| 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair Poll
March 6-10, 2015
When you think about why most strange events happen, do you usually believe the simplest explanation, or do you usually believe the most mysterious explanation?
The simplest explanation is best.
Most Americans side with the medieval philosopher William of Ockham in the belief that the simplest explanation is usually best. 69% of Americans usually believe the simplest explanation when strange things happen, while 21% believe the most mysterious explanation.
Americans with more levels of education are more likely to hold to this belief. While 67% of Americans without a college degree side with the simplest explanation over the more mysterious one, this percentage rises to 72% of college graduates and 78% of post graduates.
When Strange Events Happen, Which do You Usually Believe?
Total No Degree College Post Grad
The simplest explanation 69% 67% 72% 78%
The most mysterious explanation 21 24 13 13
There are political differences as well. Republicans (77%) are more likely to choose the simplest explanation than either Democrats (66%) or independents (68%).
Who do you think was most likely behind the assassination of President John F. Kennedy?
Just three in 10 Americans think Lee Harvey Oswald was behind the assassination of JFK.
The official investigation may have concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, but most Americans aren’t buying it: just 30% think Oswald alone was behind the JFK assassination. Still, more Americans pick Oswald than any single other theory. 15% pick the CIA, followed by 13% who think the Mafia did it. Far fewer choose some of the other possibilities that have been forwarded: 5% pick Vice President turned President Lyndon Johnson, and just 3% each pick either the Cuban government or the Soviet Union. 18%, however, think someone else entirely was behind the assassination.
Americans between the ages of 55-64 – those who comprise the majority of the “Baby Boomer” generation – are the least likely to think Oswald was behind it. They are nearly divided between Oswald (25%) and the Mafia (22%).
Who Was Behind the Assassination of JFK?
Total 18-34 35-44 45-54 55-64 65+
Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone 30% 30% 29% 33% 25% 35%
The C.I.A. 15 15 19 20 17 8
The Mafia 13 10 10 8 22 15
Lyndon Johnson 5 3 5 5 5 9
The Cuban Government 3 3 1 1 6 3
The Soviet Union 3 3 3 1 2 4
Someone else 18 26 15 14 18 14
Do you think the moon landing in 1969 really happened, or do you think the moon landing was staged in a Hollywood studio and didn’t really happen?
“Yes, we did, in fact, land on the moon”, say most Americans.
The other great conspiracy theory of the 1960s – that the moon landing never happened – doesn’t seem to have gained much traction with the majority of Americans. 83% of Americans think the Apollo 11 moon landing of 1969 really happened, while 14% think it was staged in a Hollywood studio and didn’t really happen.
Americans with less education are more inclined to believe the moon landing was faked. While 91% of college graduates and 95% of post graduates think the moon landing was real, this drops to 76% of Americans with just a high school diploma or less.
The 1969 Moon Landing Was…
Total H.S. or less Some College College Grads Post Grads
Real 83% 76% 82% 91% 95%
Staged 14 19 14 7 4
Do you think Paul is dead, do you think Paul is alive, or don’t you know who Paul is?
There’s another conspiracy theory from the 1960s that doesn’t seem to have much staying power either. The phrase “Paul is dead” become popular when an urban legend arose that Paul McCartney from the Beatles actually died in an automobile accident in 1966 and was replaced by a look-alike, but the phrase doesn’t seem to resonate with many Americans today. When asked if Paul is dead, 8% respond in the affirmative, while more – 13% - deny it and say that Paul is alive. 79%, however, don’t answer or don’t know who “Paul” is.
55 to 64 year olds – the age group most likely to have been caught up in Beatlemania as children and young adults – seem to be the most likely to know who Paul is, and by a margin of four to one say that Paul is alive. 73% in this age group however, don’t have an answer either way.
What Happened to Paul?
Total 18-34 35-44 45-54 55-64 65+
Paul is alive 13% 11% 11% 15% 22% 7%
Paul is dead 8 9 10 5 5 9
Don’t know/Who’s Paul? 79 81 79 80 73 84
Which one of the following historical events do you think is most likely to have a different explanation than the one that is commonly accepted? - The bombing of Pearl Harbor, the death of Jesus, the 9/11 attacks, the sinking of the Titanic, or the death of Princess Diana.
