“Life is difficult.”
I hope you don’t do what I did after reading those words from M. Scott Peck’s book, The Road Less Traveled: I stopped reading. The opening sentence of Chapter 1 struck me as so profound at the time that I paused to contemplate it for 30 years, and never got back to the rest of the book, which sits on the shelf unread to this day.
Savvy readers might infer from my philosophical tone that I have been mowing grass again, and they would be right. As I mowed, I contemplated something else that I read, just last night, from Loren Collins’ new book, Bullspotting. Loren was commenting on how 9/11 conspiracy theorists frame arguments and said in a section titled Anomaly Hunting:
What Truthers do instead [of providing concrete evidence], and what they do a lot , is try to “poke holes” in the accepted version of the events of 9/11. This often involves a lot of open-ended questions…
I understand Loren’s point, but it caused me some disquiet because “poking holes” is what I do a lot too. So this article tries to make some distinctions between anomaly hunting the way I do it and the way some birthers do it.
Loren makes one important point about “debunking” and that is the debunker usually approaches questions with his mind made up, and is just trying to prove something he already believes to be bunk actually is. Obviously after 4 years of arguing about Obama’s birthplace, I have made up my mind about where Barack Obama was born, and I do approach every new argument to the contrary with the view that it is bunk. I think, however, with basic integrity and commitment to honesty, plus the methodology of proof I learned as a math student, that honest investigation can be done even by someone somewhat biased. Knowing you’re biased at the start helps compensate. So one difference is that when I make an anomaly argument I take my own admitted bias into consideration.
I’d like to compare and contrast two particular debunking efforts. One deals with my treatment of the fake birth certificate, the so-called Bomford certificate (named from the person named on the source document from which the fake was made). The second deals a popular birther debunking of Barack Obama’s birth certificate, the presence of the word “African.”
When I looked at the Bomford certificate, I noticed that the price listed on the 1964 document form was shown in shillings and pence. That is an anomaly because Kenya used cents and not pence in 1964 (and before and after). The debunking argument goes: “since Kenya used money denominated in cents in 1964, any purported official Kenyan document denominated in pence is a fake.” Government agencies use official currency in their transactions and no objection to this argument has been put forward. The Bomford certificate is a fake. QED.
Many birthers looking at Obama’s birth certificate made an argument: “No official document in 1961 would have used the term ‘African’ as a race, so any purported official document using that term is a fake.” The argument form is the same as mine. The difference is that the premise is false. It was possible to establish from other contemporary birth certificates and a vital statistics data entry manual that national and regional groups could appear on birth certificates, and that black Kenyans considered their race as “African.” Not only is the “official version” plausible, it is exactly what it should be based on this evidence. The difference is that the anomaly in the Bomford Certificate proved decisive based on well-sourced fact, while the alleged anomaly in the Obama certificate didn’t hold up against the facts.
Whenever some new Obama Conspiracy evidence comes forward there is a flurry of activity on the Internet with various people on the “other side” trying to find anomalies, to poke holes in the evidence. We had a world of fun poking holes in the Lucas Smith’s POSFKBC for a year. Most recently, we’ve seen a flurry of anomalies directed at the Peter Rehnquist Obama birth video: Why does the baby have teeth? Why is there so little blood; Why is the flag wrong? [Update: Why is there a 2013 calendar picture on the wall :shock” ?]
What happens over time is that crowd-sourced research on the Internet sorts through the anomalies, separating the plausible from the implausible, from the impossible. New information is found, corner cases are located, and the arguments are tested. In the case of the birth video, that process resulted in an “impossible” verdict quite quickly. It goes: “An image appears in the video that was created in 2005; therefore, any video that claims to be from 1961 with that image is a fake.” QED
As far as I know, the Obama birth video has so many problems that no one except Peter Rehnquist defends it. However, with other evidence regarding Obama’s long-form birth certificate, the birthers have refused to join the consensus, preferring to rely on themselves as sources. There’s no help for that. They don’t admit that they are biased.