Fast Company

How To Make Skeptics Believe Obama's Birth Certificate Is Authentic

Birth certificate, schmirth certificate. The Yale Cultural Recognition Project's theory suggests that die-hard birthers will hold firm to their political philosophies in the face of incontrovertible evidence--until they're given a way to save face.

Birther poster

Anyone eager to confront genuine issues plaguing the nation--from staunch lefties to sober leaders on the political right--got a moment of respite today with the release of President Barack Obama's birth certificate. But the moment quickly passed. Despite even far-right conservative leaders such as Arizona Governor Jan Brewer condemning so-called "birthers" over their heartfelt belief that Obama was born outside of the U.S., the most hardcore of them are still unmoved by the very document they've demanded to see.

How could this be?

Psychologists have, in fact, known for a while that skeptics will harden their existing conspiracy theories in the face of contradicting evidence. But here's how to knock your Trump-loving uncle back on his heels during the next family gathering, courtesy of the Yale Cultural Cognition Project--it's produced compelling techniques on the science of getting people to believe facts.

The techniques boil down to allowing partisans to maintain their political philosophy in the midst of accepting new facts. For instance, for "small government" conservatives, or what the YCC calls "individualists," it's strategically important to highlight the power of competition and the ineptitude of government. Namely, "Obama's rightful fear of losing in the 2012 election forced him to come clean with his birth certificate, though this is just another illustration that government can't do things in the timely manner."

Each type of conservative philosophy will need its own justification. Join us as we take a deep dive into the psychological rabbit hole of rationalization and a potential end to the birth-certificate conspiracy.

Rationalization

"A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point," wrote Psychology legend Leon Festinger, who popularized the study of rationalization. Festinger was among the first to prove that values and ego precede opinion by manipulating undergraduates into personally believing that they enjoyed playing a boring game after being tricked into lying to their peers about the game's appeal for only $1. Undergraduates unwittingly rewrote their own memories of the experience rather than believe their integrity could be purchased for a buck.

The precursor to many of the most fascinating studies on the rationalization of evidence was based on basketball fans, not political ideologues. Students from rival colleges were shown a video of a recent contentious game and asked to count which team made more fouls. As predicted, both schools blamed the rival team, even though they were watching the exact same footage.

As the egoistic stakes are even higher in politics, so too is the trench of rationalization. For instance, when pro- and anti-death-penalty partisans were asked to rate the reliability of two scientific studies [PDF], one supporting their beliefs and the other opposing, each group was all too quick to criticize the contradicting study, even though both were, from a scientific perspective, equally methodologically sound.

Skeptics "retrieve thoughts that are consistent with their previous beliefs," said Professor Charles Taber to Mother Jones, "and that will lead them to build an argument and challenge what they're hearing."

The Solution

The potentially catastrophic stakes of disbelief regarding climate change motivated professor Dan Kahan to investigate how to open the minds of political partisans to the judgment of scientific experts (for a less academic explanation, see the second-to-last paragraph here). Kahan on his colleagues at the Yale Cultural Cognition Project discovered two key points. First, it was more accurate to split the overreaching stereotype of "conservative" into its two competing ideologies, "individualists" and "authoritarians" (liberals have their own ideological camps, too).

This not only better reflected the ongoing civil war between militant, cultural conservatives and the "leave us alone" libertarians, but better characterized the tenets of each ideology (for a well-researched look at how individualists view authoritarians, check out Leviathan on the Right).

Second, pro-environmental issues were more palatable to each group if it was framed in a way that supported an existing ideology. For instance, nuclear industry deregulation was an appealing pro-market solution for its implicit dig at government incompetence.

The upshot: tackling an ideology is unwieldy, but issues are far more transient and have less emotional investment.

The science of tackling birthers

Unless ideological values are taken into consideration, conspiracy counter-claims against Obama's birth certificate will be resurrected with a Voldemort-like persistence. Trump is already claiming the document should be inspected for authenticity.

Individualists, at their core, are protectors of choice. Free-market competition is the preferred economic ecosystem because it preserves unencumbered freedom. Their idol, best-selling author Ayn Rand, was famous for a philosophy that condemned moral obligation, fearing that the logical outcome was a dictatorial nanny-state; as such, individualists have a deep-seated fear of government, which almost by definition, coerces citizens into collective action for the greater good.

