Posted by: Harold Knight | 01/10/2011

The Explanation Effect, from “Ancient Aliens” to Tucson

The DishTV network’s so-called History Channel re-runs ad nauseum their pseudo-historical “Ancient Aliens” program. It’s like other sensationalist programs it repeats regularly—programs explaining how the world will end next year because Nostradamus predicted it; or proving the Masons created and continue to control the United States; or explaining the government cover-up of the truth about UFOs.

In “Ancient Aliens” an “authority” details the ancient Egyptian use of electricity. The evidence: Buried tombs in pyramids are completely dark. Tomb walls are carved (revealed by modern electric lights). Torches won’t burn in the tombs because of limited oxygen. Ancient Egyptian carvings elsewhere show figures shaped somewhat like incandescent light bulbs. Therefore, ancient Egyptians had electric lights to work in the tombs.

And so aliens from outer space colonized Egypt and produced electrical technology.

One can look at anything, consider any occurence, hear anything anyone says and explain it however one fancies. If one is vocal enough, one can get others to believe almost any cockamamie idea based on an “explanation” of the “evidence.”

About 25% of Americans believe President Obama is not a natural born citizen of the United States. When the theatrical reading of sections of the U.S. Constitution in Congress came to Article II, Section 1 requiring that only a “natural-born citizen may be president,” Theresa Cao, disrupted the procedings shouting, “Except Obama, except Obama. Help us Jesus” (1). Theresa Cao is a supporter of Lt. Col. Terry Lakin, who was removed from the army and sentenced to six months in prison for disobeying orders to deploy to Afghanistgan because he believes the Commander in Chief holds office unconstitutionally (2).

Those who believe the President is not a natural born citizen do so in the face of overwhelming evidence: the Supreme Court, that augustly conservative body that for all practical purposes appointed George W. Bush President in 2000, is convinced the “birthers” have no case. In order to maintain their belief, the “birthers” must include the State of Hawaii, the Democratic Party, the Electoral College, the House of Representatives, and the Supreme Court in a massive conspiracy to keep Mr. Obama President.

Does anyone remember who first stated her opinion that the President is not a natural born citizen? The belief spread as any “conspiracy” theory does. Someone heard the President’s father was a Kenyan. Someone else heard he was born in Hawaii. Someone mistakenly said he was born in Indonesia. Someone heard this. Someone heard that. Scraps of information which could not be verified (but which were believed because they were on the internet). Finally someone drew all these “facts” together and explained them as the obvious fact that the President is not a natural born citizen. Immediately this explanation of unverifiable “facts” became itself the evidence.  Yet another conspiracy theory was born.

Someone’s (fanciful) explanation of “facts” becomes the evidence for those “facts.” The pseudo-historian explains Egyptian tombs are totally dark, an Egyptian artist made an image of something with the same shape as a 20th-century light bulb, and the carvings on the walls of the dark tombs could have been made only with light from electricity—proof that aliens from outer space gave the Egyptians electrical engineering—which, for some reason, the Egyptians forgot after they built the pyramids.

The power of explanations to lead to overconfidence and error is termed the “explanation effect.” When participants generate an explanation to account for some event, the perceived probability that this event will occur increases substantially. Explanations are so influential that participants continue to give them weight even in the absence of supporting evidence or when the supporting evidence has been thoroughly discredited. This effect is aggravated by the tendency of explanations to blind participants to the existence of alternative explanations; explanations rise in participants’ estimation because they have no competition. Furthermore, participants frequently interpret available evidence, especially ambiguous evidence, in such a way as to be consistent with their theoretical commitments. Adopting a particular perspective also increases the availability of information supporting that perspective and increases the weight given to evidence supporting that position (3).

My family has participated in a “death panel.” Together we decided procedures to follow when our father reaches certain stages of incapacity. It is an incredibly painful and difficult process. We sought and received medical assistance and legal assistance before making the decisions. Parts of the process were not covered under Medicare—most important, the legally-required concurrence of a second doctor to say our father is no longer capable of making such a decision himself. That second opinion is “out-of-pocket.”

