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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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  • What are the odds? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Henry V .009 ( 518000 ) on Saturday August 10, 2002 @09:39PM (#4048500) Journal
    You could find the odds exactly if you knew several figures:

    What is the number of bio-whatnot researchers in the group?
    What are the odds of one dying in a given time period?
    And this is the hardest: How many comparable groups are there in society? For example, politicians dying would be noticed. Baseball players dying would be noticed. And how big are these groups?

    If you answer these simple questions, you can answer the main topic.
  • Required reading (Score:3, Interesting)

    by snicker ( 7648 ) on Saturday August 10, 2002 @10:08PM (#4048612) Homepage Journal
    Stanislaw Lem's "The Chain of Chance" deals with just about this very sort of thing, actually. Emergent properties of large populations, more, though.
  • Pointless (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Chris Johnson ( 580 ) on Saturday August 10, 2002 @10:13PM (#4048635) Homepage Journal
    Wild speculation on black helicopter type stuff only distracts from real things that warrant concern of their own.

    Google for "operation northwoods" and you will discover that the military, in the 1960s, as a matter of public record, were laying plans to attack American citizens in order to stir up support for a war on Cuba.

    That's not speculation, that is public record, learned through researching and the Freedom Of Information Act. They didn't actually carry out any of these plans, or blow up John Glenn's orbital space flight, because saner heads, including McNamara, refused to even consider allowing the military to make attacks on the country's own citizens for PR reasons.

    The plans were still being seriously put forth.

    How are you going to explain to people that this was reality, public record, proven, and that the anthrax/researcher killings you're talking about are not proven to that level of confidence? You will only make people less willing to believe the proven and important facts about the military making plans to target US civilians.

    And I think that is too high a price to pay. This is the time where people need to learn to listen, not be confused by wild stories.

    Choose your stories carefully, and talk about them carefully. It's like traditional investigative journalism- you don't charge madly ahead or you get discredited and lose everything you worked for.

  • Amazing Gullibility (Score:5, Interesting)

    by death00 ( 551487 ) on Saturday August 10, 2002 @10:23PM (#4048673)
    I am always amazed by the gullibility of the general populice. How can people honestly believe that a modern government could harbour ANY kind of conspiracy given that they can't even keep the affair of a President with an intern secret?? If there really were aliens on earth, UFOs circling the solar system, etc., you'd be guaranteed that somebody, somewhere who wasn't hushed up by "the government" would have reported it on the 'net. Conspiracy theories are just another method for selling media to the masses.
  • by Featureless ( 599963 ) on Saturday August 10, 2002 @10:45PM (#4048755) Journal
    Specifically, in a probability textbook I saw a long time ago, the preface opened with a rivetingly complex proof, well beyond my ability to follow in detail both then and now. But I got the jist. The quick version is that, "mathematically speaking," something nearly impossible happens nearly every instant. A logical pun, so to speak.

    And yet, am I really paranoid for suspecting that the Enron executive who committed suicide recently was murdered? Is that a hollywood-addled sense of the world, or is it simply realistic; it's not a difficult to accept fact that people have been killed over far, far smaller amounts of money. And the money is only the tip of the iceberg of conspiracies that was Enron.

    Call it a coincidence that all of these scientists died in such rapid succession if you want. But I will do you one better. I won't say it's proof of a conspiracy, and I won't say it's a coincidence either.
  • Re:Wrong again (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday August 10, 2002 @10:56PM (#4048794)
    What you see with the cattle mutilations are seen in smaller animals when they are attacked by birds or insects. Its just no one has filmed this with a larger animal like a cow.
  • by Bingo Foo ( 179380 ) on Saturday August 10, 2002 @11:55PM (#4048984)
    I've had this argument with my wife once. It starts out like this:

    WIFE: Did you buy a lottery ticket like I asked?

    ME: Yes.

    WIFE What numbers did you pick?

    ME: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

    WIFE: WHAT? What are the chancs of that coming up?
  • by yasth ( 203461 ) on Sunday August 11, 2002 @01:21AM (#4049233) Homepage Journal
    Well it was docked in Havana's (Cuba) harbor to protect American property and to be ready to ferry out American nationals, and then it blew up during a rather intense period of sabre rattling. An inquest board was formed, and after a month or so they reported back that the explosion was the work of an external explosive device, according to the inquest probably a Spanish mine. This was coupled with the tabloid jounralism at the time (which didn't wait for the inquest to be over to blame the Spanish) to form a popular cause for intervention in Cuba; oh and BTW all that agitation was formed in part by the Cuban exiles feeding stories, so the US has long been controlled by Cuban exiles see. Anyways, demands were made, and the Spanish ceded to the demands but the declaration of war passed the Spanish cession in tranist (some say intentionally).

