Conspiracy theories. Where do they come from? The C.I.A. killed President John F. Kennedy. The Apollo 11 astronauts never landed on the moon. A scientist created AIDS in a laboratory so it could be used as a biological weapon. The federal government blew up the levies in New Orleans. Last spring, a student expressed concern in class about Jade Helm, the U.S. military training exercise that irked many people here in Texas because they feared the Obama Administration would suspend their civil liberties as part of a power grab. Once I checked some credible news sources, I reassured everyone that they didn’t have anything to worry about. I don’t think this satisfied the individual who raised the issue in the first place, but I know that I handled the situation in a professional manner.
After thinking about the challenge that conspiracy theories present when mentioned in the classroom, I’ve decided that they’re a great opportunity for me to explain how academics conduct research and the need for all people to develop their information literacy skills to uplift the public discourse. Here I explain to students that we can only make claims after analyzing the factual evidence available to us. For example, in history we can only offer interpretations of primary source materials that exist and we cannot offer interpretations if such materials do not exist. In political science we often test hypotheses by using rigorous quantitative methods to generate data. Next, we analyze the data compiled. No support for our hypotheses means that there isn’t an association between two or more variables being studied. Furthermore, our research needs to be critiqued by others in the discipline when we submit it for publication to guarantee that the work is sound. This process is sometimes frustrating, but it is necessary. Beyond formal academic research, I also talk to my students about the credibility and intentions of the sources that produce the content they’re reading, listening to, and/or watching. Technology has democratized access to information, but this diffusion of power has created a new responsibility: thinking about who produces the content we consume and why.
In addition to teaching students about the importance of making claims supported by evidence, I share a concrete historical example where law enforcement officials intentionally violated people’s rights in an attempt to undercut popular social movements that challenged unjust conditions: the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Counter Intelligence Program (often referred to as COINTELPRO). As a case study, this controversial government program is edifying for multiple reasons. First, we need to examine how power has been misused in our democratic republic to target even the most non-violent of reformers like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr (click here for a New York Times article and here for an NPR podcast). Secondly, the documents have been declassified and anyone may access them through the FBI’s website. Unlike the wild conspiracy theories listed above, actual primary source materials, i.e. solid evidence (of COINTELPRO), exists for us to interpret. Lastly, notable works on COINTELPRO such as Spying on America by James Kirkpatrick Davis have been published by reputable, “scholarly nonfiction” presses like Praeger.
The classroom is a physical space where students explore ideas, concepts, theories, and events through a guided discussion that is predicated upon substance. As they build their knowledge, it’s imperative to consider the topics that are introduced and the types of sources that they learn from. In my professional opinion, conspiracy theories harm us on both an intellectual and a social level. While no one should be silenced in any conversation, the classroom should never be used to disseminate unsupported claims because this undermines a major goal of education and diverts us from analyzing established fact. That’s why I now choose to respond the way I do whenever students volunteer them.
Click here for image source.