Tag Archives: Conspiracy

Conspiracy Theory, Up Close & Personal

Hal Finney made 33 posts here on Overcoming Bias from ’06 to ’08. I’d known Hal long before that, starting on the Extropians mailing list in the early ‘90s, where Hal was one of the sharpest contributors. We’ve met in person, and Hal has given me thoughtful comments on some of my papers (including on this, this, & this). So I was surprised to learn from this article (key quotes below) that Hal is a plausible candidate for being (or being part of) the secretive Bitcoin founder, “Satoshi Nakamoto”.

Arguments for this conspiracy theory:

  • Hal lives a few miles from the guy Newsweek recently claimed was Nakamoto, and who admitted to being involved somehow.
  • Bitcoin is very carefully thought out and implemented, and Hal is one of the top few people in the open crypto world who have demonstrated this capacity. For example, Hal did most of the work behind PGP 2.0, perhaps the most successful open crypto predecessor to Bitcoin.
  • Hal is on record as the first guy besides Nakamoto to use Bitcoin software, he got the first coin transfer from Nakamoto, and he made some key software improvements.
  • Hal’s writing style is much closer to Nakamoto’s than anyone else who the many reporters digging into this have suspected of being Nakamoto.

The arguments against this conspiracy theory:

  • In a world has seven billion people, the prior on Hal being Nakamoto has be rather low.
  • Hal says he isn’t Nakamoto, and seems sincere.
  • Hal says Nakamoto understands C++ better than he does.
  • Hal’s son showed a reporter some gmails between Hal and Nakamoto. The reporter says:

The notion that Finney alone might have set up the two accounts and created a fake conversation with himself to throw off snoops like me, long before Bitcoin had any measurable value, seemed preposterous.

That last point seems pretty weak. We already know that the Bitcoin founder wants to be hidden. If Hal really created Bitcoin, he is plenty smart enough to think that Bitcoin might succeed, and to think of and implement the idea of creating fake conversations to cover his tracks. In this case Hal would also plausibly lie about his C++ skills, or maybe he got C++ help from someone else. In any case the probability of seeing those things conditional on Hal actually being Nakamoto seem pretty high.

It seems to me that the question comes down to your prior expectation on whether the person who did such a careful expert job on something so hard would be one of the few people in the field most known to be capable of and to have actually done such things, or whether it would be a new largely unknown person. And thinking about it that way I have to put a pretty large weight on it being someone known. And conditional on that it is hard for me not to think that yeah, there’s at least a 15% chance Hal was more involved than he’s said. And if so, my hat’s way off to you Hal!

But I also figure I’m not paying nearly as close attention to this bitcoin stuff as many others. Google doesn’t find me any other discussion of the Hal as Nakamoto theory, but surely if I wait a few weeks others who know more will weigh in, right? And since I can’t think of any actions of mine that depend on this issue, waiting is what I’ll do. Your move, internet.

Added 8a 26Mar: In the comments, Gwern points to further reasonable indicators against the Hal as Nakamoto theory.  I accept his judgement.

Those promised quotes: Continue reading "Conspiracy Theory, Up Close & Personal" »

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Best To Mix Odd, Ordinary

“The best predictor of belief in a conspiracy theory is belief in other conspiracy theories.” … Psychologists say that’s because a conspiracy theory isn’t so much a response to a single event as it is an expression of an overarching worldview. (more; HT Tyler)

Some people just like to be odd. I’ve noticed that those who tend to accept unusual conclusions in one area tend to accept unusual conclusions in other areas too. In addition, they also tend to choose odd topics on which to have opinions, and base their odd conclusions on odd methods, assumptions, and sources. So opinions on odd topics tend to be unusually diverse, and tend to be defended with an unusually wide range of methods and assumptions.

These correlations are mostly mistakes, for the purpose of estimating truth, if they are mainly due to differing personalities. Thus relative to the typical pattern of opinion, you should guess that the truth varies less on unusual topics, and more on usual topics. You should guess that odd methods, sources, and assumptions are neglected on ordinary topics, but overused on odd topics. And you should guess that while on ordinary topics odd conclusions are neglected, on odd topics it is ordinary conclusions that are neglected.

For example, the way to establish a new method or source is to show that it usually gives the same conclusions as old methods and sources. Once established, one can take it seriously in the rare cases where they give different conclusions.

