Bush Did North Dakota

Continuing yesterday’s discussion of fake news:

Guess et al says that 46% percent of Trump voters endorsed the Pizzagate conspiracy theory. Does this mean fake news is very powerful?

We can compare this to belief in various other conspiracy theories, as measured by the 2016 Chapman University Survey Of American Fears. About 24% believe there’s a government conspiracy to cover up the truth about the moon landing, 30% about Obama’s birth certificate, and 33% about the North Dakota crash.

This last one is especially interesting because there was no unusual crash in North Dakota when the survey was written. The researchers included it as a placebo option to see if people would endorse a conspiracy theory that didn’t exist. 33% of them did.

Before we make fun of these people, consider: there’s a strong presumption that surveys don’t contain made-up questions. There was no “don’t know” option included on the poll, just various shades of “agree” or “disagree”. In order to condemn the people who “agreed” that the government was probably covering up the crash, we would have to assert that the more correct answer was “disagree”. In other words, that people should have an assumption of trusting the government, until they get some specific reason to distrust it. You can make that argument, but it’s not obvious. You could also start from the opposite assumption, where the government is guilty until proven innocent.

To put it another way, suppose I gave you the following survey:

SELECT AGREE OR DISAGREE, YOU MAY NOT SAY “DON’T KNOW” OR LOOK FOR MORE INFORMATION. Alex Jones is lying when he talks about:

1. Sandy Hook
2. The coronavirus
3. Obama’s birth certificate
4. The North Dakota crash

…many of us would guess he was lying about the North Dakota crash, without a second thought. And if there later turned out to be no North Dakota crash, we wouldn’t feel particularly ashamed; under the circumstances we made the right choice. If you think the government is as untrustworthy as Alex Jones, well, there you go.

I’ve previously talked about a lizardman constant of 4% on polls. That is, it’s hard to get a poll result much lower than four percent for anything, because of respondents making mistakes or trolling. If 4% of people supposedly believe something, that doesn’t mean we need to be concerned about that fraction of the population, it just means that poll has it its floor and it’s hard to conclude what the real number is.

In the same way, maybe we can posit a North Dakota constant of 33%. This is how many people believe in conspiracy theories when there’s no reason at all to believe them, not even the flimsy reasons conspiracy theories usually provide. Sometimes, if there’s a lot of evidence against them, fewer than 33% will believe in a given theory. But if it’s just “Conspiracy! True or false?” – 33% will say true.

Let’s look again at that statistic from the Guess paper – “46% of Trump voters believe”. I think their source is this poll, which finds:

Overall 38% of Americans agreed with the claim, so Trump voters (46%) were not outrageously more likely than anyone else. Other groups unrelated to ideology were about equally likely to believe it (eg 45% of Hispanics).

Like the North Dakota question, this one had no “unsure” or “what the hell are you talking about” option, forcing everyone to feign agreement or disagreement. We see that the majority of agreement is lukewarm. 75% of Trumpists and 85% of Hispanics who believe Pizzagate only “probably” rather than “definitely” believe it.

I don’t think the evidence suggests Trump voters live in an outrageously different world from the rest of us. Instead, it suggests there’s a North Dakota constant of 33% – the number of people who will believe a conspiracy theory for no particular reason. It looks like about 10 – 15% more Trump supporters than predicted believe Pizzagate, probably because it attacks Clinton, and 10 – 15% fewer Hillary supporters than predicted believe it. But these are relatively small effects, and equaled by eg whatever mysterious thing is going on with Hispanics. In any case, it all averages out to about the predicted amount.

Why is this North Dakota Constant of 33% so different from the Lizardman Constant of 4%? I don’t know. Lizardmen seem like a pretty crazy conspiracy theory, but is Hillary’s involvement with Satanic pizza parlors really that much less weird? Sure, Pizzagate is more politicized, and that might make some difference – but then how come a full 24% of Democrats believe it, six times more than Lizardman’s Constant predicts?

One part of the story is that the lizardman poll offered “don’t know”, and 7% of people chose that. If, denied that option, those people would split evenly between yes and no, that brings us up to 7%ish pro-lizardman. But that’s still nowhere near 33%.

I think this is probably a story about low-information voters. If you imagine you’ve never heard about Pizzagate, and you read the question as written, it doesn’t sound too outlandish. Some Clinton staffers’ emails contained some code words. The pedophilia and Satanic abuse are pretty out there, but post-Jeffrey Epstein we all assume somebody’s doing some kind of creepy pedophilia stuff somewhere. Maybe if you don’t know anything about this, and you don’t have the strong priors about Satanic ritual abuse that you get from studying the history of those claims in the 80s and 90s, this one seems like a toss-up. Certainly it seems like more of a toss-up than a clearly-stated assertion that reptilian aliens rule the world. If your prior is “most conspiracy theory-ish things are probably true”, this sounds like the kind of thing that could be true, whereas you might balk at the lizardman statement.

Here’s another question from the same poll:

Who believes Obama was secretly born in Kenya? Lots of people – including 28% of blacks. I’ve been told again and again that birtherism is a racist conspiracy theory and no person could possibly believe it except as a way of dog whistling white supremacy. Yet here we are with 28% of blacks supporting it – and this isn’t a small sample either! I have no idea what these people are thinking, except that 28% is pretty close to the North Dakota Constant and maybe we should just write this one off.

I conclude we probably shouldn’t draw too many conclusions from specific statements like “X% of [GROUP] supports [CONSPIRACY THEORY]”, especially if X is around 33%. It’s probably just the North Dakota Constant. Likewise, we shouldn’t interpret Pizzagate’s high polling numbers as much evidence that fake news is very convincing – though you could still make an argument that fake news plays a role in transmitting believable conspiracy theories to people who are predisposed to believe them.

Of course, there are some high-information voters who still believe these things really strongly. I think they deserve a more complete treatment, which I want to give later. I think a preliminary sketch might look like: if you start with a prior on something being true, you don’t necessarily need much evidence. The North Dakota question suggests that conspiracy theorists start with a high prior on any given conspiracy being true. What remains to be explained is why some people stick to that prior even after they get more information.

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375 Responses to Bush Did North Dakota

  1. TysonsCorner says:

    The Obama poll would be more interesting if they just asked if they like/dislike Obama. Conservative/Liberal and Republican/Democrat are less accurate proxies. I’d like to know the percentage of people who like Obama but definitely think he’s from Kenya.

    I tend to think people respond with what they want to be true, versus actually think is true, and they are more or less aware of the discrepancy. If you conducted a similar poll (conspiracy-based, partisan, polarizing, etc.), then followed up separately with a $100 incentive for giving the correct answer (something provable), I’d suspect you’d get very different answers.

  2. n8chz says:

    Don’t forget the Bowling Green incident.

  3. Thomas says:

    How does one decide that something is a conspiracy theory?

    There are pedophiles, and somehow they communicate with each other. Some of them are prominent people. I’d call that a conspiracy. No idea if Hill is involved, but Bill? Would not be surprised. Am I a sucker for conspiracies?

    In the Obama/Kenya case, he spent millions, fighting for months to prevent release of his birth certificate. Why? I suspect he was running an op against the Republicans to make them look stupid, but he did spend those millions. Asking why he squandered that money and coming to the conclusion that he had something to hide doesn’t sound like nonsense to me.

    • Andaro says:

      “There are pedophiles, and somehow they communicate with each other. Some of them are prominent people. I’d call that a conspiracy. No idea if Hill is involved, but Bill? Would not be surprised. Am I a sucker for conspiracies?”

      I think this has more to do with probability per potential case rather than overall probability. We pedos are a small minority of the population. If we weren’t, child prostitution would simply be legal and normal. The fraction of us who are also rapists and slavers is smaller still. So you end up with a low probability per person. If you have no specific independent evidence, counting on a 50% or higher chance that an individual is a child rapist/slaver is very badly calibrated. We know some people are, but the vast majority aren’t.

      Before you had any evidence that Bill Cosby is a rapist, you should not have given a 50% chance or higher that he’s a rapist, even knowing that some people are rapists and even though in hindsight we know better.

  4. argentus says:

    Apologies if it’s already been said, but I don’t have time to read the whole comment section. There’s some pretty strong evidence that Trump himself is in that 33% constant of people who just believe conspiracy theories for whatever reason. Since he is the first modern president to believe this and not to have the sense to hide the fact that he believes this, I think it’s reasonably possible that other people in that 33% might find him appealing for this reason. Thus, you might very well find higher numbers of conspiracy theory believers among Trump supporters than among the general population.

  5. Trashionalist says:

    But these are relatively small effects, and equaled by eg whatever mysterious thing is going on with Hispanics.

    When I was on /pol/ before the 2016 election, I saw the proto-Pizzagate stuff being cooked up. Specifically, it was about this artist associated with Podesta, Marina Abramovic, and her “spirit cooking”. The /pol/ users were excited about the “spirit cooking” stuff specifically, because they (or at least this one user) thought it might hurt Clinton with Hispanics, because of Catholic anxieties about Satanism. This guy was basically saying something along the lines of “Everyone try to spread this to Hispanics on social media, they get so freaked out by Satanist stuff it might actually scare them away from voting for Hillary”.

    Maybe he was onto a winning strategy. I doubt Pizzagate spread that much among Hispanics, but maybe that particular form of religiosity makes Hispanic respondents more likely to believe authorities are engaging in Satanic ritual abuse.

    • liz says:

      Yeah. Weird.
      Marina Abramovic had, at the time, demonstrations of her “Spirit Cooking”, a form of ritual employing pigs blood, fresh breast milk and sperm (ostensibly to act as a medium connecting spirits to the material world). Also, there were statements about violence writ in blood (if memory serves).
      Nothing unusual about a political adviser (some grown-assed person, not a person stuck on lord of the flies Island at age ten)…”looking forward” to something like that at all.
      Hispanics are so simple, and super judgy!
      I know I myself am looking forward to my next pig’s blood/breast milk/sperm dinner show.
      Bring it! I’ll invite all my friends.

  6. TheTurtleMoves says:

    I have very little faith in polls in general. Especially if they have anything to do with anything big and open. I honestly think they are more confusing that illuminating.

  7. yildo says:

    I suppose the conspiracy theory that President Obama had been born in Kenya rather than Hawaii sounds different depending on whether you conclude “…and is therefore ineligible to have run for President and therefore the US Presidency should be retroactively awarded to John McCain, himself born in Panama” or “…and is therefore even awesomer as US President because Kenya is an awesome place”. The natural born restriction on the Presidency is unintuitive for those who may be unfamiliar with it.

    Here in Canada, the Conservative leader in the last federal election turned out to have a secret American citizenship. When this came to light, he said that he was renouncing it. Since losing the election, he changed his mind and is no longer renouncing the dual citizenship. Hypocritically, he had previously harangued one of our Governor Generals and a previous Liberal leader into renouncing their French dual citizenships.

  8. MostlyCredibleHulk says:

    That makes me feel good about recent poll in the UK that suggested 20% believed Jews created COVID19 (also 20% say the same about Muslims though I am not sure whether it’s the same or different people). Apparently, still 13% below the ND constant, so everything is well. Or at least not worse than it always has been.

  9. No One In Particular says:

    Believing that Obama was born in Kenya is not racist. But when someone insists that Obama was born in Kenya, and dismisses all evidence to the contrary, and demands that he provide a level of proof for citizenship that no other presidential candidate has been required to provide, it sure starts to look like racism.

    • 10240 says:

      By that logic anything related to Obama that didn’t happen with any other president is necessarily a function of his race. There are too many confounders to assume that.

      What’s a reason a racist would scrutinize Obama’s birthplace in a way that someone who is not racist but strongly opposed to him wouldn’t? Sure, a racist would have liked to derail an Obama presidency, but so would have anyone strongly opposed to him.

      Or does a racist put a bigger probability on Obama having been born in Kenya than a non-racist? Racists know perfectly well the (for them regrettable) fact that black people do get born in the US. Hating black people shouldn’t affect in any way what probability one would put on Obama having been born in Kenya.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        What’s a reason a racist would scrutinize Obama’s birthplace in a way that someone who is not racist but strongly opposed to him wouldn’t? Sure, a racist would have liked to derail an Obama presidency, but so would have anyone strongly opposed to him.

        As I said, the “natural born citizen” text in the Constitution was put in because of Alexander Hamilton (born in the British West Indies colony that’s now Saint Kitts and Nevis) by his frenemies among the American Whigs who rebelled against the Crown together. By analogy, someone wouldn’t have to be too strongly opposed to Barack Obama (II)’s political ambitions to want to body block him like that.
        It just so happens that there are multiple points of evidence that his mom gave birth in the US state of Hawaii.

        • bullseye says:

          As noted in another thread, two categories of citizens are eligible to be president: natural born citizens, and people who were citizens at the time the Constitution was signed. We forget the second category because they’re all dead now. Pretty sure Hamilton was a citizen when he signed the Constitution.

      • No One In Particular says:

        By that logic anything related to Obama that didn’t happen with any other president is necessarily a function of his race.

        By what logic, precisely? People making stuff and just saying it’s “according to that logic” is rather annoying. I never said it’s necessarily racism.

        What’s a reason a racist would scrutinize Obama’s birthplace in a way that someone who is not racist but strongly opposed to him wouldn’t?

        What reason would there be for our country to go several centuries of rancorous, sometimes violent political disagreement, and yet not a single president is accused of not being a citizen, until a black person is elected? You don’t see the racist overtones of “he’s not a real American”? While it is certainly possible for a non-racist to come up with the “claim that a black man isn’t really an American” gambit, it is also clear that the probability of this occurring to a racist is larger than to a non-racist. And it would difficult to convince a non-racist, no matter how anti-Obama, that all evidence of him being an American should be dismissed out of hand.

        Racists know perfectly well the (for them regrettable) fact that black people do get born in the US.

        Racism isn’t about logic.

        • 10240 says:

          What reason would there be for our country to go several centuries of rancorous, sometimes violent political disagreement, and yet not a single president is accused of not being a citizen, until a black person is elected?

          Some reasons:
          (1) The internet has made it easier for people to spread silly theories. There has only been widespread internet access, and a lot of user-generated content, under the last 3 or so presidents.
          (2) Well-known recent foreign ancestry. (Yes, some other presidents have had it too, but not all, and not necessarily as well-known.)
          (3) Random noise. (Why is there a silly pedophilia conspiracy theory about Hillary and no other candidate?)

          Anyway, do you know that no previous president has been accused of not being a citizen? I have no idea whether there were such accusations about any other than the last few presidents.

          By what logic, precisely?

          That if there were no theories about other presidents not being natural-born citizens, but there were about Obama, that’s because Obama is black.

          • albatross11 says:

            I think there have been bizarre conspiracy theories (including about prominent politicians) forever, probably most of them not ever written down anywhere until printing was cheap.

    • MostlyCredibleHulk says:

      TBH, questioning the place of birth of somebody who didn’t live in the country for many years in his childhood, who had a foreign father and who at certain time has had promotional materials issued about him claiming he was born out of the country is not the same as questioning the same circumstance of the president who didn’t have these peculiarities in his biography.

      BTW Ted Cruz was also attacked about his birthplace (Canada) and his eligibility for President. And if he runs again (which very well may happen in 2024) that question would undoubtedly be risen again. I’d have hard time concluding it’s because of racism against him. More like it’s just a convenient thing to attack an opponent, especially if there’s a grain of truth in it – as in, Cruz was born in Canada (but still is eligible), and Obama did have unusual (compared to other presidents) biography (but still was born in Hawaii).

    • Sorghum says:

      Strong disagree. As we’ve seen all over this thread, people latch onto all sorts of wacky but politically convenient theories and refuse to change in response to evidence.

      To pick the one of these theories which happens to involve a black guy and call it “racist” is ridiculous.

    • Evelyn Q. Greene says:

      demands that he provide a level of proof for citizenship that no other presidential candidate has been required to provide

      Nonsense. Both McCain and Ted Cruz faced similar accusations. Besides, you’re underestimating your degrees of freedom here. For instance Trump is regularly accused of being an agent to, or dupe of foreigners which is something that would certainly be spun as racism if he where a nonwhite democrat.

      • bullseye says:

        If you seriously believe the other party’s candidate isn’t legally allowed to be President, you’re going to pound on that issue. It’s going to be all over the place. I saw almost nothing about McCain’s citizenship.

        I’m in a liberal bubble, and all I saw was one article, just one, saying that, in theory, one could question whether he’s a natural-born citizen, because the Constitution doesn’t define that term. I never saw anyone actually make the leap in “he’s not a natural-born citizen”.

        As for Cruz, I think I heard about the existence of a citizenship controversy; maybe something within his party that I wasn’t really aware of. Most of what I heard about him was claims that he’s just personally repulsive, and jokes that he’s the Zodiac Killer.

        • Evelyn Q. Greene says:

          The McCain one was weird because there was no dispute about facts, just flimsy legal interpretation about the panama canal zone. It seemed like throwing everything out there to see what stuck, but I’ve seen more than one article about it.

          The Cruz thing was much bigger, though since Cruz never made it out of the republican primary, only among republicans. It has entries on both his own and his campaign’s Wikipedia pages, and I know a least one person who liked him but was turned of by it. Trump was the one who started it, and I think the whole thing is pretty good evidence that Trump and some fraction of republicans like to rules lawyer the only rules lawyerable constitutional eligibility requirements.

  10. No One In Particular says:

    Why are there statements followed by the question “Do you think the following statements are true or not true?”

  11. Conrad Honcho says:

    I think it depends on what you mean by “Pizzagate.” The original version was about John Podesta’s emails, which contained odd, nonsensical statements, some of which resembled pedophile code words. Also, one might check out his art collection, which contains disturbing stuff, some of which looks like depictions of child rape. Then, there was a connection to a pizza parlor, which posted stuff on their social media that also looked as though it sexualized children, and included pedophile slang for child sex.

    The media description of Pizzagate, though, is “child sex dungeon in a pizza parlor,” which definitely didn’t happen.

    So if you ask me, “do you believe in Pizzagate, meaning a child sex dungeon in a pizza parlor,” the answer is “no.” If you ask me, “do you believe in Pizzagate, meaning John Podesta had creepy artwork that looks like the sort of thing someone who sexualizes children would own, and said weird stuff in his emails, and there’s a pizza parlor that posts stuff with pedophile slang on it on their social media accounts, and maybe it wouldn’t be too awful if some journalists tried to ask them what, specifically, they meant by these non-obvious terms,” then the answer is “maybe.”

    The whole pizza parlor basement thing was very non-central to the Internet conspiracy theory. But that’s what the media latched on to.

  12. Telomerase says:

    Sorry, this isn’t a conspiracy post about malaria drugs or bleach… Why hasn’t anyone noticed that there’s now a human trial on nicotinamide riboside against SARS-CoV-2? The preclinical work is very convincing, and there are ~100K people taking it anyway for sleep and cognitive improvements:

    https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT04407390

    Personally, I’d like the rationalist community to talk about rational stuff occasionally, anyway 😉

  13. JohnBuridan says:

    I am most wondering whether the dynamic that causes this result is stronger than 20 years ago. For example, if you asked Americans in 1999 about Government UFO coverups, Satanism in D&D, the “NWO” lobbying for seatbelt legislation, and the Bilderberger group deciding the destiny of American finance would you get even close to similar numbers?

  14. ajfirecracker says:

    I generally dig into things that interest me, so maybe I’m a high-info “voter”

    I am more predisposed than most to “believe” conspiracy theories in the sense that I try to understand what is meant to have happened and if the official or accepted story doesn’t make sense one explanation is that the official or accepted story isn’t the whole story.

    So for example, I might be labelled a moon landing conspiracist because I have learned about a few strange things that make the official story less believable (e.g. NASA taped over all the Apollo mission data), but I don’t pretend to know what really happened or have some strong proof that the official story is wrong.

    I think perhaps people like me are being included in your data with people who claim to know the truth behind events which feature discrepancies.

    • No One In Particular says:

      a few strange things that make the official story less believable (e.g. NASA taped over all the Apollo mission data)

      I think this makes your age a relevant question. Taping over data is going to look weirder to someone who grew up with terabyte hard drives that to someone who paid $10 for a 144 kilobyte disc.

    • Watchman says:

      When you learnt the Apollo mission data was taped over, was your reaction to check if this was normal (note that tv companies at the time still refused film a lot for example)? I tend to find belief in conspiracy theories correlates with a willingness no investigate something but then a tendency to stop at the interesting result (data was destroyed!) without checking the significance of this (my guess is NASA reused tape as a matter of routine: that stuff was expensive).

      Interestingly this makes conspiracy theories incredibly similar to bad science, where again results are interpreted as automatically significant, not understood and contextualised.

      • CatCube says:

        My particular bugbear is the 9/11 “controlled demolition” theory, and I’ve spiraled in on believing that the people who put great stock into variations of it tend to have incorrect views on what a structural collapse should look like, and because the Twin Towers didn’t collapse the way they imagined it should that there must be some coverup, so they start nitpicking irrelevant details in search of the conspiracy they’ve already decided exists.

        Tangentially related to your discussion of the missing Apollo tapes, I have an anecdote from my job. I work on dams for the federal government, most of which were built between the ’30s and the late ’60s.

        Most of you probably aren’t familiar with construction contracts, so a quick aside: construction contracts consist of two things, the plans (the drawings–often called “blueprints” though that term is erroneous today–that all of you can picture), and the specifications, which is textual information explaining detailed requirements for the products to be provided, construction methods to be used, and testing and certification to be provided by the Contractor. For example, while you’ll typically put a single note for the strength of concrete on the drawings–f’c=5,000 psi, for example–there’s way more requirements the Contractor needs to meet to provide a suitable product. For example, the cement needs to be ASTM C150 Type I cement, they need to test each batch for compressive strength according to ASTM C39 (and do they use 6″ cylinders or 8″ cylinders). How many cylinders do they take (6 or 8 are typical) and when do they test them and how many do they hold back? Etc., there’s way more stuff, but I’m going to stop here. This information is provided in the specifications.

