Often, when polling is done about fringe beliefs, conspiracy theories and the like, the results given are very disturbing. Examples of fringe beliefs being 9/11 being an inside job, or that the Holocaust was fake or exaggerated.

Do we know how reliable polling about the topic is?

For example, do trivial changes in the wording of questions make a major difference in poll results? Also, are people more likely to say that they agree with a conspiracy theory when the sole purpose of a poll is to measure the extent of belief in that theory?

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    This is a very good question. There is a lot of research on eliciting truthful answers to survey questions on illegal or unpopular behavior, but nothing on the validity of questions on belief in conspiracies. There is also a lot of research on survey design, but nothing with respect to conspiracies. This might be quite interesting, as the spread of conspiracies is at least irritating. One additional problem is that although "belief" in conspiracies might be widespread when it is explicitly asked for, it could play a very minor role in daily or even political life. Commented Jun 18, 2014 at 10:12
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    Unrelated to fringe beliefs, but is at the center of all polling "changes in the wording of questions make a major difference in poll results."
    – user1873
    Commented Jun 18, 2014 at 13:12
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    Interesting question, but it might fit better on stats.stackexchange.com
    – Philipp
    Commented Aug 22, 2014 at 22:22
  • this question doesn't make sense to me since it can be applied to any kind of polling. Why do you only refer to 'polling about fringe beliefs' when any kind of polling can be 'tricked' by 'soft-suggesting' a direction in the answer or by offering a precisely selected wording that can influence the answers?
    – jon
    Commented Sep 12, 2017 at 2:47
  • @jon it's pretty easy to investigate the reliability of election voting polling (compare the polls with the election), so I haven't asked about it.
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Sep 12, 2017 at 6:01

3 Answers 3


One basic notion I was taught when learning about survey methods is that serious surveys ask about something the respondents already have an opinion about. If you invite them to make up an opinion about some topic they don't have any firmly held beliefs or never thought about before, many will do so on the spot but the answers will be fickle and much more sensitive to framing effects.

I am not aware of any empirical results pertaining specifically to fringe beliefs (although I suppose there must be some) but that's one reason why polling about them might be less reliable.

Of course, there are also many other difficulties (increasing non-response rates, social presentation effects, response styles, small effects, etc.) that apply equally to surveys about fringe and non-fringe beliefs.


The polling only becomes reliable because it is reported on, and then garners attention of those who disagree with the party it is attacking to give them more leverage in bar arguments, which in turn spreads. It is not based on the facts themselves. It is more of the case of the chicken and the egg. In this case the poll is the egg which garners the chicken.


To answer the question: Yes, it can be reliable, if it's done right, meaning that the wording of the questions has to be valid, unambiguous etc. No leading questions like "do you still beat your wife?", no suggestions of correlation as causation, like "as the sale of deodorant rises, so do the number drownings, should we stop the sale of deodorants?"

And yes, there has been done extensive research on fringe beliefs, for example about birthers and deathers (the conspiracy theory that Obama Care will kill the elderly). See google and wikipedia en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Birthers for starters.

Edit: "Polls conducted in 2010 suggested that at least one quarter of adult Americans said that they doubted Obama's U.S. birth,[8][9] while a May 2011 Gallup poll found that 13% of American adults (23% of Republicans) continued to express such doubts" So, you're right that it's disturbing

PS. I wonder, why would you assume that fringe beliefs makes the polling unreliable? Also, why do you think the polling IS unreliable to start with?

EDIT P.S. If sizable minorities believe in something, even though they are demonstrably untrue, is it then accurate to call them "fringe"?

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    You're citing exactly the type of polls which the OP is questioning. Basically, he's asking "Is it really true that one out of every four Americans doubt Obama's birth, or is it an artifact of the polling process?", and you're responding with "That's what the polls say."
    – Bobson
    Commented Aug 25, 2014 at 0:41
  • * > - No, that wasn't really part of my answer, but more a remark. * I should've made a clearer distinction. * > - He was muddying the waters with his examples, which suggested that there are only leftwing conspiracies. With my examples I've shown that there are more rightwing conspiracies and imho, those were far more destructive too. Commented Aug 27, 2014 at 17:56
  • Regardless, you don't really answer the question of whether or not such polling is reliable.
    – Bobson
    Commented Aug 31, 2014 at 12:41
  • @Bobson I do now, so perhaps you could remove the downvote? Thanks! Commented Jul 3, 2021 at 8:26

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