A new Public Policy Poll on conspiracy theories has been getting a lot of attention. Among the survey's big findings are that 51 percent of Americans believe JFK was killed by a conspiracy, 21 percent believe a UFO crashed at Roswell, 13 percent believe Barack Obama is the antichrist, 7 percent believe the moon landing was faked, and 4 percent believe “lizard people” control our societies by gaining political power. A headline on the Atlantic Wire proclaims, "12 million Americans Believe Lizard People Run Our Country."
I'm always a bit surprised that this type of finding is taken at face value. Given the small sample size -- 1,247 voters -- we're talking about 50 people who actually said yes to the question. A long way from 12 million. But I'd hesitate to assume that even those 50 people actually believe this. Applying Occam's razor here, I'm going to assume that the people who answered yes to many of the questions on this survey fall into four categories:
1. The true believers. Some people genuinely do believe this stuff. The shape-shifting lizard theory, popularized by the former BBC sports presenter David Icke, has its adherents, as the recent video above shows. Some of the opinions the survey asks about -- global warming being a hoax or Saddam Hussein being behind the 9/11 attacks -- have been expressed by senior members of the U.S. government. Even the wackier ones have their constituents -- the sort of energetic citizens who call in to C-SPAN's Washington Journal to express their concerns about mind-control lasers or the creative types make elaborate YouTube videos about illuminati rappers.
But I still have a hard time believe the fake-moon-landing or lizard people constituencies are that large. Have this many people even heard of these theories -- some of which reside in the very deep recesses of the Internet -- before the poll-taker brought them up? Most Americans aren't even that informed about events that really did happen.
2. People messing the survey-taker. Can you honestly say that if you were kicking back at home with a couple of beers (or something stronger) one evening and you got a call on the phone asking, "Do you believe that shape-shifting reptilian people control our world by taking on human form and gaining political power to manipulate our societies, or not?" you wouldn't be just a little bit tempted to answer, "Totally, man!"
3. The delusional One summer in college, when I interned at a newspaper in Jersey City, I used to field daily phone calls from a woman who believed that a sinister alliance between the Vatican and the Gambino crime family were sending messages through her sciatic nerve from their headquarters behind the meat counter of the Stop & Shop. (This, by the way, is the most Jersey conspiracy theory of all time.) I'm reasonably sure that if she didn't believe that "the exhaust seen in the sky behind airplanes is actually chemicals sprayed by the government for sinister reasons," as 5 percent of those surveyed apparently do, it's mainly because she hasn't thought of it yet
4. The easily suggestible I'm willing to wager this is the largest category. The day after April Fool's Day is a good time to reflect on the fact that many of us are more suggestible than we'd like to admit. We've all had friends who have unquestioningly shared fake news stories on Facebook (There's a whole blog devoted to them) or relatives who've forwarded us dubious conspiracy e-mails. The questions asked on the survey are detail-heavy and quite specific. For instance: "Do you believe Paul McCartney actually died in a car crash in 1966 and was secretly replaced by a lookalike so The Beatles could continue, or not?"
We might hope that most people would say, no, of course not. If they had even heard of the theory, they would probably know that it was a running joke propagated by the Beatles themselves. But a significant number of people probably just heard all those facts and dates and though, "Huh, well I guess so."
Perhaps there are other explanations, but I'm willing to believe these categories are more likely than a scenario in which 5 percent of Obama voters believe they voted for the antichrist.
As a side note, the biggest surprise to me in the survey was that only 29 percent belive that "aliens exist," while 47 percent don't. Aliens existing period? In the whole universe? That's not a very crazy thing to believe.
War of Ideas is a blog on the theory behind the practice of global politics. Foreign Policy associate editor Joshua E. Keating brings you the latest research, data, and intellectual debates from around the world.