"Deathers" Offer a Unique Case Study for the Formulation of the Denialist Mentality

By The Intersection | May 6, 2011 8:54 am

This is a guest post by Jamie L. Vernon, Ph.D., an HIV research scientist and aspiring policy wonk, who recently moved to D.C. to get a taste of the action

Climate change skeptics, 9/11 truthers and “birthers,” those who deny President Obama’s American citizenship, have provided us with an extensive record of denialism within American culture that is worth studying. Indeed, entire disciplines have been established to understand and explain these behaviors. Chris Mooney and others have begun to put the pieces together in a way that allows us to formulate communications protocols that effectively counteract the drivers of “motivated reasoning.” However, because the above mentioned examples of motivated cognition arose simultaneously with this field of study, we have lacked the benefit of observing the transmogrification of the denialist mentality as it happens.

We are currently witnessing the de novo formulation of a new denialism in regards to the death of Osama bin Laden.  As I was listening to C-SPAN radio, just yesterday, two callers a Democrat and a Republican agreed that bin Laden was not dead and the entire hullabaloo was orchestrated for political gain.  Because we are now armed with at least a superficial understanding of the mechanisms behind this type of thinking, we can ask questions and test hypotheses while observing the development of this particular case of motivated thought.

For simplicity’s sake, I’ll call them “deathers.” Of particular interest when studying the deathers is what exactly are the competing interests between which they must make a satisfactory choice and what are the ends or goals to which they strive. One would expect that there are at least two competing interests in the minds of the deathers. The first could be a desire to believe that an existing threat, that of a terrorist mastermind, has been eliminated. The second interest appears to be a desire to find fault with President Obama, regardless of the benefits that might come from his service. According to Dan Kahan, one of the thought leaders in this field, this all happens subconsciously. Therefore, the deather must undergo a series of mental operations that lead him to choose the latter in order to satisfy a desired endpoint.

We can only speculate what that desired outcome might be. One example could be the need to be a loyal Republican to the extent that this requires questioning any good outcome produced by a Democratic President.  A more sinister scenario might be that the individual harbors conscious or subconscious racist sentiments that motivate him to reject any semblance of excellence from a black President. An issue that complicates the matter is that individuals will have personal motivations to justify their denialism.  In any case, the deather unknowingly processes the information provided to him in a way that supports his desired outcome. Clearly, the President’s speech will not satisfy the deather.  In-depth interviews by others in the administration describing the details of the operation are also insufficient. Even the presentation of a photograph will be explained away as a forgery. In other words, the source of the conflict (in this case the Obama administration) can do little or nothing to overcome the internal processes that cause the deather’s brain to reject the facts.

So, how do we convince the deathers that Osama bin Laden is actually dead? I will venture to suggest that we must resolve the conflict between the deather’s two competing interests, the desire for the removal of a threat vs. finding fault with Obama, while allowing the deather to achieve his desired outcome (let’s say that he can still be a loyal Republican). This must be done without forcing him to accept that which causes him conflict (in this case that President Obama was responsible for a positive outcome).

If you’ll notice what’s happening in the media and on Capitol Hill, the attempts to credit President Bush with this mission are currently serving this purpose. By crediting President Bush with the intelligence information that led to bin Laden’s death, the deather can accept that bin Laden is dead without acknowledging the contribution from President Obama. Because I believe the deather movement is largely motivated by political partisanship, I predict that the more credit that is given to President Bush, the less we will hear from the deathers. If my prediction holds water, then similar approaches might be implemented with climate change skeptics and other denialist movements.

Consider this: Upon the accumulation of a preponderance of evidence in support of evolution, the Catholic Church re-evaluated its position on evolution to accept the mechanism while attributing it to the hand of God.


Jamie Vernon is a CRTA Research Fellow at the National Cancer Institute and a former Science Policy Fellow at Scientists and Engineers for America


Comments (39)

  1. RocketDoc

    I’m concerned that extending the idea of giving President Bush more credit will convince the deathers is a very slippery slope when you try to apply it to fundamentally scientific ideas like climate change or anti-vax. Political thought is fundamentally different. I wouldn’t advocate telling climate change skeptics that climate change is happening, but that it is the will of god and his/her/its way of telling us to reduce carbon emissions. I see what you are suggesting (and it would probably work to some extent), but there’s something fundamentally frightening from a logical point of view that we need to add a false premise to the argument in order to get someone to arrive at the correct conclusions.

