60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll: Conspiracy Theories

Americans share their opinions on conspiracy theories in the May edition of the 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll

Welcome to the 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll for May 2015. This month's poll is about conspiracy, what occurs when two or more people secretly plot an illegal, treacherous or evil act. Movies and television shows like "The X-Files" often portray conspirators as cabals of older men sitting in dark smoke filled rooms plotting intrigue either on behalf of or against the government. With more and more information readily available to millions via the Internet, the number of people who espouse or believe in conspiracy theories is growing. Christopher Hitchens described conspiracy theories as "the exhaust fumes of Democracy." In some ways these theories help people to rationalize terrible events and to ascribe blame or responsibility for them to some entity. Despite the Warren Commission's exhaustive review which found that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in assassinating President Kennedy, there are still many who believe otherwise. Who do you think was most likely behind the assassination of JFK? We look forward to your answers to this question and many others, and now the results...

Freak Occurence

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When they think about why most strange events happen, nearly seven out of 10 Americans usually believe the simplest explanation, and one out of five say they tend to believe the most mysterious explanation. Most people ascribe to a principle known as "Ockham's razor" which was put forth by the Medieval Theologian William of Ockham. It stated that it was best to choose a hypothesis with the fewest assumptions. This evolved into the more modern postulation that "the simplest explanation is usually the correct one" and most Americans agree.

John F. Kennedy

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Only three in 10 Americans agree with the findings of the Warren Commission that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in assassinating JFK. Fifteen percent said the CIA was likely behind it followed by the Mafia 13 percent, LBJ five percent, The Cuban government three percent and the Soviet Union three percent. Eighteen percent said they thought it was someone else. More than 50 years after the fact, this is one conspiracy theory that has stood the test of time.

Man on the Moon

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Eighty-three percent of Americans are confident that Neil Armstrong really did take that "giant leap for mankind." Only 14 percent thought it was staged. They might have seen the movie "Capricorn One" (1978) which depicted a similar story about a mission to Mars gone wrong. The 1970s were especially well represented by many great conspiracy films fueled by the American people's cynicism over Vietnam and Watergate.

Urban Legend

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If you play this record backwards at just the right speed... this was one of the clues back in the late 1960s that was supposed to confirm the rumor that Paul McCartney had died in a car accident and been replaced by a double. Conspiracy buffs wasted no time in turning this into an urban legend with all sorts of cryptic clues and double meanings (like the cover of "Abbey Road") supposedly substantiating it over the years. Only eight percent said they think Paul is dead and 13 percent say he is alive. And since 79 percent of Americans either don't know or ask, "who's Paul?", the verdict is in, the only thing that's dead is this old urban legend.

More than meets the eye

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Now here's a question for the conspiracy theorist in all of us. Twenty-six percent of Americans think there is a different explanation for the death of Princess Diana than the one that is commonly accepted. Next up with 24 percent is the death of Jesus, another 24 percent said the 9/11 attacks, the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 got seven percent and six percent respectively. All of these tragedies have been heavily investigated over the years and yet many people are still not satisfied that the accounts of what happened are accurate.

Truth be told

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More than three out of 10 Americans believe that all of these rumored government conspiracies are true. Twenty-nine percent said they believe the CIA tested LSD on Americans, 10 percent think that millions of Americans received tainted polio vaccines and five percent believe the government poisoned illegal "moonshine" to deter drinking during Prohibition. Sixteen percent did not believe any of them. The American government is only as good as its people and those who serve in it. History tells us we have fallen short many times. Watergate has taught us an even more important lesson, the cover up is always worse than the crime.

Who you gonna call?

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Forty-four percent of Americans would choose the CIA to help them get to the bottom of a conspiracy followed by whistleblower Edward Snowden 13 percent, Watergate reporters Woodward and Bernstein 12 percent, DaVinci Code author Dan Brown six percent and ace code-breaking and crime-solving actor Benedict Cumberbatch got five percent. Ten percent would pass on getting help from any of them. The CIA was held in low esteem by many in the 1960s after the Bay of Pigs, JFK and several bloody coups in South America. It appears they have rebuilt their reputation with some of the American people.

The X-Files

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Twenty-three percent attributed the quote to Richard Nixon, 16 percent said Jimmy Carter, 10 percent said G.W. Bush and nine percent went with Bill Clinton. Fourteen percent correctly chose JFK as having said to his steward on Air Force One, "I'd like to tell the public about the alien situation, but my hands are tied." Some people think he learned about UFOs from friends in Naval Intelligence, and from military personnel as a congressman and later as president. Too bad he didn't elaborate a little more, now that would have been a story.

Join the club

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When it comes time to join a secret society, 23 percent of Americans would most like to belong to the Freemasons, known for their rituals and symbols. Next in line are alien hunters Men in Black 22 percent, Harry Potter's The Order of the Phoenix eight percent, the Enlightenment-era secret society the Illuminati seven percent and the Yale University senior secret society Skull and Bones three percent. Twenty-nine percent said no thanks to secret handshakes and codes of silence.

Double Dare

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Truth or dare? Twenty-two percent of Americans would be most afraid to sail through the Bermuda Triangle, 16 percent would fear scuba diving in Loch Ness, and 13 percent would want no part of camping alone overnight in Area 51 near secretive Camp Edwards Air Force Base in Nevada. One out of three Americans beat their chests and boldly said they would do all three for a hundred bucks. Although nothing has been proven about these three places there are more than enough credible stories to keep their legends alive and well.

Classified

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Two out of three Americans think that the advertisements we see contain hidden or subliminal messages intended to urge us to buy the product. Nineteen percent said sometimes and 15 percent said hardly ever or never. The "Mad Men" from Madison Avenue that devised these ads have long known this is an effective strategy.


This poll was conducted by telephone from March 6-10, 2015 among 1,018 adults nationwide. Data collection was conducted on behalf of CBS News by SSRS of Media, PA. Phone numbers were dialed from samples of both standard land-line and cell phones. The error due to sampling for results based on the entire sample could be plus or minus 3 percentage points. The error for other subgroups may be higher. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish. This poll release conforms to the Standards of Disclosure of the National Council on Public Poll. Read more about this poll.