Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Bruce Ivins, maybe a creep, but the anthrax killer?

So the world hasn't ended yet, despite the bold and confident prediction of my former employer Harold Camping. On May 23rd, Harold declared that Judgment Day did occur, but only spiritually, and revised his doomsday prediction, moving it up to October 21. Harold's rationale was that sometimes God doesn't open our eyes and reveal everything to us, and it was good that the prediction was made, even if it didn't happen, because now the whole world knows about Judgment Day, and the Word of God. As I observed Harold on his Open Forum television program in the days leading up to May 21, and on May 23 and days after, I couldn't help but notice the resemblance between Harold Camping and the kind of person being spoken of in Man and superman; a comedy and a philosophy (1903) by George Bernard Shaw:
The reasonable man adapts himself to the world : the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
Sometimes, a person can be so fixated on the conclusion that s/he wants, that the possibility of a mistake, an error, or even reasonable doubt, cannot be tolerated. If the person represents not just himself, but is the face of an institution, sometimes the expense, wholesale investment, and senselessness of a wasted effort is magnified. I am reminded of an interview on Slate's The Wrong Stuff on what it's like trying to free people who have been wrongly convicted of crimes:
You become more certain over time; that's just the way the mind works. With the passage of time, your story becomes your reality... They're so convinced that they are right that they feel exempt from behaving right... There's still a whole category of prosecutors and detectives who say, "No, I'm sure [the guy I convicted] is guilty. I can't tell you how, I can't give you a logical explanation, but he's guilty." What's scary is that these people are part of a system that's predicated on logic and reasoning to see that justice is done. Yet they will ignore all logic and reason to protect their egos and their psyches. And it requires a complete disconnect, too, because these guys rely on DNA to convict bad guys all the time. But when the DNA works against them, they say something must have gone wrong.
...based on my own experience, about half the time police and prosecutors bury their heads in the sand and insist that they were right no matter what the evidence says.
If a prosecutor or a detective is totally unable to admit they're wrong in one case, what that tells you is that they will be making dozens and dozens more erroneous decisions, because they're not allowing new information to affect their views... -- Peter Neufeld
I think the best way to gauge whether the person you're dealing with is being unreasonable is to ask him if there's anything you or anyone can say or do that will make him change his mind. If he deflects, doesn't answer, or says 'no', then you have someone who probably cannot be swayed (least of all by reality).

A couple of days ago, an excerpt was published in the Los Angeles Times, written by LA Times reporter David Willman. From the soon-to-be-published The Mirage Man, the excerpt reads like a hatchet job on Bruce Ivins, the supposed anthrax killer who struck shortly after 9/11 (when it really did seem like the world was going to end), painting a picture of the man as a major creep who was obsessed with the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority. With no citations or references to sources, the excerpt describes in vivid detail how the man broke into KKG sorority houses in North Carolina and West Virginia and stole a cipher used to decode secret rituals, and a book of rituals used by the young women, respectively. But a McClatchy News article, published 20 days before the LA Times excerpt, painted an entirely different picture of the whole story:
In ending the inquiry last year, the Justice Department said that a genetic fingerprint had pointed investigators to Ivins' lab, and gumshoe investigative techniques enabled them to compile considerable circumstantial evidence that demonstrated his guilt.

Among these proofs, prosecutors cited Ivins' alleged attempt to steer investigators away from a flask of anthrax in his lab that genetically matched the mailed powder — anthrax that had been shared with other researchers. They also noted his anger over a looming congressional cut in funds for his research on a new anthrax vaccine.

However, the FBI never found hard evidence that Ivins produced the anthrax or that he scrawled threatening letters seemingly meant to resemble those of Islamic terrorists. Or that he secretly took late-night drives to Princeton, N.J., to mail them.

The FBI declared Ivins the killer soon after paying $5.8 million to settle a suit filed by another former USAMRIID researcher, Steven Hatfill, whom the agency mistakenly had targeted earlier in its investigation.
While there is certainly circumstantial evidence that the FBI was correct in trying to pin the crime on Bruce Ivins, my fear is that there was too much at stake, especially after the FBI mistakenly focused on Hatfill; once Ivins committed suicide, there was a need for everyone at the Bureau to unify and say with one voice that Ivins was the guilty party, rather than deal with the possibility that they were responsible for a second tragedy.

Thanks to Art Diamond for pointing me to the source for the Shaw quote.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Gays and The End of the World

My former employer Harold Camping, a UC Berkeley graduate in civil engineering who sold his construction business and retired early so he could devote his life to studying the Bible and sharing the gospel, is predicting the world will end on May 21, 2011. Unlike many religious leaders who preach a prosperity gospel or claim that Jesus would have wanted us to invade Iraq, two messages that I believe are contrary to what Jesus taught, Harold, a lay preacher who lacks any formal training in theology and is proud of that fact, lives humbly, does not take a salary, drives the same brown pickup truck he's driven for many years, and usually tries to distance his religious non-profit, Family Radio, from political questions like what candidates and issues you should support and vote for. One thing he's done recently, though, that worries me a bit, is Harold has started to claim that the gay rights movement, and social acknowledgement of homosexuality in human society, is a sign that the world is becoming the embodiment of wickedness, and since God cannot stand the sight of uncleanliness, He will soon destroy us all, much like wiping dirt off the floor. Now, I no longer work for Harold, so I no longer have a vested interest in obeying the political instinct we all have of trying to please the man who signs our paychecks, but you have to give the guy credit for being bold enough to stake his reputation on something he insists, very authoritatively, "absolutely will happen"; this new behavior of his, where Harold says that the increasing political and social acceptance of homosexuals openly serving in the military and as religious leaders somehow is a sign that the world will end soon, is troubling to me, and reeks of desperation:

It's almost as if Harold is grabbing at straws, trying to pander to an ugly theme in popular religion of bigotry, in an effort to rally the troops, who would otherwise question why none of the other foretold signs of judgment day and world destruction are literally happening, such as the sun and the moon turning dark, and the stars falling from the sky.

Harold Camping's moment of truth will come in a few days, no matter what. Either the end of the world will ruin your Saturday, May 21st, at 6pm standard time, or there will be no great earthquakes, nor bodies of true believers flying out of their graves to meet up with Jesus Christ in Heaven. If it's all business as usual, then Harold will have some explaining to do.

The matter of Armageddon Day aside, when I was last there, Family Stations Incorporated was taking in approximately $15 million in donations every year. If you ever wanted to start your own religion, here's what the Economist has to say:
FANCY founding a religion? Keen to reform a flagging faith? Here a few tips on how to attract and retain followers, thus ensuring that your gospel spreads far and wide, affording spiritual solace to as many souls as possible.

At the outset, you must realise that success is unlikely if you go wholly against the grain of human nature. Granted, religion is all about forging the perfect man, or at least ensuring that, as far as possible, he lives up to divine expectations. But preternatural power has forged man in such a way that he will swallow some of your ideas about how to achieve this more easily than others.
As in the case of states, your principal concern is to encourage co-operation among your flock. In the long run, groups that co-operate more have an advantage over those whose members are less willing to do so. This also means limiting the number of actual and potential shirkers. People, it seems, are naturally inclined to do this anyway, but you can egg them on with a few simple tricks.

First, you are better off plumping for a personal god, rather than some sort of indeterminate life force. Research shows that people who profess a belief in such a deity judge moral transgressions more harshly, which in turn tends to make them more willing to abide by the rules, and expend resources on enforcing them. This may be down to a conviction that they are being incessantly watched over by an attentive minder, who tallies their contributions (or lack thereof) and rewards (or punishments) in a cosmic ledger. Speaking of which, incorporating the idea of just deserts is a fine plan, too. Apparently, people are born with an intuition to that effect. Just remember to keep the misfortunes visited on wrongdoers commensurate with their misdeeds. Otherwise people will think it unfair and won't buy it. No fire and brimstone for littering, and suchlike.