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The viral nature of conspiracy theories

Dr. Conspiracy

Dr. Conspiracy

I go slumming on Google a lot. I type in some Obama consipracy keywords and start reading. Tonight I picked these: obama 7c birth certificate. This refers to the infamous block 7c on the 1960’s s type Hawaiian Birth registration form. The Alan Keyes lawsuit states that this is the place of birth (and allows a foreign country). Actually it is the Usual Residence of the Mother. The place of birth is in block 6a, and has nothing about foreign countries. Even on web sites that have pictures of the 1963 “Alan” certificate, this stuff appears.

Anyway, this error appeared in a California lawsuit and now appears on over 2000 Internet pages on web sites as diverse as Prius owners and Prince fans. Of course I can’t trace all this back to Keyes. Those pages with the “Hawaiian Statute 883.176” are definitely Keyes. Others could have independent sources. But it only takes one football fan involved in Obama conspiracies to put a message on a web site that reaches all the football fans on that site.

One would just hope that someday there would be a way to spread debunking information as fast as the conspiracies.

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10 Responses to The viral nature of conspiracy theories

  1. avatar
    Dave Shields December 21, 2008 at 8:01 pm #

    So, I probed around on your website, and even read the wikipedia article on the topic. The “Who’s Who” section was particularly interesting to me…

    There is a nagging question at the back of my mind.

    I know that I sometimes get sucked into conspiracy theories. At this point in my life, I am more prone to see a military-industrial or medical-pharmaceutical complex conspiracy hiding under every rock… 🙂 Still, this makes me remember the advice my academic advisor gave me (a long time ago) when I wanted to spend a college semester studying flying saucers. He said that he was not at all interested in the little green men, but that he would approve the study if I directed the focus at whatever it was in the human psyche that wanted to see flying saucers and little green men. I spent some time thinking about it, and concluded that would be a more difficult topic than I could tackle in a semester (or maybe even a lifetime).

    So, back to the nagging question. Why do you think people come up with conspiracy theories? What human need is met by this stuff? Or the other side of the coin: what is it in your life that gives you an obsession to pick at these theories? What do you hope to accomplish?

    You are one of the most intelligent men I have ever known… Give me something out of all this to chew on, some nugget of insight into the darkness of my own soul!

  2. avatar
    Dr. Conspiracy December 21, 2008 at 8:46 pm #

    Dave, I suspect someone has already taken your adviser’s challenge and studied this phenomenon with skills (such as psychology training) that I lack. I will share thoughts I have accumulated.

    I think conspiracy theory thinking is the interrelationship of certain human traits. Humans have some built-in error modes, like overestimating their chance of willing the lottery. I would think that some people would exhibit these traits more strongly than others. So here goes:

    1. Pattern recognition errors. Humans see Santa or poodles in the clouds. Our brains are wired to find patterns and we do it quite well, but we also see patterns where there are none. Classic conspiracy theories are all about connections and patterns.

    2. Post Hoc fallacy. Humans tend to look for reasons things happen and see answers in things that happen before the event. I can remember from high school reading some stuff about Trilateralists, Bilderbergers and the CFR linking what person of interest traveled where and what cataclysmic world event followed. (Kissinger visits Europe and then the Soviet Union crushes the Prague Spring–I may have my characters wrong).

    3. Errors in estimating probability of coincidence. What is the chance that the only letter I ever wrote to my grandmother reached her the day before she died (and I didn’t even know she was ill)? It’s true. As a spiritual person, I might call that experience “grace” but I also know that humans have a tendency to overestimate how unusual coincidences are. Conspiracy theories are built on the perceived improbability of coincidences.

    We’ve talked before all about the “birthday problem” where even in small groups the probability is very high that two people will have the same birthday. Without the mathematical analysis, the “coincidence” really surprises people. With a lifetime of “rolls of the dice” it is hardly remarkable that startling coincidences happen. What are the chances that the judge on the US Supreme court who wrote the seminal opinion affirming the citizenship of people born in America to non-citizens was appointed by the very president (Chester A. Arthur) who himself (so the conspiracy goes) concealed the fact that he himself had a non-citizen father?

    4. Interesting results. We remember interesting results and forget mundane ones.

    5. Tales that grow in the telling. The version of “real events” one hears may be exaggerated.

    6. Being in control. People don’t like to think events are random because then we have no control and aren’t safe. “Crops not growing? Must be that the volcano god is angry.”

