The Situationist

The Situation of Conspiracy and President-Elect Obama’s Origin of Birth

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 9, 2008

obama-childhoodAlex Koppelman of Salon has an interesting piece on the quixotic–and today, courtesy of the U.S. Supreme Court, rejected–claims that Barack Obama was not born a naturalized U.S. citizen, and thus should not be eligible to become President on January 20, 2009.  We excerpt the piece below.

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Barack Obama can’t be president: He wasn’t really born in Hawaii, and the certification of live birth his campaign released is a forgery. He was born in Kenya. Or maybe Indonesia. Or, wait, maybe he was born in Hawaii — but that doesn’t matter, since he was also a British citizen at birth because of his father, and you can’t be a “natural-born citizen” in that case. (But then, maybe his “father” wasn’t really his father; maybe his real dad was an obscure communist poet. Or Malcolm X.

You might think these rumors would have died off after Obama produced proof in June that he was, in fact, born in Hawaii to an American citizen, his mother, Ann, or after Hawaii state officials confirmed in October that he was born there. You might think the rumors would have died off after he was elected by a comfortable margin. Instead, they’ve intensified. There have been paid advertisements in the Chicago Tribune questioning the president-elect’s birth certificate and eligibility, and one group is raising money to run a similar ad on television. The right-wing Web site WorldNetDaily has been reporting on the issue almost nonstop. Numerous plaintiffs have filed lawsuits in various states. And Friday, the Supreme Court’s nine justices will decide whether they want to hear one of those suits, which also contends that John McCain, born in the former Panama Canal Zone, does not meet the Constitution’s requirements to hold the presidency.obama-bush

The people hoping this is a sign the court will agree with them and stop Obama from becoming president are almost certain to be let down. The fact that the case has gone to conference doesn’t mean anything about its merits — the court will also be deciding whether to take up a number of other cases, and the chances that the suit will actually be heard is exceedingly small. Eugene Volokh, a law professor at UCLA, has calculated that over the past eight years the court has considered in conference 842 cases that sought a stay. Only 60 of them were actually heard. Seven hundred and eighty-two were denied.

But that doesn’t matter. The faux controversy isn’t going to go away soon. Yes, Obama was born in Hawaii, and yes, he is eligible to be president. But according to several experts in conspiracy theories, and in the psychology of people who believe in conspiracy theories, there’s little chance those people who think Obama is barred from the presidency will ever be convinced otherwise. “There’s no amount of evidence or data that will change somebody’s mind,” says Michael Shermer, who is the publisher of Skeptic magazine and a columnist for Scientific American, and who holds an undergraduate and a master’s degree in psychology. “The more data you present a person, the more they doubt it … Once you’re committed, especially behaviorally committed or financially committed, the more impossible it becomes to change your mind.”

Any inconvenient facts are irrelevant. People who believe in a conspiracy theory “develop a selective perception, their mind refuses to accept contrary evidence,” Chip Berlet, a senior analyst with Political Research Associates who studies such theories, says. “As soon as you criticize a conspiracy theory, you become part of the conspiracy.”

Evan Harrington, a social psychologist who is an associate professor at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, agrees. “One of the tendencies of the conspiracy notion, the whole appeal, is that a lot of the information the believer has is secret or special,” Harrington says. “The real evidence is out there, [and] you can give them all this evidence, but they’ll have convenient ways to discredit [it].”

Whatever can’t be ignored can be twisted to fit into the narrative; every new disclosure of something that should, by rights, end the controversy only opens up new questions, identifies new plotters. Perhaps the most common argument of those questioning Obama’s eligibility is that he should just release his full, original birth certificate, rather than the shorter certification, which is a copy. His failure to do so only proves there is reason to be suspicious, they say, and if the document was released, the issue would go away. But that’s unlikely. It was, after all, the Obama campaign’s release of the certification this summer that stoked the fever of conspiracy mongers.

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For the rest of the piece, click here.  For other posts on the various conspiracies about Barack Obama, including the belief that he is un-American or, worse, the Anti-Christ, click here.

2 Responses to “The Situation of Conspiracy and President-Elect Obama’s Origin of Birth”

  1. Tage Rai said

    Your post discusses how the problem of conspiracy theorists is that they refuse to accept contradictory evidence. But this presupposes that there is some sort of pool of data out there that all of us examine and from which everyone comes to the same conclusions except conspiracy theorists. But all of us seek to create tight, coherent, narratives, and all of us ignore, forget, etc. evidence that we cannot account for (all might be a strong word there, let’s say most Americans). And in most domains, we don’t study the evidence ourselves, we simply trust the source, whether that be people in authority (such as the master’s degree guy you mentioned), the consensus of everyone else, or our own intuitions. So for ex., what do you think would happen if someone presented evidence that didn’t make sense in the context of our beliefs about evolution (my guess is most of us believe in it strongly, but don’t really understand it in great detail)? In all likelihood, our prior beliefs about evolution would lead us to see the evidence as more ambiguous than it is (e.g. that fossil could be something else), we would assume that there is something wrong w/the data, we would question the trustworthiness of the source, and ultimately we would probably forget or discard the data if we can’t integrate it into our narrative. This is probably what conspiracy theorists do (disclaimer-I don’t study conspiracy theorists), they just have different entering theories (based on different entering ‘evidence’). So the real question is not why can’t conspiracy theorists accept contradictory evidence (none of us are good at that). Instead, when conspiracy theorists are generating their theories, why do they rely on different authority figures, consensus among a different group of people, and have a different set of intuitions than the rest of us do, esp. since their choices puts them in the minority on each front, something most of us are not psychologically comfortable with?

  2. […] The Situationist discusses the situation of conspiracy theories, and the psychology of people who text while driving  […]

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