How Not To Measure the Popularity of a Conspiracy Theory

Superman's no birther!"Sixty-three percent of registered voters in the U.S. buy into at least one political conspiracy theory," a team of pollsters at Fairleigh Dickinson report. That may seem absurdly low -- I would think the number is somewhere in the high nineties -- but of course the pollsters don't mean just any theory that involves politicians conspiring; they mean the theories that are disreputable. Specifically, they found that 20 percent of the country think it "probably true" that Obama stole the 2012 election, 23 percent that Bush stole the 2004 election, 25 percent (including 36 percent of Democrats) that Bush knew about 9/11 in advance, and 36 percent (including 64 percent of Republicans) that "President Obama is hiding important information about his background and early life."

The pollsters helpfully note that the last statement "would include what's often referred to 'birtherism.'" Sure enough, it would. It would also include a wide range of theories that are not birtherism; indeed, phrased that way, it could include the vague suspicion that Obama still has some skeletons in his closet, something that could very well be true of any prominent politician. Nonetheless, some readers seem intent on interpreting the answer as a mass endorsement of the Orly Taitz/Donald Trump birth-certificate obsession. ThinkProgress greeted the results with the carefully phrased headline "As Many As 64 Percent Of Republicans Are Birthers, Poll Finds." Salon declared that "The birther myth is the most widely believed political conspiracy theory in America," which is doubly inaccurate: It assumes that all of those 36 percent are birthers, and it assumes that none of the conspiracy theories that aren't in the survey are more popular. (Just a decade ago, an ABC News poll showed 70 percent of the country believing some sort of conspiracy was behind JFK's death. And then there's the conspiracy theories that aren't usually classified as conspiracy theories -- say, "Saddam's Iraq and its longtime rival Iran were secretly allied," an idea that a president of the United States endorsed when he declared that the countries were part of an "axis of evil.")

The poll also included some basic questions about American politics, to see how a belief in conspiracies correlates with political knowledge. The pollsters' conclusions:

No wife, no horse, no mustache.In general, higher levels of actual knowledge about politics tends to reduce belief in conspiracy theories....However, the relationship between current events knowledge and belief in conspiracy theories is conditional on partisanship. Among Democrats, each question answered correctly reduces the likelihood of endorsing at least one of the conspiracy theories by seven points. Among independents, each additional question reduces it by two points. For Republicans, though, each additional question answered correctly tends to increase belief in at least one of the theories by two points.

"There are several possible explanations for this," said Cassino. "It could be that more conspiracy-minded Republicans seek out more information, or that the information some Republicans seek out just tends to reinforce these myths."

Yes, those are possible. It is also possible that the effect would disappear if you either narrowed that broad Obama question down to a specific theory ("President Obama is covering up the circumstances of his birth") or balanced it with a similarly vague statement about a prominent member of the other party ("Mitt Romney is hiding important information about his background and early life"). Before you try to forge a theory about your results, it's a good idea to figure out just what you've measured.

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  • sarcasmic||

    However, the relationship between current events knowledge and belief in conspiracy theories is conditional on partisanship... For Republicans, though, each additional question answered correctly tends to increase belief in at least one of the theories by two points.

    Damn those three musicians from Canada! Oh, wait. Wrong Rush.

  • Hugh Akston||

  • SIV||

    "President Obama is hiding important information about his background and early life."

    My favorite Obama "conspiracy" is Bill Ayers' parents' mailman claiming he bumped into a college-age Obama who immediately announced he was going to be president of the United States. The tone and context suggested Barry had just returned from his vetting by The Illuminati (or that our presidents are chosen like the Dalai Llama) rather than just youthful ambition.

  • SIV||

  • rts||

    "You, President? This is the greatest country in the world. We've got a whole system set up to prevent people like you from ever becoming president. Quit your daydreaming, melonhead!"

    The system failed, Abe.

  • Palin's Buttplug||

    Bill Ayers wrote Obama's books - remember?

  • sarcasmic||

  • T||

    If there's a new way, I'll be the first in line.
    But it better work this time.

