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Unconscious racism

Today is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and Birther Report has an article just up titled, “University of Virginia Psychologist: Birthers Racially Tinged Conspiracy Theories Paint Obama As A Usurper.” They take great umbrage at what they see as an attempt to label all birthers racist. Their incredulity at that outrageous claim can be seen in this comment:

Guest: There is nothing mysterious or racist about BHO identity questions. Why? EVERYWHERE you look you find fraud of one type or another. This isn’t rocket science guys. You have to be brain dead or an obot not to know that he’s operating under a fake name, fake BC, fake SS#, fake Sel. Serv. card. The list is endless.

I tried to make a response to that, but I have no hope that the commenter will grok what I was trying to say:

You don’t get it.

To most people there is no “fake name, fake BC, fake SS#, fake Sel. Serv. card”. They look at that stuff and see nobodies on the Internet pretending to be experts and spinning wildly implausible theories requiring up a conspiracy of massive proportions (including the administration, the Congress, the news media, the courts and the State of Hawaii), a conspiracy orders of magnitude bigger than any real conspiracy in history. If they bother to look into the details (and few do) they find a tissue of suspicions that falls apart under scrutiny. They see theories held almost exclusively by ideological opponents of Obama and his party. They see folks using terms like DemoRat and Libtard. They see nothing credible.

When they see a group maligning the President, and see no justification for it, they wonder why it’s happening. Racism is part of it; hatred of progressives is part of it; general tendencies to see conspiracies in clouds is part of it, smear peddling for monetary gain is part of it.

You think that with all the facts, no one can fault the birthers for their beliefs. Others think that there is something fundamentally wrong with the birthers for misreading the evidence.

But I didn’t write this article to display my ineffectual attempt at creating an “aha” moment in a birther. What I want to do is to call attention to the Mother Jones article that got the birthers so upset. It’s title, “Black Lives Matter” Aspires to Reclaim the Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.,” doesn’t give the reader a hint about that I found most interesting in the story. It’s not so much about the police shootings of black men, or Dr. King. What is interesting is unconscious racism.

BR picked out the same quote that I did from the lengthy article, although I will copy here just the last part of it:

There “doesn’t need to be intent, doesn’t need to be desire; there could even be desire in the opposite direction,” explains University of Virginia psychologist Brian Nosek. […] “But biased results can still occur.”

Birthers don’t realize that it is their biases (conscious or otherwise) that cause them to look at claims of Obama misdeeds with less than adequate scrutiny and to close their eyes to the obvious objections that could be raised against them.

Full v. Empty

I was over at Gerbil Report™ engaging in a thread where the birther states the familiar “Obama is destroying the country” meme. Just a few days ago I watched Obama’s final press conference of the year where he laid out a number of things in the US economy that were going quite well. Certainly for a retired person like me who lives off investments, the soaring stock market is personally good for me. I said that if that is “destruction,” we need more of it. Nevertheless, the birther maintained an extremely gloomy view of the economy and the state of the nation.

I ran across one of my articles from this past summer while putting together the end of year retrospective. The article, “Negativity merchants,” cited some psychological studies on the difference between conservatives and liberals, including the observation that conservatives are disgusted more easily than liberals. There as another finding in that research that says:

…we argue that one organizing element of the many differences between liberals and conservatives is the nature of their physiological and psychological responses to features of the environment that are negative. Compared with liberals, conservatives tend to register greater physiological responses to such stimuli and also to devote more psychological resources to them.

Perhaps that explains why the national debt weighs more heavily on the commenter at GR than it does on me.

To some extent, the entire publishing effort behind this blog comes out of the tension between how I see things and how some others see them. The birther sees the glass as half empty and I see it as half full. I see the evidence of Obama’s eligibility as overwhelming and the birther sees the smallest lack as overwhelming. Fundamental differences in psychology aren’t going to be overcome by argument at a birther blog.

Putting differences aside, I wish a Merry Christmas to all and a Happy New Year1 (unfortunately it won’t seem as happy to the birthers).


1Last month the second most frequent browser language group to visit the blog was Russian. So for those folks: С новым годом.

Birthers disgust me?

I was over at Gerbil Report™ earlier today looking for something to replace the current worn-out quote of the day, and if you had asked me my reaction to the comments there (including my head Photoshopped onto a nude male cuddling up to Barack Obama), I would have said “disgusting.” I would say that about a lot of birtherism, and my reaction rekindled interest in something I had set aside a couple of weeks ago.

In my article, “Negativity merchants,” I quoted a scientific study that included these words:

A rapidly growing body of empirical evidence documents a multitude of ways in which liberals and conservatives differ from each other in purviews of life with little direct connection to politics, from tastes in art to desire for closure and from disgust sensitivity to the tendency to pursue new information…

I was curious when I published that as to where liberals and conservatives appear within the disgust sensitivity spectrum, but didn’t follow up then; today I did. The results surprised me, who thought nothing was too disgusting for the extreme right wing to say. In an article at the National Journal titled “Gay Marriage and the Political Psychology of Disgust,” the result was presented as the opposite of what I guessed:

Here’s the state of the science of disgust right now. Conservatives are thought to have a greater propensity to be disgusted than liberals do. Many studies corroborate this idea (see here, here, and here).

Now it may be that I use the word “disgust” more figuratively than the scientists. Perhaps my sense of “morally offensive” isn’t what they call disgust.