Thus, the anti-conspiracy individualist recipe should probably be composed of equal parts competition and distrust of government. As mentioned above, a sound conservative talking point might be:

"Obama's rightful fear of losing in the 2012 election forced him to come clean with his birth certificate, though this is just another illustration that government can't do things in the timely manner."

Indeed, an airtight government cover-up of Obama's birthplace would require the government to be astoundingly effective, a clear contradiction of the claim that bureaucracies are inept.

Authoritarians, on the other hand, hold an abiding trust in hierarchy, favor use of force in solving problems (especially military), and prefer to respect the office of the presidency, which holds a unique role as the leader.

Vice President Dick Cheney, one of the most powerful representatives of this ideology in a generation, was famous for supporting legislation that increased the power of the executive office, regardless of which party was in power.

Similarly, John Bolton, fellow at the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute, has been upset because Obama refuses to enact policies that give America its rightful exception as leader of the world. "There's not that much difference between me and the people who want a world where no government has nuclear weapons" he told Jon Stewart. "I only want one government to have nuclear weapons" (start at 7:38).

For this group, it might be wise to run with the fact that at least one American solider has refused to follow orders because he believed that commands were delegated from an illegitimate president. An argument might go something like, "Obama's absent birth certificate weakened his leadership in the eyes of doubtful soldiers. Now that the executive office has released the document, we can concentrate once again on defending our nation." Ousting America's leader is a deeply revolutionary concept, one that authoritarians should be wary of in light of two ongoing wars.

The ironic part is that the process of convincing skeptics with science is more of an art, a creative contortion of research, public policy, and 24-hour news lexicon. Persuasion is more about allowing individuals to save face than an open-minded investigation for the truth.

Of course, not everyone will be convinced. "Birther queen" Orly Taitz has already expressed doubts because the certificate should say "Negro," not "African." She can join the 18% of Americans who still believe the sun revolves around the Earth.

Follow Greg Ferenstein on Twitter. Also follow Fast Company on Twitter.

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27 Comments

  • Bensa Magos

    The Birther movement was officially moved from the far-right to the center with the publication of "The Seven Clones of Barack Obama"

  • Glenn P Chickering

    a snapshot of a birth certificate is not proof unser the law the original or certified copy is required, I gave a original from the hospital was informed it is a decoration not proof why should president be granted more leway then anyone else???????

  • Aaron

    I am not sure if Skeptic is the right label for these people. Skeptics, authentic ones, respond to evidence as witnessed within the fields of science. This is something utterly different linked to blind political ideology.

  • Phil Beck

    Is the "solution" really a solution if the movement is fueled by passions more deep-seated and even less logical than than blind political ideology? Nonetheless some minimal concessions are necessary in political discourse. Do you suppose that "Kenyan" was really the gentleman in the photo's first choice of noun to follow "Arrogant"?

  • TurboKitty

    At this point in my life ... this is no longer of any importance to me ... it's a waste of time ... they'll catch up when they've exhausted all their mental capacity to NOT see reason against all reality ... I"m done with their silliness ... especially when I was tagged as part of the "Obama Army" and I carry no weapons on me ever ... these types of people, I believe are just victims of their own juvenile, magical thinking ... hopefully they'll grow up soon and start paying attention to the real issues in America ...

  • Jack Ring

    The article alludes to some factors in buyer psychology that are relevant to fast companies. However, it does not say much about them or give references. It failed to notice that sales of products and services is done one prospect at a time and marketing is not about "do you like us better than you like X?" c.f., the current GREEN bubble. It is about "Do you or will you get more benefit?"
    Now the issue has become, "How to get prospects to believe Fast Company?" Yikes!

  • Goodguy729

    Are you kidding me? Thsi certificate is a complete forgery! I downloaded this Obama birth certificate from the White House site yesterday. Whoever put this document up on the White House site
    forgot or intentionally placed the PDF document "in layers" which can be
    loaded into Adobe Illustrator and de-layered for viewing - layer by layer.
    Each of the layers can be seen with alterations. Grab a copy of the document fast because I believe that when they discover what they did, it will be "flattened" and replaced on the internet - only those that have the original document will be able to see the alterations to the document. If
    it had been flattened before posting - it would have saved them a lot of
    embarrassment.

    Now they have to answer - how a document done in 1961 could have been
    created in layers. It appears that it has been tampered with!

    Want to know more? go to http://www.infowars.com/new-ob... and you will see a very detailed description of how to know this is a FAKE.

  • rollo47

    Fascinating article - ironic that it's prompted comments from some sceptics!

