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Studying the birthers

debunking helps

A new report. “Echoes of a Conspiracy: Birthers, Truthers, and the Cultivation of Extremism.” has been published in the January-March edition of the journal Communication Quarterly by university researchers Benjamin R. Warner and Ryan Neville-Shepard studying the effects of the media on belief in conspiracy theories. Two theory types were selected for the study: birthers and truthers (9/11 conspiracy theorists).

In the study, carried out separately for truther beliefs and birther beliefs, subjects were exposed only to the conspiracy theory or the conspiracy theory plus debunking material or just unrelated stuff. Their level of belief was measured before and after. The study tested what we often call the “echo chamber” in comparison to more open competition of ideas. Media included magazine/newspaper reports, videos and blog comments (alas not from here).

The results were, to say the least, surprising.

First, among birther material, debunking was markedly effective in reducing belief, unlike the truther results where belief increased even when debunked. In the real world birthers tend to be conservative and truthers liberal, but in this study belief change proved unrelated to party affiliation, suggesting partisan filtering was less a factor.

I was interested in the criteria for measuring birther belief. They used three statements that mirror definition of a birther:

  • President Barack Obama was born inside the United States (Reversed);
  • Obama’s birth records were faked to cover up his Kenyan birth;
  • Obama is not constitutionally eligible to be president because of his birth status.

There were 147 participants in the birther study, aged 17-30, were recruited from universities (in Missouri and Indiana). It would be interesting to see of the results held for the older, less educated individuals who make up a disproportionate share of actual birthers.

The Science 2.0 web site has an article about the study, and I left the following comment there (the only one so far):

Birthers on average are less educated and older than the persons selected for the study here. It certainly would be interesting to see how folks of another generation and outside universities respond.

Probably the most interesting result to me was that political affiliation didn’t affect the results, suggesting that partisan filtering was not a factor; however, in order to hear the debunking message, one has to be exposed to it, and the folks who frequent Alex Jones or Atlas Shrugs 2000 are not going to be listening to CNN.


“Life is difficult.”

I hope you don’t do what I did after reading those words from M. Scott Peck’s book, The Road Less Traveled: I stopped reading. The opening sentence of Chapter 1 struck me as so profound at the time that I paused to contemplate it for 30 years, and never got back to the rest of the book, which sits on the shelf unread to this day.

imageSavvy readers might infer from my philosophical tone that I have been mowing grass again, and they would be right. As I mowed, I contemplated something else that I read, just last night, from Loren Collins’ new book, Bullspotting. Loren was commenting on how 9/11 conspiracy theorists frame arguments and said in a section titled Anomaly Hunting:

What Truthers do instead [of providing concrete evidence], and what they do a lot , is try to “poke holes” in the accepted version of the events of 9/11.  This often involves a lot of open-ended questions…

I understand Loren’s point, but it caused me some disquiet because “poking holes” is what I do a lot too. So this article tries to make some distinctions between anomaly hunting the way I do it and the way some birthers do it.

Loren makes one important point about “debunking” and that is the debunker usually approaches questions with his mind made up, and is just trying to prove something he already believes to be bunk actually is. Obviously after 4 years of arguing about Obama’s birthplace, I have made up my mind about where Barack Obama was born, and I do approach every new argument to the contrary with the view that it is bunk. I think, however, with basic integrity and commitment to honesty, plus the methodology of proof I learned as a math student, that honest investigation can be done even by someone somewhat biased. Knowing you’re biased at the start helps compensate. So one difference is that when I make an anomaly argument I take my own admitted bias into consideration.

I’d like to compare and contrast two particular debunking efforts. One deals with my treatment of the fake birth certificate, the so-called Bomford certificate (named from the person named on the source document from which the fake was made). The second deals a popular birther debunking of Barack Obama’s birth certificate, the presence of the word “African.”

When I looked at the Bomford certificate, I noticed that the price listed on the 1964 document form was shown in shillings and pence. That is an anomaly because Kenya used cents and not pence in 1964 (and before and after). The debunking argument goes: “since Kenya used money denominated in cents in 1964, any purported official Kenyan document denominated in pence is a fake.” Government agencies use official currency in their transactions and no objection to this argument has been put forward. The Bomford certificate is a fake. QED.

Many birthers looking at Obama’s birth certificate made an argument: “No official document in 1961 would have used the term ‘African’ as a race, so any purported official document using that term is a fake.” The argument form is the same as mine. The difference is that the premise is false. It was possible to establish from other contemporary birth certificates and a vital statistics data entry manual that national and regional groups could appear on birth certificates, and that black Kenyans considered their race as “African.” Not only is the “official version” plausible, it is exactly what it should be based on this evidence. The difference is that the anomaly in the Bomford Certificate proved decisive based on well-sourced fact, while the alleged anomaly in the Obama certificate didn’t hold up against the facts.

Whenever some new Obama Conspiracy evidence comes forward there is a flurry of activity on the Internet with various people on the “other side” trying to find anomalies, to poke holes in the evidence. We had a world of fun poking holes in the Lucas Smith’s POSFKBC for a year. Most recently, we’ve seen a flurry of anomalies directed at the Peter Rehnquist Obama birth video: Why does the baby have teeth? Why is there so little blood; Why is the flag wrong? [Update: Why is there a 2013 calendar picture on the wall :shock” ?]

What happens over time is that crowd-sourced research on the Internet sorts through the anomalies, separating the plausible from the implausible, from the impossible. New information is found, corner cases are located, and the arguments are tested. In the case of the birth video, that process resulted in an “impossible” verdict quite quickly. It goes: “An image appears in the video that was created in 2005; therefore, any video that claims to be from 1961 with that image is a fake.” QED

As far as I know, the Obama birth video has so many problems that no one except Peter Rehnquist defends it. However, with other evidence regarding Obama’s long-form birth certificate, the birthers have refused to join the consensus, preferring to rely on themselves as sources. There’s no help for that. They don’t admit that they are biased.

Kay on birthers

In an interview with Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, journalist Jonathan Kay, author of Among the Truthers: A Journey through America’s Growing Conspiracist Underground, talks about the the birther movement.

Speaking of Donald Trump, Kay says:

And I actually believe that I don’t think he’s dumb enough to believe these birther conspiracies. I think he was just a clever marketer and figured this would be just a good way to market himself as a presidential candidate.

Kay further speculates why he thinks conspiracy theories have such a prominent place in America.