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woozle comments on What is Bayesianism? - Less Wrong

81 Post author: Kaj_Sotala 26 February 2010 07:43AM

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Comment author: woozle 28 February 2010 12:48:56AM -2 points [-]

Okay, I'm rising to the bait here...

I would really appreciate it if people would be more careful about passing on memes regarding subjects they have not researched properly. This should be a basic part of "rationalist etiquette", in the same way that "wash your hands before you handle food" is part of common eating etiquette.

I say this because I'm finding myself increasingly irritated by casual (and ill-informed) snipes at the 9/11 Truth movement, which mostly tries very hard to be rational and evidence-based:

Or take the debate we had on 9/11 conspiracy theories. Some people thought that unexplained and otherwise suspicious things in the official account had to mean that it was a government conspiracy. Others considered their prior for "the government is ready to conduct massively risky operations that kill thousands of its own citizens as a publicity stunt", judged that to be overwhelmingly unlikely, and thought it far more probable that something else caused the suspicious things.

This claim is both a straw-man and a false dilemma.

The straw-man: Most of the movement now centers around the call for a new investigation, not around claims that "Bush did it".

Some of us (I include myself as a "truther" only because I agree with their core conclusions; I am not a member of any 9/11-related organization) may believe it likely that the government did something horrendous, but we realize the evidence is weak and circumstantial, that it is unclear exactly what the level of involvement (if any) was, and that the important thing is for a proper inquiry to be conducted.

What is clear from the evidence available is that there has been a horrendous cover-up of some sort, and that the official conclusions do not make sense.

The false dilemma: Where "A" is {there is strong evidence that the official story is substantially wrong, and therefore a proper investigation should be conducted} and "B" is {the government was clearly directly responsible for initiating the whole thing}, believing A does not necessitate believing B. Refuting B (if argument by ridicule is considered an acceptable form of refutation, that is) does not refute A.

I'm still keen on discussing this rationally with anyone who thinks the Truth movement is irrational. RobinZ offered to discuss this further, but 7 months later he still hasn't had time to do more than allude to his general position without actually defining it.

Here are my positions on this issue. I would appreciate it if someone would kindly demolish them and show me what an utterly deluded fool I've been, so that I can go back to agreeing with the apparent rational consensus on this issue -- which seems to be, in essence, that there's nothing substantially wrong with the official story. (If anyone can point me to a concise presentment of what everyone here more or less believes happened on 9/11, I would very much like to see it.)

And if nobody can do that, then could we please stop the casual sniping? Whether or not you believe the official story, you at least have to agree that we really shouldn't be trying to silence skeptical inquiry on any issue, much less one of such importance.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 28 February 2010 01:59:37AM 11 points [-]

Well, the main thing that'd cause me to mistrust your judgment there, as phrased, is A8. Pre-9/11, airlines had an explicit policy of not resisting hijackers, even ones armed only with boxcutters, because they thought they could minimize casualties that way. So taking over an airplane using boxcutters pre-9/11 is perfectly normal and expected and non-anomalous; and if someone takes exception to that event, it probably implies that in general their anomaly-detectors are tuned too high.

I also suspect that some of these questions are phrased a bit promptingly, and I would ask others, like, "Do you think that malice is a more likely explanation than stupidity for the level of incompetence displayed during Hurricane Katrina? What was to be gained politically from that? Was that level of incompetence more or less than the level of hypothesized government incompetence that you think is anomalous with respect to 9/11?" and so on.

Comment author: woozle 28 February 2010 03:41:40PM *  -1 points [-]

That is a valuable point, and I have amended my A8 response to "MAYBE". The one detail I'm still not sure of is whether pilots would have relinquished control under those circumstances. Can anyone point to the actual text of the "Common Strategy"?

"Pilots for 911 Truth" has this to say:

I find it hard to believe Capt. Burlingame gave up his ship to Hani Hanjour pointing a boxcutter at him. Pilots know The Common Strategy prior to 9/11. Capt. Burlingame would have taken them where they wanted to go, but only after seeing more than a "boxcutter" or knife. ... The pilots' number 1 priority is the safety of the passengers. Number 2 priority is to get them to their destination on time. Pilots dont just give up their airplane to someone with a knife.. regardless of what the press has told you about The Common Strategy prior to 9/11.

"Screw Loose Change" seems to find this statement incredibly offensive, but offers only an emotional argument in response (argument from outrage?) and ignores the original point that these pilots were experienced in this sort of combat and certainly could have fought off attackers with boxcutters, with the "Common Strategy" being the only possible constraint on doing so.

I've added your proposed questions to the questionnaire, somewhat modified.

My answers are:

  • NO: not more likely, just possible -- what actually happened must be determined by the evidence. David Brin, for example, argues that said incompetence was a by-product of a "war on professionalism" waged by the Bush administration. (I would also argue that the question as phrased implies that it is reasonable to judge the question of {whether malice was involved} entirely on the basis of {how "likely" it seems}, and that this is therefore privileging the hypothesis that malice was not involved.)
  • "starving the beast", albeit in a somewhat broader sense than described by Wikipedia: shrink the government by rendering it incompetent, thus eroding support (and hence funding) for government activities
  • I'm not sure what you're getting at here; my immediate answer is "THAT DEPENDS" -- given the range of possible scenarios in which the government is complicit, the incompetence:malice ratio has a wide range of possible values. I don't know if I'm answering the question in the spirit in which it was asked, however.

I've rephrased that last question as a matter of consistency: "Do you believe that the levels of government malice OR stupidity/incompetence displayed regarding Katrina are consistent with whatever levels of government malice or incompetence/stupidity you believe were at work on 9/11?" to which I answer (a) it's within the range of possibilities, given that the evidence remains unclear as to exactly what the Administration's involvement was on 9/11, (b) the issue of consistency between Katrina and 9/11 argues against the idea that Bushco were "just doing the best they could" on 9/11, since they clearly didn't do this for Katrina; (c) if the evidence pointed to a significantly different level of competence on 9/11 than it does for Katrina, would this be grounds for rejecting the evidence, grounds for trying to determine what might have changed, or grounds for suspecting that someone's "anomaly detectors are tuned too high"?

Please note, however, that I consider all of these issues to be very much diversions from the main question of whether a proper investigation is needed.

Comment author: Jack 28 February 2010 06:00:23PM *  19 points [-]

Keeping my comments on topic:

may believe it likely that the government did something horrendous, but we realize the evidence is weak and circumstantial

Did you read the actual post about Bayesianism? Part of the point is you're not allowed to do this! One can't both think something is likely and think the evidence is weak and circumstantial! Holding a belief but not arguing for it because you know you don't have the evidence is a defining example of irrationality. If you don't think the government was involved, fine. But if you do you're obligated to defend your belief.

Off Topic: I'm not going to go through every one of your positions but... how long have you been researching the issue? I haven't looked up the answer for every single thing I've heard truthers argue- I don't have the time. But every time I do look something up I find that the truthers just have no idea what they're talking about. And some of the claims don't even pass the blush test. For example, your first "unanswered" question just sounds crazy! I mean, HOLY SHIT! the hijackers names aren't on the manifest! That is huge! And yet, of course they absolutely are on the flight manifests and, indeed, they flew under their own names. Indeed, we even have seating charts. For example, Mohamed Atta was in seat 8D. That's business class, btw.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 01 March 2010 07:26:28PM 6 points [-]

Ah, but... what are the odds that A HIJACKER WOULD FLY IN BUSINESS CLASS??!?

Comment author: wedrifid 02 March 2010 04:02:44AM *  2 points [-]

I hear business class gives better 'final meals'.

Comment author: Peter_de_Blanc 02 March 2010 05:49:42AM 3 points [-]

One can't both think something is likely and think the evidence is weak and circumstantial!

One definitely can. What else is one supposed to do when evidence is weak and circumstantial? Assign probabilities that sum to less than one?

Comment author: Jack 02 March 2010 05:54:22AM *  0 points [-]

If the evidence for a particular claim is weak and circumstantial one should assign that claim a low probability and other, competing, possibilities higher probabilities.

Comment author: Peter_de_Blanc 02 March 2010 06:06:08AM 2 points [-]

What if the evidence for those is also weak and circumstantial?

Or what if one had assigned that claim a very high prior probability?

Comment author: comedian 01 March 2010 06:04:56PM *  5 points [-]

For example, your first "unanswered" question just sounds crazy! I mean, HOLY SHIT! the hijackers names aren't on the manifest! That is huge! And yet, of course they absolutely are on the flight manifests and, indeed, they flew under their own names. Indeed, we even have seating charts. For example, Mohamed Atta was in seat 8D. That's business class, btw.

This is a crowning moment of awesome.

Comment author: Baruta07 10 November 2012 04:55:41PM *  2 points [-]

Warning: TvTropes may ruin your life, TvTropes should be used at your discretion, (most Tropers agree that excessive use of TvTropes may be conductive to cynicism and overvaluation of most major media, Tvtropes can cause such symptoms as: Becoming dangerously genre savvy, spending increasing amounts of time on TvTropes, and a general increase in the number of tropes you use in a conversation. Please think twice before using TvTropes)

Comment author: wedrifid 02 March 2010 06:48:50AM 1 point [-]

(Please consider, for the sake of wedrifid's productivity if nothing else, including at least the explicit use of the word 'trope' by way of warning when liking to that black hole of super-stimulus.)

Comment author: Jack 01 March 2010 07:18:17PM 1 point [-]

Does this mean if we're in a simulation written for entertainment I'm about to get killed off?

Comment author: wedrifid 02 March 2010 04:09:21AM 1 point [-]

But if you do you're obligated to defend your belief.

You're really not. You are not epistemicaly obliged to accept the challenge of another individual and subject your reasoning to their judgement in the form they desire. That is sometimes a useful thing to do and sometimes it is necessary for the purpose of persuasion. Of course, it's usually more practical to attack their beliefs instead. That tends to give far more status.

Comment author: Jack 02 March 2010 04:22:09AM 1 point [-]

No. Wrong! You totally are obligated.

Comment author: wedrifid 02 March 2010 04:43:57AM 0 points [-]

Are you being facetious or not?

Comment author: Jack 02 March 2010 04:52:07AM 0 points [-]

Well, a little of both. You position doesn't seem like the kind of thing it makes sense to argue about so I figured I'd make my point through demonstration and let it rest.

Comment author: wedrifid 02 March 2010 05:01:13AM 0 points [-]

and let it rest.

It seems you demonstrated my point.

Comment author: Jack 02 March 2010 05:16:47AM *  0 points [-]
  1. Normic questions just aren't the same as factual questions. There is no particular reason to expect eventual agreement on the former, even in principle, so ending conversations is just fine and to be expected.

  2. *Edit: Second point was based on a misunderstanding of the objection.

Comment deleted 02 March 2010 06:39:03AM *  [-]
Comment deleted 02 March 2010 08:35:03AM [-]
Comment author: komponisto 28 February 2010 05:48:43AM *  8 points [-]

The problem you have is the one shared by everyone from devotees of parapsychology to people who believe Meredith Kercher was killed in an orgy initiated by Amanda Knox: your prior on your theory is simply way too high.

Simply put, the events of 9/11 are so overwhelmingly more likely a priori to have been the exclusive work of a few terrorists than the product of a conspiracy involving the U.S. government, that the puzzling details you cite, even in their totality, fail to make a dent in a rational observer's credence of (more or less) the official story.

You might try asking yourself: if the official story were in fact correct, wouldn't you nevertheless expect that there would be strange facts that appear difficult to explain, and that these facts would be seized upon by conspiracy theorists, who, for some reason or another, were eager to believe the government may have been involved? And that they would be able to come up with arguments that sound convincing?

I want to stress that it is not the fact that the terrorists-only theory is officially sanctioned that makes it the (overwhelming) default explanation; as the Kercher case illustrates, sometimes the official story is an implausible conspiracy theory! Rather, it is our background knowledge of how reality operates -- which must be informed, among other things, by an acquaintance with human cognitive biases.

"Not silencing skeptical inquiry" is a great-sounding applause light, but we have to choose our battles, for reasons more mathematical than social: there are simply too many conceivable explanations for any given phenomenon, for it it be worthwhile to consider more than a very small proportion of them. Our choice of which to consider in the first place is thus going to be mainly determined by our prior probabilities -- in other words, our model of the world. Under the models of most folks here, 9/11 conspiracy theories simply aren't going to get any time of day.

If it's different for you, I'd be curious to know what kind of ideas with substantial numbers of adherents you would feel safe in dismissing without bothering to research. (If there aren't any, then I think you severely overestimate the tendency of people's beliefs to be entangled with reality.)

Comment author: Morendil 28 February 2010 10:32:50AM *  12 points [-]

"Not silencing skeptical inquiry" is a great-sounding applause light

The main issue with it has been noted multiple times by people like Dawkins: there is an effort asymmetry between plucking a false but slightly believable theory out of thin air, and actually refuting that same theory. Making shit up takes very little effort, while rationally refuting random made-up shit takes the same effort as rationally refuting theories whose refutation yields actual intellectual value. Creationists can open a hundred false arguments at very little intellectual cost, and if they are dismissed out of hand by the scientific establishment they get to cry "suppression of skeptical inquiry".

This feels related to pjeby's recent comments about curiosity. The mere feeling that "there's something odd going on here", followed by the insistence that other people should inquire into the odd phenomenon, isn't valid curiosity. That's only ersatz curiosity. Real curiosity is what ends up with you actually constructing a refutable hypothesis, and subjecting it to at least the kind of test that a random person from the Internet would perform - before actually publishing your hypothesis, and insisting that others should consider it carefully.

Inflicting random damage on other people's belief networks isn't promoting "skeptical inquiry", it's the intellectual analogue of terrorism.

Comment author: ciphergoth 28 February 2010 10:48:45AM 5 points [-]

the intellectual analogue of terrorism.

I like this comment lots, but I think this comparison is inadvisable hyperbole.

Comment author: Morendil 28 February 2010 11:42:55AM 4 points [-]

Perhaps "asymmetric warfare" would be a better term than "terrorism". More general, and without the connotations which I agree make that last line something of an exaggeration.

Comment author: woozle 28 February 2010 04:14:53PM 0 points [-]

Again, you're addressing a straw man -- not my actual arguments. I do not claim that the government was responsible for 9/11; I believe the evidence, if properly examined, would probably show this -- but my interest is in showing that the existing explanations are not just inadequate but clearly wrong.

So, okay, how would you tell the difference between an argument that "sounds convincing" and one which should actually be considered rationally persuasive?

My use of the "applause light" was an attempt to use emotion to get through emotional barriers preventing rational examination. Was it inappropriate?

"There are simply too many conceivable explanations for any given phenomenon for it to be worthwhile to consider more than a very small proportion of them."

I agree. Many of the conclusions reached by the 9/11 Commission are, however, not among that small proportion. Many questions to which we need answers were not even addressed by the Commission. (Your statement here strikes me as a "curiosity stopper".)

Under the models of most folks here, 9/11 conspiracy theories simply aren't going to get any time of day.

This is the problem, yes. What's your point?

I'd be curious to know what kind of ideas with substantial numbers of adherents you would feel safe in dismissing without bothering to research.

None that I can think of. Again, what's your point? I am not "dismissing" the dominant conclusion, I am questioning it. I have, in fact, done substantial amounts of research (probably more than anyone reading this). If anyone is actually dismissing an idea with substantial numbers of adherents, it is those who dismiss "truthers" without actually listening to their arguments.

Are you arguing that "people are irrational, so you might as well give up"?

Comment author: komponisto 28 February 2010 06:49:48PM 5 points [-]

I do not claim that the government was responsible for 9/11; I believe the evidence, if properly examined, would probably show this

This is a flat-out Bayesian contradiction.

So, okay, how would you tell the difference between an argument that "sounds convincing" and one which should actually be considered rationally persuasive?

It's not an easy problem, in general -- hence LW!

But we can always start by doing the Bayesian calculation. What's your prior for the hypothesis that the U.S, government was complicit in the 9/11 attacks? What's your estimate of the strength of each of those pieces of evidence you think is indicative of a conspiracy?

I'd be curious to know what kind of ideas with substantial numbers of adherents you would feel safe in dismissing without bothering to research.

None that I can think of. Again, what's your point? I am not "dismissing" the dominant conclusion, I am questioning it.

You misunderstood. I was talking about your failure to dismiss 9/11 conspiracy theories. I was asking whether there were any conspiracy theories that you would be willing to dismiss without research.

Comment author: woozle 28 February 2010 11:07:54PM *  -1 points [-]

Again, I think this question is a diversion from what I have been arguing; its truth or falseness does not substantially affect the truth or falseness of my actual claims (as opposed to beliefs mentioned in passing).

That said, I made a start at a Bayesian analysis, but ran out of mental swap-space. If someone wants to suggest what I need to do next, I might be able to do it.

