Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A Few Liberal Conspiracy Theories

John Stuart Mill once observed "I never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid. I meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative." Certainly conservatives have a different kind of stupidity from liberals. It's more crass and unsophisticated. Conservatives are far more likely to deny objective reality outright. They deny evolution, the finite nature of resources, climate change, and the legality of a birth certificate plainly labeled "prima facie evidence." Liberals are more likely to deny social phenomena, using buzzwords like "blaming the victim," "false consciousness," or "correlation is not causation." And they're likely to resort to the converse of Mill's statement, believing that, since stupid people are generally conservative, liberals, by definition, cannot be stupid. The term "conspiratorial narrative" is pretty much self explanatory. Although the Right tends to have more of them, and more ridiculous ones, they are widespread on the Left as well. Conservatives are often cranks; liberals are more often meta-cranks, that is they construct some fantasy meta-reality where the data might be acknowledged but its significance is spun in weird ways. They have no need to fear or deny data because they have no intention of letting it rock their world-views.

Leftist conspiratorial narratives are mostly not acknowledged as such because most of the people who point to Rightist conspiratorial narratives either believe the Leftist ones or are in outright denial about them. But here are some prime examples.

And The Band Played On

The narrative is that the Reagan Administration deliberately dragged its heels in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, resulting in the needless deaths of many AIDS sufferers.

Someone once defined a government crash program as trying to complete a pregnancy in a month by putting nine women to work on it. Crash programs work on some things and not on others. They work if the project is scalable, that is, if increasing the input increases the result. The Manhattan Project, once it got rolling, was eminently scalable. Once it was clear that we needed Uranium-235 to make an atomic bomb, and ways had been devised to do it, it was just a matter of building as many of the separation units as necessary. In a perfect illustration of scalability, the scientists at Oak Ridge once told General Leslie Groves, military head of the project, that it would take twice as long to isolate enough U-235. He simply ordered that the separation building, already the largest roofed space in the world, be doubled in size.

On the other hand, figuring out how to get a nuclear explosion was not scalable. There were only a limited number of people in the world capable of participating meaningfully. Some were unacceptable security risks. Others were needed in other capacities. Too many workers would have tripped each other up and slowed progress. The project could be speeded up by providing logistical support and assistants, and in some cases farming out subtasks to different groups, but fundamentally the work could only be done by a select team working at its own pace. Groves' genius (and Groves was anything but a cuddly teddy bear) was recognizing this fact and letting it happen.

The Apollo Program was also highly scalable. Once a working design for the rockets and spacecraft had been developed, it was a matter of building more of them. Teams could work in parallel on subsystems of the spacecraft. Design questions could be sorted out by allowing teams to pursue various scenarios and making the best case they could for each approach.

Medical research is not nearly so scalable. Once a treatment strategy has been defined, it's possible to farm out trials to separate teams working in parallel. And fundamental research can be scaled somewhat by supporting research concurrently among many different lines. Only after a drug has been developed can real scaling take effect, and sometimes not even then. Drugs like interferon are still extremely expensive to manufacture.

As soon as I became aware of AIDS, which means about as soon as it appeared in any scientific media, I watched the debate from the perspective of someone interested in pseudoscience. It had such great potential. There was the inevitable hysteria over the contagiousness of AIDS. There were (and still are) denials that AIDS was caused by a virus at all, coupled with very Velikovskian claims that unorthodox ideas were being suppressed. There were also bland assurances that AIDS could not be caught from casual contact long before there was sufficient data to justify such a claim.

Almost as soon as AIDS was recognized as a serious problem, there were accusations that the government was deliberately dragging its heels on attacking the problem. Yet the number of people capable of mounting an attack on AIDS was limited. Many of the questions about AIDS involved fundamental research on viruses in general, meaning the research was eminently fundable through existing channels. A massive influx of money might have facilitated research, but it would also have attracted less qualified researchers who would require time and effort to bring up to speed. Surely a lot of it would have been wasted on administrivia, and yet other money would have been shunted into peripheral projects that superficially might look related to AIDS research but would have contributed little to the effort. The most cost effective way to ramp up spending would have been through undergraduate scholarships, graduate fellowships, and medical school support, to create the next generation of researchers. That would take a minimum of ten years to bear fruit. The best evidence that a glut of money in the 1980's would not have helped the fight against AIDS significantly is that, thirty years later, despite worldwide research efforts, we still do not have a cure or a vaccine for AIDS.

It's all because the government and the drug companies don't want a cure? Fine. Show me your doctorate in biochemistry or medicine as evidence you have any idea what a cure for AIDS would require. Start by telling me what a retrovirus is.

(Why do we need national health care at all? Just start a blog where people can write in with their symptoms and other people will write in prescribing cures that have been suppressed by the Medical Establishment. Like homeopathy, the results will be more effective for being highly diluted with ignorance.)

Despite statements that AIDS was a disease like "any other," from the outset it was treated uniquely, unlike any other. The classical method of stopping outbreaks of sexually-transmitted diseases, and contagious diseases in general, was to trace transmission chains, but that approach was quickly stifled in the name of privacy. For some reason, social stigma never stopped health officials from investigating outbreaks of syphilis or gonorrhea.

The Stolen Election of 2000

The most important thing about the 2000 election is what the Constitution itself specifies:
Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector. (Art. II Sec. I)
The most recent wave of outrage over the Electoral College came in 2000, when George Bush narrowly won Florida, and the election, from Al Gore, even though Gore received half a million more popular votes nationally. The Florida recount process was finally terminated on December 11 by the Supreme Court, partly on 14th Amendment grounds (uneven treatment of recounts) and partly on Electoral College issues. Federal Law states that electors selected more than six days before the scheduled counting of electoral votes are to be regarded as conclusively chosen. Since the electoral votes were to be counted on December 18, electors could be selected without challenge up to December 12, the day after the ruling. The court ruled that there was insufficient time to perform the desired recounts and select electors in a way that would preserve Florida's right to choose them without Congressional interference.

Critics of the ruling ignore the Constitutional fact that the Constitution gives state legislators, and nobody else, the right to decide on electors ("in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct"). So, had the Court not cut off the process, one of three things could have happened:
  1. Florida would have sent in last-minute, disputed electoral votes. Congress would have had to resolve the issue, and both houses of Congress were controlled by Republicans, so Bush would probably have won. 1876 deja vu all over again.
  2. Florida would have cast no electoral votes, giving the election to Gore. Very unlikely given that the Florida legislature was controlled by Republicans.
  3. Florida could have convened an emergency legislative session and appointed a slate of electors in time to meet the deadline, or they could simply have confirmed the Republican electors. Either way the Florida electors would have been Republican.
Actually, when Congress convened, a number of Congressmen did challenge the Florida electoral votes. However, challenges to electoral votes have to be co-sponsored by a Congressman and a Senator (a rule drafted in the aftermath of 1876), and no Senators came forward.

Although the Supreme Court's ruling has been called blatantly political and corrupt by Gore supporters, it is interesting to speculate what might have happened had the Court ruled that the recounts should continue. Faced with the prospect of missing the deadline for choosing electors, might the Florida Legislature have simply appointed electors and then defended its actions on the Constitutional grounds that the State chooses the electors "in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct"? Who would have decided the case, given that the Supreme Court would have had a conflict of interest? What if the Democrats in the Florida Legislature stalled the selection until too late? If the electors had been challenged, the Republicans controlled Congress and could have rejected the challenge. Had the election gone to the House, the Republicans were in control, so Bush would have won, 28 states to 17, with 4 split and one independent.

Actually, given what the Constitution says about choosing electors, the only Constitutional basis for a suit would be that electors were being appointed in violation of the wishes of the Florida Legislature, or that an elector was also a Federal office holder (One electoral vote from Oregon was challenged in 1876 because the elector was a postmaster).

