THE BLOG
04/29/2011 03:56 pm ET Updated Jun 29, 2011

Why Birthers Don't Care About the Facts of Obama

In a wild turn of events yesterday, President Barack Obama released a copy of his "long-form" birth certificate from Hawaii, to the chagrin of many who saw this action as validating the concerns of a fringe group of people who believe Obama is not a U.S. citizen (the "birthers"). The naive among us might believe this should put the matter to rest -- they asked for a copy of his birth certificate, and they got it.

Instead, it has only added fuel to the fire. Now there are claims that the document is forged or a fake. There remain questions among this fringe group as to why it's taken the President so long to release this document. (Answer: being the leader of one of the world's superpowers is a little time-consuming and there are more pressing priorities.) And Donald Trump, a sideshow entertainer who himself appears to be dipping his feet into the deep side of the conspiracy theory pool, is now raising questions about Obama's education.

Regardless of what political party you may side with, there is an interesting psychological phenomenon taking place here. It is the phenomenon of the power of cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions -- such as black and white thinking -- are something ordinary people grapple with every day.

The term "cognitive distortion" comes from cognitive-behavioral psychology. Aaron T. Beck talked about the specific cognitive distortion that appears to be at work here -- selective abstraction.

Repetitive thinking errors are a major block to learning. When a person's method of assimilating information is faulty, he continues to believe and act on faulty assumptions. He assumes the world will turn out a certain way, and his method of taking in information reconfirms his basic assumptions.


Often a patient fails to learn because he attends only to material that supports his original assumptions. The patient who believes he lives in a hostile world will pay strict attention to news reports and have conversations that focus on dangers. Such selective focusing on crime, pollution, war, and pestilence reconfirms the believe that one lives in a dangerous world.

We might refer to this as "selective focus" nowadays -- the ability to focus only on the theories and facts that fit one's perspective. Information that competes with our own view of the world is simply not considered, or discarded as being false, inconclusive or made-up.

It's similar to the group of people who don't believe we've ever made a moon landing. You can show them the video footage, even have them talk to the people who've walked on the moon. They consider the video to be staged, and the men paid to say whatever supports the moon landing story. No amount of evidence will change these people's minds.

The same appears to be true with the birthers. It doesn't matter if President Obama ever produced the original birth certificate. They will find problems with whatever it is that was produced. Now there's a video on YouTube showing the PDF has "layers" -- a common feature of documents scanned with OCR software (and already debunked by many, including The National Review). Of course since most of us don't scan in documents using OCR, we don't know that, so it becomes another piece of evidence of the deception.

And so on, and so on ...

The Birthers won't go away with the release of his birth certificate. Now, they'll focus on other components of Obama's background, starting with his educational background. And no matter what documents Obama produces, it won't ever allay the concerns of the birthers. Because their concerns are based on irrational and false beliefs -- powerful forces that are hard to put to rest.

But if a person wants to change these irrational beliefs, they can challenge these types of cognitive distortions. All it takes is the motivation and desire to do so.

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