Also vaguely relevant -- this matrix is set up much more like a classical Bayesian word-problem: it lists the various pieces of evidence which we would expect to observe for each known manner in which a high-rise steel-frame building might run down the curtain and join the choir invisible, and then shows what was actually observed in the cases of WTC1, 2, and 7.

Is there enough information there to calculate some odds, or are there still bits missing?

You misunderstood. I was talking about your failure to dismiss 9/11 conspiracy theories. I was asking whether there were any conspiracy theories that you would be willing to dismiss without research.

No, not really. I think of that as my "job" at Issuepedia: don't dismiss anything without looking at it. Document the process of examination so that others don't have to repeat it, and so that those who aren't sure what to believe can quickly see the evidence for themselves (rather than having to go collect it) -- and can enter in any new arguments or questions they might have.

Does that process seem inherently flawed somehow? I'm not sure what you're suggesting by your use of the word "failure" here.

Comment author: komponisto 01 March 2010 02:06:30AM *  6 points [-]

(Some folks have expressed disapproval of this conversation continuing in this thread; ironically, though, it's becoming more and more an explicit lesson in Bayesianism -- as this comment in particular will demonstrate. Nevertheless, after this comment, I am willing to move it elsewhere, if people insist.)

Again, I think this question is a diversion from what I have been arguing; its truth or falseness does not substantially affect the truth or falseness of my actual claims (as opposed to beliefs mentioned in passing)

You're in Bayes-land here, not a debating society. Beliefs are what we're interested in. There's no distinction between an argument that a certain point of view should be taken seriously and an argument that the point of view in question has a significant probability of being true. If you want to make a case for the former, you'll necessarily have to make a case for the latter.

That said, I made a start at a Bayesian analysis, but ran out of mental swap-space. If someone wants to suggest what I need to do next, I might be able to do it.

Here's how you do a Bayesian analysis: you start with a prior probability P(H). Then you consider how much more likely the evidence is to occur if your hypothesis is true (P(E|H)) than it is in general (P(E)) -- that is, you calculate P(E|H)/P(E). Multiplying this "strength of evidence" ratio P(E|H)/P(E) by the prior probability P(H) gives you your posterior (updated) probability P(H|E).

Alternatively, you could think in terms of odds: starting with the prior odds P(H)/P(~H), and considering how much more likely the evidence is to occur if your hypothesis is true (P(E|H)) than if it is false (P(E|~H)); the ratio P(E|H)/P(E|~H) is called the "likelihood ratio" of the evidence. Multiplying the prior odds by the likelihood ratio gives you the posterior odds P(H|E)/P(~H|E).

One of the two questions you need to answer is: by what factor do you think the evidence raises the probability/odds of your hypothesis being true? Are we talking twice as likely? Ten times? A hundred times?

If you know that, plus your current estimate of how likely your hypothesis is, division will tell you what your prior was -- which is the other question you need to answer.

Is there enough information there to calculate some odds, or are there still bits missing?

If there's enough information for you to have a belief, then there's enough information to calculate the odds. Because, if you're a Bayesian, that's what these numbers represent in the first place: your degree of belief.

I'm not sure what you're suggesting by your use of the word "failure" here

"Your failure to dismiss..." is simply an English-language locution that means "The fact that you did not dismiss..."

Comment author: Morendil 28 February 2010 04:27:53PM 2 points [-]

This thread doesn't belong under the "What is Bayesianism" post. I advise taking it to the older post that discussed "Truthers".

Comment author: Douglas_Knight 28 February 2010 06:47:40AM 3 points [-]

I would add to Eliezer's comment about A8 that it suggests that your community is bad at filtering good arguments from bad. Similarly, your failure to distance yourself from words like "Truther" is another failure of filtering. It suggests that you are less interested in being listened to than in passing some threshold that allows you to be upset about being ignored. It's like a Hindu whining about being persecuted for using a swastika. Maybe it's not "fair." Life isn't fair.

evidence was destroyed, evidence was ignored, explanations were non-explanations, and some things were just ignored altogether.

That's normal. Most news stories contain non-explanations. When there's an actual opposition, the non-explanations take over. If you want to calibrate, you could look at Holocaust and HIV denial. I'm told they are well described by the above quote. or any medical controversy.

Often it is best to silence incompetent skeptical inquiry.

Comment author: woozle 28 February 2010 05:40:42PM *  -1 points [-]

I used the term "truther" as an attempt to be honest -- admitting that I pretty much agree with them, rather than trying to pretend to be a devil's advocate or fence-sitter.

I don't see how that's a failure of filtering.

The rest of your first paragraph is basically ad-hominem, as far as serious discussion of this issue goes. If I'm upset, I try not to let it dominate the conversation -- this is a rationalist community, after all, and I am a card-carrying rationalist -- but I also believe it to be justified, for reasons I explained earlier.

"That's normal" -- so are you in the "people aren't rational so you might as well give up" camp along with komponisto? What's your point?

If you want to calibrate, you could look at Holocaust and HIV denial. I'm told they are well described by the above quote. or any medical controversy.

Holocaust denial and HIV denial are easily refuted by the available evidence -- along with global warming denial, evolution denial, moon landing denial, and most religions. 9/11 anomalies manifestly are not, given that I've been trying for years to elicit rational rebuttals and have come up with precious little. Please feel free to send me more.

Often it is best to silence incompetent skeptical inquiry.

Do you really believe this? Why? Who determines that it is incompetent?

Comment author: Douglas_Knight 28 February 2010 06:34:33PM 3 points [-]

Even the Frequentists (remember Bayes? It's a song about Bayes) agree that the probability of the evidence given the null hypothesis is an important number to consider. That is why I talk about what is normal, and why it is relevant that "Conspiracy theorists will find suspicious evidence, regardless of whether anything suspicious happened."

Holocaust denial and HIV denial are easily refuted by the available evidence

Yet people don't bother to refute them. Instead they pretend to respond.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 28 February 2010 09:47:11AM 2 points [-]

Sorry. I was merely trying to provide an example, not to snipe. If you want to provide a reformulation of that paragraph that better reflects your views, I'll change it.

Comment author: woozle 28 February 2010 06:05:03PM *  -1 points [-]

Kaj, I've always enjoyed your posts, so I felt bad picking on you and I apologize if I jumped down your throat. It seemed time to say something about this because I've been seeing it over and over again in lots of otherwise very rational/reality-based contexts, and your post finally pushed that button.

For reformulating your summary, I'd have to go read the original discussion, but you didn't link to it.

It's not that it needs to reflect my views, it's that I think we need a more... rigorous? systematic?... way of looking at controversies.

Yes, many of them can be dismissed without further discussion -- global warming denial, evolution denial, holocaust denial, et freaking cetera -- but there are specific reasons we can dismiss them, and I don't think those reasons apply to 9/11 (not even to the official story -- parts of it seem very likely to be true).

Proposed Criteria for Dismissing a Body of Belief

Terminology:

  • a "claim" is an argument favoring or supporting the body of belief
  • a "refutation" is a responding argument which shows the claim to be invalid (in a nested structure -- responses to refutations are also "claims", responses to those claims are also "refutations", etc)

Essential criteria:

  • the work has been done of examining the claims and refuting them
  • no claims remain unrefuted

A further cue, sufficient but not necessary:

  • those promoting the ideology never bring up the refutations of their claims unless forced to do so, even though there is reason to believe they are well aware of those refutations

Any objection to those ground rules? The first set is required so that the uninformed (e.g. those new to the discussion) will have a reference by which to understand why the seemingly-persuasive arguments presented in favor of the given belief system are, in fact, wrong; the final point is a sort of short-cut so we don't waste time dealing with people who are clearly being dishonest.

I submit that, by these rules, we can safely dismiss (at a minimum) global warming denial, evolution denial, Young Earth theories, Biblical literalism, holocaust denial, HIV denial, and anti-gay rhetoric... but not the 9/11 "truth movement".

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 28 February 2010 09:02:36PM 1 point [-]

Sure, no problem.

The original 9/11 discussion began as a thread in The Correct Contrarian Cluster and was then moved to The 9/11 Meta-Truther Conspiracy Theory.

Your criteria sound good in principle. My only problem with them is that determining when a claim has really been refuted isn't trivial, especially for people who aren't experts in the relevant domain.

Comment author: roland 28 February 2010 09:35:04PM -2 points [-]

I just read this comment, I'm so glad that I'm not the only one who is very skeptic in regard to the official account, here is the comment I wrote: http://lesswrong.com/lw/1to/what_is_bayesianism/1omc

Comment author: Kevin 28 February 2010 06:00:19AM 0 points [-]

What were your thoughts on Eliezer's Meta-Truther Conspiracy post? If there were a conspiracy, government inaction given foreknowledge of the attacks seems orders of magnitude more likely than any sort of controlled demolition, even for WTC7.

http://lesswrong.com/lw/1kj/the_911_metatruther_conspiracy_theory/

Comment author: woozle 28 February 2010 05:05:11PM *  1 point [-]

What were your thoughts on Eliezer's Meta-Truther Conspiracy post?

He brings up a lot of hypotheses; let me see if I can (paraphrase and) respond to the major ones.

  • "9/11 conspiracy theorists" are actually acting on behalf of genuine government conspirators. Their job is to plant truly unbelievable theories about what happened so that people will line up behind the official story and dismiss any dissenters as "just loony conspiracy theorists".

Well, yes, there's evidence that this is what has happened; it is discussed extensively here.

  • The idea that the towers were felled by controlled demolition is loony.

No, it isn't. There is now a great deal of hard evidence pointing in this direction. It may turn out to be wrong, but it is absolutely not loony. See this for some lines of reasoning.

  • "This attack would've had the same political effect whether the buildings came down entirely or just the top floors burned."

If anyone really believes that, I'll be happy to explain why I don't.

  • The actual government involvement was to stand aside and allow the attack, which was in fact perpetrated by middle eastern agents, to succeed.

This is the lesser of the two major "conspiracy" theories, known as "let it happen on purpose" (LIHOP) and "make it happen on purpose" (MIHOP). MIHOP is generally presumed to be a core belief of all "truthers", though this is not in fact the case; there does not appear to be any clear consensus about which scenario is more likely, and (as I said earlier) the actual core belief which defines the "truther" movement is that the official story is significantly wrong and a proper investigation is needed in order to determine what really happened.

Imagine, for example, what the Challenger investigation would have found if Richard Feynman hadn't been there.

  • Conspiracy theorists are all (or mostly) anti-government types.

Well, I can't speak for the rest of them, but I'm not. I strongly dislike how the government operates, but I see it as an essential invention -- something to repair, not discard. The "truther" movement doesn't seem to have any strong political leanings, either, though I might have missed something.

  • Conspiracy theorists will find suspicious evidence, regardless of whether anything suspicious happened.

Ad-hominem. Is the evidence reasonable, or isn't it? If not, why not?

If there were a conspiracy, government inaction given foreknowledge of the attacks seems orders of magnitude more likely than any sort of controlled demolition, even for WTC7.

How likely does it seem that groups of foreign hijackers would succeed in taking control of 4 different planes using only box-cutters and piloting 3 of them into targets in two of the most heavily-guarded airspaces in the world, without even an attempt at interception? How likely is that no heads would roll as a consequence of this security failure? How likely is it that the plane flown into the Pentagon would execute a difficult hairpin turn in order to fly into the most heavily-protected side of the building? How likely is it that no less than three steel-framed buildings would completely collapse from fire and mechanical damage, for the first time in history, all on the same day? How likely is it that they would not just fall to the ground towards the side most heavily damaged but instead seemingly explode straight downward and outward into microscopic dust particles, leaving almost nothing (aside from the steel girders) larger than a finger, long after the impacts and when the fires were clearly dying down? How likely is it that anyone would try to claim that this was totally what you would expect to happen, even though the buildings were designed to handle such an impact? How likely is it that this would result in pools of molten steel, when jet fuel doesn't burn hot enough to melt steel?

Shall I go on?

Comment author: Jack 28 February 2010 06:23:22PM *  4 points [-]
  • Conspiracy theorists will find suspicious evidence, regardless of whether anything suspicious happened.

Ad-hominem. Is the evidence reasonable, or isn't it? If not, why not?

As a matter of fact there are conspiracy theorists about many important public events, cf the moon-landing, JFK etc. Before there even was a 9/11 Truth movement people could have predicted there would be a conspiracy theorists. It is just that kind of society-changing event that will generate conspiracy theories. Given that, the existence of conspiracy theorists pointing out anomalies in the official story isn't evidence the official story is substantially wrong since it would be happening whether or not the official story was substantially wrong. It's like running a test for a disease that will say positive 50% of the time if the patient has the disease and negative 50% of the time if the patient doesn't have the disease. That test isn't actually testing for that disease and these anomalies aren't actually providing evidence for or against the official account of 9/11.

(I think this comment is Bayesian enough that it is on topic, but the whole 9/11 conversation needs to be moved to the comments under Eliezer's Meta-truthers post. Feel free to just post a new comment there.)

Comment author: woozle 28 February 2010 07:14:47PM 1 point [-]

...the existence of conspiracy theorists pointing out anomalies in the official story isn't evidence the official story is substantially wrong...

Correct. What is evidence that the official story is substantially wrong is, well, the evidence that the official story is substantially wrong. (Yes, I need to reorganize that page and present it better.)

Also, does anyone deny that some "conspiracy theories" do eventually turn out to be true?

(Can comment-threads be moved on this site?)

Comment author: Jack 28 February 2010 08:40:24PM 2 points [-]

Comments can't be moved. Just put a hyperlink in this thread (at the top, ideally) and link back with a hyperlink in the new thread.

That list of evidence is almost all exactly the kind of non-evidence we're talking about. In any event like this one would expect to find weird coincidences and things that can't immediately be explained- no matter how the event actually happened. That means your evidence isn't really evidence. Start a new thread an I'll try and say more.

Comment author: dripgrind 01 March 2010 02:08:28PM *  6 points [-]

I was interested in your defence of the "truther" position until I saw this this litany of questions. There are two main problems with your style of argument.

First, the quality of the evidence you are citing. Your standard of verification seems to be the Wikipedia standard - if you can find a "mainstream" source saying something, then you are happy to take it as fact (provided it fits your case). Anyone who has read newspaper coverage of something they know about in detail will know that, even in the absence of malice, the coverage is less than accurate, especially in a big and confusing event.

When Jack pointed out that a particular piece of evidence you cite is wrong (hijackers supposedly not appearing on the passenger list), you rather snidely reply "You win a cookie!", before conceding that it only took a bit of research to find out that the supposed "anomaly" never existed. But then, instead of considering what this means for the quality of all your other evidence, you then sarcastically cite the factoid that "6 of the alleged hijackers have turned up alive" as another killer anomaly, completely ignoring the possibility of identity theft/forged passports!

If you made a good-faith attempt to verify ALL the facts you rely on (rather than jumping from one factoid to another), I'm confident you would find that most of the "anomalies" have been debunked.

Second, the way you phrase all these questions shows that, even when you're not arguing from imaginary facts, you are predisposed to believe in some kind of conspiracy theory.

For example, you seem to think it's unlikely that hijackers could take over a plane using "only box-cutters", because the pilots were "professionals" who were somehow "trained" to fight and might not have found a knife sufficiently threatening. So you think two unarmed pilots would resist ten men who had knives and had already stabbed flight attendants to show they meant business? Imagine yourself actually facing down ten fanatics with knives.

The rest of your arguments that don't rely on debunked facts are about framing perfectly reasonable trains of events in terms to make them seem unlikely - in Less Wrong terms, "privileging the hypothesis". "How likely is that no heads would roll as a consequence of this security failure?" - well, since the main failure in the official account was that agencies were "stove-piped" and not talking to each other and responsibilities were unclear, this is entirely consistent. Also, governments may be reluctant to implicitly admit that something had been preventable by firing someone straight away - see "Heckuva job, Brownie".

"How likely is it that no less than three steel-framed buildings would completely collapse from fire and mechanical damage, for the first time in history, all on the same day?" It would be amazing if they'd all collapsed from independent causes! But all you are really asking is "how likely is it that a steel-framed building will collapse when hit with a fully-fueled commercial airliner, or parts of another giant steel-framed building?" Since a comparable crash had never happened before, the "first time in history" rhetoric adds nothing to your argument.

"How likely is it that the plane flown into the Pentagon would execute a difficult hairpin turn in order to fly into the most heavily-protected side of the building?"

Well, since it was piloted by a suicidal hijacker who had been trained to fly a plane, I guess it's not unlikely that it would manouevre to hit the building. Perhaps a more experienced pilot, or A GOVERNMENT HOLOGRAM DRONE (which is presumably what you're getting at), would have planned an approach that didn't involve a difficult hairpin turn. And why wouldn't an evil conspiracy want the damage to the Pentagon to be spectacular and therefore aim for the least heavily protected side? Since, you know, they know it's going to happen anyway so they can avoid being in the Pentagon at all?

