Conspiracy’s Uncanny Valley

A few weeks ago someone [added: Sun Cho] pointed me to the popular internet movie Loose Change, which casts doubts on standard 9-11 accounts.  The movie was more persuasive than I had expected, which put me in an odd position. 

My guess is that standard stories about events like 9-11 are quite wrong about one time in a hundred or thousand, and that due to mole effects they are probably wrong more often on the very largest events.  Loose Change being surprisingly persuasive then had me estimating about a one in ten to thirty chance standard 9-11 accounts were quite wrong on an important point.  And this put me uncomfortably in conspiracy’s "uncanny valley".

Robots that look pretty similar, but not very similar, to humans are said to be in an "uncanny valley" that makes people feel weird.  Similarly, it seems to me that, relative to intermediate confidence levels, we prefer either to be confident a conspiracy theory is false, or to think it pretty likely to be true.  We really want to "pick sides." 

I finally found some time this weekend to review the case of critics, such as the anti-movie Investigate Loose Change.  On reflection I found the critics pretty persuasive, and so now I’m comfortably back to assigning a pretty low probability (say ~1/100).  But I worry that I have rushed this judgment, since I was so uncomfortable in conspiracy’s uncanny valley.  And I vow to be a bit less persuadable by smooth videos.

Added 16Oct: Sigh.  I must admit that digging a bit more again finds surprisingly persuasive material, moving my estimate up to about 2%, back up into uncanny valley land.

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  • Joe

    I have a feeling some of this uncertainty comes from the exact definition of “an important point”. An event such as 9-11 is huge, with an almost infinite amounts of facts and opinions abuot what happened. The probability that some of these “facts” are wrong is 100%, simply because it’s impossible for a large enough collection of facts to be 100% correct.

    Is that important? I suppose the answer is yes if you want to point out that the government is lying. I suppose the answer is no if you want to point out that the government actually has a clue. A reasonable observer will say that it depends on the importance of the fact, and then we’re back where we started.

  • Calvin

    If standard theories about large events and their consequences make you unconfortable, one simple question you can ask yourself would be :

    “How likely is the collapsing of the WTC 7 (the third tower never hit by any plane)on his footprints in a perfect vertical manner and at free fall speed ONLY due to some little fires?”

  • http://lightskyland.com Matthew C.

    It seems that your experience of having your probability estimates moved around so wildly in response to being exposed to an alternative polemic ought to provide you (and the rest of us) with deep additional skepticism for well-packaged agenda-laden narratives of all sorts, whether they refer to political candidates, conspiracy theories, official beliefs, and all sides of scientific controversies. It’s all right to have “I’m not sure, and I leave the door 15% open” as a tentative position when we haven’t deeply investigated all sides of any particular area of dispute, since it should be inarguably clear that tribalism, selection bias and the like deeply permeate the arguments of all sides in any intellectual conflict. That’s just our biased human nature.

    Stories like this offer up stark reminders that much of what we consider to be our “rational” beliefs are much more realistically viewed as the sequelae of memetic Darwinian environmental selection pressures occurring within the landscapes of our minds. . .

    “The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance – it is the illusion of knowledge.” – Daniel Boorstin

  • josh

    So after viewing the first movie, did you expect the critical movies to be unconvincing?

    Maybe watching the second movie indicates that you thought it might free you from the uncanny valley. I wonder if you ever REALLY were at p=.03 on 9/11 conspiracies.

  • Abigail

    Why should you need to know? Of course, if the 9/11 enquiry has been a cover-up, it indicates a serious problem with Government, which might move you to give up your current job to work on That problem, it was so important to you.

    Or if the LHC was going to create a black hole and destroy the Earth, it would be worth stopping it. Not, pace Eliezer, doing all in your power to stop it, but Stopping it.

    However there are seven billion people on Earth, many of whom have the opportunity and knowledge to deal with problems with Government.

    If you are not going to use your knowledge of 9/11 to Achieve some goal, why do you need that knowledge at all?

    Get comfortable with not knowing. Most things, including things which could have a large effect on me, I do not know.

  • http://jamesdmiller.blogspot.com/ James D. Miller

    I was in an “Uncanny Valley” when I was on a jury and estimated the probability of the criminal defendant being guilty of rape at between 60% to 90%. I wonder how possible displeasure of being in such an “Uncanny Valley” influences jury decisions.

  • http://yudkowsky.net/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    The packaged conspiracy movie shifting your estimate and then the packaged skeptical movie shifting it back looks suspiciously like an instance of predictable probability updating. When you watched the conspiracy movie, did you expect, on average, that it was just as likely to make you think the standard stories on 9/11 were more likely to be correct?

  • burger flipper

    I’m very surprised that you found it that convincing initially. I wonder if it didn’t have the “silly” stigma attached, if you would have found it even more convincing.

    The one 9/11 conspiracy I have wondered about was flight 93. I do wonder if our government had to shoot down a plane and had a plausible alternate story fall into their laps, might they go with the more palatable version?

    Before you sneer too much, consider that the white house released a false story about why Bush went to Nebraska rather than back to Washington. It initially claimed there had been a specific threat to Air Force One using official code words. http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn?pagename=article&node=&contentId=A32319-2001Sep26 (text not included but available on newspaper databases.

    So there is some evidence of lying to provide palatable explanations for necessary things.

    One of your own occasional posters here actually got the internet buzzing about it, way back when:
    http://www.enterstageright.com/archive/articles/1001/1001flight93.htm.

    There have also been strange things like Rumsfeld saying al queda “shot down” 93:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x6Xoxaf1Al0

    I initially estimated the odds of a shoot down at 25-50%, but lowed them significantly when I read the Popular Mechanics debunking of 9/11 theories, which included mentioned seismograph readings from Pennsylvania indicating the plane likely hit the ground intact.

    But it has been interesting observing myself over time on this issue. I do “like” this theory and have been anchored to it. I still give it a 15-20% chance.

  • Jef Allbright

    Robin, your increasing clarity of your increasing clarity of uncertainty is encouraging.

  • Mike

    My guess is, you were somewhat compelled by the “Loose Change” movie because you do not view movie media with the same critical thought you bring to something like a research paper. We train ourselves to bring suspended disbelief to movies — for entertainment value — and maybe that’s a switch that’s hard to turn off. Also, it seems to me there’s an almost religious element to conspiracy theories — secret knowledgeable and powerful agents working behind the scenes — which tends to draw us away from critical thought.

    Really, one should decide what happened by comparing a set of self-consistent theories, but allowing for a few holes, because any complicated event will have some anomolies. But “Loose Change” does not present anything close to a single consistent theory — it contains a potpourri of details, many of which are untrue, misleading when out of context, or mutually inconsistent.

    Even before I fact-checked, the movie seemed crazy to me. Am I to believe that buildings so vast as the WTC could be rigged for demolition without the regular occupants (many of whom work long and late hours) knowing? That the people performing the demolition would keep secret what they did, through everything that’s happened since? Why take the risk of performing this demolition, which could expose your conspiracy, when you’ve already committed to flying two large airplanes into the buildings? Can you trust the airplane crashes will not interfere with your demolition plan (maybe cut some wires, maybe set off some explosives early)? And so on.

    Regarding the Pentagon attack, why send a missile there when you have the means to send airplanes, as demonstrated by the WTC attack? How do you plant evidence of an airplane, when witnesses were at the scene of the crime from when it happened to when the media arrived (there were dozens of people who saw it happen, and stuck around at least until the media came)? And so on.

    And, as I already mentioned, many things stated as fact in the movie are untrue.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    The packaged conspiracy movie shifting your estimate and then the packaged skeptical movie shifting it back looks suspiciously like an instance of predictable probability updating. When you watched the conspiracy movie, did you expect, on average, that it was just as likely to make you think the standard stories on 9/11 were more likely to be correct?

    If even Robin’s estimates can be shifted in such a predictable way, then it probably means that idea “I can freely watch some propaganda piece, and not expect to be changed by it” is wrong. So the focus shouldn’t be on having a superhuman forebearance that allows us to emerge unchanged from such viweings. Instead, we should go back to choosing and balancing what we do watch.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Joe, yes there is an ambiguity of how big/wrong a point would count.

    Matthew and Mike, yes I raise my skepticism of well-packaged narratives.

    josh, I also found the critics more persuasive than I expected.

    James, good analogy.

    Eliezer, I have thought less of many claims after hearing their proponents, but even so I might still be too gullible.

    Stuart, yes, but even so I think I should still listen to a priori believable enough contrarian views.

  • tim

    You have to be extraordinarily careful when watching any form of documentary because of the persuasive and intellectually disengaged nature of film and television. You are less likely to think critically and more likely to be sympathetic to the author when seeing and listening than when only listening or when reading (which is why those who read magazines and newspapers for the news are more informed and less partisan than those who listen to the radio, who in turn are more informed than those who watch television). I read a study on this recently but I can’t recall where.

    I also thought the Loose Change video was quite persuasive. However, upon reading what was essentially the same material in an article, it appeared much less plausible. I think a significant part of what makes videos like Loose Change so compelling is that you do not control the pace; when reading, you can pause and critically consider a claim, but in a video you are likelier to just make a quick value judgement so that you don’t miss the next point. In that way it is easy to accept an unlikely conclusion after making positive value judgements on a series of likelier, but not necessarily truthful claims. Unless you pause the video, you are quickly distracted by a new controversy. At the end, you don’t remember much of the specific evidence, making it all the more difficult to refute without going back and reviewing, a bothersome thing to do with an unannotated, un-chaptered video.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/LarrySheldon/ Larry Sheldon

    One of the comments displays the attention diversion that the Troofers use with some success:

    “If standard theories about large events and their consequences make you uncomfortable, one simple question you can ask yourself would be :

    “How likely is the collapsing of the WTC 7 (the third tower never hit by any plane)on his footprints in a perfect vertical manner and at free fall speed ONLY due to some little fires?””

    The first two towers did not fall because planes hit them.

    They fell because of the fires and the weakened structure — weakened by fires and by the planes ripping into them. Seven fell because of the fires and weakened structure — weakened by the fires and by debris falling on it.

  • http://blog.efnx.com Schell

    I believe a lot of scientific research has gone into actually identifying the causes of the three buildings’ collapses, as well as research into the accuracy of said research, on both sides of the argument [pro-conspiracy and anti-conspiracy]. To me it seems that if arguments like this -> http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-8182697765360042032 can be called pro-conspiracy propaganda, then I seem to be swayed more by pro-conspiracy propaganda, and I’d argue that it is because their figures are much more developed and their argument is derived from data as opposed to a rebuttal to hypothesis based on data. “Investigate Loose Change” had many convincing points, but many are moot points and only address Loose Change as a movie, not the heart of the movie: how the buildings collapsed. As stabs against the makers of “Loose Change” and pro-war comments increase, as “calls to arms” increase in a presentation of data, the perceived sincerity of the films’ makers decreases. The purpose of “Investigate Loose Change” is as the title suggests, about disproving the legitimacy of “Loose Change,” and not about offering new data to build and fortify theories or proofs about what really happened, and that’s my beef.

  • Roland

    Regarding “conspiracy”: the use of the word reflects a bias. Both accounts of 9-11 are conspiracies, either a group of foreigners conspirated to make it or it was an inside job. Why is only the unofficial story called a conspiracy?

    @Robin:
    My guess is that standard stories about events like 9-11 are quite wrong about one time in a hundred or thousand

    I think this is the wrong approach. What you have to do is analyse the situation in detail, what exactly happened and where are the problems with the official explanation if any. Movies are generally not a good choice because they rarely go into the nitty gritty details. Too low an information density, not deep enough, just stays on the surface. Use the internet or read some good books about it. Google is your friend.

    @LarrySheldon:
    Seven fell because of the fires and weakened structure — weakened by the fires and by debris falling on it.

    This is a joke, ask any engineer about the probability of this happening, it’s near zero.

  • Roland

    Just to drive home my point regarding “conspiracy”. Looking just at the surface level which of the two accounts seem more credible considering the perfectly timed and organized execution of an event of this magnitude(9-11):

    a) Some guy hiding in a cave in Afghanistan holding a walkie-takie did it.
    b) A well funded big agency with vast amounts of resources and physical access to key locations, etc did it.

  • Jeff H.

    Robin, can you link to some of the critics you found persuasive?

  • Mason

    “due to mole effects they(standard stories) are probably wrong more often on the very largest events”

    I hadn’t heard of the mole effect until now (so maybe I’m missing something), but I think it pales in comparison to the challenges associated with keeping a secret. The bigger the secret the bigger the pay-off to the person to out it.

  • Jayson Virissimo

    “Just to drive home my point regarding “conspiracy”. Looking just at the surface level which of the two accounts seem more credible considering the perfectly timed and organized execution of an event of this magnitude(9-11):

    a) Some guy hiding in a cave in Afghanistan holding a walkie-takie did it.
    b) A well funded big agency with vast amounts of resources and physical access to key locations, etc did it.”

    To be honest, I would say that A is much more likely. The more people that know about a project the harder it is to keep a secret. The plan they carried out was very simple and didn’t need lots of resources to pull off anyway. It just needed a simple plan, ignorance on the part of the passengers about their true intentions, and good timing.

  • Roland

    @Jayson Virissimo:

    I just read the following which is very fitting to your comment:

    Terrorism is much better than Communism as a bogey man, since you can just intimate that there are a handful of dangerous people out there somewhere, and force the public to pay over $1 trillion to combat them.

    See The Great Reagan Pyramid Scheme Comes Crashing Down.

  • Doug S.

    The more people involved in a conspiracy, the more likely it is for someone to blow the whistle. If you want a large number of people to keep a secret, every single one needs to believe that it is a secret that should be kept.

    For example, the Manhattan Project was a giant secret known to large numbers of people. Not one of them betrayed the project to the Germans, because they all agreed – and with good reason – that doing so would be very bad. You can’t get large numbers of people to work on a project they consider evil and expect every single one of them to keep quiet. Remember, the Manhattan Project did end up including people who spied for the Russians. At the time, the Russians were allies of the United States, and there wasn’t a desperate need to keep the atomic bomb a secret from them; if you chose a random person in the United States in 1943, you’d be far more likely to get someone who would want the Russians let in on the secret than the Germans.

    9/11 could only be carried out by a group of people who did not believe it to be an evil act. Any large group within the United States government would include at least one person who would blow the whistle on such a plan. Therefore, there is no large group within the United States government capable of enacting the 9/11 attacks. (There may be a small group that could pull it off, but if a small group of Americans could do it, then a small group of Arabs could do it, too.)

    So, yes, it is more likely that “some guy in a cave in Afghanistan holding a walkie-talkie” planned and executed 9/11.

    One further thing to consider:

    Any evidence presented in such a video could simply be a blatant lie – and, unless you investigate further, you’d never know the difference.

    For example, the infamous “Alien Autopsy” “documentary” that aired on Fox included the following “facts”:

    1) A pathologist testified that the autopsy shown in the film is how such an autopsy would have been done, if there really had been dead aliens to autopsy.
    2) An expert from Kodak said that the film had been tested, and that it did, in fact, come from the time of the Roswell incident.
    3) An expert from Spielberg’s movie studio said that, even with modern special effects, they couldn’t have duplicated the film.

    From those “facts”, the only reasonable conclusion to draw is that the film really is what it purports to be. However, every single one of those facts is actually a blatant lie! Other pathologists said that the procedure in the video was ridiculous and would have destroyed practically all the information available from the bodies. Kodak offered to test the film, and the owners of the film refused to let them. The movie guy’s interview was chopped to bits and distorted by the documentary makers; what he actually said was that the film was good… for whatever B-grade movie studio in England actually made the thing. (And when he actually saw the “documentary”, he was very angry!)

    In other words, the best response to this kind of video is, often, “I defy the data,” because the data is usually completely bogus!

  • tim

    Roland, you fall prey to your own criticism when you write “Some guy hiding in a cave in Afghanistan holding a walkie-takie did it.” In 2001, Bin Laden was hardly “some guy hiding in a cave” and “holding a walkie-talkie”. He is, or was (current status unknown), a well-funded, highly experienced militant leader with a record of successful terrorist attacks. Furthermore, it is deliberately misleading to attribute the events of 9/11 to “perfectly timed and organized execution”, considering, for example, the United 93 flight (unless the hijackers were targeting a field in Pennsylvania), as well as the blunders made by administration officials and security forces leading up to the attack.

  • http://neuraltransmissions.wordpress.com MZ

    “The movie was more persuasive than I had expected, which put me in an odd position.”

    You have got to be kidding me. I just lost about 90% of my respect for you.

    Screw Loose Change

    Screw Loose Change

    Viewer’s Guide to Loose Change

    Spend some time on the JREF forums. That film has been sliced, diced and debunked six ways to Sunday.

    You know there’s something wrong with that movie when the creators had to re-edit it three times and ended up omitting half of their original claims because they were so patently fallacious and absurd.

    Also, here is an interview between the producers of Loose Change (a group of 20-somethings who couldn’t get into film school), and Mark Roberts, their main critic, and the author of the Viewer’s Guide to Loose Change. They don’t hold a candle to him in face-to-face debate.

  • http://zbooks.blogspot.com Zubon

    You know there’s something wrong with that movie when the creators had to re-edit it three times and ended up omitting half of their original claims because they were so patently fallacious and absurd.

    Watching the final film, would you perceive that? It seems like something you would find with research before/after watching.

  • http://neuraltransmissions.wordpress.com MZ

    Robin, I’m a little concerned by a few of your recent posts that you’re a kind of quick to jump to conclusions. I would apply a little more skepticism to new information.

  • http://neuraltransmissions.wordpress.com MZ

    Zubon: I heard about Loose Change when the first edition came out, which is the first one I saw, when they were claiming that the buildings were hit by missiles, that the planes on video were created by CGI (ALL videos from all angles were thus fabrications), and also, therefore, the eyewitness accounts on the ground were fabricated or those people were paid / in on it.

    Some of their original claims were so absurd it makes your head spin, and they were forced to give many of them up, because even these nutjobs have some sliver of sense.

  • http://occludedsun.wordpress.com Caledonian

    Robin Hanson, how do you think you would feel if you had seen the two videos in the opposite order?

    Given that one specifically attempted to critically analyze the other, it might not be reasonably possible. But what if we had two videos arguing for opposite sides of a position, instead of one arguing and one trying to discredit the first? Do you think the order in which you were exposed to the persuasion would be relevent?

  • http://neuraltransmissions.wordpress.com MZ

    Zubon: But to answer your question, even if I had only seen the third edition, I would not move my certainty of the claims one inch until I checked a few other sources, got some other opinions.

    That is the problem that I perceive with Robin in his recent posts.

  • Roland

    @tim:
    it is deliberately misleading to attribute the events of 9/11 to “perfectly timed and organized execution”,

    This is related to the fact that Norad was conducting hijacking exercises at exactly the same date and this was given as one of the possible explanations of why the planes weren’t shot down before hitting the buildings. Remember there was quite a time span between the first and second plane hit.

    Also, flying big planes into buildings is not as easy as it looks on TV. And no, it’s not enough to take some flight lessons with a small airplane.

    I think the problem runs deeper into what the basic assumptions are. I guess for most people the government is considered trustworthy and this is guiding their reasoning process as in Motivated Stopping and Motivated Continuation.

    A good question to ask is cui bono? Who benefitted from 9-11? Whose political agenda was served?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/halfinney/ Hal Finney

    I’m glad you posted this Robin as I tend to be the same way. I am easily convinced by one-sided arguments. I’ve seen surprisingly convincing arguments on many controversial topics – psychic powers, near-term technology revolutions, near-term economic disasters, UFOs, various conspiracy theories including 9/11, Waco, and Flight 800 – which would tend to move my opinion towards belief. However I try to stubbornly resist this tendency because I know, in general, counter-arguments exist. Basically I am forced to say, I acknowledge the strength of your argument, and I know of no contrary evidence, but I refuse to be persuaded anyway. I have to restrain myself from being persuaded by argument and evidence, to become tightly closed-minded, exactly the opposite of the behavior conventionally expected for a rational thinker! But then as you know I believe that true rationality requires an embrace of some degree of majoritarianism and skepticism of the value of one’s own judgement.

    I suspect that many people who hold rather complacent mainstream views might be more vulnerable than they suspect to persuasive arguments on some of these topics. They are protected more by their ignorance of the strength of the evidence against the conventional view, than by either balanced study of both sides of the issue, or by a philosophical stance of principled skepticism.

    I hope this experience will lead you to re-evaluate the alarming offer you made in Dare to Deprogram Me?, to subject yourself to a professionally conducted “deprogramming” operation. I would certainly never subject my thought processes to such a test!

  • Jef Allbright

    I find that people who get an emotional high from each step of the ladder toward the “objective truth” of some matter — and this applies to many devout atheists and rationalists that I know — are prone to jumping from what amounts to one Archimedian lever to another, from which they might imagine moving the world.

    Now, I much prefer the former to “the other side” consisting of (stereotypical) vague mystics, mush-heads, crystal-polishers, white-lighters, relativists and post-modernists. [I’m afraid that’s gonna cost me someday…]

    But if I were to have my druthers, I’ll take reasoning from an inherently subjective base, with increasingly effective selection of what *doesn’t* work, building a structure of increasing probability (distinct from likelihood) of what does. I receive evidence as supporting a growing truth, rather than converging on The Truth, and this middle way seems to avoid some of the bumps at the sides of the road.

  • Jef Allbright

    s/selection of what *doesn’t work/selection against what *doesn’t* work
    – Sorry

  • Nick Tarleton

    However I try to stubbornly resist this tendency because I know, in general, counter-arguments exist.

    I take it you’re saying that you think you’re biased to too greatly weight recently heard one-sided arguments. Does this apply to pro-mainstream arguments as well? (= would you fight your tendency to think a conspiracy less likely on hearing a persuasive one-sided argument?) Do you still apply this when (if you ever find this to be the case) you remember that all of the mainstream counter-arguments you’ve heard appear blatantly non-responsive or fallacious? And rather than underweighting the immediate argument, wouldn’t a better response (if the issue is important to you) be to run through the cases side by side, so all the evidence gets a fair hearing?

  • Chris

    Roland: *Regarding “conspiracy”: the use of the word reflects a bias. Both accounts of 9-11 are conspiracies, either a group of foreigners conspirated to make it or it was an inside job. Why is only the unofficial story called a conspiracy?*

    Here is a very simple explanation.

    Modern usage of “conspiracy” carries connotations of a conspiracy by the government or other authorities, and brings to mind aliens, black helicopters and the illuminati. Most people no longer use the word to describe ordinary criminal conspiracies, e.g. to rob a liquor store (except in court, I suppose).

    *@LarrySheldon:
    Seven fell because of the fires and weakened structure — weakened by the fires and by debris falling on it.

    This is a joke, ask any engineer about the probability of this happening, it’s near zero.*

    I’m a physicist, and I find it reasonable (1). I’ll argue against the standard conspiracy-theory line: “steel melts at 1200, jet fuel burns at 900.” (Feel free to give me a different argument). At 700 and something degrees, steel transitions from ferrite (Body centered cubic lattice) to austenite (face centered cubic lattice). While undergoing this transition, impurities are free to propagate, and strength will be reduced. The heat also allows more slipping at grain boundaries. This could lead to collapse if structural steel was heated to 900.

    Here is a phase diagram for steel:

    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/8/8e/Steel_pd.svg/420px-Steel_pd.svg.png

    (1) I’ve done no detailed study of the particular steel used at WTC. I’m just speaking as a typical person who took “Strength of Materials” and “Introduction to Material Science”, and worked briefly in a material science lab (the same training as “any engineer”).

  • http://profile.typekey.com/halfinney/ Hal Finney

    Nick quotes me: “However I try to stubbornly resist this tendency because I know, in general, counter-arguments exist.” and continues:

    “I take it you’re saying that you think you’re biased to too greatly weight recently heard one-sided arguments.”

    That’s close but not quite right. Rather, as I expressed in my 2nd paragraph above, I see a nearly-universal human tendency to over-value argumentation and evidence as a means for judging truth. I believe these tools are highly unreliable, and I see the ease with which I and many others are persuaded as being evidence for this flaw. I believe that most people who study both sides of one of these issues and then adopt the mainstream view are more influenced than they acknowledge by a desire to be part of the majority (as Robin vividly describes); and for that matter I believe that most people who take the other side are satisfying an unrecognized desire to contradict the conventional wisdom.

    I suspect that my current stance is the only rationally defensible one: follow the majority view unless there is evidence to the contrary which is not widely available.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    tim, yes pace control seems to be part of video’s problem

    Roland, you seem to deny the validity of the outside view.

    I’m struck by how many people think we understand social science well enough to exclude the possibility of a large group keeping a secret. Do these same people accept standard economics?

    Calendonian, my best guess is watching in the other order I’d be little moved either way.

    Hal, there seems little risk of any accepting my deprogramming offer.

  • Roland

    @Chris:

    Regarding the collapse of WTC 7. First WTC 7 wasn’t hit by any plane so no jet fuel to burn in it.

    This being said I nevertheless agree with you that fire burning for a prolonged period can weaken the steel structure and make a building “break down”. But I doubt it would go down in this way:
    9 seconds video of WTC 7 collapse.

  • steven

    Am I gullible for finding this pretty convincing?

  • Janus

    Dear Robin,

    I’d like to preface this comment with a bit of background: I’m a frequent reader of Overcoming Bias, and am not a Bayesian. While I usually enjoy reading the content here, it is occasions such as this when I see the absurdity of assigning probability to truth. Subjective belief is a poor way at uncovering what is true, and when it comes to truth, I think we can do well enough without it. Now, on to your post…

    What the 9/11 troofers claim (as Doug S. explained) is far from rationally tenable: a vast group of men – unknowable, ethereal in their activities, and with perfect precision (and without any leak to the outside world) – directed the course of history in an effort to engage in conflict with Afghanistan for some Evil Reason. Yet, this was only a cover for the greater mission of using the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon to invade the sovereign nation of Iraq. For some Evil Reason.

    Yet, this unknown, mysterious, New World Order-esque secret society acted *exactly* how a pack of loons with box-cutters would; the bomb-laden towers fell exactly as they would if struck by planes. When we’re talking about perfect conspiracies with no possible chance of falsification, it might as well have been lizard-people from the fifth dimension. The cui buono argument is only a starting point, and there usually needs to be a *thing* it targets.

    That’s not all: We’re supposed to believe that two idiots, using just Google and their hyperactive imaginations, figured out every single piece of their diabolical plan? Of course, if they believe something so paranoid, and are willing to lie when it suits them (as it is well-documented), and can willy-nilly give an ad hoc revision to skirt any falsification, they’ll find evidence wherever they look!

    Here, I’ll give it a go: The U.S. gvt. wasn’t really behind 9/11, it was the KGB! They’re still in operation in Russia, and wanted to undermine Wall Street so that global capitalism would fall apart and Mother Russia would rise again.

    Lastly: I hate to be so harsh, but really, the next time you get broiled up in conspiracy theories, read a bit of Popper’s “Poverty of Historicism” and jog off.

    – Janus

  • Anonymous

    If you are not going to use your knowledge of 9/11 to achieve some goal, why are you spending disproportionately large amount of time trying to obtain that knowledge at all?

  • Doug S.

    I’m struck by how many people think we understand social science well enough to exclude the possibility of a large group keeping a secret.

    It is very possible for a large group to keep a secret, as long as that group consists of people drawn from a population that would agree that it is very important for the secret to be kept. As I said earlier, World War II has several examples: the Manhattan Project, and the location of the D-Day invasion. “Good” secrets are easy to keep; “evil” secrets are very, very difficult to keep. Again, the Manhattan Project serves as an example of both a secret kept and a secret that couldn’t be kept; it was successfully kept secret from the Germans, but not from the Russians.

    Oh, and who benefited from 9/11? Well, Osama bin Laden basically ended up with exactly what he said he wanted to achieve: the United States drawn into a drawn out guerrilla war in an Islamic nation.

  • Douglas Knight

    I’m struck by how many people think we understand social science well enough to exclude the possibility of a large group keeping a secret.

    Maybe we should worry about the possibility of large groups keeping secrets, but, if so, it has a lot more consequences than 9/11.

  • Norman Noman

    Speaking as a truther, I saw the first edition of loose change and thought it was terrible. I personally point people to this website here: http://www.911truth.org/article.php?story=20041221155307646

    If you really must have the evidence presented in a video format, barrie zwicker’s The Great Conspiracy is pretty decent, though a bit plodding and it has a corny name. http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-6529813972926262623

  • top secret

    “Maybe we should worry about the possibility of large groups keeping secrets, but, if so, it has a lot more consequences than 9/11.”

    We can look back at historical records from regimes or groups that have had their secrets exposed.

    The U.S. government was abundantly criticized for prosecutions of Communist spies such as Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs, but never revealed its decisive secret evidence, intercepted and decrypted Soviet communications, in order to conceal the source of that evidence. At the same time, we know that Nixon systematically abused the FBI for his own political advantage.

  • Norman Noman

    It should be noted that the number of people who had to be in the loop really isn’t that large. Rumsfeld, cheney, a few high level pentagon people, whoever programmed the autopilot of the planes and rigged up some method of knocking out the passengers and crew, and if you believe the towers were brought down by controlled demolition, whoever planted the thermite.

    Everybody else was just following orders.

    Actually, flight 93 is still a sticky wicket. Either there were actual hijackers on it, or the calls from it were faked, which is possible but would require more people involved.

    Anyway, even with all that, it’s still only about a dozen people. Hardly “thousands”.

    I thought of another good link, actually this is the one that turned me.

    The Coincidence Theorist’s Guide to 9/11
    http://rigorousintuition.blogspot.com/2004/08/coincidence-theorists-guide-to-911.html

  • http://zbooks.blogspot.com Zubon

    To nitpick an example, the D-Day invasion location was not exactly kept secret. The Germans heard about it. They just did not believe it. Failure to keep secrets was so endemic in World War II that some of the best efforts were disinformation campaigns: making the truth look like lies or flooding channels to ruin the noise:signal ratio.

    (Source: How to Tell a Secret by P.J. Huff and J.G. Lewin. For a different take on hiding the truth in plain sight by spreading lies, see the Friends of Privacy in Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge.)

  • Nick Tarleton

    Hal, I don’t see how that leads to majoritarianism rather than simply weakened confidence in all positions, since it doesn’t indicate a bias in a non-majoritarian direction, and especially since the majority’s opinions are based on their own evaluation of arguments and evidence.

  • Mike

    BTW, it should be known that NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) performed a detailed study of the collapse of the WTC, and their conclusions agree with the ‘standard’ story. NIST is basically a bunch of scientists, who perform their research in government funded labs instead of in academia.

  • eric falkenstein

    I check out this video debate between Popular Mechanics and the emotional young men who created this video.

    I find it quite ludicrous, because of the confluence of motives and conspiracies. But I think when someone objecting to the standard narrative often claims the other side is lying, highlights they really are not evaluating the evidence in an objective way. Once you truly believe, as these guys do, big groups are lying, well, then everything’s questionable.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/halfinney Hal Finney

    Nick – Majoritarianism has been discussed here several times – if you click on the Disagreement tag on the sidebar you can find examples. The idea is basically that the various biases and prejudices will tend to cancel out. There is also empirical evidence in specific domains where majoritarian mechanisms are demonstrably superior.

    As far as the conventional approach, there are an overwhelming number of examples where people whom we have no reason a priori to believe are less logical, rational, and intelligent than ourselves nevertheless hold positions that we disagree with – which should cast doubt on the methodology which we and they use to reach the truth. If it worked, we should reach the same truth.

    That methodology is objective, unbiased evaluation of evidence and argument. It doesn’t work.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/simon112 simon

    Robin, I am skeptical that the intermediate probability per se is what is making you uncomfortable. I suspect it is actually cognitive dissonance.

    Also, for the purpose of assigning a probability, one should really make it clear what constitutes a “conspiracy”. Here are some scenarios ranked roughly by degree of culpability of US government (or some part of it), with ties broken by bizarreness:

    1. The government orchestrated the attack, faking everything including using missiles or unmanned planes
    2. The government orchestrated the attack, using the actual planes but setting explosives to increase the destruction
    3. The government knew of the attack, and added explosives to exacerbate the effect using the attack as cover
    4. The government instigated the attack but left the destruction to their friends in Al Qaeda
    5. The government knew of the attack, and actively prevented other parts of the government from stopping it
    6. The government knew of the attack, and did nothing
    7. The government was willfully blind to the impending attack due to a desire that the US be attacked
    8. The government was negligent with respect to anti-terrorist preparations due to a desire that the US be attacked
    9. The government was willfully blind for other reasons
    10. The government was negligent for other reasons

    Personally I would count the dividing line as 1-7 vs. 8+. Obviously one would not need to believe such bizarre claims as #1, suggested by “loose change”, in order to believe #7.

  • Roland

    @robin:

    My guess is that standard stories about events like 9-11 are quite wrong about one time in a hundred or thousand,

    Added 16Oct: Sigh. I must admit that digging a bit more again finds surprisingly persuasive material, moving my estimate up to about 2%, back up into uncanny valley land.

    Robin, you pulled those numbers out of thin air. They are not helping you, on the contrary the first provided an anchor that is influencing all your posterior reasoning.

    Regarding the outside view, I don’t deny it’s usefulness but it doesn’t work the way you are doing it. The right way to do it is seeing the big pattern, not attributing random numbers to events. It all starts with how you see the government and politics. You can consider this as being your prior. The evidence that comes afterwards will always be interpreted according to the priors. Eliezer has an interesting post about inductive bias that comes to mind.

    I think this is what causes so much difference in the opinions about this topic and many others. Where one sees an imploding building another sees a building collapsing due to structurally weakened steel.

