Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Conspiracy theory poll, with some interesting results...

I've written here before about how fascinated I am with conspiracy theories and the people who subscribe to them. While I do not tend to believe them, I think a good conspiracy theory can be a fun thing to think about. More and more, I am coming to the conclusion that some such theories can be dangerous if too many people start to really believe them, but in general and in an historical sense these theories can serve as interesting thought problems. I've often thought that it would be interesting to teach a critical thinking course based on conspiracy theories.

Given all this, my interest perked up when I heard news this morning (on MSNBC, so hat tip to that network) that a group called Public Policy Polling has done a new survey on people's attitudes regarding conspiracy theories. I found PPP's press release regarding the survey on the 'Net, and it makes for interesting reading.

First of all, they covered an interesting variety of conspiracy theories in the questions they asked. They solicited opinions on questions including the perception that President Obama is "trying to take everyone's guns away" to whether or not national sporting events are rigged to the possibility that the US government has secretly allowed space aliens to take over society in exchange for a leg up in technology. They also covered black helicopters and Men in Black, false-flag operations, banking and money issues, the possibility that the US uses assassination to get rid of people who are too vocally political or countercultural.

The results are interesting, as well. The big general conclusion PPP came to based on the results of their polling is that Republicans are more likely than Democrats to accept conspiracy theories. This is not a huge surprise to me, considering recent developments. For example, the survey found that while just 14 percent of Democrats believe that President Obama is trying to take away people's guns, 62 percent of Republicans believe this is so, while of those self-identifying as Independent or Other 38 percent believe that Mr. Obama wants to relieve them of their firearms. The thing that was more surprising to me was that there wasn't much difference on this question between women and men, with 35 percent of women overall believing that there is an administration move to take guns away, while 38 percent of men think this is so.

The survey asked two questions regarding the possibility that the US government engages in assassination to rid itself of public figures who espouse beliefs that the government might find inconvenient. First, PPP asked whether respondents think that the government has used assassination to kill "entertainers who have tried to spread a counterculture message they didn’t like, such as John Lennon, Kurt Cobain, Tupac Shakur, and others." Fairly predictably, just 12 percent of respondents overall believe this to be true, while 72 percent do not believe this assertion and 16 percent were not sure.

But then, the survey went on to ask if respondents believe that "the US government has engaged in the assassination of political leaders who tried to spread a political message they didn’t like, such as Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and others." Here, 23 percent - nearly a quarter of those surveyed - said they believe that the US government has done this, while 61 percent said they don't think the government has assassinated domestic political leaders. Again, 16 percent said they were not sure. That figure - 23 percent - is fairly significant, I think.

A related question, whether respondents believe that the US government engages in "false-flag" operations. As the question explains, a false-flag operation is one in which the government carries out "mass shootings or terrorist events" and then makes it look as if another group or government actually planned and carried out those acts. Overall, 13 percent of those surveyed said that, yes, they think the government does that, while 70 percent said they do not believe that and 17 percent were not sure. Among Democrats, 9 percent said they believe that, while 21 percent of Republicans agreed that they think the US engages in false-flag operations. A little more surprising, to me, was that more women than men think these operations happen, with 14 percent of women and 12 percent of men believing these operations occur.

I was also a little surprised that 55 percent of those self-identifying as "somewhat conservative" and 74 percent of those who say they are "very conservative" accept that the US government carries out false-flag operations. My surprise at this is not so much that conservatives hold this attitude, but that I remember the reactions to suggestions that the 9/11 terrorist attacks might have been a false-flag operation. The conservative and very conservative people I know were horribly offended that anyone would suspect that the government would have done something like that, and reports in the press showed the same thing. Perhaps their point now is that "we" wouldn't do that (remembering that a very conservative administration was in the White House in 2001), but that "they", the Democratic administration certainly would. I'm not so sure they can have it both ways, but that could just be me.

On a less serious question, I also find it really interesting that so many people believe that major national sporting events are "sometimes" rigged by "referees and league offices" in order to create better ratings, more money, and more publicity for their sports (the NBA playoffs and the Super Bowl were specifically named in the question). Overall, 32 percent of respondents said that, yes, they believe that some sporting events are thrown, while 49 percent do not believe this and 19 percent are not sure. That's a huge number of people who believe that some big sporting events are rigged. Are these people being pragmatic in thinking that, or are they just very, very cynical? I have no idea, but I also have to admit that aside from boxing, which has a tradition of rumors of fixed fights, it never occurred to me that this might happen on a regular and widespread basis. Of course, I've heard about the Black Sox affair, so I know it has happened. But as a regular thing? It just never occurred to me. Maybe I'm just naïve.

Then again, maybe it's just my general ideological leanings that lead me to this attitude. The survey also showed that those who say they are somewhat or very conservative are more likely to think that big games get thrown than are those who say they are very or somewhat liberal. While 27 percent of those who consider themselves very liberal said they believe this happens, 41 percent of those who say they are very conservative believe it. Those who say they are somewhat liberal and somewhat conservative are much closer in their beliefs about this question, with 20 percent of those who say they are somewhat liberal and 23 percent of those who say they are somewhat conservative believing that games are sometimes fixed. Maybe the most surprising is that those who say they are moderates are nearly as likely as those who are very conservative to believe that some games are thrown, with 39 percent of those who claim to be moderates saying that they believe this.

The question that got the least amount of respondents answering yes was the issue of space aliens and the US government. The question was asked this way: "Do you think the US government has secretly allowed aliens to take over our society in exchange for help with industrial technological advances, such as electric power and the microwave, or not?" Overall, just 3 percent of respondents said they believe this, while 86 percent said they do not believe this and 10 percent said they are not sure. When the answers to this question are broken down by ideology, of those who claim to be very conservative, 5 percent said that, yes, they believe this, while 3 percent of those identifying as somewhat conservative said they think this is true. Among moderates, 2 percent answered yes to this question while 6 percent of those who say they are somewhat liberal said they believe this. No respondents self-identifying as very liberal said they believe this.

Something else that surprised me is that more women than men believe that the government has allowed the aliens to take over, with 5 percent of women respondents answering yes to this question, while only 2 percent of men said they believe this. I'm not sure why this surprises me, but it does. It is also interesting to me that while just 1 percent of Democrats say they believe this, 7 percent of Republicans and 3 percent of those who identify as Independent or Other say they think this is true. Something else that I found interesting is that while just 2 percent of those who self-identify as white believe that the aliens have taken over, 5 percent of African-American respondents and 9 percent of Hispanic respondents said they believe this. Again, I'm not sure why this came as a surprise, but it did.

There is much more to this survey, with other serious issues addressed along with issues such as Men in Black and black helicopters. You can find the press release from the PPP here (it is in PDF form). I guess my question to you all is, do you find any of this information surprising? Also, do you think that surveys like this have any real validity? And, how do you feel about these issues?

Feel free to leave a comment answering any or all of these questions.

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