For all their disagreements, people on both the left and the right seem to share a bedrock belief in emergent order. People from the right stress the importance of order emerging out of unmediated market interactions – Adam Smith’s invisible hand. But the emphasis on grassroots political activism we so often find on the left is very similar in this regard: they both depend on the ability of individual actors to understand the world around them and act on that belief. In a lot of ways, the Fog of Policy is animated by that very idea.
Unfortunately, people can be pretty disappointing. For example, here are eight conspiracies you probably forgot people actually believe:
1. The September 11th Attacks Were an Inside Job
If you’ve lived through the last decade of American history, then you’re probably familiar with the claims of the so-called 9/11 ‘truther’ movement. If you’re not, consider yourself very lucky. A brief Google search will familiarize you with the basic elements of the madness: the Pentagon was hit by a missile, not an airplane; Building 7 was destroyed with explosives; the Twin Towers couldn’t have been brought down by airplanes; it was all orchestrated by the US government, possibly with the help of Israel.
What you might not know, and what you might be somewhat distressed to learn, is that 11% of voters actually believe this. Another 28% believe Saddam Hussein was involved in the attacks. (Hint: he was not).
2. Obama is Secretly a Foreigner
Another well-traveled conspiracy theory is the belief that President Barack Obama was secretly born outside of the United States, and is therefore ineligible to be President. Again, the news here isn’t so much the belief, as it is the degree to which Americans believe it: leading up to the 2012 election, more than 30% of Americans (and more than 60% of Republicans!) believed Obama was born in a foreign country. All of which is to say nothing of World Net Daily – where, up until last month, Rick Santorum wrote a weekly column. They’ve been busy claiming that Barack Obama is also secretly gay.
3. The Moon Landing was a Hoax
Do you think the moon landing was a hoax? Don’t despair, 7% of Americans agree with you. Just don’t tell Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon. Here’s a video of him punching a man in the face for calling him a liar.
4. The World is Controlled by Lizard People
There are two kinds of people in the world: people who have heard about the Reptilian conspiracy, and people who have not. In case you haven’t, let me quote directly from the Wikipedia article:
“According to British writer David Icke, 5- to 12-foot (1.5–3.7 m) tall, blood-drinking, shape-shifting reptilian humanoids from the Alpha Draconis star system, now hiding in underground bases, are the force behind a worldwide conspiracy against humanity. He contends that most of the world’s leaders are related to these reptilians, including George W. Bush of the United States, and Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom. Icke’s conspiracy theories now have supporters in 47 countries and he has given lectures to crowds of up to 6,000.”
Let me also tell you that 4% of Americans seem to believe this. Granted, 4% is a relatively low number – though I’d argue that relative to the belief that the world is secretly controlled by reptilian overlords, 4% is a terrifyingly large number. For context, let me also tell you that it translates to about 12 million people; or about twice the number of Jewish people in the United States.
5. AIDS was Created by the Government
And a RAND Corporation and Oregon State University survey from the early 2000s found a few people who agree with him. Among blacks: 48.2% believed HIV was man-made, 12% believed HIV was created and spread by the CIA, and 75% believed medical and public health institutions are trying to spread HIV in black communities. Those of you who clicked through to the article will notice it has some problems – like a small sample size and possibly some participation problems. So I wouldn’t depend on the point estimates, but 75% is such a high number that I wouldn’t turn away from it altogether either.
6. The Earth is Flat
If you want to dismiss someone as incorrigibly misguided or retrograde, you compare them to someone who still believes the Earth is flat. But, and there’s no other way to say this, there is actually a thing called The Flat Earth Society. Their beliefs are elaborate and absurd, but also sincere. They believe the world is actually a disk surrounded by a wall of ice (Antarctica), that gravity is an illusion caused by the upward acceleration of this disk, and that NASA is tasked with perpetuating the lie that the Earth is round. (Check out this article for more information.
Hard to believe that people actually believe this? Maybe the fact that 18% of respondents told Gallup that the Sun revolves around the Earth makes this all a bit easier to comprehend. Or maybe not.
7. The Government Uses Fluoride to Control Us
In the United States, and a number of other countries, fluoride is added to the public water supply in order to promote dental health. (When I was living in Spain without fluoridated water, people queued up at the bathroom to brush their teeth after lunch. And to have a cigarette.)
Or, if you’d prefer, fluoride is added to the water in order to facilitate mind control. This used to be a favorite complaint of the John Birch Society, but 9% of Americans still subscribe to this belief.
8. The Phantom Time Hypothesis
I’ve saved the best for last. And by best, I mean most wonderfully creative. The Phantom Time Hypothesis, championed by German historian Heribert Illig, argues that a large segment of recorded history never actually happened. Instead, the early Middle Ages were fabricated through misunderstanding and forgery. The year isn’t 2013; it’s actually 1716.
There are countless other ‘fringe’ ideas that a surprising number of people believe. You’ve probably heard that the government is building massive FEMA concentration camps, that the government is hoarding ammunition, and that you can tell that the government is coming for your guns by the way in which they’re not coming for your guns.
Other than for entertainment, should we care?
Yes, very much so. First, conspiracy theories are a humbling reminder about the limits of human rationality. Second, conspiracy theories – by demonstrating what exists towards the edge of believability – reveal quite a bit about how people see the world around them and their place in it. The 9/11 truther movement is demonstrably absurd, but its popularity speaks volumes about how millions of Americans view their government.
One last note: in the wake of the 2012 election, 13% of voters thought Barack Obama was the anti-Christ, including 22% of Romney voters. Another 13% weren’t sure – which is another way of saying that 1 in 4 Americans think Obama might be the anti-Christ. But consider this: 5% of the people in New Jersey who voted for Obama in 2008 thought he was the anti-Christ.
Either New Jersey has some seriously scary voters, or we should all be a little circumspect about the quality of some public polling.
Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.
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