Not so Random Matter?

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By Mike Cronin

I started out thinking I had several disparate items for this week’s post, but they all seemed to tie together:

It’s science-project season at my son’s school.  He brought home an information/instruction packet.  He had to get a parent to sign the first page – which is a letter to parents explaining that the kid has to do the science work on his own, but parents can help with the non-process portions of the project (e.g. helping the kid get materials) etc., etc. On the reverse of the first page is a progress tracker.  The kid has to get his parents to sign each time he hits a milestone on the project.  My son got dinged on the first milestone because I didn’t sign it.   The first milestone is to have a parent sign the letter to parents.  Yes, that’s right: The purveyors of the science project’s hand-out material failed to notice they are requiring a parent sign the back of a form in order to certify that the parent signed the front of the form…and they make the kid take the hit if the parent doesn’t jump through the hoop.  On a science project. You know, Science?  The subject where they teach kids logic, critical thinking, precision, peer review, attention to detail, right? Little things like that.

Speaking of science, I work in a small office with five other people. All five are scientists and/or engineers. Our office serves as a kind of internal think-tank. We do quantitative and qualitative analysis, among other things. I am the only one in the office who does not have a degree in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM).  My colleagues can run rings around me on any kind of math-based reasoning or problems.  On the other hand, I usually get the better of them when it comes to verbal expression.  I like to tease them that they are all experts at qualitative reasoning, while I am the quality. At any rate, our work sometimes involves (mathematical) models and simulations. Someone in the field once quipped that “all models are wrong, but some models are useful.”

Given the public’s current fascination with the phenomena of “fake news,” I think an adaptation of the “models” aphorism is apropos as a guidepost for judging the efficacy of anything in the media: “All news is fake, but some news is useful.” Two cases in point:

Some right-wing media sources are reporting that Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of U.N.’s Framework Convention on Climate Change, as much as revealed that the UN’s plans to combat climate change are really a set of blinders to hide the real agenda: the destruction of capitalism. While the UN is no friend of capitalism, context matters, as does the thing that is not being said.  Figueres undeniably advocates for the alteration of the global economy when she says:

“This is the first time in the history of mankind that we are setting ourselves the task of intentionally, within a defined period of time, to change the economic development model that has been reigning for at least 150 years, since the Industrial Revolution,”

Note that she stops short of stating that the current global economic development model that must be changed is capitalism (it isn’t, by the way – it’s a mix of capitalism and controls), or describing what model should obtain.  I would not be surprised to learn that Figueres is indeed anti-capitalist, nor would I be surprised to learn that UN efforts to combat global warming are indeed a smokescreen to hide the destruction of capitalism, but Figueres’s statements fall short of being a smoking gun – more like an eyebrow-raiser. The subject bears watching.

Meanwhile, on the left side of the fake news spectrum, we have the New York Times’ headlines for Friday’s attack at the Louvre in Paris by a “lone wolf” Islamic jihadist. Their first headline read: “Louvre Museum Evacuated after French Soldier Opens Fire.” At best, this headline leads you to believe the incident revolved around the actions of a French soldier. At worst, it leads you to believe a French soldier went nuts and started shooting up the Louvre.  A few hours later, the headline had changed to read: “Assailant Near Louvre Is Shot by French Soldier” Again, the French soldier’s actions seem to be the focus.  As mentioned previously, context matters, and what is not being said matters. What the vaunted New York Times neglected, or purposely refused to highlight in their headlines, was that a man shouting “allahu ackbar!” (i.e. “God is great” in Arabic) and wielding knives attacked some French soldiers and was shot by one of them in response.

It would not do to depart from The Narrative by highlighting yet another attack by a Muslim against Western targets, even as the militant arm of the “tolerant” left is convulsing over President Trumps’ recent “anti-Muslim” immigration restrictions, now would it? Instead, the “Newspaper of Record” felt it must mislead readers with deceptive headlines. I’m not suggesting the Times should have gone with “Islamo-Fascist Nut-Job Takes Knives to a Gun Fight in Paris; Wins Darwin Award Nomination,” but something like “Assailant Shouting in Arabic Shot by Soldier At Louvre” might have hit the right balance between not jumping to conclusions about the attacker’s religion, intentions, and connections, and the response of the soldiers.  All news is fake, some news is useful.

