MSNBC Panel Equates 'Pathological' Global Warming Skeptics to Birthers

President Barack Obama released his long-form birth certificate on Wednesday, but not even that could put the birther myth to bed for The Nation magazine's Washington editor Chris Hayes.

Guest hosting the April 28 edition of "Last Word," Hayes seized the moment to equate those who believe the president was not born in America with those who exercise healthy skepticism about anthropogenic global warming.

"The issue of the president's origins is one thing," began Hayes. "The reality of global warming is quite another. There seem to be the same dynamics at play in both."

Hayes brought two guests to flesh out his opening salvo: Chris Mooney, described as a "science and political journalist" for Mother Jones magazine, a left-wing publication, and Jonathan Kay, managing editor of Canada's National Post newspaper, who wrote a book about conspiracy theorists.

Responding to Hayes's attempt to compare birthers to global warming skeptics, Kay explained, "Well, ultimately, conspiracy theories are a way to reconcile people's ideology with reality. It's a bridge between the world they want to be and the world that exists."

Throughout the segment, Hayes probed Kay and Mooney about how the minds of conspiracy theorists operate, not-so-subtly suggesting global warming skeptics have some sort of neurological disorder.

"Are conspiracy theories a difference in kind or a difference in degree from regular belief formation?" asked Hayes, who cited the UN's Intergovernmental Panel Climate Change report as an example of such belief formation. "Is there something that delineates conspiracist belief formulations from sort of normal belief formation?"

Kay was eager to give Hayes the answer he was looking for: "It's a pathological way of thinking, which is utterly different from rational thought."

For his part, Mooney turned a discussion about ostensibly fact-driven scientific research into a partisan screed against Republicans that was devoid of fact and research.

"I think there's a reality gap between the parties," asserted Mooney. "Republicans and Democrats believe different things about a lot of issues and it turns out Republicans are more likely to wrong."

Wrapping up the lengthy segment, Hayes pressed Mooney and Kay to explain how to "combat" the "conspiracists" who don't blindly subscribe to global warming theories:

Because that strikes me, in the case of global warming particularly, which is a very, very high-stakes conspiracy theory, that a majority of Republicans out there share – John, what did you learn about how you break – you sort of break this kind of vicious cycle that conspiracists are under?

Kay went a step further than Hayes, not only likening birthers to global warming skeptics, but also conflating global warming skeptics with racists, sexists, and homophobes.

"We have taught ourselves to get around racism, for the most part," argued Kay. "We've taught ourselves to get around homophobia and sexism in some cases. We have to teach people that conspiracism is a way of thinking that is pathological, and you have to exercise your mental self discipline to try to get around it."

Speaking of using circuitous logic and baseless assertions to argue that those who question global warming are pathological nutcases akin to birthers, ThinkProgress noted yesterday that the storms which killed more than 280 people struck states were "represented by climate pollution deniers."

The left-wing blog cited Kevin Trenberth, head of the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, to make the case that it's not absurd to draw a causal connection between severe weather events and global warming: "Since global warming is unequivocal, the null hypothesis should be that all weather events are affected by global warming."

In science, the null hypothesis is usually that there is no relationship between two variables and it is the role of the researcher to disprove the null hypothesis by showing such a relationship exists.

Apparently the liberals at ThinkProgress and MSNBC only care about scientific method when it advances their political agenda.

A transcript of the segment can be found below:

MSNBC
Last Word
April 28, 2011

8:40 p.m. EDT

CHRIS HAYES, The Nation: Last night, Stephen Colbert joked about birthers still not being satisfied with the long-form birth certificate released by the president yesterday. Satire these days is never too far from the truth. A snap robo-poll done by Survey USA shows that 18 percent of respondents still have doubts about where the president was born. Another 10 percent say the long-form version released yesterday is a forged document. At some level, I got to say, these are heartening numbers, because frankly I thought they'd be higher. Still, I won't be surprised if we see those numbers creep back up as the forces of denial re-group, and launch their inevitable bevy of conspiracy theories about the document's authenticity. At the end of the day, the birther issue is not the biggest deal in the world. People believe all kinds of crazy stuff. The real issue is the relationship our public life and political debates bear to reality, how facts link up to policy.

That has become disturbingly un-moored over the last decade. The issue of the president's origins is one thing. The reality of global warming is quite another. There seem to be the same dynamics at play in both. Former White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs said yesterday "There are no more arbiters of truth, so whatever you can prove factually, somebody else can find something else to point to it with enough ferocity to get people to believe it. We've crossed some Rubicon into the unknown." Well said. Case in point, the same day President Obama released his long-form birth certificate, Oklahoma State House approved a birther bill, requiring presidential candidates to provide proof of citizenship to get on the ballot.

Joining me now, Jonathan Kay, managing editor of Canada's National Post newspaper and author of "Among the Truthers: a Journey through America's Growing Conspiracist Underground," and Chris Mooney, science and political journalist, and author of "We Can't Handle the Truth" in the current issue of Mother Jones. Both are excellent reads. I recommend them highly. Jonathan, let me start with you. For the new book, you spent three years immersed in the world of conspiracy theorists. And I wonder what you ended up concluding about what powers them, what draws people to them and keeps people attached to them?

JONATHAN KAY, National Post: Well, ultimately, conspiracy theories are a way to reconcile people's ideology with reality. It's a bridge between the world they want to be and the world that exists. So in the case of the birthers, there are a lot of people who just cannot get their head around the fact that Americans elected a somewhat left-wing president and it doesn't jibe with their view of the United States. It doesn't jive with their view of the way reality should be. So they have created a sort of mythology that allows them to believe it didn't really happen, that Obama is actually illegitimate, that all they have to do is unmask him as a sort of hoax president and history will be that set right. It allows them to, as I say, reconcile the world they want, which is a right-wing America with a right-wing president, with the world that actually exists, with Obama in the White House.

HAYES: I like this phrase, "the bridge from ideology to reality." Chris, in the article you wrote for Mother Jones sort of about the science of belief formation – there's a lot research that sort of backs up that premise, right?

CHRIS MOONEY, "MOTHER JONES": There is a science of why we deny science, right? There are facts about why we can't accept facts. Basically, it's a theory called motivated reasoning. What it does is it takes modern neuroscience and shows, you know, how our processes of reasoning are actually driven by emotion. And we make up our minds subconsciously before we are even actually consciously thinking what we think and then we are down a path and we're already rationalizing.

HAYES: And so the rational thought is actually this sort of this retroactive construction. So here's the question I have for both of you: you know, the big question I think is – and the profound one is are conspiracy theories a difference in kind or a difference in degree from regular belief formation? I mean, are we – because at the end of the day, people who are watching this are trusting that I'm not lying to them. And when I read a newspaper or when I read the Intergovernmental Panel Climate Change report from the UN, I trust that the whole thing isn't a fabricated hoax. So how different is – John, maybe you can answer this. Is there something that delineates conspiracist belief formulations from sort of normal belief formation, with all of its biases, et cetera?

KAY: Yes, there is. And that is the fact that if you take a normal, rational person and you give them contrary evidence to what they believe, they will re-examine their original hypothesis. Whereas if you take a conspiracy theorists and give them contrary information, they will always simple expand the circle of conspirators. So, for instance, in the case of the Birthers, if you way, well, you know, the secretary of health and the governor, they have all said the birth certificate is legitimate, they will simply draw a bigger circle around the conspiracy and say, well, they're in on it too; the media is in on it too; the justice system is in on it too. It's a pathological way of thinking, which is utterly different from rational thought. I actually compare it to religion, in the sense that if you're a committed Christian or a committed Jew or a committed Muslim, it doesn't matter what your faith is. If someone gives you contrary evidence to your beliefs, you wont simply say, well, I guess I'll re-examine my religious beliefs. You'll say I take this on faith. And that's the way I believe. Conspiracy theories, in many ways, are a religious faith for a secular age.

HAYES: Chris, that sounds – everything that you just said reminds me somewhat uncannily of some of the social science results that you cite in your article, which is that you do give people confounding information, and they simply reassert the original error.


MOONEY: I would say that it is just an extreme version of something to which we are all susceptible. When people read my piece, they said this is kind of like arguing with my spouse. This is kind of like arguing with a member of my family who has different politics. They will never change their mind. They will never change their mind. It's the same process, but it goes farther. And some of us learn checks on the process. Journalists are supposed to learn checks. Scientists are supposed to learn checks. But even these groups, as we know, fall all the time for biases.

HAYES: So here's my question. So let's say there's some sort of background. John, you sort of go through a lot of psychological dispositions that might lead people to conspiracist thinking. You talk about our just general biases and the way sort of our brains work. The question is, is Robert Gibbs right that the nature of American public life at this moment makes these problems worse, exacerbates them as opposed to mitigates them?

KAY: I think the big problem is the technology. Because this has always been part of human psychology. The problem is now technology, in particular the media on the Internet, allow people to inhabit their own reality on websites. The conspiracy theorists that I interviewed don't watch shows like this. They don't watch the mass media. Typically, they are in their own little self- contained Internet bubble of people who think like they do. So in their mind, they are not outsiders because they are surrounded every day, virtually, by people who think the way they do. This has never existed in American society prior to the Internet. Conspiracy theorists always had to go outside, interact with people, turn on the mass media, read a newspaper eventually, because that's the only way to get news. And so they were confronted with the fact that they were outsiders. That reality doesn't exist now. They can go into a custom made reality, inhabited only by people who share their esoteric beliefs. That is new.

HAYES: Chris, is it your sense of the Internet – this is like knock number one on the Internet, right, that the Internet is sort of reinforcing this cocooning, this sort of knowledge cocooning.

MOONEY: It's a role, but I don't think it's the only factor. I think there's a reality gap between the parties. Republicans and Democrats believe different things about a lot of issues and it turns out Republicans are more likely to wrong. We can talk about that. But one of the factors is, you know, everyone has their own experts now. There's been a 30, 40-year campaign to build right wing think tanks to fight back against academic experts. And so, you know, everyone can say I've got a PhD who thinks this. And for every PhD, there's an equal and opposite PhD.

HAYES: Finally, in the vaunted tradition of cable news, I want to give each of you 30 seconds to say what we can do to combat it. Because that strikes me, in the case of global warming particularly, which is a very, very high-stakes conspiracy theory, that a majority of Republicans out there share – John, what did you learn about how you break – you sort of break this kind of vicious cycle that conspiracists are under?

KAY: Well, ultimately, you have to teach people that conspiracism, which is what I call this way of thinking, is akin to any other pathological way of thinking. We have taught ourselves to get around racism, for the most part. We've taught ourselves to get around homophobia and sexism in some cases. We have to teach people that conspiracism is a way of thinking that is pathological, and you have to exercise your mental self-discipline to try to get around it.

HAYES: Chris, you get the last word on this.

MOONEY: Well, it seems like emotions are what drive us down the wrong path. So we need to de-emotionalize issues. We often, if we want to change somebody's mind, if not hit them with facts, we have to hit them with a different way of thinking about them that is more constant with what they feel is the way the world should work. It's a different strategy.

HAYES: Chris Mooney, science journalist, has a great piece in Mother Jones, "The Science of Why We Don't Believe in Science." John Kay from The National Post, author of a great new book called "Among the Truthers." Gentlemen, thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

--Alex Fitzsimmons is a News Analysis intern at the Media Research Center. Click here to follow him on Twitter.