If the plane had manoeuvred to hit the least heavily-protected side of the building, truthers would argue that this also showed that the pilot had uncanny inside knowledge.

"How likely is it that [buildings] would ... explode straight downward?" Well, as a non-expert I would have said a priori that seems unlikely, but the structure of the towers made that failure mode the one that would happen. All you're asking is "how likely is it that the laws of physics would operate?" I'm sure there is some truther analysis disputing that, but then you're back into the realm of imaginary evidence.

"How likely is it that this would result in pools of molten steel?" How likely is it that someone observed pools of molten aluminium, or some other substance, and misinterpreted them as molten steel? After all, you've just said that the steel girders were left behind, so there is some evidence that the fire didn't get hot enough to melt (rather than weaken) steel.

Comment author: dripgrind 01 March 2010 02:18:52PM 7 points [-]

Oh, and to try and make this vaguely on topic: say I was trying to do a Bayesian analysis of how likely woozle is to be right. Should I update on the fact that s/he is citing easily debunked facts like "the hijackers weren't on the passenger manifest", as well as on the evidence presented?

Comment author: LucasSloan 01 March 2010 04:47:53PM 3 points [-]

Yes. A bad standard of accepting evidence causes you to lose confidence in all of the other evidence.

Comment author: woozle 01 March 2010 04:34:04PM *  -1 points [-]

Your standard of verification seems to be the Wikipedia standard - if you can find a "mainstream" source saying something, then you are happy to take it as fact (provided it fits your case).

I am "happy to take it as fact" until I find something contradictory. When that happens, I generally make note of both sources and look for more authoritative information. If you have a better methodology, I am open to suggestions.

The "Wikipedia standard" seems to work pretty well, though -- didn't someone do a study comparing Wikipedia's accuracy with Encyclopedia Britannica's, and they came out about even?

you rather snidely reply "You win a cookie!", before conceding that it only took a bit of research to find out that the supposed "anomaly" never existed. But then, instead of considering what this means for the quality of all your other evidence, you then sarcastically cite the factoid that "6 of the alleged hijackers have turned up alive" as another killer anomaly, completely ignoring the possibility of identity theft/forged passports!

I wasn't intending to be snide; I apologize if it came across that way. I meant it sincerely: Jack found an error in my work, which I have since corrected. I see this as a good thing, and a vital part of the process of successive approximation towards the truth.

I also did not cite the 6 living hijackers as a "killer anomaly" but specifically said it didn't seem to be worth worrying about -- below the level of my "anomaly filter".

Just as an example of my thought-processes on this: I haven't yet seen any evidence that the "living hijackers" weren't simply people with the same names as some of those ascribed to the hijackers. I'd need to see some evidence that all (or most) of the other hijackers had been identified as being on the planes but none of those six before thinking that there might have been an error... and even then, so what? If those six men weren't actually on the plane, that is a loose end to be explored -- why did investigators believe they were on the plane? -- but hardly incriminating.

If you made a good-faith attempt to verify ALL the facts you rely on (rather than jumping from one factoid to another), I'm confident you would find that most of the "anomalies" have been debunked.

I verify when I can, but I am not paid to do this. This is why my site (issuepedia.org) is a wiki: so that anyone who finds errors or omissions can make their own corrections. I don't know of any other site investigating 9/11 which provides a wiki interface, so I consider this a valuable service (even if nobody else seems to).

For example, you seem to think it's unlikely that hijackers could take over a plane using "only box-cutters", because the pilots were "professionals" who were somehow "trained" to fight and might not have found a knife sufficiently threatening. So you think two unarmed pilots would resist ten men who had knives and had already stabbed flight attendants to show they meant business? Imagine yourself actually facing down ten fanatics with knives.

The idea that this is unlikely is one I have seen repeatedly, and it makes sense to me: if someone came at me with a box-cutter, I'd be tempted to laugh at them even if I wasn't responsible for a plane-load of passengers -- and I've never been good at physical combat. Furthermore, the "Pilots for 9/11 Truth" site -- which is operated by licensed pilots (it has a page listing its members by name and experience) -- backs up this statement.

And that's the best authority I can find. If you can find me an experienced pilot (or a military veteran, for that matter) who thinks that this is nonsense, I would very much like to hear from them.

The rest of your arguments that don't rely on debunked facts are about framing perfectly reasonable trains of events in terms to make them seem unlikely - in Less Wrong terms, "privileging the hypothesis". "How likely is that...

I did that precisely as a counter to someone who was doing the same thing in the other direction -- to show that if you accepted "how likely..." as a valid form of argument, then the case is just as strong (if not stronger) for a conspiracy as it is against.

I do not accept "apparent likeliness" as a valid form of argument, and have said so elsewhere.

Well, since it was piloted by a suicidal hijacker who had been trained to fly a plane, I guess it's not unlikely that it would manouevre to hit the building.

You're missing the point; it would have been much easier to hit the other side, the one that wasn't heavily reinforced -- which would have caused more damage, too. On top of that, the maneuver necessary to turn around and hit the reinforced side was, to all accounts, an extremely difficult one which many experienced pilots would hesitate to attempt.

(I suppose one might argue that he overshot and had to turn around; not being skilled, he didn't realize how dangerous this was... so he missed that badly on the first attempt, and yet he was skillful enough to bullseye on the second attempt, skimming barely 10 feet above the ground without even grazing it?)

But that's just one of the "how likely"s, and I shouldn't even be rising to the bait of responding; it's not essential to my main point...

...which, as I have said elsewhere, is this: 9/11 "Truthers" may be wrong, but they are (mostly) not crazy. They have some very good arguments which deserve serious consideration.