  • Palin's Buttplug||

    "Global Warming is a Marxist plot" is a good CT the GOP backbench recites.

    Any comment about the Bilderbergs or Rothschilds (or private bankers) concerning the Federal Reserve is pure CT.

    Glenn Beck makes a living spewing CT.

    Good topic.

  • sarcasmic||

    Any comment about the Bilderbergs or Rothschilds

    JOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOS!

  • John||

    Ignore it sarcasmic. Your attention is the only thing that keeps its grotesque existence going.

  • sarcasmic||

    Practice what you preach.

  • Agammamon||

    "Global warming is a marxist plot is a good CT the GOP backbench recites" is a good CT the watermelon left recites.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    ...President Obama is hiding important information about his background and early life.

    Do Occidental College transcripts county as background? Would his disciples really lose respect for him if he posted average grades?

  • Palin's Buttplug||

    What would it gain the right? We all know both Kerry and Bush were average students at Harvard/Yale while Obama was Magna cum laude.

  • mnarayan||

    This. That's not a conspiracy theory, it's closer to an objective fact (I guess you could quibble about "important" and "early").

  • R C Dean||

    Bingo. There's no question lots of information about his college and early career has been buried. Transcripts, anyone? Annenberg Foundation records?

    The only question is whether its "important". My working assumption is that, if it wasn't important, he would have released it.

    There's something embarrassing (or worse) there. The only question is whether it will find the light of day during my lifetime.

  • John||

    Just like Kennedy being on pain pills and banging women by the hundreds, it will see the light of day. Probably quicker than the 30 years it took for all of that to come out about Kennedy. It will come out and then his cultist supporters will say "everyone always knew that, there is nothing new here".

  • Palin's Buttplug||

    Likewise Bush going AWOL on the Alabama National Guard has been repressed despite Dan Rather's efforts otherwise.

  • John||

  • Fatty Bolger||

    Fake but true!

  • T o n y||

    Never proved that it wasn't faked, but true.

  • Aresen||

    Since the Alabama National Guard was just a ploy to keep Shrub's pasty little ass out of Indochina, it really doesn't matter if he went AWOL or not.

    I still consider Shrub a coward for his 12 hour disappearance following the 9/11 attacks.

  • John||

    How did he disappear? HE was still doing his job. What the hell was he supposed to do? Run out and demand OBL fight him man to man on the National Mall?

  • Aresen||

    A Churchill, a Reagan, a Truman would have been in NYC within 4 hours. There is a time - and 9/11 was one of them - when leadership needs to be visible.

    Bush went down his bolt-hole and didn't come out till the SS said it was safe.

  • John||

    Aresen,

    That is nothing but "big man syndrome". I really don't care whether the big daddy shows up to inspire me. I just want him to do his job.

  • Aresen||

    Call it what you like.

    It is still part of the job: To be visibly present, offering support.

  • Palin's Buttplug||

    Bush showed up with his bullhorn when the smoke cleared.

  • tarran||

    Oh horseshit!

    Just what you need in a crisis is the flag officer showing up and getting underfoot.

    Reminds me of the time we were running fire fighting drills on the ship with MTT inspecting us, and the LCDR decided to show up in my repair locker to 'help'. It was a complete clusterfuck since he wouldn't stop barking instructions to my fireteams. The clueless fuck blew up when I tried to explain to him that if I deployed my teams too quickly the third team would run out of O2 before the first team was ready to go back in for a second stint. He screams, I send in my guys, and what should have been a routine drill turned into a mess with us asking for a do-over.

  • Zeb||

    I agree. The physical presence of the president, and all of the security and bullshit that comes with him, is not in any way helpful in a major crisis.

  • Rasilio||

    "A Churchill, a Reagan, a Truman would have been in NYC within 4 hours. There is a time - and 9/11 was one of them - when leadership needs to be visible."

    Um, ignoring the near technological impossibility of getting from a suburban school back to the airport then flying 2.5 hours back up to NYC in 4 hours or less, what value would ANY President have offered in being on the scene of a local/state disaster where he had absolutely no authority to command or direct ANY of the work crews.

