Those questions came to my mind Tuesday as I listened to “Talk of the Nation” on NPR. The piece, entitled “Ground Up in the Rumor Mill” (audio here) was in anticipation of Pres. Obama’s press conference Tuesday night and in response to the continuing agitation by a fringe group called “The Birthers,” who hold out that Pres. Obama is a not United States citizen. They say he was born in Kenya, not Hawaii, and is lying about his citizenship. The issue was taken all the way to the Supreme Court during the campaign, who ruled that his birth papers were all in order. Another precipitating event was a recent town hall meeting featuring Rep. Mike Castle (DL) where a lady carrying an American flag & copy of her own birth certificate hysterically demanded to know why Congress was ignoring this “obvious breach” of our constitution.”
The two sections of the NPR piece were first an interview with Dee Dee Myers (former press secretary to Pres. Clinton) who spoke on the anticipated press conference, and with Dr. Sam Wang (Assoc. Prof of Molecular Biology & Neuroscience at Princeton) who spoke about how brain functioning explains the persistent hold that rumors like these continue to have.
I’m not going to go into what Myers said, because it was mostly political advice for a president at a press conference. But Dr. Wang had some fascinating information.
Statistics were noted such as:
- 18% of Americans believe that the sun revolves around the earth (the “Copernicus Conspiracy”)-that’s a lot of people—over 55 million Americans!
- 10% believe Obama is a Muslim (that’s over 30 million Americans!)
- A certain percentage still believe that man did not land on the moon 40 years ago, but instead it was staged in a warehouse somewhere.
Wang, the co-author of: Welcome to Your Brain: Why You Lose Your Car Keys, But Never Forget How to Drive—and Other Puzzles of Everyday Life) stated that there are three quirks of memory that acerbate the squelching of rumors like this. Our brain is not like a computer memory where information is put down and is immediately and forever available to us.
The three quirks are:
- Source amnesia– We don’t remember where we first heard things (we probably don’t remember when we first heard that Washington D.C. is the capitol of our country.) That is because memory gets rewritten. We separate a fact from the context of where we originally heard it.
Because of source amnesia, repetition does a diabolical thing. We remember that we heard it, but don’t remember the context, including, sometimes, the context that the rumor was said to be false! By repeating a falsehood & talking about the rumors that go against the fact that Obama was born in Aug. 1961 they call attention to it, and it is inevitable that someone will say: “You know I don’t remember the details, but I remember a controversy around the place where Barak Obama was born.”
- Biased assimilation-we tend to accept/remember ideas that fit in with our prior beliefs. We tend to be more critical of /reject /question ideas that DON’T fit with our prior beliefs. Wang shared the results of a study at Stanford University that used two groups of students: one group who believed there was a deterrent quality to capital punishment and the other group who did not. Both groups were presented with mixed evidence. The results found that each group tended to believe the evidence that fit with their prior beliefs. We live in a mixed media landscape & we can easily find people who reaffirm our prior beliefs.
Wang noted that people like the “birthers” feel a strong sense of identity with one another. They look at Obama & they see a black guy who doesn’t “look” like them. His story doesn’t sound very familiar. It doesn’t sound like “our” story. This is especially complicated when Obama doesn’t share one’s political beliefs. They are predisposed to believe that he is not an American citizen. Then, if we get an e-mail in our inbox questioning it, the rumor finds fertile ground: we are predisposed to not believing that he is an American citizen.
- If something strikes us emotionally, we tend to remember it (like the citizenship of the President). The woman in the video is holding an American flag along with her birth certificate. She talks about her father fighting in WWII. She yells, “I love this flag! I don’t want it to be changed!” She finally demands that everyone in the room stand up and say the pledge of allegiance to the flag. Rep. Castle stands up at the lectern in disbelief at the antics of this woman.
Tomorrow let me address how Wang suggests that we handle rumors and make application to our preaching and church leadership.