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Birther Trek: Concepts

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In our five-year mission to seek out comprehension of the Birther Universe (BirtherVerse), I have come across quite a number of interesting concepts. In this late-stage retrospective, I’ll reprise some of them.

One of the most useful of the concepts I learned studying the birthers is the Dunning-Kruger Effect. In the simplest terms, the less someone knows, the more they think they know (and vice versa). This error in valuation of expertise underlies much of a birther’s view of evidence, and explains why someone with no experience in forensic document examination, or electronic file analysis, thinks that they are competent to render an 100% certain opinion on Barack Obama’s birth certificate. This human foible is not unique to birthers, and I find myself fighting it every day. I think that knowing how one makes mistakes helps reduce the number of them.

Another fun concept is the Crazification Factor, an observation that a significant number of people (sometimes set at 27%) just say crazy things. I was going to say that it explains really odd polling results, but I don’t think it actually explains anything. It is just an observation, and because of it, the numbers of birthers shouldn’t be seen as surprising. Human beings are just less rational than they seem on the surface.

Another idea that I found helpful was the influence of community. Birthers who believe crazy things seem deluded. Delusions have three characteristics: 1) they are believed with certainty, 2) they do not respond to counterargument, and they are patently untrue. A clinical diagnosis of delusion has an exception, and that is when the delusion is held by one’s community or sub-culture, such as birther Internet social networks. (I think sub-culture is useful in understanding the bizarre comments at Birther Reports that would be socially unacceptable in general.) On that same line, historian Richard Hofstadter describes a “paranoid style” of thinking that is not actually clinically paranoid. Paranoid style thinking differs from paranoid thinking in that the subject thinks that the conspiracy is out to get everybody, not just him.

I suppose no discussion of birthers would be complete without mentioning confirmation bias. Put simply people tend to more readily accept information that is in line with what they already believe, and to reject information to the contrary. Again, this is a weakness we all have to some degree and being aware of it can help avoid mistakes.

22

Are you blogging more… But enjoying it less?

Borrowing an advertising slogan from Camel cigarettes, I introduce this research article about the Orly Taitz web site. I have never fully trusted poll numbers on birthers because a poll respondent does not necessarily tell the truth, nor do polls measure birther enthusiasm. One other source for information comes from the public participation on birther blogs.

I have published site statistics from this blog covering the past 3 years, and at the present time interest measured in page views on this blog is on the decline. What about birther sites? Generally birther web sites do not publish their activity statistics. Orly Taitz has a page hit counter2 of dubious value, and as of last month, verified numbers from her site are available at Alexa.com, but there is no historical data.

One way to value site engagement is to look at comments1, and while it is tedious to do, it is possible to count comments on a WordPress blog by crawling the entire site, and this is what I have done for Orly’s blog. Here’s the result  from March of 2010 to the present:

TaitzComments

The high point is January of 2013, the month Barack Obama began his second term as president. Of course any measure of comments at the Taitz site is affected by her moderation policy and the fact that she deletes comments and articles. Also this doesn’t account for any technical errors in my data-gathering software, or historical data loss.

Just for comparison, here are the comment numbers for my site added for the same period:

WebComments

Given statistics that suggest Taitz has twice the number of page views than here, the relatively small number of comments is really striking.


1Most blog visitors do not comment, so comment numbers don’t equal visits, but comment numbers can be studied over time. One thing of note is that visitors here have more to say about the articles than they do at Orly’s site. While the average article here has about 65 comments, the number there is around 4. Of course Taitz has many times the number of articles that I do.

2The Taitz hit counter first appeared in November of 2011 with an initial value around 22,518,751. Here is a chart roughly showing monthly values over the prior month using historical values from the Wayback Machine:

TaitzHits

While her comment totals are tapering off the past few months, her hit counter seems to be trending up.

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.

The universal reconciliation of all things

I tend to think in abstractions (comes from being a math student and later a software developer). It leads to thinking about how birthers and anti-birthers are alike, and how they are different.

One theme shared by birthers and their opponents is “truth.” (We even had a commenter early on who used the name TRUTH.) I’ve enjoyed reading and using a particular formulation that would fit here:

You use this word “truth,” but I don’t think it means what you think it does.

Birthers and anti-birthers both want the other side, and the undecided, to see the “truth.” They look to the universal reconciliation, but both claim that they hold a majority view (birthers say that most people agree with them but are afraid to admit it). This is not  a recipe for reconciliation or consensus. There is a significant asymmetry here: Birthers think their opponents know the truth, their truth, while birther opponents do not think that birthers know the truth. (Actually about 25% of persons polled believe that those responding as birthers in polls so so out of dislike for Obama, and not because they are birthers.) Birthers believe in an ultimate vindication while anti-birthers do not believe in the ultimate denouement of the birthers; conspiracy theories never die.

