By ERIC FREEDMAN
Capital News Service
LANSING — Who’s more likely to believe in conspiracy theories, the politically knowledgeable or the politically ignorant? The answer is obvious: The politically ignorant, right?
Wrong, at least when it comes to conservatives, according to a study by political scientists at the University of Minnesota and Colorado State University.
That’s not to say many liberals don’t espouse conspiracy theories as well. Here in Michigan, for example, conspiracy theories concerning the Flint water crisis have poked up their ugly heads.
The broadest ones allege a racially and politically motivated plot by Gov. Rick Snyder, his appointed emergency managers, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and high-ups in the departments of Environmental Quality and Health and Human Services to poison the predominantly poor, non-white, Democratic-voting residents of Flint.
For example, the website www.naturalnews.com – describing itself as “a science-based natural health advocacy organization led by activist-turned-scientist Mike Adams, the ‘Health Ranger’”—headlined a story, “Deliberate mass poisoning of a black community, covered up by those in power.”
Attorney General Bill Schuette has charged more than a dozen local and state officials with crimes related to the Flint water crisis, including some conspiracy charges. But intentional poisoning based on race or politics is not alleged.
Still, cover-up scenarios expanded, MLive reported in April, “…after a Flint water plant worker and the woman at the center of a water lawsuit were found dead within days of each other. However, investigators say any connections the deaths may have to the city’s water crisis are so far unfounded.”
The new study is based on a survey of more than 2,200 Americans who identify themselves as liberal or conservative. It comes amid extreme ideological polarization in the country.
“Contrary to the popular conception that conspiracy theorists are a small group of tinfoil hat-wearing men who spend most of their time in bunkers, conspiracy theorists are not solely the domain of extremists and paranoids. They cut across demographic and political attitudes,” according to the study published in the American Journal of Political Science.
Exhibit A may be the recent campaign season, which was rife with conspiracy theories—plots about massive voter fraud and rigged election results, schemes by the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton to cover up the truth about the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya and more.
“They are also pervasive,” the study says of such theories. “Over half of the American population consistently endorses some kind of conspiratorial narrative about a current political event or phenomenon.”
The survey asked about eight conspiracy theories. Researchers found that conservatives were more likely to endorse these four:
- Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States.
- The Affordable Care Act included “death panels.”
- Global warming is a hoax.
- Saddam Hussein was involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
And they found liberals were more likely to endorse these four:
- During Hurricane Katrina, the federal government deliberately breached flood levees to protect middle-class homes.
- The Bush administration had advance knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks.
- The GOP stole the 2004 presidential election because of voter fraud in Ohio.
- The Bush administration misled the public about Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction.
So where do liberals and conservatives differ when it comes to accepting or rejecting conspiracy theories?
For one thing, liberals are less likely than conservatives to endorse ideologically consistent conspiracies. For another, among conservatives – but not liberals — “knowledge exacerbates ideologically motivated reasoning in the domain of conspiracy endorsement.” And when “high” political knowledge combines with low trust in government, the “interactive effect” creates a “perfect storm for ideologically motivated conspiracy endorsement.”
By comparison, the study found liberals less likely to endorse conspiracy theories if they have either high political knowledge or high trust in government.
At the opposite end of the political knowledge spectrum, the study found no difference between “lowest knowledge” liberals and conservatives.
What explains this connection between political knowledge and adherence to unfounded conspiracy theories among conservatives but not among liberals? One factor, according to the authors: “Because politically knowledgeable people care more about politics and hold stronger political attitudes, they are especially likely to want to protect those attitudes.”
The findings are troubling for people who believe knowledge is a cure-all that ensures reasoned thinking about public affairs and policy, and for those who the authors say “wish to view democracy through even the most rose-colored of lenses.”
In today’s political environment, then, “elites can cast outrageous aspersions against their nemeses—including espousing conspiracy theories–and feel confident that a polarized, participatory and receptive audience will be more likely to take up the cause.”
This article is adapted from the author’s column in Domemagazine.com.