Thursday, August 6, 2009

Bears repeating

The "Birthers" have been on my radar since June 2008, when urban legends about Obama's citizenship first made national headlines (and were quickly debunked). My own interest in repeatedly sharing any information debunking these morons comes less from some affinity for Obama and his policies (poke around here long enough, and my true colors as a leftist skeptic who hasn't much cared for the center-right Democratic party for - at this point - decades will become clear as day). Rather, my interest comes from a strong disdain for urban legends and conspiracy theories. Urban legends (and this goes too for conspiracy theories) succeed to the extent that they 1) play on the fears or hopes of a particular target audience, and 2) have just enough surface plausibility to seem initially credible. The thing is, once one actually does some homework, there turns out to be no substance to the claims made in an urban legend. The internet era has been both a blessing and a curse when it comes to urban legends. On the positive side, one is just a few keystrokes or mouse clicks away from finding the necessary evidence regarding the validity of any urban legend under the sun. On the negative side, urban legends propagate much more rapidly than ever before. I know my email account is often flooded with urban legends sent via mass emails (most of which now thankfully get picked up by my spam filters). Thing is, the more falsehoods get repeated, the more believable they appear. Hence the need to have at your disposal tools for determining if the information you're receiving is valid, or if it is nothing more than a load of bovine fecal matter. My usual rule of thumb is that if something seems a bit far-fetched, it probably is. Still it is helpful to check things out.

In the past, with regard to the nonsense propagated by the Birthers, I have strongly recommended the efforts of the fine folks at and Both resources are invaluable. The fine folks at Salon have assembled what they call a handy-dandy guide to refuting the Birthers, which takes each of the main points made by Birthers, and in turn debunks them. Although I hadn't found anything in the Salon article that hadn't already been taken care of by (a few of my favorites here, here, here, and here) and, I do see a great deal of value in having as much of the evidence needed to debunk the Birthers' myth-making in one convenient location. Of course I hold out no hope that the hard-core true believers will be persuaded that they are in error - what I know about motivated cognition leads me to the conclusion that the true believers will hang on desperately to the myth regardless of those inconvenient facts that keep getting in the way. Rather, I hope instead that although a big lie told often enough may become believable, if that big lie is vigorously refuted every time it is told, it will lose much of its potency (its ability to influence others in the future). If there is any good news thus far, it is that at this point the Birthers are a marginalized minority of the public limited to a particular region (the southeastern US) and a particular political party (GOP), and their claims have had no traction outside of those two demographic categories.

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