The Counter-deception Blog

Examples of deceptions and descriptions of techniques to detect them. This Blog encourages the awareness of deception in daily life and discussion of practical means to spot probable deceptions. Send your examples of deception and counter-deception to

Thursday, April 28, 2005


The Daily Show wins Peabody Award

I am not making this up: "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" on Comedy Central won a Peabody Award for its presidential election coverage.
Twice--2000 &, 2004. I guess that says something about how seriously we are taking these elections.

"All of us at 'The Daily Show' very much appreciate the Peabody Committee's recognition of our work," Mr. Stewart said in a statement released by the show. "Because this is the first time we've ever released a statement, we'd also like to, just for the hell of it, categorically deny all charges and say that we find them both scurrilous and without merit."

Tom Goldstein, the director of the mass communications program at the University of California, Berkeley, pointed out that the Peabody Awards generally award both entertainment and journalistic excellence, so the second trip to the podium for "The Daily Show" should come as no surprise. "Jon Stewart is extraordinarily important phenomenon," he said, adding, "The truth can be told in many ways - journalistically, through satire - and he does a brilliant job of expressing the truth his way."


Sharon shares intelligence on Iran April 13, 2005

International / Middle East: Sharon Asks U.S. to Pressure Iran to Give Up
Its Nuclear Program NYT By DAVID E. SANGER Prime Minister Ariel Sharon
shared intelligence with President Bush and urged him to press Iran to end
its nuclear program.

Full Story

"Curveball" has been used; maybe Beanball? Spitball? Slider?
Israel (nuclear power, non-signee to the NNPT) asking Bush to get Iran to
"end its nuclear program" has to be close to the very definition of chutzpa.


This will get your goat

From eSkeptic: the email newsletter of the Skeptics Society, Tuesday, April 26th, 2005

The following is a review of Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare at Goats (Picador/Pan Macmillan, 2004, ISBN 0330375474), which appeared in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May/June 2005.

The Pentagon’s Psychic Friend’s Network

a book review by Michael Shermer

Allison was an attractive Oregonian brunette in a new ageish way, before the new age bloomed in the 1980s. She wore all natural fibers, flowers in her hair, and nothing on her feet. But what most intrigued me in our year of distance dating were Allison’s spiritual gifts. I knew she could see through me metaphorically, but Allison also saw things that she said were not allegorical: body auras, energy chakras, spiritual entities, and light beings. One night she closed the door and turned off the lights in my bathroom and told me to stare into the mirror until my aura appeared. During a drive one evening she pointed out spiritual beings dotting the landscape. I tried to see the world as Allison did, but I couldn’t. I was a skeptic and she was a psychic. The difference doomed our relationship.

This was the age of paranormal proliferation. While a graduate student in experimental psychology, I saw on television the Israeli psychic Uri Geller bend cutlery and reproduce drawings using, so he said, psychic powers alone. Since a number of Ph.D. experimental psychologists had tested Geller and declared him genuine, I began to think that there might be something to it, even if I couldn’t personally get with the paranormal program. But then one night I saw the magician James “The Amazing” Randi on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, replicating with magic everything Geller did. Randi bent spoons, duplicated drawings, levitated tables, and even performed a psychic surgery. When asked about Geller’s ability to pass the tests of professional scientists, Randi explained that scientists are not trained to detect trickery and intentional deception, the very art of magic. Randi’s right. I vividly recall a seminar that Allison and I attended in which a psychic healer shoved a 10-inch sail needle through his arm with no apparent pain and only a drop of blood. Years later, and to my chagrin, Randi performed the same feat with the simplest of magic.

Randi confirmed my skeptical intuitions about all this paranormal piffle, but I always assumed that it was the province of the cultural fringes. Then, in 1995, the story broke that for the previous 25 years the U.S. Army had invested $20 million in a highly secret psychic spy program called Star Gate (also Grill Flame and Scanate), a Cold War project intended to close the “psi gap” (the psychic equivalent of the missile gap) between the United States and Soviet Union. The Soviets were training psychic spies, so we would as well. The Men Who Stare at Goats, by British investigative journalist Jon Ronson, is the story of this program, how it started, the bizarre twists and turns it took, and how its legacy carries on today. (Ronson’s previous book, Them: Adventures with Extremists, explored the paranoid world of cult mongers and conspiracy theorists.)

