Cognitive Dissonance in Action
Over the last several years, we’ve seen numerous examples of a phenomena sometimes referred to as “cognitive dissonance” or the “belief disconfirmation paradigm”. For example, some people, even though shown President Obama’s birth certificate, continue to believe that he was not born in America. People continue to believe what they want to believe, even when confronted by evidence that contradicts the belief. Over the last few days, I’ve had my own encounter with a case of cognitive dissonance that I thought illustrative and worth sharing.
I subscribe to numerous mailing lists, each focused on a particular interest. One of these mailing lists relates to a board game that I enjoy playing (and that my kids play, though I can’t seem to get them to actually play by, you know, the rules…). Anyway, this list will often go for days or weeks at a time without posts and then there may be a brief flurry when someone has something worth discussing. Last Thursday a post came over the mailing list stating that someone was looking to sell his copy of the game. In response, several other messages were posted. One of these messages caught my eye (and I’m not sure why I took note of the message; I wasn’t interested in the discussion about the sale of the game). Actually, the message itself didn’t catch my eye; rather, the author’s signature caught my eye. Most of you have no doubt seen email and online signatures that include some kind of meaningful or pithy statement. Well, here was the statement that followed this particular author’s name:
“There is an insidious campaign of false propaganda being waged today, to the effect that our country is not a Christian country but a religious one — that it was not founded on Christianity but on freedom of religion. It cannot be emphasized too clearly and too often that this nation was founded, not by ‘religionists’, but by Christians — not on religion, but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For this very reason, peoples of other faiths have been afforded asylum, prosperity, and freedom of worship here.” — Patrick Henry
Readers of this blog will know that I spend a lot of time writing about the separation of church and state. It is a subject very important to me. To that end, I’ve also spent quite a bit of time both reading and writing about the framers of the Constitution and some of the arguments that have been put forth to suggest that the United States is a “Christian nation”. In fact, as recently as August 5, 2011, I wrote:
[F]or those interested in learning how to respond to the repeated arguments that the United States is a Christian nation and the attendant “facts” that many, primarily on the evangelical right, like to toss off as “proof”, then I highly recommend Chris Rodda’s Liars for Jesus: The Religious Right’s Alternate Version of American History. Chris has also posted a series of video takedowns of the right’s favorite “historian” David Barton who never quite manages to let facts get in his way.
One thing that I’ve learned is that many supporters of the “Christian nation” view of history offer up “facts” that have little or no basis in reality. Thus, when I read the foregoing quotation attributed to Patrick Henry, I was at least a bit curious. And so I did this wild newfangled thing: I Googled.
Hmm. Imagine my (not) surprise when I found, quite quickly, that the quotation is misattributed. Snopes.com had an article on symbolism on buildings in Washington, D.C. that included a reference to the supposed Patrick Henry quotation and the claim that the quote was spurious. Unfortunately, the link to the site offering support for claim was dead. And I knew that I couldn’t just respond to the author who utilized the quotation with just a “Snopes said” response and no evidentiary support. Hmm. What to do, what to do.
And then I remembered Chris Rodda (author of Liars for Jesus: The Religious Right’s Alternate Version of American History). So I emailed Ms. Rodda and asked her if she had any information about the quotation. However, I didn’t want to let this misattributed quotation stay unanswered for too long and I had no idea how long it might take Ms. Rodda to respond (or if she would respond at all).
So I kept searching. To my semi-amazement, I discovered Red Hill – The Patrick Henry National Memorial and home of the Patrick Henry Memorial Foundation which is “devoted to education and historic preservation” and “promotes educational and research programs about the life, character, times, philosophy and legacy of Patrick Henry”. I prowled around the site for a few minutes; I browsed the pages for students and researchers, but I didn’t find the type of information I was looking for. So I went to the Contact Us page and sent an email with my question about the quotation.
I was surprised when, not more than half an hour later, I received a response from Karen Gorham, Executive Vice President, Red Hill – Patrick Henry National Memorial (and, should Ms. Gorham happen to read this blog, let me again thank her for her prompt response, following which she and I engaged in a brief discussion of the importance of historical accuracy):
“It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded not by ‘religionists’ but by Christians…”
Henry did not make this statement, although it has frequently been attributed to him, particularly across the internet.
The quote in question was originally published in April 1956 in The Virginian, Vol. II, No. 3, and then subsequently reprinted in the September 1956 issue of American Mercury, without attribution to Patrick Henry — look closely at the attached image from the American Mercury and you will see it does not reference Henry with regard to the subject quote but in regard to the final paragraph of his will, which IS misquoted (addressed later). David Barton of Wallbuilders, who published in 1988 “The Myth of Separation,” credited Henry with this quote but does make a correction to this misattribution at his website: http://www.wallbuilders.com/LIBissuesArticles.asp?id=126
Interestingly enough, the American Mercury also contributed to the Henry misquotes by incorrectly citing the nearly final paragraph of Henry’s will, which actually reads:
“This is all the inheritance I can give to my dear family. The religion of Christ can give them one which will make them rich indeed.”
