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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.

Worshiping the pile

A few miles from my house there is a hill. It’s a rather large hill, distinctively rising above the trees and visible for quite some distance. It’s a special hill in that unlike other hills around it, it just recently appeared. One might have thought some magic involved in its appearance, and perhaps some primitive people seeing the phenomenon of its growth day by day might imagine the action of the divine. It truth it’s a landfill and it’s full of garbage.

imageI offer the landfill as an analogy to birther collections of proofs and right wing collections of scandals about Obama. An example of the latter appeared just yesterday here in comments. Debunking Obama scandals is outside of my field of study, but a quick run through showed many of them were presented falsely or were based on biased opinion. The size of the list is supposed to overwhelm the one to whom it is presented, and its length is supposed to take the place of substantive argument. I suppose the idea is, “my list is so long, how could you possibly respond?”

Missing and Sealed Records

One of the classic lists from birthers is the missing and sealed records list, a collection of documents that aren’t missing, documents that are protected by law from disclosure and documents that in all likelihood never existed. No less than took on one of these lists last year concluding:

Many records that presidential candidates don’t ordinarily release do remain confidential, but they are not “sealed” by a court. The 16 claims in a widely distributed graphic are mostly false or distorted.

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Are Birthers a hate group?

As I’m reading a book on hate groups right now, that question naturally comes to mind. I’ve been thinking about an article with this title for a few days now. I thought: “This should be pretty straightforward. Define ‘hate group’ and then collect some of the really hateful things birthers say and give examples.”

That would be straightforward, but it wouldn’t be valid. I could use the same methodology to proves that Birthers are racists, or that they are illiterate – for example, check out this one I just found at Orly’s site:

You mean that Parke Bostrom is so stupid that he thinks that Obama is rligible for to be president of the United States. I guess he can’t read or hasn’t heard of our Condtitution of the United States. Obama father was a british suject and his mother was a American, but that put obama with a dual citizenship and no way in hell he can ever be President of the United States. Does corrupt Democrats slip him on the ballot and the election commitee kept thir mouth shut, that is treason against the United States. If you want Obama enoughto go to prison for that whatever he is, go for it.

There’s no question that there is a lot of hatred directed against Barack Obama from people on the Right and from the Birthers in particular. It wasn’t a warm fuzzy feeling that put Obama’s head onto a chimpanzee baby and wrote “now you know why no birth certificate.” My personal view is that conspiracy theory thinking is what defines Birthers, not hate. That said, I also believe that hatred is the “gateway drug” to Birtherism and that the closed world of birther web sites reinforces hate speech and amplifies hatred. And in time, perhaps Birtherism will evolve into a pure hate group, just as it appears to have evolved from retelling rumors to full-blown paranoid conspiracy thinking.

Birther evangelist psychoanalyzes his flock

LolliI came across something novel from the birther side this morning, an attempt by a birther to understand other birthers using psychology.

In my July 11 article, Obama conspiracies and the grief cycle, I discussed how normals, when coming to grips with the birther movement, can follow the Kübler-Ross model, commonly known as The Five Stages of Grief. In a new article yesterday prolific commentator William Lolli (pictured above) applies the same model to the birthers, in his article, Confessions of a Birther Evangelist at The American Thinker.

Lolli’s article adopts a pedantic tone describing emotional changes in someone making the journey of “discovery” that Obama is ineligible, but make no mistake, despite the reasonable tone, Lolli believes Obama’s birth certificate is a forgery and that: “both political parties and all branches of government are culpable.”

More from the birther evangelist on how he convinces someone to be a birther would have been interesting, but Lolli leaves that point vague, saying only, “The debates are never linear, but desultory.” [“Desultory” is probably not the word he wanted.]

Lolli gets one thing right:

Many politically active Birthers are stuck in the anger stage.  You can see that by reading their blogs, letters to editors, emails to congressman, and their use of invectives like "long legged Mac Daddy," "Usurper," "Traitor," and the like.  The ad hominem attacks do little to persuade, but they do provide emotional relief to the mass of frustrated Birthers, who find it difficult to understand why the legal and moral clarity of their arguments are systematically ignored.

What Lolli doesn’t understand is that birthers are ignored because their arguments lack a factual basis and legal clarity not in spite of it.  Rather than realizing that only 5% of the population  is convinced1 Barack Obama was born overseas implies that the argument is essentially unpersuasive, Lolli explains it as “herd instinct” among the normals. I think Mr. Lolli is in denial.