How did Princess Di really die?
When it comes to some other conspiracy theories that are popular today, Americans think the death of Princess Diana in a car crash in 1997 (26%) is the more likely than some other historical events to have a different explanation from the one that is commonly accepted, just edging out the death of Jesus (24%), and the 9/11 attacks (24%). Few Americans are more suspicious of events that occurred earlier in the 20th century: the bombing of Pearl Harbor (7%) or the sinking of the Titanic (6%).
There are differences by age, however. While Americans 50 and older are most skeptical of the death of Princess Diana (32%), those under 50 are split between the death of Jesus (27%) and the 9/11 attacks (28%).
Which Event is Most Likely to Have a Different Explanation?
Total 18-49 50+
The death of Princess Diana 26% 21% 32%
The death of Jesus 24 27 20
The 9/11 attacks 24 28 19
The bombing of Pearl Harbor 7 6 8
The sinking of the Titanic 6 7 6
The death of Jesus is the top choice among non-Christians (28%), though 22% of Christians also think the death of Jesus is most likely to have an alternate explanation from this list.
Which Event is Most Likely to Have a Different Explanation?
Total Christians Non-Christians
The death of Princess Diana 26% 28% 21%
The death of Jesus 24 22 28
The 9/11 attacks 24 22 26
The bombing of Pearl Harbor 7 7 6
The sinking of the Titanic 6 6 7
Which one of the following conspiracy theories is most likely to be true? – 1. The U.S. government killed hundreds of Americans by intentionally adding poison to bootlegged alcohol during Prohibition, 2. Millions of Americans received a polio vaccine contaminated with a potentially cancer causing virus, 3. The CIA tested the effects of LSD by giving it to unwitting American citizens. 4. All of them.
In a contest of which conspiracy theory really happened, more Americans think the CIA tested LSD on unwitting Americans.
Some events that sound like far-fetched conspiracy theories are actually commonly held to be true, which is the case for three surprising but little-known events of the 20th century. In the 1920s, the U.S. government tried to contain illegal bootlegging during Prohibition by putting poisoned moonshine on the market, killing an estimated 10,000 people. Later, In 1950s, millions of Americans were injected with a variant of the polio vaccine that was found later to contain a virus that could cause cancer. Also beginning in the 1950s, the CIA conducted a series of experiments involving LSD, some of which included testing the effects of the drug on unwitting American citizens.
Just 31% of Americans guess that all of these scenarios are true. Of the three, the LSD tests conducted by the CIA seem the most probable to more Americans, picked by 29% of Americans as most likely to be true. Just 10% pick the contaminated polio vaccines, and 5% pick the poisoned alcohol.
Which of These Conspiracy Theories is Really True?
The CIA tested LSD on unwitting Americans 29%
Millions received contaminated polio vaccines 10
The U.S. Government poisoned alcohol during Prohibition 5
All of them 31
None of them (vol.) 16
As in other cases, higher levels of education lead to more skepticism, and in this case, those with less education are more likely to get it right. While 36% of Americans with a high school diploma or less correctly pick all these scenarios to be true, this drops to just one in five Americans with a college degree or more.
If you were trying to get to the bottom of a conspiracy and could enlist the help of one of the following, who would you choose to help you in your investigation?
Americans are more likely to trust the CIA to uncover a conspiracy than Edward Snowden or Woodward and Bernstein – even those who think the CIA assassinated JFK
Americans trust the CIA ahead of some famous whistle-blowers when it comes to uncovering conspiracies. 44% of Americans would turn to the CIA first to help in an investigation of a conspiracy theory, far more than pick government whistleblower Edward Snowden (13%), or the team that famously uncovered the Watergate scandal – Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (12%). Far fewer would turn to the best-selling offer of conspiracy theory fiction Dan Brown (6%), but even he edges out Benedict Cumberbatch (5%) - the actor who portrays both Sherlock Holmes on British TV and the WWII era code-breaker Alan Turing in the 2014 film The Imitation Game.
The CIA is the favorite of Americans regardless of partisanship, though Democrats are more likely to enlist their help (47%), than either Republicans (41%) or independents (42%). The CIA is even the top choice of Americans who think that agency was behind the Kennedy assassination – 34% pick it.