        In the Department of Defense, we use the Unified Facilities Guide Specifications, which are about 80% complete specifications that experts in specifying concrete have written to help us working engineers avoid pitfalls. For concrete you can see the one we’d typically use here: https://www.wbdg.org/FFC/DOD/UFGS/UFGS%2003%2030%2000.pdf

        All that seems important, right? Detailed information on how we expect contractors to build stuff seems like the thing we’d like to keep, wouldn’t you think? For the 21 dams in my organization, I’ve never found specifications for the original construction for any that I’ve tried to locate. Now, I’ve not tried for all 21. I’ve only done major work on about 4, and conducted inspections on another 2, but for those 6? Can’t find the specs. I can find the original drawings, no problem. As a matter of fact, I need to be careful, because we have drawings that were made as part of the design, but were superseded by design changes and never actually used for construction, but they were kept. I can find the Design Memoranda, which is the record of what the designers did and why, for example, what load they used for floors, what earthquakes they used, what various other assumptions they made, etc. Test records for all the concrete of the dams made during construction, or photographs made during construction? Can find those just fine.

        But 50% of the construction contract that we were holding the Contractor to? Disappeared like a fart in the wind. Now, to be fair, about 90-95% of the information I need to do my job is contained in all those other records. The only reason I started looking for this was a note on a drawing for something I was looking at: “PAINT SYSTEM FOR ALL GATES IS SYSTEM NO. 3. SEE SPECIFICATIONS.” What is System Number 3? The specs were the only record. Looking at the paint as it stands today I’d guess it was the red lead in linseed oil that was used in every industrial facility until about the late ’70s–and this question turned out to be unimportant enough that I didn’t bother asking anybody to test for the particular paint system. I just found it weird that this was the piece of information we didn’t keep.

        My private hypothesis is that there was just a gap in “who was supposed to keep this” that caused this, and my guess is that this is a result of the rather ironic fact that the specs were the easiest part to keep. Keeping engineering drawings before scanning into a database or printing to PDF directly from CAD was a thing was a very expensive pain in the ass requiring special cabinets and a lot of space, so there was a careful plan for maintaining them. The design memos and construction records had specific offices designated to maintain copies of them–our organizational library and our construction office, respectively–because very few copies were ever made.

        But the specs were easy to copy, so most of the ten or so offices responsible had a copy, and didn’t require any special furniture or anything to keep, so they were just on a bookshelf in each of those offices. And since everybody was keeping a copy, nobody thought to specify somebody who had to keep a copy. So by the early ’80s, everybody looking to make shelf space had happened to throw out their copy and nobody was left with one when it came time to scan everything in to our records database.

        Now, I don’t know that these are gone forever. I’ve only had questions that could, with some effort, be answered by other methods, or things that I decided I could move on with my life not knowing. So maybe if I hit something that truly couldn’t, I could somehow find something in the National Archives if I put in a lot of effort.

        But to cycle back to the Apollo tapes: sometimes, stuff just…disappears, due to bad recordkeeping or oversights. There’s no plausible conspiracy for why these specs would have disappeared, just benign neglect by people who probably would have kept a copy if they had realized that there wasn’t one being stored anywhere else.

        So do I find it totally inexplicable outside of conspiracy that some of what you would think were important records were lost from Apollo? No. Sometimes, that…just happens, and not because anybody was being malicious.

        • Mark V Anderson says:

          +100 Cat cube this was a great description of why things go wrong. This time the special case of why things disappear.

        • nkurz says:

          @CatCube:
          > My particular bugbear is the 9/11 “controlled demolition” theory

          I’d be very interested in your analysis of the UAF report on the collapse of WTC Building 7. I haven’t read it closely, largely because I don’t think I have the expertise to determine if their analysis is reasonable — but you probably do! I haven’t seen anyone outside the project was both qualified and brave/stupid enough to touch it. I’d love to hear what you make of it:

          Main site: http://ine.uaf.edu/wtc7
          Which links to the full report: https://files.wtc7report.org/file/public-download/A-Structural-Reevaluation-of-the-Collapse-of-World-Trade-Center-7-March2020.pdf

          Superficially, their preliminary research struck me as a physically plausible. The authors seem properly credentialed, and while they maybe wrong on their facts, they don’t seem to be making unsupported claims. They do a pretty good job of holding back from the claim that controlled demolition was used, and restrict themselves to showing that the collapse was not caused by fire.

          > because the Twin Towers didn’t collapse the way they imagined it should

          It’s probably worth highlighting that Building 7 was not one of the Twin Towers, was not hit by an airplane. Instead it was the third building that collapsed that day. If it was to be shown that Building 7 did not collapse due to fire, it would call into question that narrative for the other buildings, but would not preclude the standard explanation for the collapse of the other two.

          • CatCube says:

            No promises. I’ll have to wrap my head around the basic of their theory, and if that’s not well-laid-out I’m not going to bother further. “Controlled demolition” is pretty implausible from a “how do you actually conduct this demolition without magic explosives and an unrealistic degree of control over the progression of the situation?”* perspective, so if I can’t figure out what they’re talking about in about 30 minutes of reading I don’t have high hopes that the rest of it isn’t a waste of time.

            As you point out, it strains plausibility for a controlled demolition collapse to strike Building 7, with a different framing system (steel pans on W-sections compared to the Twin Towers steel pans on open-web steel joists), but that it was *totally* a fire-induced collapse in WTC 1 & 2 (the collapse of the roof in the Charleston Sofa Super Store fire shows the weakness of this system to a large uncontrolled fire, indicating the plausibility of that). It starts to approach the fundamental silliness of this xkcd comic.

            * How do you pick which floors to plant explosives on, then make sure the suicide bombers flying the planes pick *that exact floor* to strike, which is wildly different in both buildings? And how do you prevent the explosives from being consumed by the post-crash fire, since explosives are very flammable (hence the “magic explosive” comment)?

          • Another Throw says:

            And how do you prevent the explosives from being consumed by the post-crash fire, since explosives are very flammable (hence the “magic explosive” comment)?

            I think you are being uncharitable with the “magic explosive” bit. It is in fact pretty straightforward to make a time-delayed flame ignition device. Designing a device to, e.g., complete a circuit when the temperature inside a fire-proofed container reaches a set temperature intermediate between room temperature and the combustion-but-not-explosion temperature of your explosive is left as an exercise for the reader.

            While it may not be practical, it isn’t magic.

          • CatCube says:

            I’ve got the PDF open on my computer but haven’t had a chance to read through it in any detail yet. Probably not before this weekend.

            @Another Throw

            Designing a device to, e.g., complete a circuit when the temperature inside a fire-proofed container reaches a set temperature intermediate between room temperature and the combustion-but-not-explosion temperature of your explosive is left as an exercise for the reader.

            When I said that the 9/11 controlled demolition theory is “[m]y particular bugbear” this, this right here ↑, is exactly what I’m talking about.

            I apologize that I’m sort of using “you” as a synecdoche for the people who make a career of this, but I’m going to drive on anyway.

            There’s a floor plan of floors 12 & 13 of WTC7 on page 18 (pdf page 31) of the report @nkurz linked. Tell me how many pounds of explosive, P, of explosive type Z, at setpoint T°F are placed at each location X and Y in the building (be particular about where it is on the column), and what your “fireproof container” is made of and its dimensions. I don’t necessarily want a schematic of the circuit you propose, but I’d like to hear what temperature sensor you’re using, where you have it in your fireproof container, what it’s margin of error is, and how that location in your container and error in measurement might affect your demolition plan. It probably wouldn’t hurt to give the specs of the components you propose, some idea of what temperature they’ll be subjected to, and what the tolerances of their ratings will be over the temperatures even in the “fireproof container” and how that tolerance will affect the performance of your circuit. Also, when were these installed?

            Because it turns out that if you don’t let yourself just do the “Star Trek technobabble” with a couple of sentences about how dilithium crystals let us violate known physics and totally travel faster than light, and actually sit down with a pencil, an engineering pad, and a calculator, you start to realize just how complex this starts to become, and just how bonkers this turns out to be.

            The first thought that comes to mind when reading your post: how do you know what temperature each location is going to reach at what time to set off your explosives, even if your “fireproof container” is something that could be built to control the behavior of your explosives and associated circuitry to tight tolerances? (And I’m not convinced it could.) Do you imagine you have enough control over the progression of the fire that you’re going to get something happening in anything like a reasonable plan? That’s literally what I thought of in the first ten seconds of considering your post, and I’m sure I can come up with more complexity with a little more thinking. Maybe you can come up with answers for these; I’d sure be interested in hearing them.

            Do not give me <jazzhands>”I’m sure somebody could figure out how to do this”</jazzhands> If you’re going to say it’s possible, you tell me, exactly, how you think this is going to work. When a professor writes “xxx is left as an exercise for the reader” in a textbook, he’s done the exercise himself.

            BTW, the report that nkurz linked discusses in the executive summary that the failure of WTC7 involved the “near-simultaneous” failure of its columns. Since instability is a pretty sudden phenomenon, I don’t know exactly what that means relative to a fire-induced collapse, but maybe it becomes clearer as you work through the report. But you may want to consider how adversely your proposed “temperature-controlled” demolition charges will play with that hypothesis. Of course, maybe the report is wrong. We can both look at that together!

          • Another Throw says:

            1. GTA 05-10-033 should have a handy table showing you how much of what where.
            2. Silica is used in applications up to 3000 °F, which is rather more than we need. Pile it on as thick as necessary.
            3. A few microcontrollers coordinate the demolition of all the columns nearly simultaneously when the attached sensors (not necessarily exclusively temperature) exceed the trigger condition(s). The course of the fire needn’t be controlled nor, for that matter, which floor the plane crashes into.

            Thank you, next!

            Look. THE WHOLE ARGUMENT IS STUPID. Every alternative hypothesis would require truckloads of supplies that somebody would have noticed being hauled in, and left abundant physical evidence that would be impossible to miss. There ain’t no national security letter that would be able to keep that under wraps. Putting in the effort to figure out exactly how many truckloads is a waste of time. But rounding off “moderately complex engineering problem that would require interdisciplinary expertise and a hell of a budget” to “magic” is a bit uncharitable.

          • CatCube says:

            But rounding off “moderately complex engineering problem that would require interdisciplinary expertise and a hell of a budget” to “magic” is a bit uncharitable.

            No, “magic” is the correct level of contempt, and the rest of your post lays out why.

            Every alternative hypothesis would require truckloads of supplies that somebody would have noticed being hauled in, and left abundant physical evidence that would be impossible to miss.

            Exactly. Because with actual (non-magic) explosives, all of this stuff is unreasonably large and couldn’t possibly be hidden for the “controlled demolition” theory to have occurred the way people seem to think did.

            If you did have some magic explosive that wasn’t flammable at “building on fire” temperatures you could start to come up with a more-plausible demo plan that does what people think it did while remaining secret. We don’t have magic explosives, so there isn’t one. (There are still problems with the initiation system, as I was alluding to with comments about the electronics, hence why I say “more-plausible” and not “plausible”, but I don’t think I need to go further down that rabbit hole.)

            1. GTA 05-10-033 should have a handy table showing you how much of what where.
            2. Silica is used in applications up to 3000 °F, which is rather more than we need. Pile it on as thick as necessary.
            3. A few microcontrollers coordinate the demolition of all the columns nearly simultaneously when the attached sensors (not necessarily exclusively temperature) exceed the trigger condition(s). The course of the fire needn’t be controlled nor, for that matter, which floor the plane crashes into.

            The first result on DDG pulls up a GTA from 1965, but it doesn’t look like it’s changed much in 40 years. However, it does consume a bunch of card space talking about how to execute a road crater, which you don’t have much opportunity for in 2001 Manhattan. I feel like that for something like this you’d bust out the actual FM 5-250–or whatever they’re calling it now, as they keep renumbering the damn things, but that’s what it was when I was a baby lieutenant.

            However, looking at the front of that card you see the arrangement of explosives in a steel wide-flange section (which describes either the columns in WTC 1, 2, or 7). Now consider how you arrange that with your silica that you “pile…as thick as necessary.” How does that standoff affect the efficiency of your explosives, and hence the size of your charges? Which is why I want to hear how thick you think it needs to be.

            You also can’t wave away the problems with either the course of the fire or the floor where the plane hit. We need to be careful, because WTC7 and WTC 1&2 had very different structural systems, and @nkurz original comment was regarding WTC7 but talking about “where the plane hit” obviously only applies to the Twin Towers. However, just using the Twin Tower to illustrate why I claim you can’t handwave this away, you can see in videos that if the collapse didn’t initiate right at the wingtips of the holes the planes made, it was damn close. So how did they get these magic demo charges there? Did somebody climb up there and plant them in the 45 minutes to an hour and 15 minutes the building was burning? Or did they wire up a range of floors? If they did the latter, how did they choose which floors to initiate, without a robust system for sequencing the demolition to “match” what a fire-induced collapse would have been?

            This is why I keep trying to pin you to specifics, rather than accepting the jazzhands about “Here’s a GTA, I’m sure somebody could figure this out!” I spent two years as a working structural engineer on active duty–here, I mean “working structural engineer” as somebody who’s actually doing literal calculations to design stuff, not what most officers who had a civil engineering degree with a focus in structural engineering would be doing, which is general management responsibilities with no focus on real design. As far as I know, for those two years, I was literally the only working structural engineer on active duty. (Not necessarily a Mewtwo-level rare beast, as about a year and a half after I got out, another active-duty Soldier got assigned to us to work as a working structural engineer, and I think he’s the only one right now, but this job description isn’t common either.)

            If you actually tried to create your proposed “interdisciplinary team” with “a hell of a budget”, I think I could at least justify submitting a resume to it, and I’m a lot less sanguine than you are that there’s a solution to the problem.

            I’m not claiming that you can’t come up with a plan to destroy the WTC site with explosives. That’d be stupid. You can pull up plenty of examples on YouTube of building demo with explosives, and Las Vegas especially loves this spectacle. I’m not even going to claim that it’s literally impossible to create demo charges that would work during a structure fire, thought that’s a pretty weird requirement and I’m not totally confident that it can be done safely. I do claim that it’s impossible on a level that involves “magic explosives” to conduct a building demo of a secret conspiracy of the type that would be required to do a “controlled demolition” on 9/11.

            You can’t divorce engineering problems from their constraints. The whole point of engineering is to find an economic solution with constraints imposed by the limitations of physics and what laws and society require. The secrecy requirements for 9/11 overconstrain the problem to the point that they admit no solution, unless you start to work with magic.

    • matkoniecz says:

      but I don’t pretend to know what really happened

      And I claim to know what happened. In this case conspiracy would require USSR to cooperate in conspiracy to present themselves that they lost space race.

      If I start believing (or suspecting) that USA and USSR conspired in this way I may as well to start believing that Harry Potter was a documentary.

      Seriously, “Harry Potter was a documentary” has stronger position that “USA faked moon landings”. There is no counter-evidence and has a self-consistent explanation why there is no evidence, not requiring additional weird things over mind magic already included in the story anyway.

      And an easily constructed explanation why it become available (either as controlled information release, probably bundled with propaganda or as way to discredit/coverup any leaks), while faked moon landing make no sense on any level.

      I probably should now do something productive rather than look for someone already claiming to believe this one and making weird websites with evidence.

    • albatross11 says:

      I think one thnig I’ve come to accept more with experience and age is how messy real-life is compared to nice stories. The story in the newspaper usually is crafted with facts and quotes included or omitted to tell a coherent story. An official history is usually the same, but more so. A story in fiction is even more smoothed-out. But reality usually doesn’t give us nice clean narratives that make sense, where people are all of a piece and good guys are good/bad guys are bad and the facts nicely fall into the rows we expect.

      I think most large-scale things done in our society have a certain amount of fraud and malfeasance in them, some covering up of local f–k-ups, some errors so dumb you’d think nobody could make them, some internal political forces leading to inexplicable decisions. Human memories are extremely fallable, many people have dark sides to their personality and personal history, decisions are messy, records are often lost or imperfectly kept, etc. All this means that it’s pretty common to look into any big thing and find lots of weird loose ends and questionable facts that don’t perfectly fit together as a story. People mostly used to consuming the smoothed-out, strong-narrative version of the story from a newspaper or magazine or book are likely to see all these messy facts as suspicious.

      This person told very different stories about the same event in different settings a couple years apart. That person who was somewhat involved in the event had some really sketchy stuff going on in his finances. Those records which would clarify some of the decisions made are incomplete or missing. These major decisions made by some organization look really inexplicable. These two people in the organization told some really creepy and distasteful jokes on email. And so on.

      If you look at this expecting there to be some kind of conspiracy, it’s easy to keep convincing yourself by these contradictions and weird things that seem to need an explanation. But they may just be the messiness of reality. People who committed suicide mysteriously often did have serious enemies, but they still actually did themselves in. Big disastrous decisions by companies or government agencies often did have people involved with potential conflicts of interest, but were still the result of internal political pressures rather than malfeasance. Etc.

      And this same fact leads to the situation where it’s usually possible to make a plausible-looking case for all kinds of malfeasance or conspiracy or evil intent by pointing a few such weird facts out and “connecting the dots.” If I pore over your personal messages for the last six months, I can probably find evidence that would look convincing, when carefully excerpted, that you were a terrible person engaged in terrible things.

      • Part of this is that humans are equipped with pattern recognition software so good that it can even find patterns that aren’t there.

      • mtl1882 says:

        Agree 100%. Life is just full of weird things that aren’t significant or connected. Most people don’t look into things too closely. Few who do are able to put things into perspective, and they often get derailed in their reasoning. Being a good investigator is mainly dependent on your ability to figure out what pieces actually fit together and what is noise.

        When I mention certain errors I come across in historical research, a lot of smart adults are baffled by the existence of these errors. I’m talking about things like writing December instead of November at the top of a letter. They keep asking me for an explanation as to why the writer would have done this, which I find very odd. Who has not done something like this at least a few times in their life? Doesn’t matter how smart or conscientious you are–everyone slips up. But people read stuff like that as inherently significant.

  15. CthulhuChild says:

    I appreciate that Scott is being charitable by using a reverse example that his audience is likely to be sympathetic with (IE, Alex Jones is always lying). But I don’t think this example is symmetrical. “The government” (which one?) does things other than cover up things. Like even if you are reeaaallly cynical about government, it is easy to verify government and government personnel are involved in things other than cover ups. You can do this on a personal basis, without outside assistance. Nor does the government suceed at covering everything up it wants to, otherwise there would never be any embarrassing information available on the mainstream media or otherwise, and there is lots of both. Or put it another way, one’s default experience with “the government” looks more like parent teacher interviews, IRS forms, the DMV, etc. Thus, default presumption that “anything I haven’t heard of is probably the result of a government conspiracy” lacks internal consistency.

    By contrast, assuming that everything Alex Jones says is a lie (or at least a hyperbolic distortion intended to pump his brand and sell vitamin pills) is entirely consistent with both casual experience and in depth exploration.

    In other words, it’s one thing to assume that the government is basically untrustworthy. Its another thing to assume that the government literally lies about everything in all domains 100% of the time. The former is an arguable (even if I disagree with it), the latter isn’t. By contrast, I feel comfortable defaulting to the assumption that Alex Jones is full of crap, because 100% of the videos I’ve seen him in he is full of crap.

    I agree that the format of the question definitely influences this number, and there should have been a “I have no idea” option. But I would attribute the 33% to noise caused by survey setup rather than assume any significance, nor would I try to relate it to other surveys. As to the 24% of democrats that “believe” in Pizzagate, I’d attribute that to either 1) Bernie Bros who are prepared to believe literally anything bad about the Democratic Party Establishment, or 2) People who are transmuting Pizzagate from it’s most extreme form into a proxy for “powerful dems sometimes do shady shit”. IE, that 24% doesn’t believe the Clintons regularly rape children in a pizza parlor with the assistance of the democratic national committee, but they DO believe John Podesta and Anthony Weiner are creeps.

    • Matt M says:

      By contrast, assuming that everything Alex Jones says is a lie (or at least a hyperbolic distortion intended to pump his brand and sell vitamin pills) is entirely consistent with both casual experience and in depth exploration.

      I don’t think this is true at all. Alex Jones does like 3 hours of radio a day, mostly discussing current events, mostly with a pretty standard right-wing take. You think something near 100% of his statements are verifiable lies? I feel like that would be darn tough to pull off even if you were trying. You’d have to luck into statements of facts sometimes, even by accident!

      • CthulhuChild says:

        You’d think, and yet I just logged to his live broadcast and he is proclaiming that Infowars is the most cencored show in history, and that this censorship is being done by American intelligence at the behest of Chinese communists and the military industrial complex.

        I mean, that’s a standard right wing talking point if you squint hard, but I stand by my point that literally everything he says on his show is a hyperbolic distortion. I’m sure we could iron out a formalized definition if you want, but government speakers just don’t come.close to the same volume of bullshit per minute. The president himself is a more moderate and factual source.

    • No One In Particular says:

      Thus, default presumption that “anything I haven’t heard of is probably the result of a government conspiracy” lacks internal consistency.

      That doesn’t follow.

      Its another thing to assume that the government literally lies about everything in all domains 100% of the time.

      It’s not merely an issue of P(government cover-up|event), but P(government cover-up|cover-up).

