About the SA Blog Network



Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American
Observations HomeAboutContact

Death of the birthers?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Email   PrintPrint

The birth certificate in all its long-form glory has been revealed to a panting public. And so even the most hardcore so-called birther will now acknowledge that Barack Obama is legally entitled to serve as President of the United States, right? Well, not so fast.

In my October 2009 "Antigravity" column ("Birth of A Notion"), I discussed the research of Harvard University psychologist Mahzarin Banaji on "implicit social cognition, which involves the deep-rooted assumptions we all carry around and even act on without realizing it."

Work in this field revealed that white Americans intrinsically think of whites as more American than are nonwhites, even if the white person is European. For example, English actor Hugh Grant was perceived as more American than American tennis player Michael Chang. So it may not be a surprise that whites thought of Senator John McCain as intrinsically more American than Obama. But they even thought of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair as more American than Obama. (Results in this field can be shocking: in a 2005 episode of the "Scientific American Frontiers" program, host Alan Alda was taken aback to discover with Banaji that his feminist credentials did not stop him from having a bias against women in the workplace.)

In the column I connected Banaji’s research to the Obama citizenship issue thusly: "A black president…causes great cognitive dissonance in some. But members of the ‘birther’ movement have found a clever solution: Obama isn’t really president! Because he wasn’t really born in the USA!"

So I do not expect the issue of Obama’s legal entitlement to the office of President to go away just because undeniable evidence has been released that he was born in the U.S. The birthers will find another reason to deny Obama’s legal status. Because as Wired contributing editor Mat Honan (@mat) tweeted: "So if that really is Obama’s *real* birth certificate, and he really is eligible to be President, how come he is still not a white guy?"

Image of birth certificate from


Rights & Permissions

Comments 40 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. yumyum13 12:51 am 04/28/2011

    interesting read:

    what does everyone think? because i don’t know anymore!

    Link to this
  2. 2. jtdwyer 1:12 am 04/28/2011

    I am always skeptical of the research methods used by ‘social scientists’ and psychologists. Following the links provided seems to indicate that this research is based on volunteered web polls. Is this now considered to be a valid method of conducting statistical surveys? I don’t see how…

    Link to this
  3. 3. Desert Navy 2:14 am 04/28/2011

    Personally, I was curious about the situation until Hawaii Governor Lingle verified everything was in order. I thought perhaps there was something embarrassing to Obama or the state of Hawaii on the "long-form" (mulatto perhaps, or worse.)

    But surely you must realize this is a political maneuver by Obama, because otherwise he’s spent millions to keep an ordinary form out of public view. Which would make him a fool not to be trusted with public funds, and you would comment on the foolish American president, wouldn’t you?

    Link to this
  4. 4. matts2 8:46 am 04/28/2011

    Why would it be embarrassing to Obama if it said "mulatto"? The state of Hawaii would be embarrassed, but not Obama.

    As for this being a political maneuver he released his birth certificate 2 years ago. If racists wanted to continually embarrass themselves he had no obligation to stop them. Nor did he spend millions on this, that is silly. There was a small amount of money spent on releasing the birth certificate. And then the racist birthers spent millions whining.

    Obama did not keep any form out of view. He released the form that he had, the form that any one gets when they ask for a copy of their birth certificate. The state of Hawaii did not release the long form because they never release the long form. Obama had to ask for a special exemption to get this copy.

    So you are really complaining that it took so long and that Obama did anything. Which means your real complaint is something else. Perhaps it is that black skin issue that the article discussed.

    Link to this
  5. 5. matts2 8:55 am 04/28/2011

    What is wrong with a Kenyan describing himself as African? There is no particular reason he would have used the oppressive terms used in America. And the hand waving on document makes no sense. The Republican Governor of Hawaii said she said the birth certificate was fine. So somehow they have this conspiracy including the Republican Governor, but they do a bad fake? How about you read the article again and try to wrap your head around the notion that a black man is an American and he was elected president. It really is not that difficult an idea.

    Link to this
  6. 6. Soccerdad 9:06 am 04/28/2011

    I believe the author’s flaky theory is about as well founded as the birther’s flaky theory.

    Link to this
  7. 7. Steve Mirsky 10:33 am 04/28/2011

    My hypothesis has a basis in reality. The birther theory is just racist garbage. But thanks for reading!

    Link to this
  8. 8. Marcello09 10:51 am 04/28/2011

    I’m with Soccerdad on this one. The author is cherry-picking facts to support a pre-determined conclusion. That may be American, but it sure ain’t Scientific.