Oh, this cheerful note. If the House had, through some arcane fluke, deadlocked, then the Senate would have named the Vice President as acting President. Say it with me: President Cheney.

There's just not a plausible scenario that would have allowed Gore to win.

The Federal Failure of Katrina

It's interesting to compare three recent disasters: Katrina in 2005, and Haiti and the Deepwater Horizon in 2010. They're different kinds of disasters each offering distinct challenges, but comparisons can be illuminating. Effective control of the oil leak at Deepwater Horizon took weeks to achieve. In Haiti, significant aid personnel begin arriving about 5-6 days after the disaster and the government suspended rescue operations on Day 11, although a few rescues happened later. After Katrina, on the other hand, the Convention Center and Superdome were completely evacuated by Day 6, most levee breaches were plugged the following day, and most of the flooding was pumped out by two weeks after the storm. Despite the scorn heaped on President Bush the Younger, remarkably enough, the response to Katrina was the most rapid of the three disasters. By Day 6, the refugees at the Superdome and Convention Center had all been evacuated. In Haiti, aid deliveries continued to be erratic well after Day 6. This, of course, is not a criticism of the aid agencies, who had to contend with blocked streets and crowd control. It wasn't until Day 6 of the Deepwater Horizon spill that the extent of the discharge was fully known, and Day 9 before oil booms began to be mobilized in earnest. On the other hand, it was only around Day 4 or 5 that stories began appearing in the press critical of the response times for all three disasters, all written by people with no experience in actually responding to a disaster.

Disasters are gigantic sticky globs of entropy. By definition they make it impossible to move freely, get accurate information, or deliver aid. Workers can't simply drop what they're doing to assist some individual problem that may be acute for the individual, or newsworthy, but miniscule in comparison to the whole disaster. A driver of a food truck taking food for hundreds of people cannot - must not - stop to take someone to the hospital. The absolute bottom of the barrel for news coverage of Hurricane Katrina came when a BBC correspondent harassed aid workers - interfered with emergency operations - about an unburied body. The State Department should, very bluntly, have revoked his visa and deported him. Critical news coverage is one thing, interfering with emergency workers is another thing altogether. That shameful episode stands in stark contrast to the two heroic news teams in Haiti who pooled resources to dig out a buried quake victim and still report the story.

It wasn't like the danger was unknown. In 2001, four years before Katrina, Mark Fischetti wrote "Drowning New Orleans" (Scientific American, October 1, 2001) that detailed the risk in every detail. In fact, New Orleans dodged three bullets:
  1.  The storm dropped dramatically in intensity before landfall.
  2. The eye passed east of the city, so the most powerful right rear quadrant of the storm hit Mississippi.
  3. The levees failed as the storm was waning, not at the peak. Given that the disaster scenarios had been extensively modeled, Louisiana should have had a well crafted disaster plan. Evacuation centers should have been identified well inland (not downtown) and provisioned.
The principal responsibility for disaster response lies with state and local government, and their failures were legion. New Orleans' hundreds of buses were not used. In fact, an Amtrak train specifically intended for evacuation left empty because state and local officials made no effort to use it. One way traffic on Interstates was not initiated until too late. Governor Blanco delayed asking the Federal government to assume command of National Guard forces. Her reason was she didn't want to admit to being unable to cope with the disaster when it turned out she wasn't able to cope. A month after Katrina, there were National Guard troops from all 50 states in Louisiana. It wasn't even until August 30, two days after the levees failed, that she asked for National Guard units from other states. It's almost as if Blanco and Nagin thought merely declaring an emergency would take care of everything. "Unable to cope?" Ya think?

