Last week, I posted about an "invisible thumb"
on the balance beam of human judgment that makes it hard for most people to logically evaluate some kinds of information.
It may turn out that our brains are hardwired with more "thumbs" than a drawerful of mittens. Enough to make me wonder how we ever get anything right. Case in point: The persistent belief that President Barack Obama is a Muslim.
The Pew Research Center just released the results
of a survey taken almost a month ago: "Do you happen to know what Barack Obama's religion is? Is he Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, agnostic or something else?"
The outcome is nothing but depressing for anybody who believes that facts should matter:
"A new national survey by the Pew Research Center finds that nearly one-in-five Americans (18 percent) now say Obama is a Muslim, up from 11 percent in March 2009. Only about one-third of adults (34 percent) say Obama is a Christian, down sharply from 48 percent in 2009. Fully 43% say they do not know what Obama's religion is."
The Pew folks note that this poll was taken before Obama waded into the Cordoba Center controversy
Not surprisingly, groups opposed to Obama's politics showed the largest increase in their belief that he's Muslim.
"The belief that Obama is a Muslim has increased most sharply among Republicans (up 14 points since 2009), especially conservative Republicans (up 16 points). But the number of independents who say Obama is a Muslim has also increased significantly (up eight points). There has been little change in the number of Democrats who say Obama is a Muslim, but fewer Democrats today say he is a Christian (down nine points since 2009)."
What do we really know about Obama's religion? I admit we can't know anything for certain. But unless you're a mind reader, you don't even know for certain if the pope is Catholic. Maybe Benedict is a shape-changing Reptilian
sent to infiltrate our planet?
Truth is, since we can't read minds, all we have to work with for anybody is their public record, of which Obama has considerable. (I'll piggyback on the excellent work done on Snopes.com on this topic.
) His dad may have been a Muslim but showed no particular religious beliefs by the time he married Obama's mother. When young Barack was a small child, his stepfather took the family to the world's largest primarily Muslim country – Indonesia – for five or six years. There, Obama went to school with Muslim kids. And Catholic kids.
And then he comes back to Hawaii to live with his maternal grandmother, never to have significant contact with any of his father's family again until he is an adult.
For Obama to be Muslim today, the following must be true: He never mentioned it to a soul through the rest of his school years, including college and law school. Or to anybody in the decades thereafter. Never worshiped at any mosque. (If he had done any of that, we'd know about it by now.) He lied about his religion in his two autobiographies. He decided to attend a Chicago church for 20 years to -- what? --cover up his true identity. He lied about his religion while giving an interview in 2004 about his faith
(well worth the clickthru, btw) . And in various speeches during the presidential campaign. And in other speeches since his election.
It's all possible
, I guess. But I'd say the Reptilian explanation is more likely.
(As an aside, there's some evidence in the public record that Obama is the sort of Christian more concerned about the good works that are supposed to be the Fruits of the Spirit than he is about the theology of salvation. Which would put him reasonably central in the American Christian mainstream, but would also lead some theologically conservative Christians to question his bona fides in that faith.)
On the other hand, there is
no other hand. I've never seen a scintilla of credible evidence that Obama is Muslim. So why do so many people think he is? And why is the number growing? The Pew report offers no speculation, much less explanation.
If this were 2004, I'd understand. Who knows anything about the guy? He's got that funny, foreign name. Not all-American like Bush (which is originally from England), Clinton (ditto), Reagan (Gaelic) or Eisenhower (German). And even though we're three years past the 9/11 attack, most of us still don't know beans about Islam.
But it's not 2004. We've all heard plenty about Obama. And we've even heard a lot about Islam. Surely, even people who disagree bitterly with Obama about all matters political can agree that the sky is blue, the moon is not made of green cheese, and Obama is not a Muslim?
The dismal truth is that good science indicates that seemingly incontrovertible facts aren't necessarily enough.