    Of that list, I would guess number 3 is most relevant to conspiracy thinking. To those add:

    7. Feeling special. We all like to fee special. The conspiracy theorist is entrusted with a special truth that few others know, making him special. There is also that warm fuzzy feeling one gets hanging out with like-minded people.

    8. Our ancestors were stupid. This fallacy is that we are much smarter than those in the past, so that “the ancient Egyptians could not possibly built the pyramids without help from aliens.”

    9. We of necessity think our own views are rational and therefore anyone who disagrees with us is defective–uninformed, stubborn, lacking in critical thinking skills, sloppy, lazy, under the influence of someone else, in on the conspiracy, biased, bigoted, irrational, lying and on and on.

    Now about me…

    It bugs the tar out of me for somebody to believe something that is demonstrably false. I’m a pretty tolerant guy, but this still bothers me. Multiply misinformation by the scope of the Internet and I’m Don Quixote SURROUNDED by windmills. And since I have some special insight into birth certificates, I feel a special obligation to save the world insofar as accurate knowledge in this area is concerned.

    I also have a history of getting stuck on some things. I used to argue for hours every day on USENET on religious topics. And a lot of that was in correcting misinformation. I wasn’t trying to convert anyone; I just wanted to find some common ground so everyone wasn’t talking past each other. I wanted everyone to agree on the facts and then they could form their own opinions. Through that process I learned that “facts” are not as logically pure as I had thought going in.

    The conspiracy theorists and me both have a passion for “truth”. I think that comes from a human trait to enforce some degree of conformity, necessary to hold society together. We’re all full of prejudices and stereotypes (well I am) no matter how liberal we claim to be. “I cannot abide people who are intolerant of others.” So I feel some need to grab people by the metaphorical collar and shake them and say that block 7c of a Hawaiian birth certificate is NOT the location of birth, and once THAT is settled we can agree to disagree on something else.

    I have always told myself that one of the reasons for posting views on the Internet was that through criticism I would learn things. This doesn’t happen as often as I hoped, perhaps because I spend so much time checking things before I post them so as not to be found to be wrong.

    There is also a “sucking in” from maintaining a web site like this. There is always just one more detail to look up, one more comment to reply to,one more hyperlink to add, one more spell/grammar check. (Recall your tweaking deduplication programs.) Between here and my blog I’m probably spending 3 hours a day online. The upside is that I watch less TV! The wife says that at least I’m exercising some of my creativity.

    —Next day—
    I was thinking in the back of my mind that UFO believers are not the same kind of folks as Obama citizenship deniers. But I needed to get the reporters of UFO’s off the table and just focus on the folks who believe in them. And I want to throw in fringe beliefs in general, like creation science and flood geology. One unifying principle seems to be the cultivation of a sense of persecution. When I read Ron Polarik’s analysis of Obama’s birth certificate image, he spends much of his time posturing, and claiming outrageous unfairness from his opponents. Crank scientists dwell over how they are ignored and belittled by the scientific community. Perhaps there’s some kind of martyr complex going on in this too.

  3. avatar
    Stephen October 10, 2009 at 11:05 pm #

    I found your comment ” I used to argue for hours every day on USENET on religious topics. And a lot of that was in correcting misinformation. I wasn’t trying to convert anyone; I just wanted to find some common ground so everyone wasn’t talking past each other.” interesting. I can relate to your pain. Many years ago as a junior officer in the U.S. Coast Guard I picked-up the task of responding to magazine articles that “put into laymen’s terms” certain boating regulations that were not yet in effect. These dedicated writers would miss the mark when trying to explain the regulations. And I believe each article or letter to the editor missed it differently. And then when one of our Congressmen proposed or suggested making a change to the regulations the articles would include the change as though it had already occurred (but they never occurred). My job was to politely write back and explain how they had missed a nuance and attempt to set the record straight. There was so much mis-information floating/flowing around that we were rarely together.

    When trying to get us all on the sheet of music there is a lot of stuffiness to terminology and definitions. But we must mean the same thing when we refer to something or else we do not communicate. That is what you were hung-up on.

    Now, when one group of people say that State of Hawaii document addressing Obama’s birth isn’t a birth certificate and the other group says that it is a birth certificate we need to come to an agreement as to what a birth certificate is, so then we can discuss whether the document we see is real or adequate, etc. And there are other things to define.

  4. avatar
    dunstvangeet October 11, 2009 at 2:07 am #

    We’ve tried that. We’ve said that it is proof of place of birth. They said that it’s not a birth certificate, because it doesn’t have a doctor’s signature.