  2. Jamie,

    Thanks for the smart observation. I like the idea of trying to take a snapshot of the birth of a denial meme. A few thoughts come to mind:

    Somebody else (sorry that I’m forgetting who—Michael Shermer?) suggested in the past few days that disaffected, al-Qaeda sympathizing Muslims around the world would be primed for deather denialism because they, too, would be emotionally motivated to reject that it had happened. Of course, al-Qaeda’s official acknowledgment that bin Laden is dead may blunt that possibility. (And I suppose it’s interesting to speculate why al-Qaeda didn’t stay silent longer to feed such suspicions.) But if you’re right, we might still see deather denial among such populations, for whom the “let’s credit Bush” dodge wouldn’t work, even while the sentiment flounders in the U.S.

    A possible problem with trying to develop similar strategies to build more support on climate change, I suspect, is that they can often be co-opted to other purposes. For example, at least some of the resistance to climate change takes the form of protest that it would destroy the economy, that the greens are anti-business, etc. The rebuttal has been that acting on climate change would actually create new economic opportunities through the development of new energy and conservation technologies, new infrastructure and the like. Of course, some of the climate deniers then turn the issue into a conspiracy aimed at funneling money into Al Gore’s pockets. Yet even more progressive voices will sometimes end up saying, yes, let’s make these energy policy reforms… but not worry about reforms that would specifically (and essentially) reduce CO2 emissions. Proposals that should be uniting support for action on climate change end up dividing it.

    And of course, there’s also the problem from a different quarter that some of these strategies for winning over deniers (or, let’s say, the denier-sympathetic) end up alienating some of the supporters who argue that everybody should take the truth straight up. Look no further than advocates for evolution like PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne, who would be quick to say that the Catholic Church’s support for evolution is itself unscientific and therefore still not acceptable.

  3. ed

    so your suggestion is to replace one falsehood by another and settle for some half-truth, because what? because we want to keep the catholic church around or the deathers’ philosophy?

    • The Intersection

      I hope this comment will address each of the comments posted so far by John, Rocketdoc and ed.
      I do not advocate the use of falsehoods to convince the deniers to accept a disputed fact. It is however necessary to consider what the motivators might be and identify facts that would conveniently act as justifications to convince the denialists to accept an idea that is perceived to be counter to their values.
      John made the relevant argument that justification for action on climate change might be framed in the context that it would be economically advantageous. However, he assumes that the main motivator for denying anthropogenic global warming is economic philosophy. While it may be true that a subset of climate change deniers oppose action based on economic concerns, economic justifications may not be enough to turn the tide. I suspect there is a threshold that must be met within the denialist population in order to overcome the denialism (as with tobacco and cancer). Reaching that threshold may require addressing multiple motivators.
      Further, an area that I did not spend much time discussing is the messenger of the counter argument. We need to explore whether denialism can be driven from the top down or the bottom up or both. Are there messengers (political, religious, business leaders) who can influence the extent of expansion of the denialist movement or do the leaders take their cues from their constituencies? I would argue that the deather movement appears to have arisen from the bottom up, surely primed by the philosophies of their perceived leaders. Because I know of no political leaders who are stoking the flames of the deather movement, it seems that the movement is emerging organically. If it was in the interest of the Republicans to capitalize on the deather movement, they could take advantage of the situation and prolong the controversy (much like they did during, the health care debate (death panels) and are currently doing with the economic policies of the Tea Party).
      Fortunately, the Republican party has an vested interest in bin Laden’s death. To be honest, as much as we would like to deny it, President Bush’s policies ultimately did play a role in Osama bin Laden’s death, so no falsehoods are at play. As for the Catholic church, that’s another story.

  4. davidw3673

    There are also those, myself included, who believe that Bin Laden is dead, and was most likely killed in that raid, and are fine with that, but we continue to get differing reports from different government officials, and from Pakistan. Now, I can almost rule out most of the reprts from Pakistan since it is apparent they are trying to cover their own rears after allowing him (I think knowingly to some extent) to hide there, and their dismay at our going in unannounced to get him. But the reports from our own officals trouble me since it at least appears that they are hiding something when I don’t see any reason to. I don’t know that they are in fact trying to hide anything, but how else do you explain the wide disparity of information? Add in the refusal to release the photos, when similar photos have been released by this and previous administrations, including those that could/did provoke retaliations from our enemies.

  5. TTT

    The reports from our own officals trouble me since it at least appears that they are hiding something when I don’t see any reason to. I don’t know that they are in fact trying to hide anything, but how else do you explain the wide disparity of information?

