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Conspiracies And Probability 506

guttentag writes "Sunday's New York Times Magazine is running a feature that looks at the rumored conspiracy that allegedly killed nearly a dozen bioterror and germ warfare researchers during a four month period following the U.S. anthrax scare. "What are the odds," people ask, despite the fact that a "one-in-a-million miracle" will statistically occur 280 times a day in the U.S. These strange things happen all the time, but we hype them because they provide the spice in literature and the comfort of comprehension."
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Conspiracies And Probability

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  • Conspiracy (Score:4, Insightful)

    by vmac ( 176029 ) <> on Saturday August 10, 2002 @09:34PM (#4048474)
    We have Bush as our President. Let's figure out that conspiracy first.
  • by Rothfuss ( 47480 ) <chris.rothfuss@[ ] ['gma' in gap]> on Saturday August 10, 2002 @09:43PM (#4048510) Homepage
    I noticed a car with the license plate JAA 768 next to another car with the license plate XPA 117.

    It was amazing.

    I mean, do you have any idea how staggeringly improbable it was for me to see those two license plates next to each other?
  • by blackcoot ( 124938 ) on Saturday August 10, 2002 @09:50PM (#4048540)
    ... is what this reminds me of. Math says that anything that can happen will happen given enough time --- much the same as some number n monkeys typing at n typewriters will eventually produce the Library of Congress. Of course, we're talking about very large values of n and incredibly long amounts of time...
  • by David Wong ( 199703 ) on Saturday August 10, 2002 @09:58PM (#4048573) Homepage
    Why is it so much more comfortable for us to see massive orchestrated conspiracy where there is really nothing but 1) random chance or 2) stupidity.

    As in, a lone crazy man slips through some very sloppy secret service security and puts a bullet in the president, 30 years later we're still speculating about secret mafia/cuban/communist/military-instrustrial complex theories. We actually bend the facts to make it fit. Visit the Book Depository in Dallas; if you look out that window down into the street, Oswald's shot looks rather easy to make. It's right there.

    Why can't we just accept that? If there's a crime to be investigated, investigate it. Fine. But twenty years from now some conspiracy nut will still be speculating about who or what killed those scientists. Probably the same guy who did Vince Foster and Ron Brown...
  • it's elementary (Score:1, Insightful)

    by WilyKit ( 68796 ) on Saturday August 10, 2002 @10:04PM (#4048602)
    What are the odds that nearly a dozen biochemists would die in one way or another over a period of five months, and that an article would appear in the New York Times proclaiming that it wasn't a conspiracy?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday August 10, 2002 @10:11PM (#4048625)
    ...that the media is part of the conspiracies?

    Seriously, once we are all aware that these random conjunctions of events happen frequently we will be more likely to ignore/dismiss/deny the seemingly coincidental events that the conspiracies trigger?

    Proof that happenstance can cause suspicious events is not proof that all suspicious events are caused by happenstance.
  • by NanoGator ( 522640 ) on Saturday August 10, 2002 @10:23PM (#4048674) Homepage Journal
    Anybody remember the urban legend running around that Microsoft had previous knowledge of September 11th? If not, check out this site:

    The short explanation is that if you take the letters NYC and put them into the 'Webdings' font, you'll get an icon of an eye, a heart, and a building. It looks a little like "I love New York". Then, if you change the font to Windings, you get a Skull/Crossbones, a Jewish star, and a Thumb's up.

    This sparked a heated controversy accusing Microsoft programmers of hiding anti-Jewish messages in software. They used lines like 'The odds of that occuring are trillions to one, it had to have been intentional.'

    Well I'll tell you guys what I think: To imply that anybody left a message like that in a font is absurd. What really happened was that somebody was presented with some icons, and they extracted a meaningful message from them. That's it! The 'Death to Jews' icons that show up in Wingdings are only interesting because "NYC" calls them up. The link between 'NYC' and 'death of Jews' didn't become meaningful until 9-11. Before 9-11, it took a lot of creativity to try to paint MS in a bad light with that 'message'.

