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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.
    • Doesn't take much figuring out...
    • We'd all be saying the same thing if Gore was in office.

      It's kinda like arguing over which movie is better, Dante's Peak or Volcano.
      • Except Gore won the election. Gore doesn't have a father who was president and also head of the CIA. Gore doesn't have a brother as govenor of Florida. Gore didn't have an Enron company jet for campaign trips.

        • He also didn't have enough brains to pass Journalism school. Think of all the dumb questions asked at press confrences. These people were smart enough to get through the school Gore flunked out of.

        • Re:Conspiracy (Score:2, Informative)

          by qubit64 ( 233602 )
          Nope, but Gore did have lots of big names with lots of money on his side too. Also, Gore did lose the election, based on your electoral system. If you want to change the system so that it's a "majority rules" system then go for it, but that's not how it works now. Finally, even with the recount done by the newspapers in florida (which was far from "official"), Bush would have won anyway, albeit by the slimmest of margins.
        • Except Gore won the election.

          Holy crap, you know something everyone else doesn't?? Wait, what about all ther ecounts that were eventually finished, what did they say? Bush won the election. End of story.

  • by ( 579491 ) on Saturday August 10, 2002 @09:38PM (#4048489)
    Which means there are about 6000 people exactly like you.
    • Which means there are about 6000 people exactly like you.

      Well, if there are 6000 others out there just like me, then they are all on /. and should be modding up every one of my posts. Or at least I should see 6000 replies saying "Yeah, exactly what I was thinking!". Since this doesn't happen, I gotta conclude that I'm not one in a million but closer to one in a billion.

    • One in a million ... but which one?
  • 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.
  • 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?
    • Well, I don't understand the JAA 768 or XPA 117 references, but I can tell you of a similar coincidence:

      I went to Thomas Alva Edison elementary school. The license plate one of my my teacher's cars was "TAE - 072". (Not sure about the 072 part...) Weird that a teacher's license plate has the same acronym of the school he worked for!

      Of course, TAE could have lots of meanings to differnt people though, couldn't it? TAE could have been the initials of his cousin for all we knew. Still, though, it was an interesting conincidence.
      • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday August 10, 2002 @09:57PM (#4048571)
        I went to Thomas Alva Edison elementary school. The license plate one of my my teacher's cars was "TAE - 072".
        I just got off the phone with your elementary school teacher. He said the initials on his plate stand for Timothy Alva Edison, so it's just a coincidence. Nothing to worry about.
      • What the number plate poster is pointing out is that the 'coincendence' of "JAA 768" next to a "XPA 117" plate is just as probable as seeing "TAE 072" while driving by a Thomas Alva Edison school.

        From the article:
        You only notice your poker hand when it's a royal flush, you never remember that day you got that Hearts-5, Spades-King, Diamonds-10, Diamonds-7 and Spades-8. And it's just as probable as a Royal Flush....

    • Oh yeah, well I got marked as "troll" on two different messages at the exact same *second* today. What is the chance of that?

      It must be a sign that I am "special".
    • 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?
      • 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.
      • Actually, picking common numbers in a lottery reduces your expected return! Not the chance of winning, but the amount you are likely to win.

        If lots of people pick 123456, and it happens to be selected, they will split the amount.

        Better to choose something more random. The expected return on making that choice vs otherwise is .0000000001$ or something like that :-)
  • PHEW! (Score:4, Funny)

    by papasui ( 567265 ) on Saturday August 10, 2002 @09:46PM (#4048517) Homepage
    And all time time I was afraid that the FBI was monitoring my Inter-.........
  • ... 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...
    • Yes, but take those very same monkeys, take away their typewriters. Given only 5 months, these monkeys can and will write the legislation for the USA for the given year.

      And if they do a poor job, you can always vote for another monkey next November.

      Or said another way, given very large numbers of N, and incredible lengths of time, Congress might actually write something worth reading....
      • Humor and sarcasm noted... with that out of the way, there was a serious statement in your post I'd like to comment on:
        ...given very large numbers of N, and incredible lengths of time, Congress might actually write something worth reading...
        It's disturbing to see how trendy this position has become. "Congress doesn't write anything worth reading, so I'll ignore them." Wrong.

