A new poll was just released by Public Policy Polling, concerning Americans’ belief (and disbelief) in conspiracy theories. This headline from MSN.com tells the story well, especially for skeptics.
Among other results, the poll reports that:
21% of voters believe the government covered up a UFO crash at Roswell (27% of Romney voters believe in the cover-up as compared with 16% of Obama voters)
20% of voters believe there is a link between childhood vaccines and autism, 51% do not
13% think Obama is the Antichrist
9% of voters think the government adds fluoride to our water supply for sinister reasons (not just dental health)
7% of voters think the moon landing was faked
5% of voters believe that Paul McCartney actually died in 1966
4% believe that "shape-shifting reptilian people control our world by taking on human form and gaining political power to manipulate our societies."
14% of voters believe in Bigfoot
What’s a poor skeptic to do?
I confess that one great temptation may be to curl up into the fetal position and take a long nap in the closet.
Another might be to go make a stiff drink, open the window, and lustily sing a cover version of “It’s The End of the World as We Know It.”
Or still another option: quit this skeptic racket and go to work in support of a different cause. Maybe fighting to restore the proper use of the word “hopefully.” Or getting news anchor-people to correctly use the word “literally.”
Y’know – something that stands a better chance of success than the battle for rational inquiry.
But then one begins to think about the stakes. Doesn’t one?
The misuse of “hopefully” and “literally” drives this language pedant a little nuts at times, but the stakes are relatively low, as compared with the costs of irrational thinking and uninformed decision-making. It might be harmless to believe that Paul is dead, it might be annoying or even silly to think that the moon landing was faked, but the same thinking – or lack of it – that leads to these kinds of faulty conclusions and ignoring of the evidence also leads people to believe that there’s a link between childhood vaccines and autism. And that’s a dangerous conclusion with real-world consequences. My kids may be attending school with unvaccinated children, and that in turn presents a risk to the health of my children.
Bad thinking is a slippery slope, with a bed of dangerous and life-threatening ideas waiting to land on at the base. The way people analyze evidence and reach conclusions about what is and is not true leads to action that in turn has real-world consequences – for me. And for you.
And that’s why I’m a skeptical activist.
No less than CSICOP founder Paul Kurtz came to argue that paranormal and cryptozoology claims were no longer important and that skeptics needed to go after bigger fish in the fish market of ideas. This is turn led others to the notion of so-called Skepticism 2.0, and the charge that “Bigfoot skepticism” was an old-fashioned, out-of-date irrelevancy, and that the scientific skepticism movement needed more meaningful targets.
Really? I don’t think so. Fourteen percent of American voters believe in Bigfoot. And Bigfoot is a great way to introduce people to the tenets of critical thinking and skepticism. It’s fun for kids to think about. It’s a fine example for adults of how to consider evidence. Bigfoot is a fine way to create better citizens, because clearer and more rational thinking makes for better decisions, better citizenry, and a better world.
As Daniel Loxton has written about the work of skeptical activism, “That work is important. And it’s hard. We’re under-funded, we’re overwhelmed, and it’s often hard to see the stakes. Who cares about yet another distasteful little scam?
Yet, somebody has to do it. I can’t drive that point home hard enough. The job isn’t done. It will never be done. The need for this work has not diminished just because we grew sick of doing it. People have no less need to hear the message just because we grew tired of saying it.”
Then again, there is that black carnation in Paul’s lapel on the Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour” film.
Jamy Ian Swiss is Senior Fellow at the JREF. He blogs regularly at randi.org.