    Also, I'm thinking you've been Watching too damn much Star Trek. See in the real world senior officers are never wanted on the scene when shit goes down, they are needed in the command and control centers to ensure smooth flow of the needed supplies and quick decisive answers to questions.

  • PapayaSF||

    Since the Alabama National Guard was just a ploy to keep Shrub's pasty little ass out of Indochina

    Actually, he joined the Guard at a time when they were flying combat missions in Vietnam.

  • Kreel Sarloo||

    And there are reports that he volunteered for service in VietNam twice but was turned down both times.

    Part of the problem is that the plane he was trained in was not used in VN so the actual reason he was turned down was that he would need more training before being sent and experienced pilots were already available.

    Seeking to fulfill one's military obligations in a way that kept one safe was something that many thousands of American men did at the time. See also Bill Clinton who managed to get deferments on reporting for an NROTC program until he was effectively past draft eligibility.

  • KDN||

    Would his disciples really lose respect for him if he posted average grades?

    No, of course not. If Obama answered incorrectly then you were asking the wrong question.

  • PapayaSF||

    I suspect he's more worried about showing that he took Anti-Colonialist Studies and other bullshit leftist courses. Not that it matters, now that we're in for Four More Years....

  • John||

    I think it is pretty clear that what he is hiding is that he falsely claimed to be a Kenyan to get aid and admission to those schools as a foreign born student. Releasing it would cause the birthers to go nuts. But his supporters would excuse his stealing a spot from an actual foreign student the same way they excused Elizabeth Warren stealing benefits from real Indians.

  • R C Dean||

    That's my guess, also.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    36 percent (including 64 percent of Republicans) that "President Obama is hiding important information about his background and early life."

    This may encompass The Birtherisms, but only an idiot would pretend every single person who answered in the affirmative is a birther.

    This is an excellent illustration of why I never waste my time thinking about polls.

  • Rights-Minimalist Autocrat||

    You wouldn't go broke making that bet about every member of Congress. Or humans in general, possibly.

  • Ken Shultz||

    It seems to me that people are more likely to believe conspiracy theories when their party preference isn't in the White House.

    How many people believed George W. Bush let Katrina happen becasue he didn't care about black people?

    Second, it seems to me that not all conspiracy theories turn out to be false. If I told you that there was a plot to expose a CIA operative that was perpetrated by one of the president's closest advisers--to punish the operative's husband for publicly debunking the president's casus belli about yellow cake in Niger, would that be a conspiracy theory? Or would that be the truth?

    Here's my favorite link of all time:

    http://usatoday30.usatoday.com.....iraq_x.htm

    It shows that some six months after we invaded Iraq, almost 70% of Americans polled believed that Saddam Hussein was personally complicit in 9/11. Is there any wonder why people don't believe the official version of any given story?

    When we have to rely on somebody's word for it, being skeptical isn't necessarily irrational. All my reads on such things are tentative. Even in science, what scientists think they "know" is revised given new and better data. When the only data you have is limited, speculating about other possible explanations isn't irrational. Accepting the official version of events because it's official--that's irrational.

  • Brandybuck||

    Go back eight years to the start of Bush's second term, and run a similar poll. Would it be unreasonable to find that 64% of Democrats believed "President Bush is hiding important information about his military background and career." Of course not!

  • The Late P Brooks||

    Salon declared that "The birther myth is the most widely believed political conspiracy theory in America,"

    Jesus Hornswoggling Christ on a tin-plated crutch.

  • John||

    9-11 Trutherism was put down the memory hole at Slate.

  • KPres||

    There was a poll in 2007 that said that almost 70% of Democrats thought 911 was an inside job and/or cover-up. I remember it clearly because I was so shocked. I had though maybe 10% beforehand.

  • John||

    Of my conservative friends, I know exactly one person who bought into the birther thing. In contrast I would say at least half of my liberal friends bought into some form of Trutherism at one time or another. Howard Dean called it a respectable opinion for God's sake.

    Amazing how they rewrite history.

