinese New Year leads to planes being stuffed full of cherries.

Bowl of cherries
iStock.com/CatLane

Cherries are such a popular food during the Festival that suppliers need to go to extremes in order to meet demand. In 2017, Singapore Airlines flew four chartered jets to Southeast and North Asian areas. More than 300 tons were being delivered in time for the festivities.

10. Panda Express is hoping Chinese New Year will catch on in America.

Box of takeout Chinese food from Panda Express
domandtrey, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Although their Chinese food menu runs more along the lines of Americanized fare, the franchise Panda Express is still hoping the U.S. will get more involved in the festival. The chain is promoting the holiday in its locations by running ad spots and giving away a red envelope containing a gift: a coupon for free food. Aside from a boost in business, Panda Express hopes to raise awareness about the popular holiday in North America.

20 Memorable Virginia Woolf Quotes

Getty Images
Getty Images

Born on January 25, 1882, Virginia Woolf was a true writer’s writer. With flowing prose and a courageous pen, she dissected every topic from the idiocy of warfare to the joys of sex. We've picked 20 lines that rank among her all-time best—which is no easy feat.

1. On recorded history

“Nothing has really happened until it has been described.”

— Said to a young acquaintance,Nigel Nicholson, who later became a successful publisher, memoirist, and politician

2. On writing about nature

“Green in nature is one thing, green in literature another. Nature and letters seem to have a natural antipathy; bring them together and they tear each other to pieces.”

— From her 1928 novel, Orlando: A Biography

3. On translating comedy

“Humor is the first of the gifts to perish in a foreign tongue.”

—From the essay collectionThe Common Reader, First Series (1925)

4. On time

“Time, unfortunately, though it makes animals and vegetables bloom and fade with amazing punctuality, has no such simple effect upon the mind of man. The mind of man, moreover, works with equal strangeness upon the body of time. An hour, once it lodges in the queer element of the human spirit, may be stretched to fifty or a hundred times its clock length; on the other hand, an hour may be accurately represented on the timepiece of the mind by one second.”

—From Orlando: A Biography

5. On being an honest writer

“If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people.”

From The Moment and Other Essays (1947)

6. On sexism

“As long as she thinks of a man, nobody objects to a woman thinking.”

—From Orlando: A Biography

7. On writing fiction

“Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners.”

—From her seminal 1929 essay “A Room of One’s Own”

8. On questioning the status quo

“Let us never cease from thinking—what is this ‘civilisation’ in which we find ourselves? What are these ceremonies and why should we take part in them? What are these professions and why should we make money out of them?”

— From her anti-war essay “Three Guineas” (1938)

9. On fashion

“There is much to support the view that it is clothes that wear us and not we, them; we may make them take the mould of arm or breast, but they mould our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their liking.”

—From Orlando: A Biography

10. On food

virginia woolf

A photo of author Virginia Woolf, who was famous for writing To The Lighthouse and Orlando.

George Charles Beresford, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”

— From “A Room of One’s Own”

11. On getting older

“I don’t believe in ageing. I believe in forever altering one’s aspect to the sun.”

—From her diary (entry dated October 2, 1932)

12. On artistic integrity

“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say. But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery.”

— From “A Room of One’s Own”

13. On the universe

“When you consider things like the stars, our affairs don’t seem to matter very much, do they?”

—From the novel Night and Day (1919)

14. On personal growth

“I am made and remade continually. Different people draw different words from me.”

—From her 1931 novel The Waves

15. On society

“At one and the same time, therefore, society is everything and society is nothing. Society is the most powerful concoction in the world and society has no existence whatsoever.”

—From Orlando: A Biography

16. On evaluating literature

“The battle of Waterloo was certainly fought on a certain day; but is Hamlet a better play than Lear? Nobody can say. Each must decide that question for himself. To admit authorities… into our libraries and let them tell us how to read, what to read, what value to place upon what we read, is to destroy the spirit of freedom which is the breath of those sanctuaries. Everywhere else we may be bound by laws and conventions—there we have none.”

—From The Common Reader, Second Series (1935)

17. On passion

“Blame it or praise it, there is no denying the wild horse in us. To gallop intemperately; fall on the sand tired out; to feel the earth spin; to have—positively—a rush of friendship for stones and grasses, as if humanity were over, and as for men and women, let them go hang—there is no getting over the fact that this desire seizes us pretty often.”

—From the novel Jacob’s Room (1922)

18. On the past

“Each had his past shut in him like the leaves of a book known to him by heart; and his friends could only read the title.”

—From Jacob’s Room

19. On words

“Of course, you can catch them and sort them and place them in alphabetical order in dictionaries. But words do not live in dictionaries, they live in the mind. If you want proof of this, consider how often in moments of emotion when we most need words we find none. Yet there is the dictionary; there at our disposal are some half-a-million words all in alphabetical order. But can we use them? No, because words do not live in dictionaries, they live in the mind.

“Look once more at the dictionary. There beyond a doubt lie plays more splendid than Anthony and Cleopatra, poems lovelier than the 'Ode to a Nightingale,' novels beside which Pride and Prejudice or David Copperfield are the crude bunglings of amateurs. It is only a question of finding the right words and putting them in the right order. But we cannot do it because they do not live in dictionaries, they live in the mind.”

—From “Craftsmanship,” a BBC radio address Woolf delivered on April 20, 1937 (listen to a portion of it here)

20. On life and its interruptions

“I meant to write about death, only life came breaking in as usual.”

— From her diary (entry dated February 17, 1922)

bonus: a common misquote

“You cannot find peace by avoiding life.”

These wise words are often mistakenly cited as Woolf’s. In reality, another writer came along and gave them to her—57 years after she died! Here’s what went down: In 1998, author Michael Cunningham released his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Hours. This story includes a fictionalized version of Virginia Woolf, who delivers the above line.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER