When Donald Trump told an interviewer a few days ago that he doesn't know where President Obama was born, I had to shake my head. Okay fine, Trump is a provocateur, who enjoys saying outrageous things and then watching the mainstream media obsess over what he just said. He's also a shrewd politician, and he knows that by some estimates, as many as 20% of Republicans still believe the "birther" myth that Mr. Obama is secretly from Kenya. But Donald Trump is not a stupid person, and surely he knows that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii, a fact that has been thoroughly documented, and even a number of his political enemies (and the folks on Fox News) acknowledge it. And yet... there are still thousands of people who applaud whenever Trump casts those same old doubts about whether the president is a "real" American. It totally mystifies me -- whether you like the president or not, it's just plain bizarre to still be insisting in 2015 that he wasn't born in the United States.
And it's not just Donald Trump who disseminates this kind of nonsense. We seem to be living in an age when any fact-free conspiracy theory can gain an wide audience, thanks in large part to the internet and social media, which spread rumors and myths as quickly as they spread actual (and provable) facts. For example, celebrities, who have no medical degree (talking to you, Jenny McCarthy) can get on television and then use their blog or YouTube to insist that vaccines cause autism (they do not, and study after study shows NO link between getting vaccinated and developing autism); and thousands of their fans assume these celebrities must know what they are talking about. Sorry, but Jenny McCarthy is not a medical expert, and while I am sympathetic about her son's condition, anecdotal evidence is not the same as serious studies with data. Yet no matter how many serious studies come out debunking any relationship between vaccines and autism, some folks prefer getting their medical advice from a model and talk show host.
Or how about the good folks in Texas who are firmly convinced that a large military training exercise called Jade Helm 15, is a secret government plot to impose martial law-- did you hear about those closed-up Walmarts that are being converted into prisons, so that all those who oppose the government can be locked away? These and other conspiracy theories are being spread by talk show host Alex Jones and various anti-government bloggers. No matter how many times the military denies that there's anything unusual going on, or explains the purpose of this particular training exercise (the goal is to give the participating troops practice, by using role-playing to simulate situations they might encounter during a war), some folks remain totally unconvinced, and totally ready to resist when the military marches in to take over Texas.
Every week, fact-checking websites like Snopes.com and Factcheck.org debunk assorted myths and rumors, and yet they persist. You'd think that with all the information available to us with a simple search, we'd have no trouble separating fact from fiction. But you'd be wrong to think that. Studies show that people tend to prefer information that reinforces what they already believe-- it's called "confirmation bias." So, those who are convinced that Obama is a Kenyan, or vaccines cause autism, or the government is about to impose martial law will seek out websites and other media sources that agree with them. And those kinds of resources are easy to find. No wonder so much internet discourse consists of people who are convinced they are right throwing their beliefs at each other like weapons, often followed by name-calling and frustration that others can't see "the truth."
In fairness, believing in myth or pseudo-science isn't new. Way back in 1922, a French pharmacist named Emile Coué (some newspapers claimed he was a doctor, but he was not) gained international fame with his theory of "auto-suggestion." He asserted that any disease could be cured simply by chanting "every day, in every way, I'm getting better and better." This theory of positive thinking was supposed to cure everything from loneliness to cancer, and Mr. Coué's trip to America featured him "curing" all sorts of people. It was not a skeptical age, and the press breathlessly reported about the miracle man and his amazing cures, accepting the performance without checking to see if the people really were cured (or if they'd ever been sick at all). But by 1926, Coué was dead from pneumonia, an illness that evidently could not be cured by positive thinking.
That said, there is no denying that a positive attitude can be useful in battling most diseases; but to claim that diseases will vanish with the proper attitude (or by chanting the proper words) is something I cannot logically accept, nor can medical science. But in his day, Coué had millions of fans, who desperately wanted to believe every word he said. Today, he'd be like Oprah Winfrey, a celebrity with his own talk show and blog and legions of supporters. There's nothing new under the sun, it seems.
Neither Abraham Lincoln nor P.T. Barnum actually said "You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all
the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time." Still, whoever really said it may have underestimated the desire a lot of folks have to want to be fooled. Many people need to seek out a "magic answer" or find simple solutions for complicated questions. It makes them feel better to know they were right and someone else was wrong. Election year politics often amplifies that kind of conversation, as candidates try to make themselves stand out by making outrageous claims and pointing fingers. Politicians, like talk show hosts and celebrity "medical experts," understand that people want to know who (or what) is to blame for every problem. But this year, will we finally get a serious discussion about the problems we face, or will we just get more empty rhetoric? If past history is any indicator, we'll get the rhetoric. And I can only hope that this time around, people won't be fooled by it.