    Link to this
  9. 9. Steve Mirsky 11:46 am 04/28/2011

    Fascinating interpretation. I’m attempting to provide an explanation, using accepted scientific research, for human behavior. (If you’re saying that my predetermined conclusion was that the birthers were wrong, well, ya got me.) What research program would you suggest? And to answer what question?

    Link to this
  10. 10. scotlfs 12:00 pm 04/28/2011

    Steve you can’t make everyone happy. I rather enjoyed the humor of the article as intended.

    Link to this
  11. 11. Marcello09 12:06 pm 04/28/2011

    Your pre-determined conclusion is that "the birther theory is just racist garbage." That’s an exact quote from you. You neglected to mention that the birther theory was started by folks in Hilary Clinton’s campaign for political (not racist) purposes. You’ve also ignored the centuries-old American tradition of distrusting all politicians and government institutions. Sometimes for good reason, I’d say.

    Crazy political conspiracy theories are as old as politics itself. There’s nothing particularly unique about the latest batch.

    Link to this
  12. 12. Dr_Zinj 12:18 pm 04/28/2011

    I suspect a good many birthers’ sense of self is so wrapped up in the correctness of their belief that Obama isn’t a native born American that they are incapable of ever accepting the truth; no matter how much you provide them.

    Their position is a matter of faith, not cognition. Your only choices are to either kill them, or put up with them; because you sure can;t change them.

    Link to this
  13. 13. Steve Mirsky 12:58 pm 04/28/2011

    Subtlety is not your strong suit. I indeed said that the birther theory is racist garbage. It was not, however, my pre-determined conclusion. That conclusion, based on mountains of available evidence, was that the birther theory was wrong. (You can reread my previous two comments if you think otherwise.) After analysis, I determined that the birther theory is racist garbage–not even consciously racist in some cases. All that said, you’re still missing the point. I’m attempting to explain, with the available research, why millions of people would think that a person is not what he clearly is. That subject is the domain of scientific evaluation.

    Link to this
  14. 14. macdoodle 1:04 pm 04/28/2011

    For some Birthers the certificate is just a more acceptable excuse than to say guilty of being black. They will hang on.
    Some ,like Kreep, have made lots of money (see Charity Navigator) off the bigots and the gullible, they will push on too.

    Link to this
  15. 15. albee 1:05 pm 04/28/2011

    It’s amazing that so many people believed the often repeated falsehood that President Obama was born in another country, despite evidence to the contrary. People in the rest of the world must think that a significant portion of Americans are very gullible.

    Link to this
  16. 16. Soccerdad 2:22 pm 04/28/2011

    If the birther theory was rooted in racism, one should expect that the percentage who subscribe should be relatively constant. However, the percentages have grown dramatically. Seems more like grasping at straws for those who disagree strongly with Obama’s policies. If it is racism, there must be way more racists now than when this racist country elected a black president.

    Link to this
  17. 17. ZebulonJoe 3:22 pm 04/28/2011

    Wrong question.

    The constitution requires that, to be eligible for the presidency, a person must be "a natural born citizen of the United States."

    "Natural born" requires that BOTH parents be citizens of the United States. It specifically EXCLUDES parents of two different nationalities. Obama’s father at the time of his birth was Kenyan, and hence held BRITISH citizenry.

    Ergo, Obama held both British and American citizenship at the time of his birth, thus specifically EXCLUDING him from being a natural born citizen.

    Link to this
  18. 18. Profero 3:49 pm 04/28/2011

    Well, we need evidence showing Hawaii as a legal American state.
    This is surely a suspect document:

    Link to this
  19. 19. Trent1492 4:07 pm 04/28/2011

    Zebelon Jones: "Natural born" requires that BOTH parents be citizens of the United States. It specifically EXCLUDES parents of two different nationalities.

    Trent Says: Then show where it says that. Please cite the article and section. Show where it "SPECIFICALLY EXCLUDES parents of two different nationalities".

    Here is the link:

    And please do not forget that pesky 14th amendment.

    Link to this
  20. 20. 3C273 4:49 pm 04/28/2011

    Regardless of its sociological implications, the issue establishes one fact alone:
    One cannot overestimate the stupidity of the "birthers," nor of the Republican Party that "birthed" the movement, and many of whom are still unable to distinguish truth from delusion, nor of "tycoons," who amassed their fame and fortunes through pure luck and ruthlessness, and not brilliance. One of the latter has been "trumped" for now, but does not seem to be bright enough even to recognize it.

