Saturday, December 22, 2007

"Many Americans Still Believe in Conspiracy Theories" well they should!

I found the headline of this Scripps Howard News Service article more than a little disturbing:

"Many Americans still believe in conspiracies"

It sounds as if the rest of the sentence is missing: "despite our best efforts."

Indeed, the Scripps-Howard new service, like every other major media outlet in the country, has been one of the CIA's media assets, according to Carl Bernstein's landmark 10/20/1977 Rolling Stone article "The CIA and the Media." So it's fitting then, that not only does Scripps decry the findings, it's also misrepresenting them.

The article focuses on one set of findings reported from a survey of the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University:

Nearly two-thirds of Americans think it is possible that some federal officials had specific warnings of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, but chose to ignore those warnings, according to a Scripps Howard News Service/Ohio University poll.

A national survey of 811 adult residents of the United States conducted by Scripps and Ohio University found that more than a third believe in a broad smorgasbord of conspiracy theories including the attacks, international plots to rig oil prices, the plot to assassinate President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and the government's knowledge of intelligent life from other worlds.

The last sentence is incredibly misleading, in that it lumps all these conspiracy theories together as if, if one believes one of them, one believes all of them. But that's not how the survey was conducted.

It's also inaccurate on the number surveyed, in that 880 answered the question about gas prices, while only 808 answered the question about intelligent life elsewhere.

In addition, quite a bit more than a third believe in most of those theories, according to the posted survey results.

The survey questions were individual, and contained the following results:
I'd also lke [sic] to ask about some conspiracy theories that are sometimes mentoned among Americans. Please tell me whether you think each of these is very likely, somewhat likely or not likely. So when I say that oil companies are conspiring to keep gasoline prices high, is that very likely, somewhat likely or not likely.*

Very likely 50%
Somwhat likely 30%
Not Likely 14%
Don't know 4%
Can't answer, refused 2%

*This question had 880 respondents; it was part of a survey posted on on September 22, 2007.
Compare this data to the quotation above. While the report said 811 people had been surveyed, 880 answered this question, while less than 811 answered some of the others. And regarding this question, it's not just a third who believe in the oil prices may be rigged, it's 80%! So the reporting so far on this survey is not only inaccurate, but dramatically misleading.
How about that some people think the federal government had specfic warnings of the 9/11 attacks in New york and Washington, but chose to ignore these warnings. Is this very likely, somewhat likely or not likely?*

Very likely 32%
Somewhat likely 29%
Not likely 30%
Don't know 6%
Can't answer, refused 2%

*This question had 808 respondents; it was part of a survey posted on on September 22, 2007.
This question was the only one reported accurately, in that yes, about two thirds believe there is some likelihood that the government ignored specific warnings about the 9/11 attacks.

The next question deals with Kennedy's assassination:
How likely is it that some people in the federal government knew about the assassinaton of President Kennedy in advance?*

Very likely 20%
SOmewhat likely 22%
Not likely 40%
Don't know 17%
Can't answer, refused 1%

*This question had 808 respondents; it was part of a survey posted on on September 22, 2007.
First of all, that's an odd question. Would you consider a CIA field operative a "member of the federal government"? Or Allen Dulles, the retired head of the CIA? But of course, the purpose of the survey was to gauge the public's feelings towards the federal government.

Note that the question does not specifically ask about a conspiracy, yet it was reported as such. After all, some might believe the Feds had an eye on Oswald, but refused to act, not because of any conspiracy, but because of incompetence.

In addition, those who believe that Castro did it, or the Mob, may not have believed anyone in the federal government had any foreknowledge, making any statement about a belief in a conspiracy regarding "the plot to assassinate President John F. Kennedy in 1963" nonsensical, given the specific wording of the question.

Even so, less than half the people surveyed believed it was unlikely that the government had foreknowledge of the plot. In other words, a majority left open the possibility that someone in the federal government did have foreknowledge. In any case, there's no way to know how many believed JFK's death was the result of a conspiracy, because the question was not worded that way.

The last question regarding conspiracies was this one:

Some Americans feel that flying saucers ae [sic] real and that the federal government is hiding the truth about them from us. Do you think this is very likely, somewhat Likely or not likely?*

Very likely 11$ [sic]
SOmewhat likely 24%
Not likely 55%
Don't know 7%
Other 1%
Can't answer. refused 2%
*This question had 808 respondents; it was part of a survey posted on on September 22, 2007.
This is the only question that fits the one-third description in the original story.

Missing from the overall discussion is the question of whether people are justified in their mistrust of the federal government in these issues. After Watergate, Iran-Contra, the BCCI scandal, the ripping off of the Savings and Loans by people in government, after the Niger forgeries and the Downing Street memo, why should anyone have blanket faith that our government is telling us the truth about 9/11, or the Kennedy assassination?

On the flip side, however, blanket distrust of the government can be as harmful to us as blanket trust. No government is entirely good, or entirely evil. It's made up of people who do good and bad things. I've been in private discussions with activists on evoting issues, and there are those who think any federal legislation is bad legislation because it gives the federal government near dictatorial powers. My point is that, sometimes such powers can be wielded for the good. Would you rather have 50 separate Social Security systems in place of the one we have now? I wouldn't.

The most important thing for us all to do is to question everything, but answer only by carefully pinning down points of verifiable data. Sometimes data is missing, and you have to use a theory to connect the data points you have. That's legitimate theorizing. Good conspiracy theory is simply pattern recognition.

Bad conspiracy theory, however, is when you read information unquestioningly, and believe things that are provably not true. Conspiracy theory is not for the faint of heart, or the lazy. If you're willing to do the research, however, there is a world of interesting history out there that you can't read about in the mainstream media.

I think skepticism of any media-promoted/government-sanctioned version of events is always prudent. But any theories must fit the facts. We should never stoop to the level of the Warren Commission members to twist the facts to fit our theories.


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