Angus Reid Institute has published the results of a survey about Canadians’ beliefs in various conspiracy theories: “Extra-Terrestrials and other Stranger Things: Four-in-Five Canadians believe”. Now, don’t be misled by the report’s title… or the report’s content. The ARI write-up is mind-bogglingly stupid, compared to the actual results. The actual results are, in fact, quite encouraging!
Presumably because The X-Files restarted in January (and the survey was started in February, around the time the series was wrapping up), the report’s hook is something-something-X-Files. I dunno, it doesn’t really make much sense; the alien questions, sure, but I don’t really recall Scully and Mulder dealing with global warming denialism or Barack Obama birtherism (then again, I haven’t watched the new season, so… maybe I’ll have to eat my words!).
Whoever wrote ARI’s copy made it sound like Canadians are woo-crazy conspiracy nuts. The title claim implies that “four-in-five” Canadians believe “stranger things” (get it? it’s a pun on the Netflix series Stranger Things, nyuk nyuk). But the reality of the results is far from the dippy tone ARI suggests.
Let’s start with that title claim: “four-in-five Canadians” believe in “extra-terrestrials and other stranger things”. There are only two results that came even close to that, both of which were highlighted in the ARI report. The two statements were: “There is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe” and “There are things that happen on Earth that cannot be explained by science”. The former found 79% support (combining both “definitely true” and “probably true”), the latter 77%.
Even without digging any deeper, we can already spot a problem. The statements are worded so broadly that even the hardest hard-core science-based skeptic might agree that they’re true. It’s actually quite reasonable to believe, given the scale of the universe, that there is intelligent life out there somewhere. A hundred billion galaxies each with a hundred billion stars with, we’re now discovering, potentially life-supporting planets being quite common (and all that’s just in the observable universe)… yeah, it’s pretty damn likely. The second question is just badly worded, because it is a fact that there are things that happen on Earth that can’t be explained by science. We’re not “finished” science yet. Aha, but are there things that can… never… be explained by science? Well, that’s a more interesting question. Unfortunately, it’s not the one ARI asked.
So even before we look at the actual detailed results, they’re already pretty much in line with what you’d hope for from an intelligent, informed population. But now let’s look closer. It turns out that 79% who think that “There is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe” is true is actually only 29% who think it’s “definitely true”, and 50% who think it’s “probably” true.And “probably true” is actually the correct scientific response (given what we know today)! So half of Canadians answered the question precisely correctly, according to science! (And almost 30% more were maybe a little enthusiastic about interpreting “definitely”, perhaps considering to mean “almost absolutely certainly” rather than literally “absolutely certainly”.)
That ain’t fuckin’ bad at all! In fact, only 21% of Canadians got it wrong – and only 6% got it very wrong. That’s a far cry from what’s implied by ARI’s click-bait title.
The other question – “There are things that happen on Earth that cannot be explained by science” – had only 33% “definitely true”, and 44% “probably true”. This one’s harder to evaluate, though, because it depends on whether respondents interpreted “cannot” as “cannot now” or “cannot ever”. But even if you assume everyone interpreted it as “cannot ever”, it’s still not an entirely crazy claim. Perhaps there are things that will never be explainable by science, either because of the impossibility of testing (they might be one-off, non-repeatable events, for example) or because they’re emergent properties that aren’t actually connected to their underlying physical substrate (like consciousness, perhaps).
So the two headlining results don’t actually say what ARI says they say. And it shouldn’t be any great surprise. Canadians have always been big fans of science, and they are broadly fairly science-literate. What about the other results?
Well here’s the really encouraging thing! Of all of the other results – both in the set about pseudoscience and in the set about general conspiracy theory claims – not one had greater than 50% total credulity! (Total credulity being both “probably true” and “definitely true” summed.) Not… one.
Here’s a heat map break down of the combined “probably true” and “definitely true” results for all groups ARI checked. Any group that responded over 50% is highlighted red.
Those two red stripes near the top are the two questions discussed above – the ones where “probably true”/“definitely true” are either the right answer, or not obviously wrong. For pretty much every other question – no matter the demographic – the response is less than 50%, and usually by quite a bit. Of those 16 red boxes (not counting the two questions discussed above), 11 of them are within the margin of error (2.5%). The four big outliers are:
- Atlantic Canadians believe extra-terrestrials have visited Earth (55%);
- Atlantic Canadians also believe that psychics can predict the future (55%);
- women believe psychics can predict the future (54%); and
- Manitoba apparently has a 9/11 truther problem (61%).