Is it a Conspiracy? Who Gains?

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By Mike Cronin

As we saw last week, Occam’s razor is one tool for helping us avoid falling into the trap of believing in every conspiracy theory that comes along.  Another way to evaluate conspiracy theories for credibility is by asking the simple question: Who stands to gain?  In 1998, when Hillary Clinton was First Lady, she alleged that there was a “vast right-wing conspiracy” to besmirch her husband over the Monica Lewisnky scandal.  The political right certainly made every attempt to tarnish her husband for his indiscretion, but that was not a conspiracy, it was simply opposition politics. The right stood to gain by impeaching the president, but it didn’t take any secret cabal to put together a smear campaign; each individual pundit and politician was able to drum up outrage on his own! On the other hand, Mrs. Clinton stood to gain if she could rally support by painting herself as the embattled victim fighting for truth and dignity, so she let fly with the allegation, and it became one of the most often-cited Hillary quotes.  When the president from one party provides his opposition with the ingredients of a scandal, OF COURSE the opposition will take advantage of the opportunity!  That’s not a conspiracy, it’s an axiom!

Like the “vast conspiracy” against the Clintons, sometimes the activity of a conspiracy theory is credible, but the motives and/or competence ascribed to the perpetrators are dubious: The political right is fond of alleging that the left controls the education system and is intentionally dumbing down our kids through Common Core, campus speech codes, revisionist history curricula, etc.  As with the right’s non-conspiratorial opposition to the Clintons, the state of our education system need not be attributed to a conspiracy of the left. Instead, the state of our education system is the accumulated results of long-term government control.  OF COURSE a government-controlled education system is going to promote and advance a pro-government agenda! That’s not a conspiracy, it’s an axiom!

Let’s look at another example:

Some allege that the wars in Iraq (Desert Storm in 1991, Iraqi Freedom beginning in 2003) were all about oil. It is easy to fan that flame, as Dick Chenney (President Bush Sr’s Secretary of Defense, and Bush Jr’s Vice President) was the CEO of Haliburton (a huge company that provides all manner of services to the oil industry) in between the Bushes presidencies. In the sense that the Bush administrations conspired to go to war in order to gain personal control of Iraqi oil, the answer is doubtful, as Iraqi oil remains under Iraqi control. However, there is a more credible context under which “oil” can be held as the reason for the wars: Saddam Hussein took over Kuwait and threatened to invade Saudi Arabia (his forces actually did cross the border at Najaf). That meant he held a significant portion of the world’s oil reserves (and therefore the lifeblood of international commerce) at risk. OF COURSE the Iraq Wars were about oil! That’s not a conspiracy, it’s an axiom…but not the same one some conspiracy theorists would have us believe.

Often, though, the conspiracy theories are just ludicrous. From the 1990s onward, the term “black helicopters” has picked up the connotation among believers that nefarious forces under the auspices of the United Nations patrol the US and engage in clandestine activities designed to bring about a “New World Order.”  IF such forces exist, and IF they used helicopters for transportation, it is highly unlikely they would adopt a “signature” that would defeat their efforts to remain hidden.

“Chemtrails” is another ridiculous theory. Supposedly, “they” are using jet airliners to spray mysterious chemical agents across the nation for unknown purposes.  The evidence: Contrails. Occam’s razor leaves us no guesswork here: The simplest explanation for contrails is that they are CONTRAILS, not weaponized chemical clouds. Who stands to gain?  The charlatans selling “reports” on chemtrails.

Probably one of the looniest has to be the flat earthers.  Yes, there are still people out there who believe the world is flat.  In order to swallow that pill, you have to ignore or evade absolutely proven scientific facts. For example, you have to believe that every photo and bit of video from orbit showing the curvature of the earth has been faked. That would require that all space programs across the globe have conspired to tell the same lie to billions of people since the USSR launched Sputnik in 1957. The real conspiracy here is the one being perpetrated by the theorists themselves in furthering this drivel.

“What is more likely, a complicated scenario that requires tortured logic to arrive at, or the simple explanation?” “Who stands to benefit, the alleged conspirators, or the person alleging the conspiracy?” When you examine a conspiracy theory and ask a few simple questions, OF COURSE you’ll get a much better sense of the theorists’ credibility!