Henry is often recognized as the greatest orator in our nation's history and a founding father well worth quoting. There are plenty of widely-recognized contemporary and modern sources on which to rely, some of which can be found in the publications available at our museum shop (currently under reconstruction).
Thank you for taking the time to inquire about this too often misattributed quote.
Karen Gorham, Executive Vice President
Red Hill – Patrick Henry National Memorial
1250 Red Hill Rd.
Brookneal, VA 24528
[phone and fax numbers omitted]
Wow! Below is the image from The American Mercury that Ms. Gorham mentioned in her email.
I also followed up on the information that Ms. Gorham presented and looked at David Barton’s Wallbuilder’s website (and I suspect that Barton is the original source from which the author of the email in question got the quotation or, if not directly from Barton, then from someone whose information came originally from Barton). One of the things worth noting about Barton’s own disclaimer regarding the Patrick Henry quotation is the following statement:
The following quotations have been seen and heard in numerous books, periodicals, editorials, speeches, etc. In our research, we have not previously used a quote that was not documented to a source in a manner that would be acceptable in a scholarly work or a university text. However, we strongly believe that the debates surrounding the Founders are too important to apply solely an academic standard. Therefore, we unilaterally initiated within our own works a standard of documentation that would exceed the academic standard and instead would conform to the superior legal standard (i.e., relying solely on primary or original sources, using best evidence, rather than relying on the writings of attorneys, professors, or historians).
It is only in using this much higher standard that we call the following quotes "unconfirmed": that is, while the quotes below have been documented in a completely acceptable fashion for academic works, they are currently "unconfirmed" if relying solely on original sources or sources contemporaneous to the life of the actual individual Founder.
What is truly fascinating about this claim is the extent to which Ms. Rodda has demonstrated, repeatedly, how Barton has fabricated quotations. Moreover, recall Ms. Goram’s statement that Barton “who published in 1988 ‘The Myth of Separation,’ credited Henry with this quote…”. Yet Barton’s website claims that “we have not previously used a quote that was not documented to a source in a manner that would be acceptable in a scholarly work or a university text.” So query on what basis Barton attributed the quotation to Henry in The Myth of Separation if there is no evidence that the quotation is attributable to Henry? Note further the suggestion that the quotations are only unconfirmed when using a “higher standard,” thus implying, even though the existence of contrary evidence, that the quotations are indeed accurate.
Anyway, with regard to the quotation attributed to Henry, Barton does now note that it is unconfirmed. But rather than just saying that, he goes on, at length (including offering five other quotations from or about Henry) and discussing Henry’s religious views, before finally saying:
As a final thought, there is a possibility that the unconfirmed quote came from Henry's uncle, the Reverend Patrick Henry. We find no record of the Reverend's letters or writings. Therefore, until more definitive documentation can be presented, please avoid the words in question.
Interesting, is it not, that under Barton’s “higher standard” there doesn’t seem to be any reason to lay out the evidence of why the quotation is misattributed or to note that the Patrick Henry National Memorial believes the quotation was not uttered by Patrick Henry. Rather, Barton leaves his readers with the possibility that the words are, indeed, Henry’s. One must also wonder what sort of academic or “superior legal standard” research Barton has done to confirm the accuracy of the quotation. Gee, I wonder, if he bothered to talk to the Patrick Henry National Memorial? And if did, and if he received a response similar to what I received from Ms. Gorham, wouldn’t the prudent and “higher standard” response be to print that information, rather than continuing with the fiction that the quotation is merely “unconfirmed”?
So, after receiving Ms. Gorham’s email, I decided to respond to the author of the original message on the mailing list.* Here is what I wrote:
I don't intend to start an argument or flame war … but I don't think that this mailing list is the appropriate forum for the expression of religious or political views. I think that this mailing list is an even less-appropriate forum to express those views in the form of misattributed quotations.
According to Karen Gorham, Executive Vice President, Red Hill – Patrick Henry National Memorial, the quotation beneath your signature was not made by Patrick Henry:
"Henry did not make this statement, although it has frequently been attributed to him, particularly across the internet.
The quote in question was originally published in April 1956 in The Virginian, Vol. II, No. 3, and then subsequently reprinted in the September 1956 issue of American Mercury, without attribution to Patrick Henry .... David Barton of Wallbuilders, who published in 1988 "The Myth of Separation," credited Henry with this quote but does make a correction to this misattribution at his website: http://www.wallbuilders.com/LIBissuesArticles.asp?id=126"
I contacted Ms. Gorham earlier today after reading that quotation. She was kind enough to reply quite promptly.
Please, let's leave this mailing list for the discussion of [the game].
Ms. Rodda also responded and, like Ms. Gorham, she directed me to David Barton’s list of unconfirmed quotations.
Over the weekend, the author of the original message posted again to the mailing list, though not in response to my post. The same Patrick Henry quotation was still appended to his signature. In response, another subscriber to the mailing list wrote:
Still with this after A) you've been asked to refrain from this kind of incendiary thing, B) it's proven to be a false attribution and C) it's an utter lie?