When my ex-wife (a Canadian citizen) was in the terminal stages of breast cancer, I accompanied her to consult with her oncologist about end-stage care and the probable outcomes of various options. She was able to talk about these things with her step-daughter, her friends, and me before making her decision not to continue chemotherapy. She convened her own “death panel.” The Canadian medical system paid for it.

The real death panel myth is that the term ever had anything to do with something so potentially beneficial. We wrote at the time that Sarah Palin’s coinage was sensationalistic, but it was meant to illustrate a larger truth about a world of finite resources and infinite entitlement wants (4).

If you are using a telescopic sight, you should set your sights up so that the cross hairs are centered on the target (5)
If you are using a telescopic sight, you should set your sights up so that the cross hairs are centered on the target (5)

Note the WSJ opinion piece is titled, “The left won’t admit that Sarah Palin had a point about rationed care.” Sarah Palin’s point was lost in her own conspiratorial (sensationalist) verbiage: a “death panel” is obviously a left-wing conspiracy to decide who lives and who dies. Sarah Palin’s explanation about light bulbs carved on walls carried the day. So Medicare won’t cover consultations with one’s doctor about ending life comfortably and with dignity. Sarah Palin “interpret[ed] available evidence, especially ambiguous evidence, in such a way as to be consistent with [her] theoretical commitments [to block medical care reform at all costs]” and her “explanation” became the evidence for many people that reform was anathema.

The website of Sarah Palin’s PAC presented a map of the US with Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’ district as one of twenty nation-wide in the crosshairs of gun-sights calling for those representatives’ defeat for their support of “death panels.” The map has been removed from the website. Its owners say the mark on Giffords’ district was not a gun-sight. Their contention is difficult to believe given images on websites of target shooting clubs (5).

It would be (is) far too easy to explain Palin’s document as evidence that she is responsible for the actions of Jared Lee Loughner, the deranged young man who used a gun to seriously injure Congresswoman Giffords and thirteen other persons, and murder six persons. For “the left” a knee-jerk (let’s find an incandescent light bulb carved on a wall) response would be (has already been) to hold the political verbiage of the last couple of years—the vitriolic, uncivilized, terrifying illogic of what is passing for discourse these days, culminating in such images as that on Sarah Palin’s website—to account for violent political actions.

That verbiage certainly has created a milieu for violence.

But we are all responsible. We are all culpable. We have elected so-called leaders (both on the left and on the right) who believe their purposes are best served by demeaning opponents (and by that denigration, convincing others that opponents should be “eliminated”) rather than using

 rational discussion to come to agreement on matters of our governance. We continue to elect the candidates who are most vociferous rather than those who have the most to say.

Sarah Palin is not to blame for the Tucson shootings. We all are. _________________________________
(1) Harshaw, Tobin. “The Constitution, Sort Of.” Opinionator. January 7, 2011. Web. 9 Jan. 2011.
(2) Khan, Huma. “‘Birther’ Dismissed from Army for Refusing Deployment, Sentenced to Six Months in Prison.” ABC Evening News with Diane Sawyer.  Dec. 16, 2010. Web. 9 Jan. 2011.
(3) Brem, Sarah K. and Lance J. Rips. “Explanation and Evidence in Informal Argument.” Cognitive Science  24.4 (Oct-Dec 2000): 573.
(4) The Wall Street Journal. “Death Panels Revisited: The left won’t admit that Sarah Palin had a point about rationed care.” Review & Outlook. December 29, 2010. Web. 9 Jan. 2011.
(5) “Technique & Tips.” Reeds Target Shooting Club.  2007. Web. 9 Jan. 2011. <>.


  1. Very rationally written, Harold. Thank you.


  2. I, too, am angry about the widespread use of bad logic and bad rhetoric. And I do believe we are all responsible for what happened in Tucson. However, I am far more upset about the current state of mental health care in this country than I am about Sarah Palin or the History Channel, and I think it has a much more direct role in the events of January 8.


  3. Harold,

    I wanted to add that, of course, your writing style is admirable. The ideas progressed logically and the words were moving. I’m just on a crusade right now.



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