Ground Up In The Rumor Mill

A persistent rumor about President Obama is that he's not a U.S. citizen. And when he produced his birth certificate during the campaign, it offered doubters more ammo. Sam Wang, associate professor of molecular biology and neuroscience at Princeton University, explains the tricky political and psychological game of denying rumors.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

An unfounded rumor born in the presidential campaign has taken on a new life. A fringe group called Birthers continues to argue that President Barack Obama is constitutionally unqualified to be commander-in-chief because he is not a natural-born American. They alleged that the president's real birth certificate would reveal that he was born in Kenya. Of course, the birth certificate the president did release shows he was born in Honolulu in 1961. This non-issue was never used by the McCain campaign but some conservatives on TV, radio, and the Internet give the rumor backhanded credibility. Why, they ask, does not the president simply put this all to rest? In a few minutes, we'll talk with a scientist who studies why false beliefs continue to rattle around in our brains.

But first, we want to ask a pro how a president should handle viral rumors. Dee Dee Myers served as press secretary to President Bill Clinton and she joins us now from her home here in Washington. Nice to have you on the program today.

Ms. DEE DEE MYERS (Former White House Press Secretary, Clinton Administration): Good to be here, Neal. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And this is the question that Republican representative - House of Representatives - Representative Mike Castle from Delaware faced at a town hall meeting earlier this month.

Unidentified Woman: I want to go back to January 20, and I want to know why are you people ignoring his birth certificate.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Unidentified Woman: He is not an American citizen. He is a citizen of Kenya. I am American. My father worked - fought in World War II with the greatest generation in the Pacific theater for this country, and I don't want this flag to change. I want my country back.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Representative MICHAEL CASTLE (Republican, Delaware): ...one comment that invites... The - if you're referring to the president there, he is a citizen of the United States.

Unidentified Crowd: Prove it. Prove it.

CONAN: And those were shouts of prove it, prove it. Poor Mike Castle. Well, Dee Dee Myers, when these kinds of things are all over the Internet and all over the talk shows and cable TV, how do you deal with it if you're in the White House?

Ms. MYERS: Well, you have to keep going back to the facts. In this case, the facts are completely in President Obama's favor. He has presented a copy. It's a copy of his birth - or his certification of birth, which is a little bit different than a birth certificate, but something that's accepted by the State Department as proof of citizenship. And I think it's important for them to continue to get third-party organizations who've seen, touched, looked at the documents, talked to the officials in Hawaii to verify their version of events. And the other thing you can't do is get too rattled about it. This is, obviously, a movement that has some intensity. But it is limited to a small number of people.

The facts are so overwhelmingly in the president's favor. You get a story like this with this woman at this town hall event with Representative Castle in Delaware and it takes on a moment of intensity, but it doesn't really reflect the views, I think, of the majority of Americans who accept that a birth certificate stamped by the state of Hawaii, verified by the state of Hawaii is proof enough for them.

CONAN: And is there any way, though, to ever put these things to rest?

Ms. MYERS: No, because I think, as we're going to hear more of in just a minute, certain people believe what they want to believe. And that's always true.

I mean, I think they've - the White House has taken the most important steps you can in knocking down one of these rumors that go viral among a certain sector of the population. And that is, first of all, you get the facts. You get all the facts, all the documentation, every piece of evidence, every witness you can find. You gather them together and make sure that you know everything there is to know about a situation. They've clearly done that.

This isn't a case where there's unanswered questions or documents that aren't - haven't been found. The birth certificate has been found, identified, scanned, posted on the Internet, you know, again, handled by third-party people who are respected by both Democrats and Republicans, like factcheck.org. So that's the first thing you do is you verify the facts. And then you get, you know, third-party disinterested people to verify your version of events. And then you continue to point people interested in truth back to the facts. And I think the White House has done that admirably.

It's frustrating, though, if you're the White House press secretary and you keep getting…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. MYERS: …questions periodically about this thing that seems so completely outside the mainstream thinking.

CONAN: Does it ever pay for the president himself to engage the question?