  16. Subb4k says:

    Please stop trying to name “constants” out of like three data points in which the things you observe aren’t even constant! Then you keep using it, people start using it elsewhere on the internet, and people start to believe it’s actually backed by rigorous research when you pulled that out of your ass.

    I seem to recall you saying that when you don’t understand something that you can observe, you should name it something that makes it clear that it’s still not understood. Maybe have the name involve “magic” or some other ridiculous non-explanation.
    Similarly, when you’re just making a conjecture based on close to no data, then don’t give your conjecture a name that makes it seems like you did an actual serious meta-analysis.

    • Randy M says:

      then don’t give your conjecture a name that makes it seems like you did an actual serious meta-analysis.

      You and I have different reactions to the phrase “Lizardman constant”, although in general it does feel that Scott should reread “Beware the man of only one study” every now and again.

      • Gerry Quinn says:

        Sure, Lizardman constant may be over-egging the cake. But who can argue that there is not a Lizardman *parameter*?

    • 6jfvkd8lu7cc says:

      And while for Lizardman constant there is at least a chance it is universal, for Generic Conspiracy ballot I would expect pretty large cross-country variation! And probably there is underlying variation both in belief that the government is hiding information, and in the belief that the government has some information to hide in the first place.

      On the other hand, _strong_ belief in North Dakota Crash Coverup is indicated at 7.5%, given that the governments _do_ have a questionable track record with transparency that has lately been discussed in detail, some difference with self-reported decapitation rate makes sense…

  17. albatross11 says:

    Is it possible that the underlying problem is just that surveys are often not very reliable, or are becoming less reliable over time? I mean, if the only people who answer unsolicited calls from unknown numbers are are bored teenagers and the crazies and the shut-ins, maybe you just get weird answers.

    Also, there are mainstream conspiracy theories. The original satanic panic (media reports of satanic ritual sexual child abuse) was a mainstream thing, even though the stories were utterly nuts. Many of the mainstream discussions about police misconduct toward blacks openly postulate white cops going out looking to murder someone for being black, which also doesn’t seem too consistent with reality. For that matter, tons of people are still convinced that Saddam had something to do with 9/11. That makes me think of another explanation: Most peoples’ expressed beliefs about these theories are driven by identity and perceived fitting in with their group.

    For many conspiracy theories, believing them is costless. I mean, if you really think the moon landing never happened and it was all a hoax, or that JFK was shot as part of a coup plot by LBJ, how does that change your daily life as a web developer or an elementary school teacher or an electrician? If you think Obama is a secret Muslim and was born in Kenya, or that Trump is secretly in the pay of Putin, again, what actual changes in your behavior does that require? What if you’re convinced that Covid-19 escaped from a Chinese lab–how does that make you change how you act day to day? For most people, these are low-cost beliefs, and expressing them is a way of signaling tribal affinity. For a few people, believing them and acting on them would be expensive–it’s probably hard to be an astronaut if you think NASA faked the moon landings. But mostly, they don’t have any consequences, and so when you perceive them as “the party line,” you just start mouthing them without thinking much about them.

    • matkoniecz says:

      I mean, if the only people who answer unsolicited calls from unknown numbers are are bored teenagers and the crazies and the shut-ins, maybe you just get weird answers.

      You forgot people deliberately lying for strategic reasons.

      • erinexa says:

        I answer all unknown calls and respond to all polls with my actual opinions. I do this because I have seen from the “inside” poll responses be used by governments/companies to shape decisions based on the responses, so it seems pretty obvious that if you tell people what you want, they are more likely to do it so they can get your votes and money. It always surprises me that more people don’t see polls this way.

        • matkoniecz says:

          It is not true where poll is made by someone with incompatible targets, especially where it is not about opinions but about facts.

          1) Lets say that you hate billboards with ads (ugliness and because at least in my city [Kraków, Poland] trees are illegally destroyed around them to make them more visible)

          In such case you may encounter poll checking effectiveness of marketing asking whatever you remember specific bilboard marketing campaign. You may lie to pretend that effectiveness of such marketing is lower than in reality.

          2) Someone is conducting poll intended to support discrimination of your group. Typical method is to have poll proving that group foobar is over-represented in your community therefore it should be oppressed or some funding specifically excluding it should be introduced. In such case strategically not responding, filling “prefer to not answer”/”other” or outright lying may be beneficial for some people.

          3) You hate company X and honestly want its efforts to be misdirected and fail.

          4) You consider specific outcome to be hilarious (Boaty McBoatface and its variants of manipulated polls)

          5) Lying about demographics may make your answer more impactful

          Also, legitimizing of obviously biased poll

          6) Poll is highly biased, participating would make it more credible (“99% of people support removal of parking lanes and making bicycle lane!” Or “99% of people support tuning park into a parking lot”)

          —-

          Personally I am not lying, though I selectively promote or answer polls based on what I consider as a desirable outcome.

    • keaswaran says:

      > Is it possible that the underlying problem is just that surveys are often not very reliable, or are becoming less reliable over time? I mean, if the only people who answer unsolicited calls from unknown numbers are are bored teenagers and the crazies and the shut-ins, maybe you just get weird answers.

      This doesn’t seem likely. YouGov is an effective pollster whose election surveys tend to come within about 5% of the actual election results. They take precautions about getting moderately representative participant pools, though I suppose it’s quite possible that the biases involved with survey response are more closely related to conspiratorial thinking than to partisan affiiliation.

    • Sorghum says:

      The Saddam-9/11 connection is another one that didn’t come out of nowhere, and it’s not insane to believe it.

      The strongest evidence came from “intelligence reports” that Mohammed Atta met with an Iraqi official at a cafe in https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mohamed_Atta%27s_alleged_Prague_connection

      The evidence was talked up by such luminaries as Dick Cheney and Will Safire. Now, years later it emerged that these “intelligence reports” were based on some random dude who saw Atta’s face on the news after 9/11 and thought he remembered seeing him meeting the Iraqi; pretty damn weak sauce. But if you’re the kind of person who reads New York Times articles and doesn’t read the corrections issued many years later, you could be forgiven for being aware of the initial plausible sounding claims but not the slow walk back of them.

      One wonders how many other things that our intelligence agencies believe are based on similarly flimsy evidence.

      • albatross11 says:

        I suspect most peoples’ understanding of all kinds of things that have happened in the news are similarly fuzzy, based on the first news reports + stuff you’ve heard from your tribe. For example, I think most people think that Zimmerman (the neighborhood watch guy who shot the black teenager in Florida some years ago) was a big white guy instead of a smallish hispanic guy, and few know that he was on his back with Martin on top of him beating him up when he shot Martin. To get the detailed knowledge, you needed to pay attention to the story throughout, but most people didn’t. (Probably rightly so–this was a national news story only because it got promoted on a slow news day and caught fire.) My experience in talking with people informed enough to be upset about police shootings is that almost none of them know how many police shootings there are per year, what fraction of the people shot are black, what fraction are unarmed, etc. Finding that out means digging around and reading in-depth coverage of the issue, not headlines and TV news coverage and discussions on Facebook. I mean, those statistics were put up by two major newspapers (Washington Post and Guardian), so they were out there. But most people don’t pay that much attention.

        For that matter, I think this is a major part of Trump’s strategy politically. His attempted ban on immigration from a few high-terrorism-risk countries was done in an inept, slapdash way and got challenged in court and there were battles back and forth before a modified version was allowed to go into effect. The result of the initial hamfisted attempt was a lot of protest and outrage. A lot of Trump voters round that all off to “Trump tried to do the Muslim ban[1], but the damned liberals stopped him in court.”

        My guess is that most people, most of the time, have only a vague initial-headline-based model of even big events. Most people don’t follow politics all that closely.

        [1] It wasn’t a Muslim ban, but it was described so for political reasons by Trump’s enemies. That guy is scarily good at getting his enemies to help him out.

        • No One In Particular says:

          and few know that he was on his back with Martin on top of him beating him up when he shot Martin.

          Is that based on anything other than Zimmerman’s claims?

          It wasn’t a Muslim ban, but it was described so for political reasons by Trump’s enemies.

          It was a ban of Muslims, that followed a campaign in which Trump said he would institute a Muslim ban.

          • albatross11 says:

            IIRC, there were eyewitness (maybe earwitnesses) to the fight between them, and also Zimmerman had injuries consistent with it (damage to his face and the back of his head).

            Trump talked about banning all Muslim immigration; the policy he imposed stopped immigration from seven countries that were already very hard to immigrate to the US from because they were serious terrorism risks. Those are very different things.

          • SmilingJack says:

            I think the angle of the gunshot on Martin was basically consistent with this positioning as well.

      • No One In Particular says:

        The claim that Saddam had “something” to do with 9/11 is literally true at least in that his existence was part of the causal chain the resulted in 9/11. For instance, one of the causes cited by bin Laden was the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia, which was due to them being deployed as part of Desert Shield. And of course there was the optics of a Western nation attacking a Muslim one.

  18. I’m not well-informed on the Pizzagate controversy, and when I read the exact statement people were asked to judge the YouGov poll, I have no idea if it’s true or false:

    Leaked email from some of Hillary Clinton’s campaign staffers contained code words for pedophilia, human trafficking, and satanic ritual abuse – what some people refer to as ‘Pizzagate’.

    Does it count statements that were not intended as coded references, but include words that are considered code words? Also, surely pedophile and human trafficking would come as topics from time to time among Clinton’s campaign staffers, and some of it would appear in the leaked emails.

    • Sorghum says:

      I am overly well informed about Pizzagate and I would say that the poll gives a terrible summary of Pizzagate.

      I would say that it doesn’t count as Pizzagate unless DNC members were actively running and discussing a paedophile ring centered around a certain pizza joint, and that the many references to pizza in the Podesta emails are actually references to child sex.

      Where does all this come from? It comes from 4chan digging through the Podesta emails looking for the smoking gun that would blow up the Hillary campaign; turned out there wasn’t one… but then someone pointed out that “cheese pizza” could mean “child pornography” (because apparently sometimes it does on /b/) and pretty soon everyone was digging through for references to pizza and speculating on what they might *really* mean.

      • anon-e-moose says:

        @Sorghum a minor point: CP or Cheese Pizza has meant child porn for a really long time. That didn’t start with Pizzagate, but it did start on /b/ back when you could actually bomb threads with CP to troll folks.

      • Scott Alexander says:

        Oh, that makes sense as a way the theory could have started. Of course 4chan would have their own pedophilia codewords.

        • Sorghum says:

          For what its

        • DarkTigger says:

          You laugh but Something Awful (the place 4chan branched of from) at least used to string replace the word “rape” with “surprise sex” if you weren’t logged in.

          I also suspect there were more those string replacements, since I saw a couple of discussions were an SA Goon complaint about someone misquoting them of froum, but when linked I saw the quote as fiven on the page.

      • ddxxdd says:

        >and pretty soon everyone was digging through for references to pizza and speculating on what they might *really* mean.

        And they found quite a few weird and interesting things. Artwork that sexualizes pre-pubescent children, instagram posts with children and inappropriate comments, instagram posts that are oddly sexual for a family-friendly restaurant, a declassified FBI document detailing common pedophilia symbols that seem to match the logos of the aforementioned restaurant…

        Anyone who does not understand why Pizzagate got off the ground, and gained enough steam to make a news anchor risk his career in bringing it to light, might find this link to a repository of evidence interesting. Note that it’s not solid evidence, a lot of it is stretching, and we now know that it all amounts to nothing. But try to imagine if the opposite political party had this evidence presented against them.

        • matkoniecz says:

          might find this link to a repository of evidence interesting

          Is it a parody? “Indisputable PizzaGate Evidence”? Seriously? And supposedly crowning proof is a garbled email on a mailing list.

          I personally send more than once garbled email/message due to combination of not doing proofreading, typos, auto-correct and miss-clicking send too early. Some on a public mailing lists.

          I wonder whatever it is deliberate lying and manipulation (like say iPhone waterproofing update) or just blatant lack of experience/knowledge/research.

          Or is it actually the best “proof” that was found in this “case”?

        • pdbarnlsey says:

          “inappropriate comments” on Instagram? We’re through the looking glass now, Pizzagaters!

          I think most people who are dismissive of Pizzagate (like, these days, the guy who took his gun to the restaurant to “investigate” it) have a pretty clear theory of how the whole project got off the ground, but it relates primarily to the believers rather than the “evidence”.

  19. craftman says:

    For what it’s worth I found the Lizardman constant in the Pizzagate question:

    4% of Hilary voters said it was “definitely true” that Pizzagate was real….I want to meet these men/women/lizard overlords!

  20. lil_copter says:

    My current favorite conspiracy is that Omar Ihan committed immigration fraud. 95% sure from the evidence I have seen but mainstream media is pretty quite about it. There are tons of websites that debunk Pizzagate and Sandyhook, but almost nothing about rep Omar. Its actually part of the fun of debunking something, to have a conspiracy so outrageous that you can easily pick it apart.

    • albatross11 says:

      Yeah, but small-scale immigration fraud isn’t much of a grand conspiracy, either. It’s like an allegation that the mayor got kickbacks from some developers for his political decisions–maybe true, maybe false, but not requiring any extraordinary leap of faith to imagine it happening.

      • Matt M says:

        The “conspiracy” is less about her doing it and more about the notion that the evidence against her is clear and overwhelming, and that the relevant authorities know she did it, but refuse to act on it and prosecute her, for entirely political reasons. And likely for CW political-correctness reasons (as in, I think the conventional right-wing view isn’t “she’s getting away with it because she’s in congress” and more “she’s getting away with it because she’s a prominent leftist muslim female who is therefore automatically considered above reproach”)

  21. North49 says:

    If we’re stuck with a 30ish% Dakota crash constant, what changes do we need to make to the process of democracy to offset that? What is our confidence level that Congress as a group is significantly better than the general public?

    • keaswaran says:

      It means that we definitely shouldn’t make policy by a general poll asking “should we raise taxes to cover the costs of the North Dakota crash”. Having people choose a candidate is subject to *some* of the same issues, but definitely not all of them.

  22. Silverlock says:

    Not exactly the same thing, but here is the obligatory Yes, Minister clip re opinion polls.

  23. fserb says:

    Wait, of Hillary’s voters, 17% think she’s involved in a pedophilia/satanic ritual conspiracy and are still voting for her? Nah. Not. Even discounting Lizardman’s (which interestingly, would remove all “Definitely true”): 13%? Nah. I think this is more of an issue than saying a fake (lol) conspiracy theory is true. If 13% is noise, then the difference between all other demo lines on other questions could also be noise.

    Maybe something weird going on during the polling?

    • Matt M says:

      Why not?

      “I believe Joe Biden is probably a rapist but I’m going to vote for him anyway” seems to be a relatively common take these days, on Twitter at least.

      • fserb says:

        Sure. But in this particular case, people seem to be choosing the “least worst of two rapists”, or so I was told. 🙂

        You think 13% of people thought Trump was worse than a “satanist pedophile”? It’s possible, but harder, no? Maybe those words are not understood literally anymore and people just translate them to “bad people” or “corrupt”.

        • John Schilling says:

          You think 13% of people thought Trump was worse than a “satanist pedophile”?

          I would cover a bet that 13% of the Democratic electorate believes that Donald Trump is worse than a satanist pedophile. The “Satanist” part is a gimme, because the Democratic electorate mostly doesn’t believe that Satan exists and so considers people’s religious beliefs to be significant only insofar as it signals tribal affiliation and the LaVeyan Satanists are at least marginally closer to Blue Tribe than e.g. the Evangelical Christians. “Pedophile” is nasty, but a fair chunk of Blue Tribe was willing to give Roman Polanski a pass in exchange for some artistically significant movies so giving Hillary a pass in exchange for defending the faithful against Literally Worse than Hitler isn’t too much of a stretch. And people of every political affiliation are willing to give their team’s leaders (as opposed to bench-sitters) a pass on merely personal offenses if they are sufficiently effective in the political sphere. The idea that personal character really matters is I think a minority belief and certainly not an 87% majority belief.

          It’s also possible that the 13% number is off for reasons others have already raised, but it doesn’t logically have to be wrong on account of Satanist pedophiles being the Worst People Ever.

        • vaniver says:

          You think 13% of people thought Trump was worse than a “satanist pedophile”? It’s possible, but harder, no?

          You realize that some voters are satanists, pedophiles, or both, right?

          And besides that, presumably many voters are consequentialists who care more about the expected policy impact of politicians than their personal conduct. (“Hmm, which matters more, healthcare for millions or whether or not someone receives a blowjob in their office from someone who isn’t their wife that they have power over?”) And if you take this sort of reasoning seriously, the scales of political impact and personal impact are actually quite different. Like imagine Obama was out driving his car, struck a pedestrian, and then he just drove off and they died. Imagine what a deal people might make of that.

          And yet, the drone program alone was the equivalent of that once a week for his whole presidency, if you accept the low estimate for civilian casualties. And that’s just one thing out of many!

          • No One In Particular says:

            “Hmm, which matters more, healthcare for millions or whether or not someone receives a blowjob in their office from someone who isn’t their wife that they have power over?”

            This clearly seems to be a reference to Bill Clinton’s impeachment, which was not over a blowjob, but obstruction of justice in the form of perjury regarding those blowjobs, and I find the repeated attempts to obfuscate this issue to be tiresome, deeply anti-social, and deserving of a level of social sanction that Scott has implied is not permitted on this blog.

        • Deiseach says:

          You think 13% of people thought Trump was worse than a “satanist pedophile”?

          As I mentioned elsewhere, I’ve seen somone saying that there is a “literal demon” in the White House.

          Now, “literal” has become so degraded in common usage that it probably means simply “I really don’t like this guy”, but from the tone of the rest of the comment, I wouldn’t bet against them believing Trump is actually a devil out of Hell, either.

  24. Douglas Knight says:

    post-Jeffrey Epstein

    The poll is from December 2016. Does that count as “post-Jeffrey Epstein”? maybe

    • DarkTigger says:

      There was an completely hillarious dynamic going on with the Epstein thing.
      At first I think it was aroung the election 2016 there were a lot of people rather to the right (I mostly saw them here but also in different places on reddit and G+ back than) talking about Epstein.
      Than Epstein, was arrested and to be put on trial. That was when CNN etc. wrote about it. And suddenly it was almost only people rather to the left talking about it.
      After his death, it was the more right wing people talking about him again.

  25. sclmlw says:

    Is it possible for these mysterious Russian bot farms to influence polls like this? For example, if there’s an online poll is it possible for someone to design a bot farm that can take the survey a few thousand times with the intent of crafting a result that makes it look like certain segments of the US population are nutjobs who believe Lizardmen have colluded with Pizzagaters to go back in time and teleport Obama’s mother to Kenya just before he was born?

  26. Corey says:

    Conspiracy beliefs presumably cluster because people want to believe someone’s in charge.

  27. TheRationalDebt says:

    Worth mentioning: Hillary officiated at the wedding of Anthony Weiner, the democratic congressman who was sent to jail for sexting with a 15-year old girl. (His wife, huma abedin, was described by Hillary as her second daughter). Bill’s Epstein connections are just one of a few things that could lead a high-information voter to believe the Clintons were involved with several paedophiles. If you know lots of these details, and haven’t really followed PizzaGate, it might even be correct to believe in PizzaGate.

    • No One In Particular says:

      (His wife, huma abedin, was described by Hillary as her second daughter).

      I find it a bit odd that out of all the names in your post, you chose the one not familiar to Americans as a name, and thus in the most need of capitalization to clarify that it is a name (and not, say, some obscure Latin phrase), to not capitalize.

  28. n-alexander says:

    I’m pretty sure a lot of people say “I believe” or “not” based on their tribe association rather than their actual belief. Meaning, they’re telling the pollsters what they want the pollsters to hear rather than what they really think. Not unlike liking a post on FB or Twitter.

  29. ParryHotter says:

    I wonder if this phenomena is related to what Aziz Anasari revealed when, in his stand-up show, he showed how many people just want to chime in on a controversy and take a side, even when it’s totally fabricated. See it here.

  30. I like this one, because it’s a variant on something my dad has been saying for years: “Any position is supported by 25% of the population”. His usual reference is Bush’s end-stage approval rating…and that Bush, supposedly, had the same end-stage approval rating amongst Americans and Iraqis. He also used to be a conspiracy theorist, but that’s another note. I grew up with too many David Icke books.

    I’d previously had people make comparisons to the decapitation constant* when I mentioned this, but the numbers didn’t check out and I felt like they were separate phenomena.

    *Probably because of the aforementioned “grew up with too many David Icke books”, I frankly find it believable 1 in 25 people think the lizard aliens control everything. But 1 in 25 people also claim to have been decapitated, so…

  31. Gabriel Conroy says:

    One thing that gets me on such polls is this:

    ….just various shades of “agree” or “disagree”.

    Usually (always?), the “somewhat agree” is placed next to “agree,” as if “somewhat agree” is a lesser shade of full-on “agree.” Same thing with “somewhat disagree” and “disagree.”

    Yet in actual conversation, when I say I “somewhat agree” with something, I usually (though maybe not always) mean I mostly disagree with it. Same thing when I say I “somewhat disagree” with something.

    I don’t think (most) survey takers are fooled. I think they realize they’re looking at a spectrum and that in context, “somewhat” means “shy of full-on agree/disagree.” But it irks me nonetheless. More ambitiously (and this is entirely speculation on my part), I do wonder if survey takers, even though they know better, might very well approach the “somewhat” options subconsciously as I (and I suspect, many/most of us) do in everyday life.

    • tgb says:

      I had a similar realization a while ago about the weather. Is “Partly cloudy” sunnier or not than “partly sunny”?

  32. Aftagley says:

    Spelling error in the second to last paragraph:

    though tou could still

  33. SJ says:

    There’s an additional problem when questions include terms that are broad and imperfectly defined.

    For example, if we ask people “Did a plane hit the Pentagon on 9/11/2001?”, we’ll understand what a YES or NO answer means, because we agree on the definitions of “plane”, “hit”, “Pentagon”, and “9/11/2001”.

    “Is Pizzagate true?” is a different kind of question, because the word “Pizzagate” doesn’t have a precise definition. Suppose I think that the owner of the DC pizza parlor is a pedophile, and used to make cryptic pedophilia jokes on social media for his pedophile friends, but I DON’T believe that the Clintons are involved in an international sex trafficking ring. Should I answer YES to the question?

    If I answer YES, the pollster may interpret my answer to mean that I think the Clintons are guilty, but if I answer NO, they may interpret my answer to mean that I think the pizza parlor owner is innocent.

    • n-alexander says:

      or rather, suppose I want to drag Clintons’ name through the dirt one more time, so I say Yes even though I absolutely don’t believe it. Then the pollsters publish the results and voilà, my opinion is “official”.

      • Matt M says:

        +1

        I’ve talked about this before, but this is how I answer polls. I figure out what tribal direction they’re generally in, and then pick the most extreme option that favors “my side.”

        For this poll, I would have answered that I definitely believe Pizzagate. I don’t. But I would have said I did, anyway.

        • Aftagley says:

          To what end?

          • Matt M says:

            To annoy the pollsters and to de-legitimatize the polls. Most polls are used for the purposes of tribal warfare.

          • keaswaran says:

            “Most polls are used for the purposes of tribal warfare.”

            Citation needed.

            I’m pretty sure that most polls are used for boring academic or marketing research, and only a small fraction are even discussed in the press (primarily ones asking about elections).

          • matkoniecz says:

            Maybe “Most polls cited in media are used for the purposes of tribal warfare, and people are assuming that typical poll will be used this way.” would be better?

          • albatross11 says:

            It’s a little like the difference between police shootings and police shootings that are widely reported in the national media.

          • Andaro says:

            “To annoy the pollsters and to de-legitimatize the polls.”

            That’s like committing crimes to prove that the crime rate is high.

          • matkoniecz says:

            That’s like committing crimes to prove that the crime rate is high.

            If you believe that usefulness of polls is 0 and there are negatives of treating them as credible…

          • Andaro says:

            I don’t think the usefulness of polls would be zero if people didn’t lie en masse. The same is true for user-generated reviews and similar communication. If people generally were more truthful, they would have positive information value.

          • Doctor Mist says:

            Regarding “Most polls are used for the purposes of tribal warfare.” and “boring academic research”:

            For a year or more I have been registered on researchgate, a site to link up volunteers with academic studies. It seemed like a worthwhile thing for a retired guy with time on his hands to do.

            I just de-registered, after getting attached to two different studies about coping with Covid19, both of which said a few things about Covid19 and then asked me a lot of questions about how I feel about blacks and Hispanics and Asians.

        • Gerry Quinn says:

          What is your side?

    • No One In Particular says:

      The graphic gives the wording

      Leaked email from some of Hillary Clinton’s campaign staffers contained code words for pedophilia, human trafficking and satanic ritual abuse – what some people refer to as ‘Pizzagate’.

      I assume this is the wording that the people taking the poll were given.

  34. Lanrian says:

    Are we sure that these surveys aren’t just crap? All the YouGov surveys sample from their “opt-in Internet panel” (offering rewards for survey-taking) which could be biased in any number of ways. It is “stratified by gender, age, race, education, and region”, but that creates some other problems: how likely is a low-education 60+ year-old who is a member of an opt-in Internet panel to be representative of low-education 60+ year-olds at large?

    I’m not even sure if YouGov double-checks the information that is given to them (although they say that 1193/1376 are registered voters, and perhaps it’s easy to check demographics of those?). If they don’t verify demographics, the lizardman constant could mean that the more sparse demographics are mostly populated by people lying about everything, including their demographics.

  35. jonmarcus says:

    Re “North Dakota crash”:

    If you ask people inclined to trust pollsters if the government is hiding the North Dakota crash, the most reasonable answer is “Yes” .

    “North Dakota crash? It must have happened, because this trustworthy pollster is asking me about it. But I never heard about it. Clearly it’s been successfully covered up!”

    • Anteros says:

      +1

    • Star says:

      Also I was in North Dakota during an oil boom and the subsequent crash… So if someone asked me about the North Dakota crash conspiracy I would say “Conspiracy? Why would you think that a conspiracy caused the crash?”

      But if you asked me do you believe in the the North Dakota crash I would say “What do you mean believe? I was F’ING THERE” then I would go look up the WTI price of crude from 2014 to 2015 and rub your face in it (cause I’m a prick).

      Surveys that use multiple choice questions are immune to nuance, and thus struggle to mirror reality.

  36. thisheavenlyconjugation says:

    Oh Scott, I thought you were a rational free thinker, but here you are completely falling for a transparent attempt to pretend that the North Dakota crash never happened…

  37. b_jonas says:

    But in that case, what can you say about the claim from your previous article that 40% of people believe that God created humans within 10000 years?

  38. Blueberry pie says:

    Wouldn’t the poll (as all others) also be affected by people just rushing through it? The methodology in the paper isn’t very clear, but I would assume respondents received some kind of compensation for participating (at least a lottery draw) and so at least a part of the respondents would just click through the questions quickly to get the reward and didn’t bother with detailed comprehension. No checks on attention and comprehension are reported (but might have been made), so hard to tell exactly, but even in well-meaning respondents, fatigue is a thing and the survey apparently had 127 questions, which is quite long.

    • 10240 says:

      The Pizzagate question, in particular, may be confusing to some people. It doesn’t ask whether Hillary’s staffers committed pedophilia and Satanic abuse, it asks whether some leaked e-mails contain codewords for pedophilia and Satanic abuse. Does that even imply that they are committing it?

      Someone who doesn’t read the questions carefully sees “Blah blah Hillary blah blah pedophilia blah Satanic abuse”, vaguely recalls that the media has said “blah blah Hillary blah blah pedophilia blah Satanic abuse”, and answers ‘Yes’.

      • Garrett says:

        Thanks – that jumped out at me as well. The question is ambiguous.

        The question can either mean: Hillary campaign staffers used code words to talk about pedophilia.

        or

        Hillary campaign staffers used words, which in other contexts, are code words for pedophilia.

  39. Loweren says:

    I’m inclined to think that these results don’t correspond to mind-states of people polled, but are an artifact of polling methodology. If people are predisposed to agree with statements they haven’t heard about, the way to check that would be to give multiple variations of the same statement: “Was Obama born in Kenya?”, “Was Obama born in USA or in Kenya?”, “Which country was Obama born in?”. I’d expect massive differences in response rates depending on wording. In fact, “Sampling: Design and Analysis” provides examples of rewording the question about Elvis’ death cut the agreement rate from 14% to 7%.

    • 10240 says:

      Yes. People don’t expect pollsters to ask trick questions; they assume there is a reason it makes sense to ask the question. If you don’t follow the news closely, you haven’ heard about the conspiracy theories, you vaguely recall that Obama has some recent Kenyan (or African) ancestry but don’t care enough to remember that it was his father who was born in Kenya and not himself, then you may answer ‘Yes’. I don’t even think the North Dakota constant applies here: the wording of the question doesn’t include any sort of conspiracy.

      Fun experiment: Ask people “Was Obama born in [random African country]?”, with different countries substituted for different subgroups. I bet the percentages who answer ‘Yes’ would add up to way above 100%, Yes answers coming from people who don’t remember which African country Obama has ancestry from, but assume the pollster asks the right one.

      Related: Eliezer wrote about scope insensitivity, with examples such as that people answer about the same when asked how much price increases they are willing to accept in order to save 2000, 20000 or 200000 birds respectively. I think part of the explanation is that people infer that saving x birds is a worthwhile goal from the fact that the question is even asked. It perhaps doesn’t fully explain that the answers are nearly the same, but it explains that they are not proportional to the number saved.

      ——

      Scott writes

      Who believes Obama was secretly born in Kenya? Lots of people – including 28% of blacks. I’ve been told again and again that birtherism is a racist conspiracy theory and no person could possibly believe it except as a way of dog whistling white supremacy.

      Now, “birtherism” is not the same as thinking that Obama was born in Africa when asked. And the people who answer ‘Yes’ don’t necessarily think he was secretly born in Kenya; they may just be unaware that he claims to have been born in the US.

      I’d say that birtherism implies being aware that Obama claims to have been born in the US, but thinking that he actually wasn’t, and this fact is somehow covered up. I don’t think that birtherism is necessarily white supremacism; since being a natural born citizen is an eligibility requirement for the president, it’s natural for the question to come up with any candidate with foreign ancestry.

      • matkoniecz says:

        It perhaps doesn’t fully explain that the answers are nearly the same, but it explains that they are not proportional to the number saved.

        People interpret number as “many” without really processing it at all?

        And differences, if any is about where different people switch from “small numbers of birds” to “large number of birds”.

        And BTW there is more-or-less rational explanation. I do not really care about birds so much that I would spend my money on that (I spend my money on other things including some more efficient charities like this fundation with anti-mosquito nets).

        But if someone is working on the issue, I am willing to signal “I support your work, and I would like you to succeed, here is a token amount of appreciation to confirm that”. It is also signal “I am not spending my money on that but I am OK with lower number of airports and larger number of birds”

      • No One In Particular says:

        since being a natural born citizen is an eligibility requirement for the president, it’s natural for the question to come up with any candidate with foreign ancestry.

        Can you give an example of another candidate whose citizenship was subjected to a similar level of scrutiny? Donald Trump’s mother was born in Scotland. Is there controversy about whether Donald was born in Scotland?

        • Le Maistre Chat says:

          John McCain was born in the Panama Canal Zone (to a father also named John McCain…), which led to some confusion when he ran for President because the PCZ being United States soil has been a mutable political fact, due to smacking of colonialism.
          This text was basically put in the Constitution by Alexander Hamilton’s frenemies in the Revolution to stop him running to succeed the automatic first President, war hero George Washington. It’s come up more than once since then, always amounting to nothing. The biggest modern consequence is probably that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has never run for President because it’s not even an edge case for him.

          • No One In Particular says:

            Presumably, “this text” refers to Article 2, Section 1, Clause 5, but that could be a bit clearer. It’s a bit jarring to go from McCain to Hamilton. Also, it doesn’t make sense for this to be directed against Hamilton. A2S1C5 says

            No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.

            [bolding added]
            As far as I know, Hamilton was a citizen at the time of the adoption.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            OK, my mistake for not getting the pull quote from Article 2, Section 1.
            It seems to be a popular misconception that the generations of American elites who were born British citizens had to be born in the states that seceded to be eligible for the Presidency, but no.

        • 10240 says:

          I can’t (nor did I say there was one). IIRC it came up with Ted Cruz.

  40. Xammer says:

    Btw, when I first heard of the Birther theory, I thought that Kenya was just a random African country pulled out of their ass. I was very surprised when I found out that his father was indeed born in Kenya.

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      His quite Kenyan father was also named Barack Obama, for maximum confusion.

    • Sorghum says:

      Not just that; as of 1991 his literary agency claimed that Barack Obama (Jr, the future President) was born in Kenya (https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/promotional-booklet/) so the idea didn’t come out of nowhere.

      Now, the fact that Obama was being advertised as born in Kenya early in his career is enough, in my view, to lift so-called “birtherism” out of the “negligibly likely” category and into the regime where we start having to think carefully about our reasoning. We have two possibilities:

      1. He was born in Hawaii, as indicated by various documents, and his literary agent was misinformed when writing the blurb in 1991.

      2. He was born in Kenya and used to acknowledge this fact but once his political career started taking off he started lying about his birthplace; later he managed to obtain falsified documents to support his phone birthplace.

      Given that the documentation supporting his birth in Hawaii includes not only a birth certificate but also a birth notice in the newspaper (though it’s not like I’ve seen a copy of this paper myself) I’m inclined to think that possibility 1 is far more likely, but how low am I really prepared to go with the probability for 2? One percent? One in a thousand? Surely more than one in a million. Does anyone think it should be less than one in a million?

      • Business Analyst says:

        I’ve always thought the key question is how the literary agent got information about Obama being born in Kenya. I always supported birtherism as a pretext to force a reckoning about just how far he pushed his exotic upbringing to gain an advantage prior to his political breakthrough.

        Given the fight he stoked over the birth certificate, I’d guess there’s something there he really didn’t discovered.

        • Deiseach says:

          I’ve always thought the key question is how the literary agent got information about Obama being born in Kenya.

          Either the agent/publisher/whomever thought it would sound better in a story of achievement to have it “from Kenya to the highest office in the land!” or Obama was willing to have a degree of wibbliness about his exact birthplace in order to burnish his CV, as it were, in order to help sell his book. If that were so (the perceived necessity to stress his ‘blackness’) then there’s a degree of dishonesty or willingness to bend the truth that does excuse some of the birtherism skepticism. That’s taking the worst interpretation.

          Taking the best intepretation, there could be an honest mistake where someone did mix up Barack Obama Senior born in Kenya, came to the USA to Hawaii first, and Barack Obama Junior born in Hawaii, lived abroad in his childhood, returned to live with his grandparents in Hawaii then moved to the (mainland) USA. (It’s a bit confusing even reading the Wikipedia article, could anyone – without looking it up – name off the top of their head who his half/step-siblings are, even after two terms in the White House where we learned what was his favourite ice-cream and restaurant?)

          • keaswaran says:

            Note this was his book in 1991, so the story would be “from Kenya to the first black head of the Harvard Law Review”. Which is still a better story than “from an anthropologist mother in Hawaii to the head of a university organization”.

          • Sorghum says:

            It could also have been an innocent miscommunication , the editor thought he was born in Kenya because he had mentioned his father was Kenyan or his name was from Kenya.

        • Trashionalist says:

          I always supported birtherism as a pretext to force a reckoning about just how far he pushed his exotic upbringing to gain an advantage prior to his political breakthrough.

          To me that sounds like supporting McCarthyism in order to force a reckoning about how there aren’t enough communists in American institutions.

          “I don’t understand. Stronger McCarthyism should’ve shown everyone how few communists there are, and how much America could benefit from a greater variety of political philosophy. But now everyone’s just a stark-raving anti-communist, and all my favorite intellectuals have been blacklisted. What the hell happened?”

          If you can’t think of any alternative explanations for why Obama was slow to reveal his certificate, consider that he may have seen it as a sign of weakness for the president to respond to a reality TV personality. When Obama did finally speak about the certificate, he made sure to present it as “I’m too busy to have to deal with petty crap like this.”

      • albatross11 says:

        The thing about birtherism is that it posits a conspiracy that actually could have happened in a couple plausible ways. I know of no reason to suspect that it did occur, but it’s not impossible. It’s way more feasible than the moon landings being a hoax, or the Twin Towers being brought down by explosives, and those in turn are more feasible than, say, young-Earth creationism.

        • Matt M says:

          The other aspect of birtherism that is often overlooked is that the common right-wing telling of it is that the story/theory/push originated with the Hilary Clinton campaign during the 2008 primaries.

          I know this idea is highly disputed, but to the extent the right believes it, it transforms birtherism into a conspiracy that not only attacks Obama’s credibility, but also attempts to undermine Hillary’s credibility with the pro-Obama Democrat base.

        • zzzzort says:

          I think the other weird thing is how little difference the story would make. If Bush did 9/11 then he’s one of the greatest villains in american history. If Obama was born in Kenya, then… what? He would still be a citizen at birth, and eligible for the presidency. I guess it would make obama dishonest, but people generally don’t have first hand recollections of their own birth, so even that isn’t clear.

          • Evan Þ says:

            That’s not actually the case. The law in place at the time of Obama’s birth said that the child of an unmarried citizen mother and noncitizen father (like Obama) would gain US citizenship only if he was born in the US, or if the mother had lived in the US for at least N years after age K. Since Obama’s mother Stanley Ann Dunham was less than (N+K) years old at his birth, Obama would be a citizen only if he was born in the United States.

            Fortunately, I believe, he was indeed born in the United States.

            Since then, that law has been changed, but only for people born after the new law.

      • Garrett says:

        > birth notice in the newspaper

        Am I the only one who thinks this is almost anti-convincing? If you have parent(s) smart enough to work the system, you know that such information posted in a public place would be useful in the future. Especially if you are worried about the reliability of other information. It’s the kind of quasi-reputable evidence which you can fake on your own. I could easily see my parents having done something like that if they thought it was needed. At the same time, I don’t think that it would have been because they thought that he might be President. Instead, it could have been over a simple issue such as residency in the country if questions had ever come up.

        • John Schilling says:

          Who are you imagining would have done this, and when? Because I don’t think it’s really plausible that a random American expat living with her Kenyan husband in Kenya is going to do this on spec.

    • Watchman says:

      The fairly key question here of course being the one no-one asks: why would a Hawaiian resident choose to give birth in Kenya rather than Hawai’i. Whilst I am reliably informed that Kenya has good hospitals now, I doubt they were that good in the 1960s…

      I am assuming his mum did actually visit Kenya at some point, but I’m not sure that has been demonstrated.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        The fairly key question here of course being the one no-one asks: why would a Hawaiian resident choose to give birth in Kenya rather than Hawai’i.

        I don’t think reading Stanley Ann Dunham’s mind is really the key question. There are any number of quirky low-probability reasons a WEIRD woman rich enough to afford international travel might have accidentally given birth in the foreign father’s country. Fortunately we have things like the Hawaii newspaper birth notice to raise our priors to practical certainty that his Presidency was Constitutional.

      • bullseye says:

        I am assuming his mum did actually visit Kenya at some point, but I’m not sure that has been demonstrated.

        Her Wikipedia page makes no mention of her ever visiting Kenya. It says she met Obama Sr. in college in Hawaii. It’s probably not the college furthest from Kenya, but it’s close.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ann_Dunham

        It also says that, despite being white, she’s descended from John Punch, the “first official slave in the English colonies.”

  41. technicalities says:

    Guess et al

    I am shocked our host didn’t cry “nominative determinism!”

    But maybe it goes without saying now.

  42. Entropy42 says:

    This was helpful to me in thinking about a recent YouGov/Yahoo poll that said over 44% of Republicans/Fox News Viewers/Trump Voters think that Bill Gates wants to use a COVID vaccine to implant tracking microchips in people (https://news.yahoo.com/amphtml/new-yahoo-news-you-gov-poll-shows-coronavirus-conspiracy-theories-spreading-on-the-right-may-hamper-vaccine-efforts-152843610.html). The North Dakota Effect seems like it could explain some of that.

    • ikew says:

      Not in this particular case.
      We’ve long been suspicious of Bill Gates, the concept of COVID19 vaccine (given the performance of all tested SARS vaccines), mandatory vaccination in general. Since the discussion of a COVID19 vaccine did include the topic of “marking” vaccinated people in a way that can be used for identification (with a nano particle spray, I think, rather than a chip), it’s easy to see how some of our people made a technologically questionable but politically obvious leap.
      In short, it has nothing to do with the North Dakota Effect.

      • No One In Particular says:

        We’ve long been suspicious of … the concept of COVID19 vaccine (given the performance of all tested SARS vaccines)

        What does this mean?

        Since the discussion of a COVID19 vaccine did include the topic of “marking” vaccinated people

        Cite?

    • Rachael says:

      Why is the bogeyman still Bill Gates? That made sense in the 90s when Microsoft was really big and powerful, but now I’d expect it to be Zuckerberg, Bezos, Musk, or someone like that.

      • Anteros says:

        Agree with this. I thought Bill Gates was merging with the Dalai Lama in terms of his public virtue status.

        • keaswaran says:

          Only for people who care about whether or not people in Africa die of preventable diseases.

      • toastengineer says:

        I can sort of see how the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation would look shady to someone with very strong priors to distrust institutions. They don’t have any obvious glurge-y goal like “save the animals” or “save the cute kids,” a model of human behavior that doesn’t include Hooverian turbonerds like us could only assume they’re up to something. If you assume that the rich and connected are all united against you, that too would lead you to believe whatever Bill Gates is up to must be malicious.

        • Anteros says:

          They do have a rather prominent project of ‘Rid the world of Malaria’, but maybe they haven’t spent quite as many billions of their own money on it as needed for it to be properly convincing..

          • toastengineer says:

            Right, and I don’t think normal people really care much about strangers with malaria and therefore assume no-one else does either.

        • Freddie deBoer says:

          I can tell you that the size and power of the Gates Foundation makes many academics afraid to seem to be opposed to their neoliberal education “reform” projects, afraid of never having access to the mountains of cash they give out in ed research and policy.

          • Milo Minderbinder says:

            I have no experience with academic grants, does the Gates Foundation wield outsize power to its wealth relative to other research-funding bodies?

          • Watchman says:

            Speaking from inside the (currently virtual) hallowed halls of academia I’m struggling tho see how that differs from any other funder. And what does neo-liberal actually mean in education anyway?

      • PhaedrusV says:

        Bill’s big push to build up public confidence in a vaccine that hasn’t even been developed or tested yet SHOULD damage his credibility. I would have no issue with Gates saying “a lot of very smart people are working very hard on a vaccine for COVID-19. Once a promising vaccine has been developed and tested enough to ensure that it’s not worse than the disease, the Gates foundation will assist in widespread replication and deployment”

        What he’s actually doing is blatant narrative control on the far side of the spectrum, and he’s sacrificing accuracy and minimizing legitimate concerns in order to do it.

        Gates should absolutely be listened to skeptically. Prudent risk mitigation demands it.

        • alawisgreen says:

          I would have no issue with Gates saying “a lot of very smart people are working very hard on a vaccine for COVID-19. Once a promising vaccine has been developed and tested enough to ensure that it’s not worse than the disease, the Gates foundation will assist in widespread replication and deployment”

          Here are some quotations from a recent blog post by Bill Gates:

          The world is creating this vaccine on a historically fast timeline.

          It might not be a perfect vaccine yet—and that’s okay.

          If we were designing the perfect vaccine, we’d want it to be completely safe and 100 percent effective. It should be a single dose that gives you lifelong protection, and it should be easy to store and transport. I hope the COVID-19 vaccine has all of those qualities, but given the timeline we’re on, it may not.

          So, Bill Gates is already saying that.

        • No One In Particular says:

          Bill’s big push to build up public confidence in a vaccine that hasn’t even been developed or tested yet SHOULD damage his credibility. Bill’s big push to build up public confidence in a vaccine that hasn’t even been developed or tested yet SHOULD damage his credibility.

          To what are you referring?

      • Jaskologist says:

        The beautiful thing about hate is that you can give it away freely without diminishing your own store.

        Is it really so crazy that people’s memories might extend more than a decade? In a way, it’s almost nice to see.

      • Sorghum says:

        I’ve been trying to figure this one out myself. Usually I’m pretty well plugged into the right wing memeplex, but I have no idea where this Bill Gates thing comes from.

        For the most part I don’t think there needs to be a good reason for this kind of thing; somewhere out there a sufficiently influential person said “boo Bill Gates”, another influential person agreed with them, and from then on it was just social dynamics.

        Why Bill Gates in particular? No identifiable reason; just as there’s no identifiable reason why everyone jumped on that one dog park lady the other day instead of millions of other people who were videoed being jerks in the same week, or why everybody jumped on that girl with the Friday Friday song instead of millions of other crappy songs, or why everyone including Scott is paying so much attention to one terrible piece of Harry Potter fanfic when the internet is composed of 25% terrible Harry Potter fanfic already.

        • No One In Particular says:

          Are you saying that 25% of Harry Potter fanfic is terrible, or that 25% of the internet is terrible Harry Potter? The first seems to low to me, and the second much too high.

          • Sorghum says:

            25% of the internet, I meant.

            To first approximation I think it’s safe to assume that 100% of Harry Potter fanfic is terrible.

            My Immortal isn’t even the worst Harry Potter fanfic I’ve attempted to read… that honour goes to Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality…

      • Mercurial says:

        My father has had a negative opinion of Bill Gates for a while. The general points seem to be:
        -Bad experiences with Common Core, which was pushed by Gates
        -A general paranoia that “The Elites” want to reduce the global population (for environment reasons?)
        -A general distrust of vaccines, especially when people are swearing up and down that the Corona vaccine will be safe before it even exists. He also thinks it’s suspicious that all the effort is going into developing a vaccine rather than a cure.

        For the record, he’s also distrustful of Zuckerberg and Bezos, but they’re not putting themselves in the forefront of this crisis the same way Gates is. I think nobody is really keen on reading conspiracies into Musk because he fits the archetype of the eccentric inventor quite well.

        • No One In Particular says:

          He also thinks it’s suspicious that all the effort is going into developing a vaccine rather than a cure.

          What, he expects someone to come up with a drug that you can inject into someone that will make pneumonia magically disappear?

          • keaswaran says:

            I think there’s an attitude that medicine is about cures. Prevention is all the boring and painful stuff that we use as a stopgap until we have a cure.

        • pdbarnlsey says:

          “Trying to reduce global population” is a pretty tough one to hang on the guy spending hundreds of millions of dollars every year fighting malaria, TB and HIV.

          • No One In Particular says:

            The two are entirely consistent, if Gates is pursuing average utility rather than total utility.

        • Garrett says:

          > He also thinks it’s suspicious that all the effort is going into developing a vaccine rather than a cure.

          Side note: in Tom Clancy’s book Rainbow 6, there’s a heated discussion which ultimately points out that we have no cures for *any* viral diseases.

          I was thrilled when the drugs which cure Hepatitis C were released. We’ve gone from none to one. My knowledge of viral illnesses is too poor to know if the same technique might be used for others. But in general there is no reason to think that we will have cures for Covid-19. At-best better treatments. But making a vaccine is *likely* to be the most straight-forward, reliable and effective way to handle it.

        • Corey says:

          Global elites *do* want to reduce the world population. Pretty much everyone does.

          (By making the world richer, which will lead to fewer children as a side effect)

      • Trashionalist says:

        Musk has too much credibility with the right, especially after the anti-stay-at-home-order stuff and the redpill tweet.

        Zuckerberg used to be hated equally by the right and the left, but lately, I think he’s been making a move to appeal more to the right. What really surprised me is that it may be working for him. After a story came out about Zuckerberg having private dinners with rightwing media figures and power-brokers, I saw rightwing internet commenters strongly defending him. Mostly it was along the lines of “He’s corrupt, but at least he’s being corrupt with both the right and the left instead of just corrupt with the left like he used to be and all the other tech CEOs are”, but that seemed like a big upgrade for Zuckerberg after so many years of rightists seeing Facebook as the superweapon of liberal thought control. And recently, Zuckerberg made sure to set himself up as the policy opposite of Dorsey, with regard to Twitter’s disclaimers on Trump’s tweets.

    • albatross11 says:

      I couldn’t find the actual survey questions or numbers anywhere when I looked for them for that survey. Does anyone have a link to the actual survey and its results?

    • albatross11 says:

      I think “someone powerful is implanting a microchip in me” is a common delusion for people who are seriously mentally ill, so this makes me wonder if they somehow managed to get a bunch of seriously mentally ill people answering their survey. (Also, wording memes this way probably works in terms of getting the crazy people to believe and forward them, but also probably has a non-negligible chance of convincing one of those crazy people to go do something terrible. The incentives for how you get attention right now are largely incentives for doing extremely socially destructive things.)

  43. Egregious says:

    Eh. Even if people had consistent, well thought out beliefs, why assume they would answer honestly? Someone who distrusts the government might be happier if a study showed high distrust in the government. This would give their own beliefs more social legitimacy from virtue of being pervasive. So they exaggerate their own beliefs to pull the average further in their direction. A mild conspiracy theorist claims to believe in all conspiracies, to demonstate that the population in general doesn’t trust the government.

    In general, ones agenda may be served merely from the perception that it is popular. It is not reasonable to assume people taking polls aren’t trying to advance their own goals, and any analysis should take this into account.

    • Kaitian says:

      I don’t think most people act with that much strategy. If only because most studies are never read by more than a handful of specialists. But if they perceive the study as hostile, they might get ornery and answer accordingly. If the study contains questions along the lines of “do you believe conspiracy theory x”, they might just start checking “yes” on each one to spite the researcher for using the word “conspiracy”.

      • PhaedrusV says:

        I’ll happily out myself. Those few times I consent to answering a survey, my answers generally bear no resemblance to reality unless they are tied to my name, by an employer. I expect knowing trolling is very common among voluntary respondents. Otherwise, who cares enough to answer the survey?

      • Gabriel Conroy says:

        I’ve taken a few surveys, some online Harris polls and a couple of surveys where someone calls me up.

        Speaking only for myself, it’s hard to game the system. I may start out strategically, but I’m worn down by the questions and end up answering, if not fully honestly, then more honestly than strategically. (It’s much easier to be “strategic” in an online poll than in a “live” telephone poll, perhaps because in the latter I have to think on my feet more.)

        Again, that’s just me. I’m sure others are better at it.

      • Egregious says:

        From responses here, sounds like there is quite a bit of variation, though some indeed do intentionally fabricate, even strategically. Think we need a survey to ask people if, how, when and why they distort their answers to surveys!

  44. Rachael says:

    This is reminiscent of the poll where 30% of Republican voters supported bombing Agrabah, the fictional Middle Eastern country where Disney’s Aladdin is set. In that poll there *was* a Don’t Know option, which seems to suggest that quite a lot of people would still have said they believed in the North Dakota conspiracy even if there had been a Don’t Know option there.

    I think this is a case of people using polls to signal tribal affiliation rather than to express their actual beliefs, like the creationist example yesterday where people were apparently picking the strongest-sounding option without understanding what any of the options meant.

    (And, lest anyone think I’m having a go at the Republicans, the video where the guy gets a lot of female college students to sign a petition to end women’s suffrage is a less-formal example of the same phenomenon.)

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      (And, lest anyone think I’m having a go at the Republicans, the video where the guy gets a lot of female college students to sign a petition to end women’s suffrage is a less-formal example of the same phenomenon.)

      If you ended women’s suffrage, there’d still be universal manhood suffrage. Obviously we need utilitarians to try to stop both.

    • Brandon Berg says:

      That’s where my mind went, too. My mental model of this is that people assume that if a question about bombing a city is on a survey, it must be a real controversy with arguments on both sides. If everyone agrees that bombing Agrabah is a bad idea, then why would anyone bother to run a poll on it?

      Given that assumption, if you think that Democrats are consistently too reluctant to bomb Middle Eastern targets, then it kind of makes sense to assume that they’re on the wrong side of this issue, too, and bombing is the correct policy. If my side’s leaders are for it, it must be a good idea.

      This is closely related to tribal signaling, but seems a bit different to me, since it’s not just signaling.

      • dogiv says:

        I wonder what the numbers would be on a question about bombing London. Probably just Lizardman’s constant, although if you managed to imply that one side or the other was in favor of it you might get a few more people to say they support the idea.

    • PhaedrusV says:

      The funny thing is that there are actually women who knowingly support ending women’s suffrage. My cousin told me once she’s willing to give up her vote because the number of women who vote based on candidate attractiveness is more than enough to swing elections.

      I remember seeing that “end suffrage” poll back in the day and wondering how many women knew what it meant and still agreed.

      Also, trolls.

      • Gabriel Conroy says:

        Perhaps also: “suffrage” sounds like “suffering.” Who wouldn’t want to end suffering?

      • Sorghum says:

        I’m the kind of person who would probably say yes in a poll about ending women’s’ suffrage. On the other hand if I had to vote in an actual serious referendum about it, I would definitely say no.

        What accounts for this? Probably just a desire to push the Overton window further right. High poll numbers for crazy right-wing positions suit me because they make the less-crazy right sing positions I’m actually interested in more likely… but if the Overton window ever shifted far enough right that abolishing women’s suffrage became a serious prospect then I think I’d try to push it back the other way.

        So, just another example of strategic rather than literal poll-answering.

        • anon-e-moose says:

          @Sorghum Another good example is Roe v Wade positioning. Very few people actually want abortions to be completely illegal, that’s bad (see 70s-80s Romania.) But it shouldn’t be a point of pride on Twitter, either. So if “repeal Roe” moves the window, that’s great! But the shift should be in inches/feet, not miles. If we’re moving miles, then we have a problem that’s equally deserving of correction.

          • Sorghum says:

            I mean I’m pro-abortion and even I believe Roe should be repealed, it’s bad jurisprudence.

            Abortion laws should be made by legislative branches, not invented by Supreme Court justices.

          • No One In Particular says:

            @Sorghum
            The Supreme Court didn’t make laws, it restricted them. The role of the legislative branch is to decide how to exercise the authority that they rightfully have. Banning abortion is not an authority that they rightfully have.

      • albatross11 says:

        There are rare people who actually believe women should lose the vote, but they’re, well, rare. Not just because it’s an unpopular belief, or a bad (IMO) idea, but because believing that requires having some nonstandard ideas about politics and society, and mostly that’s more work than people go to to have political views.

    • No One In Particular says:

      I find “These women are confusing ‘suffrage’ and ‘suffering'” to be a more plausible explanation than “These women are opposing suffrage as part of tribal signalling”.

      • Creutzer says:

        I believe the tribal signalling part is meant to be “end women’s X” regardless of what X is.

        • albatross11 says:

          I’m sure the “womens sufferage” questions are just misunderstood, like the prank where you circulate a petition to ban dihydrogen monoxide.

          As best I can tell, most people answering factual survey questions aren’t answering the factual questions, but rather the “whose side are you on?” questions. For example, almost everyone who expresses a strong opinion about the theory of evolution or global warming is just telling you what side they’re on, because only a very small subset of the population has studied either one enough to have an actual opinion of their own. For people who have never studied much biology, “did man evolve from lower animals” is a question about whether they’re on the Fundamentalist Christian or non-Fundamentalis Christian side of a culture war issue.

          Interpreted this way, a lot of otherwise bizarre or silly beliefs make sense. For example, this article from 2006 shows about 27% of surveyed blacks (and 20% of surveyed whites) believed that “HIV/AIDS is a man-made virus that the federal government made to kill and wipe out black people.”

          Now, this is not true, and can’t be true for a whole bunch of reasons. But I’m pretty sure very few of the people who said “yes” could have described how a retrovirus worked or what a T cell was, or could reason intelligently in any way about whether or not this was plausible. Instead, I’m guessing they answered a question about how they felt about the federal government’s intentions toward blacks or gays or whomever. (I think a similar thing is true of the common narrative that AIDS was somehow Reagan’s fault for not caring about gays–most people aren’t actually answering a question about what Reagan could or should have done differently and what effect that would have had, they’re answering a question about how they felt about Reagan’s attitude toward gay men.)

          I think this is also something inclined to trip up those of us who are usually pretty literal-minded about factual questions. If Alice hears “did the government cause AIDS to kill off blacks” and wants to answer the factual question, and Bob hears it and wants to answer the “did the federal government hate blacks in the 70s” question, they’re going to talk past one another. (And something similar happens in discussions about the Fergusson shooting or the Zimmerman/Martin case. In some sense, the factual question w.r.t. this case doesn’t have much to do with the broader question of “Do I think the police get away with mistreating blacks too much?”)

          • 10240 says:

            An even worse kind of survey question is one that asks for agreement with some sort of slogan, but technically a “yes” answer can also indicate an even stronger disagreement with the people who usually use the slogan than a “no” answer.

            For example, in the F-scale (an old fascism scale), “The wild sex life of the old Greeks and Romans was tame compared to some of the goings-on in this country, even in places where people might least expect it.” I don’t actually know what the sex life of the old Greeks and Romans was like, but I presume that an answer of “yes, and that’s a good thing” is even more liberal than a “no” answer—yet one knows that a “yes” answer is interpreted as “yes, and that’s a bad thing“, and taken as indicating illiberalism. Or “Should Uber be regulated like taxis?” “Yes” is presumably taken as more pro-regulation than “no“, even though an even more anti-regulation answer is “they should be regulated the same, not at all“.

          • No One In Particular says:

            I’m sure the “womens sufferage” questions are just misunderstood, like the prank where you circulate a petition to ban dihydrogen monoxide.

            I think there’s a significant difference between the two. If there were a poison named “dihydrogen monoxine”, it would be a better comparison. In the case of dihydrogen monoxide, it’s an issue of the negative connotations of “chemicals”, with the petitions often throwing in some logical fallacies, such as correlation fallacies (“over 90% of cancer deaths had hydrogen monoxide in their blood”).

            As best I can tell, most people answering factual survey questions aren’t answering the factual questions, but rather the “whose side are you on?” questions.

            I dad qualms about “I believe Antia Hill” bumper stickers because of this. It seems like a rather transparent case of belief being a proxy for political affiliation.

            because only a very small subset of the population has studied either one enough to have an actual opinion of their own.

            You don’t have to study much to believe in evolution (where “believe means” have more than 50% confidence”, not “be convinced”). We know stuff is here, we know stuff changes, it’s logical to conclude that the stuff that’s here came from different stuff. To claim that evolution is not true is a violation of Occam’s razor that has the burden of proof. People who don’t believe in evolution overwhelmingly do so because they consider “a book written thousands of years ago says so” to fulfill the burden of proof.

            (I think a similar thing is true of the common narrative that AIDS was somehow Reagan’s fault for not caring about gays–most people aren’t actually answering a question about what Reagan could or should have done differently and what effect that would have had, they’re answering a question about how they felt about Reagan’s attitude toward gay men.)

            Depends on what you mean by “the narrative”. If you mean historical works asserting that Reagan was negligent, and his negligence significantly increased the harm of AIDS, I think that the majority of that is based on the facts.

          • We know stuff is here, we know stuff changes, it’s logical to conclude that the stuff that’s here came from different stuff.

            In our direct experience, the living stuff that current living stuff came from consists of other members of the same species — evolutionary change is almost never observable with the naked eye on a human timescale. Absent a theory, or evidence from paleontology or microbiology, the obvious interpretation is a stable set of species, just as a flat Earth is the obvious conclusion from looking around you, since on the scale humanly observable the Earth is very close to flat.

            Besides which, change doesn’t imply evolution in the biological sense — rivers wearing their way through rock isn’t evolution, any more than trees leafing out in the spring. What’s convincing about evolution is the logical argument which shows how you could get organisms that appear to be functionally designed without any designer.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      I absolutely know that Agrabah is the fictional Middle Eastern country where Disney’s Aladdin was set, but if you called me up during dinner time and asked me if we should bomb it I would definitely say “yes.”

      Also, in that same poll, a comparable number of Democrats said we should give Agrabah aid, or accept their refugees or something like that.

      • Garrett says:

        So we can make both groups happy by bombing them and *then* accepting their refugees?

  45. ikew says:

    And I was hoping to do some work today.
    Right, so – pizzagate is the kind of conspiracy that requires very little evidence to be considered “likely to be true” by my tribe and would require a lot of evidence to get dismissed. What gives?
    First, it’s a supposed pattern of misdeeds by the highest echelons of power, and all investigative organs such as the media, police, FBI are downstream from there. This means that “no evidence found, the witness committed suicide” would be the default outcome of any investigation regardless of what really happened, and we could only find any fragments of evidence in leaked materials. Most ordinary cops might be decent humans, but we seen no reason to think they’d even be involved in any capacity.
    Second, we wouldn’t expect these fragments of evidence to be too convincing in a vacuum. We don’t foresee anyone leaking actual footage of Hillary with a toddler drumstick in her hand. If such materials do exist, people with access to them would be veteran operatives of whoever is running the whole operation for blackmail purposes, not some low level temp worker. The bar the leaked emails would need to surpass is pretty low to reinforce our belief something’s fishy and boy did they clear it.
    Third, Epstein has been known to be involved in organised abuse of underage girls for DECADES. Those politicians in the UK involved in that underage sex ring have been at it since the 60s. (There were some articles in 2014, then some people died in accidents and everyone stopped talking about it.) The fact that nothing gets done about these things sets the tone here. They can act with impunity. And then when they outlive their usefulness (to the intelligence agencies, most likely), they will be disposed of, blatantly so, and people will again insist there’s nothing to see here. It’s mildly infuriating.
    If you do consider this unconvincing, that’s perfectly understandable. I have not shared here a shred of evidence, on purpose. I’m not trying to convert you, dear reader, into a pizzagater. I’m trying to explain why, when we hear that it has been conclusively debunked, well, we gain literally no information from that, since our model predicted it would happen regardless of pizzagate being real or not.
    The old adage is “the more people are involved in an operation, the more likely it’s that op-sec gets broken”. However, there is a strong survivor bias at play here – after all, if information integrity is maintained, regular humans would never know anything happened. We all have different guessestimates about the ratio of hidden to visible operations ongoing in the world. My tribe assumes we live on a tiny island of light in a vast ocean of darkness. How do you evaluate the unknown unknowns? You don’t. You aim to have a worldview that somewhat protects you from them without sacrificing ALL of your degrees of freedom. So you paint a dragon on the parts of the map you can’t safely explore.

    • Alkatyn says:

      Seems like a classic example of an unfalsifiable claim. If the world in which its true (and therefore all witnesses are silent) looks identical to the one where its false (no witnesses because nothing happened) then there becomes no possible evidence that could disprove the belief.

      • Alkatyn says:

        Or to put it another way. There’s an invisible dragon in my pizza parlour abusing children

        • ikew says:

          There are small fragments of circumstantial evidence that did not get disappeared, however.
          Laughably few if we were investigating, say, your middle aged neighbor.
          Sufficient to be concerning if the entities involved include intelligence agencies and people at the highest echelons of power.
          Do we agree there are above zero per decade operations conducted by intelligence and security agencies (foreign and domestic) that maintain complete stealth and no traces of them are ever discovered by people like you and me (within the next 10 years, at least)? What about above zero per year? What about multiple ongoing operations at every moment?
          Where does the invisible dragon end and the highly trained and motivated special forces operators begin?
          In the absence of data we choose how many invisible dragons hanging above us to protect against. Most people choose zero – we are basking in the light of a new, liberal, humanistic, democratic sun after all.
          Others find that extremely hard to believe.

          • anon-e-moose says:

            Laughably few if we were investigating, say, your middle aged neighbor.
            Sufficient to be concerning if the entities involved include intelligence agencies and people at the highest echelons of power.

            This, I think, is where I personally began to get tripped up. I can charitably view the emails as weird people in their own bubble making inside jokes. Easy stuff there. But when you mix in the spirit cooking stuff (documented, verifiable), along with Podesta’s taste in art, the image takes a different tint.

            Now, is pizzagate real? Highly, highly likely not. But handwaving everything away as some crazy conspiracy theory isn’t an effective way to convert believers into non-believers. For More:

    • DocKaon says:

      In other words, what we thought was going on with your tribe’s thought process is what is going on with your thought process. You’ve closed yourself off in an epistemic bubble which is impervious to facts and logical contradictions. Neither evidence or argument will be effective in shaking your beliefs.

      • vaniver says:

        I think this is unfair, and will talk just about Bayes Rule.

        Suppose I have a theory A, and you have a theory B. The naive human approach to assessing “who is right” is that I look for things that are high-probability under my theory, and you look for things that are high probability under your theory, and we recite our lists to each other.

        But if we take Bayes Rule seriously, then the thing that we need to do is look for evidence which has meaningfully different probabilities under the two theories. I need to find something that A thinks is likely and B thinks is unlikely for it to count as evidence for A over B.

        That is, I think it’s a mistake to say “look at all the absence of evidence, therefore your theory is wrong” without looking at what probability the other theory assigned to there being an absence of evidence. Like, to talk about creationism (since this blog recently brought it up), many creationists point out that Evolution predicts there should be transitional fossils, and we don’t find those transitional fossils, therefore Evolution has logical contradictions and its supporters are impervious to facts and logical contradictions. But, of course, this is a failure to look at the situation from Evolution’s point of view: if you think that the fossil-creation mechanism is unlikely, then even under a view where there are lots of transitional animals, there should be many gaps in the fossil record due to the unreliability of the recording process.

        In order to get these sorts of things right, you need to pay careful attention to what the theories are to see where they actually disagree. [Most people don’t do this, because knowing too much about theories that are in ill repute is a good way to get into ill repute themselves, even if they end up believing the ‘mainstream theory’, and you have to be pretty confident in mainstream epistemics to think you’ll never find out that the truth looks weird and the mainstream is wrong on something.]

        • Randy M says:

          But, of course, this is a failure to look at the situation from Evolution’s point of view: if you think that the fossil-creation mechanism is unlikely, then even under a view where there are lots of transitional animals, there should be many gaps in the fossil record due to the unreliability of the recording process.

          Yes, but you should look at what evolutionary theory predicted prior to knowing about the fossil record. Because otherwise it’s a moving target.

          But that’s also not fair, because it should be a moving target as we learn more about the fossilization process.

          But it’s really hard to detect the difference between “Evolutionary theory predicted intermediate fossils under fossilization was better understood, then modified to reflect this better understanding and the evidence matches this new understanding” and “Evolutionary theory predicted intermediate fossils until it couldn’t find them, then, despite this prediction being falsified, refused to modify the theory of evolution and instead introduced baseless assumptions about fossilization.”

          • Some Troll's Serious Discussion Alt says:

            Darwin expected the fossil record to be spotty and imperfect and in fact explicitly noted that it would make changes in species look more dramatic than they actually are because transitional forms would routinely be missing.

            Some evolutionary theorists might have once expected a complete record of fossils, but I dont think its obvious they were everva majority.

          • albatross11 says:

            As an aside, it’s also important to remember that one way to get better insights about the theory of evolution (or any other theory) is to try to find places where it describes the world poorly, and then work out why. This is consistent with a scientific worldview and way of approaching evolution, but it’s not consistent with a tribal “evolution is true” campaign. The more you turn questions of fact into group-membership questions, the more you sabotage your brain.

          • Eugene Dawn says:

            The more you turn questions of fact into group-membership questions, the more you sabotage your brain.

            I am a little uncertain about this statement, and the example you give. I definitely agree that actual practicing scientists should take the approach you describe, but the fact is that without a decent amount of training and background knowledge, a person trying to pick apart scientific theories on their own will probably come away with a worse understanding of the world than if they just accepted some version of the scientific consensus.

            Evolution is maybe not the worst example for this; I’d make my case most strongly about quantum mechanics or other abstruse areas of physics, but I think the point is true across the board.

          • albatross11 says:

            I’m not saying “assume you’ve figured out the hole in QM from fifteen minutes of thinking,” I’m saying “treat scientific theories/explanations as things that you’re allowed to question and reason about, not as articles of faith.”

            Partly, that’s because really understanding an idea requires kicking the tires a bit–how the hell does “a larger fraction of the next generation carries gene X because of selection” get you to “This male peacock has a tail so huge he can hardly fly?” or “This 10 lb mama cat will take on a 30 lb dog to protect her kittens?” Asking those questions and thinking hard about the answer is pretty useful for understanding stuff like sexual selection and kin selection. But if you’re treating evolution as an article of faith, you’re probably not going to be asking those questions, because it sounds like you’re questioning the stuff that all right thinking people believe. What’re you, some dirty member of the outgroup?

            And partly it’s important to do that because lots of “science says” statements are bullshit. A large fraction of experimental psychology results, published in peer-reviewed journals and widely cited, turn out to have just been wrong. (Public policy decisions and court cases were made on the basis of some of those wrong results.) Today, you can find mainstream sources telling you that “science says” stuff that’s observably wrong. (Look at “science says” articles about sexual or racial differences for one obvious point.)

            And finally, the whole mindset of “this is a claimed model of the world, let’s think it through and understand it and see if there are weak points” is what science is about. Turning it into an article of faith or received wisdom breaks something pretty fundamental about it.

          • Eugene Dawn says:

            Again, I mostly agree that for someone with a decent understanding already and who is willing to put in serious effort this is can be valuable, but:

            And partly it’s important to do that because lots of “science says” statements are bullshit.

            Sure, but are they more often bullshit than the statements people make while taking complicated scientific concepts out for a spin on their own?

            And finally, the whole mindset of “this is a claimed model of the world, let’s think it through and understand it and see if there are weak points” is what science is about. Turning it into an article of faith or received wisdom breaks something pretty fundamental about it.

            I sort of agree with this: obviously from the point of view of practicing scientists, you are always trying to improve your model of the world, and you probably understand that your understanding of the world is only ever a model, and so of course is always subject to updating on new evidence or arguments.

            But there really are some “received wisdom” parts of science, and they can be pretty important. Playing around with scientific concepts is all well and good, but at the end of the day, when you want to know the permittivity of free space or whatever you tend to just look it up in the back of a book. Even working scientists have to rely on well-known and well-used tools and ideas without reinventing them constantly.

            This is even more true for the general public, many of whom will not actually have either the background, interest, or inclination to think through competing hypotheses in a deep way, but who still may need to rely on scientific conclusions for various reasons. In this case, it’ not unreasonable to ask them to take the “received wisdom” of science more or less at face value.

            It’s (partly) the role of scientists to make sure they are accurately conveying which parts of science are indeed “received wisdom” and which are not.

      • anon-e-moose says:

        @DocKaon We can reverse this statement, too though. “Of course those in power aren’t involved in pedophilia, and facilitated by other powerful people, that’s ridiculous.”

        But you can’t then look at Jimmy Seville, Epstein, Penn State, the Catholic Church etc and not update your priors. Those are multiple examples of the exact same thing happening! So, if you’re off hand dismissing the pizzagate allegations, you need to move a level deeper in your reasoning and figure out why this allegation in particular is different then the other, proven allegations. Because, “rich guy likes to bang children” is pretty well evidenced.

        • Eugene Dawn says:

          But you can’t then look at Jimmy Seville, Epstein, Penn State, the Catholic Church etc and not update your priors.

          Well, you only need to update your priors if the rate of famous people outed as pedophiles is higher than the base rate you had previously assumed for pedophilia. And even then, you’d only conclude “pedophiles are common than I had previously thought”–the problem with the Pizzagate allegations is that the only evidence they adduce for the pedophilia accusations is all the weird pizza code, none of which is supported by the actually existing examples of famous pedophiles.
          Your argument supports the conclusion “a random organizations composed of elites should be expected to be covering up a pedophilia conspiracy at base rate %X”, where X is some number based on the cases you cite; but that argument doesn’t single out the Clinton campaign in any particular way. It is equally applicable to the Trump campaign, or any other collection of rich people like say the leadership of NASCAR to pick a completely random example.

          • matkoniecz says:

            you only need to update your priors if the rate of famous people outed as pedophiles is higher than the base rate you had previously assumed for pedophilia.

            And least in my case I needed to do this, pedophiles and pedophiles running successful conspiracies are far more popular than I expected. Especially among supposedly reputable people.

          • Eugene Dawn says:

            But are they more common than among the general population? I genuinely have no idea.

          • anon-e-moose says:

            @Eugene Dawn Right, I should have included a disclaimer there–I don’t want to specifically single out Clinton/Podesta. I think it’s likely that this fetish applies across political divide. I suspect it’s a forbidden fruit/power thing, personally. This was just a recent case that fits well with the overall “conspiracy-minded” personality type.

          • matkoniecz says:

            But are they more common than among the general population? I genuinely have no idea.

            Pedophiles? Probably not.

            Successful long-term pedophile conspiracies that murdered people to keep people from acting on it? Probably yes.

          • PhaedrusV says:

            CIA SOP:

            1. Take semi-plausible, semi-substantiated theory about malfeasance of the powerful, like building 7 or Epstein running a pedophilia-based blackmail ring that snared the Clintons.

            2. Add in heavy mix of crazy

            3. Watch sane people run away from the theory, back to the mainstream explanation.

        • Corey says:

          you can’t then look at Jimmy Seville, Epstein, Penn State, the Catholic Church etc and not update your priors

          Out of those, AFAIK only Epstein was anything like a “pedo ring” – the rest are cases of powerful people pedo’ing about and others looking the other way. There’s a big difference between “if I blow the whistle it will turn out badly for me, so I won’t” and “I brought this kid here for you”. “Conspiracy” doesn’t seem to match “one guy does bad stuff; other people find out but don’t report him” though to be fair I haven’t got a better term.

          • matkoniecz says:

            What happened in the Catholic Church (scale of coverup) seems sadly to match term of conspiracy.

          • MugaSofer says:

            I’ve heard many reports of individual priests abusing minors and having others in their community look the other way/cover it up.

            Have there been cases of multiple pedo priests working together, and if so, how large a network are we talking?

          • matkoniecz says:

            I was rather thinking about

            Some bishops have been heavily criticized for moving offending priests from parish to parish, where they still had personal contact with children, rather than seeking to have them permanently returned to the lay state by laicization. The Church was widely criticized when it was discovered that some bishops knew about some of the alleged crimes committed, but reassigned the accused instead of seeking to have them permanently removed from the priesthood.

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parish_transfers_of_abusive_Catholic_priests

          • albatross11 says:

            My impression is that in the Catholic Church abuse cases in the US, we had:

            a. Individual priests with a pattern of getting sexually involved with teenage boys in ways that were definitely wrong and probably illegal most of the time (depending on details of ages and local laws).

            b. Church authorities covering up/hushing up the offenses and moving the priests to new parishes. This appears to have been “protect the instutitution at all costs” rather than conspiracies of pedophiles, but probably there was also an aspect of a network of closeted gay priests with potential blackmail on each other.

            c. There were also allegations of widespread sexual involvement between older priests and people studying to become/contemplating becoming priests. I don’t know whether this violated age-of-consent laws, but it was definitely sex between people across a big power differential, where some of the people involved were supposed to be spiritual and moral guides/role models to some of the other people involved. I don’t know how widespread this was, but it appears to have involved at least a couple US cardinals, and I heard rumors about this sort of thing a decade or two earlier, so probably it was pretty widespread.

          • matkoniecz says:

            This appears to have been “protect the instutitution at all costs” rather than conspiracies of pedophiles

            Yes, it was rather a series of conspiracies to protect pedophiles (and short term reputation of the church) rather than conspiracy of pedophiles (though some of them probably happened somewhere).

        • Andaro says:

          “So, if you’re off hand dismissing the pizzagate allegations, you need to move a level deeper in your reasoning and figure out why this allegation in particular is different then the other, proven allegations.”

          Pizzagate involved (imaginary) captive child sex slaves, Epstein transacted with willing teenagers to trade sex for money. I’ve never heard anyone claim that Epstein kept people captive, or that he had sex with anyone against their will. The worst I could find is that he was rude to some girls. (Please correct if this is wrong.)

          • John Schilling says:

            I’ve never heard anyone claim that Epstein kept people captive, or that he had sex with anyone against their will.

            I’ve definitely heard it claimed that Epstein kept people captive, and the fact that he had a private island makes that at least semi-plausible. I don’t have any sources I’d trust to tell me whether or not it’s actually true, given the emotionally charged nature of the debate.

            The real difference is that the girls being underaged but otherwise consenting prostitutes is also at least semi-plausible, and the clients/guests wishfully deluding themselves into believing this is even more plausible. With the Pizzagate version, I don’t think there’s an even semi-plausible version that doesn’t have the kids being literal sex slaves and the adult participants all knowing that the kids are literal sex slaves. Well, except for the version where Pizzagate is a hoax and there are no kids, of course.

          • matkoniecz says:

            Wikipedia mentions

            Details from the investigation included allegations that 12-year-old triplets were flown in from France for Epstein’s birthday, and flown back the following day

            children as young as 11 years old

            lawsuit was filed against Maxwell and Epstein alleging that they recruited a 13-year-old music student

            While not as bad as captive child sex slaves, I think that dismissing it as “The worst I could find is that he was rude to some girls” seems to underestimate of what he did/was credibly alleged to do.

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeffrey_Epstein#Legal_proceedings

          • Andaro says:

            Okay, so younger than I thought. I personally have no moral problem with sexualizing these age ranges, but most people obviously do, probably more so than sexualizing 15+ year olds. So closer to Pizzagate than I had assumed, but not exactly equivalent.

          • matkoniecz says:

            I certainly would consider person encouraging/using prostitution of 11 year old children as a major problem.

            (or 12, 13…)

          • MugaSofer says:

            Rinaldo Rizzo, the house manager for one of Maxwell’s close friends, testified that Maxwell once brought a “distraught” 15-year-old Swedish girl into his employer’s home […] Maxwell had attempted to force her to have sex with Epstein on his private island […] by taking away her passport and threatening her. – [src]

            Another alleged Epstein victim, Sarah Ransome, has said that Maxwell and Epstein kept her passport when she was trafficked to his private island. She once allegedly tried to swim away before she was brought back. – [src]

            Some of the girls went to the island “under the pretext that they would be paid substantially merely to provide massages” to Epstein and others, the lawsuit claims. But once on the secluded island, the victims were “pressured and coerced to engage in sexual acts” with Epstein and his associates.

            The girls weren’t allowed to leave the island and were forced to “to recruit others to perform services and engage in sexual acts—a trafficking pyramid scheme,” the lawsuit says.

            […]

            The suit alleges one “15-year-old victim was forced into sexual acts with Epstein and others and then attempted to escape by swimming off Little St. James Island.” After organizing a search party to locate the girl, Epstein allegedly “kept her captive, by, among other things, confiscating her passport.”

            Another girl also tried to escape after being recruited to give Epstein massages, prompting the disgraced billionaire to suggest “physical restraint or harm if she failed to cooperate” after being found, according to the documents. – [src]

          • Deiseach says:

            I’ve never heard anyone claim that Epstein kept people captive, or that he had sex with anyone against their will.

            You missed this story? Lucky you, some of the more volatile people writing opinion pieces online were hyperventilating that this would prevent Trump’s inauguration, hurrah!

            The “Katie Johnson” accusation was a doozy, you can read the sordid details in the complaint here. If we believe the accusation, Epstein had a selection of underage (by which is meant “12 and 13” not “nearly but not quite 18”) sex slaves procured for him by female ‘fixers’ with promises of modelling careers and the likes.

          • Andaro says:

            Ok, I stand corrected (assuming your sources are true).

            “I certainly would consider person encouraging/using prostitution of 11 year old children as a major problem.”

            I don’t. I only see the bad faith deals and coercion as poor taste, not the pedophilia. It’s a shame too, he was rich enough that he could have had consensual deals in good faith, and with parental permission too. Then again, it’s not like it would make a difference to moral society or the law. If you’re going to be a hated criminal anyway…

            Now I do wonder how common this sort of thing is. I still believe most rich people aren’t rapists, but my probability estimate just went up.

        • One small complaint. I don’t know about all of your list, but at least some of them, such as Epstein, are not accused of pedophilia but of having sex with underage partners. Sex with a fourteen year old girl is illegal, I think in every state at present, but it isn’t pedophilia. On the historical evidence, it isn’t even a perversion. It’s just a crime.

        • albatross11 says:

          Penn State fits the model of “people protect their own” better than the model of “lots of powerful people are pedophiles.”

      • Evan Þ says:

        ikew is not saying that. ikew is making inferences based on the available facts concerning Epstein. Actively prosecute everyone linked to Epstein or at least visibly investigate them using the same standards applied to non-elites, spend a decade or a few more pouncing on any Epstein-like conspiracies without letting them linger for decades – and then the same reasoning would make Pizzagate much more improbable.

        As it is, ikew’s stretching the evidence way beyond where I would take it, but I don’t find his conclusions immune to logic or even verging on impossible. Though, in the specific instance of Pizzagate, IIRC the pizza parlor in question didn’t even have a basement.

        • DocKaon says:

          Huh? What does Epstein have to do with anything? One bad person exists (which apparently a huge amount of evidence can be produced about) therefore that means we can tar anyone remotely like him with the same sins? Donald Trump is like Epstein in a hell of a lot more ways than Hillary Clinton therefore any conspiracy theory about him being involved in pedophilia must be true?

          • matkoniecz says:

            What does Epstein have to do with anything?

            Yet another actual conspiracy of high-ranking pedophiles with long-term coverup and some very suspicious deaths.

            AFAIK this is confirmed, not an unsupported conspiracy theory (please correct me if there is any real doubt about it) – though it remains unclear who was actually pedophile and who was just aware about this and who was unaware about it.

            It makes more likely that rumors about the next conspiracy of high-ranking pedophiles with long-term coverup is actually true.

            —-

            Similarly, I would treat “Trump is a reptilian overlord” far more seriously after confirmed discovery that prime minister of Poland is a reptilian overlord and then discovering that French president also was a reptilian overlord.

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          Though, in the specific instance of Pizzagate, IIRC the pizza parlor in question didn’t even have a basement.

          This was the very last piece of speculation regarding Pizzagate, and isn’t central to the claims (weird Podesta emails & art collection, weird social media posts by the Pizza parlor).

          The dismissal of Pizzagate based on this would be akin to various online commentators laying out all the circumstantial evidence that Trump colluded with Russia during the election, then a handful of anonymous people online claim, “And do you know where Trump made his deal with Putin? In the twelfth subbasement of Trump Tower.” And then Fox News debunks the entire Trump/Russia collusion idea because there’s no twelfth subbasement of Trump Tower. Great, sure, that’s wrong, but that’s not really central to the argument, and doesn’t invalidate everything else.

    • Deiseach says:

      In a world where the Catholic Church/Boy Scouts/sports organisations can have sex abuse scandals of minors and cases like Bill Cosby amongst others blowing up into “it sounds like a conspiracy but it really happened”, the tendency is growing towards “why should I believe any authority is above such a thing happening within it? why should I believe X, Y or Z could never be implicated in something like that, just because they’re a famous name?”

      • Sorghum says:

        That’s true, although the claim of Pizzagate is not just that some major Democrat figures are paedophiles (which is reasonably likely to be true) but that the references to “pizza” in Democratic Party emails are references to paedophilia (which is extremely unlikely to be true, and I say this as someone who followed the Podesta emails closely enough to be able to quote a lot of the pizza references from memory).

        • ikew says:

          Conspiracy theories are memetically unstable (as in, very prone to mutation) and the selective pressure on them is not to be accurate and restrained but rather, bombastic and full of easily recognized imagery.
          What we hopefully all want is to bring down the possibly vast network of pedophile rings (regardless of political affiliation, wealth and power). Not just because it’s the moral thing to do, but because if such network is protected (and we fail to see how it would have survived this long without protection), then it gives leverage to unknown players who probably cannot be trusted to use it to the advantage of us, the non-lizard human people.
          For better or worse, conspiracy theory investigation is by now the domain of online dissidents who are at wildly varying levels of intelligence, ability to strategize and sanity. It is unlikely that such a community would build a believably sounding unified theory, which is a shame, because individual members have uncovered a big pile of meaningful connections and if well intended curation was possible, it would have resulted in a fairly solid and convincing case, well backed up by proper (if amateur) investigation.
          The same properties that make communal investigation possible have the opposite effect on organized, hierarchical editorial process. Almost by definition we can’t ever trust anyone who would “sanitize” the conspiracy theory to make it more palatable. If you are a community united by distrust of entities with vastly more power than you, especially if you maintain a high profile as pizzagate did, you absolutely must be hostile to all attempts to limit or redirect your efforts. Not only from outsiders, but from members of your own community, as they can all be compromised at any time.
          There is still hope. Yes, paranoia is cancerous, but iterated paranoia can, over many generations of investigative effort by motivated and capable members, build something solid. They must start off where the last generation exhausted it’s energy, separate the wheat from the chaff for themselves and start off with a pruned, meaningful core of evidence under a new banner. Pizzagate will never be considered more than a fringe silly conspiracy theory, but if at any point we do manage to nail down the bastards, we’ll do it in part thanks to evidence collected by earnest (if misdirected) open minded pizzagaters, stored in pastebins and distributed by rational truth-seekers and satanist-hunters working as a team… sortof.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            Conspiracy theories are memetically unstable (as in, very prone to mutation) and the selective pressure on them is not to be accurate and restrained but rather, bombastic and full of easily recognized imagery.

            I mean, I can’t be the only one who Flat Earthers put to sleep until No Forests on Flat Earth.

          • bullseye says:

            Using pizza as code for child porn isn’t a weird add-on to an otherwise reasonable theory; it’s how the whole theory got started. To the extent that anything in the Pizzagate theory is true, it’s a coincidence.

            Are there powerful people doing terrible things and covering them up? Of course! Can we trust conspiracy theorists to figure out which powerful people are doing it, and which terrible thing they’re doing? No.

          • ikew says:

            Using pizza as code for child porn isn’t a weird add-on to an otherwise reasonable theory; it’s how the whole theory got started.

            I beg to differ:

            iterated paranoia can, over many generations of investigative effort by motivated and capable members, build something solid. They must start off where the last generation exhausted it’s energy, separate the wheat from the chaff for themselves and start off with a pruned, meaningful core of evidence under a new banner.

