Is America losing it? It would seem so judging by polls on weird beliefs and opinions in recent years. Here is a recent handful from Public Policy Polling (PPP),
28% of voters believe that a secretive power elite with a globalist agenda is conspiring to eventually rule the world through an authoritarian world government
37% believe that global warming is a hoax/conspiracy
4% believe shape-shifting reptilian people control our world by taking on human form and gaining power. May not sound like much but that’s almost one in 20, so it’s very likely you know a person who is perhaps wondering whether you are one of the lizards.
9% believe the government is adding fluoride to the drinking water for sinister reasons.
21% believe a UFO crashed at Roswell in 1947.
15 % believe the media or the government adds secret mind-controlling technology to television broadcast signals.
It may of course be that Americans have always been crazy but that the media is reporting more of it than before to satisfy the public’s pressing need for entertainment – it seems most news sites have a “weird” section these days. It’s hard to find any longitudinal data on conspiracy theories, but Gallup has data on odd beliefs, often held by the same individuals, from 1990 until 2005 and it suggests an increase. But why?
The Meth Hypothesis
We already know a category of people who hold both bizarre and persecutory beliefs – schizophrenics and schizotypal personalities. We also know that amphetamines will make a normal person start thinking like these people. Psychologists will even use amphetamine addicts to study schizophrenia and schizotypy for this reason. Could this be what is causing this increase? There may be other factors contributing to the increase in weird beliefs – the rise of the internet, increasing marijuana use, globalization and diversity, fears regarding the environment etc. But only amphetamines are proven to produce odd and persecutory beliefs (the evidence for cannabis is much weaker). So let’s look at the stats. Since there doesn’t seem to be any official statistics on the overall number of meth users, I’ve chosen treatment admissions as a percentage of the population from SAMHSA as a proxy. These are all amphetamines but they all have a similar effect and meth is the most common.
Keep in mind that this chart is of treatment admissions rather than actual use. The peak in 2005 represents people who have been doing the drug for a while before understanding that they need help. The actual use of meth must have peaked earlier, exactly when is hard to tell but given how destructive this particular drug is, it’s probably not later than sometime around 2002-2003.
Witches, Hauntings and Aliens
Now compare this chart with some others showing how many Americans believe in various weird stuff (as a percentage of the population); the data is taken from Gallup. What we’re looking for is an increase during the 1990s and a peak a few years before 2005, in this case we have data for the year 2001 as the closest fit. So, here goes,
This is not a great start, I’ll admit that. There is no gradual increase in the 1990s, but there is a small peak at 2001 and consequently a drop to 2005. This is also the belief that is the least odd with an average of 47 percent believers and 21 percent disbelievers.
This data is even less kind to my meth hypothesis. It has none of the three features and with 42 percent believers and the same percent disbelievers it’s not that odd, although clearly polarizing with few uncertain. It’s possible that since this question was specifically about the devil it could be linked to religion in a way the others aren’t.
Healing shows a gradual increase but that’s about it. Then again this is also one of the more conventional beliefs with 52 percent believers and only 29 percent disbelievers. So I wouldn’t count this one at all. A majority view is in no way odd.
Telepathy is moderately odd with 34 percent believers and 39 percent disbelievers. It has no initial increase but it peaks in 2001.
Hauntings is also moderately odd with an average of 34 percent believers and 40 percent disbelievers. This one has all the features, a gradual increase with a peak at 2001.
Alien visitation has 28 percent believers and 43 percent disbelievers so I’d consider it to be clearly odd. Although we only have data for three years, these do illustrate the features that support the hypothesis.
Clairvoyance, here defined as the power of the mind to know the past and predict the future, has an average of 28 percent believers and 48 percent disbelievers, again a clearly odd belief. And it shows an increase during the 1990s, and a peak at 2001.
A little surprising, astrology counts as clearly odd belief with a ratio of 25/55 believers and disbelievers. It has most of the 1990s increase but beginning with a drop, then peaks at 2001.
With 31 and 51 percent believers and disbelievers this is also a clearly odd belief. And it has all the right features.
At 23/51 believers and non-believers, reincarnation is also clearly odd. It has the year 1994 that ruins the initial increase but it shows an increase from 1990 to 2001 so overall there is an increase, followed by a local peak at 2001. 4 out 5 years confirm the hypothesis.
