Agnotology and Santa Claus (updated slightly)

by John Quiggin on May 13, 2011

For students of agnotology there is no more striking finding than the observation that many people, presented with evidence that undermines a strongly held belief, react as if that belief had been confirmed[1]. This seems to undermine any possibility that evidence will ever settle political disputes. And yet, evidence does seem to seep through in the end. Although belief in Saddam’s Weapons of Mass Destruction persisted long after the absence of evidence had turned into clear evidence of absence, it faded away in the end (not that it has completely disappeared even now).

As a slightly more optimistic take on the experimental evidence, I offer the example of Santa Claus. Young children, presented with the suggestion that Santa isn’t real, blithely ignore it. Slightly older children, though, react in exactly the manner of the experimental subjects, reaffirming their belief in the Santa story and (of course) the associated presents. Later, of course, they accept the truth.

In some social contexts children are likely draw the obvious analogy between Santa and God, while in other contexts, the distinction between the two beliefs is maintained successfully. But regardless of context, there is an obvious risk, for those who would like their children to grow up as theists, in insisting too hard on the reality of Santa.

Similarly, I suspect that the apparent success of Republicans in believing six impossible things before breakfast, and in taking up new delusions as old ones are abandoned, may mask an underlying erosion of faith. Birtherism may morph into torturism without any obvious sign of stress, but at some level people must gradually become aware that their political beliefs are more like the faith that belief in Santa will bring presents and less like the belief that kicking a rock will give you a stubbed toe.

fn1. The general phenonomen of confirmation bias (paying attention to evidence that supports your belief and disregarding contradictory evidence) is well established. The first finding of reinforcement Nyhan and Riefler find that Democrats ignore contradictory evidence, while Republicans respond in the way I described. I can’t find the study that supported this. Nyhan and Riefler cite earlier research by Redlawski that I haven’t been able to find.

{ 112 comments }

1

Antonio Conselheiro 05.13.11 at 12:06 pm

A friend of mine, a lawyer, told me that I should quit arguing with dumb people and try to persuade them instead, and that I should use trial lawyers as a model rather than philosophers or social scientists. Trial lawyers often need to assume ignorance, misinformation, and stupidity on the part of their hearers and start from there.

I never thought of that that way, but it rings true. In particular, since issues of trust and mistrust are always there in politics, the spokesman has to establish trust with the audience before his words will be effective. Conservatives characteristically have a complete mistrust for liberals (including what we would call centrists) in government, education, the churches, and the media, . The mistrust is culture-based more than class-based, the outcome of 60 years of pluralist cultural politics.

Political movements are normally built by persuasive orators and editorialists of one sort or another. (Leninism might be an exception, since he regarded his party to be a group of professional expert and controlled it by winning arguments. But Leninism is not usually regarded as a favorable model any more.)

I’ve spent a fair amount of time studying the independent populist, progressive, and radical movements in the American Middle West, and probably a majority of the leaders of those groups were either trial lawyers, preachers, or newspaper editors, often with training in debate or declamation.

2

CharleyCarp 05.13.11 at 1:34 pm

Some people like to use battle metaphors for trials, but that’s just because they like to think of themselves as macho he-men. I prefer to compare going to trial to putting on a musical. Where you want the spectators humming your overture during intermission, and joining in the singalong section at the end.

3

J. Otto Pohl 05.13.11 at 1:38 pm

The ignoring of contradictory evidence and taking up of new delusions was generally associated with the radical left in the 20th century. The denial of Stalin’s crimes by various fellow travellers was followed by the various new strains of the New Left proclaiming China or Cuba as the new utopia. Such political movements seem to have largely died out in the US and European Union. Even in American and British academia there has been a recent wave of literature critical of Stalin and Mao.

In Russia and some other parts of the former USSR, however, Stalin has been almost fully rehabilitated in recent years not by denying his crimes, but by embracing them. I find this third option to be the one with the most staying power since it does not involve denying any facts. It is the equivalent of neo-Nazis going from Holocaust denial to embracing the Holocaust as a good thing precisely because it was a systematic genocide against Jews. There is no falsehood to maintain.

4

Ray 05.13.11 at 1:58 pm

“Conservatives characteristically have a complete mistrust for liberals…”

Because liberals keep telling them things that can’t possibly be true.

5

Antonio Conselheiro 05.13.11 at 2:02 pm

But Glenn Beck also tells them things that can’t possibly be true, and many of them believe him. Rush Limbaugh likewise, and with a larger audience. Trust comes first, and is not the result of proven accuracy.

The pitfall is trust is that if you trust without knowing how to verify, you’re the natural prey of anyone with an honest face and a nice schmooze. Trusting people are also suspicious people.

6

Pub Editor 05.13.11 at 2:25 pm

Well, I was going to say something about Stalin and Ukraine and Western intellectuals and The God that Failed, but I see that J. Otto Pohl has already said it better.

7

Antonio Conselheiro 05.13.11 at 2:31 pm

Not As Bad as Stalin is the new standard, I guess. How much revenge stupidity will we have to suffer as penance before Walter Duranty will finally be definitively sent down to Hell forever?

8

alph 05.13.11 at 2:42 pm

Before chanting the tiresome “but the left does it too!”‘ please consider orders of magnitude.

What percentage of the people who voted for Humphrey or McGovern were “denying Stalin’s crimes” or claiming that China or Cuba were utopias? One percent? Or more like one tenth of one percent?

Now, what percent of voters for Bush or McCain were denying that Obama is a regular US citizen?

Over fifty-one percent in February.

Blind denials of reality have been an occasional but extremely rare disease on the American left. They are a way of life for over half of the contemporary right.

The numbers just do not even compare.

9

someguy 05.13.11 at 2:49 pm

Antonio Conselheiro,

Yes but those are the things they want to hear. They want to believe that tax cuts are magic. They don’t want to believe that handing 50% their income over to Ezra Klein et al to light on fire would be good for everyone including them.

So, they are 1/2 right, which is what we should expect.

Who doesn’t want to believe in Santa Claus?

10

Jared 05.13.11 at 2:49 pm

CharleyCarp — that is brilliant.

11

Theophylact 05.13.11 at 2:53 pm

How many millions listen to Limbaugh, O’Reilly and Beck? As long as major Republican figures hold up Ward Churchill and Noam Chomsky as representative of liberal Democrats, most of whom have never heard of either, the comparisons will remain stupid.

12

Antonio Conselheiro 05.13.11 at 3:00 pm

*”They don’t want to believe that handing 50% their income over to Ezra Klein et al to light on fire would be good for everyone including them.”*

Does not compute.

13

dbk 05.13.11 at 3:01 pm

Those in whom primordial fear can be aroused will (a) believe pretty much anything to alleviate primal terror, and (b) cling to such terr0r-alleviating beliefs even in the face of reality-based evidence to the contrary – thus argumentation, which is basically the appeal to reason (the brain’s higher cognitive centers), is ineffective.

Fear leads to people believing in many realistically-impossible things, and Santa’s a good example here, too. A famous song goes “He knows when you are sleeping/ He knows when you’re awake/ He knows when you’ve been bad or good/ So be GOOD for goodness’ sake!” (veiled threat to the little ones “Be good [or else]” in light of St. Nick’s divine omniscience).

14

b9n10nt 05.13.11 at 3:08 pm

A modern capitalist society more and more dislocates its participants from community. One of the principle functions of community is to drastically limit the mental disease of deciding, moment to moment, what one is to do. Norms are set, guilt trips are laid, and for most of us the existential moments of terror (“do I dare eat a peach”) are limited to brief moments of genuine freedom (“genuine” here is opposition to a more artificial choice between a few, pre-chosen, options).

As an aside, we should see that the more affluent a society, the more room there is for individual choice. And in our capitalist society, the more the affluence is coupled with a loss of community that can limit choice. Pouring salt on the wound, as it were. Which is all to argue that we should expect the recurring ideological totalitarianisms to provide great succor to more of us.

Agnotologies are but one means to signal remote community-membership in diffuse neighborhoods where other forms of social interaction either do not exist or fail to narrow the existential choices that we must face. They cause, by definition, a weakening of reason but also strengthing of identity. They are not the whole shebang, and in fact they are ideological in-fill giving evidence that, while modern sociey does much to forge a well-adjusted sense of self, modern societies do not go far enough in this regard.

15

CJColucci 05.13.11 at 3:10 pm

Twenty-six Christmases ago, I sent out cards with a sinister-looking Santa: “He knows when you are sleeping/ He knows when you’re awake/ He knows when you’ve been bad or good,” opening up to “Merry Christmas, 1984.”

16

Antonio Conselheiro 05.13.11 at 3:14 pm

Liberal hatred (see #4 and #9, and maybe #3 and #6) is the main motive behind a lot of the denial. If a liberal says it, it must not be true.

Liberal forms of argument tend to reinforce the liberal-hatred. It may be that people skilled at arguing tend to be liberal, and because of their skill also tend to be able to win arguments even when their case is weak. Thus, arguing with conservatives is futile since it feeds the original mistrust.

In the same way, liberals often seem happy to prove themselves right by winning the argument (while losing the political battle), since the main goal can simply be proving one’s superiority to those fucking moron conservatives. This is one of the origins of the anti-elitist resentment, which is one of the main motives of teapartiers, and is not usually based on class or income, but on status. It’s like liberals are the HS teachers flunking the conservatives one more time, or the A students snickering at the C students.

I play both sides of the line and do own my share of sneering, but as Charley says above, liberals to replace the ways of refutation with the ways of persuasion.

17

J. Otto Pohl 05.13.11 at 3:22 pm

I am not sure what point alph is trying to make other than a partisan defense of the Democratic party. Since it was not the target of my post it seems rather misplaced. I was instead speaking of leading left intellectuals and journalists such as Duranty. The people in the US that denied Stalin’s crimes were largely gone by the late 1960s except for a later wave of revisionist academics. Here I am talking about people like J. Arch Getty, Robert Thurston or to be more recent Mark Tauger not Ward Churchill or Noam Chomsky both of whose writings are quite hostile to the USSR. Whatever else his faults Churchill’s _A Little Matter of Genocide_ condemns the USSR in terms similar to those used by Robert Conquest. The people looking to Mao and Castro hated Humphrey and McGovern. The Weathermen were not supporters of the Democratic Party. That was not my point.

But, I will note that the number of people that think Stalin was the greatest political leader ever is in the tens of millions. The interesting fact is that they mostly live in Russia and Central Asia not the US and they do not generally deny Stalin’s crimes. Instead they mostly support Stalin because of his crimes, especially those against troublesome national groups like the Volga Germans, Chechens, Crimean Tatars, and Meskhetian Turks. This I find interesting as well as disturbing.

18

ed 05.13.11 at 3:41 pm

“For students of agnotology there is no more striking finding than the observation that many people, presented with evidence that undermines a strongly held belief, react as if that belief had been confirmed[1]“

That may be true, but it just serves to buttress Jonah’s original point.

19

someguy 05.13.11 at 3:47 pm

Antonio Conselheiro,

“Liberal hatred (see #4 and #9, and maybe #3 and #6) is the main motive behind a lot of the denial. If a liberal says it, it must not be true.”

Umm. You are fing insane. Really. I mean it isn’t a big deal. We are all insane and stupid. Some of us just realize it. But you are blithely clueless regarding your insanity and stupidity.

If conservatives are about 1/2 right that means liberals are about 1/2 right.

That is the logical starting point for us. We just met. You are 1/2 right and I am 1/2 right.

But you think that means I hate liberals. That is insane and stupid. Again not a big deal so am I. The only difference is that I am aware of it.

20

Antonio Conselheiro 05.13.11 at 3:53 pm

Someguy: as I said, your Ezra Klein example made no sense to me.

I don’t grant parity. There’s no law saying that the two sides balance out, and I don’t think that it is true here.

21

someguy 05.13.11 at 4:22 pm

Antonio Conselheiro,

You said my comment was an example of liberal hatred.

“Liberal hatred (see #4 and #9, and maybe #3 and #6) is the main motive behind a lot of the denial. If a liberal says it, it must not be true.”

