On Conventional Reality

Here's a mass delusion that none can deny: for years, Bankers and investors and professional money managers around the world plunked down big bucks to buy financial instruments that boiled down to promises of deadbeats with no income to pay $400,000 mortgages, because government certified rating agencies said the instruments were AAA. Oops.

Similarly, we have global warmism, endorsed by the UN and numerous political and governmental organizations (including many organizations of scientists) and in which all right-thinking faculty members believe (without actually thinking it through), yet which won't stand scrutiny.

These two have a common element: government annointed experts whose area's funding is much increased by the finding. (Rating mortgage-backed securities AAA led to their sale and the expansion of business, rating them B would have choked it off. Scare mongering about global warming has led to a huge expansion of funding for climate research, ordinary good science would have been funded like ordinary good science.)

But the presence of two such striking examples of mass delusions should clue us more generally to wonder what we (I) believe implicitly that just isn't so.

I welcome suggestions.

Here's a conjecture: if some controversial and potentially understandable proposition is believed by 1-X of the faculty, and opposed by X, for X <<1/2 the likelihood of its being correct is proportional to X. Mechanism: the 1-X majority are just going with the herd, endorsing the consensus. The X minority are only holding out because they've actually thought it through.

I even have some anecdotal empirical evidence that this conjecture holds in the limit as X=0 (where of course the mechanism breaks down ;^): back in the day I used to watch a show on TV called the McLaughlin report, which put a panel of experts on the spot at the end to make near term predictions, about which we would eventually get ground truth. The panelists were half liberal, half conservative, and they rarely agreed on anything. But I observed, that when they did all agree, you could be confident they were all wildly off base. I particularly remember McLaughlin asking them, as the Soviet troops left Afganistan, how long their puppet government would hold out against the Taliban. Estimates ranged from hours to maybe a week, but in fact the puppet government held out without Soviet support for years (a fact which perhaps has some relevance in discussing the region now.)

In any case, here's another suggestion about conventional reality:

Conspiracy Theories

"Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"
"To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."
"The dog did nothing in the night-time."
"That was the curious incident."
-- A. Conan Doyle, Silver Blaze

Consider historical examples of government scandals and coverups. For example, we have the Dreyfus Affair in 19th century France, and Watergate. Another was Iran Contra, where government employees ran a fairly major operation against the law. But in the latter, there was no effort to cover it up once it broke-- Ollie North got up and spilled the beans with complete candor. This may have been necessary-- there is no evidence the conspiracy went to the top. And the former two, the coverup only broke because a high-ranking insider (out of moral instincts) decided to break it. Watergate was broken by Deep Throat (and even with his help, the coverup was formidable, and breaking it relied on the fact that Nixon had recorded all of his conversations). The turning point in the Dreyfus Affair was when an intelligence officer (Lt. Col. Joseph Henry) confessed to manufacturing evidence against Dreyfus and suicided.

I am not aware of any example of a cover-up that broke from without, without some high-ranking person within the conspiracy deciding to break it wide open, or at the least superiors within the direct chain of command within government, learning of the conspiracy and deciding to break it open.

We have over the years had numerous alleged conspiracies, in some of which there is extensive evidence of foul play. One frequently hears the claim that: they could never keep such things covered up, so it must be that these conspiracy theories are crackpot. But the historical evidence suggests the opposite. We have zero historical evidence of conspiracies breaking, except when some high-ranking individual within decides to spill the beans. Surely, that must be a rare event, so many cover-ups must have worked.



Eric Baum
Last modified: Mon Jan 5 20:59:36 EST 2009