  • KPres||

    What's really amazing is that it's now down to 36%. The change, of course, has nothing to do with new information, it's just reflective of the narratives being pushed to them. In 2007, conspiracy theories were a dangerous sign of normal people's distrust in a Republican president. By 2008, only right-wing nutcases believed conspiracy theories.

  • Pro Libertate||

    To be sure, it's not as dumb as the Moon landing hoax myth.

  • $park¥||

    Wait, what? You seemed like a guy too smart to believe a man landed on the moon.

  • Tim||

    You know that the real reason they canceled Star Trek was because they needed those guys to build a plywood Lunar Module.

  • Brandon||

    He did?

  • Pro Libertate||

    So the Man of Steel was behind the Kennedy assassination? I had no idea.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Second thoughts on revealing his identity to POTUS.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Well, Kal-El did swear an oath not to kill, so I assume it was that and the fact that Kennedy was either a robot or undead.

  • Aresen||

    But he didn't swear an oath not to arrange for someone else to do the killing.

    The Man of Steel made sure he was visibly in Metropolis all day 11/22/63.

  • RightNut||

  • Fatty Bolger||

    Kennedy told Marilyn Monroe, and the rest is history.

  • Tim||

    JFK:
    " and then he tells me he's Clark Kent, all serious. He doesn't know J. Edgar has been wiretapping him for years."

    RFK:
    "We can't let him find out about you boning Lois Lane then."

    Teddy:
    " She likes it doggy style."

  • Ron||

    there is no need for conspiracy when like minds have a common belief. All those with that same belief can proceed independently without consulting each other and the end product will appear just as much as a conspiracy.

  • Brandybuck||

    There is also no need for a conspiracy theory when central planning is involved. Sometimes unintended consequences are indeed unintended.

    At the core of any conspiracy theory is the belief that central planning works. The proponents don't necessarily think central planning is good, but they do think social institutions can be successfully directed from the top.

    Central economic planning can't possibly work, and neither can central social planning. Go read your Mises and Hayek.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    Would his disciples really lose respect for him if he posted average grades?

    Tough question.

  • Palin's Buttplug||

    that Bush knew about 9/11 in advance

    The August 2001 PDB feeds this idea.

    The real CT is that Bush actually PLANNED 9/11 which was oft repeated on the old Liberty Forum

  • John||

  • Palin's Buttplug||

    John, I will surprise you and defend Dumbya.

    I doubt he even read the August warning that OBL was determined to attack the US.

  • John||

    OBL has been determined to attack the US since the 1990s. Everyone knew it. And the NSA was listening to his phone calls and knew the people were in the country. They just couldn't tell the FBI and the INS about it thanks to Jamie Gorlick's intelligence wall.

    What actually happened is well documented and in the 9-11 commission report.

  • KPres||

    "The August 2001 PDB feeds this idea."

    This is shrike's way of saying "I believe this one."

  • Palin's Buttplug||

    "knew about 9/11 in advance" is not specific enough for meaning.

    As John even said he did know that OBL would attack.

    But the notion that he knew the time and place is ludicrous.

  • KPres||

    "knew about 9/11 in advance" is not specific enough for meaning.

    Uh, it's pretty fucking specific since 9/11 was a specific event.

    If it had said "knew OBL was going to attack the US", THAT would be unspecific.

  • John||

    If only Bush had been offered the opportunity to capture or kill Bin Ladin.

  • Jeff||

    There is a world of difference between simply knowing that OBL wanted to hit us and knowing about 9/11 in advance, shriek, you fucking nitwit.

  • Jeff||

    ITS NOT CONSPIRACY THEORIES WHEN WE DO IT!!!!! BOOOOOOOOSSSHHH!!!!!11

  • The Late P Brooks||

    So the Man of Steel was behind the Kennedy assassination?

    He *threw* the magic bullet, causing it to tumble and behave like a curveball, which explains the unconventional path it took.

  • Pro Libertate||

    I thought he used super-breath to make sure it caused a fatal injury.

  • John||

    Superman was gay. NTTAWWT

  • Pro Libertate||

    That's a damned lie that Luthor spread around.