    The big pattern I see(and others will disagree I’m sure) is:

    -America was in need of a new Pearl Harbor as written in 2000.(Project for the New American Century)
    -In 2001 a terrorist attack.
    -The originator of these attacks happens to be in countries of geopolitical interest.(Afghanistan)
    -Shortly after America invades and occupies these countries(Iraq included) according to plans traced before 2001.

    There is also the question of how you see the role of the CIA and of terrorism in the political game. There are a lot of books written about this topic.

  • http://www.thinkgene.com Kevin

    Certainly The Project for the New American Century benefited from 9/11. They required such an event to enact their radical agenda. If they were somehow in on it, it seems much more likely that they allowed the events to happen through inaction, rather than actively committing the acts of terror.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_for_the_New_American_Century

  • Doug S.

    Come on, guys, didn’t you watch that South Park episode? Everyone knows that the 9/11 conspiracy theorists are really government agents that are trying to convince people that the government actually is powerful enough to pull off a grand conspiracy! ;)

  • RLaing

    If you had suggested to ordinary Germans in the early 40s of the last century that the government staged the ‘attack’ on the Gleiwitz radio station in order to lauch an aggressive war against Poland, how many would have believed you? Yet we now know this ‘conspiracy theory’ about ‘canned goods’ to be nothing more than the cold truth.

    There are many differences between the III and IV Reichs, but perhaps the greatest is that in the case of the former, the regime collapsed and the entire documentary record was captured by its enemies and extensively publicized in subsequent show trials; whereas the latter, while arguably somewhat diminished, remains after all the world’s preminent nuclear weapons state, and therefore unlikely to suffer the same fate.

    To put is succinctly, in the case of Nazi Germany, we know; whereas in the case of Neo-Con America, we can only surmise.

    Fortes fortuna adiuvat

    United Shock & Awe is the most powerful state in world history, and we should expect the competition for even narrow slices of that power to be ferocious. To get in on the game, it is not enough to be well-connected or rich; one must also be audacious. Certainly any political faction with the ambition to use that state as the vehicle to establish a permanent military hegemony over the entire world will not be shy about taking chances.

    Valley of the Uncannies

    As for the public, I think Hitler hit the nail on the head with his observation that the big lie works precisely because the scale of it overwhelms small minds. Say what you will about the man, he saw clearly into the human heart.

    My own take on the situation is that the combination of corruption above and stupidity below together form the social basis of the state as an instrument of power to compete with other states to maximumize ‘our’ share of the world’s wealth.

    But then I’m so lost in cynicism that I don’t even believe the US is really waging a war on an emotion.

  • doug

    I’m glad to see that this thread has *mostly* avoided being dragged down into arguments over the finer points of the conspiracy theory itself (Loose Change’s version of it, anyway, which is not the strongest and far from the most conservative). No one who prides themselves on rationality deserves to be mocked by their peers when they want to discuss surprisingly compelling information or arguments. I like the metaphor of Uncanny Valley, and I find myself in a position very similar to the one Hal Finney describes with respect to many claims that are definitely outlandish by mainstream standards. But I’m also highly sensitive to the ability of human beings to construct their own standards of rationality based on pre-existing beliefs, confirmation bias, motivated reasoning and the like. The perspective of someone like MZ, to me, borders on disqualification from the discussion of evidence for or against a 9/11 conspiracy. To be decided of the truth in advance of examining the evidence is unhelpful, disrespectful, intellectually dishonest, and sometimes dangerous. You don’t “lose 90% of your respect” for someone simply because they express surprise at the unforeseen persuasiveness of an argument they had not previously encountered–especially not when this reaction of surprise is brought up in the context of examining bias and rationality!

    As I said, I often find myself at home in Uncanny Valley, and as a result have made it a habit to continuously update and reexamine my own responses to various conspiracy theories, especially when “new pieces of the puzzle” are introduced. I don’t buy the Popular Mechanics version of 9/11, but the collapse of the towers is just one part of the larger conspiracy narrative. Here’s a link to a new film called “Fabled Enemies” which focuses on the shady, suggestive relationships between foreign governments, the hijackers, and the CIA and FBI; the undeniable forewarning of our administration as to the imminence of just such an event; and the whitewash of an investigation that was the 9/11 Commission Report:

    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-2144933190875239407&hl=en

    For those truly interested in examining their own credibility filters…I’d be interested to hear what yours does with this information. The only references to building collapses concern WTC 7, which is by far the weirdest case of the three.

    Unfortunately, widespread agreement as to what counts as “rationally tenable” is no more likely than it is desirable, at least insofar as such agreement would lead to the ideological bullying of still-open minds and the categorical dismissal of compelling information. I’d rather be right and a nutjob than rational and wrong.

  • Savage

    I saw this video a few years ago and had the exact same reaction you did.

    Don’t be a fool, though.

  • uncanny

    What is the point of this post are you saying that cognitive dissonance is real and this is your example of it.