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Contemplating Orly

When I saw this statue, I immediately thought of Orly Taitz.

DC and  Statue

Maybe it was the eyes.

Orly has always been a difficult character to relate to, not really helped by my having an extended phone conversation with her. I have a moral imperative to view and speak of my neighbor in the best possible light; most people I have known throughout the years have been decent people. Orly strains that attitude.

All conspiracy theorists (and here I only include unreasonable theories) are working from a disadvantage. My understanding of them comes from Michael Shermer’s book, The  Believing Brain, and I see the conspiracist mindset as coming from a low-functioning nonsense filter. So I don’t think that being a conspiracy theorists makes someone a bad person, or even a stupid one. Indeed, my criticisms of Orly Taitz are only tangentially related to her being a conspiracy theorist. Here are some of them:

  • Incompetence. Orly Taitz is a lawyer and a very bad one. She has been repeatedly lectured by judges that she doesn’t follow procedures and that she doesn’t understand the law. She repeatedly violated court rules by failing to redact social-security numbers. She has bungled service in almost every case. She was sanctioned 3 times.
  • Lack of regard for others. At various times, Orly has solicited clients and then represented them badly, doing things that were in Orly’s interest, but not that of her clients. Connie Rhodes had to write the Court to tell them that the things Orly was filing were not on her behalf. She has blatantly violated the privacy of individuals by publishing their names, addresses, social-security numbers, and even birth certificates. She even egged on her readers to investigate the deaths of newborns who had nothing whatever top do with any public issue.
  • Dishonesty. The most recent instance of this was when Orly presented a petition to the Court claiming “new evidence” that she had known about for at least 6 months. I believe she lied to me when she claimed that she had public records of other names associated with Obama’s social-security number before the number was published on the Internet.
  • Bigotry. I have seen Orly demonize illegal immigrant children on her web site. Orly likes to seek sympathy because she is a mother, but she doesn’t seem to be very motherly towards other people’s children.
  • Immorality. This assumes the truth of reports of her having an extramarital affair. I take a dim view of adultery.

I recognize that everyone has their bad points; nevertheless, I can chose those people I like, and those I don’t. There are people I get along with, and those I would rather stay away from. Orly Taitz is just someone I don’t like.

Birther addiction

imageThe closest thing I can come up with for such irrational optimism is gambling, only in the case of the lottery, somebody wins. The birthers will never win.

— Dr. Conspiracy, June 2013

I have a collection of insights that help me make decisions and through which I try to make sense of the world. One of those insights is the addictive nature of intermittent reinforcement1, thought to be a mechanism behind gambling addiction. Intermittent reinforcement (sometimes behavior is rewarded, and sometimes not) can be more effective than positive reinforcement in animal models. I apply this principle in understanding primitive religion (throw maiden into volcano to make the crops grow next season), to risky speculative financial behavior2, and to my own hope that someday I will break even playing Windows Solitaire.

Michael Shermer’s book The Believing Brain explains the conspiracy theory phenomenon through the physiology of the brain and how particular regions of the brain carry out tasks such as pattern recognition and nonsense rejection. (Conspiracy theorists have too much of the former and not enough of the latter.) I think, however, that intermittent reinforcement may also be significant in understanding the extremes of birtherism.

My opening quotation goes against my thesis in that it suggests that birthers are never rewarded, but that isn’t true. Then never win in court, and they never win presidential elections, but they certainly feel like they win or they anticipate winning. Is not the expectation of a reward a happy thought, a reinforcement in and of itself? Orly Taitz often reads signs of victory. In 2009, Taitz misinterpreted something from Judge Carter and proclaimed that her lawsuit would would go to trial on the merits, which would have been vindication for Taitz, and just recently Taitz read into a dismissal from a Maryland judge a promise of a favorable outcome. Sheriff Arpaio’s involvement with Obama’s birth certificate was hailed widely by birthers as the certain undoing of Obama and Zullo/Gallups do everything they can to foster anticipation. It seems to me that the roller coaster swings between exuberant optimism and loss, experienced by the birthers, mirrors the feelings of a gambler’s winning and losing.

