Bayesian Birtherism?

Jason Kissner uses Bayes’s theorem to analyze the impact the 1991-2007 literary agency’s statement that Obama was born in Kenya should have on rational probability assignments. Even if one starts by assigning a very high probability to the assertion that Obama was born in the United States, reasonable assignments to the likelihood that an agent would claim him to have been born in Kenya if he was born in Kenya and that an agent would claim him to have been born to Kenya if he were not born in Kenya lead to the conclusion that he is more likely to have been born in Kenya than not. To those who are not familiar with Bayes’s theorem, this can all seem like elaborate wordplay. To those who are, however, it quantifies the rational implications of new information in sometimes startling ways. This is such a case.

The key implication, I think, is not the probability assignment itself but the indication of where to look for new information:

Be those things as they may, if you believe that the Obama campaign is not telling the truth on this issue, you might reason as follows.  Perhaps Mr. Obama, as many have suggested, was simply trying to appear exotic?  Or, perhaps Mr. Obama was simply trying to enhance the marketability of his book?  Once again, that’s not what the campaign says, but it’s possible, so let’s look at matters under the assumption of intentional misrepresentation just in case there has been a misunderstanding.

The “intentional misrepresentation” view might be a reasonable view (particularly if one has good reasons to explain the inconsistency with the campaign’s current statement), but how many people have considered that if Ms. Gonderich is not telling the truth (meaning that Mr. Obama did contribute to misrepresentation of his place of birth and that Mr. Obama’s campaign is currently not telling the truth), one of the following two things must be true:

  1. Mr. Obama had special reasons to restrict his misrepresentations to her agency OR
  2. There is a reasonable likelihood that there are other documents containing misrepresentations of Mr. Obama’s place of birth.

It follows under the supposition of intentional misrepresentation that if one wishes to make a rational case for the belief that the promotional booklet’s declaration that Mr. Obama was born in Kenya has nothing much to do with the likelihood that he really was, one should either provide good reasons for thinking that Mr. Obama had good reasons to misrepresent his place of birth, but only to his literary agency, or make a reasonable attempt to locate another document — itself obviously not dispositive of the issue and also independent of literary agency processes — paradoxically indicating that Mr. Obama was born in Kenya.

Bayes’s theorem not only shows how powerful an impact this revelation should have on probability assignments but raises new questions. He surely had to list a birthplace on many documents between 1991 and 2007. After all, he got married in 1992, joined a law firm and began teaching part-time at the University of Chicago in 1993, started working on the Chicago Annenberg Challenge in 1995, was elected to the Illinois State Senate in 1996, ran for the House of Representatives in 2000, and ran for the Senate in 2004. There must be quite a few documents filed during that period that list a birthplace. What do those documents say?

4 thoughts on “Bayesian Birtherism?

  1. I think that this particular analysis ignores the politics and advantages of being Kenyan vs American in Great Britain and the United States. In the U.S., being an “African-American” only really works if you are born here, and arguably, if you are not the son of an actual African and a white mother. This is the great problem with Barack’s authenticity, one he’s spent a great deal of time and effort surmounting after his move to Chicago. However, in Britain, being born in America doesn’t sell books and the phrase “African-American” is used very literally in the agent’s blurb. He is much more marketable as a “colonial.” That being said, I fully believe that he knew what the blurb said and went along with the reasoning that it was advantageous to sales. He hasn’t ever struck me as one to let personal integrity be a stumbling block to self-aggrandizement and/or enrichment.

  2. You’re right—there were advantages to being considered Kenyan. But being President is a big advantage to being considered American. It’s clear he’s claimed both at certain points, and it’s clear that on at least one set of occasions he was lying. But which?

  3. In my opinion, he was born in Hawaii. I found the claims that he was born in Kenya to be unsupported entirely. Despite all the clamoring for his birth certificate, there has been zero fact-finding for positive claims that he was born in Africa. There was no record or even a hint that his mother, at 18, moved temporarily to Kenya just to give birth to Barack. There are records, however, that Barry Sr. lived in HI and then went on to Harvard, then back to his original wife in Kenya (which is another reason not to bring the 18 y/o tootsie home to Nairobi). There are also ample grounds for suspicion that he played fast and loose with his citizenship thereafter, probably claiming to be Indonesian for foreign student scholarships/ preferences at Occi, where he used the last name Soetero (it wouldn’t surprise me, for example, if at one point he claimed and actually held dual citizenship.) Obama clearly spent the first 30 years of his life experimenting with his identity, helped along by a mother, who, according to his autobiography, indoctrinated him about “his” people, American blacks and their struggles, and by his grandfather who would take him to the seedy bars in Honolulu so that he could identify with other blacks, who were, to say the least, not the most savory of characters.

    He has found it very advantageous to muddy the waters along these lines, and by delaying the release of his birth cert, made the whack jobs on the right look even whackier. In any event, to me there are many more interesting questions about his background that should have been aired fully before he was elected and the “silver bullet” of his disqualification was always had a very low probability of either correctness or success, whereas the character/ideological issues had not only more bearing, but a much better probability of being (a) true, and (b) verified.

    Something that has never been answered to my satisfaction: how could he hold an American passport without showing his birth certificate? Did he find a way to cheat the system at a very early age? I have to say that would take considerable doing and require a lot of cooperation from people of power. On the one hand, I believe the KGB and its successor entity knows what Barry’s grades were and who funded him (student loans: oh, puh-leeez); on the other, it is very naive of people to think that we can’t home-grow someone as devoid of American identity as BO is. Look at his die-hard supporters in academe.

  4. That’s what I’ve always thought, and I still lean that way. But for the first time I have my doubts.

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