    Anyways the Maine was eventully looked at in the 1930s or so. Vauge mutterings were made, and the wreck was towed out of the harbor into deep water and sunk, so that no one could look at it too closely. Then later technology got to the point where the wreck could be rexamined and it was found that source of the explosion was iternal. Current thinking is that the coal dust in the coal bunker exploded, ie. an accident.
  • Re:Happened before (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday August 11, 2002 @02:31AM (#4049404)
    The significant thing about the story was the apparent connection to MKULTRA, which has an apparent connection to the Grateful Dead. Robert Hunter and Ken Kesey were among those who participated in CIA LSD experiments at Stanford.

    Judging from what Keysey and Hunter have contributed to culture as a result - I'd say these tests definitely "backfired" on the CIA. on /3822588.htm
  • by junkgrep ( 266550 ) on Sunday August 11, 2002 @04:28AM (#4049648)
    Richard Dawkins has an excellent chapter in his book "Rainbow" where he describes a concept called a PETWHAC. This roughly translates into: Population of Events That Would Have Appeared Coincidental. He notes that for any seemingly impossible coincidence, oftentimes it can be dispelled simply by figuring out what events would be included in the PETWHAC: and usually you get a very high number. We have so many opportunities for amazing coincidences every day that it's almost mathematically inevitable that some will happen to us once and awhile. Coupled with the number of people out there, it's no wonder that seemingly amazing and inexplicable coincidences are reported all over the place: they are quite likely.
  • by JKR ( 198165 ) on Sunday August 11, 2002 @05:35AM (#4049753)
    With reference to the JFK thread, I recently watched a documentary of an investigation into a fatal "shooting" at a rifle range. Some kid was sat inside a metal hut (an indoor pistol range) when suddenly he fell to the floor, dead, from a single bullet wound to the head. To cut a long story short, he was killed by a pistol round from:
    • a modified handgun which double-fired on the recoil
    • held by a person on a completely different range
    • stood in the one place where the wildly off-target second shot could pass through the 1 inch cap between an earth mound and a baffle
    • before entering the indoor range through a broom cupboard and deflecting upwards
    • grazing a cardboard ceiling tile and deflecting back down instead of just passing through
    • before finally hitting the victim

    The chain of probabilities was incredible. It took days of 3D computer simulation coupled with ballistics analysis to work out what had happened - yet it happened and someone died as a result. The guy that fired the pistol didn't even realise his gun had fired twice.

  • by MrMeanie ( 145643 ) on Sunday August 11, 2002 @05:44AM (#4049771)
    Professor Robins of Harvard points out that "the Web has changed the scale of these things." Had there been a string of dead scientists back in 1992 rather than 2002, he says, it is possible that no one would have ever known. "Back then, you would not have had the technical ability to gather all these bits and pieces of information, while today you'd be able to pull it off. It's well known that if you take a lot of random noise, you can find chance patterns in it, and the Net makes it easier to collect random noise."

    Unfortunately, DARPA is now in the process of designing the TIA (Total Information Awareness) system (here [] and here []) :

    It's a system which, it hopes, will ferret out terrorists' information signatures -- clues available before an attack, but usually not correctly interpreted until afterwards

    ... although database size will no longer be measured in the traditional sense, the amounts of data that will need to be stored and accessed will be unprecedented, measured in petabytes.

    So, in other words, the TIA system is DESIGNED to attempt to find pattens in a few petbytes of random noise.
  • anti-hype hype (Score:4, Interesting)

    by g4dget ( 579145 ) on Sunday August 11, 2002 @09:27AM (#4050068)
    [Efron] When the numbers are large enough, and the distracting details are removed, the chance of anything is fairly high.

    Efron is a venerable statistician, but this is plain wrong. There are many things that are so unlikely that, for practical purposes, they simply do not occur in this universe. For example, all the air molecules in a room don't all get on one half of the room, leaving the other half with a vacuum. Statistically, this arrangement is (approximately) as probable as any other. But there aren't enough rooms in the universe to make this an event that could occur with "fairly high" probability.

    Much of physics relies on things that are "astronomically unlikely", and much of engineering consists of changing conditions so that something that is very unlikely becomes common. We have enshrined these "astronomically unlikely" principle as a the laws of thermodynamics, and we don't even bother to say "a perpetual motion machine is possible but very, very unlikely", we just say "you can't build one", because for practical purposes, you can't.

    [Tibshirani] ''The chance of getting a royal flush is very low,'' he says, ''and if you were to get a royal flush, you would be surprised. But the chance of any hand in poker is low. You just don't notice when you get all the others; you notice when you get the royal flush.''

    This is true but not relevant. If you randomly think of some particular hand and then have it dealt, you do have reason to be surprised, although, since the prior probability on the existence ESP or telekinesis is so minute, you should probably still attribute it to randomness. On the other hand, you have no reason to be surprised if you get a royal flush once over many games, just like you have no reason to be surprised to get any particular hand once in many games.