A related point is that if you create a project or organization to pursue a risky unusual goal, as in a startup firm, you should try to be ordinary on most of your project design dimensions. By being conservative on all those other dimensions, you give your risky idea its best possible chance of success.

My recent work has been on a very unusual topic: the social implications of brain emulations. To avoid the above mentioned biases, I thus try to make ordinary assumptions, and to use ordinary methods and sources.

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US Record All Calls?

Many claim that the US Government saves recordings of all the phone calls, emails, etc. that it can get:

Wednesday night, [CNN’s] Burnett interviewed Tim Clemente, a former FBI counterterrorism agent, about whether the FBI would be able to discover the contents of past telephone conversations between [terrorist Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his wife]. He quite clearly insisted that they could. … On Thursday night, Clemente again appeared on CNN, this time with host Carol Costello. … He reiterated what he said the night before but added expressly that “all digital communications in the past” are recorded and stored. …

Former AT&T engineer Mark Klein revealed that AT&T and other telecoms had built a special network that allowed the National Security Agency full and unfettered access to data about the telephone calls and the content of email communications for all of their customers. … His amazing revelations were mostly ignored and, when Congress retroactively immunized the nation’s telecom giants for their participation in the illegal Bush spying programs, Klein’s claims (by design) were prevented from being adjudicated in court.

That every single telephone call is recorded and stored would also explain this extraordinary revelation by the Washington Post in 2010:

Every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications.

Bruce Schneier is skeptical, however:

I don’t believe that the NSA could save every domestic phone call, not at this time. Possibly after the Utah data center is finished, but not now.

This seems to me a great place for a prediction market. It seems quite likely that the truth will be revealed within a half century, and if this claim is true hundreds of people must know who might be tempted to make a little extra money via anonymous bets.

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False Flag Forecasts

As admitted by the U.S. government, recently declassified documents show that in the 1960′s, the American Joint Chiefs of Staff signed off on a plan to blow up American airplanes (using an elaborate plan involving the switching of airplanes), and also to commit terrorist acts on American soil, and then to blame it on the Cubans in order to justify an invasion of Cuba. (more; see also)

One in seven people are convinced that the U.S. government was involved in a conspiracy to stage the September 11 attacks which killed nearly 3,000 people. A survey, which interviewed 1,000 people in the UK and the same number in the U.S., found that 14 per cent of Britons 15 per cent of Americans think the past administration was involved in the tragedy. (more from ’11)

More from ’08:


Such conspiracies aren’t always, or even usually, uncovered eventually, but such uncovering does happen often enough to make it seem socially useful to have betting markets on such questions.

Yes, such markets would have to be long term, and might need to be subsidized. And they might need to be housed in a reasonable distant and independent nation, like New Zealand.

But such market odds might offer an independent and reasonably reliable source to which doubters could turn when they weren’t sure how much weight to put on conspiracy theories vs. their skeptics. If you doubted who was behind the 9-11 attacks, wouldn’t it be great if you could turn to a betting market to better calibrate your doubts?

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Consider Conspiracies

New research suggests people are more likely to endorse conspiracy theories if they would be willing to personally participate in such a conspiracy. … “At least among some samples and for some conspiracy theories, the perception that ‘they did it’ is fueled by the perception that ‘I would do it. … People who have more lax personal morality may endorse conspiracy theories to a greater extent because they are, on average, more willing to participate in the conspiracies themselves.” (more; HT David Brin)

All the commentary I’ve found on this seems to take it as evidence against conspiracy theories, since it offers a non-evidential explanation for why people might believe in such theories. For example, people are eager to mention birthers in the same breath, to discredit them. But in fact this result tends to support conspiracy theories.

Think about it. Why are conspiracy theories in such disrepute, given that there have in fact been many real conspiracies in the world? One theory is that conspiracy theories just tend to be wrong – that there is some bias which makes people believe them too much, and the anti-conspiracy attitudes you see are a response to that bias. Another theory is that the people who tend to support conspiracy theories are disliked, independently of the evidence supporting their theories. The result above adds support for this disliked theory, relative to the bias theory.  And this gives you less reason to believe there is in fact a widespread bias to believe too easily in conspiracy theories. Which is evidential, if not social, support for such theories.

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Signaling Conspiracies

Low- and high-end fashion products tend to have less conspicuous brand markers than midprice goods, according to a paper soon to be published in The Journal of Consumer Research.

