By David A. Graham
Silly Things We Believe About Witches, Obama, and More
Chances are that by now you’ve heard about the Aug. 19, 2010, Pew poll that found that nearly one fifth of Americans (mistakenly) believe that President Obama is a Muslim. Perhaps you think that a terrifying outlier; or perhaps you’re a believer, and then you are in good company. Either way, you’re wrong: in fact, remarkably high numbers of Americans believe the most unusual things. Although the portion of poll respondents who believe Obama is a Muslim has risen recently, some of these oddball opinions contain more consistent numbers of believers. Here’s a sampling of the nuttiest.
To mark the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, Gallup thought it might be a good idea to poll Americans on their beliefs of the British naturalist’s theory. But the results must have had Darwin spinning in his grave, since only 39 percent of Americans believed in the theory. The good news: only a quarter said they didn’t believe it; the remaining portion either didn’t have an opinion or didn’t answer. (Also, only 55 percent correctly linked Darwin’s name with the theory.) However, it appears that views may, um, evolve: younger people believe in evolution at far higher rates than older ones.
It seems obvious that it’s not a good idea to put too much stock in witchcraft. But it turns out that 21 percent of Americans believe there are real sorcerors, conjurers, and warlocks out there. And that’s just one of the several paranormal beliefs common among Americans, according to Gallup: 41 percent believe in ESP, 32 percent in ghosts, and a quarter in astrology. In fairness, the numbers in this poll are a little old—they date back to 2005. But then again, if people haven’t changed their mind since the Enlightenment, it’s not clear another half decade would make much difference.
From Facebook to faith: that’s how a spurious rumor became part of the national dialogue. On Facebook, Sarah Palin wrote in August 2009 that Obama would institute a “death panel” as part of health-care reform. Soon pundits and politicians were demagoguing the issue into common currency. Even in August 2010, one year after the initial burst and five months after health reform was signed into law, the belief lingers. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, four in 10 Americans mistakenly believe the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act creates a panel that makes decisions about end-of-life care.
Saddam’s WMDs and 9/11 Involvement
Even years after claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction or had links to the September 11 attacks had been debunked, not all Americans were convinced. In a June 2007 NEWSWEEK poll, four years after the invasion of Iraq, 41 percent believed Saddam was involved in 9/11—even though President Bush had said otherwise as early as September 2003. Wild views on 9/11 are in fact still rampant. In September 2009, Public Policy Polling found that a quarter of Democrats suspected Bush had something to do with the attacks. Meanwhile, many Americans also remain convinced that Saddam had WMDs, even though inspectors haven’t found any in the seven years since the invasion. Still, as of 2006, half of Americans believed that, according to Harris. Who knows where they got that idea?
Didn’t we clear this one up in the 16th century? Copernicus be damned, 20 percent of Americans were still sure in 1999 that the sun revolved around the Earth. Gallup, the pollster that conducted the study, gamely tried to dress it up by celebrating the fact that “four out of five Americans know Earth revolves around the sun,” but we’re not buying.
History of Religion
If mutual understanding is the key to tolerance, we’re in trouble. According to NEWSWEEK’s 2007 What You Need to Know poll, barely half of Americans were correctly able to state that Judaism was older than both Christianity and Islam. Another 41 percent weren’t sure; in case you’re in that group, here goes: Judaism is the oldest of the Abrahamic faiths, followed by Christianity—which reveres the Jewish prophets (including Moses, above)—and then Islam, which reveres the Jewish prophets and also hails Jesus as a prophet.
Supreme Court vs. Seven Dwarfs
It’s hard to imagine what inspired the pollsters at Zogby to ask the question, but the answer is striking: in a 2006 poll, more than three quarters of Americans could name at least two of the seven dwarfs, while not quite a quarter could name two members of the Supreme Court. NEWSWEEK’s response is a split decision, if you will: on the one hand, Disney is as much a symbol of America as the high court, and those dwarfs are adorable. On the other hand, it should be easy to name only two out of a pool of nine options. Objection sustained!
Lost? Don’t ask an American. Sixty-three percent of young Americans can’t find Iraq on a map, despite the ongoing U.S involvement there. Nine out of 10 can’t find Afghanistan—even if you give them the advantage of a map limited to Asia. And more than a third of Americans of any age can’t identify the continent that’s home to the Amazon River (above), the world’s largest.
Three Stooges vs. Three Branches
What a bunch of knuckleheads: according to Zogby, the majority of Americans—three in four—can correctly identify Larry, Curly, and Moe as the Three Stooges. Only two out of five respondents, however, can correctly identify the executive, legislative, and judicial branches as the three wings of government.
Freedom of Religion
Who needs constitutional constructionism? Not one in three Americans, apparently: that’s the proportion that said in a 2008 First Amendment Center poll that the constitutional right to freedom of religion was never meant to apply to groups most folks think are extreme or fringe—a 10 percent increase from 2000. In 2007, two out of five Americans told the FAC that teachers should be allowed to lead prayers in public schools. You can see several years of the reports here.
President Obama’s Religion
Opponents of President Obama have been spreading false rumors about his religion for quite some time. Recently, however, it seems that the number of Americans who believe these untruths is on the rise. Among respondents to a Pew poll, 18 percent believed Obama was a Muslim, up from 11 percent in March 2009. A Time magazine poll last week found similar results: 24 percent believed he was a Muslim, while only 47 percent correctly identified him as a Christian. There’s some evidence that the best indicator of belief that Obama is a Muslim is opposing him politically, casting doubt on the accuracy of the results. Then again, it wouldn’t be the craziest thing Americans believe, would it?