    Now, one could could measure the probability of NYC creating a message that implies death to Jews and realistically say it's astronomically improbable. However, one cannot use that to establish guilt. The simple fact of the matter is that anybody can pull symbollic meaning out of any combination of letters. Common sense and evidence must factor in to questions like these. Did somebody at MS intentionally hide anti Jewish messages in a font? To convince me of that, I'd have to talk to the programmer.

    I remember somebody used the 'odds of safely going to the moon and back' to prove that the moon landing was a hoax. If memory serves, it was well over 1 in 1000. Frankly, common sense says that the odds weren't anywhere near as bleak as he had measured. Nasa had a pretty good idea what was involved and built a vehicle to withstand those conditions. The only real/i odds they had to face were uncertainty. "What are the odds of something happening to cause greater forces than we had anticipated?"

    Nasa maniuplated the odds in their favor, and they succeeded. End of story.

    In any case, I find probability to be a relatively useless topic when attempting to establish possibilities of achievement or in judging guilt. It's one thing to measure them in Las Vegas, it's another to measure them when trying to predict anything nature has control over.

  • Wrong again (Score:2, Insightful)

    by MakinWaves ( 251435 ) on Saturday August 10, 2002 @10:32PM (#4048704)

    Three years ago I coulda told you about pedophile priests and get this now.....a church conspiracy to cover it up. Thank god I was full of shit.....oh wait.....

    Don't feel bad though, I too was once a snot-nosed kid who thought he knew everything there was to know. Here's one for all you "sceptics" out there. I know y'all are real good at saying what something isn't. Check out the cattle mutilations in Argentina. Can any of your explain what it IS? Didn't think so...
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday August 10, 2002 @11:53PM (#4048977)
    The didn't catch the unibomber until his own family snitched him out and he was way more active than the anthrax guy.

    Did you see any wreckage of a plan in the world trade center either? When you get a fire buring at 2000 degrees that kind of stuff tends to melt you see.

    Although it does seem hard to beleive that there aren't video cameras surveilling the pentagon 24 hours a day.
  • by treat ( 84622 ) on Sunday August 11, 2002 @12:06AM (#4049014)
    1,2,3,4,5,6 is a bad bet because if it does come up, there will be many winners, and the jackpot will be divided evenly among the winners. Any obvious combination is a bad choice for that reason.
  • typical slashbots (Score:2, Insightful)

    by ArchieBunker ( 132337 ) on Sunday August 11, 2002 @12:46AM (#4049126) Homepage
    A conspiracy is so much easier to explain than the truth. Read further down this thread for a detailed link about derbis. By the way what temperature does aluminum melt at? A lot less than the steel beams of the world trade center. Every throw an aluminum can into a camp fire? In a few minutes its melted and oxidized into almost nothing. Now what are most airplanes made from...?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday August 11, 2002 @01:50AM (#4049320)
    What you never heard of the bay of pigs?

    Failed coup attempt by the CIA...pretty famous.

    First time america found out about the monster the capitalists (rockefeller and cronies had a huge hand in creating the CIA to fight communism[read: Protect their assets])had created.

    The Cuba thing didn't work out at least.

    In Guatamala a leftist government threatened to nationalize a rockefeller owned fruit business. The people where sick of getting exploited by the american elites and finally elected someone to do something about it. Well since Rockefeller was also an insider in the CIA he simply had them stage a right wing coup. Tens of thousands of Guatamalans died in purges of communists, but hey at least the capitalists assets where safe....

    Sounds crazy, but hey it's all out there in fact, get your freedom of information act on and check it out for yourself.

    I can't wait till i'm 70 and i can see what crazy shit they are doing right now to protect american oil and technology interests!

  • Gambler phenomenon (Score:3, Insightful)

    by ndogg ( 158021 ) <[moc.liamg] [ta] [nrohr.eht]> on Sunday August 11, 2002 @04:05AM (#4049602) Homepage Journal
    I attribute the gullibility of conspiracy theorists to pure psychology. It's called intermittent (partial) reinforcement. It's the same reason many people are addicted to gambling.