In a highly readable narrative style, Ronson takes readers on a Looking Glass-like tour of what U.S. Psychological Operations (PsyOps) forces were researching: invisibility, levitation, telekinesis, walking through walls, and even killing goats just by staring at them (the ultimate goal was killing enemy soldiers telepathically). In one project, psychic spies attempted to use “remote viewing” to identify the location of missile silos, submarines, POWs, and MIAs from a small room in a run-down Maryland building. If these skills could be honed and combined, perhaps military officials could zap remotely viewed enemy missiles in their silos, or so the thinking went.

Initially, the Star Gate story received broad media attention—including a spot on ABC’s Nightline—and made a few of the psychic spies, such as Ed Dames and Joe McMoneagle, minor celebrities. As regular guests on Art Bell’s pro-paranormal radio talk show, the former spies spun tales that, had they not been documented elsewhere, would have seemed like the ramblings of paranoid cultists. (There is even a connection between Ed Dames, Art Bell, and the Heaven’s Gate cult mass suicide in 1997, in which 39 UFO devotees took a permanent “trip” to the mother ship they believed was trailing the Hale-Bopp comet.)

But Ronson has brought new depth to the account by carefully tracking down leads, revealing connections, and uncovering previously undisclosed stories. For example, Ronson convincingly connects some of the bizarre torture techniques used on prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, with similar techniques employed during the FBI siege of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. FBI agents blasted the Branch Davidians all night with such obnoxious sounds as screaming rabbits, crying seagulls, dentist drills, and Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walking.” The U.S. military employed the same technique on Iraqi prisoners of war, instead using the theme song from the PBS kids series Barney and Friends—a tune many parents concur does become torturous with repetition.

One of Ronson’s sources, none other than Uri Geller (of bent-spoon fame), led him to one Maj. Gen. Albert Stubblebine III, who directed the psychic spy network from his office in Arlington, Virginia. Stubblebine thought that with enough practice he could learn to walk through walls, a belief encouraged by Lt. Col. Jim Channon, a Vietnam vet whose post-war experiences at such new age meccas as the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, led him to found the “first earth battalion” of “warrior monks” and “jedi knights.” These warriors, according to Channon, would transform the nature of war by entering hostile lands with “sparkly eyes,” marching to the mantra of “om,” and presenting the enemy with “automatic hugs.” Disillusioned by the ugly carnage of modern war, Channon envisioned a battalion armory of machines that would produce “discordant sounds” (Nancy and Barney?) and “psycho-electric” guns that would shoot “positive energy” at enemy soldiers.

Although Ronson expresses skepticism throughout his narrative, he avoids the ontological question of whether any of these claims have any basis in reality. That is, can anyone levitate, turn invisible, walk through walls, or remote view a hidden object? Inquiring minds (scientists) want to know. The answer is an unequivocal no. Under controlled conditions remote viewers have never succeeded in finding a hidden target with greater accuracy than random guessing. The occasional successes you hear about are due either to chance or suspect experiment conditions, like when the person who subjectively assesses whether the remote viewer’s narrative description seems to match the target already knows the target location and its characteristics. When both the experimenter and the remote viewer are blinded to the target, all psychic powers vanish.

Herein lies an important lesson that I have learned in many years of paranormal investigations and that Ronson gleaned in researching his illuminating book: What people remember rarely corresponds to what actually happened.
Case in point: A man named Guy Savelli told Ronson that he had seen soldiers kill goats by staring at them, and that he himself had also done so. But as the story unfolds we discover that Savelli is recalling, years later, what he remembers about a particular “experiment” with 30 numbered goats. Savelli randomly chose goat number 16 and gave it his best death stare. But he couldn’t concentrate that day, so he quit the experiment, only to be told later that goat number 17 had died. End of story. No autopsy or explanation of the cause of death. No information about how much time had elapsed; the conditions, like temperature, of the room into which the 30 goats had been placed; how long they had been there, and so forth. Since Ronson was skeptical, Savelli triumphantly produced a videotape of another experiment where someone else supposedly stopped the heart of a goat. But the tape showed only a goat whose heart rate dropped from 65 to 55 beats per minute.