Maybe each of their arguments have been successfully knocked down, somewhere -- but I have yet to see any source which does so. All I've been able to find are straw-man attacks and curiosity-stoppers.

Comment author: dripgrind 02 March 2010 12:09:12AM *  7 points [-]

I am "happy to take it as fact" until I find something contradictory. When that happens, I generally make note of both sources and look for more authoritative information. If you have a better methodology, I am open to suggestions.

So your standard of accepting something as evidence is "a 'mainstream source' asserted it and I haven't seen someone contradict it". That seems like you are setting the bar quite low. Especially because we have seen that your claim about the hijackers not being on the passenger manifest was quickly debunked (or at least, contradicted, which is what prompts you to abandon your belief and look for more authoritative information) by simple googling. Maybe you should, at minimum, try googling all your beliefs and seeing if there is some contradictory information out there.

I wasn't intending to be snide; I apologize if it came across that way. I meant it sincerely: Jack found an error in my work, which I have since corrected. I see this as a good thing, and a vital part of the process of successive approximation towards the truth.

I suggest that a better way to convey that might have been "Sorry, I was wrong" rather than "You win a cookie!" When I am making a sincere apology, I find that the phrase "You win a cookie!" can often be misconstrued.

The idea that this is unlikely is one I have seen repeatedly, and it makes sense to me: if someone came at me with a box-cutter, I'd be tempted to laugh at them even if I wasn't responsible for a plane-load of passengers -- and I've never been good at physical combat. Furthermore, the "Pilots for 9/11 Truth" site -- which is operated by licensed pilots (it has a page listing its members by name and experience) -- backs up this statement.

A box-cutter is a kind of sharp knife. A determined person with a sharp knife can kill you. An 11-year-old girl can inflict fatal injuries with a box-cutter - do you really think that five burly fanatics couldn't achieve the same thing on one adult? All the paragraph above establishes is that you - and maybe some licensed pilots - have an underdeveloped sense of the danger posed by knives.

I propose an experiment - you and a friend can prepare for a year, then I and nine heavyset friends will come at you with box-cutters (you will be unarmed). If we can't make you stop laughing off our attack, then I'll concede you are right. Deal?

Let's go into more details with this "plane manoeuvre" thing.

(I suppose one might argue that he overshot and had to turn around; not being skilled, he didn't realize how dangerous this was... so he missed that badly on the first attempt, and yet he was skillful enough to bullseye on the second attempt, skimming barely 10 feet above the ground without even grazing it?)

Well, what we should really ask is "given that we a plane made a difficult manoeuvre to hit the better-protected side of the Pentagon, how much more likely does that make a conspiracy than other possible explanations?"

Here are some possible explanations of the observed event:

  1. The hijacker aimed at the less defended side, overshot, made a desperate turn back and got lucky.

  2. The hijacker wanted to fake out possible air defences, so had planned a sudden turn which he had rehearsed dozens of times in Microsoft Flight Simulator. Coincidentally, the side he crashed into was better protected.

  3. The hijacker was originally tasked to hit a different landmark, got lost, spotted the Pentagon, made a risky turn and got lucky. Coincidentally, the side he crashed into was better protected.

  4. A conspiracy took control of four airliners. The plan was to crash two of them into the WTC, killing thousands of civilians, one into a field, and one into the Pentagon. The conspirators decided that hitting part of the Pentagon that hadn't yet been renovated with sprinklers and steel bars was going a bit too far, so they made the relevant plane do a drastic manoeuvre to hit the best-protected side. There was an unspecified reason they didn't just approach from the best-protected side to start with.

  5. A conspiracy aimed to hit the less defended side of the Pentagon, but a bug in the remote override software caused the plane to hit the most defended side.

etc.

Putting the rest of the truther evidence aside, do the conspiracy explanations stand out as more likely than the non-conspiracy explanations?

...which, as I have said elsewhere, is this: 9/11 "Truthers" may be wrong, but they are (mostly) not crazy. They have some very good arguments which deserve serious consideration.

Maybe each of their arguments have been successfully knocked down, somewhere -- but I have yet to see any source which does so. All I've been able to find are straw man attacks and curiosity-stoppers.

Well, in this thread alone, you have seen Jack knock down one of your arguments (hijackers not on manifest) to your own satisfaction. And yet you already seem to have forgotten that. Since you've already conceded a point, it's not true that the only opposition is "straw-man attacks and curiosity-stoppers". Do you think my point about alternate Pentagon scenarios is a straw man or a curiosity stopper? Is it possible that anyone arguing against you is playing whack-a-mole, and once they debunk argument A you will introduce unrelated argument B, and once they debunk that you will bring up argument C, and then once they debunk that you will retreat back to A again?

There's a third problem here - the truthers as a whole aren't arguing for a single coherent account of what really happened. True, you have outlined a detailed position (which has already changed during this thread because someone was able to use Google and consequently win a cookie), but you are actually defending the far fuzzier proposition that truthers have "some very good arguments which deserve serious consideration". This puts the burden on the debunkers, because even if someone shows that one argument is wrong, that doesn't preclude the existence of some good arguments somewhere out there. It also frees up truthers to pile on as many "anomalies" as possible, even if these are contradictory.

For example, you assert that it's suspicious that the buildings were "completely pulverized", and also that it's suspicious that some physical evidence - the passports - survived the collapse of the buildings. (And this level of suspicion is based purely on your intuition about some very extreme physical events which are outside of everyday experience. Maybe it's completely normal for small objects to be ejected intact from airliners which hit skyscrapers - have you done simulations or experiments which show otherwise?)

Anyway, this is all off-topic. I think you should do a post where you outline the top three truther arguments which deserve serious consideration.