Someone was kind enough to post a link to one of Michael Shermer’s Ted videos from June of 2010 and I enjoyed watching it, and I thought that Shermer’s book, The Believing Brain, was even more helpful in understanding why people (and in our case birthers) believe things that aren’t true. First, let me embed the video for those who might want to watch it and to become familiar with the concepts.
Briefly, patternicity is the tendency that humans have, to a greater or lesser degree, to see meaningful patterns in random noise, and agency is the tendency to see intent behind random events. So when one sees Santa Claus in cumulous clouds, that’s patternicity, and when someone attributes the death their a cow from disease to a hex cast by the old woman next door who must be a witch, that’s agency.
Both of these concepts can be illustrated by a single example, the so-called Alvin Onaka smiley face. I want to start with the higher-resolution version of the familiar image from Barack Obama’s birth certificate:
So is this a fat face with two eyes, no nose and no mouth? Humans have a special area of the brain dedicated to finding faces and even though there are just two dashes, we might see eyes. If we rotate the image, then the top eye might remain an eye and the bottom become a mouth. Indeed in this second example we might imagine an eyebrow and maybe a bit of a nose. (Neither of the two images is actually in the correct orientation that the handwritten “A” on Obama’s form appears.)
When an image is degraded, it is easier for us to jump to conclusions and see things that aren’t there. To complete the illusion, I’ll show an image at lower resolution, run through image compression, and in the right orientation to show how the human brain finds faces where there are none.
So yes, it looks like a smiley face. That is how human brains are wired and again this smiley face where the mouth looks different from the eye works just about as well upside down with the eye and mouth exchanged!
Now here’s where the normal “oh isn’t that cute?” turns into a conspiracy theory, and this by the introduction of “agency.” When the observation that the image looks like a smiley face is explained by someone intentionally altering the image to look like a smiley face, we see agency in action. When, then, a secret message is inferred, namely “this document is a fake and I want to let you know this by making a smiley face,” we get a conspiracy theory. We get birthers.