The advice column in the April 1969 issue of Playboy included the usual questions about broads, beers, and baldness, followed by an unusually long (300-word) letter that began:
I recently heard an old man of right-wing views—a friend of my grandparents—assert that the current wave of assassinations in America is the work of a secret society called the Illuminati. He said that the Illuminati have existed throughout history, own the international banking cartels, have all been 32nd-degree Masons and were known to Ian Fleming, who portrayed them as SPECTRE in his James Bond books—for which the Illuminati did away with Mr. Fleming.
The letter ended with two questions: Do they really own all the banks and TV stations? And who have they killed lately?
Playboy gave a 350-word response tracing the history of the Illuminati and seemingly reassuring the letter-writer:
The belief that the Illuminati … are responsible for most of our evils is about the fourth most common form of organized paranoia extant (its three more popular rivals are the Elders of Zion conspiracy, the Jesuit conspiracy, and the notion that we have already been invaded by outer space, our governments being in the hands of Martians).
This exchange was followed in later issues by more letters arguing for and against previous letters and answers.
Why was so much valuable space devoted to this hardly relevant topic? Did Playboy run out of sexy photographs?
It turned out that the letters were an elaborate prank played by Robert Anton Wilson, who was a Playboy editor at the time, and Kerry Thornley (aka Lord Omar Khayyam Ravenhurst), one of the authors of the mischievous book Principia Discordia, which urged readers to worship Eris, the Greek goddess of chaos, through civil disobedience and pranks.
Fascination with, and belief in, conspiracy theories has not died down since the Playboy letters. When Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th President of the United States, social media lit up with claims that he used a Masonic/Illuminati Bible. One widely shared Facebook post mused, “Sooo has anyone else realized this yet or???? Masonic/Illuminati Bible that Biden swore on yesterday…I do believe a lot of weird and scary sh*t is gonna go down at some point…”
No matter that Biden was holding an 1893 edition of the Douay-Rheims Bible (1609 edition pictured) which, until the 1900s, was the only authorized English-language Bible for Roman Catholics. This Bible was a Biden family heirloom that Biden had used at nine previous swearing-in ceremonies (seven times as a U.S. Senator and twice as Vice-President). John F. Kennedy, the only other Catholic President, had also used a Douay-Rheims Bible when he took his oath of office in 1961. The idea that the Douay-Rheims Bible is an Illuminati Bible is utterly preposterous since the Illuminati opposed the Roman Catholic Church, but logic doesn’t matter to true believers.
The Illuminati conspiracy stems from the real existence of the Order of the Illuminati, a secret society founded in Bavaria, Germany, in 1776 by intellectuals opposed to the power of the Bavarian monarch and the Roman Catholic Church. Within a decade, it had been infiltrated and disbanded by the Bavarian government.
Fast forward to the 1960s and the merry pranksters, Wilson and Thornley, decided it would be a hoot to get people riled up about this long-defunct secret organization. They wrote fictitious letters to Playboy, initially inquiring and then arguing about the Illuminati, which Wilson ensured would be published. Playboy was an unlikely venue, but that is where Wilson worked.
At one point, Wilson wondered aloud, “What if there really is an Illuminati? Maybe they’ll find out about us and be pissed.” Thornley responded, “I doubt if there is, and if there by some chance is, they would probably be very happy to have wild-ass fools like us covering up for them by spreading bizarre theories.”
One thing led to another and soon Wilson and another Playboy editor published The Illuminatus! Trilogy, a free-for-all collection of five (naturally not three) books promoting pretty much any and all conspiracy theories they knew of. They later wrote that their working assumption was that “all these nuts are right, and every single conspiracy they complain about really exists.”
This book of nonsense was a surprise success and soon there was an Illuminati play, an Illuminati card game, and plenty of conspiracies to attribute to the Illuminati, including the assassination of JFK and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The imaginary Illuminati continue to make guest appearances in plays, movies, novels, and comic books, oddly enough with their purported goal no longer to oppose the ruling elite but to impose a new world order.
A series of surveys between the years 2006 and 2011 found that roughly half of all Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory. In the 2011 survey, for example, 19% believed that, “Certain U.S. government officials planned the attacks of September 11, 2001, because they wanted the United States to go to war in the Middle East;” 19% believed that, “Billionaire George Soros is behind a hidden plot to destabilize the American government, take control of the media, and put the world under his control;” and 25% believed that, “The current financial crisis was secretly orchestrated by a small group of Wall Street bankers to extend the power of the Federal Reserve and further their control of the world’s economy.” A 2016 Public Policy Survey found that 4% of Americans (12.5 million people) believe that the U.S. government is controlled by alien lizard people.
Outside of pranksters, what is the attraction of conspiracy theories? One plausible explanation is that people struggling with personal difficulties find it easier to blame their troubles on others than to take responsibility. If I make a bad stock investment, it is because insiders are manipulating the market. If I lose my job, it is because the Fed is manipulating the economy. If my life isn’t working out the way I wanted, it is because the elite control the government for their own benefit.
The novelty of the modern era is that conspiracy theories have gained wide attraction through the internet and social media.
There was a time when most people got their news from a relatively small number of major newspapers, magazines, radio stations, and television networks that fact-checked (in varying degrees) the stories they reported. They may have been somewhat biased in the stories they chose to report, the words they chose to use, and the details they chose to include, but they didn’t promote obviously nutty stories as reality.
Now, the easy access and wide reach of the Internet and social media allows pretty much anyone to say pretty much anything and perhaps find a receptive audience, including such evidence-free assertions as the earth is flat, school shootings are “false flag” operations, and Bill Gates orchestrated the COVID-19 crisis so that he can use a vaccine to insert microchips into our bodies.
Ironically, such far-fetched nonsense is the kind of dragon that science was intended to slay. But now the dragons of superstition and fanciful delusion are more powerful than ever because of the internet and social media – technological tools created and developed by science.
Being skeptical may have had survival value for our ancient ancestors, but this caution has morphed into the ludicrous. Like a Frankenstein monster that has gotten out of control, the internet and social media now power the anti-science movement that doubts scientists and rejects science. The consequences can be tragic, as in the recent heroic efforts of science to develop safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines, to which too many have reacted with distrust, misinformation, and refusals to be vaccinated.
The costs of rejecting science are enormous, not just for anti-scientists, but for society as a whole.