    Rewards (in the case of conspiracy theorists, the reward is being right) in intermittant reinforcement are not given every time a particular behavior is performed, but rather once in a while, and for best results, at a variable rate, rather than a fixed rate.

    This is the reason you don't feed stray animals on the street, because they will occasionally be rewarded, and so it will stick in their heads that they should visit a particular place to get food. If you feed that stray animal after each visit or at a fixed rate, it will be easier to get off your back once you stop. However, with intermittant reinforcement, it will take a long time to get the animal off your back since it will continue to expect that one day you will feed it.

    Conspiracy theorists have been right in the past (mere statistics will prove this, as this article makes note of), and that is enough to get large numbers of people convinced enough that others are worth their time and energy to prove correct.

    Gullible they may be, but they have history to blame for that.
  • The article doesn't really do much to 'debunk' the original story. It's full of lots of quasi-science that doesn't really touch on the real question.

    I would have considered it a proper debunking if it had done a peoper statistical analysis of the deaths -- or something like that. Instead, it simply explained away a couple of the deaths, and hand-waved the others. When the original story went out, I was willing to explain away 3 of the original 11 deaths as 'normal' That still left a cluster of 8 wierd disappearances. This article hand-waved at least one of the deaths that I had already considered 'normal'.

    On the pro-cosnpiracy side of this story:

    A similar story occured in Vancouver: about 50 or 60 women mysteriously disappeared over the last 10 years in Vancouver. Most of these women were drug users and/or prostitutes. The nature of a prostitute's business is such that a prostitute would be a very juicy target for a serial killer (where else can you consistently get a woman to wander off with a stranger to a remote and secluded area?)

    In any case, the Vancouver Police department continued to pooh-pooh complaints of Downtown Eastside residents that these disappearances were unusual. They simply explained it as 'they probably just skipped town'. It wasn't until America's Most Wanted did a story about how Vancouver was a great place to be a serial killer, that they responded at all to the complaints. They still spent a year, or more claiming that it was just a coincidence, despite the fact that a forensic statistician on their own staff found clear evidence of improbability.

    It wasn't until last year that some real manpower was put into the investigation, and this year a pig farmer [] was charged with the murder of a half dozen or more of the missing prostitutes. This summer police hired a bunch of anthropology students to help look for bone fragments and body bits in the dirt pile on his farm.

    The moral of the story: Just because something MAY be a coincidence, doesn't mean that it is. If you want to prove, or disprove, a conspiracy around this cluster, you need to look at the whole cluster -- not just point out the easily explainable (or more worrisome) deaths and hand-wave about statistics.

    The story at the base of this article neither proves nor disproves the probability of a conspiracy around this cluster of deaths. It simply points out that they're not all unexplainable (something that was clear some time ago).

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday August 11, 2002 @04:20PM (#4051348)

    is what this reminds me of. Math says that anything that can happen will happen given enough time --- much the same as some number n monkeys typing at n typewriters will eventually produce the Library of Congress

    No, thats wrong. Math says that those monkeys can bang away at the typewriters until infinity and NEVER produce the Library of Congress. The PROBABILITY of them never doing so though, tends towards 0, as t (time) tends towards infinity. Mathematically, though, that probability never reaaaally reaches 0. It just becomes infinitely small.

    What you've cited is basically commonly called "law of averages", and it is generally speaking false. Basically, it asserts that if you keep, say, flipping a coin, that you WILL eventually flip an average of 50/50 ratio of H/T. That is not true, it is POSSIBLE to flip the coin 1000000 times and have it land H 1000000 times. (Since they are statistically independent events) (assuming the coin is very strong and doesn't get worn). The probably of it happening though just gets smaller and smaller as n gets larger. P(n) tends to 0 as n tends to infinity. P(n) never REACHES 0 though.

    Stastisticians (and people in general) seem to often get confused between "extremely unlikely" and "impossible". (Likewise, they get confused with "extremely likely" and "will happen".)

Karl's version of Parkinson's Law: Work expands to exceed the time alloted it.