On the problems generating the viability of a mathematical model dealing with conspiratorial beliefs

Last week, PLOS ONE published a piece by a physicist, David Robert Grimes, which deals with the likelihood of conspiracies being kept secret over time.

Said article has been talked about a fair bit on the news over the last few days, and I've been asked by a great deal of people either to comment on it, or to outright debunk it. Given that I don't like commenting on something I haven't read, I held off saying much about it until such time I found time to not just read it, but also carefully pick through it. That time has past; I have read the piece and I am ready to give my opinion on it. This is the short version of my critique; the original version ballooned out to almost 4000 words, and I probably should turn that into an academic article of some sort. If you want the tl;dr version of my opinion, then skip to the end. Otherwise, let me edutain you.

Grimes' argument

Grimes' argument centres around the viability of conspiratorial activity, and how that weighs upon considerations of the rationality of belief in associated conspiracy theories. The structure of Grimes' argument is to:

  1. Establish a baseline for the viability of known conspiracies, and then
  2. Use that to assess a set of putative conspiracy theories.

There are problems with both of these parts of Grimes' argument, so let us go through them one by one. Namely:

  1. The examples he uses to generate his model don't fit his model,
  2. The model is insensitive to the vagaries of conspiratorial activity, and
  3. He has a weird definition of what counts as a leak.

This short article only focuses on the first part of Grimes' article, establishing the baseline of his model. I have thoughts on the second part of his analyis, but by showing up problems for the viability of the model, I can show that no matter what we think of those purported conspiracies here-and-now, the Grimes' model is not up the task of analysing them.

Known conspiracies

Grimes admits conspiracies occur. It is interesting, then, to see what his chosen examples of conspiratorial activity are. They turn out to be:

  1. The NSA's Mass Surveillance programme,
  2. The Tuskegee syphilis experiment, and
  3. The FBI forensic scandal.

Three examples really isn't very many, but Grimes uses them to estimate the parameters of his model about the viability of conspiracies over time.

  1. Conspirators are generally dedicated to keeping their activity secret or concealed.
  2. Leaks from a conspirator expose conspiracies and render them redundant.

However, his chosen examples do not fit these two assumptions, which is why he can't use them to generate a baseline for the viability of conspiratorial activity.

Take the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. If this cover-up of the unethical treatment of African-American men was exposed by conspirators, then Grimes is stretching the idea of a leak too far. Information about the experiment was published in medical journals; the cover-up, so to speak, was that the patients were not told about the experiment. The leaks – the various academic publications about the experimental results – did not end the experiments. Peter Buxton, who is often labeled as the whistleblower in this case, came to know about the experiments because of his job with the United States Public Health Service. He leaked the information to the press because his worries were not taken seriously by management. He was not a conspirator but, rather, a worried public official who learnt about the experiments without being involved in running them.

Then there is the case of Dr. Frederic Whitehurst and the FBI forensic scandal. This, like the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, is a case where someone who was not a conspirator blew the lid on suspicious practices; Whitehurst was someone who, whilst checking and rechecking work, discovered that FBI management was not willing to discuss issues with that work openly.1

What this says is that it's not clear two of the three examples of known conspiratorial activity fit Grimes' fit his model, which is a problem for his generation of the estimates that drive his predictions about putative claims of conspiracy.

Who are the conspirators?

A bigger problem still is that Grimes does not distinguish between conspirators and whistleblowers.

Take the NSA mass surveillance conspiracy theory, for example. Grimes would have us believe that Snowden was a conspirator who leaked information about what it was the NSA were up to, and this lead to the exposure of PRISM and related surveillance programmes. That certainly is one version of that story, but it's important to note that Snowden's narrative is that of being a whistleblower: Snowden – at least in his recounting – learnt what the NSA were up to, played the role of a good contractor, and was eventually granted access to the files he needed to show the world what it was the NSA were really doing. Snowden, on this version of the story is not so much a conspirator, but a whistleblower who went undercover at the NSA. As such, the Snowden revelations do not fit with the assumptions that drives Grimes' model.

