Posted in Ed vs. Logical Fallacies on May 29th, 2012 by Ed

The political environment has been made slightly more tolerable over the past year by the crippling blow dealt to birtherism by the President's long form birth certificate. All but the most hardcore right wing conspiracy theorists – the "No Planes" part of the far right, if you will – have abandoned the idea that Barack Obama was not born in Hawaii. This is not to say, of course, that they have accepted his legitimacy as an elected official or as an American. Using the Conservative Scientific Method (start with the conclusion and work backwards, disregarding any evidence to the contrary) it is still perfectly logical to conclude that Obama is an interloper and a fraud. If he wasn't born in Kenya, then he must have been raised Muslim. If he wasn't raised Muslim, then he must have cheated his way into college. If he didn't cheat his way into college, then Harvard only took him because he was black. And so on. The conclusion always remains the same even though everything leading up to it changes: He is Not One of Us. He is a hoax. He is illegitimate. Somehow.

The latest theory – circulated mostly through forwarded emails from your insane relatives – focuses on a promotional pamphlet printed by a literary agency in 1991. In it, the short bio clip identifies Obama as born in Kenya and raised in Hawaii. This is confirmed real and is not a clumsy photoshop:

The literary agent has stated that this was a mistake. It's not hard to picture a 23 year old assistant editor seeing the Kenyan father and assuming that Obama himself was born there.

"This was nothing more than a fact checking error by me–an agency assistant at the time," Goderich wrote in an emailed statement to Yahoo News. "There was never any information given to us by Obama in any of his correspondence or other communications suggesting in any way that he was born in Kenya and not Hawaii. I hope you can communicate to your readers that this was a simple mistake and nothing more."

Nonetheless, anything stating that Obama was born in Kenya is bound to ignite a firestorm. Yet logic would suggest that a birth certificate, along with the other documented evidence, trumps some press release. Compounding the difficulty in making a big deal out of this, most conservatives have already buried the birther theory. But leave it to Breitbart (from beyond the grave) to turn this into a new conspiracy theory:

Andrew Breitbart was never a "Birther," and Breitbart News is a site that has never advocated the narrative of "Birtherism." In fact, Andrew believed, as we do, that President Barack Obama was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, on August 4, 1961…

Yet Andrew also believed that the complicit mainstream media had refused to examine President Obama's ideological past, or the carefully crafted persona he and his advisers had constructed for him. It is evidence–not of the President's foreign origin, but that Barack Obama's public persona has perhaps been presented differently at different times.

OK. Here's how it works.

Barack Obama was not born in Kenya, but he said he was in order to move himself up the academic ladder. His grades (which have not been released to the public, an integral part of this theory) at Occidental College were not good enough to get him into Columbia, nor were his Columbia grades sufficient to get him into Harvard Law School. So he lied and claimed Kenyan birth on his applications, which (per the theory) gave him some sort of advantage in the admissions process. Thus "birtherism" was all Obama's fault. People suspected he might have been born in Kenya because he said that was the case when it suited his purposes.

So here are the two potential explanations:

1. A literary agent made a mistake.
2. Obama lied about his citizenship / nationality / place of birth over a 15 year period as part of a conspiracy to advance his academic and professional goals.

Both of these are plausible. Given that, the law of parsimony would lead us to the one that requires the fewest assumptions, unproven assertions, and leaps in logic. In short, which one is simpler? Which is more plausible? It's possible that the "Obama lied" theory is correct. But it seems pretty unlikely compared to the alternative explanations.

If a theory this convoluted is necessary to make sense of your predetermined conclusions, there is a good chance that you're making shit up. That obvious fact is remarkably easy to overlook if you're 100% convinced that Barack Obama is a fraud. The phrase Unnecessarily Complex does not enter into your thinking. You will develop some theory, find evidence somewhere, and substitute "likely" for "plausible" to make sense of it all. And no matter what Obama says, does, or makes public, this parade of inane conspiracies will never stop.