Who believes in conspiracy theories?
Already in this project we’ve discovered there is not a lot of reliable polling data on who holds which conspiracy theories, and very little that makes interesting comparisons between different groups and settings. We hope to commission some of our own before too long. Current academic writing on the subject often relies on general surveys, many of which are now out of date. For instance, there is widespread acceptance of the idea that significant numbers of Americans – usually cited as somewhere between a third and a half – believe that the US government knew in advance about the 9/11 attacks and deliberately chose not to act. But the survey results come from 2004, at the height of public disquiet about the Iraq war. What do people think now?
A recent automated telephone poll that compares American attitudes to a wide range of possible conspiracy theories – from 9/11 to the existence of lizards in human form – tells a different story: http://www.publicpolicypolling.com/pdf/2011/PPP_Release_National_ConspiracyTheories_040213.pdf. Here, only 11% of respondents said they believed that the US government ‘knowingly allowed the attacks of September 11th 2001 to happen.’ This compares with the 15% of Americans who believe the government or media add ‘secret mind-controlling technology’ to TV signals, and the 28% who believe ‘a secretive power elite with a globalist agenda is conspiring to eventually rule the world’. These sorts of polls are hard to read: telephone push polling is not very reliable, and the questions in this case seem pretty random (the 9/11 question about the government knowingly allowing the attacks to happen is much more strongly worded than the 2004 survey which asked simply if some members of the government knew and failed to act). Some questions aren’t really about conspiracy theories at all: the 29% who believe aliens exist aren’t necessarily conspiracy theorists, since you can believe in aliens and also believe that we haven’t met any yet; the 21% who believe a UFO crashed at Roswell are conspiracy theorists, since if it were true the only way we wouldn’t know about it would be if someone had deliberately covered it up.
But the really quirky findings in this poll come when the general answers are broken down by different groups, including age, gender, race and voting preference at the last presidential election. Notwithstanding the relatively small sample size (1,247 registered voters were polled) some of the correlations are pronounced. 58% of Republicans believe global warming is a hoax, compared to 11% of Democrats (among people who describe themselves as ‘very conservative’ the number of doubters rises to 71%). On the whole, young people (aged 18-29) are more likely to believe in conspiracies theories than older age groups. 11% of the younger respondents think the moon landings were faked, compared to only 4% of people who were alive at the time. Similarly far more young people than older ones think that it’s not the real Paul McCartney on the cover of Abbey Road. The exception to this rule, however, is the Kennedy assassination, where the large majority of people aged 46 and older think there was a conspiracy, whereas a significant majority of people aged 29 and under think there wasn’t. It’s hard to know how to explain this. Perhaps people are more likely to think conspiratorially about the things they mind about. Those under 30 might not care enough about the Kennedy assassination to be bothered with a conspiracy theory; but the Beatles still matter.
Some of these results are plain weird. According to this survey, 5% of voters who went for Obama in 2012 also believe he is the anti-Christ. They might be very pragmatically-minded Satanists. Or it might show that surveys like this need to be taken with a pinch of salt.