    We said that the U.S. State Department accepts it as proof of place of birth. They say, “We don’t care. It’s not proving your place of birth for a passport. It’s the Presidency of the United States.”

    We’ve said that there is no fundamental difference between proving your place of birth to the Federal Government and proving your place of birth to the Federal Government. They contradict us and say, “Yes, there is. The COLB isn’t good enough.”

    We’ve already been down this road. It’s idiotic and ultimately leads to nothing. There is nothing that will make these people believe the evidence right in front of their eyes. I swear, if we would say the sky is blue, they’d swear that it’s green, and therefore Obama is ineligible.

  5. avatar
    aarrgghh October 11, 2009 at 5:07 am #

    stephen proposed:

    now, when one group of people say that state of hawaii document addressing obama’s birth isn’t a birth certificate and the other group says that it is a birth certificate we need to come to an agreement as to what a birth certificate is, so then we can discuss whether the document we see is real or adequate, etc.

    what a birth certificate is has already been well established. it’s whatever a state issuing authority will certify and attest to.

    just because a group of racists and escaped mental patients want to contest that does not mean everyone else needs to reinvent the wheel for them.

  6. avatar
    Dr. Conspiracy October 11, 2009 at 3:22 pm #

    Stephen: Now, when one group of people say that State of Hawaii document addressing Obama’s birth isn’t a birth certificate and the other group says that it is a birth certificate we need to come to an agreement as to what a birth certificate is, so then we can discuss whether the document we see is real or adequate, etc.

    “Whether the Certification of Live Birth from Hawaii is a ‘birth certificate’ or not” is a totally irrelevant question for determining whether the COLB is “real” or whether it is “adequate”. I think that those issues are easily dealt with and put away. It is “real” because the State of Hawaii affirms officially and on their web site, that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii. It is adequate because the law in Hawaii (and through the full faith and credit clause of the Constitution this extends to the rest of the country) makes it prima facie evidence (and it says so on its face).

    In the most precise and technical language the COLB is not a birth certificate. It it a copy of selected information from the birth certificate, signed, sealed and certified as to accuracy by the State of Hawaii. However, there is nothing about “birth certificates” or “doctor’s signatures” in the Constitution or the laws of the United States that apply to presidential eligibility, and all of the crank conspiracy theories (not to mention the outright lies) that have arisen based on the absence of a publicly published birth certificate are fully excluded by the COLB and the official pronouncements from Hawaii.

    The publication of a birth certificate for Barack Obama would prove nothing new, and it would have only one influence on the overall argument, and that would be the tiny substitution of “has shown” for “has not shown” for the birth certificate. The deniers would still say Obama was not born in Hawaii; they would just say it in slightly different words.

  7. avatar
    Vince Treacy October 11, 2009 at 5:30 pm #

    There is, in fact, a federal statutory definition of the term “birth certificate.” It is in Section 7211 of Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, Pub. L. 108-434, 118 Stat. 3825, Dec. 17, 2004.

    http://www.nctc.gov/docs/pl108_458.pdf

    The term includes an authenticated copy issued by the authorized custodian.

    The law required HHS to issue minimum standards within a year. After that, no federal agency could accept a birth certificate that did not meet the requirements. Section 7211(b)(1).

    The Certification of Live Birth (COLB) meets the definition.

    The House bill requires future candidates to produce a birth certificate, but does not define the term. Courts would have to look to existing law for a definition, and apply 7211. Obama is the only potential candidate for 2012 who has already complied with the terms of the House bill.

    I hope this is helpful. Two things would be of interest for further research. First, have the regulations been issued yet? Are they in the Code of Federal Regulations, or, if not yet out, are they proposed in the Federal Register. Second, where is the section codified in the U.S. Code, and have any cases construed or cited it yet?

  8. avatar
    Dr. Conspiracy October 11, 2009 at 8:12 pm #

    Vince, thank you for that direct and useful piece of information. I find that there are at least three usages for the term “birth certificate”: a legal usage, a vital statistics usage and a common usage. I would agree that the COLB is a “birth certificate” for legal and common purposes. In the vital statistics community the COLB is something else. I have an internal document from that community that was not intended for publication and I’m trying to decide whether to put it up on the site. What I will say at this point is that the article, http://www.obamaconspiracy.org/2009/09/a-certification-is-not-a-certificate/, was written in compliance with that document.