    Similarly, statistically, having all the air molecules in a room be present only on one side of the room is (approximately) as probable as any other particular arrangement of air molecules, but I guarantee that if you were in that room, you would notice, and you would have reason to be surprised. In fact, you would almost certainly be correct in concluding that that arrangement of air molecules didn't come about by chance but involved something like a vacuum pump and a partition.

    Which brings us to the death of Benito Que, who was not, despite reports to the contrary, actually a microbiologist. He was a researcher in a lab at the University of Miami Sylvester Cancer Center, where he was testing various agents as potential cancer drugs.

    Now we are getting to the good stuff. The problem with the conspiracy surrounding these cases has nothing to do with statistics or people's ignorance of it.

    The death of half a dozen germ warfare experts under the age of 60 within a span of four months would be an unlikely event, whether or not it follows 9/11. Not astronomically unlikely, but something that would certainly warrant closer investigation. If you assume that there are maybe 100 such world experts, you can look at standard mortality tables to bound the probability of this event occurring.

    What's wrong with that analysis is that these people were not "germ warfare specialists"--they were biologists. Journalists constructed the label "germ warfare specialists" after the fact. But there are a lot of biologists in the world. The death of half a dozen biologists over a four month period is a much more probable event--simply because there are a lot more biologists around.

  • by Sanat ( 702 ) on Sunday August 11, 2002 @01:10PM (#4050665)
    Rather than being a coincidence, this is where the word "synchronistic" fits better.

    These situations are arranged by your Higher Self to either show you that more exists than statistics or to bring you together with someone that you need to meet.

    Here is a true story. I woke up one morning with the thoughts about an old friend of mine that I had not seen in 2 or 3 years. i left for the office and realized that I had forgotton a diskette that i needed.

    I thought that i would get it at lunch time and drove home to get it and on impulse decided to eat at a Wendy's that was a couple of miles down the road. I thought of my old friend a couple of times while driving there.

    I went in almost expecting to see him in line in front of me but after I got my food there he was sitting alone at a table.

    He said it was the first time he had eaten there in a couple of years.

    His wife had told him the night before that she wanted a divorce and he was suffering very deeply.

    I am sure that some one could calculate the odds of he and I eating at a place neither of us had been for several years, but what of the thoughts of him before hand and the fact that he needed my words of comfort at that exact moment?

  • by DeeAyeVeeE ( 599987 ) on Sunday August 11, 2002 @05:11PM (#4051539)
    From the article:

    "'a surprising concurrence of events, perceived as meaningfully related, with no apparent causal connection.' In other words, pure happenstance. Yet by merely noticing a coincidence, we elevate it to something that transcends its definition as pure chance. We are discomforted by the idea of a random universe. Like Mel Gibson's character Graham Hess in M. Night Shyamalan's new movie ''Signs,'' we want to feel that our lives are governed by a grand plan."

    The definition of coincidence (which starts the quote above) says "no APPARENT connection" (my emphasis). The author is factually incorrect, by their own definition, in saying that "no apparent connection" equals "pure happenstance" (the definition of happenstance is, by the way, "A chance circumstance").

    The author then bounces from this shaky springboard into a big leap indeed: the assertion that a person who thinks that something without an "apparent" connection might have a hidden of obfuscated connection is equal to "want(ing) to feel that (their) lives are governed by a grand plan." The rest of the article merely strives to make the reader feel better about this supposed personal weakness.

    The article, then, is essentially designed to make the reader feel foolish for considering the possibility of a connection, and in fact suggests that those who consider the possibility of a connection are merely trying to make themselves seem more important to themselves than they are.

    This is inappropriate, for a simple reason embodied in the hackneyed phrase "Just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean they're not out to get you". The reason is this: Cause and Effect is a real, everyday occurance. The absence of immediate and irrefutable proof is not cause for dismissal of the possibily of correlation (and potentially causation). If it were, police detectives wouldn't bother investigating crimes -- the lack of immediate and irrefutable proof would be sufficient to rule out guilt.

    Instead, I have found (in my own limited life experience) that those who avoid arguments against the allegation, and instead present arguments against he/she making the allegation (as this author is doing), are unable to refute the allegation. Instead, I have found that this inability generally stems from their being:

    (a) convinced that they know more than the person with the opposing viewpoint (the closeminded and/or cynical)

    (b) lacking sufficient knowledge to refute the allegation, but unable to stay uninvolved (the ignorant and/or nosy) or

    (c) aware that the allegation is potentially/partially/completely correct yet is in a position where they must refute the allegation (the guilty and/or the paid off).

    Please note that my argument above does not prove that there IS a connection, any more than the article in question proves that there is NOT. My point is simply that the author is either cynical, close-minded, ignorant, nosy, guilty or paid off, and can thusly be safely ignored by intelligent people who are considering the issue for themselves.

Today is a good day for information-gathering. Read someone else's mail file.