Top 20 Scientific Conspiracy Theories That Turned Out to Be True
Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 20 Scientific Conspiracy Theories That Turned Out to Be True.
For this list, we’ll be looking at the times scientific conspiracy theories ended up having an inkling of truth.
Which unproven conspiracies could you see on this list in the future? Let us know in the comments.
#20: The Sugar Industry Paid Off Scientists
It’s hard to imagine now with everything we know about diabetes and dental hygiene, but sugar was once viewed by many as a healthy food. The reason? Sugar producers and sweets companies pushed fat as the enemy instead. In 2016, a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco found that the Sugar Research Foundation funded a 1967 Harvard study downplaying sugar’s impact on heart health, instead pointing to saturated fat as a cause of heart disease. Meanwhile, Coca-Cola had been paying researchers millions to minimize the relationship between sugary sodas and obesity as recently as 2015. Unlike the taste of their products, these companies’ ethics were anything but sweet.
#19: The CIA Experimented on Cats
Atomic Kitten isn’t just a girl group. During the height of the spy film craze in the 1960s, the CIA devised an interesting use for our feline friends — turning them into bionic carrier pigeons. In an initiative called Operation Acoustic Kitty, they inserted recording devices into cats so that they could eavesdrop on government officials and bring back secret intel. But in an extremely predictable turn of events, they had little interest in the pursuit of espionage and continued acting like normal cats, causing the tactic to be abandoned. On a Catwoman scale of Eartha Kitt to Zoë Kravitz, it’s safe to say this experiment was a Halle Berry-level misfire.
#18: The US Navy Sprayed Chemicals Into the Bay Area
San Francisco is known for its fog, but it’s also been host to sinister substances. One day in 1950, eleven Bay Area residents checked into the same hospital with urinary tract infections. While ten recovered, one died due to a heart valve infection. Finally in 1977, the US Army revealed it was the result of a biological warfare test called Operation Sea-Spray. Weeks before the mysterious infections were reported, the Navy released two types of bacteria off a ship to test their impact on the city’s population. Additionally, the Army announced several other bioweapon experiments across the country from the 1950s and ‘60s that had gone undetected. While President Nixon put a stop to the program in 1969, this revelation isn’t any less terrifying.
#17: Breakfast Is Not the Most Important Meal of the Day
It’s magically delicious, but how about nutritious? While there are plenty of legitimate health benefits to starting the day with a balanced breakfast, that hasn’t always been the reason it was pushed so hard. After meat-heavy breakfasts went on the decline due to their digestive difficulty during the Industrial Revolution, James Caleb Jackson and John Harvey Kellogg changed the game with flaked corn cereal. As Seventh-day Adventists, they believed that a bland diet could aid in abstinence and ward off impure thoughts. Furthermore, emphasizing cereal potentially helped the US government in their meat-rationing efforts during World War II. So don’t worry too badly the next time you miss out on a breakfast of champions — it just might be a clever marketing tactic.
#16: The CIA Created a Heart Attack Gun
Guns and arrests go hand in hand, but cardiac arrests? Not so much. So-called heart attack guns seemed like the stuff of James Bond movies, until a 1975 CIA testimony revealed their existence. During the hearing, CIA director William Colby and Idaho Senator Frank Church unveiled a handgun that shot frozen darts containing shellfish toxin. Upon entering the body, the poison would leave behind a red dot and give off the impression of a heart attack — allowing the shooter to get away untraced, at least until the autopsy. However, while there’s evidence of the gun’s existence, there aren’t any confirmed cases of it being used in high-profile assassinations.
#15: The CIA Administered Fake Vaccines
Vaccines have long been a favorite subject for conspiracy theorists, and this might be the closest they’ve come to vindication. In 2011, the CIA conducted a Hepatitis B vaccination program in Pakistan — the catch? The vaccines were fake, and peoples’ DNA was being collected as an effort to retrieve Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts. The scheme was unsuccessful in more ways than one: besides doing little to track down the al-Qaeda leader, it’s still cited as a reason to distrust the US government when it comes to other more recent vaccines. While bin Laden was eventually located by other means that same year, the mission has done plenty to dissuade people from getting the jab.