            Do you really think it started with the emails about pizza?
            We had to move the so called “Clintons’ bodycount” from txt to xlsx decades ago.
            New symbols, new blood, updated spreadsheets, investigation starts but more to the point, it continues. Some of the discredited (by the community, not the NYT) chaff has been pruned. Some new has been added. The cycle begins anew.
            Between you and me, the pizza in the emails most likely refers to literal pizza in some places and money under the table in others ($100k pizza party? Surely children go much cheaper where the reptiles buy them in bulk). But the new, enthusiastic additions to the investigative effort seem to really like the pizza thing, and from the inside, you can only prune silly beliefs way after the investigation has concluded and you build your own personal curated info dump for the next time something gets it restarted.
            And hey. Maybe they are right. Restaurants have been fronts for nefarious activity since forever.

            Are there powerful people doing terrible things and covering them up? Of course! Can we trust conspiracy theorists to figure out which powerful people are doing it, and which terrible thing they’re doing? No.

            This really got me curious tho.
            Who can we trust to do it? FBI? CIA? NSA? CNN?
            The distributed network of conspiracy theorists has at least not proven itself to be actively, purposefully malicious. It cannot be, almost by definition. Individual members can be, and I’m fine with them getting phased out. The network is the process itself. Can’t buy it off, can’t intimidate it, can’t murder it, can’t destroy its life and drive it to suicide. If you have a safer, faster, cleaner, less intellectually disgusting process, propose it to the network and if it gets noticed, we’ll evaluate it.
            Until then it’s the best we have and not using it is equivalent to enslaving our children’s children.

          • bullseye says:

            The Clinton Bodycount stuff is part of Pizzagate? Even though it predates any connect to pizza by many years?

          • No One In Particular says:

            @ikew

            The distributed network of conspiracy theorists has at least not proven itself to be actively, purposefully malicious. It cannot be, almost by definition.

            If you’re going to just define away any objections to your statement, then what’s the point of it to begin with? The conspiracy theory community is INCREDIBLY malicious. As in sending the parents of Sandy Hook victims deaths threats, on the basis that they’re paid actors. People have died because of conspiracy theories.

    • albatross11 says:

      This is a weird parallel. At the same time, we have a goofy bullshit story about child sexual abuse (Pizzagate) when there was a guy who actually did move in the top echelons of power and wealth who was, in fact, sexually abusing minors systematically and involving many important people in it.

      Earlier, we had the ritual satanic sexual abuse panic at the same time that the Catholic Church was, in fact, engaged in large scale coverups of sexual abuse of minors.

      • John Schilling says:

        W/re Epstein, there’s a bit of apples:oranges going on in the different definitions of “child” being used. The number of people who will go along with organizing parties where middle-aged men have sex with sixteen-year-old girls is much higher than the number of people who will go along with the six-year-old version. For both the “I’d like to be a part of this if I’m sure I’ll get away with it” and the “This is very unseemly but it’s enough for me to walk away, I don’t have to call the police” version of “going along with it”. That makes it much easier to solve the coordination problem for the former sort of conspiracy, and actually make it happen without some of your invitees ratting you out to the police in ways the police won’t ignore. Knowing that l’affair Epstein happened, doesn’t imply a high plausibility for Pizzagate.

        The Catholic church thing is more relevant; either the Vatican is an extreme outlier in its ability to organize conspiracies, or things like Pizzagate really are more plausible than we’d otherwise have assumed.

        • Randy M says:

          +1
          My default initial mode of analysis of conspiracy theories is something like “How many people need to keep their mouth shut about something I consider terrible?”
          And the level of terrible matters. It’s a lot easier to envision someone going along with or being persuaded to abuse of a sixteen year old than a six year old, like you say (even, of course, while condemning both).

        • anon-e-moose says:

          AFAIK, Epstein’s type was simply young, teen girls. I don’t believe he was particularly specific on the lower bound beyond like 12 or so, just the upper.

          Regarding your final sentence about likelihood of conspiracies: The Rochdale child abuse ring, for example, wasn’t technically sophisticated, but still eluded the police for 5 years. It’s easy to miss something if you’re not really looking very hard.

          • albatross11 says:

            I think most of the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse was closeted gay priests having some kind of sexual relationship with teenage boys, so probably similar to Epstein in a couple senses:

            a. Teenage boys aren’t little kids

            b. Teenage boys/adult men pairings aren’t all that unheard-of among gay men in general, so maybe this seemed to some other closeted gay priests like “well, he really shouldn’t do that, but…” than like some kind of atrocity.

            It’s worth remembering that non-horrible places have ages of consent all over the place–ranging broadly from like 14-21. US states have had ages of consent as low as 14 within the last few decades, though I think now it’s 16 or higher everywhere. So while diddling little kids is probably a near-universal no-no, adults sleeping with teenagers is something that hasn’t always been illegal and still isn’t always illegal, even in pretty well-run and decent places. (Personally, an age of consent of 16 seems about right to me. But then, that’s what I’ve grown up with, and I don’t think I can actually make a strong case for why it’s the right answer.)

            That probably makes it easier to get both kinds of going-along-with-it behvior–either participating or leaving but not feeling like the police need to be involved.

          • No One In Particular says:

            @albatross11
            That the sex involved two people of the same gender does not necessarily mean that the participants were “gay” in the normal sense of the word.

        • matkoniecz says:

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeffrey_Epstein#Legal_proceedings mentions 11/12/13/14/15 year olds with some older.

        • Deiseach says:

          things like Pizzagate really are more plausible than we’d otherwise have assumed.

          Not necessarily that they’re more plausible, simply that the good old days of “ha ha, of course this is a crazy conspiracy theory, why [insert name of person/organisation] could and would never do anything like that, they are beyond reproach, it’s unthinkable!” are well behind us now, given all the people and organisations thought to be beyond reproach that turned out to indeed have done stuff exactly like that.

          Harvey Weinstein and the entertainment industry may not be a huge surprise, given the existence of the “casting couch” for decades, but people did expect organisations like the Church and the Boy Scouts and sporting organisations and so on to be beyond reproach, and it turned out they weren’t.

          So now it is less in the realm of “unthinkable, could never happen” to posit that a bunch of important, influential, or well-connected people could indeed be engaged in some private, shady, little exploitation.

        • Thomas Jorgensen says:

          Honestly, with Pizza-gate I heard the name “Hillary Clinton” and immediately vent “Slander”, because people had at that point spent decades making up entirely fictional horrible crimes Hillary had supposedly done, and thus the overwhelming prior was “It has been nearly a year since the last slander campaign”.

        • DarkTigger says:

          The Catholic Church is an outlier in so far that they are a) international b) a lot of cases started to be discussed at the same time (because of interesst from the media, and an change in leadership of the church I think) and c) their claim to be an moral authority.

          I would argue that all organisations have cases were such stuff happens, and esprit de corps leads to hiding of the deed, and than putting the offender in a new position were nobody knows of it.
          I’m aware of two cases of it happening in local schools with teachers having affairs with extremly young students, and the board sending them to new schools, w/o informing anyone.

    • By-Ends says:

      The old adage is “the more people are involved in an operation, the more likely it’s that op-sec gets broken”.

      Further to this point: often part of the conspiracy theory is that the pizzagate/pedo elements of the conspiracy are not just random moustache-twirling evil acts. They are an essential part of op-sec for the conspiracy. Participants in the conspiracy must have committed vile acts to ensure they will not break with the conspiracy. Like a gang initiation.

    • pdbarnlsey says:

      I mean, Hillary Clinton couldn’t successfully delay the FBI from releasing information about a laptop full of duplicate emails contrary to its own guidelines, for that stated reason that FBI leadership was certain that its anti-Clinton field offices would just leak it anyway unless they went public immediately.

      Those guys are probably not murdering Vince Foster or dismembering children on her behalf. They probably wouldn’t even help her Benghazi her emails.

      The fact is that, political convenience aside, your middle aged neighbor is a much better candidate for whatever complicated conspiracy theory you are pushing this decade. John Podesta, specifically, had all his email released to the public, and all that his enemies could find, after combing over them, looking for Whitewaters, was “this guy sure does talk about Italian food a lot… Possible child murderer?”. Hillary Clinton is possibly the most-investigated human in history, and is widely reviled by large chunks of the law enforcement apparatus. Comet Pizza, itself, has been searched for kidnapped children by an armed investigator.

      If there was something there, we wouldn’t still be hearing “some those pictures he owns make me feel strange, or at least I like to pretend that on the internet. Possible child murderer?”

  46. Eric says:

    The important insight when doing psychological measurement is that what a response means is not equal to what the words used to prompt that response mean. People often are really answering a degraded or more simple version of the question you ask, especially when moving fast. In this case, I would say that many people were partially degrading the question “Do you think the very specific negative thing about Hillary Clinton?” into “HILLARY = SUPER BAD?”. So someone might look and that question and think: ‘that looks like something extremely crazy anti Hillary. I’m not quite that extreme, but I do think she is bad so the response option that communicates my feelings the best is in that direction, but not all the way’.

    So I agree with you the reporting the results of polls (particularly ones where responses are made on a scale and then dichotomized / interpreted as representing distinct answer categories) is fraught and I’d add this as another reason why.

    • PhaedrusV says:

      But…. but… but… there were NUMBERS! NUMBERS don’t lie. And, a bunch of those, like, signs with the o/o thingies? Oh, here it is: %%55%. I remember that those are sci-en-ti-fic.

      It’s a crazy thing about putting numbers up on a screen. No matter how many times you tell even the smart people how flawed they might be, the numbers still exert a huge influence. You’ve heard about how the results of spinning a number wheel visibly in front of a person influence the magnitude of that person’s guess on a follow-up question?

      Professionally I’ve stopped putting actual numbers on slides while reporting preliminary data to stakeholders. I’ll describe the magnitude, but I find the stakeholders treat the data with a more-appropriate level of skepticism when I don’t include numbers at all.

      Same thing with risk mitigation plans; I’ve gone all-qualitative unless there’s some reason to be sure of a number’s precision.

      • Matt M says:

        This was my most significant moral objection I held during my brief career in management consulting.

        Billion-dollar decisions were being made on the basis of some number that some kid one year out of college basically made up. And nobody really had a problem with this. Everyone at the firm knew how the numbers were WAGs, but the entire business model was contingent upon major corporations taking our numbers seriously and being willing to act on them.

        I would always trying and hedge myself. Remove the numbers as you say, or give wide ranges. But my managers never wanted that. They wanted the specific number with two significant digits. Even if the inputs to arrive at that number were highly general and full of crazy assumptions. It just got so tiresome.

        • Randy M says:

          Reminds me of my favorite Dilbert

        • Matt M says:

          Well, to go the other way and defend my former industry, I’d actually push back on that Dilbert a bit.

          The WAG from the 23 year old whiz-kid is probably, in fact, the best number anyone has. And it probably is more likely to be accurate than some truly random guess.

          But that’s really just not saying much.

        • PhaedrusV says:

          Playing devil’s advocate here, a lot of those decisions wouldn’t change too much based on slight fluctuations in the numbers, or can be adjusted later on.

          I wonder what a better decision-making method under quantitative uncertainty would look like…

          “Our current estimate is 3.63%. This is just preliminary data, and our 95% CI is 2.4% to 4.9%. Within that range, our optimum behavior changes depending on whether the result is above or below 3.3%. Currently we are 69% sure that the result will fall above 3.3%. We can either wait for more data to refine our projection, proceed until the ‘no return’ point previous identified, or go all in on the current estimate.”

        • Sauber says:

          Witnessing this phenomenon from the other side can be madness-inducing.

          I was an employee at a major corporation that, for over a decade, was in a constant state of turmoil caused by CEO turnover and M&A activity. After a particularly significant divestiture facilitated by an activist PE fund, they required us to bring in a prestigious management consultancy to improve the efficiency of our operations.

          The consultants arrived brandishing a formula that had clearly been conjured-up by someone who had only a vague concept of the idea behind z-scores without ever having been formally introduced. It was presented in a way that was pseudo-statistical enough to wow the brass, but it clearly didn’t measure what it purported to measure. Had it been implemented as intended, the results would have been catastrophic.

          Fortunately, thanks to the aforementioned volatility of the company, our time with this particular consultancy lasted only long enough for credulous VPs to adopt this nonsensical formula and spend the next four years halfheartedly attempting to shoehorn it into our operations.

          Not one decision was ever made based upon this formula, but an awful lot of money was spent to obtain it. In an effort to save money, we paid millions of dollars to be told we might be able to save money if it were possible to extract the same level of productivity from our lowest performers as from our highest.

    • dogiv says:

      I would just like to second how annoying it is when pollsters put 4 to 6 options including things like “slightly agree” and “strongly agree” and then report the results as “X% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement…”
      Like, if that’s the outcome you want to report, then the response options should be “agree or strongly agree” and “disagree or strongly disagree”. People who answer “slightly agree” are trying to communicate that they do not strongly agree, and then the reporting lumps them in with the people who do strongly agree to make the conclusion sound more surprising.

    • Deiseach says:

      there were only 1337 people surveyed

      Okay, now I don’t believe any of the answers 🙂

      • PhaedrusV says:

        Saw that too. Back when I was flying in military formations I always used to select 133.7 as our ‘Get Well’ frequency, and nobody ever got it… le sigh.

    • keaswaran says:

      The first two worries aren’t very significant worries. Online polls aren’t completely randomized of course, but YouGov does manage to get fairly representative samples once they do a bit of demographic weighting (as exhibited by the fact that their polls tend to give results within 5% of true election results). A sample of 1337 people would usually have an expected 95% confidence interval of around 3%. So we can be fairly confident that the fraction of people reporting a given answer on one of their questions is within 5-10% of the true fraction of people that would report that answer if we surveyed everyone.

      The interpretation of what someone answering a question in a given way means for what they actually think is definitely problematic. But there’s no reason to worry about 1000 people being a “small” sample, or about the samples being especially non-representative (apart from having internet access).

      • PhaedrusV says:

        There’s significant reason to be concerned about poll reliability, because those offsets are based on historical data. During periods of high turmoil the historical offset no longer works, as 538 discovered in 2016.

        • keaswaran says:

          Periods of high turmoil could well cause problems, but the 2016 election wasn’t one of those. The polls were basically just as accurate in that election as they usually are, it’s just that the actual facts were closer than in most recent elections (only 2000 was closer, and only 2004 was at all comparable unless you go all the way back to at least 1980 or possibly 1960) so a small error can flip the sign of the outcome. And FiveThirtyEight gave a reasonably high probability of 30% for the outcome that occurred. It’s the Sam Wangs and the like that had real problems in 2016.

  47. User_Riottt says:

    Ugh I took part in a survey about conspiracy theories a few years ago…. Turns out I’m a “feelings first” conspiracy theorist for believing the verifiable fact (complete with whistleblower testimony) that:

    Wall Street colluded to crash the global economy in 2008 (the most popular, with 35% agreeing).

    .
    Only 35%!!!!! Sadly, propaganda works.

    • Alkatyn says:

      Depends what you mean by “colluded” here. To me it implies specific intent. Like they wrote a plan where crashing the economy was their specific end goal. Which I’d say is obviously false because crashing the economy is bad for their own self interest.

      But if you mean something more like” repeatedly did things motivated by short term profit that risked the wider economy” and “actively tried to prevent regulation” then sure.

      • User_Riottt says:

        So, picture some really smart people…. They know there is a huge market for MBS They make a ton of money from selling them, only one problem; there are only so many mortgages people want to take out. Solution; toss the underwriting standards out the window, it’s time for NINJA loans (No Income No Job or Assets). Literally that is what they called them. They know, those don’t sound all that likely to get paid back… Oh well they just decide to bribe the ratings agencies to make them sound better than they are and then bet that they will go bad.

        Was their primary goal to blow up the entire financial system? Maybe not, but you damn well better believe they knew that it was practically guaranteed to happen. They even bet it would.

        • Deiseach says:

          Solution; toss the underwriting standards out the window, it’s time for NINJA loans (No Income No Job or Assets).

          Not quite what the Bird and Fortune satirical comedy sketch named it, but close enough 🙂 (video quality is very poor, sorry about that).

          • Sauber says:

            Arrested Development was my point of reference for NINJA loans, but I quite enjoyed the Bird and Fortune sketch.

        • sourcreamus says:

          The people making the loans and the people who bet that they would go bad for the most part are not the same people. There may have been people hedging their investments, but for most people NINJA loans made sense to them because they had never been in an environment where home values went down significantly. The contrarians were the ones who bet big on the loans going bust and they did not originate those loans.

        • No One In Particular says:

          The word “to” means intent. Claiming that someone did X to do Y, when Y was not in fact the terminal goal, is a lie, pure and simple. I’m not interested in your not technically a lie excuses.

          • CptDrMoreno says:

            you just switched intent and terminal goal at your own convenience.
            “Did the roman senate collude to assassinate Julius Caesar?”
            “No, terminal goal was acquisition of power”
            They knew their actions would lead to economic collapse and undertook these actions, this is enough to qualify under “did X to Y” under a reasonable interpretation.

          • 10240 says:

            @No One In Particular @CptDrMoreno I’d say the usual meaning is between the two: one would say someone does X to do Y if Y is an intermediate goal towards a terminal goal Z, but not if Y is a side-effect. Under this meaning the Senate did collude to assassinate Casear, but Wall Street didn’t collude to crash the economy if it was a side-effect, but not an intermediate nor a terminal goal.

            Claiming that someone did X to do Y, when Y was not in fact the terminal goal, is a lie, pure and simple.

            Knock it off. If we are going to nitpick, a lie usually refers to an intentional falsehood, but not to imprecise talk.

          • No One In Particular says:

            @10240 There is a point where imprecise wording becomes a lie.

            @CptDrMoreno

            They knew their actions would lead to economic collapse and undertook these actions, this is enough to qualify under “did X to Y” under a reasonable interpretation.

            No, it’s not. “to” indicates purpose. If the purpose of X was not Y, then “did X to Y” is not accurate.

        • DavidS says:

          I think this is an interesting exchange because it may uncover another issue in understanding certain types of conspiracy (not very focused ones like ‘Obama born in Kenya’ but general ones about rich and powerful people pulling the strings.

          Typical SSC type probably reads things in a direct, literal way like Alkatyn – so not only would they say ‘no’ but they’d assume anyone saying ‘yes’ thought that Wall Street met up and discussed how to deliverately crash the economy. But if other people say ‘yes’ and they mean ‘Wall Street did a bunch of things that were bad and where they must have known this was a risk’ that’s very different.

          Scott’s own Basic Argument Against Conspiracy assumes the former view (which is mine too) https://slatestarcodex.com/2019/01/14/too-many-people-dare-call-it-conspiracy/ But on reflection I can see yours, and more generally I can see people seeing the question

          “Did Wall Street collude to crash the global economy in 2008” and reading it as “Do you blame greedy bankers for the crash”.

          Clarity of the question isn’t helped by treating ‘Wall Street’ as a single entity.

          • matkoniecz says:

            “Did Wall Street collude to crash the global economy in 2008” and reading it as “Do you blame greedy bankers for the crash”.

            And that is why I would not agree with “Did Wall Street collude to crash the global economy in 2008” and at the same time I may agree with people that agree with this.

    • Tarpitz says:

      I wouldn’t characterize it as “Wall Street colluded to crash the global economy.” Did widespread fraud on Wall Street contribute significantly to the bubble and consequently the crash? Absolutely. Did government/regulators collude with Wall Street to cover it up? Yeah, pretty much. But to me that question reads as “Was there a Wall Street conspiracy aimed at crashing the world economy,” which there wasn’t.

      • toastengineer says:

        This is the first I’m hearing of any of this conspiracy stuff. Source?

        • matkoniecz says:

          Which part is conspiracy stuff? Nonfunctioning regulation and hiding deficiencies? Or widespread fraud/underestimating risk/using faulty models because it allowed higher short term profit?

          • albatross11 says:

            Most survey questions about complicated questions are worded in a way that eliminates shades of gray.

            Did Wall Street as a whole, everyone down to the janitors, engage in a conspiracy to cause the world economy to crash? No, no way that could work.

            Did some small number of very powerful people on Wall Street engage in a conspiracy to cause the world economy to crash? That at least could have happened, but seems pretty unlikely and I know of no evidence to suggest it.

            Did some major Wall Street companies engage in behavior that was systematically risky because it was profitable for them, and then benefit from bailouts (directly and more importantly, indirectly) when their bets went sour on them? That’s what it looks like to me.

            But nobody’s going to write you a survey question like that, so the best you get is some kind of “Did Wall Street conspire to crash the world economy?” question where there’s not really a way of indicating what you think is true.

          • Randy M says:

            I think “Many financiers colluded to profit off of a crash that they had a significant role in causing” is pretty likely.

            Also likely is the fact that knowing they might be able to do so made them dangerously reckless beforehand.

          • matkoniecz says:

            I think “Many financiers colluded to profit off of a crash that they had a significant role in causing” is pretty likely.

            Oh, I completely believe that financiers colluded for profit in ways that increased risk of crash (or even caused it) and then colluded to profit from the crash and colluded to avoid responsibility for crash.

            But I do not believe at all that they colluded to cause a crash. Primarily because actually causing a crash and then profiting from it is extremely hard.

    • Cliff says:

      They are right, you are wrong

    • matkoniecz says:

      “Wall Street colluded to crash the global economy in 2008” is untrue, though “Wall Street colluded and crashed the global economy in 2008 as a side effect” is true.

