Just about every major event in history has a conspiracy theory attached to it, whether you've heard of it or not. It's just that most of them remain known only to the hardcore "we'll believe anything" true believers, where others, like the ones below, pick up real traction.
But even among theories like these (which count their believers in the millions), you find that the whole thing is usually based on some embarrassingly simple misunderstanding. For example ...
#5. The JFK Assassination Is Explained by How the Targets Were Sitting
Library of Congress / Getty
If you've seen Oliver Stone's JFK, then you'll remember the climactic scene in which Kevin Costner "proves" that the Kennedy assassination was a conspiracy by demonstrating the impossible path of Oswald's shot, which he sarcastically dubs "the magic bullet."
"I suspect warlocks are somehow involved."
The problem, according to those who believe in the conspiracy theory, is that Kennedy and Governor John Connally (who was seated in front of him) both suffered a constellation of wounds on their bodies from what the official investigation claims was a single bullet fired by Oswald. For this to be possible, the bullet would have had to curve around in midair several times, in multiple directions.
Since this openly defies the laws of physics, there must have been another shooter on the grassy knoll, or maybe the limo driver did it, or perhaps it was space lasers from a Nazi base on the moon. In Stone's film and elsewhere, you see it accompanied by a diagram like this:
Our guess? Connally had one of those shoulder magnets that were all the rage back then.
The Simple Misunderstanding:
JFK and Connally weren't sitting like that.
The people who draw up these diagrams invariably put Connally at an equal height to and seated directly in front of Kennedy. That's where they'd be sitting if they were two ordinary dudes riding in an ordinary sedan, but the problem is that this sedan happened to be carrying one ordinary dude and the president of the United States.
The people who are paid to arrange this kind of thing knew who the people in the crowd were really there to see, and it wasn't Governor Connally. So to prevent Connally from blocking the view of the president, he was put in a little jump seat, which was both set off from and lower than Kennedy's position. So they were actually sitting like this:
If only JFK had called shotgun.
If you think that's a convenient story trumpeted out to explain away the mysterious curving bullet, don't just take our word for it. That diagram was drawn from a photograph taken from behind Kennedy (the photographer was "Betzner") in which you can clearly see that Connally is either a hunchbacked dwarf or in a very strange sitting position:
Or else you can just look at a photograph of the inside of the car:
It's like someone put a booster seat on the floor or something.
You'll also notice that Kennedy and Connally weren't sitting rigid and facing forward like robots, as the conspiracy theorists suggest, but were twisted in their seats and waving at the audience as though, like, they were at a parade of some kind. Rearrange their bodies that way, and the path of the bullet -- Oswald's bullet -- goes straight through them. Just like it should.
#4. The Pearl Harbor Conspiracy Relies on a Terrible Understanding of Politics
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Conspiracy theories didn't begin with Kennedy. Look back through history and you'll find that any time some disgruntled foreign agent ever committed an atrocity on American soil, there were people screaming "false flag!" -- meaning the government intentionally staged the attack to drum up support for some kind of evil foreign policy, or, at the very least, intentionally let it happen for the same reason.
All of those red coats are really George Washington.
Take Pearl Harbor. After the Japanese air force launched a surprise attack on the American fleet in 1941, it became a widespread belief among conspiracy authors that President Roosevelt knew the attack was going to take place, but allowed it to go ahead. Why? Quite simply, he had a hard-on for war with Germany, but didn't have the public support for it. Since Hitler had signed a pact with Japan, war with either of them meant war with both, and allowing everyone at Pearl Harbor to be murdered would give FDR all the public support he needed to enter the war. He could spank Hitler's ass while still looking like the victim.
The Simple Misunderstanding:
The Tripartite Pact, the pact between Japan, Germany, and Italy, was a defensive alliance only. That means Hitler was under no obligation to attack the United States just because his idiot friends did.
"C'mon, guys, seriously?"
Of course, Germany did declare war after Pearl Harbor, but it had nothing to do with the idea that Hitler's hand was forced by some deal he had with Japan. Instead, he cited the Lend-Lease Act and American naval activity as his reasons. That's because Roosevelt was already pissing Hitler off by ordering his destroyers to sink German submarines on sight while at the same time escorting boatloads of weapons and supplies to Hitler's enemies.
It's true that Roosevelt was pretty keen to enter the war against Germany ... to the point where he actually didn't want to go to war with Japan because a war in the Pacific would distract him from his German hate-boner.
A boner that usually made him too nervous to stand.
And speaking of "false flag" attacks ...
#3. The World Trade Center Did Not Collapse at "Free-Fall Speed"
AFP / Getty
Because it occurred in the Internet era, the 9/11 World Trade Center attack is the one historical event that has generated more conspiracy theories than the Kennedy assassination. There are tons of equally crazy variations of the theory, but they all come down to the curious way the towers fell.
Al Bello/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images
"This is clearly a murder/suicide. The South Tower was jealous of the North Tower's hat."
Conspiracy theorists say the buildings fell at "free-fall speed," meaning that they didn't just slowly crumble away or tip over like you might expect, but that the whole damn things just fell down at once, like a house of cards. That, they say, proves that the towers were wired with explosives by the U.S. government. Why else would sturdy skyscrapers just collapse in a puff of smoke like that?
The Simple Misunderstanding:
When somebody tells you that the towers fell at "free-fall speed," they're more or less pulling that out of their ass. Or at least, they're referencing some other conspiracy theorists who pulled it out of their ass. They're not referencing any kind of scientific theory or measurement; they're just timing the fall as they watch YouTube videos and declaring that it looks different from how it plays out in their imagination. In other words, they don't actually know what they mean by "free fall" except that the buildings seem to be falling more quickly than they'd expect from the almost certainly zero controlled demolitions they've seen before.
Jack Hollingsworth/Photodisc/Getty Images
Structural engineering is probably one of those "gut" things anyway.
Most of the video of the actual collapse is filmed in Cloverfield-style shaky-cam, but if you watch any of the still-camera footage, you can debunk the free-fall claim simply from the fact that there's debris coming off the tower that's falling faster than the tower is. We've known that objects free fall at the same speed ever since Galileo dropped some balls off the Leaning Tower of Pisa, so that more or less puts the kibosh on the whole free-fall business.
Part of the problem is that the Twin Towers were basically big, featureless rectangles that made it look like the whole thing was falling at once. Conspiracy theorists like Rosie O'Donnell like to rattle off statistics like how the towers fell in nine seconds, which just happens to be free-fall speed. But nine seconds is more likely the amount of time that Rosie put into researching the issue, because if she'd actually timed the collapse, she would have found that the towers took about 15 and 22 seconds to collapse, well short of free-fall speed. But then, that's why very few engineering graduates cite Rosie O'Donnell as a source.
Michael Loccisano / Getty
She is, however, considered a reputable expert on the Crimean War.
As for why the buildings collapsed at all, that has to do with the way they were designed and their resulting inability to stand up to the horrific fires caused by the crashes. As for why the buildings weren't designed to withstand this kind of attack, it's because the world can only do so much to protect you from unthinkable horrors, and nothing will change that.