Rather than rely on obvious logos, expensive products use more discreet markers, such as distinctive design or detailing. High-end consumers prefer markers of status that are not decipherable by the mainstream. These signal group identity only to others with the connoisseurship to recognize their insider standing.

In one study, fashion students were more likely than regular students to favor subtle signals for products visible to others, like handbags. But for private products less relevant to identity, like underwear and socks, there was no difference between the groups. (more; HT Nicholas Walker)

This is one of the factors that makes signaling hard to study – signals are often designed to be hard for ordinary folks to discern.  And that fact makes it easy to be skeptical that any signaling is going on at all.  Skeptics can say “signals, what signals?”

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Imperialist US?

Recent US war history in a nutshell: Responding to an ’01 terror attack on NYC by activists from Saudi Arabia, funded by Pakistan, and trained in Afghanistan, the US in ’03 attacked Iraq, supposedly because they had “weapons of mass destruction,” never found. US denied it wanted control of the strategic resource-rich Persian Gulf, saying it remains there to “nation-build.”  In ’07 US geologists reported Afghanistan has $1 trillion in mineral wealth, and then in ’09 the US more than doubled its Afghanistan troops, supposedly to fight terrorists and “nation-build.”  It now denies it wanted the minerals:

Col. Dave Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters Monday that the $1 trillion figure didn’t surface until recently because a military task force working on the issue had been focused on Iraq. … It wasn’t until late last year that the task force got around to looking at a 2007 study by the U.S. Geological Survey. That’s when the group estimated the minerals’ value, Lapan said. The New York Times first reported the $1 trillion figure on Sunday night.

Many are suspicious of US motives in both Iraq and Afghanistan. An ’04 world survey:

Majorities in all four Muslim nations surveyed doubt the sincerity of the war on terrorism. Instead, most say it is an effort to control Mideast oil and to dominate the world. … There is broad agreement in nearly all of the countries surveyed – the U.S. being a notable exception – that the war in Iraq hurt, rather than helped, the war on terrorism. … Solid majorities in France and Germany believe the U.S. is conducting the war on terrorism in order to control Mideast oil and dominate the world. … Large majorities in almost every country surveyed think that American and British leaders lied when they claimed, prior to the Iraq war, that Saddam Hussein’s regime had weapons of mass destruction.

Today in Afghanistan:

The Pentagon’s announcement that Afghanistan possesses $1 trillion worth of unexploited minerals will have the unintended consequence of confirming one of the most deeply entrenched conspiracy theories among Afghans.  Many Afghans I have spoken with believe firmly that America wants to permanently occupy the country in order to take Afghan land and resources. Even educated Afghans friends who generally support a temporary US presence have told me the same. I had to laugh when one suggested that Americans would want to move to Afghanistan to snatch up Afghan land for homes. … For many Afghans, it makes no sense that the US cannot wrap up the Taliban – so an imperialist land grab becomes a plausible explanation.

Historians agree that once upon a time colonial powers, including the US, did invade nations to try to gain their natural resources. (Not clear they benefited overall though.)  The world is now asked to believe that the US has lost this inclination and ability – gosh, the US folks who chose to attack Afghanistan didn’t even know it was a gold mine, honest.  Nor did Iraq’s oil influence invading it.  So why didn’t the US invade lots of other nations similarly plagued by terrorists, or nations like Iran, North Korea, or Pakistan that threaten nuclear instability?  It’s just random, the world is asked to believe.

I can see why the world is skeptical here. Now I can also understand the position that the US is no longer organized or capable enough to purposely target and gain advantage from invading resource-rich nations.  What I can’t understand is how folks who believe this can simultaneously believe the US is organized and capable enough to “build nations,” a task where we’ve seen little success lately, and a task made even harder by widespread suspicion of US motives. Really, that’s your story?!

Added 17June:  Some question the trillion dollar figure.

