In the realm of racial/ethnic relations, sociologists consistently observe that certain beliefs — let’s even call them stereotypes — can take on a life of their own and attain a level of “legitimacy” that defies logic and rational thinking.

In the context of the presidential campaign between Barack Obama and John McCain, one persistent belief/stereotype is that Obama is a Muslim, when in fact he is a Christian. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a Muslim of course, but certain extremists are using this stereotype against Obama and suggesting that if elected, he will somehow turn the country into a fundamentalist Islamic state.

To shine some light into the nuts and bolts of how such outlandish perceptions can become so widespread, two authors have written an op-ed piece in the New York Times that illustrates the social and biological workings of this process:

The Obama campaign has created a Web site to dispel misinformation. But this effort may be more difficult than it seems, thanks to the quirky way in which our brains store memories — and mislead us along the way. . . For example, you know that the capital of California is Sacramento, but you probably don’t remember how you learned it.

This phenomenon, known as source amnesia, can also lead people to forget whether a statement is true. Even when a lie is presented with a disclaimer, people often later remember it as true.

With time, this misremembering only gets worse. A false statement from a noncredible source that is at first not believed can gain credibility during the months it takes to reprocess memories from short-term hippocampal storage to longer-term cortical storage. As the source is forgotten, the message and its implications gain strength. . . .

Even if they do not understand the neuroscience behind source amnesia, campaign strategists can exploit it to spread misinformation. They know that if their message is initially memorable, its impression will persist long after it is debunked.

In other words, when it comes to controlling information and what is perceived to be “true” or not, the link between biology and society becomes a very powerful tool for both sides to exploit and manipulate. This is in line with Joseph Goebbels’ (Nazi Germany’s Minister of Propaganda) famous quote, “If you tell people a lie often enough, eventually they will start to believe it.”

With that in mind, we should also recognize that these days and through such media as the internet and various blogs, social networking sites, and other forms of mass communication, such misinformation can be spread quite easily and effectively.

In the past, liberals have not been quite as skilled in these respects. With this in mind, I hope this time we’ve learned our lesson and can better respond in asserting facts over stereotypes.