In Defense of Paranoia
According to a poll released last week by Public Policy Polling, 4 percent of Americans—quotes are essential here—“believe shape-shifting reptilian people control our world by taking on human form and gaining power.” That was the silliest bit of a survey of 1,200-odd adults on conspiracy theories that ranged from “Wait, didn’t that at least mostly happen?” (whether George W. Bush “intentionally misled the public about the possibility of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to promote the Iraq war”) to half-baked ideas conceived by dorm-room stoners 40 years ago (“Do you believe Paul McCartney actually died in a car crash in 1966 and was secretly replaced by a lookalike so the Beatles could continue, or not?”).
These results were passed around the media to much amusement over the apparently stupid, partisan naïveté of Americans. But it’s really not as bad as the Atlantic Wire headline declaring that “12 million Americans Believe Lizard People Run Our Country” indicates. For one thing, as Reason’s Jesse Walker pointed out, it would be awfully tempting to troll any pollsters inquiring about your feelings towards Roswell, the Reptilians, and whether Obama is the Antichrist (13 percent, for the record, said he was).
For another, not all the theories PPP asked people about are as nutty as the idea that the moon landing was faked (7 percent of respondents believe it was) or a belief in Bigfoot or Sasquatch (14 percent are on board). If you squint, you can see the logical roots of some of them: while the US government probably didn’t consciously allow 9/11 to happen (11 percent say it did), and Osama bin Laden seems to really be dead and gone (despite the 6 percent of folks who say he’s still out there), the former conspiracy theory is aided by the staggering lapses in security and intelligence preceding the attacks, while the latter can be chalked up to the Obama administration’s refusal to release photos of bin Laden’s bullet-ridden body.