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Price Conspiracies

A believable conspiracy theory:

Airlines and online travel agencies surreptitiously use computer “cookies” they’ve implanted on your Web browser to track your activity on their sites and then raise prices when it appears that you’re interested in a fare. That’s the rumor, at least. … For years … the industry … has vehemently denied any tampering with prices. …

A United Kingdom-based hotel site called VivaStay reportedly dinged customers by way of a special link from an affiliated Web site that showed slightly higher prices than those quoted to customers who clicked directly on the VivaStay site. VivaStay apologized, but said it was unaware that the price variation was frowned upon.  …

A teacher … says … she recently tried to buy a ticket to Vietnam … through the Delta Air Line Web site. … But when she was actually ready to buy her flights, the airline informed her that the ticket she wanted was $300 more than the original price quote. … “I returned to Delta’s home page and began the process again. … The same lower fare was still displayed, so I worked my way through the process again only to be informed once again that the fare was no longer available. Over the course of a half hour I repeated this process two more times. Same result.” …

“If there is no bias in a process, there are about as many negative outcomes as positive outcomes. The process of posting the lower airfares — that is, making them initially available — should result in as many surprisingly lower prices at booking as it does surprisingly higher ones because they have all been taken.”  [This physicist] makes a good point. I’ve heard of only one or two cases where the fare dropped.

Given a room full of computers, such as in a school or library, it shouldn’t take more than a few hours to test this price-jump conspiracy theory.  Just try to book random flights and record the initial and final prices offered.  If the non-random pattern is strong, it shouldn’t take long to see clearly.

Price discrimination, i.e., charging different prices for the same thing (that costs the same), has long been a wide-spread business practice.  Firms are reluctant to admit they do it not only because customers get mad, but also because it has been illegal in the US since the 1914 Clayton Antitrust Act, at least if “the effect … may be substantially to lessen competition.”  Mark this as another bendable rule authorities rarely enforce, letting them selectively punish whomever they wish.

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Conspiracy Capacities

Huge brains helped primates fight via coalition politics, and language let human foragers enforce egalitarian norms against such fights.  If neutrally applied, such norms should have cut the gains to huge brains, yet we had the biggest brains. This suggests hierarchy and coalition politics continued via covert rule bending.  Support for this hypothesis comes from our highly evolved capacities for covert coalitions:

  • Body Language – Winks and nods and other body language are not just redundant or complementary to our words. “A wink and a nod” is a common expression for a communication intended to be less visible to third parties, in particular to enable corruption.  Since we are very good at seeing where other eyes look, we can often communicate via the direction of our gaze. Our unconscious status moves include the high status looking directly and the low status looking away; this grants more eye-talk conspiracy power to the high status.
  • Indirect Language – When talking with words, we commonly veil our language, instead of speaking directly.  Indirection makes it harder for others to interpret what your mean. So those who are very socially distant, lacking local context, may just not understand, while those closer may understand but be unable to prove what was meant; you’d have plausible deniability.  By varying the indirection of our language we can control how close a circle can understand or prove what we say. Extreme indirection can also signal; if we see that we understand each other, we confirm our intelligence and close connection.
  • Rumors – Even when rumors are expressed in direct language, they are not intended for all ears. We explicitly say to not tell certain others, or implicitly understand to only tell a shared coalition. At a minimum, we understand not to tell the subject of the rumor.  Spreading a mild rumor about a person allows us to test how well connected is that person.  If they never complain, perhaps they never heard of the rumor, and so are poorly connected, and thus can be conspired against more easily, perhaps via further rumors.

These skills seem to me too well developed in humans today to have only begun with farming ten thousand years ago.  Compare them to our clumsy farming, war, and writing skills that have to be explicitly taught.  Clearly, foragers had great conspiracy capacities, and so often conspired, bending their egalitarian rules.

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Twin Conspiracies

In a twin conspiracy, a pair of identical twins would pretend to be only one person. For example, in college each twin could specialize in, and then ace, half of the classes; their GPA would soar.  They might together make partner in a law firm by handling a lot more work than other lawyers.  They could cheat on their spouse while offering that spouse a near-constant video of “their” activities.  In fact, they could always have an alibi for anything they did.

This strategy seems tempting in “winner take all” areas of life where small productive gains are given huge rewards, or where secretly having more time can make you seem a lot more productive.  For example, high level managers attend a great many meetings to connect different parts of their organization.  A secretly-twin-CEO could attend twice as many meetings, and make twice the connections.

Of course if this actually happened often our institutions could easily adapt to check for secret twin conspiracies.  They don’t now look because they don’t expect them.  It would be interesting to search for such secret twins.  For example, one might take a list of top CEOs and compare the ratio of non-identical to identical twins in this group. If that ratio was substantially larger than in the larger population, that might suggests many secret twins hiding among CEOs.

One twin told me the loss of autonomy in this secret twin scenario would make it unacceptable to her, no matter what worldly success it produced.   Do people really care that much more about autonomy than success?

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