World of Wonders

When we see things that aren’t, we miss the wonderful things that are.

Birthers, Deathers and the End of the World

I’m posting this on May 22nd 2011—which means the planet was not torn asunder by an  apocalyptic earthquake yesterday and the faithful have not been called up into heaven in The Rapture.

It seems Harold Camping, the president of the American Christian radio network, Family Radio, erred in proclaiming “THE END OF THE WORLD IS ALMOST HERE! HOLY GOD WILL BRING JUDGMENT DAY ON MAY 21, 2011.” As we all now know, God didn’t bring it, despite Family Radio’s confident declaration that “The Bible Guarantees It.”

Of course, Camping isn’t the first to wrongly foretell the Apocalypse (and he won’t be the last as we’ll see in December 2012); there have been countless dooms-days before this one. In 1954, a Chicago housewife named Dorothy Martin claimed she was in communication with aliens from a planet called Clarion. According to the extraterrestrials, a great flood would bring an end to our civilization on the morning of December 21st. But the Clarions also reassured Dorothy they would swoop down in a flying saucer at midnight on the 20th to rescue her and other “true believers.” Needless to say, the deluge did not appear—and neither did the flying saucer.

So, can we now expect Camping to question his faith, or at the very least concede the folly of foretelling the apocalypse? Not likely. As social psychologists Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter describe in their book, When Prophesy Fails, Martin reacted to the alien no-show by claiming she’d received another Clarion-call, later that morning, that the God of Earth had spared the planet because of the believers’ devotion. Far from damping their fanaticism, the failure of the prophesy stirred their zeal to an even greater froth and the group stepped up their evangelical efforts.

Camping will likely repeat history and, in short order, supply a rationale for why his prophesy didn’t pan out. After all, that’s what he did with his failed forecast of an apocalypse in 1994. He defended himself then by saying there had always been a margin of error in his calculations.

Festinger, Riecken and Schachter describe Martin’s reaction as a response to the cognitive dissonance created by the disagreement between her prediction and reality. She proclaimed the end was near; it wasn’t. In order to reduce the dissonance, she—like all failed prophets—reconciled the conflict by contriving an ad hoc and after-the-fact explanation.

Such mental and emotional gymnastics are described as motivated reasoning or motivated cognition. Stony Brook University political scientist Charles Taber says our immediate emotional response to an idea makes us “…retrieve thoughts that are consistent with our previous beliefs”, even before our analytical faculties kick in. In the minds of zealots like Camping and Martin, their emotions, pre-existing beliefs—even their sense of self—overpower facts and logic in steering them to their conclusions.

And while it’s easy to be mock individuals like Camping and Martin, we all employ motivated reasoning—for example, when we’re told our precious child is behaving badly in school, or when a loved one falls critically ill, or when we ignore good advice. We see it in arenas you might think would be ruled by rational minds and scientific evidence. For example, many global-warming deniers are motivated, not by scientific evidence but by their political and economic ideologies. According to the Pew Research Center, 79% of Democrats believe there is “solid evidence” for global warming, compared to 38% of Republicans. And 53% of Democrats accept that human activity is the cause, compared to 16% of Republicans. In this case, an abhorrence of government-imposed restrictions on free enterprise overpowers evidence. (Of course, a lack of scientific literacy is another pillar of global warming denialism—but that’s another post.)

Case studies in motivated reasoning are plentiful. In fact, I began this post when Barack Obama released his long-form birth certificate in response to “birthers” like Donald Trump who claim the president wasn’t born in the U.S. and therefore should not occupy the Oval Office. Then, a mere four days later, another example appeared with the announcement that Osama bin Laden had been killed.

Michael Shermer described nicely this historic symmetry as the death of the “birthers” and the birth of the “deathers.” Except that reports of the death of the birthers have been greatly exaggerated. Within hours of the release of the birth certificate, speculation exploded in the blogosphere and mainstream media that the document was a fake. Astonishingly, there are even claims that the attempt at forgery is so incredibly crude and easy to detect that it must have been done this way on purpose—perhaps to keep the controversy alive in order to distract from other issues. The appearance of the birth certificate has done nothing but shift the focus of incredulity. It’s conspiracies, all the way down.

But, yes, we definitely saw the birth of deathers claiming that bin Laden’s killing is not what it seems—that he has been dead for a decade and the government is only now revealing that fact for political gain, or that he is still alive and being held because (insert theory here). Some call for proof in the form of a photo of the body, but that would merely spawn allegations that the image, like Obama’s birth certificate, was bogus. (What would frame the birther/deather symmetry better than the release of bin Laden’s death certificate?)

Jonathan Kay is an editor with the National Post and author of Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America’s Growing Conspiracist Underground. Echoing the idea of cognitive dissonance, Kay writes that conspiracy theories are “bridges” between the reality we think exists and real reality. The person who doesn’t believe Obama is the rightful President builds a birther bridge connecting that notion with the reality that Obama is indeed in the White House. The person who distrusts the President or government in general builds a deather bridge. The person who believes the U.S. government is secretive, conspiring and has nefarious plans we’re not aware of builds a truther bridge between his view and the reality of the 9/11 attacks. The bridge? That the American government perpetrated the attacks to justify invading Iraq and killing Saddam Hussein.

Whether we’re talking about the death penalty, stem cell research, vaccines and autism, gun control, safe injection sites, weapons of mass destruction, and on and on—the same emotional and psychological forces are at play. The lesson? Chris Mooney writes, “If you want someone to accept new evidence, make sure to present it to them in a context that doesn’t trigger a defensive, emotional reaction…In other words, paradoxically, you don’t lead with the facts in order to convince. You lead with the values—so as to give the facts a fighting chance.”

As President Obama declared when he released his birth certificate, “We don’t have time for this silliness. We have more important things to do.” That we do. We have global challenges like climate change, the empowerment of women, the eradication of disease, and countless more, that require reasoning that isn’t warped by political ideology, fundamentalist religion, or fear.

Unfortunately, these bridges—no matter how flimsy they might seem to many of us—are formidable structures that can withstand the force of the most convincing evidence and rigorous logic. And we will never stop constructing them in order to reconcile the dissonance in our minds. There will never be an end to prophets of the Apocalypse, conspiracy theories, denialists and unreasoned reason. I guarantee it.

Filed under: politics, pseudoscience, religion, skepticism

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