    Link to this
  21. 21. focalist 5:18 pm 04/28/2011

    It is because it’s support of this type of behaviour, and the co-opting of the party by far-right extremists, that I’ve disassociated myself from the Republican Party after twenty years registered. Obviously, nobody here in America learned a thing from 9/11 about how religious extremism and race intolerance is a bad thing.

    Nobody notices our boys dying in Afghanistan for the same reason.

    If you are enough of a coward that you need to pick a cross, then hide behind it while harming others.. your "point" never had merit in the first place.

    My former party is now the party of fear mongers, racists, and the cowards (in the majority, no less) unwilling to stand up to the mindless, screaming few.

    Maybe when RNC meetings stop sounding like Klan rallies, I may return. Until then, I despise the "leadership" of my former party for cowardly pandering to religious extremists, racists, and those who financially benefit from the suffering of others.

    Link to this
  22. 22. Cramer 5:25 pm 04/28/2011

    It is definitely very easy to determine which commenters are racist. It’s ashame that most of them probably don’t know it themselves and probably never will. Racism is most prevalent as a subconscious bias. This allows people to feel better about themselves who have been brought up to consciously believe that it is wrong to be racist (Do on to others…, etc).

    There was no reasonable doubt about the evidence of President Obama being a naturally born citizen before the long form certificate of live birth was released. Most people requiring more evidence before, still have an unreasonable doubt and will only require more evidence.

    It is the theory of the dilation of doubt and the singularity of absolute truth. It is impossible to have absolute zero doubt or absolute infinite truth about anything. The closer one gets to the absolute truth, the more unreasonable the doubt becomes. Who knows, we may not be made up of matter, our universe might be only a giant computer similiation running on the desktop of our creator (some 12 year old kid in another universe playing around before dinner).

    Link to this
  23. 23. Martin Wirth 6:35 pm 04/28/2011

    Education can remedy ignorance but not stupidity.

    Link to this
  24. 24. TMore 7:47 pm 04/28/2011

    Obama’s writings and statements indicate that he has endeavoured to be considered unique, different, and perhaps even exotic. To paraphase, when he realized he was half white and half black he chose to be fully black as the greater benefit and to emphasize his african heritage. Hence he was successful and is considered different.

    Link to this
  25. 25. focalist 9:12 pm 04/28/2011

    To be honest TMore, I don’t think he did any "choosing" at all- the media defined him as black long ago in his political history. Remember, he’s no stranger to tough politics- Chicago is notorious, and he managed there quite well. At what point is someone "black", in any case? 100% (both parents) from Africa? Both parents being dark-skinned? For that matter, folks from some areas of Africa tend to have lighter skin than some mediterranean regions, like Greece.

    To even ask the question is of course by definition racist- looking to sort into bins by race..

    The fact is, they (as Steve points out) don’t care about reality, it’s a series of self-reinforcing delusions driven by fear and hatred. In reality, we ought to feel sorry for anyone fool enough to be taken in by all of the birther nonsense- they’ve clearly demonstrated a concerted effort to be misinformed, and a genuine desire to misinform others to meet their secular agenda.

    Link to this
  26. 26. Marcello09 9:50 pm 04/28/2011

    Steve, you came to your conclusion after conveniently ignoring mountains of evidence that conflicted with your conclusion. It’s sloppy stuff, and Scientific American deserves better.

    Link to this
  27. 27. denysYeo 10:03 pm 04/28/2011

    Hi Steve, I thought your article was excellent. Even here in New Zealand there are similar forms of racism: For example a Television presenter recently implied that the NZ "Governor General" was not really a "kiwi" (New Zealander) because, although he was born in NZ, his ancestry stems from India! Even though the presenter was "fired" for his comment, I suspect there is an undertone of agreement with him in this country. (At least the GG did not have to produce a birth certificate to prove his right to office!). As an observation, it is interesting that in NZ we seem able to fire people who behave in this way, but apparently in the USA it is the people who behave this way that do the firing!

    Link to this
  28. 28. Cramer 12:01 am 04/29/2011


    This is a short opinion piece. Steve Mirsky simply states his opinion that assumptions made about President Obama’s birth location arose from implicit social cognition as researched by Mahzarin Banaji. It is fine that you disagree but then you offer no serious counterpoint and you suggest his opinion should have the scientific rigor of a journal article. If that’s what you are looking for, why are you here reading SciAm?

    What are "mountains of evidence" that Steve is ignoring? The Clinton campaign origins of birtherism or the tradition of distrust for politicians?

    Can you prove that "birther theory was started by folks in Hilary Clinton’s campaign?" There is no evidence of that. Phil Berg or any of the nut jobs who started the "birther theory" can not be tied to the Clinton campaign. She never demanded to see his birth certificate, but he provided it anyway. It’s funny how you pick and choose what is believable and what is not.

