Who Killed JFK? UM Professors Get To the Bottom of Conspiracy Theories in New Book

The cover of a new book by UM professors Joe Uscinski and Joe Parent
The cover of a new book by UM professors Joe Uscinski and Joe Parent
via Amazon.com

The CIA created lesbianism. The Walt Disney Company was secretly in league with spies. A Batman movie predicted multiple mass shootings. Spend five minutes on the Internet and you can find a conspiracy theory to fit any warped frame of reference on the planet. But the more interesting question is why we're all so inclined to believe that aliens are behind JFK's assassination.

That's exactly what University of Miami political science professor Joe Uscinski has been trying to solve for the past four years, and in a new book out this month, he offers his not-so-conspiratorial theory on the psychology behind the tin foil hat crowd.

"(They're) really driven by our own predispositions," he argues. "When people believe in conspiracy theories, those theories are aimed at the people they don't like already."

Together with co-author Joe Parent, another UM political scientist, the academic examined contemporary suspicions and also poured over newspaper editorials dating back more than a century for a longer-range understanding. Their work is the basis for American Conspiracy Theories, recently published by Oxford University Press.

"What we tried to do is take a huge sample of conspiracy theories over time," Uscinski tells Riptide. "By doing that, we were able to get a bigger, broader picture of why people buy into them."

The answer: It's human nature. Virtually everyone believes at least one conspiracy theory, and the theories have been equally rampant throughout the decades. "Everybody gets to accuse everybody, and at some point, they get accused themselves," he says.

But despite their prevalence, Uscinski says the theories don't actually influence people's opinions or stir mistrust; rather, they typically reflect the mistrust people already have. For example, take the Kennedy assassination.

"The Republicans think that (Lyndon) Johnson was did it. The Democrats believe that the military industrial complex did it or the CIA did it. Everybody can blame their own villain," Uscinski says.

The most popular contemporary theories, the Birther and Truther movements, also fit into this paradigm. The 30 precent of people who believe Barack Obama was born outside the United States reflects the percentage of conservatives predisposed to believe such theories; a roughly equal number of liberals believe George W. Bush was involved in 9/11.

"So if you say, 'Obama was born in another country,'" Uscinski says, "it's, you distrust Obama and you buy into theories that show you why."

Not that any analysis will stop the conspiratorial from believing. Among the professors' favorite contemporary theories: that Hollywood was somehow behind both the Aurora, Colorado and the Sandy Hook, Connecticut shootings because of a scene in Batman: Dark Knight Rises -- the same movie showing during the Aurora shooting -- where a police chief seems to point to a map with places named both "Aurora" and "Sandy Hook."

"There are a lot of things named 'Aurora,'" Uscinski says. "It's completely a coincidence."

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