    They don’t seem so wide to me, and are mostly on the order of “wife was human shield and got killed” became “wife got in the way and was injured.”

    The Obama Admin started to make public announcements before all the facts were in, before every last trooper had been debriefed, and that led to revision. They probably had no choice but to start talking when they did, because Pakistan was finding out–and getting angrier about it–in realtime, and they had a limited window of opportunity in which to alert all U.S. security assets for possible Qaeda revenge strikes.

    Since every single element of this story comes from the same source–the U.S. government–the presence of such mild changes within the first 48 hours or so points away from falsehood, as there would be no possible way for anybody to “verify” that the initial assertions were “false”. It would be like NASA saying that a rock on the surface of Titan was purple, then revising it to say it was brown. Since nobody else could see the rock anyway, there’s no plausible dishonest motive for the change.

  6. yogi-one

    I think the cases being discussed are all different enough to require case-specific analysis.

    However, having said that, if I can go on to speculate a broad underlying motivation for denial in all three cases – deathers, Catholic Church, and climate deniers, I would say that it is fear to a perceived threat against their existence.

    This is easiest to show with the Catholic Church – ever since Galileo the fear has been that if there are explanations for the cosmos besides the magic hand of a super-deity, then the people would begin to realize they don’t need the Church to mediate with God on their behalf.

    Climate change denial is similarly easy to show – polluting industries stood to lose billions, hundreds of billions even, if 1. their technologies were no longer required to provide the people with energy, or 2. they had to overhaul their technology so that it doesn’t cause carbon emissions or pollute the environment.

    There are other factors, of course, such as the idea that the culture any large institution (such as the energy industry or the church) fosters is fiercely resistant to change, especially rapid change, of any sort. And that those in positions of wealth, influence, and power in the current status quo are always threatened by the new kids (or technologies, or beliefs) on the block.

    But I think at root, the fear that one’s own existence (or the existence of that which you are heavily identified with, I should say) will become unnecessary is really at the root of denialism.

    In other words, to draw an analogy to a more personal example, it’s the old “my child can’t possibly be dead!” emotion. The simple admission of the truth would necessarily cause a massive restructuring of your own existence, plus a loss of something you believe gives meaning in a very primary way to your life. A significant percentage of people (though admittedly I have no idea what the number on that would be) find accepting such sudden, drastic change to be very undesirable and will fight against it with politics, rationalizations, even attacks on those who confront them with the new truths.

  7. Denialism is just another name for people who are afraid of themselves.


  8. Pablo

    I think it could be as simple as a general distrust of government, regardless of party. It fits the scenario for every kind of government related conspiracy theory – an unfounded paranoia of sorts. Partisanship probably does play a role as well – i.e. “bush derangement syndrome” associated with 9-11 truthers and the birther backlash on Obama.

    It’s interesting to see such partisanship arise upon the death of Bin Laden because both parties, as well as the general public, had a vested interest in taking him down and everyone should have been supportive of the effort regardless of party – like the days after 9-11 when Bush saw incredible approval ratings and the country was uncommonly united for months. It was only shortly after the war effort began that truthers and protesters came out of the wood work and into the public arena with partisan vitriol, sparking a great divide between parties that has been plaguing the country ever since. Hopefully this will bring both parties closer to reaching common ground.

    Some people may also just be plain skeptics and demand proof to provide closure. I think releasing the death photos will shutter the conspiracy theories rather quickly – even though I’m sure they will continue with other absurd claims. People have a natural tendency to see the negative in things (associated with a fear response/anxiety) as an evolutionary trait that provided safety – prepare for the worst, but hope for the best. It’s a similar mentality that drives people to paranoid notions, however some paranoia is brought about from previous life experiences and generalized, rather than cooked up on a whim. Some people get a high from questioning everything – thinking they’re smarter than everyone else, similar to a God complex. It’s simply too complex to find out what drives people to believe in conspiracy theories without evaluating the individual due to numerous potential variables.

  9. Bobito

    @5 as much as we would like to deny it

    Um, we????

    That’s the spirit!!!

  10. The Deathers will have an easier time getting over it than the other two cases, especially now that Al Qaeda admits OBL is dead. Bush does deserve some credit for the demise of OBL. You can’t blame his administration for spending two trillion dollars to prosecute the global war on terror, to expand the national security state, and to collect intelligence via unsavory means, without admitting some of the money got spent developing stealth choppers and combat dogs for the joint special operations command.

    Hardcore Birthers aren’t assauged by the long form birth certificate because their real problem is that a black man born to an unmarried white woman is now president of the United States. They don’t even know where to begin to be beside themselves.

    The challenge with global warming deniers is that they have to reject the science because the source of the problem (the failure of free markets to prevent damage to our environment) conflicts with their world view and the solution (transnational government regulation and reassignment of control over the energy economy) conflicts with the interests of the existing fossil fuel based industrial complex.

  11. kirk

    How can Birther/Deathers stay in the same place and go down a slippery slope both at once? The point here – motivated reasoning leaves them perpetually at square one.

  12. Nullius in Verba

    We seem to be drawing a lot of very specific conclusions here about motivations from not a lot of data. Is there a ‘motivated reasoning’ desire to link and explain the phenomena so they can be safely categorised and dismissed?

    In the case of Bin Laden, the problem is simpler. No concrete evidence has been presented that Bin Laden was even at the compound, let alone that he was killed. All we have is statements made by politicians and government officials – stories that have already changed and shifted, that we already know were initially false in some specifics. So among the competing hypotheses are that they’re telling the truth and got confused, that they’re telling a distorted truth to hide aspects of events that they don’t want people to know, or that politicians and governments sometimes lie to their own advantage, or at least say things with more confidence than is justified.

    For example, in the past the government of Pakistan has said that Bin Laden wasn’t in Pakistan and they weren’t sheltering Al Qaida in their territory. Believe them? The US government once said that Saddam had chemical weapons. Did you believe them? Stalin once said that the Soviet Union was rich and well fed, and paraded journalists past Potemkin’s villages. Would you have believed them? Every politician tells us their way is best, their record is of constant success, any problems are not their fault and they’re the only ones with a solution, and you should vote for them at the next election.

    The truthfulness of politicians is proverbial. But if they’re saying something you want to believe, and there’s no direct evidence against it, you’ll forget all the disappointments of the past and believe them once again. And think it really strange that there are people who don’t.

    I think that a more likely reason there are so many doubters around nowadays is that people have been lied to by authorities of all sorts so often that it becomes almost reflexive. People are becoming more sceptical, albeit selectively.

    No, I think the most likely explanation is that Bin Laden is indeed dead, but I also consider the evidence extremely tenuous so far and will keep an open mind to alternatives, should new evidence turn up. And I know what certain people will conclude from that, but they don’t matter. It’s a matter of principle.

  13. There is a painful irony in this being posted by Discover Magazine, who have featured AIDS denialists Celia Farber, Peter Duesberg and most recently Lynn Margulis (interviewed by a former editor of Omni, another magazine that gave a platform to AIDS denialism).

  14. Miles McCullough

    The widespread belief in certain circles that the government and media only report what the powerful want them to report lowers the bar that motivated reasoning must hurtle to get a hold in the first place. Furthermore, the perception is difficult to eradicate precisely because it is true. Yet when you can’t trust anyone, then how do you determine if something actually has happened or not?

    The only way I know to do so is to listen to scientist-bloggers. Of course you can’t always rely on that method as scientists are fallible, as Mooney’s distaste for offering the truth straight up demonstrates. You may lure people to your side in the short term by offering illogical reasons for something, but the long term effect is distrust of any and all authority, and a shield of distrust is as strong as the armor of faith when it comes to perpetuating false beliefs.

    Making science compatible with religion may win people over short term (though the evidence suggests that it doesn’t even do this), but it catastrophically sullies the reputation of science in the long term.

  15. nnnnnnn

    I think the real problem is that we’re living in a society that’s become so accustomed to falsified and distracting news that people are unable to believe anything anymore.

  16. Kevin

    What I find interesting is this:

    The “birthers” kept screaming that the evidence that Obama was born in the U.S. wasn’t being made public.

    The “deathers” have been whining that the evidence that Osama bin Laden is dead isn’t being made public.

    Okay, but even if that was the case- in the absence of such evidence, the only rational position to take is a neutral, agnostic one, i.e.: “I don’t know whether or not Obama was born in the U.S.” “I don’t know if Osama bin Laden is dead or not.”

    I think it’s telling that instead, these people automatically believe the exact opposite of what we hear- “Obama wasn’t born in America!” or “bin Laden isn’t really dead!” despite not having any evidence to sway the argument that way, either.

    It tells me that outbursts of this sort are irrational and ultimately based in some sort of fear. Hatred? Racism? Possibly, but I believe that those are, in turn, the result of fear. Fear of what? Fear that the world we live in has turned out not to be what they thought it was? Fear as a response to the realization that the world is ever-changing? Fear that life in 21-st century America has spun out of their control, to the extent that they will believe almost anything in order to feel like they have some sort of control again? Could that be it, perhaps?

