Conspiracy Theories Poll of Americans Discovers Lots of Crazy

Public Policy Polling (PPP) recently released the results of its survey on conspiracy theory beliefs among Americans, and they are not pretty. Here are some of the highlights of the poll:

  • Illuminati/New World Order types of beliefs: 28% of Americans say “yes” (with 25% “not sure”).
  • Roswell UFO coverup: 21% (32% not sure).
  • Childhood vaccines and autism: 20% (34% not sure).
  • Moon landing faked: 7% (9% not sure).
  • Obama is the Antichrist: 13% (13% not sure).
  • Government fluoride-in-water conspiracy: 9% (17% not sure).
  • Shape-shifting reptilian aliens are living in our midst: 4% (7% not sure).
  • Bigfoot: 14% (14% not sure).
  • Mind-control technologies are being transmitted through television broadcasts: 15% (15% not sure).
  • The government is crop dusting the planet with sinister chemicals through airplane exhaust (seen as white streaks across the sky, as “chem trails”): 5% (8% not sure).
  • 9-11 was a conspiracy hatched within the U.S. government: 11% (11% not sure).

All of these, of course, are lunatic ideas, and I include the “not sures” in the results because it shows that on even the most insane and paranoid propositions, a significant number of Americans either believe them or profess agnosticism about them. Their bullshit detectors either don’t function or are badly calibrated (set on “low”).

Combining belief with “not sure,” the weakest results are these: moon landing faked (16%); shape-shifting reptilians (11%); and chem-trails (13%). Middling results are: Obama is the Antichrist (26%); fluoride conspiracy (26%); Bigfoot (28%); television mind control (30%); and 9-11 “Truthers” (22%). Strongest results: Illuminati (53%); Roswell (53%); and vaccine-autism connection (54%).

Put another way, if you encounter a random person on the street in America, you can guess that there’s a 50% chance (s)he harbors belief or agnosticism concerning something that is at minimum ridiculous; a 25% chance (s)he cannot discern sense from the most wild-eyed nonsense; and about a 15% chance (s)he’s very near to barking mad.

And think about what this survey suggests about the failure of education in America, and therefore of democracy in America. Absent a citizenry with critical thinking skills (knowing how to think as opposed to what to think) and a reasonable degree of historical and cultural literacy and memory, democracy is a farce. Leon Wieseltier puts it this way (The New Republic, “The Unschooled,” December 31, 2012, p. 52):

A political order based on the expression of opinion imposes an intellectual obligation upon the individual, who cannot acquit himself of his democratic duty without an ability to reason, a familiarity with argument, a historical memory. An ignorant citizen is a traitor to an open society.

Ignorance is not bliss in a democracy.

Wieseltier’s quote also has me thinking of the conditions in contemporary society that can bring about fresh revivals of fascism, or what Umberto Eco calls “Ur-Fascism” (eternal fascism). One of those is the syncretism of traditional religion (already suffused with lunacies) with other lunacies. Here’s Eco’s example:

If you browse in the shelves that, in American bookstores, are labeled New Age, you can find there even Saint Augustine, who, as far as I know, was not a fascist. But combining Saint Augustine and Stonehenge — that is a symptom of Ur-Fascism.

And this gets back to the problem of irrationality generally, and its danger to civil society. As Voltaire puts it, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” The PPP poll provides evidence that the absurdity part of Voltaire’s formula is well at work upon the minds and emotions of many, many contemporary Americans. This rot bodes ill for the future of our politics.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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4 Responses to Conspiracy Theories Poll of Americans Discovers Lots of Crazy

  1. Staffan says:

    The Blank Slate, Marx, Freud – all proven wrong. That lunacy was implemented all over the world with devastating consequences to illustrate Voltaire’s words, and yet it is still embraced by many liberals, some of which are educators at schools and universities. You probably have several colleagues fo this kind; they are everywhere in Academia. Check out the Norwegian documentary series Brainwash (Hjernevask). It will give you plenty of scary/funny evidence of liberal lunacy,

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      I’ll have to watch the video you’ve shared a little bit at a time (due to length), but thanks for that.

      As to your calling Freud, Marx, and the blank slate “lunacy,” I have to differ. Freud is unusually valuable to read on many, many issues (if not read too literally). Marx, likewise, is astute on the nature of global capitalism and class (even as his solutions to the problems he identifies are awful ones). Likewise, Locke’s blank slate was (historically) an important fulcrum for overcoming the determinism of the given hierarchies of church and state. And the blank slate is half true (that is, about half of what makes us who we are can be traced to environmental factors).

      I’ve read Pinker’s book on the blank slate and agree with him (and you) that there are intransigent academics who render themselves ridiculous on the subject of genes vs. environment, but the conspiracy theories above are of a very different order. They provide evidence in those who believe them of a serious disconnect between reality and their ability to think critically about it in even the most rudimentary fashion.

      It’s one thing to encounter an ideologue who can be reasoned with and knows how to reason (even as he is hunkered down in an untenable position), and it’s another to encounter someone who thinks, say, that astrology is plausible. One is a car with its engine still running, the other is a car with the keys out of its ignition and dropped at the bottom of grandma’s swimming pool.

      –Santi

  2. Staffan says:

    It’s a matter of definitions I suppose. My idea is that people who believe in ideas without evidence and persist believing then in the face of counterevidence can be construed as lunatics. I don’t think there is any original idea of Freud that isn’t disproven or unprovable. As for Marx, his idea of class and capitalism is based on the idea that the means of production is the key and that anyone can possess these means. In reality only those having a high IQ – heritability 0.8 and resistant to external influence – can possess them. He is proven wrong at the very heart of his ideology.

    The Blank Slate – not Locke, it’s clear he didn’t believe in it in the way it’s thought of in general – may well have served a purpose in the way you claim, but believing in it today is lunacy. And not half lunacy either. Intelligence usually gets much higher heritability estimates. And when textbooks summarize research by saying half is nature and half is nurture the distort the facts. A lot of the variance is due to measurement error. The way these calculations are done only distinguishes between genetic and non-genetic variance and non-genetic is environment and measurement error. With self-ratings you get a lot of the latter. Studies combining self- and observer ratings to reduce the error come up with heritabilities around 70 percent.

    Then there is the shared versus unique environmental factor. Shared is family, school and other stuff relevant to social reforms. Unique could pre-natal conditions, every individuals personal friends or something else. Shared environment is usually around zero or just a few percent. That’s what the social reformist has to work with. There is a reason why Pinker said that it will take decades for these findings to sink in. The now popular fifty-fifty idea is just Anchoring and Adjustment, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anchoring

  3. Staffan says:

    That said, people who believ in reptilian overlords are probably harder to reason with so it’s not exactly the same degree of lunacy.

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