Now

“as I said, your Ezra Klein example made no sense to me.”

you say you didn’t understand it. If you didn’t understand it, why did you decide it was an example of liberal hatred?

22

Antonio Conselheiro 05.13.11 at 4:36 pm

Because you made up such a bone dumb example of what you thought liberals say. You’d really have to have a lot of animosity to liberals to take something as dumb as that to be a characteristic liberal statement.

23

Walt 05.13.11 at 4:47 pm

If we literally gave half the money to Ezra Klein and he burned it, the main effect would be deflation. Which would be bad, so we shouldn’t do it. I missed where this was a widely-advocated policy on the left, though.

24

PhilC 05.13.11 at 4:50 pm

someguy, So many issues come down to, “Flat earth, some disagree.” False equivancy is very commonplace. For the last year there has been economic debate about issues like the deficit, inflation, bond rate – none of which make the slightest differnce here and now. The data is clear. Who is talking about high unemployment and household debt? So, no. I never assume conservatives are 1/2 right. Isn’t that the point of agnotology, ignoring evidence based conclusions in favor of established beliefs?

25

Don 05.13.11 at 4:53 pm

Many people are impervious to evidence, and as Bob Altemeyer points out, it can be shown empirically that they are more conservative than not.

And yet, since the release of Obama’s long-form birth certificate, a bunch of Republicans have changed their minds about where they think he was born. Surprised me.

26

someguy 05.13.11 at 5:06 pm

Antonio Conselheiro,

But it wasn’t an example of what I think liberals think. In no way shape or form. It really takes a lot of creative reading skills to come to that conclusion.

And it isn’t just me it is maybe 3 and 6. Someone points out that G it isn’t just conervatives that can believe wacky stuff in the face of all kinds of evidence and you think they maybe hate liberals. I point out that conservatives are 1/2 right and you are sure I hate liberals.

27

Antonio Conselheiro 05.13.11 at 5:19 pm

Someguy, I retract my statement that you are a liberalhater. I have no idea what the fuck your point is. It would take creative reading skills to get much of anything at all out of your posts. I surrender.

28

Bruce 05.13.11 at 5:34 pm

And what percentage of Dems still hold to the discredited notion that “Gore won the election”?

People are ready to believe anything that will de-legitimize the other side of the aisle.

29

Barry Freed 05.13.11 at 5:39 pm

Most. Disappointing. Crooked Timber thread. Ever.

30

someguy 05.13.11 at 5:48 pm

Antonio Conselheiro,

Minus any evidence [actually in the face of contrary evidence] you had absolutely no problem believing.

You retracted your statment [changed your belief] which is way more than most people would have done. Good. Sadly you still felt the need to insult and belittle me.

All sorts of people of all sorts of political affliations believe all sorts of wacky stuff and continue to believe it in the face of all kinds of evidence and it isn’t just because they trust the people telling them the wacky stuff. They want to believe the wacky stuff. Who wants to die? Who wants to get taxed? Who doesn’t want to believe in Santa Claus?

31

chris 05.13.11 at 6:03 pm

If conservatives are about 1/2 right that means liberals are about 1/2 right.

So you’re actually David Broder? Is there some kind of reward for discovering your secret identity?

Umm. You are fing insane. Really. I mean it isn’t a big deal. We are all insane and stupid. Some of us just realize it. But you are blithely clueless regarding your insanity and stupidity.

Sadly you still felt the need to insult and belittle me.

The fact that these two quotes are from the same person on the same thread pretty much speaks for itself.

You can call people insane and stupid (at least, unless Our Hosts object, and then you have to go get your own blog on which to do so) and it’s not that far outside ordinary Internet norms of discourse. Or you can try to appoint yourself the Civility Police. Doing both at once makes you look ridiculous.

Who wants to get taxed?

Oliver Wendell Holmes, if I recall correctly.

Many people, not just Holmes, believe that paying taxes is for a reason, just like going to the dentist, and you actually are better off being part of a tax-paying country than not; taxes may be unpleasant considered in isolation, but in isolation is a dumb way to consider them (again, just like visits to the dentist).

Similarly, people who don’t want to die may still think it’s good for them to believe that they will die, and not delude themselves with myths that have no basis in fact, however emotionally appealing those myths may be.

Motivated cognition is a powerful force, but there’s no a priori reason to expect it that it *must* be evenly distributed, and the evidence shows that it isn’t. So why believe that it is? Unless that’s just what you want to believe?

32

Chaz 05.13.11 at 7:04 pm

“Someguy, I retract my statement that you are a liberalhater. I have no idea what the fuck your point is. It would take creative reading skills to get much of anything at all out of your posts. I surrender.”

Heh. I was going to tease you that you should quit arguing with dumb people and try to persuade them instead, like some person said upthread, and then I realized that person was you! :p Awesome advice but tough to follow.

33

someguy 05.13.11 at 7:05 pm

chris,

Not really. A lot of context has been stripped away.

But I certainly don’t want to give the impression that I am not blithely unaware of my own insanity and stupidity. If I did it was only because I was trying to help Antonio Conselheiro. I am pretty sure I am unaware of all the ways I am stupid and insane.

What evidence?

34

Antonio Conselheiro 05.13.11 at 7:27 pm

Chaz, at CT you argue. I’m on the nasty side of the line here.

35

Antonio Conselheiro 05.13.11 at 7:49 pm

Someguy, I apparently missed your point. That’s all I can say.

36

Geoffrey 05.13.11 at 9:19 pm

If I may . . . Someguy, like Antonio, I think your 1/2 right starting point is mistaken. On the other hand, I’m not sure that’s the point of the post in general, nor should it be. I consider myself to the left of the American center, but I am not doctrinaire about it. I write a little blog, and my MO is to let facts be facts. If, for example, recent history has shown that the Republican Party is not to be trusted with power because they pretty much destroy everything, that isn’t ideological or partisan. It is our reality. At the same time, it is evident that the President and major Dems do not have the ability to confront the demands of the Republican Party to adhere to their fabulist notions of reality, and they, too, shouldn’t be trusted with power. Yet, our current historical moment demands leadership, which we are receiving from neither.

This position is born out by facts, not ideological bias. I do not argue with people who come along and say things that are demonstrably false. I usually point and laugh. I realize that isn’t constructive, and it keeps my comment threads small. All the same, it is far better than saying, repeatedly, “The sky is blue.”

The insistence that reality is other than it actually is – Obama is a Kenyan Marxist-Muslim, tax cuts raise revenue, trees cause air pollution – is the source of our ills. For me, the only solution is to call it what it is, and move on.

37

Macander 05.13.11 at 10:02 pm

@Antonio Conselheiro

“A friend of mine, a lawyer, told me that I should quit arguing with dumb people and try to persuade them instead, and that I should use trial lawyers as a model rather than philosophers or social scientists. Trial lawyers often need to assume ignorance, misinformation, and stupidity on the part of their hearers and start from there.”

Ah, correct me if I’m wrong, but what generally concerns trial lawyers is winning their cases in front of the court. After all, it’s good for business. If they assume “ignorance, misinformation, and stupidity on the part of their hearers” why should they be concerned with the truth and potentially inconvenient ephemera like evidence and corroboration? Presumably, a good trial lawyer is by definition a good rhetorician and can persuasively bullshit with the best of them.

It could furthermore be argued that the fact you allowed yourself to be persuaded of the validity of your friend the lawyer’s metaphor rather undermines your own argument.

The thing is, when dealing with phenomena in the real world (global warming, say, or birth certificates), the reality-based community needs to keep their eye on the ball (i.e., the facts) rather than the bullshit, otherwise they run the risk of becoming, in the famous phrase, “inebriated with the exuberance of [their] own verbosity”, and as detached from the world as it is (not to mention as unhinged) as their opponents.

I was going to make a snide comment to effect that (trial) lawyers as a breed are (willfully and selectively) ignorant, misinformed, and stupid (not to mention mendacious and arrogant), but that would be a puerile and inaccurate generalization. So I won’t. Please ignore that statement, Your Honour.

38

b9n10nt 05.13.11 at 10:54 pm

Geoffrey @ 36:

The insistence that reality is other than it actually is – Obama is a Kenyan Marxist-Muslim, tax cuts raise revenue, trees cause air pollution – is the source of our ills.

I rather think Agnotology is a symptom of a largely untreatable social ill: alienation. Beliefs are signifiers of group identity. You can adopt a belief and instantly feel oneself to be part of a larger, imagined community. And you can then in fact be part of a larger community. It’s so cheap!

Reality-based beliefs are at a polemical disadvantage here. We can’t ask our in-group to believe things that are politically useful but patently untrue without an intense contradiction as to the basis of our in-group. Metaphysical or tautalogical ideologies (“property-rights = freedom”) are at no such disadvantage. They need not develope to such an extent the discipline and humility that are the intellectual aspirations of our in-group.

On the other hand, right wing political Agnotology is at long-term disadvantage exactly because, as John Quiggin implies, these are people who also believe in science and reason where it suits them. So they reach this equilibrium between fantasy and fact that allows them maintain a grip on reality.

39

TonyD 05.13.11 at 11:20 pm

Given that this type of reaction is a characteristic of people — with an associated probability distribution for the trait in the population — wouldn’t it make sense to test people for this trait? Perhaps we should test everybody, with an associated case study based curriculum so that they can at least understand how this impacts their life and our society.

Just as we test school bus drivers for drugs, I would think that it serves the public interest to know how our politicians react to disconfirming data.

40

Geoffrey 05.13.11 at 11:38 pm

b9n10nt@38 – I dislike the phrase “reality-based community” if for no other reason it arrogates to some the peculiar idea that we, and we alone, have access to reality, exactly the gnostic tendency we find in those who adhere, against any and all available evidence, to false ideas. Since agnotology is impervious to evidence, best neither to argue with it nor treat it as something other than what it is – fabulism. Alienation? Again, that seem to arrogate to some no alienation, which is hardly the case.

I have encountered a right-winger who has, on a sidebar on his blog, a list of 25 “truths” about “liberals”, which are, individually and collectively, self-contradictory. It would be impossible, under normal circumstances, to adhere to any single one of these “truths”, let alone hold all of them together, and function. Yet, as a jumping-off point for the inane back-and-forth on the internet, it certainly is a time-saver if one believes, for example, that liberals believe the opposite of anything they profess (which would mean, inter alia, that they are actually right-wingers, I suppose).

The subject of agnotology is interesting, to say the least; when I have written about it, I tend to be accused of being a subscriber to it, by folks who believe that tax cuts increase public revenue, that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, on and on. The only way to deal intelligently, maturely with this kind of thing is ignore it. Rather than claim adherence in some opposed, “reality-based” group, it is far better to just carry on.

41

Michael 05.14.11 at 12:00 am

I apologize for the preponderance of subjective quoting in my reply, but the need for uncertainty will hopefully be self-evident.

The word fraught with peril at the beginning of this argument is undoubtedly “evidence.” If we are to assume that the function of belief is simply to provide a temporary rational framework that allows for further exploration, a potential hypothesis that will suffice in lieu of relevent information, then we completely ignore the fact that belief’s framework can be used for very irrational reasons and impulses. We make a Nobel mistake and assume the products we develop will only be used in accordance to our wishes, not in accordance to the desires of the individual so inclined.

As such, the “evidence” that so convinces a man who uses belief as a rational, logical framework abuts against the man who uses belief (and belief is an equal-opportunity provider of frameworks) to abut a fundamentally irrational framework. Furthermore, even the man who professes to have a belief based on empirical or subjective “evidence” can only accept the evidence insomuch as their belief system has a margin of error to do so. To the extent that beliefs and belief systems are not created to allow for error or must accept a level of irrationality/unknown in order for them to exist is what allows them to deny evidence and evidentiary conclusion in the first place. Belief, in other words, injects the mathematical equivalent of a variable into what would otherwise be a numerical equation.

And the very undetermined nature of that variable works to promote contrary conclusions set forth in the hypothesis of even true belief systems. If “evidence” can be used to refute a false belief system, then the same umbrella of evidence can be used to refute a true belief system, Nobel’s dynamite being thrown back at us, which in turn calls into question how much authority “evidence” can bear on a belief in the first place. I cannot include the proposition of “false evidence” used to support a false belief system without thus calling into question the evidence I myself bring to the table to support a “true” belief system. There is no belief system that cannot undermine itself, there is no gun that cannot shoot the one holding it.