    (PS- Now that even al Qaeda has acknowledged bin Laden’s death, it will be interesting to see what sort of tack the “deathers” will take. I wonder if they realize that they will look even crazier than al Qaeda- which is saying a lot- when they start in on their nonsense.)

  17. Spencer

    Here is another possibility…. People are tired of being lied to by politicians. Therefor they question everything. Partisanship may play into their personal conclusion, but it is not the cause of distrust, lies are. People are more keenly attuned to spin and marketing tactics these days and if the promotion does not pass the “sniff test”, it doesn’t get a second chance.

  18. In the case of Bin Laden, the problem is simpler. No concrete evidence has been presented that Bin Laden was even at the compound, let alone that he was killed.

    By that standard, I’d be curious to know whether you think there is any concrete evidence that Bin Laden ever existed.

    But assuming that you believe he did, what motivation would Obama have to lie about catching him? bin Laden could expose him as a fraud simply by releasing a new video tape. And while the boost in Obama’s poll numbers for catching bin Laden will probably last a month, he’d be permanently damaged if he were caught lying about it.

  19. Anonymous

    Do be aware that those thinking that our government was behind 911 in the first place may not agree that there even was a bin Laden, let alone that he was killed. All pictures would be considered bogus ala Wag the Dog.

  20. Brian Too

    @18. Jinchi,

    Thank you. It seems unnecessarily sceptical to me, pondering the truth of the assassination of bin Laden. The US government has made it clear for 10 years that they are after him and wouldn’t mind him dead. It’s hardly a surprise it finally happened!

    Just look at the amount of resources expended, directly or indirectly, to bring about this conclusion. It’s huge.

    The risk of a false claim is simply too high. The credibility of the entire US government, not just Obama’s, would take a massive hit. And this is a high profile issue too. It’s not like you could bury it or dismiss it as ‘an unimportant mistake’.

    Finally, bin Laden himself has made it clear who he thought the Great Satan was. If he was able to in any way damage the US government, wouldn’t he take advantage? Wouldn’t showing himself to be alive when the US claims he was dead be a fantastic opportunity for Al-Queda? If not, why not?

    You can come up with scenarios and pseudo-explanations, but they get more absurd and implausible with each problem they must overcome. And they didn’t begin with a valid premise.

    Just because some people believe that “Governments are big and corrupt and they always lie. Therefore if this government says bin Laden is dead, he must be alive” doesn’t mean I have to buy into such a fallacy.

  21. Nullius in Verba

    “By that standard, I’d be curious to know whether you think there is any concrete evidence that Bin Laden ever existed.”

    Yes, a fair amount.

    “But assuming that you believe he did, what motivation would Obama have to lie about catching him? bin Laden could expose him as a fraud simply by releasing a new video tape.”

    Assuming I believe he did? Why would anyone assume that, when I just said I didn’t?

    Explanations can easily be invented. The most obvious is that Bin Laden was captured, not killed, but they don’t want Al Qaida to respond by taking hostages, or for any contacts he might know to vanish. There are ‘truther’ types who consider Al Qaida to be a CIA operation, a honeytrap to attract and neutralise disaffected radical Muslims. Or it could be part of a peace deal – help rolling up the rest of Al Qaida in exchange for amnesty and calling off the hunt.

    It takes only a minimum of imagination to come up with scenarios – any TV screenwriter could do better I’m sure – but of course the problem with all such theories is that they have no more evidence for them than the politicians’ version. Arguing that of course you wouldn’t because by the very nature of the conspiracy they would make sure to hide it makes it a self-consistent theory, but still circular. I don’t believe it because there’s no evidence for it, but if somebody wanted to believe it they probably could.

    The same argument applies to other cases, too. Take WMD in Iraq. If Saddam had wanted to discredit George Bush, all he had to do was open his facilities to free and open inspections, without playing games. Again, we have a president of the United States making a statement that if believed is greatly to an enemy’s disadvantage, that that enemy could easily discredit if they wanted to, and yet they almost seem to go out of their way to give the impression it was true. The stakes were a lot higher reputation-wise. George presented a hell of a lot more evidence than Obama has, too. Would you take the President at his word in those circumstances?