    I think this is very relevant to the entrepreneurial businesses of today which often fight to compete with entrenched old-economy industries and their sceptic-sponsored vested interests (I'm thinking oil industry subsidies).

  • Claude Johnson

    Great article. Thank you for publishing this.

    I also agree with Mike Harmanos' comments below that the principles presented in this article are very valuable for use in marketing and entrepreneurship - especially in trying to get new clients - which is why it is quite relevant for it to appear in Fast Company.

  • WGKIII

    As non birther, I am very disappointed that Fast Company would publish such a position. I always believed this was an publication for aspiring Entrepreneurs and Executives despite political beliefs, like it or not, FC is a capitalistic publication written for a capitalistic audience. I understand the intent and content, but using the birth certificate issue as the article's premise and then depict a picture of Obama's Certificate of Live Birth reflects the Author's ignorance or blatant disregard of the legal difference between the two. One cannot repute this President's unwillingness to release the most basic personal information (birth cert. & school records) that every President before him publicly disclosed voluntarily and without taxpayers revenue to defend public disclosure. Despite the political beliefs, I can objectively say Obama's actions and behavior deserves much skepticism. For a Fast Company to run a article that denounces skepticism on such a slanted subject screams the publication has shockingly lost sight the Entrepreneurism would never exist without a skeptic thinking there is a better way. Ironic how a far left viewpoint such as this often bites the proverbial hand the far left wants to be fed from. In other words, this article was successful in making my subscription skeptical.

    -Written by a Non Birther expecting Integrity and Respect from the Presidential office.

  • Jack Ring

    Clearly a person can believe, sans corroborating evidence, that BHO was born where he said he was. That person needs to disparage all those who hold opposing beliefs. Also, that person needs to flock with like minds. Does Mr. Ferenstein perceive that he is writing about himself?

  • carefreegolfer

    What a leader. He spends millions to keep this under wraps. When it is issued, the photoshop on the background pattern doesn't even curl with the page edge, and it's signed by U Ke Lee? Ukelele? Come on. He should have hired the Russians to doctor this one up a bit better.

    Convince me that you're a leader, Obama, and take action now to get the country more secure. Approve drilling permits for Gulf of Mexico now. Rein in the EPA and allow Shell to drill in Alaska. Mandate that California and the East Coast permit wind farms along their shores. Convert government vehicles to run on natural gas in the next two years. The US is not secure until we can get better control over what we pay for energy. But, then, he doesn't want America to be exceptional.

  • Andrew Krause

    Let's rewrite this story and talk about managerial incompetence. This issue has stewed since long before Obama even had the party nomination for President. It was a direct attack on his credibility and qualifications, and he ignored it and allowed it to fester. Then, and only after the damage is done, he releases it.

    How should it have been handled? Obama should have released this long ago, and through a surrogate. He is the President of the United States, and he is squandering the political capital of the Office addressing a bunch of wingnuts.

  • Jym Allyn

    Why can't we just accept the fact that being a "Birther" is a benchmark for gullibility and stupidity and likely a covert form of bigotry trying to avoid using the "N-word?"

    I have yet to meet a Birther or TeaBagger or ConservaNut that didn't suffer from massive "Fecalis Mentalis" and failed to realize how blind they were to their own biases and irrationality.

    I have yet to meet a Libertarian that would uphold his/her right to free action by urinating in the middle of an intersection.

    However, our Constitution protects us from being stupid as long as we don't act stupid.

    That's why Bozo the Trump is on TV and not holding elective office.

  • Andrew Krause

    It used to be. It's been overrun by politico's who try to turn every story into a left-wing political statement.

    It's sad.

  • Robert Dempsey

    Fantastic article Greg. I was talking with a fellow marketer today about this same psychology - as much as we (people) would like to admit we're rational creatures, our behavior tells a very different story. When our ego is threatened, we fight back, regardless of the irrefutable facts put in front of us. The problem compounds as the definition of "fact" becomes quite distorted by media outlets with their own agendas, easily skewing information one way or another to suit their purpose (we all know this is true not conspiracy theory).

    People believe what they believe, they will fight when their convictions are threatened, and they will bolster themselves and their egos with like-minded individuals. To being to sway that takes quite a bit of psychology.

  • Adolfo Segura

    Very good article! I think it's a pretty good strategy on the Administrations part to do this now, kinda takes the wind out of some peoples sails and makes them think twice about their current beliefs. What angle will they come up with next??? LOL