        Regardless of the quality of the bills Congress writes; regardless of your opinion of those bills; regardless of whether you are an American citizen who feels a need to keep an eye on his elected representatives... you should make a habit of checking in from time to time to read the material written by Congress.

        Ultimately that material becomes U.S. law. That translates into U.S. policy and U.S. spending, which directly or indirectly affects most people on this planet -- and certainly everyone who has the technical and economic means to read Slashdot, whether you like it or not. This makes everything Congress writes "worth reading."

        It is incumbent upon you as a free-thinking individual to read, understand and evaluate the writings of Congress. The alternative is wandering across a busy street with your eyes closed because you can't get hit by a bus you can't see.

    • How do you think we got Windows ME?
    • Assuming of course that monkeys are purely random. The key arrangement, number of monkey hands, and physical constraints of the keys that can or must be hit in a single "bang" reduce the randomness. It should be entirely possible that monkeys banging on a keyboard can only produce a fixed arrangement of patterns, which may or may not include any particular piece or collection of literature.

      I've always thought this was a bad example of randomness, but then I believe that monkeys banging on keyboards is more or less deterministic, so perhaps I'm just being too pedantic. :-)
  • 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...
    • A reply from the article:
      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 need is especially strong in an age when paranoia runs rampant. "Coincidence feels like a loss of control perhaps," says John Allen Paulos, a professor of mathematics at Temple University and the author of "Innumeracy," the improbable best seller about how Americans don't understand numbers. Finding a reason or a pattern where none actually exists "makes it less frightening," he says, because events get placed in the realm of the logical. "Believing in fate, or even conspiracy, can sometimes be more comforting than facing the fact that sometimes things just happen."

    • Everyone knows that John Dillinger shot JFK, on behalf of the JAMs.
    • 1) Because one bullet was supposed to have gone thru three people, all at different angles.

      2) Because the gov't has a bad habit of covering up anything that might potentially embarrass them. Then, they cover up (lie) about the rest just for good measure.

      3) Because evidence "disappeared" -- like frames from Zapruder's film. Odds are some buffoon bureaucrats simply lost stuff, but it doesn't look good.
      • by macpeep ( 36699 ) on Sunday August 11, 2002 @04:26AM (#4049642)
        "1) Because one bullet was supposed to have gone thru three people, all at different angles."

        Three? See, this is exactly what the parent was talking about. There was *TWO* people that the bullet passed through. Connally and JFK. And if you look at pictures shown by the "look, the single bullet theory is ridiculous"-people, sure enough, it will look like it had to make funny u-turns in the air. However, if you look at the actual pictures of how JFK and Connally sat, you'll notice that they weren't at all directly behind eachother but that JFK was much further to the outside of the car than Connally was. Thus, a bullet passing through his head would have hit Connally in the right shoulder, just as it did.

        Of course there's a million other evidence, for and against but I'm not really interested in the whole JFK conspiracy. I just don't like it when people bend the facts; say it was three people instead of two, show diagrams full of errors and clearly exaggerated with bullets making u-turns in the air and so on.

        If your case is so convincing, just stick to the facts. Ok?

        Here's just one site that reveals some of the bullshit:
  • the fact that a "one-in-a-million miracle" will statistically occur 280 times a day in the U.S.

    It is quite plausible to argue that the chance of at least one conspiracy theories being true is also quite high. I mean... It just boils down to which ones, right?

    Some of this crap *has* came true, btw. the US government has denied any base in "area 51" for about as long as it existed. until more photos showed up. and russia shot down an U-2, and F117 was unveild to be designed there, etc. the only difference is that by this day and age, "area 51" is no longer considered a conspiracy.

    so... the truth is still out there. just have to believe in the right one (or two) and filter out the other million or so...

  • He's quoted in the article, and it's worth reading his stuff. His home page is here [], and there's an archive of his ABC Who's Counting columns here. [].

    Go read 'em.
  • 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.

    • ABC News story [] obtained by googling for "Operation Northwood":
      [In the early 1960s,] America's top military brass even contemplated causing U.S. military casualties, writing: "We could blow up a U.S. ship in Guantanamo Bay and blame Cuba," and, "casualty lists in U.S. newspapers would cause a helpful wave of national indignation."
      That's original. Remember the Maine? []
      • "Remember the Maine?"