Ms. MYERS: You know, if it got to that level, if there was a real, I think, preponderance of people who were starting to question whether he was a natural-born citizen, then he would have to consider that. But at this point, I don't think the White House feels - nor do most objective observers - that the White House is anywhere near that point. The president, you know, it's possible he could get asked at a press conference - possible he could get asked about it...

CONAN: Tonight.

Ms. MYERS: …tonight, yeah, in which case he would obviously give a short, concise, fact-based answer and move on. I think they'll hope that's not going to happen. You don't want to add to - there's a lot of people out in the country who haven't heard about this story, although fewer and fewer as the days roll on here.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. MYERS: But, you know, he has bigger things to talk about. He'd much rather have the questions focus on health care and job creation and getting the economy back on track. But if that comes up, they'll be ready with an answer.

CONAN: They'll be ready with an answer. I was about to ask you, would you ever urge that the president prepare something in the event?

Ms. MYERS: No question. This should be one of the potential outlier questions that you always prepare for. Yes, there's always one or two that come a little bit from the fringes. Even from - even when you carefully select the reporters you're going to call on, which this White House does, as you'll notice, as viewers will notice tonight as they have in the past, the president has a list of reporters by name and news organizations who he calls on.

So it's not just a random, you know, anything can come up. They have a pretty good idea beforehand, as all White Houses do, who they're going to call on and what those questions are likely to be.

CONAN: So they're prepared in more ways than one. They don't prepare for everything because they're - they have a script laid out that they would like to address.

Ms. MYERS: Right. And you prepare, you know, for as many things that you think are potentially possible. And you try to - you don't want the president to be surprised about anything, even if you think it's an illegitimate question. But, yes. So that's what they spent some time today and probably yesterday doing is thinking through the questions and answers and making sure the president is ready.

CONAN: And how do these questions come to the White House? I mean, obviously the reporters ask them at the daily briefing to you or talk to you in your office when you were the White House press secretary. But do they come over the phone and over the Internet, too?

Ms. MYERS: Questions to the president at a briefing?

CONAN: Or - no. To the questions about, you know, why doesn't the White House respond to the rumor that the president has been running drugs to Nicaragua for the last 30 years?

Ms. MYERS: Right. He's with the Queen... (unintelligible)

CONAN: Just to pick one out of his hat.

Ms. MYERS: …your hat. Yeah. They do come in every form. A lot of times, reporters will ask you one set of questions in public at a briefing, and then they'll say, hey, you know, I've been hearing from people in my own email, I've been hearing from people out on the street that they want this question asked. It's not something they want to ask in public. This would be a good example of…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. MYERS: …that; only a reporter from a fringe organization has so far asked at a White House briefing about this Birther controversy. But more generally, questions come in to the White House through, you know, any number of avenues - through the Internet, through phone calls, through faxes, through friends of friends who say, hey, what about this? Anything that you are hearing in the White House press office or even in other offices in - filters its way into the press office in preparation for a moment like tonight.

CONAN: Dee Dee Myers, thanks very much for your time. Appreciate it.

Ms. MYERS: My pleasure.

CONAN: Dee Dee Myers served as press secretary to President Bill Clinton.

Joining us now is Sam Wang, associate professor of molecular biology and neuroscience at Princeton. And he's with us from a studio on the university campus there. Nice to have you back on the program.

Professor SAM WANG (Molecular Biology and Neuroscience, Princeton University): Oh, a pleasure to come back. Thanks, Neal, for having me.

CONAN: And you noted in an op-ed in The Dallas Morning News a year ago that 18 percent of Americans believe the sun revolves around the Earth, which makes the 10 percent who believe Barack Obama is a Muslim look pretty good.

Prof. WANG: Yes. That piece in The Dallas Morning News - also, that was in the New York Times originally - was really timely at the time because people seemed - there's a fraction of people who are really interested in the idea that Barack Obama was not a Christian, which he's basically demonstrated to be, but that they wanted to - they perhaps had an interest in believing that he was a Muslim instead.

CONAN: And this kind of belief, you say, gets set in our brains how?

