Separating Fact from Fantasy

Law and society program director explores the significance of conspiracy theories – and Senator Arlen Specter
white man in grey shirt sitting at desk with gavel laying on top of a book
Evan Laine, director of the law and society program, and associate professor of history in the College of Humanities and Sciences. Photo by ©Thomas Jefferson University Photography Services

Was the moon landing somehow faked? Was organized crime behind the Kennedy assassination? Is there more – or less – behind what happened on 9/11, and who was really behind it? Did President Nixon stall the Vietnam peace process?

Depending on the specific theory and one’s own religious and political leanings, people may believe things despite overwhelming logic, science and concrete proof that say otherwise. Some folks may believe in – and help spread – such theories simply because it seems like fun, and harmless. But doing so can be far more dangerous and destructive than even the merely disingenuous and naïve may realize.

Professor Evan Edward Laine, director of the law and society program, faculty director, Arlen Specter Center, and associate professor of history in the College of Humanities and Sciences, has dedicated his career to investigating the root of conspiracy theories. More recently he’s also been focused on the life of Senator Arlen Spector, who chaired the Warren Commission investigation into the Kennedy assassination. Read on to learn more about his work.

Q: Tell us a bit about your field or area of research. What’s one question you’re exploring?

A: My main areas of research concern the impetus of and belief in conspiracy theory, and the career of Senator Arlen Specter.  There are many instances where those subjects intersect. One such intersection is the Iran/Contra scandal, where the Reagan administration illegally sold arms to a hostile nation – Iran – to then illegally fund an insurrection in Nicaragua, while also facilitating the sale of crack to poor neighborhoods to further fund that effort.  Specter’s opposition to Reagan’s plans and his investigations into their actions were pivotal in determining what really happened.

Q: What first sparked your interest in your area of research/your research question?

A: My master’s thesis at Rutgers, which is now a book, Nixon and The Dragon Lady, concerns a real conspiracy by the former president to stall the peace process in Vietnam. At that time I was listening to the audio version of President Clinton’s autobiography, when he dropped a line about a possible conspiracy theory that was floating around D.C. that Nixon had intentionally sabotaged possible peace negotiations in Vietnam in 1968 so as to ensure his election. Fascinated, I dug very deeply into this until I had created a 200-page book on the subject. This book started my interest in conspiracies, real and imagined.

After that, a student here (when it was Philadelphia University), who had watched a very popular conspiracy movie about 9/11, enthusiastically told me about it and how much he believed the theories that the movie espoused.  I watched it and realized just how powerful and dangerous cleverly presented, but false stories, can be. This realization led to my investigating why people believed and propagated conspiracies that the Bush administration, rather than Osama Bin Laden, was behind the 9/11 attacks. After conducting an extensive survey and performing intensive research I have done with my colleague Raju Parakkal, we concluded that the psychological effects of stress/fear is/was a major motivating factor for this particular conspiracy belief. We recently explored these findings in a short film in the Washington Post.

My interest in Senator Specter arose from my being appointed the faculty director of the Arlen Specter Center. Upon my designation, I researched the career of the late Senator which revealed his pivotal role in many areas of American history, whether it was the Supreme Court, foreign policy, criminal justice, medical research or support of LGTBQ rights.  I cover many of these topics in my book Arlen Specter: Scandals, Conspiracies, and Crisis in Focus.

This was to be part of the Office at the Arlen Specter Center for Senator Specter had he lived. The photos of him with world leaders are a recreation of what he had in his DC office.

Q: What’s the fire in your belly that drives your passion for your research?

A: For our nation to continue, we must make our decisions and policy based on fact and not fantasy.  Exposing or debunking the nonsense is critical to our survival as a democracy. Conspiracy theories can lead to disastrous, if not murderous, actions. It was the conspiracy theory of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion that had a strong influence on the initiation of the holocaust.  Unsubstantiated theories now about negative effects of  mask wearing and side effects of the COVID 19 vaccination have led to needless deaths and suffering.  Belief in absurd conspiracy theories, such as QAnon, led to the January 6th insurrection this year.

Q: How long have you been at Jefferson? What led you here?

A: I’ve been here for 12 years. I was recommended by professor Phillip Scranton at Rutgers after completing my Masters in American History and winning the Graduate Award for Achievement for my thesis, Nixon and the Dragon Lady: Did Richard Nixon Conspire with Anna Chennault in 1968 to Destroy Peace in Vietnam? Professor Scranton had previously taught here and still had contacts here.  My portrait for winning the Thomas Jefferson University President’s Award for Excellence now hangs in the Gutman Library very close to his!

Q: If you had any words of advice for an aspiring researcher or student in this field, what would they be?

A: Find an area of research that not only interests you but also one where you may actually have impact.