        Err, no I don't, to be honest. Probably because I'm a) younger than 100 an b) not a US citizen.

        Can you explain what happened to that warship? /mike.

        • by yasth ( 203461 )
          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.
    • 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 could just wait 20+ years for all the current conspiracies to be declassified and all the little black-marker censoring of FOIA papers to be removed.

      It seems that by the time that stuff is admitted to the public, nobody cares. They assume it was just the fault of the last generation's government.

    • Kind of makes you wonder about 9-11.

      It sure helped this president a whole lot.
  • 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.
    • "Ah did NOT have sexshul relations with that lifeform, Grzvzzyvbx"

      Six months later:

      "My definition of 'sex' does not include being pleasured by a tenticle-armed three-eyed green alien, so technically I was not lying."
    • (* you'd be guaranteed that somebody, somewhere who wasn't hushed up by "the government" would have reported it on the 'net. *)

      Yes, but who would listen? How can you tell a real whistle-blower from a nut without some concrete physical evidence?
    • "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"

      I don't know what planet you are on but on the planet I live there have been lots of people who have reported the existance of UFOs on the net. If this is a secret of the govt it's the most poorly kept secret in the world. Sure not all documents have been seen and not all people involved have spoken out but plenty of documents have been published and plenty of people have spoken out.

      Maybe the fact that all this information about UFOs is out in the open proves your theory. Here is one secret which got out despite the best efforts of the govt to supress it.
    • Maybe it's out there because that's what we were meant to believe! It's all in Black Helicopter Monthly #7, right after their review of classic ant-mind-control devices.

      Of course, you wouldn't know this if....


      I'm on to you!
  • 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.

    • 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'.

      Actually the NYC/Death to Jews speculation is MUCH MUCH older than Sept 11th. I remember this from years ago, maybe as many as 8 and it may have been old when I heard about it. The old reasoning was just that there were a lot of Jews in New York City, so that's where the meaning came from. But the point you make is a good one.

      • "Actually the NYC/Death to Jews speculation is MUCH MUCH older than Sept 11th. I remember this from years ago, maybe as many as 8 and it may have been old when I heard about it. "

        Yep, you're absolutely correct about that. When 9-11 came around, somebody resurrected this story and then mutated it to fit 9-11. They took the 'Death to Jews' icons, added an airplane with two pieces of paper (that sorta resemble the WTC), and then applied a fictional detail about the significance of the characters to tell a story that MS supported terrorism.

        Sadly, there is so much irrational hatred for MS out there that enough people instantly believed this story without engaging what Kryten would call 'common sense mode'. This stupid hoax spread like wildfire. A friend of mind really believed this too. I had to do some research to show him that the flight #'s of the planes did not match what the hoax reported, thus destroying the hoax in his mind.

        This touches on a sensitive issue I have with Slashdot. I don't have a whole lotta love for MS as a corporation. I have no doubt they pulled some really shitty games to keep themselves up and their competitors down. However, several anti-MS stories have appeared on /. that were twisted to make MS sound more evil than they really are. (Or at least evil in the context that was established.)

        Sadly, the responses that were given were along the lines of "I knew it!! MS really is evil!", despite that reading the links provided in that article would have illustrated a very different story being told.

        I have no problem with /. reporting the events as they happen. I have no problem with opinions of these stories making it into the article. I have no problems with MS's blunders getting reported. But I am rather concerned that the Slashdot Community hates MS so much that they'll believe anything. Slashdot has the power to be an activist for the little guy. That power dwindles if the agencies listening to /.'s collective voice dismiss us because 'oh geez, they hate anything MS does. Just ignore them.'

        I know this won't be a popular view, but I do felt it had to be said. The Slashdot Community should pick their battles, as opposed to being against EVERYTHING that a mega-corp does.
        • "Sadly, there is so much irrational hatred for MS "

          I would have to say that although some hatred of MS is irrational most hatred of MS is absolutely rational. They really do and say evil things and it's perfectly rational to hate them. For example when MS called open source a cancer and called open source programmers and users communists I imagine most people reacted with outrage and hatred. That was a rational reaction being compared to stalin or a disease don't you think?
        • by nathanh ( 1214 ) on Sunday August 11, 2002 @04:20AM (#4049627) Homepage
          I know this won't be a popular view, but I do felt it had to be said.

          I don't know why you think this. I see far more Microsoft support on Slashdot than Microsoft bashing. Everytime there's an even remotely anti-Microsoft statement or anti-Microsoft joke there are about 50 people like yourself who jump to Microsoft's defence. Often the defence starts off with "I know I'll get moderated down for this but...". Sound familiar?

          Really, it's getting tiring. You can't even write a simple Microsoft joke these days without a 1000 flames along the lines of "Linux sucks way more than Microsoft". Is this pro-Microsoft stance the trendy thing to do these days?

  • "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.

    Probability that this "280" number is just a big fat guess: 0.999999999999

    (And it depends on how one defines "miracle".)
  • by michaelmalak ( 91262 ) <> on Saturday August 10, 2002 @10:31PM (#4048702) Homepage
    As I recently wrote [] over at kuo5hin, I've discovered that about a third of the conspiracies out there are true. But finding out which ones takes research -- which I enjoy doing. And recently I set up a PostNuke blog, [] to post what I find. I look for stories that can be backed up by the mainstream press and/or primary sources, such as government web sites.

    As for this particular issue of the dead scientists, there's been no good evidence either way, and so it hasn't appeared at all in my blog.

    • by guttentag ( 313541 ) on Sunday August 11, 2002 @01:02AM (#4049171) Journal
      From the K5 post you referenced:
      I'm addicted to reading and researching conspiracy theories, and discovering that about a third of them are true. It takes a lot of time to figure out which ones are true. Often conspiracy stories are half true, where "half" can apply in a number of different ways -- half the facts are correct, half the statements are substantiated, or the sources are halfway reliable.
      A story that is "half true" is still half false. Is this your basis for claiming that you've "discovered that about a third of the conspiracies out there are true?" Because you don't seem to be backing up this serious claim with any other information. You would be performing a greater service if you filtered out the things that aren't true and posted purely factual accounts to set the record straight. But I don't think you want to do that.

      From looking at your blog, I don't see evidence of conspiracies. All I see in your blog are the angry ramblings of a self-righteous individual who thinks the news media is playing up the wrong stories.

      For real evidence of real conspiracies, read through the documents at The George Washington University's National Security Archive [] of declassified documents, like the proposal [] to incite world opinion against Cuba through propaganda, staged riots, staged attacks on the U.S., mock funerals and more.

      • You write:
        From looking at your blog, I don't see evidence of conspiracies. All I see in your blog are the angry ramblings of a self-righteous individual who thinks the news media is playing up the wrong stories.
        I choose to prove conspiracies through web resources that I believe most would consider credible. That usually means the news media.
        For real evidence of real conspiracies, read through the documents at The George Washington University's National Security Archive [] of declassified documents, like the proposal [] to incite world opinion against Cuba through propaganda, staged riots, staged attacks on the U.S., mock funerals and more.
        I referenced the Cuba war-bait conspiracy ("Operation Northwoods") with a link to an ABC News story on it from my story [] "FSB (successor to KGB) agent says FSB blew up apartments in 1999, not Chechens."
  • Wrong again (Score:2, Insightful)

    by MakinWaves ( 251435 )

    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...
  • 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.
    • 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.
  • "Odds are, unlikely things will happen."
  • There was quite a little condescention in the mathematician's reply to the author, and there were problems with assumptions he suggested as well. You could almost suspect he was trying to redirect the reporter's attention, no, wait . . .
  • by sh0rtie ( 455432 ) on Saturday August 10, 2002 @11:24PM (#4048877)

    Funny how there was lots of Anthrax scares happening on a daily business, people getting sick all over the place and then poof , no leads, no one caught , no more attacks, no more questions.

    what are the odds that a determined phsycopathic Anthrax killer just got bored ? yet with the entire FBI/CIA looking for them they still escaped,
    or maybe something more sinister is going on ?

    and did you see any wreckage of a plane at the pentagon in any of the photos taken ? cockpit ? wing ? fuselage ?

    what are the odds of smashing a plane into the side of the pentagon (not exactly the height of the WTC) and no-one took a photo of plane wreckage at the scene ?

    oops gotta go, a black car with some men in suits just pulled up, i'll be back in a minute....
    • by theguru ( 70699 ) on Saturday August 10, 2002 @11:55PM (#4048986)
      >and did you see any wreckage of a plane at the >pentagon in any of the photos taken ? cockpit ? >wing ? fuselage ?