That was the extent of the empirical evidence of goat killing, and as someone who has spent decades in the same fruitless pursuit of phantom goats, I conclude that the evidence for the paranormal in general doesn’t get much better than this.
They shoot horses, don’t they?
This about says it all for me…

Gozer the Traveller will come in one of the pre-chosen forms. During the rectification of the Vuldronaii the Traveller came as a very large and moving Torb. Then of course in the third reconciliation of the last of the Meketrex supplicants they chose a new form for him, that of a Sloar. Many Shubs and Zuuls knew what it was to be roasted in the depths of the Sloar that day I can tell you.
Louis (“The Keymaster”) Ghostbusters


What Denial and Deception (D&D) Means for Analysis

From: WMD Commission Report, p. 410 [numbers are footnote citations in the WMD Report]

What Denial and Deception (D&D) Means for Analysis

State and non-state actors either with or seeking to develop WMD materials and technologies all practice robust denial and deception techniques against U.S. technical collection. We must significantly reduce our vulnerability to intelligence surprises, mistakes, and omissions caused by the effects of denial and deception (D&D) on collection and analysis. To do so, the Community must foster:

■ Greater awareness of D&D among analysts, including a deeper understanding of what other countries know about our intelligence capabilities, as well as the D&D intentions, capabilities, and programs of those countries.

■ Greater specification by analysts of what they don’t know and clearer statements of their degree of certainty. Analysts should also work more closely with collectors to fully exploit untapped collection opportunities against D&D targets, and to identify and isolate any deceptive information.

■ Greater appreciation for the capabilities and limitations of U.S. collection systems.

■ Greater use of analytical techniques that identify the impact of denial and the potential for deception. Analysts must understand and evaluate the effects of false, misleading, or even true information that intelligence targets may have injected into the collection stream to deceive the United States.

Other references to deception--see WMD Report for full context…

Declining utility of traditional imagery intelligence against unconventional weapons programs. The imagery collection systems that were designed largely to work against the Soviet Union’s military didn’t work very well against Iraq’s unconventional weapons program, and our review found that they aren’t working very well against other priority targets, either. That’s because our adversaries are getting better at denial and deception, and because the threat is changing. Again, we offer details about the challenges to imagery intelligence in our classified report that we cannot provide here.

Measurement and signature intelligence (MASINT) is not sufficiently developed. The collection of technologies known as MASINT, which includes a virtual grab bag of advanced collection and analytic methods, is not yet making a significant contribution to our intelligence efforts. In Iraq, MASINT played a negligible role. As in other contexts, we believe that the Intelligence Community should continue to pursue new technology aggressively— whether it is called MASINT, imagery, or signals intelligence. Innovation will be necessary to defeat our adversaries’ denial and deception.

Indeed, defenders of the Intelligence Community have asked whether it would be fair to expect the Community to get the Iraq WMD question absolutely right. How, they ask, could our intelligence agencies have concluded that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction—given his history of using them, his previous deceptions, and his repeated efforts to obstruct United Nations inspectors? And after all, the United States was not alone in error; other major intelligence services also thought that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

There is no question that collecting intelligence on Iraq’s weapons programs was difficult. Saddam Hussein’s regime had a robust and ruthless security system and engaged in sophisticated efforts to conceal or disguise its activities from outside intelligence services—efforts referred to within the Intelligence Community as “denial and deception.” The United States had no Iraq embassy or official in-country presence; human intelligence operations were often conducted at a distance. And much of what we wanted to know was concealed in compartmented corners of the Iraqi regime to which few even at high levels in the Iraqi government had access.

In essence, analysts shifted the burden of proof, requiring evidence that Iraq did not have WMD. More troubling, some analysts started to disregard evidence that did not support their premise. Chastened by the effectiveness of Iraq’s deceptions before the Gulf War, they viewed contradictory information not as evidence that their premise might be mistaken, but as evidence that Iraq was continuing to conceal its weapons programs.

By focusing on whether the tubes could be used for centrifuges, analysts effectively set aside evidence that the tubes were better suited for use in rockets, such as the fact that the tubes had precisely the same dimensions and were made of the same material as tubes used in the conventional rockets that Iraq had declared to international inspectors in 1996. And Iraq’s denial and deception capabilities allowed analysts to find support for their view even from information that seemed to contradict it. Thus, Iraqi claims that the tubes were for rockets were described as an Iraqi “cover story” designed to conceal the nuclear end-use for the tubes. In short, analysts erected a theory that almost could not be disproved—both confirming and contradictory facts were construed as support for the theory that the tubes were destined for use in centrifuges.

