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Profile: Michael Shermer

Michael Shermer was a participant or observer in the following events:

Salon columnist Alex Koppelman explores the widening sets of claims that purport to prove President Barack Obama is not a US citizen—the heart of the so-called “birther” conspiracy theory. The Obama campaign long ago produced a valid birth certificate that allowed Obama to run legitimately as a presidential candidate (see June 13, 2008), Obama’s mother Ann Dunham has also affirmed her son’s citizenship, and Hawaiian officials have confirmed that Obama was indeed born in a hospital in Honolulu (see October 30, 2008). However, some on the right continue to promulgate the tale of Obama’s supposed Kenyan citizenship, or Indonesian citizenship, or British citizenship. The Chigago Tribune recently ran a paid advertisement questioning Obama’s citizenship (see December 3, 2008). Conservative news and opinion blogs such as WorldNetDaily run stories on a near-daily basis challenging Obama’s citizenship, or producing hoax “birth certificates” that “prove” Obama was born in Mombasa, Kenya, or other locales (see July 20, 2008). Plaintiffs have filed lawsuits challenging Obama’s citizenship in a number of state courts, all of which have been rejected (see March 14 - July 24, 2008, August 21-24, 2008, October 9-28, 2008, October 17-22, 2008, October 21, 2008, October 31 - November 3, 2008, October 24, 2008, October 31, 2008 and After, November 12, 2008 and After, November 13, 2008, and Around November 26, 2008), and a similar case goes up for review in the Supreme Court (that case also challenges Republican presidential contender John McCain’s citizenship, as McCain was born in the former Panama Canal Zone to parents serving in the US military, another legitimate way of securing citizenship—see March 14 - July 24, 2008 and August 21-24, 2008). Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic Magazine and a columnist for Scientific American, notes that some people will never let go of the idea that Obama is not a citizen, no matter what level of proof is provided. “There’s no amount of evidence or data that will change somebody’s mind,” he says. “The more data you present a person, the more they doubt it.… Once you’re committed, especially behaviorally committed or financially committed, the more impossible it becomes to change your mind.” Any inconvenient facts are irrelevant, he says. Chip Berlet, a senior analyst with Political Research Associates, agrees. People who believe in a conspiracy theory “develop a selective perception, their mind refuses to accept contrary evidence,” Berlet says. “As soon as you criticize a conspiracy theory, you become part of the conspiracy.” Social psychologist Evan Harrington adds: “One of the tendencies of the conspiracy notion, the whole appeal, is that a lot of the information the believer has is secret or special. The real evidence is out there, [and] you can give them all this evidence, but they’ll have convenient ways to discredit [it].” Koppelman notes that during the presidential election, so-called “birthers” said that they would drop their claims if only Obama would release the “long form” of his birth certificate, even though to do so would be to violate Hawaii’s privacy laws, which keep all such documents under lock and key. During the campaign, Dr. Chiyome Fukino, the director of Hawaii’s Department of Health, released a statement saying she had verified that the state has the original birth certificate on record (see October 30, 2008), and that Obama’s Hawaiian birth is a matter of state record. Experts with the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, part of the FactCheck (.org) organization, have examined the certificate and verified its authenticity (see August 21, 2008), as has PolitiFact (see June 27, 2008). Koppelmann notes that the conspiracy theory has grown to the point where talk-show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage have suggested that Obama used the occasion of his grandmother’s death to go to Hawaii to alter the record (see November 10, 2008). Koppelman notes that many who align themselves with the “birther” movement are well-known conspiratorists. Author Jerome Corsi, who attacked Obama’s citizenship in a pre-election book (see August 1, 2008 and After), has spoken of “secret government plans” to form a “North American Union” with Canada and Mexico. Philip Berg, who filed the lawsuit that had until now drawn the most public attention, asserts that the 9/11 attacks were staged by the US government (so-called “trutherism”). Another critic, Andy Martin, who seems to be the source of the rumor that Obama is a Muslim and is a strong “birther” proponent, was denied an Illinois law license on the grounds that he was mentally unfit to practice law (see October 17-22, 2008). Robert Schulz, who ran the Tribune ads, is a well-known tax protester and anti-government rhetorician. (Koppelman 12/5/2008)

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