Thursday, April 1, 2010

Top Five Birther Debate Tactics

As an aid to my fellow Americans who might find themselves confronted with a Birther and his arguments, I thought to prepare a top ten list of rhetorical devices that Birthers tend to use when confronted with counter-arguments and evidence that contradicts their existing beliefs. Learning to recognize these methods and logical fallacies is the first step in promoting useful dialogue and avoiding unnecessary conflict. And as might be appropriate for April Fools Day, it should serve as a handy list of the most common ways that Birthers try to fool others everyday.

However, as I attempted to assemble a list, I was amused to find that I could not think of ten different Birther devices. Rather, the typical Birther responses to critical analysis of their position can be broken down into as few as five categories.

Note, this is a breakdown of Birther responses to questions or criticism, not initial Birther arguments. Those can be summed up largely as Argument from Ignorance (something is true because we don't know it isn't true) and Misrepresenting Evidence (take your pick). These items below are the ways that Birthers respond to challenges to their statements, positions, or worldview.

5. Ad Hominem Attacks

Here, the Birther responds to substantive criticism not by defending his position, but by levying a personal attack upon the questioner, or upon a third party (such as Obama, or FactCheck, or a judge). The subject itself is evaded entirely, and the Birther substitutes an on-topic response with mocking of the questioner, smearing of a third party, or making negative insinuations about whoever might disagree with them.

EXAMPLE: Marvin stated that "the Senate held hearings regarding McCain’s natural born citizenship." I responded to Marvin showing that no such hearings ever took place, and that the only testimony was a single question during a Judiciary Committee briefing. Marvin's entire response was "Your hatred of those questioning your pres_ _ent is coloring your mind. Maybe the kneepads are too tight?" As you see, rather than defend his previous statement, Marvin completely ignored my factual evidence and chose to redirect the subject of the conversation to be about me, making accusations about my emotional state, my mental acuity, and my partisan stance.

4. Special Pleading / Conspiracy Pleading

Special pleading is a logical fallacy where one deflects criticism by concocting an external rationale as to why the usual rules of evidence should not apply to the argument they're making. With Birthers, this most often takes the form of suggesting or implying the existence of a covert conspiracy that has interfered with the available evidence. When confronted with evidence that contradicts Birther beliefs, the Birther alleges that the conspiracy created that evidence to fool the public. When confronted with the lack of evidence supporting Birther beliefs, the Birther alleges that the conspiracy has destroyed or hidden all the secret evidence that would support his beliefs.

EXAMPLE: Birth announcements of Obama's birth were found in two Hawaii newspapers. Solid evidence, no? But Ron responded to this evidence by proposing an elaborate scheme whereby the library's microfiche was altered or forged. The end result is that the birth announcements are discounted because Ron thinks the conspirators created them.

3. Moving the Goalposts

Sometimes new evidence presents itself that meets a Birther's previously-stated evidentiary demand. When confronted with this new evidence, such as newspaper birth announcements or official health official statements, the Birther response is to claim that that new evidence, despite being what they had previously demanded, is now insufficient to satisfy them. So it's no longer enough that the Director of the Hawaii Department of Health issued a statement, they want the Hawaiian Governor to issue a statement too. This turns any attempt to satisfy the Birther's curiosity into a neverending marathon, as the Birther's standard of proof continues to grow higher and higher.

EXAMPLE: "Steven" complained that when Obama took the Oath of Office a second time, the "redo was held a few days later, no witness, no media, behind closed doors." I pointed out that not only was this incorrect in several respects, but CBS Radio released an audio recording of the second oath. "Steven" responded not by conceding his mistake, but only by demanding video footage in addition to the available audio and photographic record.

2. Shifting the Burden / Refusing to Prove Factual Claims

Given the frequency with which Birthers fall back on unsourced claims, a ready response is often to simply ask the Birther to produce a source for his factual claim. On the occasions that the Birther is willing to actually stay on topic (as opposed to the responses exemplified by Tactics 1, 4, or 5), the most common reaction is to refuse to provide any evidence for the factual claim they just made, and to instead tell the skeptic to go look for it himself. This not only allows the Birther to create work for the skeptic but not himself, but it also allows the Birther to claim that any failure to find evidence supporting his factual assertion is the fault of the skeptic questioning the alleged fact, rather than the fault of the Birther who made the questionable assertion.

EXAMPLE: Leonard wrote of Obama that there are "a few witnesses claiming he was born in Kenya." I asked him who. He cited a supposed encounter between Jerome Corsi and a Kenyan health official. Having never heard of such an encounter, I asked Leonard where Corsi reported this event. Leonard's response was "Do your own searches." He never produced any evidence to support his initial claim of witnesses or his specific claim of a Corsi conversation. Instead, he acted like it was my job to find evidence of his claims.

1. Non-Sequiturs / Changing the Subject

My personal favorite of all Birther debating tactics, because they utilize it so incredibly often. If a Birther finds himself pinned down on a position or statement that he simply cannot defend, he will frequently avoid conceding by attempting to shift the topic of discussion to another Birther topic. And often, it will be a topic that is less factually-specific and more speculative or interpretative, and thus less susceptible to absolute proof of falsehood.

Point out that there never was a Pakistani travel ban, and the Birther starts talking about adoption. Illustrate that it was TechDude who made up the claim about Maya's COLB, and suddenly the Birther wants to talk about Vattel. By shifting the focus onto an unrelated issue, the Birther attempts to take the attention off the demonstratably false factual situation, hoping that the new issue will be a distraction.

EXAMPLE: Steve was confronted with the allegation that he is not the credentialed expert that he has posed as and as other Birthers have treated him. Does Steve have forensic experience or not? Steve could have answered the question, or at least address it, but he didn't. Instead, he penned a lengthy response where he completely ignored the questions about his document experience, and opts to talk about about everything from Perkins Coie to citizen grand juries to criminal conspiracies to Obama's poll numbers to Bill Richardson quotes to the issue of legal standing. Having been caught in a statement he cannnot defend, Steve started throwing out multiple other topics in the hopes of diverting attention away from his original, unsupportable position.


So if you find yourself tangling with a Birther, and you get one of the above responses, consider replying with a simple number citation and a link to this post. Whatever you do, don't allow yourself to get distracted by tricks like these.

Fair warning, though: don't be surprised if failing to fall for tricks #1-4 results in #5 being levied at you soon thereafter.


  1. Have you seen the video that surfaced recently showing Michelle in 2007 actually saying "...Barack Obama, a Kenyan, a black man..."? The previous video where she says Kenya is his home country was a bit unnerving. But this clip is absolutely chilling. What does one say to a birther to controvert Mrs. Obama saying her husband is Kenyan?