One image that has always been attractive to me is the scene from the 1989 movie Batman where Jack Nicholson as The Joker says to Batman: “You made me. Remember?” In the story Batman “makes” the Joker by dropping Jack Napier into a vat of chemicals, but the Joker had made Batman as well when he killed Bruce Wayne’s parents. Obviously anti-birthers would not exist but for birthers. Whether birther opponents contribute to birtherism is a question I haven’t answered for myself.

imageThe other DC Comics image that birthers bring to mind is the character of Bizarro from the Superman books. Bizarro is a corrupt version of Superman, somewhat of an anti-Superman. The Bizarro motto is:

Us do opposite of all Earthly things! Us hate beauty! Us love ugliness! Is big crime to make anything perfect on Bizarro World!

The Cold Case Posse is a Bizarro version of law enforcement, for example, and Orly Taitz is a Bizarro version of an attorney. Birther forensic analysis, citizen grand juries, politicians, journalists, attorneys—all distorted and corrupted imitations of the real things.

When I was a kid, the example of the Communist was used as motivation. Communists were supposedly dedicated, motivated, and hard-working, and so by implication we had to be more so in order to defeat them. Later historical analysis showed that the Communists of the 1950’s were not uniquely dedicated or hard-working.1 I think the dedication of birthers is equally overblown, at least by themselves. They write on the Internet, but when it comes time to show up in person, it’s crickets.

A neat wrap-up would be nice, but I don’t have one. The only significant events of the birther movement were Obama’s election, twice. That’s what actually happened. The rest is noise, sometimes interesting, but as Shakespeare’s Macbeth says:

Birtherism_Small


1A Russian joke from the 1980’s goes:

So long as the bosses pretend to pay us, we will pretend to work.

Birthers Behaving Badly

I introduced a new blog category with the article on Brent Douglas Cole: Birthers Behaving Badly. Some earlier articles have been added to the category where a birther was involved in a crime or received an official sanction. The individuals included are:

One might reasonably look at my list and come away with the idea that I’m trying to make a case that birthers are worse than people in general, or that being a birther makes them more likely to commit a crime than others. That’s not what I am trying to do. In some of the examples on the list, birtherism was a factor in their crime, for example Terry Lakin refused to deploy with his unit because he was trying to force the issue of Obama’s eligibility to be adjudicated. On the other hand Cole, D’Souza and von Brunn so far as we know were not motivated by birtherism in their (alleged in the case of Cole) illegal acts.

The reason I started the category of Birthers Behaving Badly is the same reason that I started all the categories—to make the site easier to use by indexing, categorizing and tagging articles. As for the articles themselves, they exist either because the subjects are notable birthers who have done something, or they are a birther who has done something notable. This blog is largely about birthers. In the same vein, I could publish an article like “Birther runs for Congress” (such articles would fall under the Birther Politics category).

If I had the information I could, no doubt, fill the blog with “Birther Makes Nice” stories. In our society, making nice isn’t generally notable or newsworthy and as Shakespeare’s Marc Antony says:

The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interrèd with their bones.

The moral dimension of birtherism

The reason that I have so much motivation to combat birtherism is that I consider it immoral, and not just immoral in and of itself, but a movement that promotes immorality and encourages others to act badly, and not only does birtherism encourage birthers to be immoral, it also entices its opponents to act badly as well.

The scripture text for today’s sermon comes from St. Paul’s letter to Rome:

And as they didn’t keep God steadily in mind, God left them to their unsteadiness of mind to do things that decency forbids, filled as they were with all kinds of unlawfulness, meanness, greed, and evil, rampant with envy, murder, discord, treachery, and disorderly conduct: rumormongers, character assassins, God-haters, criminals, haughty, boastful, fabricators of evil stories, disobedient to parents, with no comprehension, no cohesion, no affection, no compassion.

Gaus, Andy (1991-01-01). The Unvarnished New Testament (New Translation from the Original Greek) (Kindle Locations 5157-5161). Red Wheel Weiser. Kindle Edition.

While several items from the indecent list fit things I see in the birther movement, the one that I think most characterizes it is “character assassins.” (I could have picked the closely-allied “fabricators of evil stories.”) What is the birther movement, after all, but an attempt to find something bad about Barack Obama, initially to keep him from being elected president, and later to try to make him fail in office, or to get him out of office? Birtherism springs from and promotes a visceral dislike of Barack Obama, whether it is because he beat out Hillary Clinton, or that he is black, or urbane, or progressive, or has an Arabic-sounding middle name.

Birtherism has had its consequences, and I can think of no greater waste than former Army physician Terry Lakin, who ruined his career, lost his medical license, and lost his pension because of birtherism. On the other side consider Adam Cox who was convicted of threatening Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Would he ever have done this if not enraged by the character assassination of the birthers?

It is important to try to distinguish those who make up stories and market them from those who just spread the stories. At the top of the food chain we have folks like Joseph Farah, Jerome Corsi, Bob Unruh and Jack Cashill. They make money stirring up ill will. While folks like that deserve greater condemnation, still people who spread stories (like, for example, Donald Trump), the “rumormongers,” bear responsibility for not checking out stories before they pass them on.

Web sites such as Birther Report are noted for the “meanness” of the comments as much as their misleading stories. And when I see meanness and “haughty,” “boastful” fabricators of evil stories, it makes me angry and under that influence I can sometimes be mean too (that’s why I gave up BR for Lent).

Birtherism is not just wrong; it is indecent.