  • Fatty Bolger||

    Oh yeah? Then how do you explain this?

  • Pro Libertate||

    Batman is arriving with Lois. All they're catching him at is 'batin.'

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Among Democrats, each question answered correctly reduces the likelihood of endorsing at least one of the conspiracy.

    The left generally has more respect for or confidence in government. If you tend toward blindly exalting a human institution, you have a hard time seeing any possible corruption or fallibility in it. In fact, the idolizing of the collective's leadership kind of requires it.

  • sarcasmic||

    Intentions trump results.

  • Brett L||

    OT: Houston residents prepare for Red Dawn style insurgency after not being notified of Army drills. The Army successfully took over an old high school building before being repulsed by armed citizenry. Okay, not really.

    The U.S. Army along with other agencies took over the old Carnegie Vanguard High School near Scott and Airport. There were armed men in fatigues, plenty of weapons and what many thought were real live rounds.

  • sarcasmic||

    Testing the waters.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    "Only 10% of Democrats agreed that Republicans were invented in a lab by an evil scientist, while 90% of Republicans agreed that 'Obama's policies are bad for the country.' Therefore, Republicans are more susceptible to conspiracy theories than Democrats."

  • Palin's Buttplug||

    Dems don't have people like Beck and Limpy reciting CT five days a week.

  • SIV||

    I think 4 or 5 of my facebook friends posted (almost word-fo-word) that they thought long and hard and the only reason anyone could oppose Obama and his policies was because they were racist.
    All the posts were right before the election and what was most "scary" (in a conspiracy-theory kinda way) is that 2 of those 5 never make political posts.

  • SIV||

    And the posts were "liked" by mutual friends who never make or "like" political posts.

  • R C Dean||

    the only reason anyone could oppose Obama and his policies was because they were racist.

    "Well, I'm sure you wouldn't want to be "friends" with a racist, so consider yourself defriended."

  • SIV||

    I unfriended all the ones who called me a murderer after Sandy Hook. I still find the "the only reason anyone opposes Obama is racism" to be odd. That message seemed to resonate with relatively apolitical people.

  • ChrisO||

    Conspiracy theories are a product of the human brain trying to reassure itself that the people in charge are not, in fact, completely incompetent morons.

  • albo||

    People who believe in massive government conspiracies probably have never worked in a government bureaucracy, which are (1) too incompetent, and (2) leaky as a fishing net to keep a conspiracy going.

    Conspiracies are boob bait.

  • Fatty Bolger||

    Yes, and ironically, the ones involving individuals are easier to cover up and far more likely to be true. You know, like "President Obama is hiding important information about his background and early life."

  • Brandybuck||

    Being "easier to cover up" DOES NOT mean "far more likely to be true"!!!

    Sheesh, don't embarrass us Hobbits with that kind of logic.

  • Fatty Bolger||

    Sure it does. A conspiracy that hinges on information held by one person or a very small group is much more likely to be true than a conspiracy that would require a concerted effort from hundreds or thousands of individuals. Though that doesn't mean the likelihood is necessarily high in any given case, if that's what you mean.

  • Brandybuck||

    Statements of fact do not have likelihoods of being true or false, they are either true or they are false. Plausibility has nothing to do with it. If you think Obama is hiding important information about his background and early life, then you need to provide evidence of that, because the ease of covering it up IS COMPLETELY IRRELEVANT!

  • Brandybuck||

    Okay, that wasn't the best worded post. But consider it from the angle of a court of law. You don't argue before a jury about the plausibility, you argue about the evidence.

  • Emmerson Biggins||

    So one of these is true :

    I took a dump this morning after my morning coffee

    OR

    JFK was killed by Elvis, who had actually traveled back in time after his so-called "death".

    Too bad I'm not offering any hard evidence though. Since statements of fact do not have likelhoods, you'll never know which is true.

  • Brandybuck||

    I think you are confusing plausibility with probability. The ease of coverup may increase the plausibility, but it does not increase the probability.

  • Restoras||

    Magic Loogie, people!! Isn't it obvious??