Also a clearly odd belief (23/54), with same flaw that the previous chart had – all years except 1994 confirms the hypothesis. The peak in 2001 is of the same magnitude as that of 1994.
This is my personal favourite. It’s what I’d call a very odd belief with only 19 percent believers and 69 percent disbelievers. Witches are also malicious agents that plot against people, making this belief very similar in nature to conspiracy theories. The chart has all the right features.
Finally, channelling, the ability that some have to go into a trance and let spirits talk through them. This is also a very odd belief (9/66) that fits the meth data perfectly.
Summing Up the Evidence
Which of these beliefs should be considered sufficiently odd? We can certainly not say that spiritual healing is an odd belief since it is held by a small majority. As for the rest, it’s admittedly a bit arbitrary but, I would define a belief as odd if it has fewer believers than disbelievers, which seem like a minimum requirement. This means that healing, possession and ESP are out, leaving us with 10 odd beliefs. So how well did these 10 confirm the meth hypothesis?
7 out 10 showed an absolute peak at 2001. Of the rest telepathy and communicating with the dead showed shared a maximum peak at 2001 with another year. The remaining belief in reincarnation showed local peak at 2001. That’s pretty peaky.
As for a continuous increase in the 1990s there are three categories: 5 had unequivocal increase throughout the 1990s, 4 had overall increase from earliest year to 2001 but interrupted with a local decrease (for hauntings this decrease was very small), and one, telepathy, had the same value for 1990 and 2001. No overall decrease at all.
So the data seem to support the hypothesis pretty well. But there are of course other possible factors to consider,
As I said earlier, marijuana is sometimes mentioned as a drug that could contribute to schizotypal and outright schizophrenic thoughts and beliefs. But unlike meth, this drug has increased continuously since the early 1990s and has still to peak. Another candidate is the internet. I’m not going to do a chart for it but the number of internet users is constantly growing so no peak there either. Yet another candidate could be changing demographics. Perhaps the Catholic immigrants to America bring their superstitions with them? But looking at Mexicans, the overwhelmingly largest Hispanic group, there is no peak, not even a local, in their part of the population, only a continuous increase over the years.
How Can This Be?
But how does this happen? How does such a small group – according to most estimates just a few hundred thousand – of people have such influence? One reason is that a person holding an irrational belief is usually more interested in it than say a regular Christian is about transubstantiation. They will obsess about it constantly. Like former meth user Fergy Duhamel of the Black Eyed Peas says in an interview,
I had about 20 different conspiracy theories. I painted the windows in my apartment black so they couldn’t see in.
When a schizophrenic on the sidewalk rants about the government this doesn’t persuade anyone, but a more coherent and presentable schizotypal person can be appear much more convincing. And my guess is that a meth user online can probably do a pretty good job at selling his theories too – especially when other meth users are online on various forums saying similar things. While what they are saying may not make much sense it doesn’t have to. Just saying it repeatedly and with great conviction goes a long way. One thing social psychology (it’s not all bad) teaches us is that repetition is an effective way of persuasion, especially if you vary the way you say it a little – which is exactly what you get from an army of delusional meth addicts sitting up all night preaching their peculiar gospel.
But can they really sit still while on meth? It seems so. Because not all meth addicts are out partying or committing crimes. Some stay indoors cooked up in their houses or apartments. In an article in The Kernel, science writer Greg Stevens shares his experiences of some middle class meth addicts. One of them is “J”,
The window shades are drawn tight because J usually stays awake for 70 to 100 hours at a time. He knows that if the neighbours can see light coming from his house at all hours of the night, they will begin to suspect something. J has also placed a folding room divider covered with tinfoil in the hallway just inside the front door. This is to block any kind of infra-red or other types of electromagnetic spying equipment that the neighbours might be using.
It’s not hard to imagine how an intelligent, educated and hermit-like person like J combined with 20 conspiracy theories like Fergie would make an ideal person for spreading these ideas over the internet. If we guesstimate that there are 300K meth users in America and ten percent of them rant about conspiracies online, then that would be roughly twice as many as there are lobbyists in Washington. And they are no doubt much more persistent.