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.