Prof. WANG: Well, memory is a funny thing. And as researchers study memory, it's becoming clearer and clearer that memory is not like a computer memory. And so it's not that something gets written down once and then stays there. There's some - there are three quirks of memory that make us believe things that are not necessarily always true.

So one is that we don't remember where we heard a thing. So, for instance, we all know that Washington is the nation's capital, but we don't always remember where we - we usually don't remember where we were when we learned that. And that's because memories get rewritten. As we recall things, it's currently believed that we rewrite them a little bit so that we gradually separate a fact from context.

And that can be true for false statements, as well. So that's the big thing. And so, that's a fundamental quirk of how our memory works. It's called source amnesia. And then there are other things that go on top of that. One is biased assimilation. So we tend to accept statements that more closely accord with our prior beliefs and we tend to question or be more critical or even reject statements that don't fit with our beliefs. And we, of course, live in a very mixed media landscape.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. WANG: And so, maybe if you are not prone to listening to NPR or Dee Dee Myers, and you're more prone to listening to Rush Limbaugh or Lou Dobbs, you might be more inclined to believe this statement.

And then finally, there is something that really came through in that clip that you played from Mike Castle's town hall meeting which is that this statement about Obama's birthplace and his citizenship really strikes an emotional chord. And there's something about this particular statement that really makes people respond strongly emotionally. And that is a very strong aid to forming a memory.

CONAN: In this case…

Prof. WANG: So memory is basically tricky.

CONAN: If you haven't seen the video, the woman's holding an American flag. She's obviously really wrapped up in the whole idea of patriotism, and that's why this emotion gets so tied up with it, in this particular case.

Prof. WANG: Right. And she's almost certainly someone who would be really resistant to any kind of evidence that was presented to her. So, for instance, Chris Matthews on his television program the other day waved around a copy of Obama's birth certificate. And visual evidence like that appears to be not enough. Even though it's enough for most people, it's not enough for some of these people.

CONAN: And what does repetition do? By playing that tape, even in the course of saying this is an unfounded rumor, have we founded the rumor?

Prof. WANG: We are doing something unfortunate without meaning to, which is by repeating this falsehood, by talking about the rumors that go against the fact that Barack Obama was born in August 1961 in Hawaii, we're, by repeating this falsehood, calling attention to it.

And it's inevitable that someone is going to say, you know, I don't remember the details, but I seem to recall that there's a controversy surrounding where Barack Obama was born. And that's just inevitable because of this source amnesia problem where we separate a statement from the context in which we heard it.

CONAN: And you...

Prof. WANG: So I'll give you an example. So for instance, if I say to the listeners of National Public Radio, Neal Conan's favorite food - and he doesn't tell anyone this - is liverwurst dipped in chocolate.

CONAN: How did you know?

Prof. WANG: Okay. If I tell them that, then that's going to get lodged in somebody's head, and you are going to encounter someone who thinks that about you. Sorry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, that's okay. I just hope they don't catch on at public radio stations when I'm visiting. We're talking with Sam Wang, who's an associate professor of molecular biology and neuroscience at Princeton. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, dipped in chocolate with liverwurst, from NPR News.

And Professor Wang, I wanted to go on and ask you, there's an idea of -well, repetition is one part. You also mentioned intensity. That cut of tape with the woman being so passionate about this is known in the trade - well, that's hot tape. You and I discussing this dispassionately or me and Dee Dee Myers discussing it dispassionately don't have anywhere near the same intensity.

Prof. WANG: It doesn't. And we're not going to, right? Because the thing is, you're in the business of reporting these things in a pretty calm voice and that sort of thing.

There are certain things that can be done to get across a correct piece of information. One is to tell the truth with images, because images inevitably strike some kind of powerful chord because, in fact, almost half of our cerebral cortex is dedicated to processing visual information. And so we're very visual animals. And so that's a thing that could be done - not on the radio.

CONAN: Not on the - it's difficult to do visuals on the radio, even the - that image of liverwurst dipped in chocolate.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. WANG: I'm sorry about that.

CONAN: I guess I should stop repeating this, right? It's...