#14: Planned Obsolescence
Out with the old, in with the new. It’s long been speculated that tech companies like Apple and Samsung have purposely slowed down their existing gadgets after releasing new updates and models. And while the evidence was purely anecdotal at first, the arrival of iOS 10 in 2016 opened up the floodgates… or should we say, Batterygate. Months later, Apple admitted that the iPhone 6 and 6S struggled to adjust to the new update, causing slow phones and drained batteries. In the years since, the company has continued to face class action lawsuits and investigations related to the incident. The term “planned obsolescence” goes back to the 1930s, but confirmation of it in the digital age showed people they weren’t going crazy after all.
#13: The US Employed Nazi Scientists
As Europe began the denazification process after World War II, the United States went in a rather different direction. While preparing for the Cold War against the Soviet Union in the second half of the 1940s, then-President Harry S. Truman allowed over 1,600 German scientists and engineers to live and work in the US However, several of them were former Nazis now working on projects for the American military. Their involvement with the Nazi Party varied, with some having little and others being full-blown leaders. One scientist, Hubertus Strughold, even experimented on humans in concentration camps before getting to rebuild his life in the US as “the Father of Space Medicine.” People love a comeback story, but this one is understandably controversial.
#12: Gas Companies Knew About Climate Change
From sugary sodas to cancerous cigarettes, corporations have long seeked to suppress harmful truths about their products. But rather than impacting personal health, this one had global implications. Beginning in the 1970s, oil and gas giant ExxonMobil put its money behind climate change research, funding groups that dismissed human-caused global warming while knowing it existed. They even had a hand in the Global Climate Coalition, which fought the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty that pledged to lower greenhouse gas emissions. ExxonMobil’s climate denial continued through the ‘80s, ‘90s, and 2000s, first admitting that global warming posed an environmental threat in 2007. To this day, climate change’s treatment as a debate instead of a consensus can be traced back to the lobbying of fossil fuel companies.
#11: Weather Control Programs
The history of the US government’s attempts to control the weather began after the Civil War. In the late 1800s, an American engineer collected dozens of stories of rain following large battles. To recreate the effect, a general set off $9,000 worth of explosives in Texas. The results were inconclusive. The better part of a century later, the Pentagon incorporated weather control into their strategy for the Vietnam War. Operation Sober Popeye lasted for five years. Using planes, the military tried to seed rain clouds over Vietnam. If they could extend the monsoon season, it could provide a strategic advantage. A series of news stories revealed the program. Six years later in 1978, weather-based environmental warfare was banned around the world.
#10: The CIA Drugged Citizens Without Their Knowledge
Johns in the sky with diamonds? As part of a larger program on mind control in the 1950s and ‘60s, the CIA set their sights on an unlikely population to test the effects of LSD: clients of sex workers. By paying ladies of the night to lure in unsuspecting men, the agency was able to study how the substance could affect people who didn’t know they’d taken it — more specifically, whether they were likely to give up compromising information. As the sex workers drugged their patrons, CIA consultant George White would analyze their behavior from behind a one-way mirror. Of all the shady CIA experiments, this one quite possibly has the wildest code name, and that’s saying a lot: Operation Midnight Climax.
#9: Canada Tried to Create Actual Gaydar
In the mid-twentieth century, gay men and women had to keep their orientation secret or risk losing their social standing, jobs, or even their lives. In an attempt to ferret out gay men in the military and other government institutions from the 1950s on, the Canadian government hired professor Frank Robert Wake. Wake invented what they would ultimately call “The Fruit Machine.” Today, we’d call it “gaydar.” Wake would strap men into a chair, force them to look at sexual images, and measure their physical reactions. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police investigated thousands of government employees as a result. Many men lost their jobs due to the dubious test results until it was discontinued.
#8: The US Government Poisoned Alcohol During Prohibition
Ratified in 1919, the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution prohibited alcohol. The period of prohibition would last until 1933, ending with the ratification of the 21st Amendment. Despite the law, illegal smuggling, manufacturing, and distribution of drinking alcohol was rampant. In an attempt to curtail drinking, the U.S. government tried something radical. Even before 1920, they’d mandated that extra contaminants be added to industrial alcohol to prevent its consumption. In 1926, they added new regulations, requiring the inclusion of more toxic poisons. Manufacturers added benzine, mercury, and methanol. Unsurprisingly, this stopped neither the bootleggers nor the drinkers. An estimated 10,000 people died and many others were blinded.
