Poll Shows Widespread Conspiracy Theory Belief By Americans

May 5th, 2013

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This may be old news (about a month) but it is still worth posting.   A poll was recently conducted by Public Policy Polling of Americans on the topic of conspiracy theories.   The number really do not surprise me very much.  If anything, it shows a few conspiracy theories are LESS popular than I might have expected.   Then again, the numbers are still soberingly high.

Via the Atlantic Wire:

Conspiracy Percent believing Number of Americans believing
JFK was killed by conspiracy 51 percent 160,096,160
Bush intentionally misled on Iraq WMDs 44 percent 138,122,178
Global warming is a hoax 37 percent 116,148,195
Aliens exist 29 percent 91,035,072
New World Order 28 percent 87,895,931
Hussein was involved in 9/11 28 percent 87,895,931
A UFO crashed at Roswell 21 percent 65,921,948
Vaccines are linked to autism 20 percent 62,782,808
The government controls minds with TV 15 percent 47,087,106
Medical industry invents diseases 15 percent 47,087,106
CIA developed crack 14 percent 43,947,966
Bigfoot exists 14 percent 43,947,966
Obama is the Antichrist 13 percent 40,808,825
The government allowed 9/11 11 percent 34,530,544
Fluoride is dangerous 9 percent 28,252,264
The moon landing was faked 7 percent 21,973,983
Bin Laden is alive 6 percent 18,834,842
Airplane contrails are sinister chemicals 5 percent 15,695,702
McCartney died in 1966 5 percent 15,695,702
Lizard people control politics 4 percent 12,556,562

The margin of error of the poll is 2.8 percent. As with any poll, it’s important to remember that the margin of error may not reflect the true accuracy of the poll, as it can depend on factors like how careful the pollsters were in selecting an appropriate demographic cross-section of the US.  It’s very easy to get skewed results with polling, because telephone surveys tend to get more responses from certain demographics, such as retirees, the unemployed and others who are more likely to be home and willing to answer questions.   Still, the numbers certainly seem plausible and are in line with other polls that have been conducted.

Of course, one also wonders how many people might say yes to certain conspiracy theories while only harboring a slightly sarcastic belief in them.   As with any such numbers, it’s hard to be sure who is a hard-core believer and who has only a passing belief.   One can certainly hope that they might be lower.

You can read more about the poll here. According to Public Policy Polling, the total respondents were 1,247 all of whom were registered voters.   That’s a reasonably good size sample.  The questions were also direct and avoided bias.   The figures also show the breakdown between Republican and Democratic-registered voters.  As one might expect, Republicans tend to be more prone to believing things like Bin Laden is alive, while Democrats are far more likely to think Bush lied about WMD’s.

It’s not surprising that the Kennedy Assassination ranks at the top of the poll.  If anything, it’s surprising it is not higher.   The Kennedy Assassination has always fascinated me, because, despite being a relatively straight-forward shooting, it spawned the single most widespread and enduring conspiracy theory in the US.   There are many reasons for this, including the efforts of those like Oliver Stone and the fact that the events were shocking and the guilt of Lee Harvey Oswald seemed so anti-climactic for such an event.

The Kennedy Assassination is unique in that the conspiracy theories have transcended the normal conspiracy theory subculture and become entirely mainstream.  A large number of Americans did not accept the Warren Commission report as soon as it was published in 1964.  That number continued to climb after a second investigation by the House Select Committee on Assassinations and with the production of numerous books and documentaries supporting conspiracy theories.

The most dangerous of all these conspiracy theories, however, is likely to be the 20% number for autism being connected to vaccines.   This is directly responsible for a number of outbreaks in the US.  Indeed, this belief is hardly just American.  Fear of vaccines has become a major problem across the industrial world.   It goes to show that more effort still needs to be mounted against these harmful myths.

One of the strangest things to note about this poll is that there is a small percentage of the respondents who believe that Barack Obama is the Antichrist but voted for him anyway. There are at least three explanations for this:

  1. They were simply not paying very much attention to the questions.  This is common.  Some of those polled just say yes or no without even really listening.   Some (better) pollsters instruct their employees to either determine if the person is paying attention, by asking the same question, phrased differently, more than once, or by simply excusing those who are clearly not actually listening.   This can help, but it also results in more calls being placed and thus more expense.
  2. They may have changed their mind since voting, although this seems unlikely, as the election was only a few months before the poll and there has not been any major or unexpected policy change from the Obama administration.
  3. Finally, and most bizarrely, there are some Christian fundamentalists who would willingly vote for someone they believed to be the Antichrist.  The reason for this is that they believe that the rise to power of the antichrist is a necessary  event, which will precede the second coming of Christ and the end of days.  Thus, the election of Barack Obama represents a step toward Armageddon, where Satan will make his last stand and be defeated.