  • The Late P Brooks||

    There were armed men in fatigues, plenty of weapons and what many thought were real live rounds.

    "Emergency! Emergency! Everybody to get from street!"

  • anomdebus||

    "President Obama is covering up the circumstances of his birth"

    Even this isn't very specific. I seem to remember a couple theories that didn't dispute the Hawaii birth, but there was something else, like Obama's name was different or his father was someone other than is claimed..

  • John||

    That would actually be one thing he would have a right to cover up. I don't think the world needs to know that his mother was a free love beatnik getting her freak on with every third world grad student who came through the door.

  • sarcasmic||

    You calling the president's mamma a slut?

  • Jeff||

    Yes. If there are naked pictures of your mom on the internet, odds are she is a slut.

  • R C Dean||

    President Obama is covering up the circumstances of his birth

    I do recall seeing some analysis of the first scan of his birth certificate that was released showing large edit files, multiple layers, some odd imaging, etc. All things, supposedly, you wouldn't get if you just ran a document through a scanner and posted/emailed it.

    Imagine, if you will, that there was something hinky/embarrassing about his birth certificate. Would you put it past a Chicago Machine politician and his crew to cover it up?

  • PapayaSF||

    The PDF was indeed hinky, but it was so hinky that it almost seemed to make it less likely that it was a coverup. I'd think a conspiracy that big and important would do a better job.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    the only reason anyone could oppose Obama and his policies was because they were racist.

    I have deleted a few people from my real life circle of acquaintances for spouting this noxious blather.

    Fuck them. They are too stupid to talk to me.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    "If I can't trust the President of the United States, who can I trust?"

    That cracks me up.

  • John||

    Angela DeMarco: You are worse than the mob

    FBI Agent (said in a completely deadpan manner): Madam the mafia is run by a group of sociopathic killers and criminals. The FBI is run by the President of the United States

    (Pause for Laugh)

  • crazyfingers||

    Reminds me of that scene from The Godfather... "Who's being naive, Kay?"

  • GILMORE||

    perhaps the referenced article makes more sense not as an honest attempt to quantify conspiracy-mongers in either party, but rather as yet-another example of the media sowing a narrative that the current administration's critics are not honestly concerned with truth or fiscal prudence, but rather are bigoted nutcases whose primary motivation is fear and race-hatred.

    but that might sound paranoid

  • T o n y||

    Here's an old poll that puts the question more directly. Basically, 72% of likely Republican primary voters either didn't believe Obama was born in the US or weren't sure. I think there's ample evidence that self-identified Republicans are believers in scary amounts of bullshit. Just because libertarians believe in half of it doesn't mean you need to apologize for them.

  • Jeff||

    I don't know about all that, but it is ample evidence that you don't know how to post a link.

  • T o n y||

  • ||

    How "convenient" that you SF'd the link, T o n y. Next you're going to post a "link" that shows George Washington was really working with the Templars.

  • ant1sthenes||

    Were you there or something? Not sure isn't exactly in whackoland, its the default position to have when a person best known for mendacity makes a claim that you can't verify, even if it is plausible.

  • Thane of Whiterun||

    I bet if you posed the CT "AIDS was invented to kill black people (and/or gays)" a large number of African Americans -- dare I say in a larger percentage than any other group -- would agree.

    But that would be racist.

    Also, I met an African American birther once. It blew my mind.

  • GILMORE||

    heres' a perhaps interesting thought:

    not so long ago there was a similar story about how a large chunk of ALL americans had some Truther leanings ("9/11 was an inside job")

    it would be interesting to do a venn-diagram to identify how many of those completely convinced that Bush was involved in a huge conspiracy, created Bin Laden, murdered thousands in the WTC, etc...now are ardent Obamaphiles who mock republicans for thier kooky and irrational beliefs, and have no problem whatsoever with drone campaigns, NDAA, continued wiretapping, etc.

    i suspect its larger than one might guess. the Alex Jones fans do sometimes have selective paranoias

  • James Anderson Merritt||

    JFK took Superman's secret to the grave! Maybe the assassination was actually engineered by ... Lex Luthor!

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