Who’s Help Would You Enlist to Uncover a Conspiracy?
Total Reps Dems Inds
The CIA 44% 41% 47% 42%
Edward Snowden 13 9 13 16
Woodward and Bernstein 12 12 12 12
Dan Brown 6 6 7 6
Benedict Cumberbatch 5 7 6 4
None of them (vol.) 10 12 8 10
Americans think Nixon most likely spilled the beans about alien cover-up.
Only one U.S. President - John F. Kennedy – is reported to have mentioned the suspected government cover-up of aliens, when he supposedly told a steward on Air Force One in 1963 that “I’d like to tell the public about the alien situation, but my hands are tied”. Just 14% of Americans correctly pick Kennedy as the reputed source of this quote, however. More – 23% - pick Nixon, and another 16% pick Jimmy Carter.
Which President said, “I’d like to tell the public about
the alien situation, but my hands are tied”
Richard Nixon 23%
Jimmy Carter 16
George W. Bush 10
Bill Clinton 9
To which real or fictional secret society would you most like to belong?
When it comes to secret societies, Americans pick secret handshakes and chasing aliens over controlling the world.
The centuries-old fraternal order of the Freemasons is the secret society that Americans would like to join first, choosing secret handshakes and arcane ritual over the chance to hunt down aliens, practice wizardry, or control the world. When asked which secret order Americans would most like to belong to – fictional or real – 23% picked the Freemasons, just edging out the men in black suits who supposedly hunt aliens, the Men in Black (22%). Both of these organizations are far more popular than the Order of the Phoenix from the Harry Potter series (8%), the supposedly elite, world controlling secret society, the Illuminati (7%), or the other elite, supposedly world-controlling secret society, Yale’s Skull and Bones (3%).
Some Americans are apparently not that interested in belonging to any secret societies, however. 29% volunteer none of them.
There are differences by age. While Americans under 30 pick Men in Black (30%) first, older Americans are more likely to say none of them (32%) or choose the Freemasons (24%).
To Which Secret Society Would You Most Like to Belong?
Total 18-29 30+
The Freemasons 23% 21% 24%
Men in Black 22 30 19
The Order of the Phoenix 8 14 6
The Illuminati 7 9 7
Skull and Bones 3 3 3
None of them (vol.) 29 18 32
Which one of the following would you be most afraid to do? 1. Sail through the Bermuda
Triangle. 2. Camp out alone for a night at Area 51, 3. Scuba dive in Loch Ness. Or 4. I’d do all three for a hundred bucks.
Americans are more afraid of the Bermuda Triangle than the Loch Ness Monster.
Many Americans are willing to personally put matters to the test when it comes to three mysteries that some think are being covered up by the government: disappearance in the Bermuda Triangle, the existence of the Loch Ness Monster in Scotland, and the evidence of alien visitors in Area 51 in Nevada. When asked which they’d be the most afraid to do, sail through the Bermuda Triangle, Scuba dive in Loch Ness, or camp out alone in Area 51 – 33% picked the fourth option, saying they would do all three for one hundred bucks.
Of the Americans who picked between the first three options, more are scared of the Bermuda Triangle (22%) than either the Loch Ness (16%), or Area 51 (13%).
Which Would You Be Most Afraid to Do?
Sail through the Bermuda Triangle 22%
Scuba dive in Loch ness 16
Camp out alone at Area 51 13
I’d do all three for 100 bucks 33
How often do you think advertisements contain hidden messages that are intended to give consumers the urge to buy their products?
Americans think advertisements are rife with subliminal messages.
Americans think advertisements are rampant with hidden messages intended to give consumers the urge to buy their products. 65% think such hidden messages are frequent in advertisements, while another 19% think they happen sometimes. Just 15% think they either happen hardly ever or never. Younger Americans are more likely to think hidden messages are prevalent than older Americans.
How Often Do Ads Contain Subliminal Messages?
Total 18-34 35-44 45-54 55-64 65+
Frequently 65% 69% 66% 68% 66% 57%
Sometimes 19 19 18 20 17 22
Hardly ever/never 15 11 15 10 17 19
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.