      If you are aware about serious evidence that there was collusion that deliberately crashed economy: [citation needed]

      • Matt M says:

        Yeah. I don’t necessarily believe that Wall Street wanted the global economy to crash. But I do believe they didn’t necessarily care that it did. It was negligent homicide, but not first-degree murder.

      • Gerry Quinn says:

        It’s like if you sell someone a car with defective brakes. You don’t *want* them to crash. Indeed, you would prefer if they did not. The problem is that you don’t care enough about whether they do.

        • matkoniecz says:

          Difference between deeply dishonest salesman (to the point of causing deaths) and someone deliberately sabotaging car to cause an accident would – I think – be a good parallel.

    • No One In Particular says:

      1. Wall Street is a paved surface in Manhattan. The idea that it engaged in sentient behavior is absurd.

      2. No, this is not a nitpick. Words are important. Yes, we all know you don’t literally mean Wall Street. “Wall Street” is simply metaphorical language for … something else. The issue is that by using a term that obviously doesn’t mean what it means and “everyone knows” that it means something else is that you get to avoid saying who you actually mean. The very fact that you’re saying (well, okay, they aren’t your words originally, but you’re still endorsing them) Vague references to shadowy groups, such as “Wall Street” rather than a reasonably precise phrasing, such as “a large number of people in the Manhattan financial system”, is a primary characteristic of conspiracy theories.

      3. The claim is hopeless vague in other ways. What level of intent is being asserted? Etc.

      4. Posting a link to a twenty page article with no indication of what part of it you are asserting supports your claims is not a legitimate cite.

      • Freddie deBoer says:

        This is the worst comment I’ve ever read on SlateStarCodex, and I’ve read many terrible comments here. To be so desperate to act pedantic that you pretend not to know how synecdoche works is just… breathtaking.

        • Mark V Anderson says:

          I agree totally with No One. He is absolutely correct that the original comment makes no sense, for the reason he says. You can call this the 2nd worst comment on SSC, or maybe realize that yours is pretty bad itself.

    • Anatid says:

      Financial crises are very bad for Wall Street. 2008 hurt it a lot. I looked up the performance of IYF, an ETF which tracks financial sector stocks. It was down more than 80% at the bottom. To the extent that “Wall Street” has collective wants, it wants the global economy to *not* crash. Banks do well when the overall economy is doing well, and poorly when the overall economy is doing poorly.

      “Wall street colluded to crash the economy” implies that Wall Street as a whole collectively benefitted from the crash, when the opposite is true.

      • Freddie deBoer says:

        Wall Street as a whole benefited from the bubble that led to the crash, of course, and it was the greed inherent in trying to keep those paper gains forever that caused the crash. The sin is one of recklessness and a lack of moral hazard, as should be obvious to anyone.

        I know that this comments section is filled with witless endorsements of rapacious winner-take-all capitalism, but they usually aren’t this witless. Please, try harder.

        • Anatid says:

          I did not say that banks weren’t reckless or blameworthy. I said that the people you gesture at when you say “Wall Street” were on average hurt a lot by the crash, and did not want it to happen. I agree with you that the people doing the reckless stuff benefitted from the bubble (though I expect that in the end the banks involved lost much more than they ever gained) — the claim I was responding to was that they benefitted from the crash itself. I completely agree with you about recklessness and moral hazard.

          On another topic — do you mind being a little nicer when you disagree? (though as I said I *don’t* disagree with the things you wrote).

        • Matt M says:

          Indeed. The real calculus that needs to be done here is the success/failure of the total business cycle.

          That is to say, did Wall Street make more or less money during the whole cycle of bubble-bust-recovery than they would have in a counterfactual scenario where there is no bubble, such that there is no bust, and no recovery.

          I’d guess they did – solely because of the bailouts. All the bubble profit they got to keep, but the bust losses they were insulated from.

          The net loser in all of this is, of course, the taxpayer (and holders of US dollars in general)

  48. Erusian says:

    Personally, if you told me about the “North Dakota Crash” I’d presume you were talking about the issues the oil industry is having due to the recent Saudi-Russia spat followed by the coronavirus. I think we can all agree that Reuters is pretty reliable? If not, you can find other reports on the same thing. Likewise, in 2016 I’d have been concerned about similar effects due to the (real) oil glut and the wondering about the long term viability of the fracking boom at new prices.

    Neither was called the North Dakota Crash afaik but they were prominent crashes in a region that covers a big slice of North Dakota.

    I’m curious how much of this happens? People who think they know what you’re talking about and are just wrong about the reference. Because I think we can agree that I’m not imagining these events or the concern they generated, it’s just relatively niche due to my interests. Though a Google search says the university is in southern California, which is oil country. And I know the Republicans love to bang on about fracking and covered it with some trepidation. (I’m not well adjusted for these things, but didn’t the region get a TV show? Doesn’t that imply some cultural familiarity?)

    There has to be some difficulty in making up fake events that don’t map to real ones. After all, if someone said “the disaster that happened in November of 2016” I’d have a pretty good idea what they meant even though I’m not aware of any non-metaphorical disasters at that time.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I am from Southern California and I don’t think it’s oil country in any meaningful sense. I understand it produces some oil, but most people aren’t connected to the industry or even necessarily aware of it.

      • Erusian says:

        California (and the oil is in the south) produces about a tenth of all the oil in the US, enough that it (on its own) outproduces several OPEC members. There are other, bigger industries in California to be sure (entertainment, tech, etc) but that’s more because California is big than oil is small.

        Another way to put it: is Texas oil country? Because California is about half a Texas. And I know for a fact that people in Austin would say that oil isn’t that important too.

        • John Schilling says:

          Another way to put it: is Texas oil country?

          Only West Texas and Houston are oil country. And no part of California much outside of Bakersfield is oil country.

          What matters for “X country” status is how important X is to the local economy or culture of the country in question, not how important the country’s X is to the outside world. If you produce a tiny fraction of the world’s X, but that’s all you produce, you’re “X country”. If you produce a huge chunk of the world’s X, but it’s a tiny fraction of all the stuff you produce, you’re not.

          • Erusian says:

            Fair enough. I would point out that South California, including LA, is the area equivalent to West Texas in terms of where the production is. But I find that a perfectly acceptable standard.

            More to the point though, imagine if you were doing a survey. Let’s say 5% of workers producing 5% of the economy work in oil. Let’s say they have two friends or family members each. 15% of the population, even if its a small minority, would thus be familiar with the state of the oil industry even if 85% of the population wasn’t. And that accounts for half of your 30%.

        • Watchman says:

          I think the go-to reference for the Southern California oil industry is one of the Beverley Hills Cop movies. The one where Axel Foley is surprised there’s an oilfield in LA.

          At least that’s the reason I know about it…

      • keaswaran says:

        Oil does have some weird implications in SoCal though. The Beverly Center mall is on top of a gigantic parking garage, but some of the space in the parking garage is blocked off because it’s an active oil well. Anti-subway people in Beverly Hills use the presence of an oil well on the campus of Beverly Hills High School to argue that the subway is an unacceptable danger.

        https://www.lamag.com/citythinkblog/hidden-oil-wells/

        https://losangeles.cbslocal.com/2012/05/07/metro-anti-subway-tunneling-video-with-fireballs-explosions-unfortunate/

        But obviously, even in Beverly Hills, oil is not the primary source of money. (I don’t believe there are many remaining Beverly Hillbillies.)

    • Star says:

      Ya I was in North Dakota in 2015 (was it 2014 or 2016 when the crash happened?) and I remember the difference in foot traffic at my favorite pizza joint in Watford “city” (they don’t know what the word city means out there). The place went from standing room only to three tables out of 20 having patrons at dinner time. I was lucky, I had changed jobs out of the oil sector 5 months before the price cracked. I have never heard it called The North Dakota crash but it’s what I would think of were the phrase used on me (older folk would have thought of a similar crash in the 70’s). As to conspiracy no it was a natural result of the concentrated effort of people like me getting the infrastructure in place to make the black gold flow.

      So basically ya Erusian is right there are huge name collision problems in this space (or search pollution if you prefer) and for the record don’t go to North Dakota if you are from the north east the cultures are mutually repulsive. They will think you are too curt and short and you will think they are slow and dumb (they aren’t it’s an act).

  49. There must have been a North Dakota crash or the poll wouldn’t have asked about it. I never heard a thing about the crash, so obviously somebody was suppressing the news. Given that news was being suppressed, 33% of the people assuming that the government is responsible isn’t that odd.

    Perhaps a bit low.

    • Michael Watts says:

      I was going to make a similar point – if you’ve never heard of the North Dakota crash, that doesn’t exactly undermine the idea that there’s a coverup.

      • 10240 says:

        Do you know why elephants have red eyes?
        So they can hide in cherry trees.

        Have you seen an elephant in a cherry tree?
        No? See, that’s how well it works.

        • Anteros says:

          Tangential, but you just reminded me..

          Why are Elephants large, grey and wrinkled?
          Because if they were small, white and round, they’d be aspirins.

        • PhaedrusV says:

          How does the elephant get down from the cherry tree?

          Sit on a leaf, and wait for fall.

          • halfasperger says:

            How does an elephant get into a cherry tree?

            Sit on a cherry pit and wait for spring.

        • Tatterdemalion says:

          Throwing-balls-of-paper-out-of-the-window-to-keep-tigers-away exercises are awkward, because if you stop them then half the time you save vast amounts of littering, and the other half you get eaten by tigers, and sometimes it’s really hard to tell which is which.

        • FeepingCreature says:

          Sure, but the whole premise here is that you prompt them with “How did the elephant hide in the cherry tree?” Given that, “Red eyes! I knew it!” is not an entirely unreasonable response.

          It’s a loaded question.

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          I thought the joke was “why do elephants paint their toenails red?”

      • Matt M says:

        Of course Scott would tell us there was no North Dakota crash. He’s in on it!

  50. Luke Perrin says:

    Who believes Obama was secretly born in Kenya? Lots of people – including 28% of blacks. I’ve been told again and again that birtherism is a racist conspiracy theory and no person could possibly believe it except as a way of dog whistling white supremacy. Yet here we are with 28% of blacks supporting it – and this isn’t a small sample either! I have no idea what these people are thinking, except that 28% is pretty close to the North Dakota Constant and maybe we should just write this one off.

    Maybe some of the 4% of people who create the lizardman constant also lie about their race? Since black people form a small percentage of the population their stats will be more greatly affected.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Oh, interesting theory!

      If 4% of people lie about their race, and black people are 12% of the population, then about 25% of supposed blacks will be fake. If 50% of fake blacks believe in birtherism, that’s enough to create a 12.5% rate in the general black population if 0% of real blacks believe it. Since the observed rate is 28%, instead we would need an additional 12% of real blacks (is that math right?) to believe it.

      But people who lie about being black might also be more likely to lie about believing birtherism, for the lulz, so I’m not sure.

      But maybe Joe Biden was on to something!

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        If 4% of people lie about their race, and black people are 12% of the population, then about 25% of supposed blacks will be fake.

        When I was a kid on the internet, I took it for granted that when their face wasn’t visible, people would lie about their age, gender, even species if it would help or do no harm to their goals (on the internet, no one can really know you’re a dog).
        When I discovered as an adult in the latter Noughts that there were large bubbles where speakers’s race was a huge deal in debates, I just avoided all such places if they were online (so like, not college). Like, how does anyone know?

      • Vitor says:

        The math is wrong. you’d need (.28 – .125)/.75 ~ 21% of real blacks to believe. I think you multiplied instead of dividing.

        Also, up to 25% of blacks are fake. Reported blacks could fluctuate between 11.5% and 16% in your model. You’re implicitly claiming there’s a systematic effect causing all liars to claim being black, and no blacks to be lying.

        I’m only nitpicking because you asked. Overall I think this is an important point that can explain a significant fraction of the effect.

        Edit: math is hard.

        • Tatterdemalion says:

          If 5% of your respondents are white birthers who think “let’s give our conspiracy theory legitimacy by pretending to be black and saying we believe it”, and 100% of black respondents honestly state that they are black and don’t believe it, that would give you well over 28% of responses that claim to be from black people coming from frauds.

          40% of the electorate support Trump, give or take. 1/8 does not strike me as an implausibly high guess for the fraction of those who would do this.

          • MilesM says:

            I could maybe believe it if it was some short Facebook quiz focusing on attracting birthers.

            But the idea that 1/8th of Trump voters were obsessed enough with the birth question in 2016 that they’d take a 127-question long poll from The Economist with the intent of pretending to be black so they can lie and say Obama was born in Kenya seems wildly improbable.

            Sorry, but I think it verges on the “willing to believe wild conspiracy theories about the other tribe” territory.

      • Jaskologist says:

        Does the poll provide a racial breakdown of its respondents? That’s pretty common in normal political polling, and would let us sense-check this.

    • Dan L says:

      Since black people form a small percentage of the population their stats will be more greatly affected.

      A specific instance of the general rule: “Don’t get lost in the cross tabs.”

  51. onyomi says:

    Has anyone done a more systematic experiment/poll replicating that phenomenon where guy with camera interviews a bunch of liberal college students asking them how they feel about [statement actually said by President Obama], attributes the statement to Trump, and they all hate it? (And presumably you could ask a bunch of truckers how they feel about [statement said by President Obama], attribute it to Trump and they’d like it, or the inverse, if you can find a statement by Trump without too many working class shibboleths encoded)?

    My prior is that we’d find people overwhelmingly evaluating political statements primarily in light of tribal and personal loyalties. And can we say anything either about the percentage of voters who maintain their opinion even when attribution is switched and/or statements that won’t be supported even when you think your guy said it or opposed when the other guy said it, such as “these are the informed voters” or “these are the real points of disagreement beyond tribal signalling”?

    • alexmennen says:

      I am very suspicious of this. If some small but nontrivial fraction of liberal college students would harshly criticize an Obama quote when told that Trump said it, it’s easy to make a video that makes it look like all of them do that by interviewing lots of them on camera and only including the ones who react the way you want them to in the film.

      • toastengineer says:

        Do any sources do this sort of thing live, so they can’t be accused of this trick?

      • Matt M says:

        Well yeah, that’s how this always works. A non-political version of it are the classic “Jaywalking” segments from The Tonight Show with Jay Leno where he’d walk the streets of LA, ask random pedestrians incredibly simple and easy questions about basic knowledge, and then everyone would laugh at their stupid answers.

        Jay: How many states are there in the United States of America?
        Cute blonde tourist girl: Uh, 12? *giggles uncontrollably*
        Audience: HAHAHAHA LOOK AT THE DUMB GIRL

        It was low-effort cheap entertainment then, and it’s the same now, when applied politically.

        • No One In Particular says:

          A bit hypocritical, seeing as his wife made a comment about how much South Africa oppresses “African Americans”.

          • Yosarian2 says:

            That’s not a sign of being ill-informed, it just means that lots of people automatically use the terms “black people” and “African-American people” interchangeably without stopping to parse the examples where they’re not quite synonymous. It’s a silly thing to criticize someone for, it’s just a weird artifact of our language.

          • DarkTigger says:

            @Yosarian
            Yes, or it is another example that USAmericans belive that the USA is the whole world floating on an unending sea of mexican migrant worker. /scnr

        • Squirrel of Doom says:

          Jaywalking also had the incentive that people knew the only way to get on TV was to give a stupid answer.

      • Trofim_Lysenko says:

        As Matt M said, that was a regular feature of Jay Leno’s show. See also the entire oeuvre of Sacha Baron Cohen (especially his ‘Borat’ and ‘Ali G’ personas).

        • MisterA says:

          In fairness to Cohen, his real craft was in getting people who really ought to know better – politicians, public figures, etc – to say the type of stuff a sidewalk sucker on Jaywalking would say. Or else to make them think they are in front of a friendly audience and can say the horrible stuff they actually think rather than their public line.

          These are both, I think, a more sophisticated trick than Jaywalking.

          • DavidS says:

            Yes: and Sasha Baron Cohen kept in at least some people who didn’t give in to it – not people who knew who he was, but people who kept their own principles rather than pandering. His interview with Tony Benn, Benn acts pretty much like he would on Newsnight. Trigger Happy TV (prank show) also kept some things in where celebrities challenged when they did something outrageous etc. too.

            In terms of getting celebrities (and lawmakers) to say ridiculous things the best was Brass Eye. I think the peak being getting a well-known DJ at the time to record something with the line “paedophiles have more genes in common with crabs than they do with you and me”, adding “Now that is scientific fact—there’s no real evidence for it—but it is scientific fact”. And then smashing a crab with a hammer.

          • Logan says:

            It’s pretty ungenerous and baseless to say “the things you say in front of a friendly audience are things you actually think, while the things you say in front of a camera is a pander.” I lie more in front of friendly audiences, because I know I can get away with it and I know what they want to hear. Code-switching doesn’t mean you only really believe the damning stuff.

    • wavedash says:

      I’m not sure what exact part of this “phenomenon” you’re testing for: are you asking if there are polls on how people approve of actions done by different people; or are you asking for more rigorous, academic documentation of signalling in particular?

      If it’s the former, I’m aware of one infamous example:

      “In 2013, when Barack Obama was president, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that only 22 percent of Republicans supported the U.S. launching missile strikes against Syria in response to Bashar al-Assad using chemical weapons against civilians.

      A new Post-ABC poll finds that 86 percent of Republicans support Donald Trump’s decision to launch strikes on Syria for the same reason. Only 11 percent are opposed.

      38% of Democratic voters backed Obama’s proposed strikes in Syria, and now, 37% of Democratic voters support Trump doing the same thing.”

      http://www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow-show/syria-reflexive-partisanship-doesnt-apply-both-parties

      • Tatterdemalion says:

        I think that the basic point they’re trying to make here is probably both correct and important, but it’s worth pointing out that reporting “% support” the first time and “% oppose” the second may make the difference in Republican opinions look larger than it actually is, because if some people have no opinion then those numbers probably won’t add up to 100% – it probably wasn’t the case that 78% opposed the first time and 89% supported the second.

        But that change is large enough that that probably doesn’t undermine the central point.

        • Placid Platypus says:

          Seems like you missed that the second time includes both supported and opposed. If you ignore the opposed and just look at support, it goes from 22 to 86.

      • onyomi says:

        Thanks, I had not heard of that one, though one can quibble about all kinds of factors like different historical moment, hypothetical intervention vs. already happened intervention, etc. Though presumably circumstances and context are also among the major elements people draw on when rationalizing why it was good when their guy said it/did it/proposed it and not the reverse.

        I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Republican views on military intervention fluctuate more depending on who’s in the White House, though I am surprised to hear of 38% of Democrats supporting anything Trump did.

      • Darwin says:

        I have to say, I would probably fall for this.

        But I think it’s a Bayesian rational thing to do!

        Because I absolutely do not know enough about this issue to know what the right thing to do is. So my prior for whether the president is doing the right thing here is heavily affected by my prior that the President is smart and well-intentioned.

        EG, my guess for ‘is this a good idea’ will be close to my estimated base rate for ‘what percent of things this president does are good ideas’.

        Since my prior about that is very different for these two presidents, my guess about whether this action is a good idea should also be different depending on which is doing it.

        • muskwalker says:

          I would also separate out that “X person should take Y action” depends not only whether I judge X to know whether Y action is good, but also on whether X person would be good at doing it. (Even if I did think we should bomb some country, I wouldn’t support a small child leading the action, for example.)

    • len says:

      I don’t think it’s entirely just tribal or personal loyalties. It can be rational trust in an authority figure’s values and decision making process. If your model is that Trumobama hates everything you believe in and stand for and that Obamarump represents your interests, then it’s rational to agree with X when Obamarump said X and disagree with X when Trumobama said X, especially if you didn’t have strong feelings about X in the first place.

      • onyomi says:

        Good point. It could be related to Epistemic Learned Helplessness, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

      • Manya says:

        Yeah. A lot of it comes down to trust. You’re far more likely to trust that a politician you generally support does not mean anything insidiously awful by X, and you are right to do so.

        If I think that Obamarump shares my values, and despite this, he is proposing X which sounds like something Trumobama would do, my prior is going to be that he’s examined all the alternatives and they are all worse. When Trumobama does the same thing, my prior is that he considers some of the things I think of as downsides as upsides, or at least as not relevant.

    • Darwin says:

      Part of the problem with this methodology is that single sentences out of context are usually very underdeterminative, and the effect is likely driven more by people interpreting the meaning of the sentence differently rather than changing their preference for the same interpretation.

      For example, Trump’s recent tweet including the phrase ‘when the looting starts, the shooting starts’. There are people convinced that this is a promise that he will order the military to start gunning down protestors, and there are people convinced that this is a plea for sanity reminding people that riots evolve from property damage to violence and death very quickly and therefore order needs to be maintained.

      If reasonable people are interpreting the same set of words this differently, it implies that there are multiple reasonable ways to interpret it. Which of those interpretations you land on is likely to have a lot to do with the context in which the statement was made, the identity of the speaker being a big part of teat context.

      So although it might look to an outsider like naked partisanship, it would make sense for someone to endorse that statement if made by one president and condemn it if made by another, because they might reasonably interpret it to mean different things.

      • sauber says:

        So although it might look to an outsider like naked partisanship, it would make sense for someone to endorse that statement if made by one president and condemn it if made by another, because they might reasonably interpret it to mean different things.

        Motivated reasoning makes contortionists out of us all, though, as it leads us to contextualize or decontextualize a statement to fit our priors. It’s why headlines are catnip.

        If I believe politician X represents me and my tribe, I’m motivated to interpret his statements and actions charitably – even if that requires I ignore context and precedent, to the point of being unreasonable.

        Conversely, if I believe politician X does not represent me and my tribe, I’m motivated to interpret his statements and actions uncharitably – even if that requires I ignore context and precedent, to the point of being unreasonable.