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 3) 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.