I must say that the acceptance stage for a birther, as described by Lolli is a pretty fatalistic and negative one:

…the perception that the entire system of government is corrupt, there is no regard for the law or the Constitution, and any illegal alien or naturalized citizen can argue that he can be president without regard to Article 2, Section 1, Clause 5.

Lolli’s article at the American Thinker is one I recommend that you read. He is probably one of the best writers the birthers have. His article is an insight into how a thoughtful person views the world while still trapped in the birther alternate reality and underscores the fact that smart people still get sucked into conspiracy theories.

More from William Lolli:

1The 5% number is the number who “definitely” believe Obama was born overseas according to a Gallup Poll taken after President Obama released his long-form birth certificate.

The Great Conspirator

I was teasing one of the commenters here by deliberately misinterpreting a comment of his referring to intelligent design and replying that I didn’t consider intelligent design a conspiracy theory. However, I really do.

Intelligent design is the proposition that "certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.”


Writers on conspiracy theories delineate two general ways to explain the world: The Forrest Gump theory ([stuff] happens) and the conspiracist explanation (nothing happens without a reason). The former believe that there is chaos in the world and that chaos, coupled with natural processes and people following their own interests, explain what happens. The latter see deep underlying structure in things, connections between events and the hand of conspirators pulling the strings from behind the stage. Writers on the psychology of conspiracy theory suggest that those in the former camp are less prone to see patterns in random events and that they are more comfortable with uncertainty compared to the latter.

At this point in the story, the reader should have figured out where I’m going. “Undirected process” is the  Gump theory and “intelligent cause” is the approach of the conspiracy minded.

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I’ve just started reading Michael Barkun’s 2003 book, A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America. I’m looking forward to it, having read and thoroughly enjoyed his earlier book, Religion and the Racist Right. One of the themes in the newer book is the inroads that one conspiracy theory is making into another, and in particular right-wing conspiracies about the New World Order gaining traction among UFO types.

If belief in crank ideas is the result of how some of our brains are wired, as Michael Shermer argues in The Believing Brain, then it follows that susceptible individuals would embrace more than one conspiracy theory. We’ve seen this to some extent with birthers and truthers, Vattelists and tax resisters, and one comment I heard by a birther on Internet radio that mentioned the Illuminati.

This all came to my attention this morning because of a link I received in email to a web site that had a link to a web site called Educate-Yourself: The Freedom of Knowledge, the Power of Thought. A quick look at their conspiracy topic menu lists everything from Chemtrails to HAARP. They carry this paranoid-sounding warning:

It is strongly recommended that visitors to this web site print out hard copies of the information that is of interest. Do not assume that your hard drive, this web site, or even the Internet itself will always be there to serve you….Ken Adachi, Editor

While Educate-Yourself doesn’t focus on birther issues, rather more on health-related conspiracies, they are quite eclectic and include Obama conspiracies from time to time, such as in the articles: Soetoro Produces Certified Long Form Birth Certificate Copy, a tongue in cheek ridicule of the long form and this Video Highlights Obama’s Ineligibility to be President (the video was from PPSimmons, a WorldNetDaily so-called document expert).

The other web site was The White Hats Report: Reporting What The Main Stream Media Refuses To Report. This site seems oriented toward the Bilderberger/New World Order side of conspiracies. Obama, we learn, is wheeling and dealing with billions of dollars internationally in cahoots with George Soros. In explosive report # 18 from April, 2011, Soros, Obama and the rest of the cabal about to be Trumped? we see that none other than George H. W. Bush has Obama’s Kenyan birth certificate and is using it to blackmail him.

With Donald Trump’s new investigations proceeding into Obama’s citizenship issue, will this, in one fell swoop, remove Bush Senior’s powerful grip over Obama by diminishing the affect of his holding the certified copy of Obama’s Kenyan Birth Certificate?  What will happen when Trump starts investigating and tracking Obama’s offshore bank accounts?  What will happen when Trump starts investigating Mitt Romney’s Achilles Heel?  In one combined sweep, Trump could take out both contestants and begin cleaning up America!

These anecdotal examples lead one think that conspiracy-minded people naturally latch onto any conspiracy based on distrust of the main-stream official explanation of things. Whether birthers on the whole are just conspiracy-minded people, or whether something else is going on there, I’m still considering.