But even these aren’t as bad as they first appear. Because the level of certainty in each case is middling:
- 55% of Atlantic Canadians believe extra-terrestrials have visited Earth, but only 10% say that’s “definitely true”;
- 55% of Atlantic Canadians believe that psychics can predict the future, but only 8% say that’s “definitely true”;
- 54% of women believe psychics can predict the future, but only 12% say that’s “definitely true”; and
- 61% of Manitobans believe al-Qaeda had help for 9/11, but only 17% say that’s “definitely true”.
Aside from Manitoba’s 9/11 truther problem, the highest credulity seems to be in Atlantic Canada, and among low-income Canadians. The problem areas in general are:
- extra-terrestrials visiting Earth;
- 9/11 trutherism; and
- the belief that the US has covered up extra-terrestrials on Earth.
Basically, we really like our aliens, and really don’t like the US government.
Finally, the one thing I always check when surveys like this come out is how the results spread according to age group. In this case, there are some interesting observations in that department.
First, interestingly, the most credulous group almost across the board is the 35–54 group, by quite a bit. Oddly, the only beliefs they are more skeptical about than the other two groups is Barack Obama birtherism.
Another interesting observation is that older Canadians are quite skeptical of psychics. They also don’t believe in ghosts… but they are about middle of the road on the question of whether it is possible to communicate with the dead. I suppose that has some sort of twisted logic if you consider Christian theology: the idea souls wandering around Earth is not exactly supported by the Bible, but if everyone goes to Heaven or Hell it might still be possible to communicate with them. The one thing that they do buy into more than other age groups is climate change denialism.
However, it’s the youngest cohort that’s the most intriguing. Overall, the 55+ group is the most skeptical, followed by 34 and under… but, there is a fascinating observation about that that I’ll get to in a moment. People 34 and under are more likely to believe in ghosts and communicating with the dead – though the 35–54 group is more credulous on both topics. They’re also more likely to be 9/11 truthers than their elders.
But the one thing that the 34 and under group is far and away the most credulous age group about is… the Apollo Moon landing hoax. Meanwhile, the 55+ is equally far and away the most skeptical about the idea that the Apollo Moon landings were a hoax (the only thing they’re slightly more skeptical about is ghosts). I find that fascinating. One the one hand, I can almost understand it: These are people who, like me, have never had anyone in their lifetime go to the Moon. The last person on the Moon was Eugene Cernan in December 1972… 44 years ago! Eugene Cernan is 82 today! The Moon landings are about as “real” to the 34 and under group as freaking John Frum. Just about every bit of technology that I use on a daily basis didn’t come into being until after the Apollo program (seriously, the first pre-assembled personal computer only started being sold in 1972, and the Commodore, Apple ⅠⅠ, and TRS-80 didn’t come until 1977).
To illustrate just how much the 34 and under group doubts the Apollo Moon landings: If you don’t take into account the belief about the Apollo Moon landings being a hoax, and only consider the other questions, the 34 and under group becomes the most skeptical group… by quite a bit.
Even more fascinating: The 34 and under group is broadly very trusting of science. They are far and away the most likely group to believe that science can explain everything and that climate change is real. It’s just the Apollo landings that they doubt. (They’re also pretty credulous about 9/11 trutherism, so perhaps part of the problem is just a general distrust of the US government.)
So what’s one to take away from this? Well, broadly speaking, Canadians are not as credulous as ARI’s headline would lead you to believe. In fact, in all cases, the majority of Canadians doesn’t buy into the claptrap ARI asked about; the two beliefs that a majority agreed to were the two beliefs you’d expect a majority of skeptics to agree to (which ARI didn’t seem to understand). There seems to be quite a bit of credulity in Atlantic Canada, and among uneducated and poor Canadians… and, peculiarly, a lot of 9/11 trutherism in Manitoba. And the kids are alright… except, fascinatingly, for quite a few believing that the Apollo Moon landings were a hoax.
Oh, there’s still plenty of work to be done, to be sure. But I think it’s okay to take a moment to be proud of how well we’re doing so far.