The real surprise in the article is that liberals answer questions more conservatively when the smell of vomit is introduced into the room. 😯

Age and birtherism

It’s a well known fact that older Americans tend more towards birtherism than younger ones. Why is that? Is it the result of deteriorating mental acuity? Perhaps it is something else.

According to a new study reported in the New York Times, political leaning is correlated with birth year. The explanation is that one’s political attitudes are formed most strongly in their 20’s:

[whites born in 1941] … came of age under Eisenhower, who was popular throughout his presidency. By the time Eisenhower left office in 1961, people born in the early 1940s had accumulated pro-Republican sentiment that would last their entire lifetimes. …

In contrast, people born a decade later – baby boomers – were too young to be influenced much by the Eisenhower years. Childhoods and formative years under Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon left them relatively pro-Democratic.

It is also well documented that birthers tend not to be Democrats.

Violent rhetoric is bullying

What prompted this article is a new perspective on the violent birther rhetoric gained from reading from Joe McGinniss’ book, The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin.

McGinniss went to Alaska in 2010 to conduct interviews for the book and by a totally unforeseen turn of events, ended up renting a house next door to the Palin’s in Wasilla, Alaska. Although there was no basis for the claim, the Palins considered McGinniss, a stalker and Sarah Palin posted a photo of him on his back porch (looking the other way) on her Facebook page and said he was looking into her children’s bedrooms (something not possible from the McGinniss house). National conservative pundits like Glenn Beck pushed the story, and a storm of violent rhetoric appeared in comments on Andrew Breitbart’s web site and others, comments such as:

“This is one psychotic liberal . I hope someone mistakes him for a moose and puts an end to his publicity stunt. It would be nice if he ends up at the bottom of Lake Lucille.”

“If trapped in a house and not able to get out for food, does anyone know how long a freaky marxist fanatic can survive on a diet of KY Jelly?”

“I hope someone knocks his teeth down his throat.”

“What a spineless creepy bordering on sex-predator freak. I hope he tries to break into the Palin’s yard and gets a gut full of shotgun shell.”

Those are just about me. They get worse:

“hey, Joe, sleep with one eye open, you POS. can’t wait for your grandkids to show up and play in the woods and water.” And, after publishing my home address: “Joe’s lonely wife needs mail, phone calls and other assurances of concern and good will in Joe’s absence.”

Mcginniss, Joe (2011-09-20). The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin (Kindle Locations 1161-1172). Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 

Some of the locals suggested McGinniss should leave town for his own safety and the local police regularly patrolled the area to prevent an incident. He had to change his home phone number because of the death threats.

McGinniss labels this behavior (by the Palins, the conservative media and the blog commenters) as “bullying” and I completely agree.

Bullying must be vigorously opposed from the start.

Large numbers

What are the chances that…

A while back, I had a story mentioning a Cornell law professor named Michael C. Dorf. Part of the discussion revolved around correctly identifying the person from his name. I mean maybe there is more than one Michael Dorf, but more than one Michael C. Dorf? And even if there were multiple Michael C. Dorfs, surely there wouldn’t be two attorneys with that name. And in the hugely unlikely event that two attorneys share that name, it’s unthinkable that they could be both linked to Barack Obama.

Only, there are two of them. One is the Cornell law professor that wrote a paper on presidential eligibility, and the other is a Chicago attorney who actually represented Barack Obama.

photo of a large number of flamingosI wrote the preceding as if this were an amazing coincidence, but I don’t think it is all that amazing. I mean Dorf is an unusual surname: it ranks number 35,938 in the 1990 census (US Census tabulation). Michael, however, is quite common and C is a common initial. There are lots of attorneys too, 1,225,452 according to the American Bar Association. What perhaps does make this instance really unusual is the connection to Obama, but even that connection is tenuous. The Cornell professor really isn’t connected to Obama except that he wrote an article about presidential eligibility, specifically the possibility of a president achieving a third term by being elected vice president after having served as President. The Chicago attorney’s association is more direct, but back in the past, when Obama was a state senator.

There are three errors of thinking we make in spotting remarkable coincidences (or are they?). The first is to fail to realize that when we talk about the population of the United States, some 300 million people, that a lot of infrequent coincidences are statistically likely. I remember doing quality assurance on a large statewide database, checking for duplicates, and being struck by the number of people born on the same day with the same name,  and this wasn’t even a large state.

The second error is to fail to consider how encompassing the criteria are, and whether the criteria are being manipulated to include a coincidence. In the Dorf example, the category of connection to Obama was expanded, and if that hadn’t worked out, perhaps the criteria would have been “lawyers from Illinois” or “Democrats” or “went to the same law school” or something else. It is one thing to ask “what is the chance that …?” before the fact and quite another to ask “what is the chance that we can find some connection given all the possible connections we could look for?” after the fact.

The third error is to look at any particular unusual event and to assign significance to it. Say that we conclude accurately that we are looking at a one in ten thousand event. But if there are a million people spending hundreds of millions of hours searching for unusual events linked to Barack Obama, chances are that quite a few unlikely (on their own) events will be found.

When a large number of unlikely events is presented in a list, they appear extremely unlikely to have all happened, but such lists are not given in the context of the other list, many orders of magnitude larger, of things that are not unusual at all.

We humans are well-adapted to recognize and assign significance to unusual occurrences. We are not, however, well-adapted to dealing with large numbers and the wealth of information available on the Internet. What looks unusual may not be.