Tag Archives: terrorism

Correlation, causation – and reason for precaution

“Correlation is not the same as causation.” This is a core catechism that is drilled into most of us scientists, along with “I might be wrong,” and “build your competitive science reputation by demolishing the half-baked work of others.”

Alas, “Correlation is not the same as causation” has become an incantation parroted by Fox-Watchers, as part of the Murdochian campaign to undermine science and claim that nothing can ever be proved. In fact, sifting for correlations is how experimental science begins. A strong correlation demands: “hey, check this out!”

But it’s more than that. A strong correlation shifts the Burden of Proof. When we see a strong correlation, and the matter at-hand is something with major health or safety or security implications, then we are behooved to at least begin taking preliminary precautions, in case the correlation proves to be causative. Sometimes the correlation is later demonstrated not to be causal and a little money has been wasted. But this often proves worthwhile, given long lead times in technology.

For example, we were fortunate that work had already begun on alternative refrigerants to CFCs, when their role in ozone damage was finally proved. Indeed, valid concerns over the health and environmental effects of tobacco and leaded gasoline were dismissed for years. Two must reads: Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, as well as the story of Clair Patterson and the obstructionism of the oil industry.

Another example: terrorism experts sift for correlations and apply intelligence resources to follow up, while giving potential targets cautious warnings. Many correlations don’t pan out. But a burden falls on those saying “ignore that.”

Parse this carefully. Strong correlation demands both closer examination and preliminary precautions.

But the underlying narrative of the crazy, anti-science right is: “Correlation is not the same as causation… and any ‘scientist’ who talks about a correlation can thus be dismissed as a fool. And since that is most of science, this incantation lets me toss out the whole ‘science’ thing. Yippee!”

Those who spout this incantation aren’t all fools, but you can tell by watching to see if they follow “Correlation is not the same as causation” with… curiosity! And acceptance of both precaution and burden of proof. Those who do that are “Skeptics” and welcome to the grand, competitive tussle known as science.

Those who use “Correlation is not the same as causation” as a magic incantation to dismiss all fact-using professions are fools holding a lit match in one hand and an open gas can in the other, screaming “one has nothing to do with the other!”

See my earlier list of examples  – including well-justified concerns over tobacco, smog and leaded gasoline – where this and other incantations delayed the proper application of science to public policy, leading to hundreds of thousands… maybe millions… of deaths worldwide.

Another central mythos: We all know that:  “Just because someone is smart and knows a lot, that doesn’t automatically make them wise.”

It’s true. But in the same way that Suspicion of Authority is wholesome, till it metastasizes, this true statement has been twisted into something cancerous:  “Any and all people who are smart and know a lot, are therefore automatically unwise.”

The first statement is true and we all know it. The second is so insanely wrong that anyone believing it is hence a stark, jibbering loony. And yet, the latter is now a core catechism of the confederacy, because they have been allowed to leave it implicit.

Of course, blatantly, the average person who has studied earnestly and tried to understand is wiser than those who deliberately chose to remain incurious and ignorant. When cornered, even the most vehement alt-righter admits that. But cornering them takes effort and – above all – careful parsing of the meme. It is a logical corner they’ve painted themselves into! But their memes are slippery.

Suspicion and distrust – of universities and smart people, as well as of people with knowledge and skill — now extends from the war on science to journalism, teaching, medicine, economics, civil servants… and lately the “deep state” conspiring villains of the FBI, the intelligence agencies and the U.S. military officer corps. This is bedlam. It is insanity that serves one purpose, to discredit any “elites” who might stand in the way of a return to feudalism by the super rich, which was the pattern of 6000 years that America rebelled against.

We need to be more proactive and tactically effective in fighting back against these agents of darkness and promoters of feudalism. There are clever shills who get rich providing incantations against science and other fact-professions.  We must show every uncle and aunt who parrots this nonsense how they have been hoodwinked. That is where phase 8 of the American Civil War will be won, in the trenches, getting one friend at a time to snap out of the hypnotics spells…

… by using evidence and logic and compassion to draw our neigjhbors back to a nation of progress and science and pragmatic accountability and hope for an ever-better future.


Filed under politics, public policy, science, society, technology

My Predictions for 2012! A Nobel for WikiLeaks? On Transparency and Security…

First off… drop in at YouTube for my latest offering… reading aloud a popular passage from my novel Earth. “First came a supernova, dazzling the universe in brief, spendthrift glory, before ebbing into twisty, multi-spectral clouds of new-forged atoms. Swirling eddies spiraled until one of them ignited – a newborn star. The virgin sun wore whirling skirts of dust and electricity. Gas and rocks and bits of this and that fell iinto those pleats, gathering in dim lumps…planets…One tiny worldlet circled at a middle distance…”

My Prediction for 2012

I was asked recently to offer up my forecast for December 21, 2012! All right, here goes! On THAT VERY DAY the sun will appear to undergo REVERSAL in its path across the sky! Not the east-west rising-setting, but in its north-south travels! On that particular day – as foretold by ancient astronomers and many of today’s top scientists (though they aren’t talking about it!), the sun will (to the astonishment of many!) stop appearing to move ever farther south, each day at noon.

From that day forward, and for a period that I predict will last six whole months,each noon will see the sun passing through a point farther north than on the previous day! Arcing ever-higher in the sky of the northern hemisphere, this change of course will bring with it massive waves of weather change all across that hemisphere, causing ice and snow fields to melt and water to come flooding down mountains and valleys to the sea! Moreover, sometimes unbidden or unwanted by man, green growths will start infesting almost every outdoor surface! Insects will appear, individually and even in swarms, accompanied by flocks of noisy birds! In some locales, there will be frogs, or beasts, intermittent periods of darkness, and even outbreaks of vermin! Politicians and cable news folk will proclaim reasons to panic!

And thus winter will finish turning into spring… and spring into…. SUMMER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Whereupon, on June 21, 2013… just in the nick of time… I predict the Earth will be saved when (to the surprise of many) the Sun’s ever-rising noontime passage will reverse. And yes I am daring to be specific and exact in my prophecy! And from that day forth – for a time I am willing to calculate for you – its lifegiving force will seem to ebb away toward the very bottom of the world.

A Nobel Prize for Wikileaks?

“WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange may soon have a new accolade to add to his resume — “Nobel Prize winner.” Reuters reports that a Norwegian parliamentarian has nominated WikiLeaks for what is arguably the world’s most prestigious prize. “By disclosing information about corruption, human rights abuses and war crimes, WikiLeaks is a natural contender for the Nobel Peace Prize,” said spokesman Snorre Valen.”

Hm, well, for starters, it is Wikileaks and the principles of transparency that are actually nominated, not Assange. Heck, since the ideas were heavily promulgated by me in EARTH (1989) and in The Transparent Society (1997) ain’t I just as responsible? 😉 Seriously, as you’ll learn when I start posting my major analysis of the WikiLeaks Affair, I find Assange individually arrogant. His particular priorities and statements range from cogent to borderline crazy…

…but you cannot always choose your heroes or self-appointed paladins of transparency. Indeed, Assange has “done good” with his leaks in ways that no one would ever have imagined, certainly not him! Most surprisingly, his leaks have had the overall effect of vastly enhancing the credibility and reputation of the United States Government around the world, at a time when it was badly needed – a result that was almost-certainly diametrically opposite to his intent.

In any event, a Nobel for this KIND of activity would be a very important statement of support for the general movement toward world transparency. If the symbol for this movement must be Julian Assange, then so be it.

(Stay tuned, I will soon offer a suggestion that combines an old sci fi idea from Earth with WikiLeaks transparency and events in Egypt, offering a way to both benefit the people of that country and start the whole world down a road that is radically better and more hopeful than ever.)


The Physics of Terror : Mathematicians and physics look for patterns in terrorist campaigns and frequency that might allow prediction of future threats. Terror events follow a power law, similar to earthquakes: more frequent attacks result in fewer deaths, while infrequent, large events kill the most people.

Debunking Theories of a Terrorist Power Grab. A power-system expert at Penn State recently refuted theories that our power infrastructure is highly vulnerable to terrorist attack.


Are your apps spying on you? Your smartphone contains a wealth of personal data about you: your current location, contacts, phone numbers, age, gender, buying habits.  A survey by the WSJ found that 56 out of 101 popular smartphone apps regularly transmitted such personal info without the user’s knowledge or consent, often to tracking companies. As “Mr. Transparency” do I shrug this off? Not! Privacy must change. Not vanish!

Here are some privacy icons that tell you how sites use your personal data — designed by Aza Rashkin for Mozilla.

Five Cyberthreats to watch for in 2011.

In Wired Magazine: 2010: The year the internet went to war.

President Obama is calling for an online privacy bill of rights — to protect consumers and shield personal data from tracking. At this point, it would be voluntary, with sanctions from the FTC. Under discussion: a ‘do-not-track’ option, similar to the do-not-call list to block telemarketers.

Computers that See You and Keep Watch over You describes how facial recognition software is being used in prisons, hospitals, law enforcement, and the workplace. It is also used to sample audience reactions, as well in the front against terrorism.