  22. I have to agree with several of the commenters who cited fear as a strong motivator. I’ve witnessed the birth and development of a denier in my own family. My dad used to be a strong Democrat, voted for Carter against Reagan, union supporter, etc. But he sells health insurance, and during the Clinton years he developed a strong hatred for Hillary Clinton, often talking about his fear that her healthcare plan would destroy his ability to make a living. But it didn’t end there; he started listening to right-wing radio (that stokes these crazy theories). He used to be an engineer with a passion for science before his career in insurance, now he’s a denialist on climate change, too, and it would not shock me if he’s an evolution denier now as well. He’s a birther. I expect he thinks the long-form was a forgery and agrees with Trump that there is something fishy about his education. He believes in all the crazy right-wing theories. At this point, he is simply beyond reasoning with. And conservative media stokes fears. Look at the death panel nonsense that was going on during the healthcare debate. Never mind the terror alerts when Bush was president. And being surrounded by those that stoke these theories, other deniers, right-wing media, only makes these crazy beliefs seem mainstream. The first thing that has to be done is to separate the victim from the media that is stoking these fears and beliefs. Most of these right-wing memes are not generated in a vaccuum. They’ve been building for 15 years, and more. Interjecting a “Bush did it” premise will only stop the argument for a little while, maybe over Thanksgiving dinner, if it works at all (not to mention it would make me ill to say such a lie). It won’t change the style of thinking that’s been inculcated. It will only await the next opportunity, and the next reason to be afraid.

  23. Assuming I believe he did? Why would anyone assume that, when I just said I didn’t?

    This is what you wrote.

    No concrete evidence has been presented that Bin Laden was even at the compound, let alone that he was killed. All we have is statements made by politicians and government officials – stories that have already changed and shifted, that we already know were initially false in some specifics.

    Now explain to me what you would consider “concrete evidence” to prove this point. Because it seems to me that your standard of evidence in this case is about the same as that demanded by people who think that 911 was an inside job.

    If Saddam had wanted to discredit George Bush, all he had to do was open his facilities to free and open inspections

    This is also wrong. If Saddam had opened every facility to inspections Bush would simply have claimed that he had hidden his weapons in some other compound, or in a cave, or in underground bunkers, or in Syria. In fact, that’s exactly what Bush and his supporters did, at the time and afterwards.

  24. Nullius in Verba


    “Because it seems to me that your standard of evidence in this case is about the same as that demanded by people who think that 911 was an inside job.”

    Peculiar. I tell you explicitly that I believe OBL was shot there, and that I reject truther-style conspiracy logic, and still you doubt?
    I can’t help what it “seems” like to you. It isn’t so.

    Did you believe George Bush on the WMD? Or Saddam? If not, what standard of evidence would it have taken?

  25. Rich S.

    I agree with you that the underlying motivation for climate change, vaccines, birthers, etc is political partisanship. Since you mentioned evolution and the Catholic Church, let me propose a suggestion to the more spiritual of the evolution deniers. Without going back to Ernst Mayr’s book (even though it’s about 3 feet away from me) I remember that natural selection is a two-step process. One of those steps describes how cells conbine when an egg is fertilized. As far as science is concerned, this process is completely random, and as far as science is concerned, this randomness is completely acceptable. What if this process, which to us looks random, is where the hand of God comes in, somehow directing the process. You could argue then that evolution, and a belief in God are compatible.

  26. I tell you explicitly that I believe OBL was shot there, and that I reject truther-style conspiracy logic, and still you doubt?

    I take you at your word that you believe OBL was shot there. The question is what you would consider concrete evidence of the fact. Because you claim that there is none.

    Did you believe George Bush on the WMD? Or Saddam?

    It wasn’t a question of believing George Bush or believing Saddam. United Nations inspectors were in Iraq and were rebutting specific allegations at the time.

    What really undermined Bush’s credibility was that he was constantly changing his justifications for war with Iraq, often with conflicting and sometimes instantly debunked arguments (Saddam had organized 911, he was behind the anthrax attacks a week later, he was in an “Axis of Evil” with his arch rival Iran, he had super drones that could strike the U.S., he could drop chemical weapons on London within 45 minutes…). Cheney, Rumsfeld, Libby, Feith, Wolfowitz, Perle, and Bolton had all been beating the war drums against Iraq since the 1990’s and it was obvious that they were using the war on terror as an opportunity to finally go for it. CBS news reported on the first anniversary of 9/11 that Rumsfeld had started planning for war with Iraq within hours of the attacks, even before he decided to go after OBL.

