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Somin Research Cited in New York Times

Research by Professor Ilya Somin indicating national opinion polls reveal support for numerous far-out beliefs and theories was cited by a New York Times op-ed columnist writing about paranoid beliefs in America and what they indicate.

The op-ed was spurred by the recent stand-off at Discovery Channel headquarters between armed population growth foe James Lee and authorities in which the gunman took hostages and demanded solutions to a variety of ecological issues. Lee was ultimately killed by police and his hostages freed.

Writer Ross Douthat argues that many of the bizarre conspiracy theories proposed today are easier to comprehend if considered symbolic beliefs as opposed to actual convictions.

"Such beliefs can still be dangerous," Douthat says. "The line between what's symbolic and what's real isn't always clear, and a determined demagogue can exploit symbolic beliefs as well as real ones."

Paranoid About Paranoia, The New York Times, September 5, 2010. By Ross Douthat.

Excerpt:
"To some extent, partisans persist in these arguments — 'your side encourages extremists!'; 'no, your side encourages extremists!' — because America really is rife with wild and crazy sentiments. The belief that Barack Obama is secretly a Muslim (apparently held by nearly 20 percent of the country) gets the headlines. But as the George Mason law professor Ilya Somin has noted, national opinion polls reveal support for numerous far-out or noxious-seeming notions.

"There’s the 32 percent of Democrats who blame 'the Jews' for the financial crisis. There’s the 25 percent of African-Americans who believe the AIDS virus was created in a government lab. There’s support for state secession, which may have been higher among liberals in the Bush era than among Republicans in the age of Obama. And there’s the theory that the Bush White House knew about 9/11 in advance, which a third of Democrats endorsed as recently as 2007.

"So are we a nation of potential James Lees, teetering on the brink of paranoid violence? Not necessarily. As the libertarian writer Julian Sanchez has pointed out, it’s worth taking all these polling responses with a substantial grain of salt. For all but the hardest-core conspiracy theorizers, they may express what Sanchez calls 'symbolic beliefs.' These are 'propositions you profess publicly' but would never follow through on, because they’re adopted as a kind of political and cultural statement rather than out of deep conviction."