The moon landing was faked. A second gunman fired from the grassy knoll. A shadowy organization secretly controls the world.
These and other conspiracy theories have become entrenched as pop-culture fodder and, for a certain subset of the population, as undeniable fact. But for Robert Blaskiewicz, a Brittain post-doctoral fellow in Tech’s School of Literature, Communication and Culture, conspiracy theories are all in a day’s work.
Blaskiewicz was working on his doctoral dissertation on the writings of World War II combat veterans when he began looking into the reliability, or lack thereof, of the men’s memories. That led him to research on false memory syndrome and the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s.
“The story that emerged in the press was that satanic cults were sacrificing babies at an alarming rate,” Blaskiewicz said. “This vast satanic conspiracy was completely without basis, but many people were terrified.”
His subsequent research delved into the various mental shortcuts the human brain has developed that, as a side effect, allow people to believe in things that aren’t true.
In classes like Science and Pseudoscience and American Conspiracy Theories, Blaskiewicz turns the theories into a challenge to students: Every supposed fact must be checked and verified or debunked.
“I try to take the sensationalism that makes these stories so attractive and memorable and put it into the service of critical thinking,” he said.
Blaskiewicz also writes about conspiracies for the website skepticalhumanities.com, which has earned the attention and ire of some conspiracy theorists.
“I’m genuinely interested in the stories and the people who believe them,” Blaskiewicz said. “But I have never talked someone who was really ideologically committed out of a belief in a conspiracy theory, so I don’t try. I’d much rather … show students how to recognize weak arguments.”
Why have these complex but ultimately rickety theories continued to be so popular? Blaskiewicz attributes it to the fact that they’re exciting, they’re easy to spread and they offer convenient explanations to political issues. “There are always scapegoats to blame and demonize, evils to fight. And the person who claims to oppose them is always on the side of the angels,” he said.
Blaskiewicz also leads the Atlanta chapter of the Independent Investigations Group, an organization that explores the “paranormal and extraordinary.” The group has a standing offer of $50,000 to anyone who can provide hard evidence proving the existence of the paranormal, occult or supernatural. The prize remains unclaimed.