The other day, I was attempting to have a conversation with a Birther. I say “attempting” because this person, like pretty much anyone attached to a conspiracy theory, refused to listen to anything said on the subject which did not conform with his viewpoint. In the end, after I had pointed out Obama’s certificate of live birth in the state of Hawaii, and the fact that, regardless of where Obama was born, he would still be considered a natural-born citizen of the U.S. as his mother was a U.S. citizen, the Birther responded: “Well, I don’t know about that. I’m just a skeptic in that area.”
I was speechless. Most of my energy and mental focus was spent keeping myself from screaming and bashing my head against a wall. I mean, this person had just used the word “skeptic” the same way a religious believer would use “faith”. It was shocking, to say the least. So the Birther walked away as I stood there looking stupid, unable to understand exactly what it was he’d said.
Having had time to consider this, though, I think I get where he was coming from. Skepticism isn’t exactly widely understood. Many people just throw the words “skeptical” and “skepticism” around in everyday conversation, to signify a denial of a particular idea or mindset. I’ve had many conversations with people who, when I mentioned my skepticism, asked something to the effect of: “how can you not believe in anything?” These people tend to equate skepticism with the denial of the concept of “truth”; that is, in their view, skeptics believe that nothing can actually be known, and therefore, nothing can be declared to be true. And in a way, this is accurate. Probably the greatest example of skeptical thought and reasoning in our society, the scientific method, is based in part around the idea that nothing can be known with absolute certainty. This is what allows the scientific method to work so well. It allows theories to be modified, adapted, or even thrown out, in light of new evidence. It keeps science from becoming dogmatic. However, despite this rejection of absolute certainty, there are still things we can know beyond a reasonable doubt. For example, we know that the Earth is not flat. We know that the Earth is not the center of our universe. We know that disease is caused by microorganisms and certain biological/genetic factors, as opposed to demons or sin.
The problem here is that people in general seem to confuse skepticism with denialism, the absolute rejection of an empirical reality. Denialism, unlike skepticism, rejects evidence and knowledge. However, it is extremely rare to find someone who practices absolute denialism. There really aren’t many people who are willing to say nothing is true, and the only place you’re likely to find people who take this position would be a university philosophy department. Instead, people who exhibit a denialistic world view on certain issues tend to accept many things on faith, and only deny what contradicts their preconceived ideas, Birthers being a prime example of this.
Skepticism, however, is never outright denial. Skepticism actually withholds judgement, until sufficient evidence is presented to determine the truth value of a particular claim. This is why a skeptic will generally accept the claims made by the theory of evolution, given the weight of the evidence (fossil record, comparative genetics, etc.), while the same skeptic would reject the claims of the Birther movement, given the weight of the evidence against these claims. But people don’t get this; instead, skepticism is generally viewed as a denial. This would explain why creationists accuse skeptics of not applying skepticism equally to the claims of creationism and the claims of evolutionary theory. They expect a skeptic to simply deny both ideas. After all, to be a skeptic, one must be doubtful, right? Well, true, but only to a reasonable degree. Once evidence is presented, the doubt may no longer be necessary.
Let’s look at the example of the Birther movement. If it is based on skepticism, as my earlier Birther acquaintance claimed, sufficient evidence should be able to sway the opinion of the Birther in question. So, let’s look at the evidence. The Birther makes the claim that Obama was not born in the U.S., and as evidence, he points to Obama’s failure to present his birth certificate, and to numerous Birther articles claiming that Obama was born in Kenya. Then the opposing evidence will be brought forward:
First, Obama’s certificate of live birth from the state of Hawaii:
Second, the excerpt from U.S. law at the time of Obama’s birth which states that:
“A child born abroad to one U.S. citizen parent and one alien parent acquires U.S. citizenship at birth under Section 301(g) of the INA provided the U.S. citizen parent was physically present in the United States or one of its outlying possessions for the time period required by the law applicable at the time of the child’s birth. (For birth on or after November 14, 1986, a period of five years physical presence, two after the age of fourteen, is required. For birth between December 24, 1952 and November 13, 1986, a period of ten years, five after the age of fourteen, is required for physical presence in the United States or one of its outlying possessions to transmit U.S. citizenship to the child.) The U.S. citizen parent must be genetically related to the child to transmit U.S. citizenship.” (http://travel.state.gov/law/citizenship/citizenship_5199.html)
The above law makes Obama’s location of birth irrelevant in determining his citizenship, as his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, was a U.S. citizen, who had lived within the U.S. for ten years of her life, and was married to Obama’s father at the time of his birth, satisfying all requirements of the law. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ann_Dunham)
The opposition may even go on to point out that President Obama and his father, who was born in Kenya, share the same name, which is likely the cause of all the confusion. This would also explain the assertions that Obama is secretly a Muslim, as his father, Barack Obama, Sr. was raised Muslim.
Now, show this evidence to any skeptic, and they will likely reject the Birther hypothesis. Good luck getting a similar reaction from a Birther.
UPDATE – And now that Obama’s long form birth certificate has been released, there should be even less of an issue. Though there are people still trying their hardest to prove it’s a forgery.