Conspiracy Theories

Pollsters Made Up a Conspiracy Theory, and Then 32.5% of the People They Questioned Endorsed It

Which does that tell us more about: conspiracy theories, or polls?


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In Chapman University's latest Survey on American Fears, pollsters asked about 10 alleged cover-ups. In the most striking result, 25 percent of the respondents agreed—and another 7.5 percent strongly agreed—that the "government is concealing what they [sic] know about the North Dakota Crash."

What's striking about that? Just that the pollsters had never actually heard any conspiracy theories about a "North Dakota Crash"; they threw that in to see how people would respond to a vaguely ominous-sounding episode that they invented. Yet enough people said agree to make it the sixth most popular theory in the poll: It finished behind the notions that the government is concealing information about 9/11, the JFK assassination, aliens, global warming, or plans for a one-world government, but it was more popular than the ideas of a birther, AIDS, Scalia, or moon landing cover-up. You'll have to guess for yourself how many of those North Dakota Crash truthers were trolling the pollsters, how many simply figure the government habitually conceals information about everything, how many were thinking about some other crash, and how many were just getting excited in the heat of the moment. (Who knows? One might even be a fellow who lives in the Dakotas and has long harbored suspicions about some crash.)

The pollsters say that 74 percent of the sample agreed with at least one of the "real" conspiracy theories they asked about. I ought to like that number, since I'm constantly arguing that conspiracy theories are not just a fringe phenomenon but can be found across American society. But because of the way the questions were framed, I'm not sure these results really tell us much. Are officials "concealing what they know about the 9/11 attacks"? Well, yes: These answers were collected in the spring, and the feds didn't declassify 29 pages (*) of their 9/11 report until July. You didn't have to believe in an elaborate conspiracy theory to tell a pollster the government was hiding information; you just had to follow the news. The same goes for the Kennedy assassination: The government hasn't released all its files about that yet. Is "concealing what they know" really the best way to frame that question?

But if you want to see the totals, here they are in snazzy infographic form:


For the full report, go here. For Reason's coverage of a previous Chapman Survey of American Fears, go here.

(* Everyone calls them "the 28 pages," but there were actually 29 of them.)