Human Nature

The Dallas Doubters

Most Americans don’t believe conspiracy theories about JFK or UFOs. But they don’t trust the government’s story, either.

Secretary of State John Kerry, shown here at an unrelated event on Nov. 18, 2013, says he has “serious doubts that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.”

Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Yesterday I wrote about the psychology of conspiracy theorists—people who think they know who really killed President Kennedy, blew up the Oklahoma City federal building, or destroyed the World Trade Center. Studies indicate that these folks are believers, not skeptics. They don’t trust what the government or the press tells them, but they credulously accept and assert wildly implausible plots.

There’s a broader group of people, however, who think more critically. They question the official narrative, but they don’t necessarily buy the alternatives. These people seem to be genuine skeptics. They’re not the target population for studies of conspiracy psychology. Instead, they show up in polls. A compendium of public opinion research, just published by the American Enterprise Institute, sheds some light on them.

In 1963, shortly after JFK’s death, the National Opinion Research Center asked Americans what they had felt or suspected on hearing the news. Fewer than 30 percent said they felt strongly that a communist, segregationist, or other extremist had killed the president. But 62 percent said they thought other people had helped the shooter. Last year, in a UVA/Hart Research survey, 75 percent of the public affirmed that “there are still too many questions surrounding Kennedy’s assassination to say that Lee Harvey Oswald acted by himself.” That’s not exactly a conspiracy theory. It’s a refusal to close the case.

A similar pattern shows up in reactions to the 1993 siege at Waco, Texas. In April 1995, a CNN/Time survey asked, “Do you think government agents deliberately set the fire in which the Branch Davidians died, or do you think this was an accident?” Sixty-six percent said it was an accident. Only 14 percent said it was deliberate. But three months later, when the same pollsters asked whether “federal law enforcement officials are covering up anything about the role of government officials at Waco,” a plurality—49 to 39 percent—said yes. The July 1995 survey also asked about the suicide of Vince Foster, a former aide to Bill Clinton who was thought to have known secrets about the president. Only 20 percent of respondents said Foster had been murdered. But 45 percent said the government was “covering up” something about his death. Again, these vague suspicions that something is being hidden—we can’t say what—sound more like doubt than belief.

In 1996, near the 50th anniversary of the supposed UFO crash in Roswell, N.M., Gallup asked Americans whether UFOs had “ever visited earth in some form.” Forty-five percent said yes. But when Gallup asked, in the same questionnaire, “Does the US government know more about UFOs than they are telling us,” 71 percent said yes. Surveys of registered voters by Fox News found a similar gap between belief in the legend and general distrust of the feds. In 1997, when Fox asked whether “the U.S. Air Force is covering up a UFO crash in Roswell, New Mexico,” 39 percent of voters said yes. But a year later, when the same pollsters asked whether “the federal government is withholding information from the public” on “the existence of UFOs,” 55 percent said this was very or somewhat likely.

In yesterday’s article, I pointed out the absurdity of 9/11 conspiracy theories, which Slate’s Jeremy Stahl has thoroughly debunked. I cited a 2007 Zogby survey that offered three theories about the 9/11 attacks. One was the official story. The second was that “certain elements in the US government knew the attacks were coming but consciously let them proceed.” The third was that “certain US government elements actively planned or assisted some aspects of the attacks.” Five percent of respondents endorsed the third theory, and 26 percent endorsed the second. That’s alarmingly high. But when the same sample was asked whether “Congress should investigate the executive branch’s conduct” because few Americans “believe they have been told the whole truth about this administration’s foreknowledge” of the attacks, a 51 percent majority agreed.

This vague suspicion that there’s more to the story colors every subject of rumor. Two years ago Fox News asked Americans whether President Obama “was born in the United States.” Sixty-seven percent said he was; only 24 percent said he wasn’t. But when asked in the same poll whether people who doubted Obama’s birthplace were “just nutty conspiracy theorists” or had “cause to wonder where he was born”—enough cause to justify “actively and publicly” questioning his country of origin—40 percent of respondents said there was sufficient cause to wonder about it.

The same pattern appears in questions about the Oklahoma City bombing. In 1995, shortly after the explosion, fewer than 10 percent of Americans said the government might have done it. But three years later, when voters were asked whether the government was “withholding information from the public” about it, a 48 percent plurality said this was very or somewhat likely. In the case of TWA Flight 800, which blew up near Long Island in 1996, only 14 percent of U.S. adults said it was very likely that the Navy had shot it down. But a year later, 27 percent said it was very likely that the government was suppressing information about it.

The lesson in these numbers is that conspiracists aren’t completely isolated. They’re surrounded by a substantial number of deep skeptics—people who aren’t drinking the Kool-Aid but don’t trust the government to tell the whole story. On average, these people seem to represent about a quarter of the population. In many cases, when combined with the conspiracy believers, they add up to a majority. We need to understand more about these skeptics. We need to keep them from falling into the arms of the conspiracy-theory peddlers. If they’re suspicious by nature, earning their trust may be difficult. But the best way to win them over is simple. Tell the truth.

Read more in Slate on the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination.