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5 Famous Conspiracy Theories, Debunked

Did the British government murder Princess Diana? Were Americans behind the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370? Many people believe these dramatic theories, but a new look at the evidence finds no good reason to buy the hype.

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Mark Reinstein/Shutterstock

The murder of Princess Diana

In 1997, a year after she and Prince Charles divorced, Princess Diana was in the back seat of a Mercedes S-Class sedan speeding through the streets of Paris, tailed by paparazzi. Next to her was Dodi Al-Fayed, son of the billionaire who owned Harrods at the time, Mohamed Al-Fayed. In the front were Henri Paul, a security chief at the Ritz Paris, and Trevor Rees-Jones, Dodi’s bodyguard. None wore a seat belt. Paul, the driver, was drunk.

Entering an underpass tunnel at 60 mph, Paul grazed a slower-moving white Fiat Uno and lost control. The Mercedes slammed into a concrete pillar head-on and split nearly in half.

Dodi and Paul were killed outright. Rees-Jones was conscious with severe injuries. Diana lay fatally injured on the floor in the back. She died in a hospital three and a half hours later. Her body was embalmed that same day.

Soon after, Dodi’s bereaved father revealed that the couple were engaged and expecting a baby (a claim that the embalming made impossible to verify). He began asking pointed questions: Why were there no security videos of what happened? Why was her body embalmed if not to hide her pregnancy by a Muslim? And where was the mysterious white Fiat?

The facts: The United Kingdom’s Metropolitan Police Service looked into the matter. They found that there was, in fact, a traffic-monitoring camera mounted above the entrance to the underpass that would have captured the collision between the two cars. But this camera only monitored live traffic and didn’t record the feed. Because the traffic unit’s office closed an hour before the accident, nobody witnessed whatever might have been visible on the screen.

The embalming of Diana’s body was problematic because the fluid can contaminate a postmortem examination’s toxicology reports. However, the French police and the British consul-­general had authorized the hospital to do so because Diana’s family would be viewing the body.

And what about that white Fiat? Authorities investigated the paint it left on the Mercedes wreck. The color was called ­Bianco Corfu and had been used only on Fiat Uno cars manufactured between 1983 and 1987. A massive dragnet by French police examined roughly 2,000 cars with the paint—none was a match. But even if the British government had chosen to kill Diana, as Dodi’s father insinuated, death by Fiat Uno was a horrible plan. Using a lightweight Fiat to bump a much heavier Mercedes S-Class is not exactly a sure-thing assassination.

Diana’s was a tragic death but an accidental one. Henri Paul was drunk and driving too fast, which is precisely what the British police found. These are other conspiracies that still surround Princess Diana’s death

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5 Famous Conspiracy Theories, Debunked Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370Joshua Paul/Nurphoto/Shutterstock
Some respondents to a CNN poll believed Flight MH370 fell victim to aliens or beings from another dimension.

Who brought down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370?

On March 8, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 left Kuala Lumpur for Beijing with 239 people on board. It never got there, and conspiracy theorists wanted answers. Why had radio communications ceased 40 minutes after the plane left Malaysian airspace? Why, when it turned back toward Malaysia, did it bypass Kuala Lumpur only to disappear without a trace over the Indian Ocean? Perhaps the plane had been hijacked, some speculated. Then why didn’t it land somewhere? Maybe it was a suicide plan by one of the pilots—even though none had shown suicidal tendencies. One theory suggested that MH370 was being used to deliver a nuclear weapon to North Korea, so the Americans shot it down.

The facts: Some airline pilots believe Flight MH370 fell victim to an electrical fire. If pilots had smelled smoke in the cockpit, the first thing they would have done is shut down all the electronics they could spare. Thus, all radio and automated communications would have stopped.

In any case, there would have been no voice transmissions because pilots are trained that communicating is the last priority in an emergency. If a fire was suspected, putting it out would have taken precedence.

The second priority is to find the safest place to land. The flight path, as seen on military radar, suggests the crew was likely heading not back to mountainous Kuala Lumpur but to an airport at Pulau Langkawi, with easier access and longer runways. It’s believed the pilots of the plane, at that point west of Thailand, became incapacitated from carbon monoxide or decompression. The aircraft, which by then could well have been a flying tomb, was presumably brought down by lack of fuel or fire damage.

The third priority, communicating with the outside world, is something they obviously never got around to.

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5 Famous Conspiracy Theories, Debunked Roswell aliensSusan Sterner/AP/Shutterstock
These remains at Roswell’s UFO museum aren’t real, but polls show nearly half of all Americans believe in aliens.

Roswell: Spaceships, aliens, and cover-ups

In 1947, after some strange debris was found near Roswell Army Air Field (RAAF) in New Mexico, the local newspaper ran the headline “RAAF Captures Flying Saucer on Ranch in Roswell Region.” The next day, the Roswell Daily Record printed a correction, stating that it was merely debris from a weather balloon. The coverage raised few eyebrows until 1991, when retired Roswell mortician Glenn Dennis wrote a book based on his 44-year-old memories with “ufologist” Stanton Friedman. Their reconstruction forms the entire basis of the modern Roswell mythology, including alien bodies, multiple crash sites, and an aggressive military cover-up.

The facts: Under pressure from the public, in 1997 the Air Force ordered an investigation into the extraordinary claims. It turns out that Dennis wasn’t very good with dates.

