I’m sure you’ve heard the news that last week a poll from Public Policy Polling found a disturbing number of Americans believe in conspiracies large and small. Several of their findings underscore just why it’s so important to continue critically examining the claims made by cable television documentaries, popular press books, and websites about aliens and ancient mysteries.
Before we take a look at the poll, let’s issue a couple of caveats: First, this poll was specifically designed to test political differences on conspiracy theories, so the methodology may prevent this from being extrapolated from members of political parties to the general population. The survey looked at 2012 presidential election voters only, and this may or may not accurately represent the remainder of the population who did not or could not vote. Second, the poll asked about a belief in aliens, but it did not specify whether this meant a belief in extraterrestrial life somewhere in the universe (a scientific probability) or a belief in an advanced species such as the Greys coming to sodomize sleeping Americans (scientifically doubtful). Therefore, there is no way to parse the 29% of respondents who said they believe in aliens.
That said, let’s look at the results:
And this only represents the findings that directly correlate with the cable documentary series I cover on this blog. Additional conspiracies involving fluoride, contrails, 9/11, and vaccines have similar or greater belief levels.
When you compare these numbers against the ratings for cable television series—the 1 million who watch America Unearthed or the 2.2 million who watched Ancient Aliens at its height—you begin to see that these shows represent only a fraction of the audience for their ideas. While it may seem silly to spend time debunking a show with just one million viewers (0.3% of the American population), when you realize the sheer number of people—tens of millions!—who are open to such ideas, it no longer seems quite so quixotic and exercise.
It is surely no coincidence that the conspiracy theories that Americans believe in their tens of millions are alternative ideas heavily promoted in the popular media. Conspiracy theories that do not garner significant media attention, such as the idea that cats are aliens who enslaved humans (yes, that’s a thing), that the earth is hollow, or that Saddam Hussein had an ancient alien Stargate, do not find belief levels approaching those of ideas seen weekly on television, discussed heavily online, or promoted in alternative history books.
As I’ve said before, the popular media do a great disservice to science by taking these numbers as confirmation that these topics sell. Instead, the numbers show us that people will believe what the media and the culture tells them could be true. Major book publishers simply refuse to publish books that openly doubt conspiracy theories. It’s happened to me, and it’s happened to other authors: We are told by publishers that we need to “leave the door open” for aliens, Atlantis, etc., or we can kiss our book deals good-bye. Television is worse. Aside from PBS and scattered lights on cable, the TV dial is wall-to-wall anti-science conspiracy nonsense.
Academics don’t help the situation, though it is not their fault. Scientists, historians, and archaeologists are busy actually generating new knowledge, and they don’t have the time or the energy (with some exceptions) to fight this battle every day—and due to the constraints of their jobs, their publications don’t speak to popular audiences and thus have little impact outside academia. What historical truth needs is more popularizers, people who can interpret the work of academics for people who are interested but not specialists, people who can make history interesting and show that the truth is more fascinating than lies.
Because of the decisions made by publishers a few decades ago to give up on popularizers by professionalizing book writing to the point that Ph.D. is now considered a prerequisite to publish “serious” books (mostly because they write the way elite critics enjoy and have university jobs, so they don’t expect to be paid up front), the much of the popular history category has fallen to “For Dummies” books and alternative history conspiracy theorists. It’s not absolute, of course; many journalists and other writers produce history books aimed at popular audiences each year, but the trend toward dividing books more and more cleanly between highbrow, academic work and lowbrow, popular work is unmistakable. The old-fashioned idea of the “middlebrow,” books for smart people who were engaged but non-experts, has all but vanished.
Could you imagine a Barbara Tuchman today? It’s getting hard to do. Can you believe that there used to be a time when science and history documentaries aired on network television? Today broadcast networks can’t even remember a time when they used to show alternative history documentaries. Even cable has exiled real science and real history to the outer limits of its schedule, convinced that audiences actively run from truth. In truth, though, the media have trained the audience to expect less, and the audience responded.
The decline of the middlebrow forces larger numbers of people to choose between highbrow and lowbrow. For some, they will move up to academic history, but it’s a hard sell since academic work can be dry, highly specialized, and hard for non-specialists to master. It drives larger numbers of people who won’t or can’t engage with academic history into the arms of conspiracy writers, the only people left who talk to them as fellow-travelers on a voyage of adventure.
Publishers and TV networks, seeing this problem of their own making, take it for confirmation that their gutting of the middlebrow was well-advised. And the cycle continues.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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