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.
“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 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.