    That might seem like a crazy reason to vote for someone, but I would not put it past some.

It would be interesting to see polls from other parts of the world and gauge how the US ranks compared to elsewhere.   The United States is considered an especially fertile ground for conspiracy theories, yet they are certainly not uncommon elsewhere.   The belief that vaccines cause autism, for example, has had a global impact.

For those interested in my own response:

Personally, there are only two questions that I *might* answer yes to.   The question that “aliens exist” can mean one of two things.  It could mean that extra terrestrial life exists somewhere in the vastness of the universe.   I believe that the answer to that is most likely yes.   However, in this context, I tend to think they are really looking for the belief of whether alien visitors have come to earth.

The second question is “Bush intentionally mislead on Iraq WMDs.”  Again, the question has some room for interpretation.  I do not believe that George W. Bush actually expected Iraq to have no stocks of chemical or biological weapons.  We know Saddam Husein had them in the 1990′s, and given there was lack of good human intelligence, there was every reason to presume he probably still did.  It also seems highly unlikely (or at least incredibly stupid) to lie about something like the presence of chemical weapons, knowing full well the lie would be found out, once the country was invaded and chemical weapons were not discovered.

On the other hand, the Bush administration clearly did try very hard to persuade the American people that Saddam Husein presented an imminent threat to the security of the US.  There’s little evidence of this, and, even if he had chemical weapons, by 2003, his military had been decimated and the country was well contained, having not really threatened its neighbors in two decades.  This itself, is not lying outright, but may qualify as “misleading” depending on how one defines it.

Thus, I would conclude that a reasonable person could answer this question either way.


This entry was posted on Sunday, May 5th, 2013 at 11:15 am and is filed under Bad Science, Conspiracy Theories, Culture, Good Science, History, Misc, Politics. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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56 Responses to “Poll Shows Widespread Conspiracy Theory Belief By Americans”

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  1. 51
    BMS Says:

            DV82XL said:

    Well looking at the way humanity is responding to the potential threat of climate change, getting everyone on the same page for a project of the magnitude of a fleet of generation ships seems highly unlikely to me.

    But you only have to convince the ones who are going on the `B’ ship. ;-)


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  2. 52
    Jeff Walther Says:

            BMS said:

    But you only have to convince the ones who are going on the `B’ ship. ;-)

    And be sure to load plenty of soap, unless you know there will be a nice soap mine near your landing site.


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  3. 53
    BMS Says:

            Jeff Walther said:

    And be sure to load plenty of soap, unless you know there will be a nice soap mine near your landing site.

    Landing site? No, not so much a landing site, in fact, not actually landing as such … no, er — more of a crash site. But there is a terribly good reason for it, which I can’t quite remember at the moment.


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  4. 54
    DV82XL Says:

            Anon said:

    The universe is 13.7 billion years old, our star about 5 billion, there are stars with sufficient metallicity that are older than ours, we don’t know how long it takes to develop sapience and it seems reasonable to believe it could have easily happened earlier on Earth, there could easily be civilisations with a billion years on us, yet there’s no evidence they exist.

    That is the point of the many stars, few technological cultures argument. If the relative density of these cultures is low, time, space and C mitigate against contact.

            Anon said:

    But also much more widespread, if they exist they should be here.

    Again not necessarily. If C is a hard limit, and there are other options the chances that there would be contact are again reduced.

    No evidence that others exist is not in itself proof they do not

            Anon said:

    You’re still assuming that generation ships (or relativistic starships) will be extraordinarily expensive and will always remain so.

            Anon said:

    Once things get to the point at which space settlements are being mass produced it’d just be a matter of putting an engine on one and some ablation shielding at the front along and heading off to another star. A group of ten thousand could likely manage it. The economics of something depends on resources available and technology, if you live in a civilisation which builds space stations that are tens of kilometres long as a routine matter things we would consider absurdly expensive start to seem within reach of groups of tens of thousands of people.

    This is a whole new issue, but yes years of experience have taught me that big projects are always expensive. While costs drop in some areas they go up in others and any rate it is not just people directly involved that pay for big projects, costs are spread over the whole productive base (the tax base.) So it’s not just your 10,000 (a number that IMO is far too low anyway) that would have to be convinced and impacted economically.

