How Myths – From Bigfoot to Vaccine Truthers – Persist in American Culture

Bigfoot is a giant hairy ape-like creature who walks on two legs and is hard to find. So hard to find that most of us have a fairly strong hunch that he (or she) doesn't exist.

But that’s an "opinion" not shared by the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization, whose website collects scraps of possible evidence to show that Bigfoot lives! To see for yourself, you could go on one of the dozen 4-day expeditions that BFRO organizes yearly in wilderness areas across the US to find Bigfoot. If you can’t get away from work, just tune in Sunday evenings to “Finding Bigfoot”: the BFRO’s researchers have been broadcasting their search on one of Animal Planet’s top-rated programs for 5 years. Perhaps a more accurate title would be “Not Finding Bigfoot”.

My interest is more theoretical: who believes in Bigfoot and other unlikely ideas? Polling organizations produce different results about the belief in Bigfoot. Public Policy Polling in 2013 said that 14% believe, and the Baylor University Religion Survey in 2007 agreed, finding that 16% thought absolutely or probably that Bigfoot lives. But Angus Reid Public Opinion says that in 2012, 29% of Americans thought Bigfoot was definitely or probably real.

PPP and Baylor agree that belief in Bigfoot is spread across the American landscape: there is little difference by gender or political party or age. The only significant differences are in education: 27% of those who did not finish high school, 20% of high school graduates, but only 10% of college graduates.

Bigfoot is not a political animal. Neither is belief in aliens, but the number who believe is harder to pin down. PPP’s poll said 29% think that aliens exist; a 2013 poll by Survata, a consumer research firm, found that 37% “believe in the existence of extra-terrestrial life”, while National Geographic said 77% believe there are signs that aliens have visited earth.

Other wild ideas that are not shaped by politics are whether shape-shifting reptilian people control our world (believed by 4%); whether Paul McCartney died in a car crash in 1966 (5%); or whether television contains secret mind-controlling technology (15%). But how else to explain the popularity of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians”?

About one-fifth believe that vaccines cause autism, according to the 2013 PPP survey, replicated by the American Medical Association. That idea is pretty evenly spread across age, gender and ethnic groups and political positions. Like all of these beliefs, it seems immune to scientific evidence that shows it’s not true: the paper by the British scientist Andrew Wakefield that supposedly showed a connection was a fraud in service of his own financial gain.

Some strange beliefs are highly political. For example, PPP asked people, “Do you believe that a secretive power elite with a globalist agenda is conspiring to eventually rule the world through an authoritarian world government, or New World Order?” About one quarter of Americans said “yes”, a scary thing in itself for our political process. Who are they? The more conservative, the more likely is belief in the New World Order: 45% of those who identified themselves as “very conservative”, 33% of somewhat conservative, but only 12% of very liberal. Men are about twice as likely to women to believe this, and whites more likely than minorities.

The New World Order advocates may be the same people who make other outlandish political claims which all lead in the same direction: President Obama is evil. Among very conservative respondents, PPP found that 21% believe that Obama is the Anti-Christ. And there still are lots of “birthers”, people who believe that Obama was not born in the US and so should not be President: in a poll earlier this year, 38% said that. Who are they? They are overwhelmingly conservative Republicans, among whom about two-thirds believe this. They tend to be older whites who did not attend college. Very similar results were found by Rasmussen Reports.

The public production of Obama’s long-form birth certificate did nothing to stop the birther conspiracy claims, demonstrating a deeper truth about crazy ideas: they don’t go away. No amount of evidence has convinced those who claim the Holocaust never happened or that the moon landing was faked.

Scientific research, which is often rejected by most conspiracy theorists, can help us understand why such theories are believed. Belief in broad secret conspiracies is connected to feelings of powerlessness in the face of great forces and powerful institutions. Distrust of government, which has a solid rational basis, leads to distrust of scientists and media, especially when they say things that are disturbing or complicated. Cynicism about politics leads to conspiracy theories about political events. Then attempts to debunk inaccurate information can actually strengthen false beliefs, in the so-called “backfire effect”. The internet provides confirmation of every nutty idea, making debunking even harder.

There is nothing inherently dangerous in believing in Bigfoot. But holding similar nutty ideas can be dangerous: the false vaccine-autism link reduced parents’ interest in vaccines, allowing some formerly extinct diseases to come back, like measles and whooping cough. Distrusting scientists or “mainstream media” isolates people from reality. The only way to reduce the influence of crazy ideas is for people who know they are untrue to stop using them for their own selfish purposes.

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