    And here is what the New York Times was writing in a profile of Wolfowitz more than 6 months before the war began:

    Wolfowitz seems genuinely puzzled by the notion that we need evidence of imminent danger to justify getting rid of Saddam. He has encountered this argument earlier — from the State Department and the C.I.A., in fact, before President Bush stifled that particular line of internal debate by declaring Saddam an intolerable threat, end of story.

    So our own State Department and the CIA didn’t consider Saddam an imminent threat in 2002. Bush and company didn’t care. End of story.

    The Bush administration wanted to go to war against Iraq and would say anything to that end. When they made an argument that seemed absurd, or that fell apart under close examination, they simply switched to a new one. When the U.N. inspectors reported that they found no evidence for any WMD programs in Iraq, Bush simply cited it as further evidence of Saddam’s duplicity.

  27. Nullius in Verba


    “I take you at your word that you believe OBL was shot there.”

    Thank you.

    “The question is what you would consider concrete evidence of the fact.”

    Material being presented that could not easily be produced if the claim were untrue.

    “Because you claim that there is none.”

    None was presented, at least initially. I don’t know about now – I haven’t been following the story very closely, not being that interested – but I see some people pointing out that the more recent stuff isn’t much better.

    “It wasn’t a question of believing George Bush or believing Saddam.”

    Quite. So George Bush made statements without being backed by solid evidence, and you didn’t believe them. You expended time and effort picking holes in them, pointing out inconsistencies and errors. The official story kept changing. And those who did believe were puzzled at all the people who didn’t just take the President’s word for it, but kept trying to make excuses and raise objections and do everything they could to show the President was wrong. But there was still a problem with the evidence, whether or not people were motivated by their partisan biases to find it.

    You’re not going to take their word for it just because they’re government officials (or the President), you want to see concrete and consistent evidence that stands up to critical inspection.

    The specific details in either case don’t matter – and in this case would only lead to an argument – it was the general point I wanted to make.

    Unless it’s a statement they already believe or want to believe, people are naturally and rightly sceptical of politicians (and the media). They want to see solid evidence, and there’s nothing wrong in them asking for it.

    The distinguishing feature of conspiracy theorists, and what makes them illogical, is not that they demand impossibly high standards of evidence for the official story, but in their credulity for their alternative story without evidence for it – in the way the story is forever being reconstructed to explain away its lack.

    When one of the alternative narratives starts to gain traction, that will be the time to talk about “Deathers”. Until then, it’s just scepticism.

  28. So George Bush made statements without being backed by solid evidence, and you didn’t believe them. You expended time and effort picking holes in them, pointing out inconsistencies and errors.

    No. It had nothing to do with me expending time and picking holes in Bush’s arguments. Remember that virtually no one had doubted him when he told us that OBL had orchestrated the WTC attacks, and support for the war in Afghanistan was overwhelming.

    But Iraq was different. All anyone had to do to doubt their veracity of Bush’s statements was to read the newspaper. Our own intelligence community was contradicting the claims he was making. The U.N. inspectors in Iraq could not find evidence of the WMD programs he insisted were there. The IAEA told us that reports of Saddam buying weapons grade uranium were fraudulent. The CIA told us they were convinced he wasn’t working with Al Qaeda. Despite the accusation that Saddam was directly connected to the anthrax attacks, they couldn’t find evidence that he had engaged in any terrorist attacks on the United States. Army and State Department officials were warning that opening a new front in Iraq would hamper their fight in Afghanistan. Bush’s own economic advisor was fired for suggesting the war could cost $200 billion. Dick Cheney accused the CIA and State Department of incompetence when they couldn’t find evidence to corroborate his allegations and became so irritated with them that he created his own personal intelligence network to ensure he got the answers he wanted.

    We knew all of this before the war started. That’s why people doubted him.

    Here’s what what the newspapers were reporting before the war started in Iraq:

    February 2002 – while Bush and Cheney were telling us that Iraq had high-level contacts with Al Qaeda the NYT reported:

    The Central Intelligence Agency has no evidence that Iraq has engaged in terrorist operations against the United States in nearly a decade, and the agency is also convinced that President Saddam Hussein has not provided chemical or biological weapons to Al Qaeda or related terrorist groups, according to several American intelligence officials.

    April 2002 – the WP reporting on the inability of the CIA to dig up dirt on Hans Blix.

    Officials gave contradictory accounts of Wolfowitz’s reaction to the CIA report, which the agency returned in late January with the conclusion that Blix had conducted inspections of Iraq’s declared nuclear power plants “fully within the parameters he could operate” as chief of the Vienna-based agency between 1981 and 1997.