    Remember it needs to be a fleet, and that multiplies the burden, and there is no return on investment to those that are going to be asked to contribute. While I am sure there would be a significant number of folks interested regardless, within the context of a ‘reach-for-the-stars’ imperative driving the process, we must conclude that there will also be significant number of objectors that would at the very least, cloud the political question. And this would only worsen in the presence of other possibilities in the form of the so-called ‘technological singularity.’

    For costs to drop to the point where they would not have an impact on the decision to mount such a project they would have to drop indeed and there is little real evidence that such a drop of such a magnitude is possible. My point here being that not only is there no economic imperative for stellar colonization, it may not be the best option.

            Anon said:

    The errors bars on our estimates of how many aliens are out there happen to be a lot more than that (the astronomy stuff we’re pretty confident in, astrobiology, not so much (and don’t even get started about astrosociology)).

    Still doesn’t matter. For the number of technical cultures to be so great that we would detect them regardless you would have to raise current estimates by by tens if not hundreds of orders of magnitude. Here we can say with some assurance that this is not the case without invoking zookeepers and Prime Directives and such with themselves violate Occam’s Razor. This being the case my arguments still hold. In the end there are several plausible reasons that we have not had contact, and they are not mutually exclusive and looking at our future, there is no compelling reason why we would necessarily colonize other stars in the sort of numbers and over the volume that would virtually guarantee such contact.


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  5. 55
    Anon Says:

            DV82XL said:

    Again not necessarily. If C is a hard limit, and there are other options the chances that there would be contact are again reduced.

    If were c were a hard limit it would only change things if civilisations were short lived or non-expansionary (the later would imply the former and is also not a trait that those who managed to get through evolution as the dominant species on their planet would have been selected for).

    There’s a lot of space, but also a lot of time.

            DV82XL said:

    No evidence that others exist is not in itself proof they do not

    No, but the null hypothesis does require us to not assume they do exist.

            DV82XL said:

    This is a whole new issue, but yes years of experience have taught me that big projects are always expensive.

    Expense is always relative.

            DV82XL said:

    While costs drop in some areas they go up in others and any rate it is not just people directly involved that pay for big projects, costs are spread over the whole productive base (the tax base.) So it’s not just your 10,000 (a number that IMO is far too low anyway) that would have to be convinced and impacted economically.

    They would of course be using things developed by others since they are likely to use a modified space settlement with rockets attached (fusion or antimatter, either way any spacefaring civilisation is going to want such technology even if they stay in their planetary system simply for quick transit).

    Assuming we get the technology to build relativistic starship we’ll probably end up sending people to nearby stars and having them come back at the end but such ships could be used for one way missions as well.

    Speculation of it being a gradual largely unintended diffusion process of space settlements in the Oort cloud just gradually moving between lump and ice and ending up in another systems Oort cloud wouldn’t even require intent on the part of any interstellar colonists.

            DV82XL said:

    Remember it needs to be a fleet, and that multiplies the burden, and there is no return on investment to those that are going to be asked to contribute.

    The contribution of those who don’t want to go could very easily be merely providing services for a fee and developing the technology for other uses.

            DV82XL said:

    While I am sure there would be a significant number of folks interested regardless, within the context of a ‘reach-for-the-stars’ imperative driving the process, we must conclude that there will also be significant number of objectors that would at the very least, cloud the political question.

    As long as the resources spent on it were relatively modest that wouldn’t be much of an issue.

            DV82XL said:

    And this would only worsen in the presence of other possibilities in the form of the so-called ‘technological singularity.’

    Though a technological singularity is also likely to make the construction of such ships easier (with mind uploading you don’t need life support) and would also open up the possibility of self-replicating robotic probes.

            DV82XL said:

    For costs to drop to the point where they would not have an impact on the decision to mount such a project they would have to drop indeed and there is little real evidence that such a drop of such a magnitude is possible.

    That an interstellar ship would be a space settlement with engines attached means that the cost is not likely to be orders of magnitude higher than a similar sized space settlement.

            DV82XL said:

    Still doesn’t matter. For the number of technical cultures to be so great that we would detect them regardless you would have to raise current estimates by by tens if not hundreds of orders of magnitude.

    No, we’d only need 1 per galaxy to spread if we even need that and that’s within the range of our estimates (which to be honest range from we’re alone to almost every late F to early K star gets a civilisation).

            DV82XL said:

    In the end there are several plausible reasons that we have not had contact,

    Reasons which require every civilisation to do basically the same thing, if just one civilisation went “to hell with the economics, lets colonise the stars” then that civilisation will be here.