Grimes does not distinguish between kinds of conspirators, let alone conspirators and whistleblowers. Conspirators are not homogenous; a conspiracy can look big, yet only feature a small number of people who know the full extent or aim of the conspiracy. Some members of the conspiracy will be lackeys, goons or even unwitting conspirators. It's possible to be involved in a conspiracy without realising you are conspiring. Not everyone in the NSA need necessarily know that the data they are collecting and processing has been illegally obtained, and FBI agents who are using forensic evidence to secure convictions may not have been informed by senior personnel that the evidence they are using is of dubious merit.

What is a leak, anyway?

Grimes asserts in his paper that a leak from a conspirator will expose a conspiracy and render it redundant. But 'leak' is an ambiguous term; some leaks are accidental, some are purposeful, and some 'leaks' don't even come from conspirators at all.

Take, for example, accidental leaks. These are cases a conspirator fails to cover up some facet of their conspiratorial activity. So, for example, in the Watergate Affair, it was surely a mistake or accident that Alexander Butterfield revealed the existence of the White House tapes. This was an accidental leak, one which – in part – helped expose the cover-up of who knew about the break-in of the Democrat National Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Contrast this with a purposeful leak, where, say, a disgruntled member of the conspiracy leaks information about the conspiracy in order to expose it. Such leaks are, for example, common when it comes to leadership coups, and a variety of political conspiracies, where there is an advantage to some former conspirator to out what has been happening, in order to either change sides or escape blame.2

Whatever the case, Grimes is committed to the idea that conspirators leak, and that such leaks expose and make redundant the conspiracy. But it is not clear that conspirators leaking is the only way in which conspiracies get exposed. Admittedly, Grimes is not expressly committed to the idea only conspirators leak. But, given that his model seems insufficiently sensitive to how leaking works, let alone the difference between leaks from conspirators and external whistleblowers, this is a problem.

Indeed, none of the examples Grimes uses, as outlined above, fit with the known conspiracies he uses to derive his model, let alone give him any justification to then show that a number of purported conspiracy theories are irrational to believe. As such, Grimes does not do enough to warrant his own theory, let alone allow him to then extend that analysis to purported conspiracies now.

tl;dr: Grimes’s article doesn’t just misrepresent the nature of conspiratorial activity, let alone how they are exposed, his article seems to mostly exist to justify our suspicion of ‘crazy’ conspiracy theories.

Notes

  1. It's not even clear that this is a case of a conspiracy; what might be taken to be a cover-up could have just been the FBI just not listening to expert advice.
  2. Indeed, sometimes these leaks presage the fact that the conspiracy is on the verge of collapse, and the leak is a pre-emptive strike by certain conspirators to save face.

3 thoughts on “On the problems generating the viability of a mathematical model dealing with conspiratorial beliefs

  1. Nice internal critique Matt. Confronting pseudo-science with clear analysis is always enjoyable. Reading another doing the same and doing it well is certainly enjoyable, too!

    I’m putting together a parallel if somewhat different short critique that I’ll be happy to share here, if you like. (Of course another publication is always a temptation, too!) For now, I note Grimes argument is an obvious straw person, one that is typical of the pejorative/political-piety genre concerning conspiracy explanations that, while under increasing rational and evidential criticism, is still limping along in some circles.

    I’ll also add that a quick glance over Grimes bibliography shows Grimes didn’t do his homework. But such preparation is always the necessary first stage in real science. He apparently has little or no acquaintance with the most basic issues concerning conspiracy and its revelation, ones that analysts have long identified. This shows in his, consequently, still-born paper. Had he done this research it is almost certain he would have reached quite different, rather opposite conclusions, particularly about those conspiracies that concern us most, those conducted by individuals well versed in such activities, be they within long-standing criminal syndicates, multinational corporations or particular government agencies that by their nature naturally specialize in such behavior.