42

Antonio Conselheiro 05.14.11 at 12:45 am

Macander: “If they assume “ignorance, misinformation, and stupidity on the part of their hearers” why should they be concerned with the truth and potentially inconvenient ephemera like evidence and corroboration? “

In fact, of course, lawyers (like politicians, good and bad) often do sneak invalid arguments past the jury. But another thing they can do is remedy ignorance with facts, correct misinformation, and explain things carefully to the stupid. The alternative is to explain things to the jury as if they were smart and well- and accurately informed, and then complain about them after you lose.

In other words, convincing the actually existing jury is the lawyer’s job.

The rest of your post is just silly. You seem to think that you really zinged me, and you just had to do your dance of triumph..

43

Antonio Conselheiro 05.14.11 at 12:46 am

After the uprising of the 17th June
The Secretary of the Writers Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

44

b9n10nt 05.14.11 at 1:57 am

Geoffrey,

I would kind of agree with “moving on”. But agnotology isn’t a black hole from which there is no escape. It is merely a pronounced tendency common among those who hold a certain coherent political ideology. Again I think Quiggin is right that certain facts -thinking primarily of global warming – will reveal the denial thereof as a belief in Santa Claus. There will be no public, demonstrative turnabout, but rather a quiet moving on to other topics. And I think we have no certainty that arguing the evidence of AGW won’t hasten this quiet concession.

I recall the line about science progressing one funeral at a time.

Anyway, can you doubt that your identity as a liberal or leftist or what-have-you carries the same sort of psychological benefits as the group-identity as a Reaganite or what-have-them? You don’t dispassionately analyze arguments alone, you also root for the deluded to lose the argument. At least to some degree, no? But we do have to uphold the ideals inherent in our identity-group, also discipline ourselves and humble ourselves to consider the strongest arguments our detractors make. Your own post does just that. So two things are going on here: we are a reality-based community who, in practice, must transcend our desire to win the argument with the desire argue the evidence.

I recall the old line about liberals not being able to take their own side in a fight.

45

Norwegian Guy 05.14.11 at 2:39 am

I don’t think the reason that Stalin has some popularity in Russia is because of a fondness for genocide, but because he lead them to victory in a major war that resulted in the country becoming a superpower. But this isn’t a Russian peculiarity. For instance, Genghis Khan is quite popular in Mongolia. And most Western European countries are celebrating some old, perhaps medieval, rulers. These kings might not have had death tolls of Stalin’s magnitude, but they were often autocratic and murderous despots.

46

Macander 05.14.11 at 3:54 am

@ Antonio Conselheiro (41)

“In fact, of course, lawyers (like politicians, good and bad) often do sneak invalid arguments past the jury. But another thing they can do is remedy ignorance with facts, correct misinformation, and explain things carefully to the stupid. The alternative is to explain things to the jury as if they were smart and well- and accurately informed, and then complain about them after you lose.”

So many assumptions in one brief paragraph …

Let me endeavour to explain. Let me know if I’m going too fast.

My post spoke directly to your initial proposal, which advocated using persuasion (which I undertook to mean rhetoric based on prejudice (the client is innocent, has mitigating circumstances, etc.) rather than argument addressing the available evidence. If the audience (or court) is not familiar with the concepts underpinning the case then the lawyer calls on expert witnesses to explain the evidence and its meaning within the context.

Please note:

(1) The lawyer is not an expert witness: it is the expert witness’ job to deliver an interpretation of the evidence; the lawyer’s job is to spin the interpretation in their client’s favour. Generally speaking, only one of these people delivers unalloyed enlightenment to the benighted jury, and it ain’t the lawyer.

(2) It is unclear from your casual use of the pejorative ‘dumb’ whether the people are unintelligent (and incapable of learning) or simply uninformed (but capable of and interested in learning); however it is typical that a lawyer would want to confuse two distinct concepts in front of a jury if it suits the case being argued. Needless to say this deliberate confusion doesn’t help the uninformed become informed.

(3) Arguing the meaning and potential outcomes of real-world para-human phenomena, based on evidence that is being constantly being gleaned, evaluated, and interpreted, bears very little resemblance to arguing for or against a violation of a reasonably straightforward set of rules in front of the arbiter(s) of those rules.

Therefore your lawyer-friend’s metaphor doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Hence my second paragraph, which I assume you took as the ‘zing’.

“The rest of your post is just silly. You seem to think that you really zinged me, and you just had to do your dance of triumph..”

As for my ‘victory dance’, as you so quaintly put it, I can only assume that you are referring to my distinctly laywerly trick of misdirection, which dissuaded you from further addressing the issues I raised. Your prejudice (that my argument was silly) remained intact. Which rather proves the point of my post.

In brief, if you address people intelligently citing facts and arguing rationally, then those who are ameanable to argument can be swayed and deliver a verdict or course of action based on reality. The rest, the ‘dumb’ let us say, are admittedly beyond rational argument, but equally you risk losing them to an opponent who has a glibber tongue than you (there’s always someone stronger, smarter …), and furthermore they are in no position to help look for a way forward.

Smart, glib, charismatic lawyers and law-makers got us into this mess. Personally I’d rather rely on the expert witnesses to illumine the ways out of it.

47

Janus Daniels 05.14.11 at 4:28 am

“… I can’t find the study that supported this.”
Permit me to assist:
Why the Facts Don’t Matter in Politics : The Frontal Cortex 2010 December 09 Thursday
“… Thirty-four percent of conservatives told only about the Bush administration’s claims thought Iraq had hidden or destroyed its weapons before the U.S. invasion, but 64 percent of conservatives who heard both claim and refutation thought that Iraq really did have the weapons. The refutation, in other words, made the misinformation worse…”
http://scienceblogs.com/cortex/2008/09/why_the_facts_dont_matter_in_p.php
The result duplicates earlier work by Altmeyer in his The Authoritarians:
http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/

48

Charles St. Pierre 05.14.11 at 5:21 am

I am currently examining the idea that belief affects reality. Not all the way in all things of course, but that reality, the reality of the world, bends to some degree to support a person’s individual belief. This would be more the case in say, the existence or non-existence of God, than say, the inevitability of climate change, where the thermometer will read the same for all, what ever you might believe. If this is the case, then different people literally live in (sometimes very) different worlds. A Theist would live in a world where God existed. An Atheist would live in one where God did not. Though both live in the ‘same’ world.

This does imply that the world is inconsistent, that is, any explanation based on a finite set of assumptions, supported by any finite amount of evidence, is simply inadequate to explain it.

Another conclusion is that believing the above is true would make it ‘more’ true, at least to some extent. What extent? Well, that would depend on how much you believed it…

49

bad Jim 05.14.11 at 5:32 am

I’m not nearly as optimistic as Quiggin about the eventual triumph of sense, at least in the United States, where the vast majority never outgrow their childhood belief in God. The right wing seems about as crazy now as it was back in the 60’s, when my congressman raved about barefoot Africans training in Cuba for an invasion of the U.S. Perhaps this happens whenever there’s a Democrat in the White House.

Few people actually arrive at their beliefs by a process of reasoning. Advertisers know this, which is why commercials show silly narratives which merely associate the use of their products with wonderfully desirable results.

We can easily accommodate any number of mutually contradictory narratives, and a surprising number of people, including opinion leaders, exhibit no deeper thinking and no preference for consistence. Keeping their narratives compatible with those of their neighbors is a paramount concern, though, which is why the Very Serious People supported the invasion of Iraq despite the demonstrated falsehood of its justifications.

Might it be that Birtherism evaporated with the news of bin Laden’s death? After all, the long form birth certificate told us nothing we didn’t already know, while the killing of America’s worst enemy is proof by itself that our president is a Real American, a much more gratifying narrative.

50

Walt 05.14.11 at 5:52 am

Geoffrey: The phrase “reality-based community” is a kind of joke, ever since an anonymous Bush administration official called liberals the “reality-based community” as a mockable weakness.

51

Chris Bertram 05.14.11 at 7:22 am

Part of the trouble is, I think, that the right-wing talk show people (and I don’t mean just in the US) have little serious competition in supplying a political narrative to ordinary people. We (the left broadly construed) are very bad at explaining ourselves and those that try in the media often talk over the heads of their audience and/or are concerned with pleasing their existing constituency (of wonks, nerds, liberals, the people in the UK who read the Guardian …)

Does Krugman every get listened to by anyone who doesn’t already have a college degree? I doubt it. Does Beck? Of course. John, your Zombie Economics is a great book, but how to get its message to people who aren’t predisposed to agree with it?

Back whenever, a least in some countries, we had political parties and trade unions that performed the necessary task of political education. Now that mass politics hardly exists, and the leaderships of parties are dominated by a very narrow social group.

(On all of which subject, see also the recent UK AV referendum, where the No campaign successfully appealed to Labour’s core base whilst the Yes group – composed of wonks, nerds and Guardian readers – spent their time a. congratulating one another on their intelligence and sophistication and b. complaining that the other side was nasty and unfair.)

52

Tim Wilkinson 05.14.11 at 9:24 am

The post seems to be about agnotology as the psychology of irrational credence, rather than agnotology in the sense of inducing or preserving ignorance in others (call that agnotogeny)

To avoid being as disappointing as previous agnotology threads (I broadly agree with Barry Freed @29), this one would need to

* Make use of the very large body of relevant work in psychology, in particular social psychology.

The OP mentions, but doesn’t cite or quote, what I assume is one such study – there are many others, and an extant typology of cognitive biases, etc.

* Avoid psychobabble and other ungrounded generalisations.

The claim reported from the missing study: many people, presented with evidence that undermines a strongly held belief, react as if that belief had been confirmed is familiar as a common false (and agnotogenic) accusation made against ‘conspiracy theorists’ by self-described sceptics and professional anti-CT polemicists like D Aaronovitch, so I’dliek to hear more about the actual findings. It’s a satisfyingly neat kind of generalisation, with enough of the paradox about it to be memorable and perverselt plausible, or plausibly perverse. But it’s actually not very convincing, and I would have assumed it actually a misdescription of more complex and diverse phenomena. Similarly Liberal hatred is the main motive behind a lot of the denial. If a liberal says it, it must not be true, which shades into:

* Refrain from making up facts.

E.g. birtherism morphs into torturism is false. ‘Birtherism’ appears to have come to an end due to event A, ‘torturism’ arose as a fairly predictable and notunusually far-fetched response to event B. As … notes, ‘birthers’ appear to have abandoned their suspicions when the evidence they had been demanding was produced – which suggests their ‘skeleton in the closet’ theory was not so very agnotological after all. ‘Torturism’ is not even a comparably free-standing thesis, just being the latest opportunistic right-wing pro-torture argument. Certainly it does double duty as a way of getting in on the act and sharing the ‘glory’, but it isn’t a neat inversion of anything, contra the (poor) linked article.

* Look at specific cases rather than generalities

If, as it seems, the aim is to understand agnotology, and especially agnotology from the perspective of the consumer rather than producer of falsehoods, then arguing about prevailing levels of it among Dems v Reps or what-have-you is not going to shed much light.

* Look at less controversial cases

Ideally, the question of the veracity of the beliefs should be irrelevant. What matters is the opinion dynamic. If one’s constantly aware that the starting (or presumed ending) point is ridiculous, it’s going to be much harder to tell rational from irrational moves within that setup.

Personally, I’m interested in what seems to be a common argumentative strategy, ‘read ahead’. Look past the evidence to the thesis you suppose it to support (or to be liekly to be used to support) and reject or accept accordingly.

This is not an obviously illogical move – a coherence – based view of (acceptable) epistemic practice would permit pre-existing general beliefs to block even very direct inferences from very strong immediate evidence.

That can’t be right: not all beliefs are equal, nor is all evidence. But then a foundationalist view that demands we do something like keeping a running account of a Bayes net in our head seems unfeasible, and certainly utterly incongruent with actual practice, as well as possibly being destructive of character-defining commitment. Such a net may even be insoluble/indeterminate/arbitrary without some external basis for assigning probabilities. (I don’t really know about this though – whether there might be some Coase-like theorem which demonstrates convergence regardless of starting values is currently beyond me).

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sg 05.14.11 at 9:38 am

Chris, I think this is a one-sided phenomenon for some fundamental reason. In the modern world, you can’t construct a strong and passionate left-wing rhetoric based on hate and scorn. That’s what talk shows thrive on.

In Britain, for example, the only even vaguely left-wing competitor to the Sun and Mail is the Mirror, right? But they just can’t roll the same way as the Sun because it’s hard for leftists to find targets to sneer at, insult, and urge the government to send home. They get in the odd good kick (e.g. against the anti-hunting ban demonstrators – “Now they know how the fox feels” after the police bashed them), but in general scorn, hatred and fear is a definitively right-wing rhetorical device.

Which is also why claims that liberals and conservatives are both 1/2 right are also just so much bullshit.

54

Henri Vieuxtemps 05.14.11 at 9:41 am

Part of the trouble is, I think, that the right-wing talk show people (and I don’t mean just in the US) have little serious competition in supplying a political narrative to ordinary people.

Well, the way I see it, there are three basic narratives: liberal (in the classical/neoclassical sense), nationalist, and marxist. The right-wing people own both liberal and nationalist narratives, and the marxist one is taboo (at least in the US), so how are you supposed to provide this competition? Saying that Beck is right in principle but goes too far is hardly a narrative with tremendous popular appeal.

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Antonio Conselheiro 05.14.11 at 10:05 am

Macander:
My post spoke directly to your initial proposal, which advocated using persuasion (which I undertook to mean rhetoric based on prejudice (the client is innocent, has mitigating circumstances, etc.) rather than argument addressing the available evidence.

Well, you certainly got that wrong. Apparently in your mind there’s some rule saying that if someone uses persuasion, they’re forbidden to use the available evidence, and at the beginning of every case lawyers are forced to choose which of the two they’ll use. The available evidence is the best ammunition a persuader has, but it’s rarely sufficient to convince a jury.

The rest, the ‘dumb’ let us say, are admittedly beyond rational argument, but equally you risk losing them to an opponent who has a glibber tongue than you (there’s always someone stronger, smarter …), and furthermore they are in no position to help look for a way forward.

No, the dumb are not beyond rational argument. But they need to be approached in a different way than you’d approach a panel of experts. Your triumphant proof will be worthless if the jury (the electorate) doesn’t understand it.

The lawyer is not an expert witness: it is the expert witness’ job to deliver an interpretation of the evidence; the lawyer’s job is to spin the interpretation in their client’s favour. Generally speaking, only one of these people delivers unalloyed enlightenment to the benighted jury, and it ain’t the lawyer.

Your trust in expert witnesses, and your belief that lawyers only deceive, whereas expert witnesses bring Truth, is touching. Do you have any idea what kind of reputation professional (mercenary) expert witnesses have?

Your clever, triumphant way of presenting your argument would work better if your argument were good, or if you had understood what I was saying.

56

Antonio Conselheiro 05.14.11 at 10:09 am

We (the left broadly construed) are very bad at explaining ourselves

Good at winning arguments, bad at persuasion. Good at lecturing, bad at convincing.

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Antonio Conselheiro 05.14.11 at 10:27 am

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”

“Some people see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say why not?”

“The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

This is the “facts on the ground” strategy. While your adversary is sitting there being correct about reality, you take steps to change reality and make his position moot.

I can think of two cases in Democratic strategy, which are really one case. The first case: recently I’ve seen Democratic strategists explaining that demographics will defeat the Republicans, accompanied with charts about Latinos and blacks and what not. So all we have to do is sit here and wait for our supporters to outnumber our opponents’ supporters. The second case was exactly the same argument made in 1960 so by Chester Bowles: “The Coming Political Breakthrough”. He extrapolated the Democratic and Republican demographics into the future and found that the Republicans were doomed.

How well did that work?

58

Seiriol Morgan 05.14.11 at 11:31 am

Chris B at 51: This is the 64 million dollar question. It’s also why the aftermath of the financial crisis was so disappointing, and (I found, jaded cynic as I like to think of myself) shocking. Because for once we were suddenly handed on a plate a plausible and satisfying narrative that any fool could understand, not to mention one that was basically true, which completely trashed the pro-unregulated-markets ‘Goose that lays the golden egg’ narrative that we’ve had forced down our throats for thirty years. Here it is, off the top of my head:-

“The financial crash happened because unscrupulous sods in America looking to make a fast buck sold dodgy mortgages to people without checking if they could afford them, because they were only interested in pocketing the commission. Then they packaged up all their dodgy mortgages with decent ones to disguise how bad they were, and sold them on as job lots called ‘derivatives’. (To the person in the street, and indeed to me, this sounds like fraud pure and simple, even if it’s technically legal.) The people who bought them didn’t bother to check whether they were any good, because they knew they could sell them on quick to other people who didn’t care about the long term health of their companies, because all they were worried about was how big their bonuses were going to be in the short term, and how many yachts and Ferraris they were going be able to buy with them. Because the financial system was basically rotten to the core with people like this, these derivatives spread everywhere, so that the values of major companies became massively dependent on them. Then people started defaulting on their mortgages, and suddenly they were revealed for the dross they were. But because they’d been packaged up so tightly with the better ones, it became impossible to work out who held solid assets and who held worthless ones. Panic set in, and you know the rest.

The greedy bent fuckers, then: they’re all already loaded, and even the ones who aren’t out and out crooked have been irresponsibly gambling, and that means they’ve been gambling with our money, as we’ve had to put it on the line to save them from themselves, or we’d have all gone down with them, and what’s more this has caused a recession which means loads of honest hard-working people will be thrown out of work, the sick are going to be reduced to penury and all our public services are going to be slashed. So that lot of parasites could all get from 0-60 in 4.1 seconds. That’s what happens when you trust unregulated markets. So we’d better regulate them properly quick smart, else it will just happen again, and worse. They’re bound to squeal and howl and make a fuss, but why should we listen to them? They’re the ones that crashed the ship onto the rocks because they were partying at the wheel, while you and I were at work.”

You don’t have to be a nerdy wonk to get that. And if memory serves, in 2008 and 2009 lots of people accepted pretty much this, and were mad as hell. Three years later the Tories and their useful idiot partners are in, and whilst you still hear a lot about the bankers, the predominant narrative has switched to ‘We’re in a terrible mess because of Labour profligacy, and we’ve got no choice but to shit on the(se) disabled (scroungers) to get out of it, as well as gutting the bloated public sector’. So the ball was totally fumbled. How did that happen? Obviously large sections of the press have a vested interest in suppressing a narrative like mine, but that can’t be the whole story. Labour did of course make themselves vulnerable through Brown’s decision to run a deficit in the good years, but again, they ought to have been able to swat away that inconvenient fact, especially with the Tories having equally embarrassing skeletons in their cupboard. I’m wondering whether Labour’s mistake was precisely their gutlessness in taking no action against the banks. For this is a narrative that calls for action, and they blatantly let the banks off scot free. If you don’t make a big show of putting them under the cosh, then that undermines your claim that the problems are down to them, rather than some force of economic nature against which mere mortals are helpless. If they’re responsible, why aren’t you doing something about it? Maybe because there’s nothing you really can do. But that’s fatal, reducing your narrative to practical irrelevance. Practically irrelevant narratives are not satisfying, leaving people to look around for another one. Lesson for the left: be bolder?

Tim at 52: do you know whether a summary overview of the psychological literature suitable for people outside the field exists? A nice readable book referring to the most interesting papers, and outlining the direction of the research, that sort of thing?

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Brett Bellmore 05.14.11 at 11:51 am

“Many people are impervious to evidence, and as Bob Altemeyer points out, it can be shown empirically that they are more conservative than not.

And yet, since the release of Obama’s long-form birth certificate, a bunch of Republicans have changed their minds about where they think he was born. Surprised me.”

It’s actually easy to understand, if you realize that Obama’s refusal to release the birth certificate was being categorized as evidence that it revealed something unfavorable about him. Since he really had no other rational motive for refusing to release it. This was, of course, a mistake, since it failed to account for the possibility that Obama had irrational motives for refusing to release it, such as annoying them. But it wasn’t an instance of being impervious to evidence, it was a case of responding to it.

The case, of course, also demonstrates an instance of liberals being impervious to evidence, in that many are STILL insisting that there was some real legal obstacle to Obama releasing the birth certificate. When, empirically, all he had to do was ask for it.

There’s a certain hilarity, actually, about liberals announcing that they’ve found that conservatives are more likely than liberals to believe things contrary to evidence. What other conclusion would you expect, after all, from somebody who believed things contrary to evidence? Would you expect them to notice the instances where their own beliefs were contrary to evidence?

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Andrew 05.14.11 at 12:17 pm

John, good post and interesting linked study. I’d call the results of the study merely suggestive, though, and there are a host of alternative explanations for the result you mentioned (“backfire effect” seen in right-of-center but not left-of-center) which have nothing to do with ideology and which aren’t examined. That’s not to denigrate the study.

Agree with Tim Wilkinson above that birtherism hasn’t morphed into torturism.

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Antonio Conselheiro 05.14.11 at 12:29 pm

Annoying Republicans and letting them make fools of themselves is, for a politician, a completely rational reason for Obama not to release his birth certificate. Politics is a competitive game, after all.

And yes, half of the Republican crazies changed their minds finally, on this one point, but it looks like they’ve just retreated to the next ditch back and will defend that one now. I doubt that the crazification factor has fallen below 27%.

62

sg 05.14.11 at 1:45 pm

Brett, that explanation is no more evidence-based than the previous position. The claim itself is beneath contempt, and unworthy of a response. So when Obama acts above the fray, and refuses to deign implications of treachery with a reply, he’s deemed to be hiding something; but when he finally gives in to the political pressure, and reveals there was never anything to hide, he’s deemed to have been hiding something – otherwise why would he have waited so long?

No doubt you can’t or won’t see what’s going on here, but “realistic assessment of the evidence” is not a part of it. It’s all part of a grand game of accusing Democrats of being un-American. But the game doesn’t work unless people like you believe any lie your political masters feed you, and bend logic as far as you possibly can to justify the lies after the evidence is out.

63

Geoffrey 05.14.11 at 2:31 pm

Responses here to a couple responses to my far above comments . . .

I understand that the embrace of “reality-based community” was, initially, a way of embracing the dismissive attitude of a certain Bush Administration “aide”. All the same, over the years it has morphed in to a point of pride.

I can speak for no one but myself, and I have never pretended otherwise. My “group loyalties” tend to be diffuse and loosely held, with one exception, so I feel no obligation, for example, to defend the President, say, just because I voted for him. In the tiny Universe of my blog, my rules are simple enough: if you wish to argue about creationism, say, or deny global warming, or claim that Obama is either a Muslim or a radical or something like that, I refuse to do so. For me, facts are simple things. What counts as a fact is something that is demonstrable, for example it can be graphed on an x-y axis of space and time. For example, global warming deniers never, ever, talk about trends in sea-levels, yet these are determined easy enough, and can be found. Creationists claim, far too often, that the evolution of the human eye cannot be traced, yet it has been done, and one can find the literature with no trouble at all.

The example in this post – how evidence actually increases the adherence to a set of beliefs rooted in factually false information – is important, and interesting, yet is understandable for those who encounter such folks all the time. Since the information refuting the false beliefs was released by the target of these same false beliefs, it doesn’t count as evidence, now does it? This reinforces, rather than rebuts, the false beliefs through a feedback loop that holds a priori that the subject of false beliefs is untrustworthy.

This is why it is impossible to deal with people like this. The standard of evidence different (although, as is said, having a certain coherence), which results in people talking past one another. If I’m speaking or writing in Latin, and you keep insisting I am using Finnish, and am therefore wrong in each and everything I say, my insistence that I am not speaking Finnish will not matter because the expectation is that I am or should be using Finnish will persist.

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Brett Bellmore 05.14.11 at 2:37 pm

Yup, that’s what denial in the face of evidence looks like. You’re demonstrating my point.

“Obama CAN’T release the birth certificate!” And then he does.

“Birthers are impervious to evidence!” And then birtherism declines dramatically after it’s released.

So, which side of this argument was impervious to evidence? Rather than just deriving the wrong conclusions from it?

This whole “agnotology” thing on the left is just a bunch of people with beams in their eyes, congratulating themselves on not having motes like the other guy. It’s hilarious watching you take it so seriously.

65

Geoffrey 05.14.11 at 3:25 pm

Brett, there continues to be a large plurality, particularly of self-identifying Republicans, who insist that Pres. Obama was not born in Hawaii. Obviously, not everyone who adhered to the whole birther thing will behave in the same way; making that obvious point in no way undermines the underlying reality.

There are people who claim the earth is flat. Not many, but they exist. No amount of evidence convinces them. They even selectively use certain scientific jargon to uphold their beliefs. Now, one or two may be convinced they were mistaken if, for example, they could be taken to orbit the earth in the space station. But not all would be convinced, and would continue to fall back on faulty understandings and usages of scientific jargon to support their erroneous beliefs.

I, for one, congratulate no one for accepting certain facts as facts. I have already said that I do not consider those who hold demonstrably false beliefs are bad human beings; I simply refuse to consider false beliefs as worthy of “refutation”. One does not argue with gravity, because one will always lose. What gravity may be I leave to physicists who understand quantum mechanics. That it is, well, is inarguable.

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Brett Bellmore 05.14.11 at 4:24 pm

Actually, in as much as a “plurality” is the largest of several factions, short of a majority, no. The plurality of Republicans, 47%, believe Obama was born in the US. At 37%, the minority of Republicans who think Obama was born outside the US is fairly close to the minority of Democrats who believe Bush knew about the 9/11 attack in advance, that Gore actually won the 2000 election. I wouldn’t be terribly shocked if about that many Democrats actually buy the idea that Trig Palin isn’t Sarah’s daughter.

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Jim Harrison 05.14.11 at 4:52 pm

I don’t know what proportion of Republican elites had real doubts about Obama’s birth certificate any more than I know how many of them are sincere racists, but plenty of well-known names were quite willing to exploit conspiracy theories for transient gain, just as many of them flirt shamelessly with the left-over segregationists. Which contrasts drastically with the response of Democratic leaders to rumors about Bush complicity in 9/11. Nobody who mattered was on TV stoking paranoia. In any case, a lot of what gets counted as a belief in conspiracy theories about 9/11 is the perception that the Bush administration was culpably negligent in the months leading up to the event. If that’s conspiracy mongering, sign me up.

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JP Stormcrow 05.14.11 at 5:05 pm

BB@58: Since he really had no other rational motive for refusing to release it.

Among the various flaws in your argument (other folks have highlighted several of the others) is the fact that Obama had already provided evidence for his birth in the United States by releasing his standard issue short form birth certificate from Hawaii. Done and dusted. I continue to have mixed feelings about the release of the long form despite its apparent effectiveness at tamping down the inanity for the time being. The fact that it peeled off those merely blinded by partisanship and/or racism and left merely the true crazies is little solace.

Certainly another possible “rational” reason for not kowtowing to the braying demands of the Corsis, Trumps and Taitzs of this world would be to not add to the long sorry history in this country of minorities and the showing of “papers”.

Then take this tour I made—Frances and I had train reservations to California. But this clerk I showed my identification to, he took it and looked at me just like the West Point cat. When he said he had to check with somebody else, I asked him what was the trouble. You know he had the nerve to tell me I might have forged it! Ain’t no need of me telling you what I told him, nobody would print it. But we went to the airport and took a plane. I’m spending my money, the railroads are broke, even this son of a bitch’s job’s in trouble, but all he can see is I’m black, so it’s all right to insult me. Bad as I hate to fly, I ain’t been on a train since, because I haven’t met Jim Crow on the airlines.

- Miles Davis from the first ever Playboy interview (Alex Haley was the interviewer).

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JP Stormcrow 05.14.11 at 5:08 pm

Ah, first link in 67 was this.

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JP Stormcrow 05.14.11 at 5:14 pm

More BB@58: It’s actually easy to understand, if you realize that Obama’s refusal to release the birth certificate was being categorized as evidence that it revealed something unfavorable about him.

And you know it may well have shown something “unfavorable” which would have had absolutely nothing to do with his eligibility to serve as President. And if it did it, it was none of your or my business. The whole “birther” nonsense was a minor dreadful episode in American history, we are all belittled by it. History will not be kind to its perpetrators or defenders.

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Antonio Conselheiro 05.14.11 at 5:47 pm

The evidence that Bush really won the 2000 election was never overwhelming. Inquiry into this question was halted and the question was made moot by the Supreme Court. If you declare that the Supreme Court decision itself means that Bush won the election, than he won the election. It’s reasonable to think that he might have lost if there had been a full recount.

This is in the area of the Scalia principle: There’s nothing in the Constitution which forbids executing an innocent man, as long as proper procedures were followed.

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Geoffrey 05.14.11 at 6:14 pm

Brett, JPS is quite right – Obama already provided a birth certificate, so the whole birther thing, while already shown nonsensical during the 2008 campaign, was being exploited for political gain. So, how do you explain that a majority of self-declared Republican voters believed Obama foreign born even after he provided his birth certificate?

There will always be a minority of people who hold all sorts of fanciful ideas. People in power will exploit these folks for their own ends. We can have a serious, thoughtful discussion, even argument, over liberty and equality in American society. We can have a serious, thoughtful discussion over whether or not different sets of economic policies or social policies are preferable, based on differing a priori principles on what constitutes justice, the relative weights of individual liberty versus social justice, etc.. What we cannot do is discuss whether or not birthers have a point. They do not, they never have, and never will.

Chomsky wrote somewhere that speaking truth to power is meaningless because the powerful already know the truth; the point is to set the facts before the people. That is a principle by which I operate in public discussions.

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James Kroeger 05.14.11 at 9:08 pm

Why are ideological opponents so resistant to persuasion (by either evidence or logic)? The answer is that there is ‘something else’ involved, a variable that lies outside of the simple task of processing data/evidence.

Humans are motivated by a number of fundamental behavioral instincts. One instinct in particular, the one that is responsible for most human suffering, is the Anger Instinct. As this instinct monitors the experiences of the host, it looks for ‘enemies’ that could either be a source of pain, or an obstacle to desired pleasure.

The anger instinct becomes involved in political discussions once an individual has invested herself in a particular position/ideology; something that usually occurs once an individual has spoken out publicly in defense of that position. Prior to that moment, individuals can remain emotionally uncommitted to either side of a political dispute.

Why do we ultimately choose a particular side? Usually, it is because we perceive that our own personal situations would be best served by it.

It is usually only after one has invested one’s identity in the arguments of a particular tribe of ideological partisans that the anger instinct becomes activated. From that point on, the individual’s primary motivation is to defend the tribe at all costs, often in a ‘knee-jerk’ fashion. The ‘enemy’ has been identified.

Disassociation with a particular ideological tribe is possible, but it almost never occurs after one has been exposed to a single devastating counter-argument, or a single presentation of facts that ‘convincingly’ refutes one’s favorite myths. That usually only happens over time, after one has witnessed repeated ‘defeats’ for the invested-in position.

The first stage of conversion involves a mere disassociation with the position/tribe that the individual once invested in, without granting any quarter to the ideological opposition (“they’re all wrong”). Once one has become comfortable in this ‘neutral’ place, it then becomes possible for the individual to be gracious in acknowledging those facts/arguments that contradict formerly embraced positions.

My claim is that right-wing ideologues are typically less interested in knowing the truth and more interested in defending their ideological tribe (i.e., the privileges they enjoy). In contrast, left-wing ideologues tend to be motivated more purely by a search for the truth, perhaps because they’ve [somewhat idealistically] embraced the academic community’s professed dedication to ‘objective truth’ as the High Ultimate Goal.

Note that the above is a generalization that I assert is largely true. It is certainly not difficult to point to exceptions, but those exceptions do not by their mere existence disprove the general rule.

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Cranky Observer 05.14.11 at 10:55 pm

> Brett Bellmore 05.14.11 at 2:37 pm @64
> Yup, that’s what denial in the face of evidence looks
> like. You’re demonstrating my point.
> “Obama CAN’T release the birth certificate!” And then he
> does.
> “Birthers are impervious to evidence!” And then birtherism
> declines dramatically after it’s released.
> So, which side of this argument was impervious to evidence?
> Rather than just deriving the wrong conclusions from it?

Personally, I would consider that to be the “side” that claimed that a standard-issue State of Hawaii birth certificate, an image of which was published on whitehouse.gov early in President Obama’s term of office, and deemed suitable for all transactions including proof of citizenship in all US States, Territories, and Possessions (and by most members states of the United Nations), was somehow not an ‘official document’ or ‘official birth certificate’ and that this President, and only this President of all elected and all candidates not elected, was obligated to provide more.

I am waiting for Mr. Bellmore to acknowledge that the document provided by the State of Hawaii to all its citizens (which in fact looks exactly like the one Cook County IL now provides to me, although it does not look like the microfilm prints I received when I ordered copies prior to 1990) was a valid Birth Certificate, and that no other document was or is required for any legal purpose in the United States. Since that is the law in both Hawaii and which ever state Mr. Bellmore lives in.

Cranky

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ScentOfViolets 05.15.11 at 1:28 am

I am waiting for Mr. Bellmore to acknowledge that the document provided by the State of Hawaii to all its citizens (which in fact looks exactly like the one Cook County IL now provides to me, although it does not look like the microfilm prints I received when I ordered copies prior to 1990) was a valid Birth Certificate, and that no other document was or is required for any legal purpose in the United States.

Notice how Brett and his tribe make these absurd claims, then demand that you prove them wrong – to their satisfaction. Yawn. The same old same old. There’s a reason why a big part of my schtick (besides the obvious one of teaching math and stat) is burden of proof requirements and the scientific method.

As I’ve quipped so often before, it’s not just the factual reality that has a liberal bias; it’s logical inferences and rationalized methods of inquiry as well.

76

sg 05.15.11 at 2:13 am

JP Stormcrow, that interview with Miles Davis is excellent. Was Playboy an early member of the anti-Jim Crow movement?

77

JP Stormcrow 05.15.11 at 4:25 am

Was Playboy an early member of the anti-Jim Crow movement?

It seems that they did take specific steps to combat it per this article in Jet from November, 1961 (I’m not solid enough on the history to know whether that makes them an “early member”). From the article which appeared after discrimination was reported at a club in New Orleans:

Hefner revealed that he is negotiating to rebuy the New Orleans club from local franchise operators to prevent further discrimination of any member. The organization recently bought back the $400,000 Miami club for $657,000 after local operators refused to admit Negroes.

They quote a letter from Hefner that is a bit self-serving and defensive, and the move came after a critical article the month before in the Village Voice, but they were probably “ahead” of many other organizations and that would have been consistent with things like them publishing a Haley interview of Malcolm X in 1963. The book, Playboy and the Making of the Good Life in Modern America has more detail on Playboy’s history with regard to Civil Rights from what I can glean from Google books and unsurprisingly it appears to be somewhat complicated. Certainly compared to Time or Newsweek in the 60s it was quite progressive with regard to it’s non-sexual content.

78

sg 05.15.11 at 4:35 am

Interesting. I’d always associated Hefner and the Hustler chap with an unadulterated (pardon the pun) libertarian approach to free speech, association etc. Maybe not so simple…

79

JP Stormcrow 05.15.11 at 4:39 am

I’ll say that most of 77 I just googled up, but it squares with my youthful impression (my mother actually would buy it sometimes for the interviews or stories… which admittedly did blow my mind a bit). I only became aware of the Davis interview recently, but I had known that Haley had had a whole string of great interviews in the magazine, in addition to Davis and Malcolm X; Muhammad Ali, Melvin Belli, Sammy Davis, Jr., Jim Brown, Johnny Carson, Quincy Jones and George Lincoln Rockwell

80

John Quiggin 05.15.11 at 5:05 am

To expand on AC response to Brett Bellmore

The claim “Gore won the 2000 election” has the obviously false reading “Gore received a majority of electoral college votes, and was duly inaugurated”, which is pretty much directly comparable to the claim “Obama was not born in Hawaii, but in Kenya”. So, if Brett has evidence that significant numbers of Democrats believe this claim, he is on solid ground.

But there are also various readings of the form “Gore should have been declared the winner because …”

* A plurality of voters in Florida supported him and a correct count would have shown this
* The 5-4 decision of the Supreme Court to stop the process at a point where Bush was in the lead reflected the political preferences of the judges and not their judicial philosophies
* Gore got more votes than Bush in total, and therefore won the election in democratic terms, even if the undemocratic procedures of US electoral law were correctly applied to produce the opposite outcome

Of these, the first is undecidable on the basis of the available evidence. The second is also undecidable, but probabilistic logic suggests that the observed outcome would be extremely unlikely under the null hypothesis. The third is a normative rather than a factual statement, and entirely convincing to me.

As has already been said, exactly similar points apply in relation to the Bush Admin’s prior knowledge regarding S11.

By contrast, versions of birtherism that don’t insist on the exact factual claim that Obama was born outside the US (or otherwise legally ineligible) are much *worse* than being simply false, since they amount to “He may be a natural born citizen legally, but he isn’t really American”.

81

mythago 05.15.11 at 7:30 am

Young children, presented with the suggestion that Santa isn’t real, blithely ignore it. Slightly older children, though, react in exactly the manner of the experimental subjects, reaffirming their belief in the Santa story and (of course) the associated presents. Later, of course, they accept the truth.

I’m curious as to where you got this from, because it hasn’t been my experience at all – nor the experience of any parents I know. Young children have a lot of questions about Santa, but they accept that he is real because their parents say so, and because the presents show up. (In other words, they are making logical fallacies, but they are attempting some kind of logic.) Older children start to notice the bigger logical holes, but – well, let’s put it this way: I’ve heard rather a lot of parents proudly announce that they shut down Santa questions with what are essentially threats: if there’s no Santa, then you shouldn’t be getting presents from him, hmmmm, Miss Smartypants?

So sure, there are parallels to the kind of cognitive dissonance you see in adults, but perhaps not the ones you’re thinking of.

82

Tim Wilkinson 05.15.11 at 11:02 am

1. @52 (apologies for hectoring, esp. to JQ) observed that the correction-backfire phenomenon is often used to smear ‘conspiracy theorists’ by lazy hacks who show no interest in providing evidence or close reasoning. The point wasn’t that this means it must be false but that the idea is a beguiling one, so needs to be well tested to avoid biased acceptance.

My actual problem with the supposed characteristic cogitive defects of CTs, CTists and CTising is not usually that the tendencies alleged are entirely unreal, but that (a) often, like proverbs, there is an equal and opposite tendency that’s just as well (or poorly) documented, (b) that the supposed correlation between the prevalence of a certain tendency and CTising is just made up, and probably absent.

2. BTW, a disassociation: Brett Bellmore’s This whole “agnotology” thing on the left is just a bunch of people with beams in their eyes, congratulating themselves on not having motes like the other guy is not to be confused with an earlier remark on another thread that The old agnotological mote/beam problem strikes again., which was about establishment-minded versus conspiracy-minded prejudices. In the UK at least, this is probably more easily shoe-horned into right and left wing bias respectively than the other way round.

That was in response to Anderson saying OBL’s handwritten diary could say he directed the 9/11 plot, and you could say it was faked. Etc., etc. I don’t argue with birthers, Scientologists, or people who disagree that al-Qaeda pulled off 9/11., i.e. an attempted imputation of agnotological evidence-resistance to some fairly measured UBL-masterminded-9-11 doubts. Mote/beam isn’t a great choice of dying metaphor since it imputes asymmetry while I was primarily intending to indicate the symmetrical aspects of the situation.

3. The point being that no-one considers themself to be subject to cognitive biases, at least not wrt specific beliefs currently under inspection (cf Moore’s pragmatic contradiction : p but I do not believe that p). So ‘agnotology’ in that sense is not something people are going to self-ascribe. And in many cases, while dodgy rhetorical and porpaganda strategies may be adopted, the end result is conceived as getting people to have true beliefs or apt attitudes, so the idea that it amounts to instilling agnosia is also not something likely to be embraced. The term ‘agnotology’ is inherently other-directed. Perhaps ‘opinion dynamics’ for consumer-agnotology, and even ‘opinion management’ for agnotogeny, or something less factive anyway.

4. While birtherism obviously a wrong ‘un, agnotogenic in its inception, adopted and sustained for very dodgy reasons, I’ll still offer my neck up to the god of fine points and say that it doesn’t look quite as grossly agnotological as it’s said to be. The idea that someone might have a skeleton in the closet of this kind or that a parent might try to get US citizenship for their child by misrepresenting his birth place, officials of any stripe aghast at the possibility of scandal dmaging the institution (cf. Dems, 2000 election) might convince someone to reconstruct a missing birth certificate, etc, is not actually absurd, just in this case self-serving, opportunistic, possibly based in part of prejudice, lacking any evidence etc.

And even the long/short business has some tiny connection to reality, IIRC – the long-form one was objectively speaking much better evidence, with more detail, typewritten text, signatures etc, while the short form is basically a print-out of minimal information from computer records. And mirabile dictu I wouldn’t have thought the burden of proof considerations are quite as clear as SoV would make out, either.

(Also – JQ – does versions of birtherism that don’t insist on the exact factual claim that Obama was born outside the US (or otherwise legally ineligible) really describe an actual position?)

5. ‘Truther’ (like its parent, ‘CTist’) is obviously a term of abuse, a weasel term (it’s a co-option of the self-designation ‘9-11 truth campaigner’ is at least nominally geared toward scepticism and the need for proper investigation to find the truth – now that is mad.) and a very broad umbrella. These to my mind are enough to make it a wrong ‘un straight off.

In particular, I agree with Jim Harrison @67 that a lot of what gets counted as a belief in conspiracy theories about 9/11 is the perception that the Bush administration was culpably negligent in the months leading up to the event. One reason for this is that there is a natural read-ahead to more ‘conspiratorial’ conclusions, even if only indeterminate (‘oh yeah, what are you getting at then?’).

But actually I’d go further. There’s just been a thread broadly sympathetic to things like C Wright Mills’s ‘organised irresponsibility’ (which one commenter alluded to) and the known propaganda uses of terror threats. Given that, it seems odd to me that the idea of institutional pressure and influence being exterted to prevent premature disruption of a suspected terrorist plot (details need not be known of course) should be rejected so peremptorily. That quasi-conpiratorial scenarios like that are lumped in with holograms etc and regarded as utterly beyond the pale, with even demands for further investigation being considered a sign of crazy confabulation, looks a bit like an effect of opinion management to me. (NB – obviously – bad opinions don’t have to be believed to be opposed.)

83

Tim Wilkinson 05.15.11 at 11:55 am

+ sorry to anyone who gets terribly upset by long comments, but can’t resist some (non-devastating) internet criticism of the study itself, which is certainly interesting.

Headed straight for the questionnaire details at the outset:

Study 1 (WMD):

Correction:

While Bush was making campaign stops in Pennsylvania, the Central Intelligence Agency released a report that concludes that Saddam Hussein did not possess stockpiles of illicit weapons at the time of the U.S. invasion in March 2003, nor was any program to produce them under way at the time. The report, authored by Charles Duelfer, who advises the director of central intelligence on Iraqi weapons, says Saddam made a decision sometime in the 1990s to destroy known stockpiles of chemical weapons. Duelfer also said that inspectors destroyed the nuclear program sometime after 1991.

Dependent variable:

Immediately before the U.S. invasion, Iraq had an active weapons of mass destruction program, the ability to produce these weapons, and large stockpiles of WMD, but Saddam Hussein was able to hide or destroy these weapons right before U.S. forces arrived.

Study 2.1 (WMD):

Correction:

In 2004, the Central Intelligence Agency released a report that concludes that Saddam Hussein did not possess stockpiles of illicit weapons at the time of the U.S. invasion in March 2003, nor was any program to produce them under way at the time.

Dependent variable:

Immediately before the U.S. invasion, Iraq had an active weapons of mass destruction program and large stockpiles of WMD.

Study 2.2 (Tax cuts):

Correction:

However, even with the recent increases, revenues in 2005 will remain well below previous projections from the Congressional Budget Office. The major tax cut of 2001 and further cuts in each of the last three years were followed by an unprecedented three year decline in nominal tax revenues, from $2 trillion in 2000 to $1.8 trillion in 2003. Last year, revenues rebounded slightly to $1.9 trillion. But at 16.3 percent of the gross domestic product, last year’s revenue total, measured against the size of the economy, was the lowest level since 1959.

Dependent variable:

President Bush’s tax cuts have increased government revenue.

Study 2.3 (Stem cell research):

Correction

However, experts pointed out that Bush’s action does not limit private funding of stem cell research. He is actually the first president to allow the use of federal funds to study human embryonic stem cells, but his policy limits federal support of such research to colonies derived from embryos already destroyed by August 2001.

Dependent variable:

President Bush has banned stem cell research in the United States.

I thought that S1 and S2.3 might be shaky: 1 has much mention of destroying stockpiles of WMD that did exist, and doesn’t actually say that they weren’t destroyed just before the invasion. 2.3 actually says that (so far as federal funding was concerned – for all I know this could be regarded as enough to count as a ban) Bush had in effect ruled out any further harvesting/killing of embryos for stem cell research. Given that the focus of the reps opposed to stem cell research is about the embryos not the research, I can see that the correction might easily be seen as not being such.

(Then realised that in the study this is seen as something that Dems and not Reps might be expected to want to affirm. That hadn’t occurred to me and I don’t see why it should be thought true. But no backfire was found among Dems anyway.)

I don’t take these criticisms necessarily to count against a general finding of something we could informally call confirmation-backfire, but rather to suggest that there may be (possibly reductive) explanations of how it happens, in terms of more complex interplay of factors. I don’t suppose the authors would even particularly disagree about that – it would be very surprising if there were an irreducible reversal of the import of evidence without any available reason or pretext whatsoever.

Indeed my initial observation about S1 was partly borne out by the authors: it is possible that the results may have shifted due to minor wording changes…the simpler wording of the dependent variable might have reduced ambiguity that allowed for counter-arguing).

The results:

S1 (WMD): largely support the backfire hypothesis

S2.1 (WMD): the correction made conservatives more likely to believe that Iraq did not have WMD

S2.2 (Tax cuts): the tax cut correction generated another backfire effect.

S2.3 (stem cells): while we do not find a backfire effect, the effect of the correction is again neutralized for
the relevant ideological subgroup (liberals)

Taking a critical stance to methodoogically suspect extremes, went back for another look at the Tax cuts correction, and thought there might be a bit of a problem with the correction paragraph: …The major tax cut of 2001
and further cuts in each of the last three years were followed by an unprecedented threeyear
decline in nominal tax revenues, from $2 trillion in 2000 to $1.8 trillion in 2003.
Last year, revenues rebounded slightly to $1.9 trillion…
.

Taken on its own, this says that revenues were rising at the time. So that could be the backfiring component. It remains for this shamelessly ad-hoc criticism to explain the more ordinary effect of rejecting the the revenue-drop figure, so here goes. It uses a baseline of 2000, but those taking a ‘supply side’ descending-Laffer view might expect a lag in the ‘increases’, and revenues – they might suppose – could have been falling in the meantime, possibly even to below 1.9 (And I don’t know about this, but there might have actually been a lag before the cuts took effect, or even a phase-in). They could also have been comparing revenues against some imagined lower counterfactual level of revenue. Also, assuming that aother factors might have been reducing revenue, so the tax cuts increased them but that effect was outweighed.

Also, given that Last year, revenues rebounded slightly to $1.9 trillion describes half the cited reduction being reversed, use of ‘slightly’ might also be taken as an attempt to deliberately mislead.

One last general point, probably ignorant, but anyway – where there’s a somewhat equivocal correction or proposition but the responses permit of degrees (they did: 5-point scale from Strongly agree…Strongly disagree), doesn’t this cloud the issue a lot?

E.g. the correction on stem cells says that Bush didn’t in fact outright ban stem cell research – but it does affirm that he limited it. So respondents might well represent a strong belief in a weakened form of the proposition as weak belief in the strong version of the proposition: agreeing that he ‘somewhat banned’ it might be translated into somewhat agreeing that he banned it.

84

Brett Bellmore 05.15.11 at 12:49 pm

“(Also – JQ – does versions of birtherism that don’t insist on the exact factual claim that Obama was born outside the US (or otherwise legally ineligible) really describe an actual position?)”

Sure. My position, and I’m often called a “birther” over it, has been that Obama was almost certainly born in the US, is qualified to be President, (Both of which are more than you could say about McCain.) and that, in as much as this natural born citizen clause IS in the Constitution, ought to be required to prove it. I’m not really keen on the use of ‘standing’ and other excuses to render constitutional clauses unenforceable.

He’s now done so, and I’m satisfied. But I am pissed off that he dragged it out so long, when he could have settled the matter at any time by just asking for the blasted birth certificate years ago.

85

ScentOfViolets 05.15.11 at 3:02 pm

* A plurality of voters in Florida supported him and a correct count would have shown this

Of these, the first is undecidable on the basis of the available evidence.

This is actually a fairly fresh point in some respects: the sort of (deliberate) confusion sowed, not by strawmanning opposing opinions, but by paraphrasing them in a way that while superficially correct also serves to undermines them. A typical example would be Brett’s mention of significant numbers of “Democrats who believe Bush knew about the 9/11 attack in advance”. Sure in a way that’s trivially true; and we have the PDB from August 6, 2001 that shows Bush knew that “Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US”. The tricky part, as Jim Harrison notes above is “In any case, a lot of what gets counted as a belief in conspiracy theories about 9/11 is the perception that the Bush administration was culpably negligent in the months leading up to the event. If that’s conspiracy mongering, sign me up.” I don’t think it’s an accident that Brett wants to conflate this group with it’s attendant numbers and visibility with the black helicopter conspiracy theorists who maintain that certain Administration officials knew not only the bare amount revealed in the PDB, but also the date, the target and the specific planes to be used. And no, I don’t think there’s a significant number of “Democrats” who believe the latter embellishments ;-)

The same is true for your three interpretations of how Gore “really won” the 2000 election. If you look at the NORC report and use their phrasing, saying that all talk of hanging chads aside, Gore received more legal votes than Bush in Florida is a fairly pedestrian observation. That’s quite different from saying that if an official recount had been allowed in 2000 it would have shown Gore to be the winner – as a matter of fact it wouldn’t have. And it’s just this sort of confusion with similar phrasings of the same idea that is meat and drink of people who like to make these false equivalences.

Iow, yes, a well-educated citizenry is essential to the running of a true democratic state :-) They need to know read and comprehend the written and spoken word above a 6th grade level, how to parse statements that a deliberately worded to convey a false impression. They need to be well-grounded in arithmetic and algebra and basic probability. They need to know the scientific method and how it works, the sort of statements it allows backwards and forwards. They need to know history – something beyond the usual Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock sort of pastiche that is the usual substitute. Etc.

86

politicalfootball 05.15.11 at 3:04 pm

He’s now done so, and I’m satisfied. But I am pissed off that he dragged it out so long

This is a nifty example of how the nut-Right does rhetorical battle with the reality-based community, and often wins. Obama’s birth in Hawaii was demonstrated years ago with his birth certificate and contemporaneous newspaper records, among other things.

But just by dint of repetition, Brett-types get sensible people to buy into the idea that Obama definitively refuted birtherism only with the recent release of the other birth certificate. See here, for example, at a blog that styles itself “The Reality-Based Community.”

And note here how Brett uses Obama’s release of the birth certificate as an acknowledgment by Obama that further evidence was necessary. “I don’t want to call him a pig-fucker,” Brett/Lyndon says, “I just want to get him to deny it.”

Good ol’ Lyndon. He understood the wisdom of A. Conselheiro in the first comment:

I should quit arguing with dumb people and try to persuade them instead.

87

ScentOfViolets 05.15.11 at 3:16 pm

My position, and I’m often called a “birther” over it, has been that Obama was almost certainly born in the US, is qualified to be President, (Both of which are more than you could say about McCain.) and that, in as much as this natural born citizen clause IS in the Constitution, ought to be required to prove it. I’m not really keen on the use of ‘standing’ and other excuses to render constitutional clauses unenforceable.

He’s now done so, and I’m satisfied. But I am pissed off that he dragged it out so long, when he could have settled the matter at any time by just asking for the blasted birth certificate years ago.

I’ll echo what Cranky said and which you seem to be ignoring:

“I am waiting for Mr. Bellmore to acknowledge that the document provided by the State of Hawaii to all its citizens (which in fact looks exactly like the one Cook County IL now provides to me, although it does not look like the microfilm prints I received when I ordered copies prior to 1990) was a valid Birth Certificate, and that no other document was or is required for any legal purpose in the United States. Since that is the law in both Hawaii and which ever state Mr. Bellmore lives in.”

Again: what was wrong with the short form that was given out ages ago? The burden is on you to prove that it did not constitute adequate proof; not on anyone else to prove to your satisfaction that it was. For that matter, the nowhere in the natural born citizen clause you cite does it say that place of birth has to be proven to Brett Bellmore’s satisfaction.

I must say this discussion on agnotology is providing some insight into the mechanics of the process ;-)

88

JP Stormcrow 05.15.11 at 3:16 pm

He’s now done so, and I’m satisfied. But I am pissed off that he dragged it out so long, when he could have settled the matter at any time by just asking for the blasted birth certificate years ago.

Christ, what an asshole.

89

Cranky Observer 05.15.11 at 3:34 pm

> Brett Bellmore @84
> He’s now done so, and I’m satisfied. But I am pissed off that
> he dragged it out so long, when he could have settled the matter
> at any time by just asking for the blasted birth certificate years ago.

Candidate Obama did in fact release a copy of the document that the State of Hawaii provides it natural-born citizens as proof of birth when they “order a birth certificate”, and President Obama took the absolutely unprecedented step of posting an image of this document on whitehouse.gov. Please explain in detail why this did not “settle the matter” for you.

Cranky

90

ScentOfViolets 05.15.11 at 3:45 pm

It remains for this shamelessly ad-hoc criticism to explain the more ordinary effect of rejecting the the revenue-drop figure, so here goes. It uses a baseline of 2000, but those taking a ‘supply side’ descending-Laffer view might expect a lag in the ‘increases’, and revenues – they might suppose – could have been falling in the meantime, possibly even to below 1.9 (And I don’t know about this, but there might have actually been a lag before the cuts took effect, or even a phase-in). They could also have been comparing revenues against some imagined lower counterfactual level of revenue. Also, assuming that aother factors might have been reducing revenue, so the tax cuts increased them but that effect was outweighed.

Have you by any chance read Mike Kimmel’s Presimetrics? You may know him better as Cactus over AngryBear. If you haven’t, you can also check out the Presimetrics site.

Anyway, while these statistics were being hashed out on AngryBear, it was a common ploy to point out that – silly liberals! – after tax cuts were enacted, tax revenues went up. What was always truncated was the silly liberal stipulation that revenues would decline from what they otherwise would have been if those cuts had not been made into law. See how that works? An ostensible paraphrase of the original claim, ostensibly shortened for pithiness. But now those sober “Conservatives” can show with hard numbers how unserious those “Liberals” really are.

Iow, what we see here is a variant of Rochefoucauld’s maxim that hypocrisy is a homage that vice pays to virtue.

That was a pathetic reformulation of the original claim, btw. But it wasn’t intended to seriously counter it; the intent was to convince the “reasonable man” – who happens to be reasonably uneducated about the nuances – that this example of agnotology on the right isn’t really an example. Rather, the promoters of this nonsense want our mythical reasonable man to believe that even if they are wrong, they are at least being wrong in a reasonable way. As opposed to obdurately, unreasonably, no-way-will-I-ever-allow-you-to-raise-taxes-without-a-knckdown-dragout-fight wrong. The trick works just often enough with enough people to be worth repeating :-(

91

ScentOfViolets 05.15.11 at 3:49 pm

And note here how Brett uses Obama’s release of the birth certificate as an acknowledgment by Obama that further evidence was necessary. “I don’t want to call him a pig-fucker,” Brett/Lyndon says, “I just want to get him to deny it.”

This is one of the few times I’ll give Obama his props – his sense of timing in releasing the long form was excellent.

92

Tim Wilkinson 05.15.11 at 4:01 pm

SoV – I’m not quite clear what you’re getting at – are you agreeing that my tentative speculation might actually be pretty close to the reality of Rep argumentative gymnastics? And that those might indeed explain the poll responses in a way that doesn’t involve a correction-backfire phenomenon? (That being the sole issue under consideration.)

93

politicalfootball 05.15.11 at 4:03 pm

My position, and I’m often called a “birther” over it, has been that Obama was almost certainly born in the US

Brett isn’t a birther, see. No, he’s a reasonable fellow who “almost certainly” thought that Obama was born in the U.S.

If the nut-right were to decide that Obama was born on Mars, Brett would tell you that Obama was almost certainly born no further away than the moon, and hey, why hasn’t Obama denied it?

Or what JP Stormcrow said @88.

94

Brett Bellmore 05.15.11 at 4:07 pm

“Christ, what an asshole.”

While I agree, Obama is a politician, it comes with the territory. This doesn’t really distinguish him from most of the rest.

Anyway, back on topic: Notice how you’re capable of admiring his timing in when he decided to release the birth certificate, and at the same time not admitting that you were wrong all along in claiming he couldn’t? The idea that it’s only conservatives who ignore evidence that they’re wrong is silly; It’s a common human trait.

95

ScentOfViolets 05.15.11 at 4:13 pm

Tim, the short form is that yes, I do agree that your speculation is probably close to reality. I’m just pointing out that these deniers are at the same time implicitly admitting that being reality-based is actually a good thing and are styling their evasions accordingly. If we were in a situation where the national consensus was more what these guys really believed – no taxes except to support foreign adventures and to keep the lower orders in line – then we’d be in a whole different kind of hurt.

It also follows that if these people know enough to pattern their dissembling accordingly that whether or not they are engaging in some sort of agnotology is debatable. With these types, displaying what we call agnotology is just yet another tactic, this time aimed at the likes of you and me – professionals who can’t really believe in their heart of hearts that these people have evil aims, merely that they are profoundly misguided.

96

ScentOfViolets 05.15.11 at 4:18 pm

Anyway, back on topic: Notice how you’re capable of admiring his timing in when he decided to release the birth certificate, and at the same time not admitting that you were wrong all along in claiming he couldn’t? The idea that it’s only conservatives who ignore evidence that they’re wrong is silly; It’s a common human trait.

Point one: I never said that, so I don’t have to defend it. Point two: You still haven’t answered Cranky’s question. And unlike me, since you do personally believe the short form was insufficient, yes you do have to answer the question.

I will also add that refusing to do so is most definitely being uncivil and contemptuous of those who don’t share your opinions.

97

Cranky Observer 05.15.11 at 4:20 pm

> Brett Bellmore @94
> Anyway, back on topic: Notice how you’re capable of admiring his
> timing in when he decided to release the birth certificate, and at the
> same time not admitting that you were wrong all along in claiming he couldn’t?

Note how you consistently refuse to address the topic of whether the image of the official State of Hawaii certificate that he (of all candidates and Presidents in our nation’s history) DID release is a valid legal document?

I actually do find this point fascinating in reference to Mr. Bellmore’s @64:

> Brett Bellmore @64
> So, which side of this argument was impervious to evidence? Rather
> than just deriving the wrong conclusions from it?
>
> This whole “agnotology” thing on the left is just a bunch of
> people with beams in their eyes, congratulating themselves on
> not having motes like the other guy. It’s hilarious watching you
> take it so seriously.

Clearly Mr. Bellmore is reasonable intelligent and educated, and his record of high-quality eristic posts on this site (and others) shows that he does have a good grasp of standard (non-eristic) logic and can read texts quite thoroughly. Yet he apparently sees, or at least is unwilling to admit, any conflict between his refusal to address the official State of Hawaii birth-proof document [1] that was released in 2008 and his #64. He is reading this thread; he is aware that people are posting valid questions and interrogatories on this; yet he simply ignores all and proceeds with “My position, and I’m often called a “birther” over it, has been that Obama was almost certainly born in the US, is qualified to be President, ” [his #84]. “Almost certainly”!

That is the characteristic, in both higher- and lower-quality form, that I universally encounter in conservatives and other forms hard-right political belief.

Cranky

[1] My children were also born in Cook County IL, and after 1990, so the only form of “birth certificate” we and they can order from the county is what is being called the “short form”. That would be true of the Obama daughters as well. How will my children, or Malia Obama, ever prove to Mr. Bellmore’s satisfaction that they are ‘natural born citizens’ of the United States?

98

Walt 05.15.11 at 4:23 pm

Obama couldn’t release his long-form birth certificate. That is a completely true statement. He had to ask the State of Hawaii for a special exception to their rules. This is completely clear from the legal correspondence on whitehouse.gov. You’re a lonely old man who has nothing better to do, Brett. Why didn’t you actually check this before spouting off?

99

Tim Wilkinson 05.15.11 at 4:31 pm

Yes, that’s a kind of meta-agnotology version of the consumers/producer distinction I’ve been banging on about – with the aim being to appear honest by the usual ‘cock-up not conspiracy’ tactic, and the consumers exhibiting the same excessive charity to people in suits whom someone they know went to college with.

But college kids responding to questionnaires are presumably supposed not to be behaving in such a consciously manipulative fashion – certainly it’s an assumption of the study that they are in general reporting their honestly held opinions faithfully.

100

Tim Wilkinson 05.15.11 at 4:31 pm

previous was to SoV @95

101

Martin Bento 05.15.11 at 9:17 pm

Tim, part of the absurdity of the birther claim is that whether Obama was born in the US made no difference to his citizenship. No one disputes his mother was a citizen, so he would have been (perhaps unless his mother took affirmative steps to prevent it; that’s beyond my legal knowledge) a US citizen regardless. Being born in US territory is part of being a “natural-born” citizen as that phrase in the Constitution has come to be interpreted. To my knowledge, eligibility to be President is the only context where this is of legal significance. So the birthers were always inferring that a 19 year-old lower middle class girl knocked up by an African man when miscegenation was still illegal in much of the country (though not her state) seriously thought her baby might become President. Weeelll, OK, moms do get extravagant, and she was young. But also that the local newspapers and county offices saw it this way. There is only one other case I have heard of a baby of humble means having his birth treated as so important by adult strangers because of his destiny, and accounts of that one are limited to the gospels.

102

Tim Wilkinson 05.15.11 at 10:54 pm

Yes, well, not having followed the saga at all closely, I was rather winding my neck back in even from the marginal and non-substantive points I’d made, as further info came through. And in particular as my remarks indicate I hadn’t realised that the birthplace was irrelevant for all other purposes. So yes.

Though still on an entirely rarefied point-of-order kind of basis, the long form document is much better as rebuttal than the short, since such rebuttal requires accepting the premise arguendo (or in dialectical terms, rebuttal invites counter-rebuttal) and, given that premise, the probability of official ‘noble cause’ falsification of the document becomes non-negligible. But that is an epistemics-trainspotter kind of point and any relevance to real life is, I agree, even vanishinglyer small than I’d previously said.

103

Cranky Observer 05.15.11 at 11:04 pm

It is always amusing to observe the point where Brett Bellmore packs up his eristic argumentation generator and moves on to the next thread. Generally, as here, when his refusal to even notice fundamental refutations of his arguments and premises is thoroughly exposed.

Cranky

104

politicalfootball 05.16.11 at 1:26 am

Yeah, Cranky, I’ve noticed that too. I’ve gotten so I estimate when he’ll abandon a thread. I think Walt in 98 put the final nail in the coffin.

With commenters like Brett, I always wonder which ones are the con artists and which ones are the true believers. I think the timing of Brett’s departures suggests that he knows he’s full of shit and thinks there’s something admirable about bullshitting relentlessly.

105

John Quiggin 05.16.11 at 2:33 am

“eristic” is a new and useful word for me, perfectly descriptive of commenters like Brett. Thanks, Cranky

106

John Quiggin 05.16.11 at 2:51 am

@Tim Thanks for your lengthy contributions which I, at least, have read with interest. In response to your suggestion that Republican college students are honestly reporting genuine opinions, I suspect that someone like Brett is less atypical of the educated, news following[fn1] part of the Republican base than you imply. Many of them must be aware by now that lots of the beliefs they are expected to hold have been falsified by the evidence, but they accept the tu quoque that the other side is worse, and the general principle of not giving an inch on any issue of contention.

So, evidence against a proposition believed by Republicans is meta-evidence that someone (presumably Democrats or worse) has gone out to find such evidence and therefore that the issue is one of contention, for which a firmer statement of faith is required.

This kind of process doesn’t require conscious adoption of an eristic stance, but it provides a ready market for those who do.

[1]I’ve assumed, perhaps falsely that college students can be regarded as educated and news following

107

Jack Strocchi 05.16.11 at 4:38 am

Pr Q said:

In some social contexts children are likely draw the obvious analogy between Santa and God, while in other contexts, the distinction between the two beliefs is maintained successfully. But regardless of context, there is an obvious risk, for those who would like their children to grow up as theists, in insisting too hard on the reality of Santa.

Dr Knopfelmacher, famously acerbic agnostic anti-communist, used to quip that belief in communism in the West suffered because of the evidence of refugees fleeing from the Soviet Bloc. However, he growled in his guttural Mettle-European accent, belief in God remained relatively robust because “zere are no exit visas from Heaven”.Or as Kolakowski put it, in the Cold War days, “did you notice that if you meet a Westerner who learnt Russian you have at least 90% chance of meeting a bloody reactionary?”

There are however exit visas from the USA, or at least world wide web searchs. So common sensible REPs will eventually see that other countries manage to do alright with such things as universal health care, decent industrial awards and a security apparatus dedicated to protecting its own borders rather than projecting onto others.

So yes, there is likely before too long to be some kind of crisis of faith amongst REPs in the medium term, as their Right-wing “lawyers, guns and money” chickens come home to roost: the plague of lawyers, monstrous military apparatus and financial fat-cats .Thats not counting delusion about climate change, where reality checks are more difficult to demonstrate until its way too late. Eventually that message will seep through to enough independents and moderates, who will tip the balance.

My prediction is that the REP melt-down will be sooner rather than later. In MAR 2010 I hunched that “the Tea Party movement is a flash in the pan, generating more smoke than fire and will burn out in a year or so”. The subsequent polls bear out this prediction, and my complementary prediction made in OCT 2010 that “the Tea Party-REPs will blink on their threat of government shutdown in 2011″.

The REP-Right have already just about jumped the shark. You only have to look at their most recent high-profile candidates – Sarah Palin and Donald Trump – to see what depths into which they have fallen. Its a sad decline from a once Grand Old Party that could boast such monumental talents as Lincoln, Roosevelt I, Hoover, Ike, Nixon and Reagan. The current REP-Right is not nearly as strong as they look, its just that the DEM-Left is weak as piss.

108

Jack Strocchi 05.16.11 at 4:50 am

Pr Q said:

Similarly, I suspect that the apparent success of Republicans in believing six impossible things before breakfast, and in taking up new delusions as old ones are abandoned, may mask an underlying erosion of faith.

This seems to be something along the lines of “A fanatic is someone who redoubles his efforts when he has forgotten his goal.” or “Methinks he doth protesteth too much”. Sometime or other the tremendous din from the cognitive dissonance between ideology and reality will cause a sizeable proportion of REPs to be aroused from their dogmatic slumbers.

Of course, this argument assumes that political action is somehow based on epistemically justifiable belief or at least some kind of ethically defensible commitment. But a large fraction of the REP base may well vote on account of their crass interests, rather than hard facts or noble ideals. So their vote may remain relatively impervious to this or that scientific study. Marx, after all, did not labour in vain.

Its a sobering thought for those professionally involved in the life of the mind and its political implications.

109

Jack Strocchi 05.16.11 at 5:14 am

Contra the ever-bearish Quiggin I see Obama as playing a canny long-term one-step-back-two-steps-forward game. He has always bet on the likelihood that the REPs will continue to shoot themselves in the feet. He is a cinch to win the 2012 election, providing he focuses on getting more grumpy white men into jobs.

This explains Obama’s “c”onservative political strategy which I summarized/suggested here in OCT 2010:

The Tea Party are fanatics and fanaticism always has the initiative in the opening stages of a conflict. But fanaticism grows old fast. It always has a tendency to over-reach, double-or-nothing strategy. Mostly because it sees itself in a race against time. My advice to Obama is to play rope-a-dope, let them burn themselves out in a flurry of wild swings. But when the final bell rings he should hang tough and go to the mat.

If nothing succeeds like success this implies that nothing fails like failure. The REP-Right have presided over military debacle, economic depression and one sizeable political drubbing. The Tea Party revival is a false dawn which is now spluttering out. Nobody likes a chronic loser.

Eventually if you get beat enough you stay down.

Leave the last word on fanaticism’s failures to George Smiley, with whom Obama shares a certain scholarly, inward frame of mind:

Peter Guillam: So Karla’s fireproof. He can’t be bought, and he can’t be beaten.

George Smiley: NOT fireproof! Because’s he’s a fanatic! I may have acted like a soft dolt, the very archetype of a flabby Western liberal but I’d rather be my kind of fool than his. One day that lack of moderation will be Karla’s downfall.

110

Martin Bento 05.16.11 at 8:08 am

In one sense, I think Brett was right: a lot of Repubs took the birther stuff seriously for where-smoke-there-fire reasons. Of course, that old adage is not necessarily true and was not in this case. Rather, Obama was playing them: good for him. I was hoping that was it, rather than being stupidly Kerry-esque and not willing to stoop. For God’s sake, stoop, and he did.

But the other side of it is that many Rpubs took it seriously because media figures they trust told them to. This is where I think the real damage is. Around water coolers across the country are talk-radio-listening bigmouths who’ve been annoying their co-workers for a year with this birth certificate silliness. Now, they’re embarrassed and probably have some co-workers disinclined to let them forget it. Will these people listen to Rush with the same ears again?? I think many will at least be more cautious, at least for a while. We saw all those Clinton rumors fade too, but not as suddenly and not with proof in the precise form that the accusers demanded it. And, in fact, a lot of the right-wing bigmouths shut up for a while after Starr dropped all their allegations – even Whitewater, which the legal system and media took very seriously – as soon as he caught Clinton with an intern. The noise machine had to rebuild a bit from that, which is why the rumors about Gore centered on debatable interpretations of things he said, rather than exotic crimes.

111

Tim Wilkinson 05.16.11 at 10:02 am

JQ – Yes, obviously the whole point of this kind of study is to try to examine the vast no-man’s land between deliberate rhetorical tactics and utterly rational (or at least phenomenologically passive) assimilation of data. But I took SoV to be talking about something very close to the former, while the study described matters in terms much closer to the latter and as dealing with the psychology of belief.

Which is probably needlessly obscure – I mean to say that the study seemed not to acknowldge that the respondents might be attempting to game the questionnaire by taking conscious steps to appear reasonable. But again, the distinction is not what you’d call sharp and perhaps the idea is to factor them out altogether and take a methodologically behaviourist kind of approach to the issue.

Just another note on the experimental set-up though – it seems that of the 4 tests, only one was aimed at Dems, and that was I think both a relatively marginal issue and, from the POV of Dems, probably one of the strongest and clearest corrections, least open to interpretation, argument and background evidence, at least for those not concerned with embryo’s rights.

112

Seth 05.17.11 at 10:47 pm

@Barry Freed (29):
“Most. Disappointing. Crooked Timber thread. Ever.”

Oh, but what a perfect expression of Kant’s point about crooked timber it provides!

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