    Tradition? Conspiracy theories about the president typically remain on the fringe (e.g. the truther conspiracy). This became mainstream and it really doesn’t have anything to do with "distrust" but mistrust. It has to do with what is considered a reasonable doubt. The record of birth in the Honolulu paper was provided by the hospital, not the Obamas. This is no different than someone’s name appearing in the paper for getting a speeding ticket. It is a manner of record that is required by law in many municipalities.

    We all lie to ourselves about what our true motives actually are. Some catch ourselves better than others.

    Link to this
  29. 29. denswei 12:04 am 04/29/2011

    NB: the $2million that Obama allegedly spent hiding his birth certificate was actually ALL of the legal fees incurred during the 2008 campaign, only a small part of which went to litigating spurious lawsuits like the birther BS.

    Oh yeah, this was a really tricky bit of psychological research, oh so sensitive to flaky mistakes. Take a bunch of pictures of famous & ordinary people of various races, present them in pairs to a variety of people, and ask which looks more American. So many ways an investigator could manipulate the results…

    Funny how some people are so oblivious to the obvious. Perhaps one of them could explain how researchers tricked people into rating the Prime Minister of England (Tony Blair) as ‘more American’ than Obama.

    Link to this
  30. 30. Grasshopper1 4:19 pm 04/29/2011

    I agree with denswei that there were many ways for researchers to manipulate or influence how the people would answer.

    The birthers are completely ridiculous. Of course, I won’t name any names… [COUGH COUGH Donald Trump COUGH COUGH]

    Link to this
  31. 31. finstercat 4:46 pm 04/29/2011

    It’s true that we all lie to our (conscious) selves about our "true" motives, and it’s also true that researchers may manipulate data (consciously or unconsciously), so it might be interesting to review the actual studies before drawing any conclusions.

    I’m sure most of us would like to think we can rise above our unconscious, irrational biases, but I’m afraid that in too many cases we’re not even aware of them. That said, I agree – THE BIRTHERS ARE COMPLETELY RIDICULOUS! What a monumental waste of time and energy! Surely there are more important problems to occupy the chattering classes. And I wonder who remembers the 2008 election controversy disputing John McCain’s claim of "natural-born" American citizenship? That one died a quick and quiet death – would anyone still be debating that if McCain had been elected? Somehow I doubt it.

    Link to this
  32. 32. Cramer 5:27 pm 04/29/2011

    There are researchers that "manipulate or influence" results in every field. Remember Jan Hendrik Schön?

    The "soft sciences" like psychology and economics are more susceptible to biases because many factors in an experiment are unable to be controlled or even known.

    I don’t know of any reason to believe that the research of Mahzarin Banaji is significantly manipulated or influenced by her biases. Have the people claiming this taken any of her tests? If not, you can go here:

    I would say that larger biases exists with lay people accepting or rejecting the results of research based solely on their "implicit social cognition, which involves the deep-rooted assumptions we all carry around and even act on without realizing it."

    This could be the expansion of the universe, evolution, climate change, free markets, racist motivations of birthers, etc. Even the smartest among us can allow our own long established beliefs and biases interfere with our interpretation of robust evidence in front of us. Einstein did not want to believe that the universe was expanding. Nor did he accept quantum mechanics ("God does not play dice.")

    Link to this
  33. 33. Katriana 6:02 pm 04/29/2011

    On the same token Steve, there’s implicit social cognitions that lead many people inexorably to believe that people of dissenting opinions or beliefs are entirely flawed on a personal level, usually either via stupidity or some form of evil, because it’s much easier to stomach ideological differences by simply assuming the other guy is intellectually or morally bankrupt. Something this article and others like it reek of. It’s certainly an interesting concept, but the idea of using some relatively tenuous research to prop up your own agenda without even attempting to provide anything to really correlate them leaves me a bit skeptical. You certainly could be right, and you almost definitely are for SOME of them, but it seems like you really lack anything to connect the first bit of data with your conclusion, and ignoring some of the other possible reasonings. An idea can be wrong (as it is in this case) without the supporters of the idea being corrupt.

    On that note… It would be interesting though to explore why members of ‘certain’ political ideologies try so desperately hard to pin racial prejudice on dissidents.

    Link to this
  34. 34. Cramer 7:18 pm 04/29/2011

    The most important phrase of the article is "without realizing it."

    Why do you believe President Obama was born outside of the United States? What is your evidence? Or what is the evidence from those who believe this? What would the scientific reasoning be?