Ten Ways a digital Big Brother can be good for you, by John D. Sutter, CNN. “These days, Big Brother doesn’t need to do much snooping. We just tell him what we’re up to.” Yet, there are ways that this omniscience has improved our lives: health monitors, disaster response, traffic maps, smart city grids, environmental sensors, monitoring earthquakes…


Facing a crisis in drug abuse, Portugal decriminalized possession of all illicit drugs in 2000, focusing on treating instead of punishing drug addicts. The results: an increase in the number of people who tried drugs — but drug abuse declined, especially among youth. More drug addicts are in treatment. Police now focus on high-level drug traffickers; there’s been an increase in drugs seized. Read the experiment.

This issue shows that different regions have different blind manias. Europeans seem far more ready than Americans to accept calm, modernist, rationalist revisions of old ways. Revising stupid-awful drug prohibition is one of these. If Portugal gains a good track record with this, and other Eurostates follow, the statistics might get so overwhelming that California can follow. (Europeans have their own manias – e.g. that the universe owes them half a lifespan of pure leisure, and that honorable work – potentially one of the greatest parts of human existence – is an inherently evil thing.)

Do artificial beings deserve human rights? by Mike Treder, director of IEET To what degree will we anthropomorphize orbits and artificial intelligence?

Do you distinguish pronunciations for pin vs. pen, cot vs. caught, father vs. bother? How about Bach’s, box & balks? Even after the homogenizing influences of radio, TV, the internet, and the increased mobility of the last few decades, regional distinctions persist across America. This site has a fascinating wealth of information on American dialects, with maps and audio samples of regional speech patterns.

To aid the cash-strapped U.S. Postal Service, Chief Counsel to the Chairman of the Postal Regulatory Commission Michael Ravnitzky has proposed adding sensor arrays to postal trucks, to turn the fleet into a widespread data collecting operation — collecting real-time data on weather, pollutants, gaps in internet coverage, poor road conditions, as well as detecting chemical or biological threats.

Tidying my pile of miscellaneous items to share:

I gave an interview to “The Eerie Times” – a sci fi site – mostly about my career as a science fiction author.

Renowned author Robert Sawyer offers an interesting essay about how scientists and Sci Fi witers take both similar and very different approaches to dealing with a future that contains plenty of opportunities and dangers.

Telomerase-based rejuvenation? Or a great way to ignite a storm of tumors?

Did I show you this one yet? More than half of the predictions are right on!

Recently leaked: the original draft of the script for _The Empire Strikes Back_ by Leigh Brackett … Quite different from what finally made it to the screen. It seems the credit for this being by far the best SW film falls unto Kasden, not Brackett, after all. In any event, this shows one of my pet peeves. There must be (literally) more than 10,000 scripts kept locked up by various producers and studios, some of them no-doubt trash… but others which may be genuine gems of writing. Why can we not at least read them as literature?

When you cut past all the excuses and rationalizations, it really boils down to “embarrassment insurance”… Suppose one in a hundred revealed but never filmed scripts gain a following and praise from critics, perhaps even letters urging that the screenplay be released for somebody to film. How does the studio benefit? Well, sure, in one percent of THOSE cases, they might get spurred into actually resurrecting a once-dead jewel and benefit enormously! But meanwhile, the ghosts of many past mistakes would be let loose, and even a glorious resurrection would result in recriminations. “What idiot squelched this in the first place!”

No, it is beyond unjustifiable – and a travesty-betrayal of the purpose of “intellectual property” – for them to be locked away forever. But what do you expect, given that Hollywood had become so cowardly that the rare non-sequel is trumpeted automatically as “brave,” what would you expect?

Gates, on the seductive lure of idiotic cynicism (a disease that infests both the left and the right). As John Stuart Mill said in 1828, in a quote from the book that I especially enjoyed: “I have observed that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.”

The most concise scientific paper ever.

Have a look at my friend Lou Aronica’s new crossover fantasy novel BLUE.

=== More stuff…

Cool! the Bureau of labor statistics lets you calculate in a shot what an amount was worth at any point in the period since 1913.

Tyler Cowan’s new book: The Great Stagnation seems to cover some of the same territory (much more deeply!) as my graphic novel about industrial decline:TINKERERS

See a thought provoking parallel between Egypt in 2011 and tragic Turkey in 1911.

Variant movie listings in TV Guide: It’s a Wonderful Life: “An accused criminal’s descent into madness is interrupted by a visitor from a distant star, who brings about an episode of mass hysteria after a visit to a hellish parallel universe.”


Filed under future, politics, science