We argue a lot about Obama’s birth certificate, and in the last two years about the PDF file released by the White House—whether it is a forgery or not. A huge amount of effort has been expended by anti-birthers on this topic, notably a book from John Woodman, and recent work by NBC and Kevin Vicklund, assisted by others. From my point of view, any shred of argument that the President’s birth certificate is forged has been completely destroyed and I believe that anybody reviewing the complete evidence with even a minimum of intelligence and without bias would come to the same conclusion. So why are there birthers still who believe the document is a forgery?
I think that sometimes we do not appreciate how extremely compelling the birther argument is in a vacuum. Look at a birther YouTube video: They open the President’s birth certificate PDF with Adobe Illustrator and they can move parts around. They can make the text disappear. Have you ever seen anything like this before? Turn the clock back to April 26, 2011, the day before the long form was released—had you seen anything like? If this had been a Kenyan birth certificate for Obama, wouldn’t you have bought into the layers argument? This demonstration that the long form is composed of logical units that can moved around is a very powerful argument that the document is not just a scan, but something constructed by a human. Any fool can see it. Add the fact that the Certificate was rotated and saved in Mac Preview, removing tagging information that would have immediately identified the Xerox hardware, and you have a perfect storm for uninformed speculation.
And it’s not just unsophisticated people. Remember back to a news interview with Ken Colburn founder and CEO of Data Doctors Computer Services & Data Forensics Labs. He watch the original Cold Case Posse videos and said:
When I first saw it it was very convincing until we did our test and saw that, wait a minute, our scanner does the same thing.
Even an expert wasn’t experienced in the arcane ways of Mixed Raster Content PDF compression, and had the same impression of the PDF that the birthers did, found the argument “very convincing.” The truth of the matter is that the argument for forgery is easy to understand and intuitive; it reinforces popular notions of how the world works. With the right “guidance” and a general dislike for the President, the argument becomes imminently believable. The argument against forgery requires learning more about how the world really works than most people are willing to do. It is technical; it is complicated; it takes effort.
So how can we counter the forgery belief? I think that saying that the birthers who declare it a forgery aren’t experts is a waste of time because any fool can see the objects moving around (“we don’ need no steenking experts”). Also, just mentioning “experts” is a reinforcement of the birther idea (“oh yes, there are experts saying this too”). Psychologist who write about countering misinformation suggest approaches, some of which I’ll mention here:
- Alternate account. “What looks like forgery is just the way a Xerox WorkCentre 7655 makes PDFs. You can try it for yourself.”
- Emphasis on facts. “The Hawaii Department of Health says on its web site today: ‘On April 27, 2011 President Barack Obama posted a certified copy of his original Certificate of Live Birth.’ They stand behind the document.”
- Simple brief rebuttal. Long arguments tend to get lost, or they are compared by length to a long birther argument and both considered equally valid.
- Foster healthy skepticism. “Do you really think that a US President could issue a forgery without the press and opposition political parties being all over it?” or “The Republicans are trying to do everything in their power to derail the Obama administrations. If there were anything to this forgery issue, they’d use it.”
- Affirm their worldview. “Look I understand that it looks really odd that objects move around in the PDF, but it turns out that the Xerox machine breaks down a document into objects to save space when it makes a PDF.”
We talk about goalpost moving and the general idea that “birthers will find something” no matter what the President puts out. But the fact of the matter is that belief in birtherism was cut in half after the long form was released. It was only the unfortunate accident that the document was released in PDF format that allowed birtherism to recover and flourish. It gave them a simple, compelling argument that, while not true, any fool can see.