Conspiracy Corner – Twelve Million Americans Believe…

Every Thursday, about 8:15am, Matthew talks with Zac about conspiracy theories on 95bFM’s “Breakfast Show”.

There is nothing as informative and useless than statistics. Informative, because everyone loves numbers1 and useless, because numbers can be meaningless if they are measuring things which have not been sufficiently quantified. So, when the Public Policy Polling released their 2013 survey of conspiracy theories (readable here) believed by Americans, I really wasn’t sure what to make of the numbers.

Take, for example, their claim 51% of Americans believe a conspiracy theory about the death of JFK. If you look at the actual question, which was:

Do you believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in killing President Kennedy, or was there some larger conspiracy at work?

You’ll note that the question doesn’t allow us to differentiate between people who believe Lee Harvey Oswald was the actual assassin but he didn’t act alone or he was a patsy and the real assassins were on, say, the Grassy Knoll. As such, all the question tells us is that people are uncertain about the official theory of JFK’s assassination but not whether they disagree with it entirely.

Contrast this to the second most popular conspiracy theory, the claim the invasion of Iraq was not about looking for those pesky Weapons of Mass Destruction. This one I find interesting because many people (but not me) wouldn’t classify that as a conspiracy theory because it’s pretty much the accepted theory by now (ex-Presidents and Prime Ministers withstanding). It’s also interesting that it’s not overwhelmingly believed by Americans, which might be both a case of being opposed to things called “conspiracy theories” (“I don’t believe the invasion was about WMDs but I’m not the kind of person who believes conspiracy theories, so…”) and that weird patriotism our American cousins sometimes suffer from.

The bottom of the list is also interesting: about the same number of people appear to believe that fluoridation is a problem as people who believe that chemtrails exist. It would be interesting to see just how close the overlap between some two groups are. Are there chemtrailers who support fluoride fortification of the water supply? Do both groups believe that fluoride is a mind-control agent or are a significant section of huge anti-fluoride group just opposed to fluoride because it’s a toxic byproduct?

Of course, these numbers aren’t exactly useful for anything other than ranking the relative popularity of certain theories about conspiracies. The fact some theory is or isn’t believed by a significant number of people doesn’t tell us how warranted or unwarranted that theory is. The evidence decides those questions. Numbers, as I said, can be both informative and useless.

Notes

  1. This is not true.

About Matthew Dentith

Author of "The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories" (Palgrave Macmillan), Matthew Dentith wrote his PhD on epistemic issues surrounding belief in conspiracy theories. He is a frequent media commentator on the weird and the wonderful, both locally and internationally. On occasion he can be caught dreaming about wax lions but, mostly, it is rumoured he works for elements of the New World Order.