Dec 18 2015

Professor Fired over Sandy Hook Conspiracy Theory

TracyJames Tracy taught Culture of Conspiracy at Florida Atlantic University, and yet, amazingly, is himself a conspiracy theorist. This is sort of like allowing a creationist to teach evolutionary theory.

I think this analogy is apt because in order to properly teach the culture of conspiracy, one must understand how conspiracy thinking works, and especially where it goes horribly wrong. By all accounts, Tracy does not understand this – he is a victim of it.

As a reminder, in December 2012 a disturbed young man decided it would be a good idea to go into an elementary school and slaughter young children. He killed his mother, 20 children, 6 teachers, and then himself. This was a horrific event for the families, for the town, and for our country. This was every parent’s worst nightmare.

The tragedy took place in Sandy Hook Elementary, in Newtown, CT. As it happens, my parents and brother live in Sandy Hook. I also have friends who had children in the school (none hurt, thankfully), and one of those friends was at the school when the shooting took place. Her husband (also a friend) was one of the first responders and saw the bodies.

I point all this out for a couple of probably obvious reasons. The first is that I am only one degree of separation from direct eyewitnesses. The second is to point out that this is a small CT town. There are hundreds of families at least with similar connections to the shooting. Keep this in mind.

I wrote about Tracy in January of 2013 – right after the shooting he was already raising conspiracy questions about its veracity. At the time he was “just asking questions.” It seems he has progressed to harassing the families of victims.

Tracy believes that the Sandy Hook massacre did not occur the way that the media has reported, and perhaps did not occur at all. He makes all the logical errors that conspiracy theorists make.

One of his primary errors is to point to discrepancies in the way that the media reported the details. As anyone who has paid attention to the media during a breaking story has experienced, during a dramatic event the media fights to get out any tidbit of information, and will often report preliminary and incorrect information. This is the media fighting for ratings during an unfolding event. This is not evidence that the media is involved in a conspiracy to fabricate a fake story.

Conspiracy theorists engage in anomaly hunting. Any event such as this has many quirky details, and it will be difficult to explain every detail without specific knowledge. Strange coincidences will occur – there are just so many details or everyday life. When a dramatic event suddenly draws attention to all those tiny details, we see all the apparent anomalies.

Finally, the dramatic tragedy of these events in the context of our current media age causes most of the families to protect their privacy. They did not want to be the target of media attention while they were trying to process a horrific loss.

Tracy and other conspiracy theorists take this ordinary desire for privacy and interpret it as a cover up. Ironically, the conspiracy theorists can bring extremely negative attention to the families, increasing their desire for privacy, and then they use the privacy they helped to motivate as evidence for a conspiracy.

In this case Tracy was contacting the parents of Noah Pozner, a six-year-old killed in the shooting, and demanding that they give him proof that Noah existed, and proof that they owned the photos of him. This harassing attention from an unhinged conspiracy theorist just motivated them even further to protect their privacy.

In an editorial the parents wrote:

‘In fact, Tracy is among those who have personally sought to cause our family pain and anguish by publicly demonizing our attempts to keep cherished photos of our slain son from falling into the hands of conspiracy theorists.’

In addition to all the logical errors in interpreting everyday events as if they were evidence of a deep dark conspiracy, theorists like Tracy miss the big picture in such a dramatic way that it is difficult not to conclude that they are divorced from reality.

Think for just a minute what it would take to pull off such a conspiracy. The perpetrators would have to fake a mass shooting at an elementary school, pretending to kill 20 children and 7 adults who never existed. You would think someone in the town would notice.

The entire community would have to be involved in the conspiracy – in fact a significantly extended community would have to be involved. Think about it – I would have to be involved, and I live several towns over. The web of direct connections to the families of those killed is massive. There is just no way you can fake that kind of event.

I also want to point out the flagrant journalistic failure of people like Tracy. He is defending himself as doing the type of investigation that a good journalist should do. He is wrong for several reasons. First, as I just pointed out, his theory is absurd. Good journalists don’t have to investigate every absurd theory that someone cooks up. Plausibility counts.

Further, he is going about it in a clumsy and unethical way. He is harassing grieving families, without any probable cause and without a lick of hard evidence to back him up. He has no evidence for a conspiracy (just misinterpreted anomaly hunting).

A competent journalist, if they thought they had a story that needed investigating, would discreetly investigate public records. If they uncovered solid evidence that points to an actual conspiracy, then it might be justified to confront those involved. He has nothing.


Following the Pozner’s editorial exposing Tracy’s harassment, theĀ Florida Atlantic University sent Tracy a termination letter. Good for them, although they should have done it three years ago.

Tracy will cry academic freedom, but this is about quality control and ethics. In my opinion, Tracy has shown himself to be incompetent to teach a course on conspiracy theories. That alone is worth termination. He has also violated basic ethics, and so he is doubly condemned.

Tracy has ironically presented a teaching moment, but probably not in the way that he intended.

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