    I was not able to find that any standards had been issued and included in the Federal Register. It’s easy to search through this link:

    http://www.gpoaccess.gov/fr/

    While I was thumbing around, I did find this tidbit attacked to the Rules for the Read ID Act:

    DHS agrees that some, mostly elderly, individuals may not have a birth certificate at all.

  9. avatar
    Vince Treacy October 12, 2009 at 11:46 am #

    The definition in section 7211(a) has been codified as a note following Title 5, United States Code, section 301 (5 U.S.C. 301 nt.):
    http://law.justia.com/us/codes/title5/5usc301.html

    The definition reads:

    “(3) Birth certificate.–As used in this subsection, the term
    `birth certificate’ means a certificate of birth–
    “(A) of–
    “(i) an individual born in the United States; or
    “(ii) an individual born abroad–
    “(I) who is a citizen or national of the United States at
    birth; and
    “(II) whose birth is registered in the United States; and
    “(B) that–
    “(i) is a copy, issued by a State or local authorized
    custodian of record, of an original certificate of birth
    issued by such custodian of record; or
    “(ii) was issued by a State or local authorized
    custodian of record and was produced from birth records
    maintained by such custodian of record.

    Under this definition, the COLB is a “birth certificate.” It is a “certificate of birth” issued to “an individual born in the United States” who is a “citizen or national of the United States at birth” and whose “birth is registered in the United States,” and that certificate “was issued by a State or local authorized custodian of record and was produced from birth records maintained by such custodian of record.”

    The definition is not yet applicable. It can “apply only to a certificate of birth issued after the day that is 3 years after the date of the promulgation of a final regulation under subparagraph (B).

    It will apply only to certificates that are issued after the regulations go into effect (if ever). ”[A] Federal agency may not accept for any official purpose a certificate of birth, unless the certificate– (I) is a birth certificate (as defined in paragraph (3) and (II) conforms to the standards set forth in the regulation promulgated under subparagraph (B).”

    The law shall “shall not be construed to prevent a Federal agency from accepting for official purposes any certificate of birth issued on or before such day.”

    So, in sum, Congress has enacted a definition for future purposes, but it is buried in a bureaucratic limbo, pending issuance of regulations. There is no sign of any proposed or final regulations in the Code of Federal Regulations or Federal Register.

    In the meantime, this is a federal legal definition, enacted by Congress and signed by the President long before the 2008 election. It is the only legal definition evident in federal law. The COLB complies with the definition.

    Here is the entire text of the law as codified:

    Improvements in Identification-Related Documents

    Pub. L. 104-208, div. C, title VI, Sec. 656, Sept. 30, 1996, 110
    Stat. 3009-716, as amended by Pub. L. 106-69, title III, Sec. 355, Oct.
    9, 1999, 113 Stat. 1027, provided that:
    “(a) Birth Certificates.–
    “(1) Standards for acceptance by federal agencies.–
    “(A) In general.–
    “(i) General rule.–Subject to clause (ii), a Federal
    agency may not accept for any official purpose a certificate
    of birth, unless the certificate–
    “(I) is a birth certificate (as defined in paragraph (3));
    and
    “(II) conforms to the standards set forth in the regulation
    promulgated under subparagraph (B).
    “(ii) Applicability.–Clause (i) shall apply only to a
    certificate of birth issued after the day that is 3 years
    after the date of the promulgation of a final regulation
    under subparagraph (B). Clause (i) shall not be construed to
    prevent a Federal agency from accepting for official
    purposes any certificate of birth issued on or before such
    day.
    “(B) Regulation.–
    “(i) Consultation with government agencies.–The
    President shall select 1 or more Federal agencies to consult
    with State vital statistics offices, and with other
    appropriate Federal agencies designated by the President,
    for the purpose of developing appropriate standards for
    birth certificates that may be accepted for official
    purposes by Federal agencies, as provided in subparagraph
    (A).
    “(ii) Selection of lead agency.–Of the Federal
    agencies selected under clause (i), the President shall
    select 1 agency to promulgate, upon the conclusion of the
    consultation conducted under such clause, a regulation
    establishing standards of the type described in such clause.
    “(iii) Deadline.–The agency selected under clause (ii)
    shall promulgate a final regulation under such clause not
    later than the date that is 1 year after the date of the
    enactment of this Act [Sept. 30, 1996].
    “(iv) Minimum requirements.–The standards established
    under this subparagraph–
    “(I) at a minimum, shall require certification of the birth
    certificate by the State or local custodian of record
    that issued the certificate, and shall require the use
    of safety paper, the seal of the issuing custodian of
    record, and other features designed to limit tampering,
    counterfeiting, and photocopying, or otherwise
    duplicating, the birth certificate for fraudulent
    purposes;
    “(II) may not require a single design to which birth
    certificates issued by all States must conform; and
    “(III) shall accommodate the differences between the States
    in the manner and form in which birth records are stored
    and birth certificates are produced from such records.
    “(2) Grants to states.–
    “(A) Assistance in meeting federal standards.–
    “(i) In general.–Beginning on the date a final
    regulation is promulgated under paragraph (1)(B), the
    Secretary of Health and Human Services, acting through the
    Director of the National Center for Health Statistics and
    after consulting with the head of any other agency
    designated by the President, shall make grants to States to
    assist them in issuing birth certificates that conform to
    the standards set forth in the regulation.
    “(ii) Allocation of grants.–The Secretary shall
    provide grants to States under this subparagraph in
    proportion to the populations of the States applying to
    receive a grant and in an amount needed to provide a
    substantial incentive for States to issue birth certificates
    that conform to the standards described in clause (i).
    “(B) Assistance in matching birth and death records.–
    “(i) In general.–The Secretary of Health and Human
    Services, acting through the Director of the National Center
    for Health Statistics and after consulting with the head of
    any other agency designated by the President, shall make
    grants to States to assist them in developing the capability
    to match birth and death records, within each State and
    among the States, and to note the fact of death on the birth
    certificates of deceased persons. In developing the
    capability described in the preceding sentence, a State that
    receives a grant under this subparagraph shall focus first
    on individuals born after 1950.
    “(ii) Allocation and amount of grants.–The Secretary
    shall provide grants to States under this subparagraph in
    proportion to the populations of the States applying to
    receive a grant and in an amount needed to provide a
    substantial incentive for States to develop the capability
    described in clause (i).
    “(C) Demonstration projects.–The Secretary of Health and
    Human Services, acting through the Director of the National
    Center for Health Statistics, shall make grants to States for a
    project in each of 5 States to demonstrate the feasibility of a
    system under which persons otherwise required to report the
    death of individuals to a State would be required to provide to
    the State’s office of vital statistics sufficient information to
    establish the fact of death of every individual dying in the
    State within 24 hours of acquiring the information.
    “(3) Birth certificate.–As used in this subsection, the term
    `birth certificate’ means a certificate of birth–
    “(A) of–
    “(i) an individual born in the United States; or
    “(ii) an individual born abroad–
    “(I) who is a citizen or national of the United States at
    birth; and
    “(II) whose birth is registered in the United States; and
    “(B) that–
    “(i) is a copy, issued by a State or local authorized
    custodian of record, of an original certificate of birth
    issued by such custodian of record; or
    “(ii) was issued by a State or local authorized
    custodian of record and was produced from birth records
    maintained by such custodian of record.
    “[(b) Repealed. Pub. L. 106-69, title III, Sec. 355, Oct. 9, 1999,
    113 Stat. 1027.]
    “(c) Report.–Not later than 1 year after the date of the enactment
    of this Act [Sept. 30, 1996], the Secretary of Health and Human Services
    shall submit a report to the Congress on ways to reduce the fraudulent
    obtaining and the fraudulent use of birth certificates, including any
    such use to obtain a social security account number or a State or
    Federal document related to identification or immigration.
    “(d) Federal Agency Defined.–For purposes of this section, the
    term `Federal agency’ means any of the following:
    “(1) An Executive agency (as defined in section 105 of title 5,
    United States Code).
    “(2) A military department (as defined in section 102 of such
    title).
    “(3) An agency in the legislative branch of the Government of
    the United States.
    “(4) An agency in the judicial branch of the Government of the
    United States.”

  10. avatar
    Vince Treacy October 12, 2009 at 12:20 pm #

    Looks like the same definition can be found in Public Law 104-208, sec. 656, 110 Stat. 3009-716 through 110 Stat. 3009-720, Sep. 30, 1996:

    http://www.ustreas.gov/offices/enforcement/ofac/legal/statutes/pl104_208.pdf

    The then-agency INS was supposed to draw up regulations. Se 65 Federal Register 7896, Feb. 16, 2000.

    Probably, nothing ever happened.

    In the meantime, the COLB was issued by the authorized custodian of record, and was produced from birth records maintained by that custodian.

    It is a birth certificate.