Nothing true under the sun: Why solar eclipses are a breeding ground for conspiracy theories

Experts explain why astronomical events are frequently fraught with conspiracy theories and magical thinking

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published April 5, 2024 5:30AM (EDT)

Alex Jones | Solar Eclipse  (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Alex Jones | Solar Eclipse (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

As a total solar eclipse approaches North America on April 8, Americans are gearing up for a spectacular celestial event. But some individuals are using the eclipse as a way to float unhinged conspiracy theories. 

Alex Jones, for example, is claiming that the government is planning to use the event as a practice run for declaring martial law during the eclipse, which will allegedly be enacted if former president Donald Trump wins the 2024 presidential election. And of course, it’s not just Jones. As Quartz reports, there are quite a few people on TikTok claiming the solar eclipse will mark the end of the world, drawing nonsensical parallels to biblical events. And apparently Carbondale, Illinois (population 25,000) is predicted to be doomsday's epicenter, because it sits the center of an X of the totality paths from both this year's eclipse and the one that graced North America in 2017.

But like Miranda Priestly once said: "Florals? For spring? Groundbreaking." The same can be said for conspiracy theories for a total solar eclipse. The two go together like peanut butter and jelly. In fact, humanity has a long history of stirring up conspiracy theories around the time of a solar eclipse — and this year is no different. 

“There are so many of them,” cult mediation specialist, Patrick Ryan, told Salon in a phone interview. “There are the purveyors like Alex Jones, who make money off these, then religious folks, who put together a story that can somehow make sense of the world, and it's not new.” 

Indeed, apocalyptic beliefs circling around a solar eclipses have existed since the beginning of mankind.

"When unexpectedly the sun went away in the middle of the day, of course that was seen as a sign from the heavens that we were doing something wrong on Earth."

According to NASA, one of the oldest recorded eclipses in human history may have been on Nov. 30, 3340 BCE, as petroglyphs were found at the Loughcrew Megalithic Monument in County Meath, Ireland. While little is known about what they understood about the solar eclipses back then, various religious and historical texts have mentioned them. In the Book of Joel, it is written "the sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood,” before the lord comes — which has continuously been interpreted that solar eclipses can be a sign of end times. As journalist David Baron wrote in his book, "American Eclipse: A Nation's Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World": “For millennia, total solar eclipses have awed, frightened and inspired.”

“This certainly goes back to ancient times before we understood what was happening,” Baron told Salon. “When unexpectedly the sun went away in the middle of the day, of course that was seen as a sign from the heavens that we were doing something wrong on Earth."

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Baron said that back in the sixth century BCE, there was a war that had been going on in Asia Minor for six years.

“When the soldiers saw the sun go away in the middle of the day, they took this as a sign that they needed to lay down their weapons,” he said. 

In 1878, an eclipse prompted similar fears of end times. While much of the world knew what to expect, some people in a small town in Texas didn't know the eclipse was coming. A frightened man who thought the world was ending killed himself and his son because he didn’t want to see the end of the world. But now people know what’s going on, and what to expect. And we've seen conspiracy theories come and go. Why do they still persist?

“A total solar eclipse is the most awe-inspiring spectacle in all of nature,” Baron said. “It puts you in touch with just how tiny and insignificant we are in the face of forces.”

People are frequently looking for more meaning in life and such a big event like the total solar eclipse can make people feel quite small and insignificant in the world. 

The scale of the solar system and our universe can boggle the mind, he added. Witnessing a total solar eclipse can put people in touch with a “majesty of nature” that doesn’t compare to other big events. For people prone to magical thinking and conspiracy theories, it’s not hard to see how one can jump from a total solar eclipse to conspiracy theory territory. Ryan, who works with people recovering from cults, said some individuals are frequently looking for more meaning in life, and a big event like the total solar eclipse can make people feel quite small and insignificant in the world. 

“If we have this special knowledge that we've gained, that these things mean something specific, then we're part of an elite group of people,” Ryan explained. “Those are the things that drive these; it’s just like QAnon and all the other conspiracies that we've been faced with.”

Research published in the journal Psychological Bulletin recently found those prone to conspiracy theories were more likely to be insecure, paranoid, emotionally volatile and impulsive — but it's not just personality traits that make people more vulnerable. Baron said it's important to remember the facts. 

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“But when you think about it, from the perspective of the clockwork of our universe, it's nothing more than the alignment of three bodies,” Baron said. “The earth, the moon and the sun, and a shadow being cast on the earth — that’s it.” 

Baron added that almost every total eclipse sees narratives of end times. But that’s not necessarily the majority.

“I think they tend to get attention because they're saying things that are a little outlandish,” he said. The best strategy, Ryan said, is to just kindly ignore people with conspiracy theories around the total solar eclipse and not take them too seriously.

“Arguing with people that hold those beliefs, I don't think it's helpful,” he said. “I think the main thing is to show them respect; unless somebody is going to do something horrible to themselves when it comes, it’s going to be an hour and it’s going to be gone.”

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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