To me, three principal lessons come out of Katrina:
  1.  Americans have wholly unrealistic ideas of how fast aid can come after a disaster. Americans have the idea the disaster happens on Monday, FEMA arrives on Tuesday, they write checks on Wednesday, the builders come on Thursday, and everything is back to normal by the weekend. It just isn't so.
  2. Americans need to prepare far better for disasters. People need to be prepared to cope for a week or more before aid begins arriving in quantity. The three days recommended by FEMA is just insufficient.
  3. After a disaster, FEMA doesn't need to be part of Homeland Security. It needs to be Homeland Security, at least in the disaster area. It needs to be able to command other agencies and back the orders up with firing authority. It needs to be able to order the FBI to investigate problems, order Customs to allow foreign aid personnel and supplies to enter, and order other agencies to stop pushing paper and supply personnel as needed for critical tasks.
The man who beat Al Gore (well, actually that was Ralph Nader if you want to get picky) could do nothing right. Bush didn't leap up in panic when first informed about 9-11? Bad President. Then he spent the day under tight security? Bad President. He didn't fly back to Washington immediately after hearing about Katrina, despite having communications capabilities that allowed him to function from anywhere? Bad President. Then he flew over New Orleans rather than landing and interfering with rescue efforts? Bad President. Then he actually did visit New Orleans and interfered with rescue efforts? Bad, bad President. But the historical record is clear that gross negligence by Governor Blanco and Mayor Nagin was the real cause of the hardships.

For historical perspective, it is most illustrative to compare the responses to Katrina with the behaviors noted by William James in 1906 in "On Some Mental Effects of the Earthquake." Left as an exercise for the reader.

The Martyrdom of Saint Allende

It's ironic that many of the same people who complain that George Bush became President with less than a majority are silent about Salvador Allende becoming President of Chile in 1973 with only 37 per cent of the vote. And Ralph Nader wasn't even a candidate. Ah, the joys of a multi-party system.

I have a personal attachment to this event because at the time I was closely associated with people who regularly traveled to Chile. They spoke Spanish, were generally sympathetic to Allende, and politically liberal. Nevertheless, months before the coup, they were unanimous that the experiment was failing and that things were going to end very badly. It must have been so frustrating. According to Marxist theory, once the people take control of the means of production, all the wealth that formerly flowed to the plutocrats now goes to the people. Instead, formerly busy factories morphed mysteriously into empty buildings full of idle machinery.

What told me the regime was on its last legs was hearing that the government was nationalizing the trucking industry, a completely pointless gesture since most of the truckers were small independents and there was absolutely no possible benefit the regime could gain. I had the mental image of Chile's Marxists frantically ripping out sofa cushions looking for loose change. "I don't understand it - where did all the wealth go?" Where it went, of course, is that it simply ceased to exist. Unlike mass or energy, there is no law of Conservation of Wealth. It can be created, and it can also be destroyed.

Whether the CIA was involved is more or less irrelevant since the beatification of Allende has made any challenge to the idea unthinkable. But what exactly would the CIA have done? Ask yourself this: the station chief in Santiago wakes up, gets dressed, eats breakfast, and heads off to work -- and then what? What specifically does he do? They didn't fly planes or drive tanks. They might have encouraged opposition military officers, provided them with money, information, help in planning, and promises of U.S. approval, but it seems almost insulting to suggest that any army in Latin America, of all places, needs the help of the CIA to stage a coup. One acquaintance of mine left Chile the day before the coup and learned of it only when he arrived in the U.S. He later told of trying to explain to leftists what he had seen in Chile and being met by a wall of denial. "Fine," he said, "Don't believe me. I was only there." I don't think anyone denies that Allende was a decent and sincere man, but Chile was on the verge of becoming Zimbabwe. Saying that the CIA "toppled" Allende is like saying an overflowing sink helped sink the Titanic.

Willie Horton

The narrative: George Bush Senior and his team conducted a blatantly racist campaign against Michael Dukakis in 1988 by making the crimes of a black man, Willie Horton, a campaign issue.

