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Ignoring the facts can lead to disaster

People tend to believe what they want to believe. They continue to believe what they want even when presented with compelling evidence that what they believe is not true. This somewhat unpleasant reality is true of large percentage of populations across many continents and cultures. This is fairly easy to see in people who are different from yourself and believe in things you do not, and do not want to, believe.

It's interesting to see how this works. When a tape of Osama bin Laden emerged, it set off what looked like a firestorm of controversy. In the tape, bin Laden, if we can believe the translations offered, seems to take credit for the events of September 11. The Bush administration and most Americans accepted it as evidence, even as an unintentional confession. But not everyone agreed. Indeed, most people interviewed in Islamic countries denied that there was proof of guilt and claimed that the CIA or some such had doctored the tape or had gotten someone who looked like bin Laden to make a fake tape. The tape was a very minor episode in the story about whether U.S. actions in bombing Afghanistan were justified.

To be fair, no one who has ever read a non-fiction book about the CIA could fail to believe that organization would, if they could, manufacture evidence. Such a person, however, might doubt the CIA could do a credible job if they tried. And although there have been astonishing advances in 3D modeling, given the way the tape surfaced, such a deception may be beyond the reach of current technology and would probably be exposed as a fake by other people using similar technologies. In addition, other tapes have emerged which appear to show the photo-friendly bin Laden saying more things apparently linking him to September 11. There is enough in the way of testimony about past bombings with links to bin Laden to move any fair-minded person to agree that it's more than a bit possible bin Laden did it. Even so, you can find plenty of people who dismiss the evidence because they believe what they want to believe.

Those who believe bin Laden probably didn't do it are models of rational thought compared to people who have chosen to believe some fairly popular things. Among the most illustrative are the folks who insist, without a doubt, that aliens from other galaxies regularly visit earth and that the government, indeed all governments, are involved in a massive cover-up spanning generations. It's an energizing thought, one that stimulates the imagination and our wishes that the Star Wars movies are somehow connected to reality and not mythology. Some tabloids run stories with claims that, if true, would cover the front pages of every newspaper and bring reams of television shows our way.

Because it's not possible to prove a negative, no one can prove the alien spaceships don't exist. While anything is possible, some things are less likely. The people who talk about encounters with space visitors are folks who sound like people who have never read a non-fiction book about astronomy and don't seem to understand the physics of interstellar travel. I suspect they avoid fact patterns about their favorite hobbyhorse like the plague. They prefer to believe what they want to believe.

It would be nice if all belief systems were so innocent. Regressive ideologies have produced the most destructive chapters in human history. One of these was Nazism. Nazism embodied ideas that one group, the Aryans, were a biologically superior race, and that the struggle for world hegemony was to take place in wars not between nations or classes but among races. Race war formed the foundation of German aggression seeking lebensraum, room for the master race to live. The Germans attacked to the east, first displacing and then murdering the non-Aryans, especially Jews, in their path. World War II produced 65 million victims, the most destructive event in human history.

Let us not downplay the role of ideology in this story. Hitler was the most popular politician in German history, and the most popular politician of the Twentieth Century. He told the Germans that they were a superior people destined to take their place in the world, that they were the strongest, bravest, best looking, most intelligent, most moral people on earth.

In 1932 the Germans wanted to believe. They wanted to believe so much they were willing to overlook some serious problems with Hitler's thinking. No serious analyst at the time would have advised Germany that it had much chance of winning a war against the Allies. Hitler was aware of this but he wanted to see the triumph of the German people through his plan to create a perfect world, what he called the Third Reich. When people have a plan to create a perfect world they let nothing get in their way. Nothing gave Germany pause. Not genocide, not the prospect of fighting deep inside Russia, nor a fear that the United States and Great Britain could wreak havoc on German cities. Nazi Germany not only brought destruction to others but it brought it upon itself too. Embracing ideologies that call upon people to do things they would not have done otherwise can have devastating results.

One might have thought, or perhaps hoped, that given this history, ideologies which contradict fact patterns would have gone into decline. Life in our time, however, suggest the opposite may be true. This is especially visible in popular culture where people seem to believe that if you don't want something to be true all you have to do is really believe and the things that are unpopular will cease to be true. Wishing upon a star doesn't mean your wishes will come true.

Believing that bin Laden had nothing to do with September 11 doesn't make him innocent. What it does is to illustrate a human capacity to diminish the importance of hard facts and to not withhold judgment until the facts are available but to fervently embrace ideas that have no support other than wishful thinking. This tendency is not limited to people who believe in space aliens or bin Laden's innocence. Variations of it seem to be everywhere.

John C. Mohawk, Ph.D., columnist for Indian Country Today, is an author and professor in the Center for the Americas at the State University at Buffalo, N.Y.