    They also require that interstellar travel always remain expensive, an assumption that seems unlikely to survive a technological singularity.

            DV82XL said:

    and they are not mutually exclusive and looking at our future, there is no compelling reason why we would necessarily colonize other stars in the sort of numbers and over the volume that would virtually guarantee such contact.

    What compelling reason was there to colonise the new world?


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  6. 56
    DV82XL Says:

            Anon said:

    If were c were a hard limit it would only change things if civilisations were short lived or non-expansionary (the later would imply the former and is also not a trait that those who managed to get through evolution as the dominant species on their planet would have been selected for).

    There’s a lot of space, but also a lot of time.

    And? Short lived may be the norm God knows we are on the cusp of destroying ourselves and we haven’t been around for a long while. The universe is also cruel and indifferent as I established, extinction level events can occur regardless. Nor can you assert all cultures are necessarily expansionary. And again – just because we don’t detect a pan-galactic species in the Milky Way doesn’t mean: they don’t exist in other galaxies, one rose but faltered here, one is active but hasn’t made it out to the Orion Arm.

            Anon said:

    No, but the null hypothesis does require us to not assume they do exist.

    True, but that’s not what is being argued here.

            Anon said:

    Expense is always relative.

    Only to value. That is the core of my argument: you and I can see value in interstellar colonization, others may not and the decision will be political and the opinion of those with different values may weigh more.

            Anon said:

    They would of course be using things developed by others since they are likely to use a modified space settlement with rockets attached (fusion or antimatter, either way any spacefaring civilisation is going to want such technology even if they stay in their planetary system simply for quick transit).

    Assuming we get the technology to build relativistic starship we’ll probably end up sending people to nearby stars and having them come back at the end but such ships could be used for one way missions as well.

    Speculation of it being a gradual largely unintended diffusion process of space settlements in the Oort cloud just gradually moving between lump and ice and ending up in another systems Oort cloud wouldn’t even require intent on the part of any interstellar colonists.

    Maybe, but that would support my earlier contention that the rate of spread might be very slow

    The contribution of those who don’t want to go could very easily be merely providing services for a fee and developing the technology for other uses.

            Anon said:

    As long as the resources spent on it were relatively modest that wouldn’t be much of an issue.

    In politics stuff like this is always an issue. Resources are always limited that is why systems like capitalism evolved to maximize utility by leveraging needs as well as desires. Trying to blow off costs by declaring resource surpluses is a political ploy, not a rational argument.

            Anon said:

    Though a technological singularity is also likely to make the construction of such ships easier (with mind uploading you don’t need life support) and would also open up the possibility of self-replicating robotic probes.

    It might also lead to indifference. Who needs the stars when one can have godlike powers in worlds of your own making.

            Anon said:

    No, we’d only need 1 per galaxy to spread if we even need that and that’s within the range of our estimates (which to be honest range from we’re alone to almost every late F to early K star gets a civilisation).

    So what? Why must there be an assumption that expansionist cultures are common. With billions and billions of galaxies even a small percentage would be a lot, but still not necessarily within our capability to detect them. Anyway my argument is bases on other possible options than simple expansion.

            Anon said:

    Reasons which require every civilisation to do basically the same thing, if just one civilisation went “to hell with the economics, lets colonise the stars” then that civilisation will be here.

            Anon said:

    They also require that interstellar travel always remain expensive, an assumption that seems unlikely to survive a technological singularity.

    I clearly added “…and they are not mutually exclusive” to what you quoted. It does not require every civilization to do the same thing; there are a number of plausible options including extinction for one reason or another. And “to Hell with economics” is not likely to be a sustainable motivation over the sorts of time a relativistic spread wide enough for us to detect would take. Who knows what notions of economy would drive an alien race, but I’ll wager what ever it is it will be self consistent over the long run.

    In the same vein the assertion that if they could they would and they would be here, is also without foundation as we cannot speculate as to what might motivate a species that evolved under different conditions to our own.

            Anon said:

    What compelling reason was there to colonise the new world?

    Economics. Pure and simple. Trade drove European expansionism and with it the promise of great wealth, later it was economic migrants out to service world markets with their labor. This is exactly what would be lacking in our case: trade across interstellar space at relativistic speeds is not viable.

    If you seek to invoke those that migrated to avoid various forms of persecution, note that they were only successful due to the presence of the other economically motivated groups. They could not have done it on their own. (Self-serving revisionism to the contrary.)


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