Prof. WANG: Yes, you're...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And what happens to our brain when we do hear a counter, you know, a refutation that seems to be absolutely convincing refutation, evidence opposed to our belief?

Prof. WANG: Well, there's a study done - there are number of studies of biased assimilation done. One has been done on Stanford students who were divided into two groups who felt that there was a deterrent quality to capital punishment and one group that didn't. And then, they were presented with two pieces of mixed evidence. And what was found was they tended to accept the piece of evidence that agreed with their prior belief.

And so we all inadvertently have this powerful filter that keeps out ideas that are disagreeable or perhaps don't fit with our prior expectations. And so, for instance, there are listeners who presumably -are perhaps skeptical of what they hear in National Public Radio…

CONAN: No.

Prof. WANG: …and are not inclined to believe us.

CONAN: No. I think that's - they're just a tiny fraction. It couldn't be - our listeners wouldn't be skeptical. And, of course, they're skeptical. They're supposed to be skeptical. That's why we do all these programs and ask all these questions. But, as we go through this process, you know, thinking about how our brains work, does that suggest - where do these beliefs come from initially? Are these somehow innate? Are they with us when we're born, or how are they shaped?

Prof. WANG: Well, that's an excellent question. I don't - I think that's kind of a long topic all by itself. But these are people - just to take examples of Birthers, these are people who feel a strong sense of identity, often with one another. They look at Obama and they see a black guy, maybe, you know, a guy who doesn't look like them, and they think his story doesn't really sound very familiar. It doesn't sound like our story.

And so, they are predisposed to not believing that he's really an American citizen. And so I think that there's a lot of that kind of thing, the identification with your own group, suspicion of people who don't look like you, perhaps, or don't - certainly who don't have your political beliefs. And so I think we come with these predispositions. And if we get an email in our inbox that says, did you know this about the president? Then, you know, it can find fertile ground.

CONAN: So, there is one set of false beliefs that one group is likely to believe, and another set that another group is maybe likely to believe?

Prof. WANG: Well, that's true. For instance - and these things are rife. I mean, just to take an example, 18 - as we talked about earlier, 18 percent of Americans think that the sun revolves around the Earth. And that's a lot of people to hold a belief as basic as that and have it be false.

CONAN: And to think there was a big Copernicus conspiracy.

Prof. WANG: Well, I mean, to call attention to another recent news event, there is a small fraction of people who believe that men did not walk on the moon 40 years ago.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Indeed. So that this was all faked in a warehouse in Hoboken or someplace.

Prof. WANG: Right, exactly.

CONAN: So, these - and these things are impossible to dispel. So, getting back to the plight of the press secretary - we were talking with Dee Dee Myers earlier - if repetition is a problem, not addressing it is probably a reasonable policy as - for as long as you can?

Prof. WANG: Well, she hit a couple of big points about how to address it. One is to state the facts concisely without reinforcing the falsehood. Another thing that she did, and I - it's interesting to see her revert to her old job. She was attempting to bring it back to the storyline. And the storyline that the White House really wants is for us to be talking about health care and about the economy.

And then, if you really are desperate and the rumor gets out of hand, then there are other tricks. One is to use images. And so, for instance, if the Obama White House really intent on this - I don't know. Maybe on August 4th, they could have little birthday cake for Obama in Hawaii. And that would - you know, that might help. And finally, you can start calling attention to the source and start asking questions about the credibility of the source.

And there are sources on the right, people like Michelle Malkin and Michael Medved who were calling pretty specific attention to the fact that this is something that's embarrassing to their side. And they're calling these people nuts. And that's a case of people who are on the side, politically, of the people who are leading this movement saying that they are, in fact, embarrassing and that they're wrong.

CONAN: Well, that might help, too. Anyway, thanks very much for your time today.

Prof. WANG: My pleasure.

CONAN: Sam Wang is an associate professor of molecular biology and neuroscience at Princeton University. He co-wrote the book "Welcome to Your Brain: Why You Lose Your Car Keys but Never Forget How to Drive and Other Puzzles of Everyday Life." He joined us from Princeton University studios.

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