For example, he recalled going to the base one day and finding everyone agitated. He remembered a red-haired colonel, accompanied by a black sergeant, throwing him off the base. Dennis pointed to this as part of the cover-up. But it likely didn’t happen in 1947, because the Air Force did not begin racial integration until 1949. And the only red-haired colonel ever stationed there didn’t arrive until 1954.

Dennis also recalled an Air Force nurse friend being very upset over the autopsy of three small bodies that were mangled, burned black, and emitting noxious fumes. In fact, these bodies came from a 1956 crash of a KC-97G aircraft, which killed all 11 crew members in an intense cabin fire. Three of the charred corpses were soaked in fuel and had to be moved from the military base because of the strong fumes. These crazy conspiracy theories actually turned out to be true.

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5 Famous Conspiracy Theories, Debunked Pentagon 9/11Rex/Shutterstock
There are those who insist that Flight 77 could not have been hijacked and crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11, killing a total of 189, because Flight 77 never actually existed.

The Pentagon and the missile

On the morning of September 11, 2001, something flew into the Pentagon, killing 125 people who worked at the building. All the evidence shows that it was American Airlines Flight 77, a hijacked Boeing 757 that had just left Washington Dulles International Airport en route to Los Angeles. Or was it?

Conspiracy theorists insist that what many thought was a weaponized airplane was actually a missile strike executed by the American government and not by terrorists. Their proof: First, there was no aircraft wreckage at the Pentagon site. If an entire airliner had crashed there, the parts would be scattered everywhere. Second, the Pentagon’s defense systems would have shot down any incoming threat. That no such system was used proves that the government allowed the attack to take place. Third, the radar track of the incoming object showed a trajectory that was much too tight and unsafe for a 757 to have made. Lastly, only one security-camera video showed the object hit the building, and the plane’s tall vertical tail was missing from the film.

The facts: Two of the main pieces of evidence put forth by 9/11 truthers are simply false. There was plenty of aircraft wreckage at the crash site, and it’s easy to find photos of it online. (And, no, it wasn’t planted later. The wreckage was visible in the live news footage.) As for the Pentagon’s defense systems, it never had any. In all the thousands of aerial photographs of the Pentagon, there is no indication of rooftop defenses.

Regarding the plane’s approach, it was indeed a wild and unusual circular descent that would have been unsafe to perform in a large plane such as the 757. But (a) it was still within a 757’s capabilities, and (b) the hijackers never had any intention of being safe. Moreover, missiles have no need to circle to lose altitude; they can simply descend in a straight line. Large planes can’t do so as easily.

As for the video of the incoming small white streak? No tail is visible because, in the one frame in which the plane appears, it has not yet entirely entered the field of view, so its tail is still out of frame.

Finally, let’s consider the sheer number of people who would have to be in on the “truth” in order to pull off the deception. What is the minimum number of employees working for American Airlines and the airport who would know if a nonexistent flight were added to their database? Everyone from baggage handlers to gate crews would have reported the inconsistency up their chain of command. How many people would have had to be paid off or killed, without a single witness coming forward to report this over almost two decades?

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5 Famous Conspiracy Theories, Debunked Pearl Harbor USS ArizonaEverett Historical/Shutterstock
The USS Arizona aflame. The officer on duty saw the Japanese military on radar reports, but he mistook those bombers for Americans.

Why was Pearl Harbor so vulnerable?

December 7, 1941, is a date that will live in infamy for conspiracy theorists, mostly for the many questionable decisions made by military leaders that day. For example:

✦ The aircraft in Hawaii were gathered in groups and out in the open, where they were most vulnerable to attacking planes. Ships in the harbor were similarly gathered, making them easy targets for torpedoes.

✦ Americans had broken a Japanese code called Purple and should have known about any planned attacks.

✦ A radar station at Opana Point detected the incoming strike force, but instead of raising the alarm, Lt. Kermit Tyler, the officer on duty, let everyone go to breakfast.

✦ And the big one: One of three aircraft carriers was supposed to be guarding Pearl Harbor at all times, yet none was present at the time of the attack.
All this has led some to conclude that the military knew of the impending invasion but allowed it to happen in order to go to war with Japan.

The facts: The military never considered an air strike likely. According to a 1944 judge advocate’s report that investigated the debacle, military leaders were more concerned about sabotage, and the best defense against sabotage was to group all the planes together out in the open, making them easier to guard. The same with the battleships—it’s easier to guard one cluster of ships than ships scattered around the harbor. But while grouping the ships may have deterred saboteurs, it made them sitting ducks for the bombers.
Conspiracists are correct about the code Purple—it had been broken. But it was a diplomatic code, not military. Intelligence gained from it provided no warning of the Pearl Harbor attack.

As for Lt. Tyler, he did see the planes heading for Pearl Harbor on radar reports. But he mistook them for a flight of American B-17 bombers scheduled to arrive that morning. A 1942 court of inquiry cleared him of any wrongdoing.

This leaves the “intentionally” absent aircraft carriers. The carrier USS Saratoga was coming out of overhaul in Seattle, leaving only the USS Lexington and the USS Enterprise on duty. With the threat of war looming, both carriers were tasked with ferrying aircraft to the strategic islands of Midway and Wake on staggered schedules so that one was always defending Pearl Harbor. But just as the Lexington left and the Enterprise was supposed to get back, the Enterprise struck bad weather and was kept at sea two days longer than planned. That second day was December 7. These are other things they’re still not telling you about Pearl Harbor.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest