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It’s probably unfashionable to call it “Chinese Whispers” these days. At the very least, it’s politically incorrect, and as is so often the case in these situations, it turns out that the etymology of the game does include a racist streak. Namely; it was called this because westerners figured that spoken Chinese was unintelligible. So, a game where a message whispered from one ear to the next is eventually rendered nonsensical, was named for the Chinese “language” (which just goes to show how little was understood – were they listening to Cantonese, or Mandarin perhaps?)

So let’s call it “Telephone”, as it is called in the United States, according to Wiki, anyhow.

Really, that’s all by the by. What I’m here to talk about is the big picture.

There is a tendency these days to regard any item of news, or opinion from a talking head, as sitting on a level playing field with every other bit of news or opinion. A sense that one idea is as good as the next. It this world, the notion of “truth” ceases to have meaning, as if being “true” is a value judgment where none should be made. Just as the post-modern art era challenged the idea of “beauty” as a worthwhile goal in art, we now seem to live in the world of “post-truth”.

At some point, collectively we lost the ability to be able to distinguish an idea with merit grounded in observable facts, from an idea based upon another person’s opinion and ideas. This is a pretty big loss to society. If you can’t decide between things that are objectively true, and things that are mere conjecture, then you may find yourself completely lost in the world. Without this ability, airplanes would never have flown, and we’d still be cooking with a camp fire, and certainly would not have the ability to reheat our food in the microwave.

Somehow, we are fearful of value judgment. Some things, nonetheless, are more valuable than others. The effects of gravity are observable, for instance, and if someone were to say, “I have a different idea”, we might listen, but we would dismiss it as untrue at best, crazy more likely. Gravity is a fact. The warping of space-time causes bodies of mass to be “attracted” to one another in proportion to their mass (roughly – it’s easy to get your Newtonian and Einsteinian physics muddled up here, and that’s beside the point anyway).

So it is that even in the murky world of politics and international affairs, there is a version of events that is true, and myriad others that simply are not. The considerable difficulty lies in determining to which you have been subjected.

In to this quagmire steps the conspiracy theory. By definition, a conspiracy is a situation where a number of actors (people, groups, “governments”) get together and decide on a collective course of action, usually to achieve a mutually beneficial goal (perhaps at the cost of external parties), and normally protected by secrecy as to their intentions and as to the existance of the conspiracy itself.

In this sense, nearly all international government actions are conspiracies. They work to further their ends, and they keep the intentions and plans secret.

So what can this tell us? Well, if you’ve ever heard of espionage, spies, and the “intelligence community”, you’ll know that the conspiracies of one government are notoriously leaky and transparent to others. Sometimes through concerted effort, sometimes by mistake, in the end, secrets are hard to keep, even by those whose entire career is bent on keeping them.

Part of the problem is that we’re only human, we’re incorrigible gossips, and we just blab. We also suffer from various psychological tendencies, greed, pride, etc. Ultimately, someone lets the cat out of the bag. The more people who are in on the secret, the more probable the leak. As they say in the classics, The Truth Will Out!

As such, grand actions by a nation state, plans involved large numbers of people, plans shrouded in mystery and secrecy, rarely stay secret for long. It’s just highly difficult to keep the secret.

Also, the more people involved, the greater the work of co-ordination, which by itself requires more people who know of the secrets. It’s nearly an exponential growth of numbers of likely blabbers. The bigger the conspiracy, the larger the likelihood of a leak, therefore the less likely the secret will be contained. Multiply that by the time the conspiracy has been in place, and you get an even slimmer likelihood of success.

In short, big conspiracies are very unlikely indeed.

Let’s return to the co-ordination problem. Remember the game, Chinese Whispers Telephone? Well, the more people in the circle, the worse the end result. With enough people, it becomes complete gibberish by the end.┬áThat’s how the world of conspiracy works too! Sure, computers mean perfect messages can be copied instantaneously, but there are still people either side of the machinery. There’s still heaps of room for human error. Couple that with the secrecy problem and you have a near perfect recipe for failure.

So, the simplest answer to your next conspiracy theory, be it chemtrails, big-pharma/GMOs/Aliens, climate change (I mean look what happened to the emails of a bunch of giggling scientists – even their snarky emails couldn’t be kept secret!), Syrian war… whatever, it is this:

The bigger the conspiracy, the more unlikely it is.

More than that, beyond a threshold (lets say, collusion by a┬ácouple of countries, or multi-national companies), it becomes basically impossible. If you add natural commercial market competition to the mix (as there is in say the reporting of the news) then the threshold reduces. Next time someone tells you that the media is feeding you a lie, ask them to think of how that might work. The sensible end to that thought is, “It doesn’t.”

PS. This is not exactly the same argument as Okham’s Razor. Indeed you might think the Razor suggests that a conspiracy is the simplest solution given that perhaps it involves the neatest arrangement with least variables. But no, from the Razor, the most likely solution will never be a conspiracy, because it is quickly seen that to have a conspiracy is always to posit one more variable (namely the conspiracy itself) than is required to explain the phenomenon. Thus conspiracies nearly always fail the test.

 

 

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You may have detected a skeptical vein in me whilst reading. I am skeptical. I am a scientist, it’s my job! Furthermore, I am a geologist who specializes in groundwater. I earn money through the planning and delivery of water (potable or construction water typically) to major projects. Part of that process is the exploration for water. Through a combination of looking at maps, on the ground reconnaissance, and clever things like geophysics, I decide where precisely to drill water wells. It is a scientific process, with a lot of learning along the way. You really do get better with experience, and for me anyway, my background in gold and nickel exploration has helped. I’ve been doing all these various exploration tasks for a several years now (about 6 in fact) and definitely I’ve improved. I know how drill rigs work and I have a decent idea of how (basically) to tease out from the local geology in a given area the better places to look for water (or gold, or nickel or whatever). Again, it relies on the collective knowledge from generations of geological science. Knowledge that I started to learn at university.

Enough about my scientific credentials already! Why I write this is that I am currently working on a project where we are trying to find enough groundwater for the construction of 100km of railway. Railway line construction requires a lot of water (about 800,000L per day every 10-15km of line in this case).

We’re working in a pastoral area, sheep and wheat country. The geology is pretty much granite through and through, and anyone who knows what that’s like will tell you that water is scarce. Surface water is practically non-existent and groundwater is hard to come by. This is nearly a desert. How do I know this specifically in this area? Because I have been talking to the local farmers. These guys have been breaking their backs for generations, eeking out the precious value this land will throw up to those who persevere. The one thing that determines success or otherwise more than anything is water. Stock need it to survive, and having no mains water system, a farmer’s house supply relies on it. Subsequently, the farmers invest a large amount of thought and effort into finding water. The country is pock-marked with drill holes and windmills. With this effort comes a culture of great interest in the techniques deployed to find that precious water.

From my discussions, the number one technique employed to find water here is water divining (“water witching” or “water dowsing”, depends where in the world you are). Before you sigh and stop reading, consider this: a water bore can cost more than $10,000 whether or not you actually find water. A farm would quickly go broke drilling holes if their success rate wasn’t too good. But then, hiring geological consultants such as myself is not cheap either, and materially adds to the cost.

What you need is a method of locating the holes yourself (or even getting a mate to do it for a few beers). Enter divining. You know who they are – they’re the ones with bent pieces of wire or Y-shaped sticks who wander about and find the “stream” and tell you where to drill. There is no scientific evidence for its efficacy whatsoever. Indeed there is scientific evidence that demonstrates that diviners have success rates no better than chance (for a good summary, I do recommend the Wiki page). This scientific ‘disproof’ has been around for at least half a century. Despite claims by practitioners to the contrary, we can probably consign water diving to the quack-bin and declare it bogus. Hocus pocus pseudoscience.

BUT, does it work “in the real world”? Given that so many still use it, even rely on it, what residual value might it poses for the farmers out here?

Well, my unscientific study of the local farmers deploying this unscientific technique suggests that it is valuable indeed. The process of divining has located many successful bores in this district (together with a largely unmentioned number of failed bores!). Any geologist will tell you that drilling completely at random will not give you a good success rate. To this end, drilling on “crossing streams” found by diviners is not random. There is a great deal of local land knowledge that is deployed when divining, thus narrowing the focus of the search. The divining really then just delivers a reason for siting the drill rig in a particular location. With limited resources at-hand, this is perhaps just what is needed – comfort in spending the money.

So how am I to react when confronted with several ‘divined locations’ (I can’t help but make the mistake of pronouncing it ‘divine locations’ here!)? This is difficult country to explore, and even I, the skilled geologist, have limited data. My locations are beset with large error margins. In fact I will plan for a certain failure rate given the known geology.

I decided to let them have the run of it for a while, as the divined spots had some features that made them acceptable exploration targets. One diviner, we’ll call him ‘Bruce’, comes with, it is said, a 100% success rate! (Forgive my skepticism, 100%?) I have spent the last week drilling his targets. So far, we’ve drilled four holes. The first one was an absolute gusher! More water than we hoped for. Even the farmer, lets call him ‘Barry’, said he’d never seen anything like it! Then the second came up with water too. Not as much, but adequate.

At this stage, I’m running through the stats in my head. This is getting like some sort of baseball or cricket statistic. Surely the ‘run’ must end soon. But then comes the third hole, better than the second. So Bruce is 3 from 3. Pretty good. Don’t worry, I’m not about to be ‘converted’.

The fourth hole comes. I press on, drilling deeper than I usually would. Barry is telling me I have to go deeper, Bruce is never wrong! Bare in mind, this is hard, dry granite. No water in that. But then, sure enough, there’s the water! This time though, it’s minimal; not enough for a bore. So how to call this? 3.5 out of 4?

It’s hard to explain this without saying that there was simply a network of water baring fractures in the granite that would have been found anyway. That would be the logical, geologically appropriate explanation. I happen believe this to be the case. We may even have been able to detect the fracture systems with the right geophysics. And then, we might have drilled proper ‘geological holes’. But, like Bruce the diviner might agree (perhaps not) how will I ever know? We can’t drill everywhere, and geophysics for this kind of exploration is costly in both time and money with limited chance of improving the success rate.

So, what is the upshot of this? Well, I have spent a week drilling holes and conversing with Barry. We get on well and he has been helpful above and beyond the call. It has been a pleasure. What about the divining? Well, Barry wouldn’t let me drill anywhere that didn’t come approved by Bruce anyway. So, the upshot is that we have a happy landholder, and a happy geologist drilling good water bores (the task for which I am paid). Everyone’s a winner, except, perhaps, science. I come out of this a little miffed that I couldn’t show Barry a better way. But then I’m not from round here. It seems that local knowledge has beaten science in this round. Next time, I will have better data, and a better story. I hope.

I still don’t believe that we wouldn’t have found the water without Bruce though!!

I am interested in the information that is lost as scientists proceed from experiment to publication. The real factors that slip through the cracks of expediency. What is more important in the communication of research, the method, or the factoid results that come from it? Are we too trusting in the scientific method? Has peer-review become a substitute for a wider interrogation of method?

These are just a few questions going through my mind as I read “Simplification in Scientific Work: An Example from Neuroscience Research” – a 1983 article by the late Susan Leigh Star. I was particularly struck by an early observation in the article that “published scientific conclusions tend to present results as faits acomplis, without mention of production of decision-making processes.” I am not sure that this is so true today, but I am intrigued by the possibility that it is exactly that loss of information (as research is presented with a higher degree of ‘granualrity’) that opens a door for skepticism in the wider community. When a large body of research by multiple scientific schools tends to agree on a matter, there is sometimes an impression given that they are all doing exactly the same experiments. Whilst the broad methods are the same, of course expedient decisions are made and this causes subtle differences. These are not always thoroughly explained, even if they are justified. I can’t help but think that something in this is relevant to the skeptical program in climate change. Is this what lets in the calls of “conspiracy”?

More to read, more to do. I have a few other things on my plate, but this is an intriguing line of research.

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