      Yep, I have. Pictures of plane wreckage at the pentagon []
    • 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...?

    • "Funny how there was lots of Anthrax scares happening on a daily business, people getting sick all over the place and then poof , no leads, no one caught , no more attacks, no more questions."

      Not that suprising when you consider this.

      All the targets of the anthrax letters were either democat politicians or "liberal" media figures. To me this rules out al-quada because they have no reason to single out democrats and point the finger at the american reactionary right (militias and such).

      Now ask yourself this question. Why would Aschroft vigorously go after people who support him and want to harm people he views as enemies?
  • Sure... it's all coincidence... That's just what THEY want you to believe. :-P
  • What are the odds that the day after my classmates and I have to implement Dijkstra's shortest-path algorithm for our final CS project [] this semester, the venerable founding father of computer science passes on []?

    An interesting coincidence, no doubt, but nothing more than that.

  • Why do conspiracy theroies abound?

    It's pretty simple: it's very hard for an unintelligent person to credit stupidity for something that could have been the result of malice.

    -- Terry
  • My favorite coincidence was the Superbowl Dow Jones correlation from Super Bowl I to superbowl 20 something. It turned out that if a pre-merger AFL team won the market went down, but if an old NFL team one the market went up. No causation, and the correlation hasn't held but it did for about 20 years.
  • Okay, so here's the situation: everyone is stunned by an elaborate terrorist strike. There seems to be the beginnings of another one, and it's got something to do with your field of study. There are bad economic times, but your field is still somewhat in crazy startup mode.

    What are the chances that you'll suddenly die of a stress-related illness?

    Far more often than conspiracies, and probably competing well with coincidences, are the situations where people's perceptions of the situation actually significantly affects what happens. Remember, the placebo effect is significantly stronger for a number of conditions than the best medicine we know of. There are many conditions (including RSI) which turn out to be caused by a slight physical effect, a lot of stress, and the knowledge that the condition is common.

    I have to point out something about the classroom experiment mentioned in the article. The students whose birthdays are the same as other students in the room reported being more surprised than the other students. But this is, of course, totally logical. As the article says, it takes over 200 people to have better than even odds that someone has your birthday. Therefore, you should be surprised whenever someone does. Of course, it's likely to happen to somebody. And so somebody should be surprised, and people who know this person (and not most of the others) should be a bit surprised, and most of the people should be totally unfazed.
  • Happened before (Score:2, Informative)

    by marx ( 113442 )
    It's happened before, so I don't see why people are making a joke out of this. Today, the largest morning newspaper in Sweden is running a story [] about a Sweden-related biology scientist working for the CIA in the 50s. He was assassinated by the CIA in 1953, supposedly for having figured out that the US used biological weapons in the Korea war.

    When his family made inquiries in 1975, Congress paid $750,000 in damages to the family. What was really weird was that during this time, a letter was sent between Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who were working for Gerald Ford at the time, saying that if there was a trial, it could be "necessary to disclose top secret information concerning national security".

    These guys are at the top today, and since assassination and cover-ups (even specifically regarding biological warfare) clearly are not foreign to them, I don't see why the default theory should be an extremely improbable coincidence.

  • 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.
  • 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.

  • The article mentions all the "miracle" stories of people who decided to come into work late or were absent for some other reason and thus "miraculously" escaped death.

    I guess they though it was just too bloody obvious to point out how many people may have decided to go into work early because they had plans that evening or something similar and thus were "miraculously" killed. Of course we never heard from those guys telling us how unlucky they were.

  • 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 Sara Chan ( 138144 ) on Sunday August 11, 2002 @10:33AM (#4050209)
    Five of the Dead Biologists Linked To Howard Hughes Medical Institute []

    The whitewashing NY Times neglected that detail.

    For more on the story, see here [].

  • 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).

Can anyone remember when the times were not hard, and money not scarce?