#7: Big Tobacco Hid Evidence Linking Smoking to Cancer
Today, the connection between smoking cigarettes and lung cancer is well known. Packs of cigarettes sold in the United States must now have Surgeon General warning labels. It wasn’t always that way. Big Tobacco spent years fighting the government on this decision, claiming innocence and a lack of evidence. As it turns out, that was a decades-old lie. The cigarette companies had internal studies dating back to the 1950s on the effects of smoking. Cigarette smoke contains harmful substances like tar, cyanide, lead, and arsenic. However, Big Tobacco knew in 1959 that it also contains a radioactive isotope: Polonium-210. Cigarette companies could have removed it, but doing so would have made absorbing nicotine harder, and affected their profits.
#6: The US Government Investigates UFOs
The truth is out there! For years, conspiracy theories about aliens have filled newsletters and online forums. Aliens exist and the government is secretly studying them! As it turns out, that’s half true. The US Government admitted in 2017 that from 2007-2012 there was a $22 million investigation. The Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program collected data on UFOs. Also in 2017, several remarkable videos were leaked from US Navy sightings of UFOs, which were eventually confirmed by the Pentagon as authentic. In 2020, a successor program was formed, the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force, replaced in 2022 with the All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office.
#5: The US Government Experimented on Black Men
For four decades, the CDC and the United States Public Health Service conducted the Tuskegee Study, enlisting 600 impoverished black men in Alabama in 1932. The men, mostly sharecroppers, were deceived about its real purpose: to study syphilis. Two thirds of the men had latent syphilis, but rather than informing them, or treating them with penicillin, researchers monitored them and gave fake treatments for “bad blood.” Over 100 died of syphilis-related medical problems. Forty of their wives contracted the disease and nineteen children were born with it. A whistleblower revealed the true nature of the study, which was shut down in 1972. President Clinton offered an official apology from the U.S. Government in 1997.
#4: The United States’ Human Radiation Experiments
At the dawn of the Nuclear Age in the 1940s, governments were desperate for data. In the US, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) turned to human experimentation, commissioning dozens of studies. In one, an MIT professor fed radioactive material to mentally disabled boys. Researchers at Vanderbilt University gave pregnant women radioactive pills. US soldiers were exposed to radiation, patients at hospitals were injected with plutonium, and prisoners had their testicles irradiated, leading to birth defects. In Operation SUNSHINE, the AEC and US Air force enlisted agents to steal tissue samples and body parts from 1,500 cadavers, many of them children, whose remains were pillaged without the consent of parents. In 1994, President Bill Clinton oversaw the release of classified records and made a formal apology on behalf of the government.
#3: Bayer Spread HIV
Many conspiracies tend to focus on governmental cabals. Oftentimes though, some of the worst secrets come from the private sector. German pharmaceutical company Bayer has been selling aspirin since 1899. Since that time, they’ve expanded to all kinds of drugs and medicines. In the 1980s, the Bayer-owned company Cutter Biological was selling blood-clotting factors for hemophiliacs, but recruiting high-risk donors to manufacture it. That clotting factor became contaminated with HIV. When the problem was discovered, Cutter declared the response “irrational” but switched over to safe, heat-treated products for the Western market. Then, they shipped the contaminated product to Latin America and Asia to make a buck. Roughly 20,000 patients were infected by Bayer’s products.
#2: The Government Is Spying on You
The United States has a long history of mass surveillance. During the Civil Rights Movement, intelligence agencies targeted and sought to silence political dissidents through a program known as COINTELPRO. But leaked information from whistleblowers has revealed surveillance systems in the 21st century that beggar belief. After 9/11, President George W. Bush empowered the NSA to conduct mass surveillance, both foreign and domestic, on an unprecedented scale. This included warrantless-wiretapping of telephones. But it’s much worse than that, with programs that suck up emails, text messages, and video chats via tech giants, or straight from undersea cables! Combined with their collection of cellular metadata, the NSA has constructed a full-blown digital panopticon.
#1: The CIA Ran Mind Control Experiments
The CIA is a conspiracy bogeyman, and for good reason. Their fearsome reputation owes a lot to the infamous MKUltra program. The program was meant to pioneer biochemical and psychological techniques. The CIA wanted to manipulate people in influential positions and to develop a truth serum for interrogation. They gave LSD to volunteers, students, doctors, civilians, and even their own employees. Usually, they did so without anyone’s informed consent. They tested hypnosis and interrogation techniques. They tested on Canadians using brutal electroshock methods. They tested on Danes. The horrible program may have never ended if not for the Watergate Scandal, which caused widespread panic in Washington D.C. CIA director Richard Helms ordered that all records be destroyed in 1973, and only 20,000 escaped destruction.