So, finally, this morning, the author of the original email posted two additional messages to the mailing list:
must have missed the request to stop --- sorry -- I'll provide the accurate reference for the quote if desired
And (emphasis added):
Finally found the email that requested I cease and desist --- I use that quote as my signature for all my out going emails -- when I reply it adds my name and the signature -- it is not just for this forum. Having said that, I shall refrain from using it again on this forum. Please be advised that you believe your sources, I believe mine. The best I can find from the references you provided is that they say it is unconfirmed. C'est le vie. Best of luck and enjoy gaming.
So after this unfortunately lengthy (hey, this is me writing … lengthy is just part of the bargain…) background, I hope that you can finally see the cognitive dissonance. The author will believe his sources (though he doesn’t tell us who they are). He believes those sources even though the information that I’ve provided from the Patrick Henry National Memorial which is dedicated to the “educational and research programs about the life, character, times, philosophy and legacy of Patrick Henry” clearly states that the quotation is misattributed. Who would know better what Henry did or did not say or write than the scholars associated with the Patrick Henry National Memorial? Yet the author is unwilling to “believe” Ms. Gorham’s statement that the quotation is misattributed even with the explanation for how the misattribution came to be. Rather, the author continues to believe the quotation to be accurate based on his “sources”. Query what evidence his sources might have to validate the authenticity of the quotation? Is there some heretofore unknown journal of Patrick Henry’s from which this quotation has been drawn? And what is the likelihood of the existence of such evidentiary material that is completely unknown to the memorial foundation established for education and research about Patrick Henry? Note further that the author claims that the “best [he] can find from the references [I] provided is that they say it is unconfirmed.” The only reference that I provided that says unconfirmed is David Barton; Ms. Gorham and the Patrick Henry National Memorial say, quite specifically:
Henry did not make this statement, although it has frequently been attributed to him, particularly across the internet.
And there you have a fine, shining example of cognitive dissonance. The author wants to believe the quotation is accurate. He is presented with evidence from what should be the most reliable source on the subject that says that the quotation is not accurate. Further, he is presented with evidence from a source that (and I’m speculating here) he does view as credible and that source even says that the quotation is unconfirmed. Yet, even in the face of this evidence, the author has decided to continue to believe that the quotation is accurate (or to continue using an inaccurate quotation until it is somehow confirmed by a source he trusts as inaccurate). Why? Because he likes what it says. If the quotation is inaccurate, the sentiments aren’t lessened any, but the authoritative weight that he can assert from the quotation is eliminated. Were he to “believe” the evidence provided to him, he would have to either: (a) remove the reference to Patrick Henry as the speaker, thus breaking the chain between the ideas expressed in the quotation and a Founding Father or (b) find a different quotation from a Founding Father articulating the same point that he wants to make. Rather than do either, he simply refuses to believe the evidence and continues with his current belief that, evidence or not, Patrick Henry said those words.
With this story in mind, it should be a bit easier to understand why try these two scenarios and see how dangerous cognitive dissonance can really be:
- You don’t believe in global warming. I present you with scientific evidence from scientist after scientist after scientist demonstrating that global warming is real. You, however, because you don’t believe in global warming — and you don’t want to believe in global warming, do not believe those scientists. Rather, you will believe the handful of scientists that offer a competing view. Moreover, to bolster your belief in the minority viewpoint, you’ll probably also accept as true accusations that the scientists whom you don’t want to believe are bad scientists, manipulated data, or just lied.
- You believe that the Bible is the literal truth. I present you with evidence of, among other things, evolution. I present you with evidence that the Earth is older than 6,000 years. I present you with evidence that no Ark could have been built that would hold all of the creatures of the land (just how big would an Ark be to hold dinosaurs, anyway?). But because you believe that the Bible is the literal truth, you cannot believe the evidence that I’ve presented concerning evolution. Thus, either evolution (and the scientists who support that theory) are wrong or there must be another explanation that does not conflict with your belief that the Bible is the literal truth (hence, Intelligent Design).
Cognitive dissonance is a problem when it comes to science. It is a problem when it comes to history. And it is really a huge fucking problem when it gets in the way of our political and legal system. How can we have a proper debate about the deficit and debt ceiling if the Tea Party refuses to believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that default would be bad? How can we have rational discussions about energy policy if Republicans, despite almost all evidence to the contrary, refuse to believe in global warming? How can we have a discussion about the proper role of religion in the public sphere or the rights of minority religious views if people like the author of the email that prompted this
diatribe post continues to believe that the Founding Fathers said things that they simply did not say?
To once again quote Daniel Patrick Moynihan (or maybe James R. Schlesinger, depending on which source you believe):** “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” So long as we, as a society, cannot come to terms with and agree upon certain basic facts, we will have a really hard time making decisions about the best policies for the future of America.
*My wife doesn’t think that I should have responded at all; she’s probably right. Oh, well.
**Yes, I recognize the irony of using a quotation about which attribution is in question. I did that on purpose. Laugh a bit.