    A former State Department official familiar with the report said Wolfowitz “hit the ceiling” because it failed to provide sufficient ammunition to undermine Blix and, by association, the new U.N. weapons inspection program.

    On September 20, 2002, The United Press International reported:

    doubts about the quality of some of the evidence that the United States is using to make its case that Iraq is trying to build a nuclear bomb emerged Thursday. While National Security Adviser Condi Rice stated on September 8 that imported aluminum tubes ‘are only really suited for nuclear weapons programs, centrifuge programs’ a growing number of experts say that the administration has not presented convincing evidence that the tubes were intended for use in uranium enrichment rather than for artillery rocket tubes or other uses. Former U.N. weapons inspector David Albright said he found significant disagreement among scientists within the Department of Energy and other agencies about the certainty of the evidence.

    In February 2003 MSNBC, countering Cheney’s insistence that we were certain Saddam could build a nuclear bomb within a year:

    a CIA report on proliferation released this week says the intelligence community has no “direct evidence” that Iraq has succeeded in reconstituting its biological, chemical, nuclear or long-range missile programs in the two years since U.N. weapons inspectors left and U.S. planes bombed Iraqi facilities.

    In March 2003, countering Bush’s State of the Union quote that “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” the NYT reports that:

    Mohamed ElBaradei, chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said that a report — which had earlier been identified as coming from British intelligence — that Iraq had tried to purchase uranium from Niger was based on fake documents.

    And Hans Blix told us that U.N. inspections would be effective even without the full cooperation of the Iraqi government. All he needed was the time to complete them.

    Most of the arguments Bush made for going to war with Iraq had fallen apart before the war started. It was perfectly clear to everyone that he was going to war anyway.

  29. TTT

    ^Fallen apart from the highest levels. That’s the key difference. For the story of OBL’s death to be considered to have an equal likelihood of falsehood as the stories of Iraqi WMDs did circa 2003, we would need to have seen–at the same time as the initial death reports–the deputy director of the CIA saying that Bin Laden was alive and in custody, or the chief of Interpol saying they had him under observation in Chechnya, or the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. saying Bin Laden wasn’t a specific person but rather a shared symbolic identity like “Dread Pirate Roberts”. Instead, everybody is on-board with the real story–even Al Qaeda themselves.

    I know somebody who is a 9/11Truther who nevertheless still considers Al Qaeda to be a terrorist organization because of their attacks on the Cole and the African embassies. When I asked him how he could judge the evidence of those cases–all of which came from the exact same sources as the 9/11 evidence, that is, it all came from the U.S. govt and mass media–as being any more reliable than that which he had already dismissed, he basically said there wasn’t as much money riding on a conspiracy in those cases so it was probably true.

  30. Nullius in Verba

    “All anyone had to do to doubt their veracity of Bush’s statements was to read the newspaper.”

    Quite. And did you believe the newspapers?

    About half a dozen of those press reports you mention I can see were in error. But I’m not going to rehash that old argument again. You’re still proving my point, though. If people are motivated to find flaws, they will, and it’s not unreasonable to doubt and require evidence even if senior officials in the US government say so. The press only found and reported those problems because they went looking for them. Obviously the media are not as keen on finding fault with Obama as they were with Bush, but other people I’m sure will dig.

    All anyone had to do to doubt their veracity is to read the right blogs. 🙂

  31. Michael

    This article essentially advocates negotiating with denialists by trying to set up a win-win scenario that they can buy into. Why bother negotiating for no benefit? The deathers’ beliefs have no impact on anything. Let them believe whatever they want. Terrorists will continue to be terrorists regardless of the beliefs of non-terrorists. The presence of deathers in our midst does not enhance our safety from the risk of terrorist attacks, but it does not add to the threat either, so let them enjoy their delusions while we stay focused on the real threats.

  32. “The first thing that has to be done is to separate the victim from the media that is stoking these fears and beliefs. Most of these right-wing memes are not generated in a vaccuum. ”

    From Besty, way above….She writes a fascinating account of her fathers shift from nominally liberal democrat with a scientific approach to the world to a birther,right wing climate skeptic.

    I would only add that we need to examine not just shifts but also fixed positions, irrespective of where they stand on the political spectrum…the simple point is that we all use motivated reasoning in the formation of our beliefs, influenced by a dizzying array of factors such as fear, biases, external media and so on…I applaud the author’s attempt to understand this phenomena at its inception here in the case of “deathers” but as the fascinating string of comments shows, I’m not really sure this lends itself to understanding through an attempt to find causation…this is not linear stuff…ouch, my head just exploded


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