The Aresan Clan is published four times a week (Tue, Wed, Fri, Sun). You can see what's been written so far collected here. All posts will be posted under the Aresan Clan label. For summaries of the events so far, visit here. See my previous serial Vampire Wares collected here.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Birthers and belief

With the release of President Obama's long form birth certificate today you'd think this would be the end of the so called birther movement. Sadly, this may not be the case. I'm going to make a prediction and say that, though this movement will become further marginalized, I don't think it'll disappear. The reason I think this is not because there is anything like significant evidence that Obama was born outside the US, but because of the nature of human belief. I think this can be illustrated two ways.

We might first illustrate this with a story. In fact, we'll illustrate it with two stories. First, we have the case of Shabbethai Zebi (aka Sabbatai Zevi), a 17th century Jew living in the Levant under Ottoman rule who became convinced that he was the messiah. He was apparently a charismatic figure, who gained quite a following, on the conviction that he was the long-awaited messiah who was going to lead the Jews to independence and victory over their current ruler, the Ottoman empire, under Sultan Mehmet IV. He was a powerful figure in the Jewish community, garnered a huge following, and ultimately went to Istanbul convinced that, perhaps through some miracle, he would replace the sultan as leader of the Ottomans and would wear the sultans crown on his head. It didn't work out that way, and he was quickly imprisoned. He made a good enough impression on the Ottoman leadership that they permitted him to join the court, if he converted to Islam. And that's what he did. He converted to Islam. Understandably, this was devastating to the great movement that followed him, since it profoundly disconfirmed everything they'd been led to believe, but it didn't entirely kill it. Those who weren't disenchanted by his conversion started the Sabbatean movement, which is still alive today in Turkey. The movement is characterized by Jews who openly practice Muslim ways, but secretly subscribe to Jewish beliefs and await the return Shabbethai as a messiah.

Another similar case is the Paul is Dead conspiracy theory. This one began in 1969 as just a rumor in the US that Paul McCartney of the Beatles was dead. The rumor quickly gained speed, spreading across college campuses and into mainstream news. It was able to build up so much momentum because at the time Paul McCartney was out of touch; he was way out in his Scottish retreat with his wife, trying to deliberately cut himself off from the world for a little while to get a break. The rumor became popular because the Beatles had apparently hidden all types of clues in their songs and album art. For example, people claimed that the shrubbery on the cover of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band is a grave, that the cover of Abbey Road is a funeral procession with Paul as the deceased, or that the "Number 9" voice on "Revolution 9" played backwards sounded like "Turn me on dead man." The shear number of ostensible clues that have been found is astounding, mind-blowing, and you could see and hear them all for yourself if you owned the albums. The whole rumor was quickly killed within a couple weeks when a reporter from Life tracked down Paul at his Scottish retreat and got some pictures and an interview. Most people were reassured and chuckled to themselves at how such a rumor got so out of control. But not everyone was convinced, and there are people to this day who believe that Paul died and was replaced by a lookalike.

What are we to make of these stories? We can also think of it in terms of W. V. O. Quine's concept of the web of belief. The idea is that we have many beliefs which are interconnected and which confirm one another. When new evidence is presented which perhaps shakes up or disconfirms these beliefs, we have to adjust these beliefs to accommodate it. Usually, we adjust the beliefs that are at the edge of our web of belief, the one's that are the least foundational. At the center are the beliefs that are pretty much unchanging and are the foundation for all other beliefs. Quine identified things like logic and beliefs about experience (for example, that sensory experience is largely accurate) and perhaps basic tenets about science as most foundational. But then again these foundation beliefs could vary from person to person. For some people a core belief might be a belief in God or a belief in the superiority of scientific method. These beliefs are the things that most identify us, so we are going to always try to change our other beliefs to preserve these central beliefs, no matter what the new evidence is. This core of our web of belief could be any ideology, say Marxism or Catholicism or Keynesianism or Platonism or whatever. And in fact, it could be some sort more marginal ideology like being a Holocaust denier, or a Moon Landing Denier, or a believer in Shape-shifting Lizard Aliens, or a birther. If you look hard enough and are creative enough, you can find evidence for anything and figure out ways to deny any contrary evidence. If it's important enough to you to preserve those beliefs, you can find a way.

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