William Horton was serving life without parole in Massachusetts for the murder of a store clerk in 1974. In 1986, he was released through a weekend furlough program (his tenth furlough) and did not return. He went to Maryland, raped a woman, beat her fiance, and stole his car. He was sentenced to two consecutive life terms and remains in prison. (Horton, a victim of phenomenal bad luck, claims to be innocent of both the murder and the rape.) The furlough program was actually signed into law by a Republican governor in 1972, and defenders of Dukakis point out, accurately, that many other states have furlough programs, which is true.

Also, Bush's campaign team decided to make the Horton case a campaign issue by testing the response of focus groups to different potential issues. And Horton went by the name "William" but Bush's campaign strategists referred to him as "Willie." So the appeal to racism part has an element of truth - a very tiny one - in it.

Here's what the conspiratorial narrative leaves out:
  • As originally created, the furlough program excluded first degree murderers in practice.
  • When the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that the furlough privilege extended to murderers (because the legislation authorizing the program contained no specific exclusion for them), the Massachusetts legislature quickly passed a law in 1976 closing the loophole. Dukakis vetoed the bill.
  • The furlough program was abolished in 1988, during a later term by Dukakis, and only after the  Lawrence Eagle Tribune ran a barrage of articles about the program, winning a Pulitzer Prize as a result.
  • No other jurisdiction in the country permitted furloughs for prisoners serving life without parole.
  • When the scandal broke, Dukakis resisted journalists' requests for information on Horton and his prison career.
  • Dukakis never apologized to Horton's victims.
So, most states have furlough programs and even conservative lawmakers support them to some degree. They encourage prisoners to behave by holding out a possible reward, and they can prepare prisoners for eventual release. There will be cases where inmates violate their trust.

Dukakis went far beyond that. He actively opposed legislation to bar convicted murderers from furlough. Then he stonewalled on releasing information on Horton. As has often been pointed out, often it's not the crime, but the cover-up. He only yielded on the furlough program after grass roots anger reached the boiling point. By then, he had given his foes enough damning evidence to destroy his chances for the White House.

The Neglected and Forgotten Female Astronauts

Supposedly, NASA trained thirteen women as astronauts but then deprived them of their rightful place on the astronaut roster. This one has been thoroughly debunked by space historian James Oberg.

Let's begin with the fact that there is no such thing as a right to be sent into space at someone else's expense. But beyond that, the women were never formally trained. One NASA physician became curious how women would compare to men and began testing the women. The program ended when a government medical facility asked who was going to pay for further testing. The women had all served gallantly in World War II, ferrying aircraft and flying cargo planes. But none ever flew in combat, and the astronaut program specifically recruited combat pilots. In fact, early astronauts claimed that the reflexes they developed in combat were crucial for coping with crises in space. There were far more qualified applicants than could be used, and many of the pilots "rejected" for the Mercury Program flew later with Gemini, Apollo, and the Space Shuttle. No male pilot with experience equal to the female "astronauts," that is, flight hours but no combat experience, would even have made it past the initial screening.

The Hacks of the 2016 Election

2016 was a banner year for crackpot conspiracy theories, with Donald Trump claiming he actually won the popular vote if we deduct the millions of illegal votes cast for Clinton. The liberal variant is that a last-minute announcement by FBI Director Comey that he was re-investigating Clinton's use of a personal e-mail server, plus Russian hacking, swung the election to Trump.

The problem is that Comey's actions and the alleged Russian hacking appealed to people who were already disposed to believe the absolute worst about Clinton. There are people who seriously believe she was part of a child sex-trafficking ring operating out of a pizzeria ("Pizzagate"). For the Russians to convince those voters to vote against Clinton would be about as challenging as selling vodka in Siberia in mid-winter. In fact, whatever trivial results they may have dug up by hacking her e-mails, they would have done far better by simply having some trolls dump outrageous rumors on social media, and let the right-wing echo chamber take it from there.

A later and even more extreme variant is that the Russians somehow hacked the election returns themselves. The chaotic mix of voting systems in the U.S. makes that claim flatly absurd. If they hacked some site giving overall vote tallies, that could be detected by simply cross-checking against state tallies.