I try hard not to live in a bubble, so I read widely and listen when people express opinions contrary to my own. But I was shocked when I started reading the latest edition of Chapman University’s annual survey of America’s Top Fears.
This is a legitimate survey, a random sample of 1,511 adults from across the United States who were asked about their fears concerning crime, the government, natural and manmade disasters, and much more. There were plenty of surprises about Americans’ fears, but what shocked me most was how many Americans believe in ridiculous conspiracy theories.
Every White House in my lifetime has been a sieve for secrets. Just about everything gets leaked onto the pages of The Washington Post or one of dozens of other media salivating to get the latest scoop. The rest of the secrets get dumped into WikiLeaks. People love proving to reporters that they are privy to confidential information and they can’t stop blabbing about it.
On top of that, Congress spends more time on investigations than on passing legislation. Everything big gets investigated at least twice, then re-examined a decade or two later. And each major political party’s existential mission is to spill the worst beans on the other.
Sure, secrets and corruption are hidden even in Washington, but popular conspiracies are based on supposedly huge holes in our knowledge of the biggest events of our lives. For instance, somehow, this leaky and sometimes barely functioning federal government has been able to hide secrets about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy for more than five decades, at least if you believe half of the Americans polled by Chapman University. And a majority of those Americans believe the government has been able to conceal what it knows about 9/11 – the most investigated and reported event of our lives.
Here are the Top 10 conspiracy theories and the percentage of Americans who believe in them, based on the Fears survey.
“The government is concealing what they know about:”
- 9/11 attacks: 54.3%
- JFK assassination: 49.6%
- Alien encounters: 42.6%
- Global warming: 42.1%
- Plans for a one-world government: 32.9%
- Obama’s birth certificate: 30.2%
- Origin of the AIDs virus: 30.1%
- Death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia: 27.8%
- Moon landing: 24.2%
When you question people about their beliefs in these theories, they seem to fall into two camps: Those who know next to nothing about the historical event, but latch onto the conspiracy theory anyway because that’s easier than studying the issue and, besides, it reinforces their existing world view. The other group of theorists have memorized the minutiae of the supposed conspiracy and recite it back to you. With 9/11 hoaxers it’s the pseudo engineering mumbo jumbo that sounds vaguely believable until a real expert in the field starts blowing holes in it.
Of course, underlying all of these theories is the belief that somehow the government can keep a secret, despite the fact that dozens of people, if not hundreds, would have to keep their mouths shut for years or decades to hide these conspiracies. Interestingly, the people who believe in conspiracies also tend to believe the government is totally incompetent. I guess, from their perspective, the only thing Washington is good at is covering up conspiracies on the biggest events of our time.