    Link to this
  35. 35. Katriana 10:47 pm 04/30/2011

    Uhh…. I don’t believe that, I said as much in the post you’re replying to… and I don’t really need to articulate their opinion for you, since it’s been rehashed to death since ’08 ( and technically if one is to believe the initial point of the movement, they don’t need to be the ones supplying evidence ). The point of contention I have with the article is that he’s putting forth a very, very shaky hypothesis as fact.

    Link to this
  36. 36. Cramer 12:32 am 05/1/2011

    Yes, after reading through your post again, I see that you did include a phrase in parenthesis saying the "idea" of the birthers was wrong. It doesn’t really stand out. If I was going to stand up for the a group whose ideas I do not agree with, I would not to refer to the idea in an indirect and generic sense in the last sentence, I would explicitly state it in the first sentence.

    I see nothing that Steve Mirsky puts forth as fact. It’s only a five paragraph article. Can you provide the hypothesis he claims to be a fact? Maybe I missed it like I missed your statement of belief.

    You are framing this on ideology. Was Steve Mirsky? I did not see that, either. What is the ideology of the birthers? The Tea Party and the Republican party are always trying to make it clear not to equate them with the birthers. Many members of the birthers claim to be libertarians or social conservatives, which are completely different ideologies. It seems you are attempting to demonize people that do not share your ideology by claiming that many of them only use ad hominem attacks for their refutations of opinions.

    I also did not ask for the opinion of the birthers. I ask what their evidence is. Their opinion seems to be that the legal birth certificate given in 2008 is a fake and the newspaper listing from the hospital was a fraud, therefore President Obama was not born in the US. What is the evidence for those opinions? I have heard of no evidence. I thought you might know. It’s only conspiratorial evidence–i.e. everyone is lying. How do you know they are lying? Who are they? The Republican governor in 2008, Linda Lingle? The hospital that provided the data to the newspaper in 1961? The newspaper in 1961?

    You are making false equivalencies. If I say the moon is going to crash into the Earth next week and no other scientist believes this, should my "dissenting opinion" be taken seriously and be considered equivalent to the alternative view. I am sure most people would believe that I was nuts. Although, that would just be their opinion, it’s a reasonable opinion. [Note: I am not equivocating a crashing moon and a fraudulent birth certificate, but the probability of a fraudulent birth certificate in this case is very small.]

    If I knew their evidence, maybe I would not believe they are delusional, racist, or whatever their problem is. I also thought the truthers were nuts, but the truthers belief was not based on Bush not being American, Christian, etc. NO PRESIDENT HAS EVER BEEN ACCUSED OF NOT BEING AMERICAN.

    Link to this
  37. 37. Grasshopper1 10:24 am 05/1/2011

    Usually, someone is INNOCENT UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY. However, the birthers believe that Obama is GUILTY UNTIL PROVEN INNOCENT. That is just ridiculous. The birthers have NO EVIDENCE for their opinion.

    Link to this
  38. 38. Katriana 5:53 pm 05/1/2011

    Not fake, they just assume that the certificate, not being the original document, is insufficient, and generally point to Obama not capitulating to them as evidence of shady behavior, further fueling their theory, which is the extent of their "evidence". This is further fueled by a lack of understanding in Hawaii state law and a myriad of political operatives across the board trying to leverage it for personal gain. I’m just not sure how race relates to it.

    I wasn’t trying to frame it in ideology either, merely find it interesting that this accusation is a very common haven in modern political discourse, to the point where the word appears to have very little to do with race relations at all.

    Technically the last sentence is correct, but keep in mind that would still be true if the election of ’08 had swung the other way.

    Link to this
  39. 39. Soccerdad 5:01 pm 05/3/2011

    There is an obvious flaw in your "determination" that the birther theory is racist garbage. If doubters of Obama’s citizenship status are driven by racism, why has the theory gained support by a very large amount (at least up until the release of the long form) over time as indicated in the polls? Has there been a resurgence of racism in the US (who, by the way, did elect a black President)? I don’t think so. Rather the birther theory has grown at the same time Obama’s favorability ratings have plummeted as opposition to his policies has grown. Therefore, I conclude that people who have turned against his policies are seeking to de-legitimize him. This should be a familiar concept to those on the left like yourself. You all did it to George W by insisting in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary that he did not win Florida and therefore was not the legitimate leader of the US.

    Link to this
  40. 40. Desert Navy 10:12 am 05/11/2011


    Well, Chester A. Arthur was. I know of several candidates (Goldwater, McCain, etc.) and I’m pretty sure a couple more sitting presidents.

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Email this Article