    Cheers~

    Lee

  2. Here is the logic of the Grimes paper:

    Imagine that there is a gang of conspirators. Are you able to say if there is actually a conspiracy or not by watching the conspirators to come up with their confessions? Well, if they do, you obviously can start an investigation. But if they don’t, can you be sure that there is no any conspiracy? Obviously, you cannot. But the Grimes paper says that you can. He somehow found that there is a certain probability that a conspirator desires to make a confession, and when the number of conspirators is large, Grimes is able to tell when the conspiracy will be revealed to the public.

    The paper is saying that every “conspiracy theory” is wrong because no one has come up with the confession.

    He also made another mistake: he assumed that each “leak” of information pointing to the conspiracy inevitably results in the failure of the conspiracy, i. e. in a “scandal”.

    I took issue with that last point and wrote a comment to the PLOS journal. My comment was removed in a few hours. But that was not the end of the story. Normally, you would be able to see my comment (a screen shot) and the full story – “PLOS journal scam” at https://pyshnov.wordpress.com/ However, there are now some security sertificates on the web and other devices that prevent public from seeing web sites; my site is now blocked. Therefore, I have to give here the full text from my site.

    PLOS journal scam

    Why science is going down the drain? It’s the bizarre science politics, it’s the crooked journals. A rather extreme example of it is below.

    PLOS-One has published a paper by D.R. Grimes (Oxford) debunking all “conspiracy theories” at once, all of them. He says that a conspiracy theory with the alleged large number of conspirators cannot be true because if it were true, some of the conspirators would come forward, “leak” the information and “expose” the conspiracy. He, moreover, gives statistical calculations showing how many years a real conspiracy can survive without a “scandal”. Therefore, he says, conspiracy theories do not describe real conspiracies, but are just crap.

    I wrote my comment on the Grimes paper saying that the paper is wrong. I said, there is no such sure mechanism that will make “a leak” into a scandal, unless mass media decides to make that scandal. I said that corruption in mass media prevents scandals and I gave my experience with Nature magazine (posted at http://www.universitytorontofraud.com/nature.html).

    My comment lived only a few hours, and was removed. I received no email explaining the reasons. Moreover, my communications with the journal were electronically cut off, I cannot write to them either.

    The journal published another comment that repeated my argument. This comment is titled:
    “Between the exposure and the scandal stands the media declaring what we are expected to believe.”
    My words in the removed comment were:
    “Between the “exposure” and the “scandal” stands the media declaring what should be believed and what should not.”

    Here is my comment, a screen shot: https://pyshnov.wordpress.com/plosmycomment/
    Here is the URL of the new comment: http://www.plosone.org/annotation/listThread.action?root=88147

    My comment was at http://www.plosone.org/annotation/listThread.action?root=88138
    Before it was removed, it was seen, according to my stat. counter, by 10 people.

    The text of the two comments is very different: my comment goes to the real tragedy that hit the world of science, while the new comment avoids this. PlOS would not allow publishing the true causes and concrete examples of corruption in science. PLOS journal is a part of this corruption, probably the worst part of it.

    Meanwhile, still another comment has revealed that the mathematical part of the Grimes paper is wrong (http://www.plosone.org/annotation/listThread.action?root=88142). Interestingly, the Grimes paper is receiving great attention and praise around the world.Will PLOS retract the paper? I don’t think so.

    This scam reminds me of the old and forgotten stories from Balkan countries about the tricks of the gypsies or jewish prostitutes. Only this now is a multi-million dollars operation.

    Interestingly, the PLOS journal was founded by some members of the London based charity – COPE (Committee on Publication Ethics), of which I wrote several years ago (http://www.universitytorontofraud.com/committee.htm). The COPE style was also shockingly deceitful and unprofessional, but for some reason this charitable organisation gained control over 5000 of scientific journals, issuing their Code on publication ethics and collecting the fees from these journals for COPE services. This was when they had no scientists on their board.

    How serious is all this? I don’t think it is serious at all. True, money changed hands, the world received a new “proof” that conspiracy theories are wrong which can be exploited by those who wish to exploit it. Science made a small step farther down the drain. And the gypsies are ready for their new adventures.

    Michael Pyshnov

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