Rick Perry, who evidently enjoys reviving long-settled questions, briefly reignited birtherism earlier this week in a series of interviews. Telling The New York Times, for instance, that the issue was “fun,” Perry said he doesn’t “have a clue” what Obama’s certificate says and that he considers the controversy “a good issue to keep alive.” Perry’s performance art continued the next day, when he suddenly admonished his former self, saying birtherism is “one of the biggest distractions that there is going” and sternly declaring that “we need to be talking about jobs.” Despicable though they may have been, Perry’s comments do raise an interesting question: Why has this conspiracy theory, never plausible and long-ago debunked, demonstrated such staying power?
Dartmouth’s Brendan Nyhan and Georgia State’s Jason Reifler have done some interesting work on this phenomenon, which they call “the persistence of political misperceptions.” In a series of experiments performed in 2005 and 2006, the two political scientists surveyed respondents on controversial subjects (Iraq, taxes, and stem cell research) and found that “ideological subgroups failed to update their beliefs when presented with corrective information that runs counter to their predispositions. Indeed, in several cases, we find that corrections actually strengthened misperceptions among the most strongly committed subjects.” The authors expressed worry about the implications of their findings, pointing out that democratic debate is undermined when citizens are unwilling to change their views—even if the factual basis of those views is demonstrably incorrect. Obviously, this problem extends far beyond birtherism, but it does make one wonder if swaying even just a few of the most hardcore birthers is a hopeless task. Maybe it would help end the matter if a trusted conservative, someone who enjoys credibility with the base, could publicly denounce this nonsense once and for all—someone like, say, Rick Perry. Hey, a person can dream, right?