Why many Americans hold false beliefs about WMDs in Iraq and Obama's birth place

Some 61 percent of American voters surveyed believe in at least one political conspiracy theory, according to a Fairleigh Dickinson University poll. Why are conspiracy theories attractive? 

Although it has been proven false, more than four in ten Americans – and more than half of Republicans – still believe that the US found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

After six years in office and the release of his long-form birth certificate confirming his Hawaii birth, one third of Republicans continue to believe President Barack Obama was born outside the US.

And more than one in five non-white Americans think the Secret Service is intentionally leaving President Obama unprotected.

That's according to a new poll by Fairleigh Dickinson University that finds surprisingly high levels of belief in conspiracy theories and other false beliefs about politics. According to the poll, Republicans and Fox News viewers are more likely to hold false beliefs about topics like the President and the Iraq war.

“Our leaders in Washington can’t seem to agree on much,” Dan Cassino, a professor of political science and the director of experimental research for the poll, said in the FDU survey report. “But when the public can’t even agree on basic facts about politics, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised.”

According to the poll, the most prevalent misconception appeared to be about Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs), with 42 percent of Americans overall stating that they believed US forces found WMDs in Iraq, part of the (false) justification for the invasion. That number jumped to 51 percent among Republicans. Even a solid 32 percent of Democrats believed that WMDs were found.

Why? Part of the confusion may come from reports, including a recent article by the New York Times, that thousands of individual chemical weapons shells (manufactured prior to 1991), and related items have been found in Iraq, mostly thought to be vestiges of a WMD program shut down after the U.S.-led invasion in 1991. But unlike the justification given by the Bush administration for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, there was no active WMD program in Iraq at the time.  

But there's another reason so many people believe something that has been definitively proven false. They want to.

“People who think we did the right thing in invading Iraq seem to be revising their memories to retroactively justify the invasion,” said Mr. Cassino. “This sort of motivated reasoning is pretty common: when people want to believe something, they’ll twist the facts to fit it.”

Though "birther" campaign has settled since its peak several years ago, 19 percent of Americans, and a full 34 percent of Republicans, still think President Obama is not legally a citizen of the United States.

Who is likely to believe in conspiracy theories is as interesting as the theories themselves.

First, a lot of us do: a full 63 percent of registered American voters believe in at least one political conspiracy theory, according to a recent poll conducted by Fairleigh Dickinson University.

Perhaps not surprisingly, political preference and media choice shapes our beliefs on topics like the President and the Iraq war. According to the FDU survey, Republicans and Fox News viewers are more likely to endorse conspiracies like "birtherism" and WMDs in Iraq. Democrats (especially African-American voters) are more likely than Republicans to believe that the recent lapses on the part of the Secret Service are part of an intentional plot to leave the president unprotected.

While the Fairleigh Dickenson survey was primarily focused on conspiracy theories embraced by conservatives, a Washington Post blog by social research scientists found that both liberals and conservatives are equally prone to believe such theories. 

Higher levels of political knowledge also matter. Those with more political knowledge were less likely to believe in conspiracies, the survey found. It asked respondents three questions to test political knowledge. Those who answered all questions correctly were less likely to believe conspiracies while those who answered incorrectly were far more likely to believe them.

Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?

It turns out there's also a strong correlation between belief in conspiracy theories, lower levels of education, and higher levels of cynicism with the world and politics.

And the Internet has only served to sustain such false beliefs, with plenty of similar-minded users airing similar beliefs in blogs and online forums.

But perhaps most importantly, conspiracy theories appear to be a way of asserting control in a world of relative uncertainty and powerlessness.

"Economic recessions, terrorist attacks and natural disasters are massive, looming threats, but we have little power over when they occur or how or what happens afterward," writes the New York Times in a 2013 article on the topic, "Why rational people buy into conspiracy theories."

As such, conspiracy theories are "an attempt to create a coherent and understandable narrative, to understand what just happened, what threats still exist and what should be done now."

In other words, in a world of turmoil and uncertainty, it's comforting to have reasons and answers, even if they are wrong.

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