This brings me to a September 2013 article by Cody Robert Judy, birther litigant and presidential candidate, titled “The Birthers are Losers! The Birthers Are Winners!” Despite some misinformation about ObamaCare, the article is pretty mainstream. Unfortunately, it doesn’t actually have any examples of birthers winning. Never mind. 😳

Even blogging can be a response to intermittent rewards, when some articles are well-received and some barely commented on. There’s that anticipation of one big scoop.

1I always called it “variable rewards.”

2I just finished an audio book project (as a proof checker) of The Three Clerks by Anthony Trollope, which contains the story of a young man ruined by speculation.

Agency and patternicity

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:

imageSo 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.image 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.image

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!image

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.

Is Birtherism really a bunch of conspiracy theories?

A commenter asked that question.

I asked the question too from the very beginning of this blog, since it is called "Obama Conspiracy Theories." When I first asked I asked it more literally, focusing more on the definition of the word "conspiracy" than the general concept of conspiracy thinking. As the birther stories evolved, they invoked conspiracies to explain their lack of success, and so my original naming concerns were taken care of.

Later I came to understand birtherism as the kind of thinking that characterizes conspiracy theorists. Experts on conspiracy theory seem to agree. An important early article on birtherism is "Why the stories about Obama’s birth certificate will never die" where Alex Koppelman wrote at

Barack Obama was, without question, born in the U.S., and he is eligible to be president, but experts on conspiracy theories say that won’t ever matter to those who believe otherwise.

Last year, I took some time to delve into the literature about conspiracy theories. What I found was that certain cognitive errors described in the literature seemed to fit the birthers. If conspiracy thinking does result from peculiar "brain wiring" then one would expect that those who believe in one conspiracy believe in others. Anecdotes support that. Jerome Corsi and Phil Berg, for example, are both 9/11 Truthers. Orly Taitz sees a conspiracy under every rock. I see a lot of birthers who also believe in vast international conspiracies, black helicopters, chemtrails,  and all sorts of such things.

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“nac ew seY” gniyas amabO kcaraB fo oediV

If you haven’t already seen it, I recommend that you watch the excellent TED video of Michael Shermer talking about strange beliefs and the human tendency to identify patterns when there are none, before you continue with what follows. The part about auditory illusions starts around 8:50. (Shermer’s book, The Believing Brain, is one of the featured books here at OCT).

Someone has gone to a lot of trouble to make a YouTube video of Barack Obama speaking backwards. Now if you play the video without watching it, you probably will not understand what is going on. It takes the captioning to tell you what you are supposed to hear, and then your brain obliges. The Video is of Barack Obama saying “Yes we can.”

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Most folks know that people sometimes see pictures of things in actually random data, whether it’s faces in the clouds or Mother Theresa on a sticky bun. Michael Shermer did a nice video that talks about this on the TED web site. I want to focus on one example from Shermer’s talk, the “Face on Mars”. Here’s the famous image:


It looks like a face because there’s not much detail in the image. A higher resolution picture of the same area (click image for very high resolution version) of Mars doesn’t look like a face:


However, if you squint, you can may be able to see the face; that’s because when you squint, you introduce noise.

We see the same effect on the infamous “smiley face” on Alvin Onaka’s signature on Obama’s long form. In this case noise was introduced by the PDF optimization that removed information from the image by converting gray scale to black and white. First the noisy version:

Now the gray-scale version:


Basically this same noise trick appears in one form or another in most of the birther analyses of the Obama long form. Let me give you one final noisy example. This is from Paul Irey’s comparison of noisy (in this case pixelated) data from the long form in an attempt to argue that the font is different on different typed information:


What we actually see is noise from converting gray scale to black and white and changing resolution. Now, let me show you font changes from an actual fake birth certificate:

image  image

and a real variable and monospaced contradiction.

image image

In these examples, the images are clear enough and not too noisy to declare that the information identifying McCain was not typed on the form at the same time as the other material on the form not specifically known to tie to McCain.

Beware eyeballing noisy data.