America's Conspiracy Theory Experts Are UM Professors, and Their Phones Are Ringing Off the Hook

When two University of Miami professors decided in 2009 to write a book about the role of conspiracy theories in American politics, they figured the esoteric topic was worthy of more mainstream academic research. At the time, wild accusations about who really planned 9/11 and killed Princess Diana were blooming — though those ideas were very much on the fringe of society.
Neither professor would have predicted that just seven years later, their specialty would be at the heart of a campaign for the White House. Yet such is the world we live in thanks to Donald Trump's battle against Hillary Clinton.

As journalists and experts try to understand how it is, exactly, that the future of the free world might depend on whether voters believe guys like Alex Jones, the UM academics' research is suddenly at the heart of political conversation.

"The book was very well received, and I think we wrote it at the right time, but we never could have predicted Donald Trump," says UM political science professor Joseph Uscinski, who coauthored American Conspiracy Theories with fellow UM professor Joseph M. Parent. "Now I'm talking to reporters two or three times a day, every day." 

The pair's book doesn't tackle the veracity of conspiracies, but rather tries to understand their role in American culture. They used data and surveys to try to understand who is attracted to such theories and whether those ideas are actually growing in influence in America.

Among their findings: Conspiracies aren't really any more prolific now than before. The professors searched newspaper archives back to the 1890s and found that at the turn of the century, Americans were just as likely to see an X-Files-like episode around every corner. 

"I need to caution a lot of reporters that just because of what we're seeing on the trail right now, it doesn’t mean more people are believing in these ideas than before," Uscinski says.

In fact, the news media is less likely than ever to take such ideas seriously, Uscinski says. 

"The news media is extremely skeptical of anything they term a 'conspiracy theory,' and they’re not treated as valid ideas," he says. "They’re treated as dubious ideas. Some should be investigated more, of course, and some do eventually turn out to be true."

As for Uscinski himself, he says as a Gen X'er raised by a generation burned by Watergate, he's more receptive to conspiracy theories than younger generations. But he also knows that most conspiracy theories turn out to be bogus. Uscinski says he loved Oliver Stone's film JFK, but having read up on the topic, he has to admit the flick is full of it.

"Having watched the movie about 20 times now, it’s just bullshit," he says. "Something you find with most conspiracy theories is that they rely on a lot of wrong facts. They're just wrong." 
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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink