Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The 'Get a Life' Principle

Like a lot of people with more important things to worry about, I've been paying rapt attention to the spectacle of the so-called "Birther Movement." For my money, getting the full experience requires going to the source, such as www.obamacrimes.com. On this site, attorney Phillip Berg writes:
The Obama candidacy is the biggest ‘HOAX’ perpetrated on the citizens of the United States in 230 years, since our nation was established. Obama must be legally removed from office.

I believe that 15 to 20 million people are aware of the Obama 'HOAX,' and we must make 75 to 100 million people aware.
(Screaming uppercase in the original; ditto for the scare quotes.)

Alas, Berg might actually be correct when he estimates that 15 to 20 million people agree with him. I base this observation on the fact that in a 1999 Gallup poll, fully six percent of Americans expressed a belief that the 1969 moon landing was faked by the government. I’d like to see this as a glass 94% full. But what it would appear to indicate is that if all of the Americans who dispute the truth of the moon landing were to get together and form their own U.S. state, it would likely be the fifth largest state in the union, outranking Illinois (take that, Obama). So I’m thinking that in terms of his numbers, Berg is probably in the right ballpark. (Though "being in the right ballpark" hardly seems an appropriate metaphor for this situation.)

Another interesting site is www.obamacitizenshipfacts.org. On this page we are treated to a quote by Thomas Jefferson:
To restore ... harmony, ... to render us again one people acting as one nation should be the object of every man really a patriot.
(I guess they are taking the long way around to harmony, by seeking the removal of the President.)

A small 1994 study by Rutgers sociologist Ted Goertzel found that among the subjects studied,
Belief in Conspiracies was significantly correlated (r = .43) with a three-item scale of "Anomia" (alpha = .49) made up of items taken from the General Social Survey of 1990. These items measured the belief that the situation of the average person is getting worse, that it is hardly fair to bring a child into today's world, and that most public officials are not interested in the average man.

The Belief in Conspiracies scale was also significantly correlated (r = .21) with the item "thinking about the next 12 months, how likely do you think it is that you will lose your job or be laid off."

Volkan (1985) suggests that during periods of insecurity and discontent people often feel a need for a tangible enemy on which to externalize their angry feelings. Conspiracy theories may help in this process by providing a tangible enemy to blame for problems which otherwise seem too abstract and impersonal.
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As the name implies, ObamaCitizenshipFacts.org is full of FACTS. Conspiracy theorists love facts – and they love FACTS even more. In FACT, in a 1999 scholarly article on conspiracy theories, philosopher B.L. Keeley stressed the importance to the conspiracy theorist of certain very special facts, which Keeley called "errant data":
The chief tool of the conspiracy theorist is what I shall call errant data.

Errant data come in two classes: (a) unaccounted-for data and (b) contradictory data. Unaccounted for data do not contradict the received account, but are data that fall through the net of the received explanation. ... For example, ... the fact that no BATF employees were in the building at the time of the [Oklahoma City] explosion [is] unaccounted-for data with respect to the received account of the bombing. Contradictory data are data that, if true, would contradict the received account. McVeigh's manifest idiocy in fleeing the scene of the bombing in a car without license plates is a contradictory datum with respect to the official account of him as a conspiratorial ringleader capable of planning and carrying out such a terrorist operation.
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It may be that there are certain propositions which simply do not reward one's sustained attention. Take, for example, the proposition "Your mother and your father were both faithful to each other during all the years of their marriage." To adopt a position of serious doubt on this question, and then, in such a frame of mind, to scour the family archives for bits and pieces of errant data, would not bring you any closer to the truth – it would only drive you crazy. Along similar lines, philosopher Lee Basham would counsel us to avoid conspiracy theories in order to preserve ourselves from harm:
A more solid ground for the rejection of conspiracy theories is simply pragmatic. There is nothing you can do. While it would be speculative (but reasonable) to conclude that this is why many people dismiss conspiracy theory, it is a considerable reason why we should. The futile pursuit of malevolent conspiracy theory sours or at least distracts us from what is good and valuable in life.
Later in the article Basham writes:
Any number of conspiracies might be worming their way through our world order. Now what? The 'get a life' principle kicks in with a vengeance.
Keeley has additional advice:
...[We] should be careful not to over-rationalize the world or the people that live in it. Rejecting conspiratorial thinking entails accepting the meaningless nature of the human world. Just as with the physical world, where hurricanes, tornadoes, and other "acts of God" just happen, the same is true of the social world. Some people just do things. They assassinate world leaders, act on poorly thought out ideologies, and leave clues at the scene of the crime. Too strong a belief in the rationality of people in general, or of the world, will lead us to seek purposive explanations where none exists.
It would be easy to view conspiracy theorists as irrational. But as Keeley points out, their beliefs sometimes depend on an extreme faith in the rationality of others; and their dogged pursuit of errant data is in some ways a model of sober detection, similar to the work of journalists, detectives, and scientists. Keeley says something similar when he writes,
I suggest that there is nothing straightforwardly analytic that allows us to distinguish between good and bad conspiracy theories. We seem to be confronted with a spectrum of cases, ranging from the reliable to the highly implausible. The best we can do is track the evaluation of given theories over time and come to some consensus as to when belief in the theory entails more skepticism than we can stomach. Also, I suspect that much of the intuitive "problem" with conspiracy theories is a problem with the theorists themselves, and not a feature of the theories they produce. Perhaps the problem is a psychological one of not recognizing when to stop searching for hidden causes.
It’s hard to read a website like ObamaCitizenshipFacts.org or ObamaCrimes.com without becoming slightly concerned about the psychological well-being of conspiracy theorists. There is an obsessive quality to the undertaking, of course, but also a hint of something unmoored. I think of those theories of paranoid schizophrenia, according to which many sufferers from this disease may lack a "theory of mind."
[M]any patients are unable to represent or imagine the actions or intentions of other people. They lack a "theory of mind." Persecutory delusions may form because the paranoid patient cannot imagine someone else's perspective or psychological experience. Instead, idiosyncratic and ultimately sinister speculations are manufactured about the motives and intentions that govern the social world.
And now at the end of this exercise, I’m sensing that the sanity or insanity of the birthers is itself a proposition that doesn’t reward sustained attention. And the artifacts produced by people like Philip Berg on ObamaCrimes.com finally speak to me of pain. At the top of this page, we read:
12/09/08 – My brother, Norman Barry Berg, just passed away. My brother meant so much to me. I gave the attached Eulogy in loving memory of him at his funeral. I go forth in my efforts to find the truth of Obama in memory of my brother.
I guess it is time to start practicing the ‘get a life’ principle myself.

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