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We love a good conspiracy theory, Chapman survey finds

If you believe in conspiracies, you’re not alone. According to a study released Wednesday by researchers at Chapman University, three-quarters of Americans believe the government is covering up at least one of nine conspiracies.

From the origin of the AIDS virus to the moon landing to the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, most Americans think something’s being covered up, according to Chapman's third annual Survey of American Fears.

Chapman University researcher Chris Bader led the survey, including the section focused on our beliefs in conspiracies. He said he knew Americans liked their conspiracy theories, but even he was a little taken aback at what he found.

"I was surprised to find that more than half of Americans believe there’s some kind of conspiracy about 9/11," Bader said, "and surprised to find about a fourth of Americans believe there’s some sort of conspiracy about the moon landing."

A mindset has developed in America, he says – where people have become extremely distrustful of other people and government.

Strong evidence of that, he said, emerged regarding one particular conspiracy researchers included in the survey: "This is a conspiracy called the North Dakota crash," Bader said, "which we made up."

When asked about a possible cover-up of the fictional incident, "About one-third of Americans said, 'Yes, there’s something going on here. The government’s concealing information," he said.

The survey asked whether people believe the U.S. government is concealing what it knows about nine other topics: the JFK assassination, Barack Obama’s birth certificate, alien encounters, the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the moon landing, the 9/11 attacks, plans for a one world government, the AIDs virus and global warming.

Seventy-four percent of respondents said they agree or strongly agree that there was a conspiracy to cover up the truth regarding at least one of the things on the list. Logging in with the highest score was the 9/11 terrorist attack, with about 54 percent believing the government is covering up the real story.

The assassination of John F. Kennedy followed, with one-half agreeing that the government has covered up the truth. A solid 30 percent still question the validity of Obama’s birth certificate, and almost one-quarter think the government is lying to them about the moon landing. 


*Researchers inserted the fictional "North Dakota crash" in the survey.

Conspiracy theories play on fears, so they’re especially prevalent around election time, said Bader. This year that includes Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump's charges that the election is rigged, and that China promulgated the idea of global warming in an effort to hinder U.S. trade, he said.  

But Bader noted that, sometimes, fears about conspiracies can be comforting, because they can help explain complicated and arcane world events. Most people don’t fully understand how the economy works, he said. We all have cell phones, but few really know how they work. Horrific events like the 9/11 bombing can be traumatizing, and it can help ease that distress by pinning blame on one entity, like the U.S. government.

One other note about conspiracy fears, he said, is that some people find them fun. Just like Halloween and rollercoasters, Bader says, some people like being scared.

This edition of the Survey of American Fears polled more than 1,500 adults across the nation in April.

The survey asked respondents about 79 fears across a broad range of categories including fears about the government, crime, the environment, the future, technology, health, natural disasters and generalized fears such as fear of spiders, heights and ghosts. The results are organized into five basic categories: personal fears, conspiracy theories, terrorism, natural disasters, paranormal fears and fear of Muslims.