Last week, I wrote about the Knobe effect – a demonstration that we're more inclined to cast blame for something we think is bad than give credit for something we think is good, even if the situations are totally parallel.
Knobe's work doesn't really apply to this situation, but I've got a couple of effects that do.
The Dunning-Kruger effect says, basically, that ignorance breeds overconfidence. And that people who are ignorant tend not to realize just how little they know. The effect is named after David Dunning, a psychology professor at Cornell University, and Justin Kruger, a marketing professor at New York University.
I asked Dunning whether he thought his research helped explain why so many people insist that Obama is Muslim. After all, they've surely been given better information?
Not so fast, he said. Maybe I'm showing my own ignorance in that assumption.
"One of the components of the Dunning-Kruger effect is that people who are 'in the know' overestimate just how much other people are also 'in the know.' Thus, it may appear that there's more information out there about Obama and Islam over the past year, and that 'surely people know more' about both than they once did. But, those who have encountered the information or who know more about Obama and Islam are very likely to overestimate how much other people have encountered that information or know the facts."
So I don't even know what I think I know about what other people ought to know? I'm getting a headache.
Plus, people weigh evidence based on what they already believe.
"If a tidbit of news agrees with what I already believe, it is more likely to be accepted as true immediately. If it contradicts, it is subjected to withering critique and a call for more convincing evidence," Dunning said.
And then there's what's called the "backfire effect." Contradictory facts can actually strengthen false reasoning. Many people say they are more
certain about a position even after being presented facts that should shake that certainty.
On of the originators of the backfire effect, who somehow didn't get his name attached to it, is Jason Reifler, a political science professor at Georgia State University. He and colleague Brendan Nyhan at the University of Michigan published a paper last year titled "The Effects of Semantics and Social Desirability in Correcting the Obama Muslim Myth."
In the paper, they tried to figure out ways to use facts to convince doubters that Obama is not, in fact, a Muslim. What they tried mostly didn't work. I asked Reifler if the results weren't simply too dispiriting for words. He tried to cheer me up.
"There is also potentially a positive side to a lot of this, if you are trying to find some glimmer of hope. Which I usually am," he said.
People's resistance to having their minds changed may keep them wrong for too long, but it also prevents them from quickly sliding into error, he said.
Think of a storm anchor, which is something like an underwater parachute that boats will use in foul weather
. It slows the boat down, keeping it from being pushed too far or fast by wind or wave. In good weather it would be a burden, but in dangerous times, it can be an important protection.
Maybe the backfire effect provides that kind of defense, if evidence isn't compelling enough? Or am I grasping at straws?
Reifler offered a possible explanation for the growing number of people who say Obama is Muslim: It's code for "I don't like Obama." Some of them, he said, may neither know or care much about Obama's religion. But they know they don't much like Islam. And they don't much like Obama. So when a pollster gives them the chance to toss a public opinion stink bomb, they take the shot.
"How much is that they really believe those things and how much is an opportunity to say something bad about him? We can't get inside their heads," Reifler said.
Over time, he said, public opinion tends to nudge its way in the direction of good information.
"On the whole the public makes good decisions, It may take 10, 20, years or longer, There may be some groups that are much slower to accept it than others," he said.
Which still doesn't really explain the growth in the number of people willing to deny the particular reality that there's no persuasive evidence that Obama is Muslim.
The Knobe effect, Dunning-Kruger effect, backfire effect -- these are among the invisible thumbs that push and pull on the scale of human judgment, making logical assessments harder than paying the right price to a dishonest butcher.
And these days, so many decisions have much larger implications that anything considered by our ancestors: Global warming, nuclear weaponry, public health, religious tolerance. Can humans get any of these right, or are we all simply screwed by our unconscious thought processes?
"I have been trying to come up with the clever handful of sentences I can use to reassure people and say everything is good," Reifler said. "What I can say is that this is a problem and we're working on solving it."
Maybe we're left with the famous quote generally (though not universally) attributed to Abraham Lincoln:
You can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time.
Slender hope, that.