Adherence to prevailing assumptions also led analysts to discount contrary evidence. Both CIA and DIA were quick to dismiss evidence which tended to show that the tubes were intended for use in Iraq’s rocket program, instead attributing such contrary evidence to Iraq’s “deception” efforts. Analysts were well aware that Iraq historically had been very successful in “denial and deception”170 activities, and that, at least in part because of such activities, the Intelligence Community had underestimated the scope of Iraq’s pre-Gulf War nuclear program. So analysts, in order to ensure that they were not fooled again, systematically discounted the possibility that the tubes were for rockets.

Indeed, in some instances, analysts went even further, interpreting information that contradicted the prevailing analytical line as intentional deception, and therefore as support for the prevailing analytical view. For example, NGIC characterized the Iraqi claim that the tubes were for use in tactical rockets as “a poorly disguised cover story,” reasoning that Iraq was claiming such an end-use for the tubes because Iraq was aware that its intentions to use the tubes in a nuclear centrifuge application “have been compromised.”171 CIA also noted in a Senior Executive Memorandum that Iraq “has established a cover story…to disguise the true nuclear end use” for the aluminum tubes, explaining that Iraq may be exploiting press reports regarding the disagreement within the Intelligence Community about the tubes.172 In some quarters, then, the thesis that the tubes were destined for centrifuges took on the quality of a hypothesis that literally could not be disproved: both confirming and contradictory facts were construed as supporting evidence.173

After 1998, the Intelligence Community found it difficult to determine whether activity at known dual-use facilities was related to WMD production. The departed inspectors had never been able to confirm what might be happening at Iraq’s suspect facilities. Accordingly, the Intelligence Community noted that it had no reliable intelligence to indicate resumed production of biological weapons, but assessed that in the absence of inspectors Iraq probably would expand its BW activities.231 These assessments were colored by the Community’s earlier underestimation of Iraq’s programs, its lack of reliable intelligence, and its realization that previous underestimates were due in part to effective deception by the Iraqis.232 By 1999, the CIA assessed that there was some Iraqi research and development on BW and that Iraq could restart production of biological weapons within a short period of time. The 1999 NIE on Worldwide BW Programs judged that Iraq was “revitalizing its BW program” and was “probably continuing work to develop and produce BW agents.”233 Specifically, a WINPAC BW analyst told us that two foreign services had both noted in 2001 that Curveball’s description of the facility he claimed was involved in the mobile BW program was contradicted by imagery of the site, which showed a wall across the path that Curveball said the mobile trailers traversed. Intelligence Community analysts “set that information aside,” however, because it could not be reconciled with the rest of Curveball’s information, which appeared plausible.298 Analysts also explained away this discrepancy by noting that Iraq had historically been very successful in “denial and deception” activities and speculated that the wall spotted by imagery might be a temporary structure put up by the Iraqis to deceive U.S. intelligence efforts.299

Analysts’ use of denial and deception to explain away discordant evidence about Iraq’s BW programs was a recurring theme in our review of the Community’s performance on the BW question.300 Burned by the experience of being wrong on Iraq’s WMD in 1991 and convinced that Iraq was restarting its programs, analysts dismissed indications that Iraq had actually abandoned its prohibited programs by chalking these indicators up to Iraq’s well-known denial and deception efforts. In one instance, for example, WINPAC analysts described reporting from the second source indicating Iraq was filling BW warheads at a transportable facility near Baghdad. When imagery was unable to locate the transportable BW systems at the reported site, analysts assumed this was not because the activity was not taking place, but rather because Iraq was hiding activities from U.S. satellite overflights.301 This tendency was best encapsulated by a comment in a memorandum prepared by the CIA for a senior policymaker: “Mobile BW information comes from [several] sources, one of whom is credible and the other is of undetermined reliability. We have raised our collection posture in a bid to locate these production units, but years of fruitless searches by UNSCOM indicate they are well hidden.”302 Again, the analysts appear never to have considered the idea that the searches were fruitless because the weapons were not there.

In December 2002, CIA’s WINPAC published a coordinated Intelligence Community paper that reiterated its belief that “Iraq retain[ed] an offensive CW program,” but it did not specifically describe the extent of any CW stockpiles. 480 In addition, the CIA reported the Intelligence Community had “low confidence” in its ability to monitor the Iraqi CW program due to “stringent operational security” and “successful denial and deception practices.”481

These discoveries also cast new light, in analysts’ minds, on UNSCOM’s earlier discovery of 11 small-to-medium sized UAV drones at the Salman Pak compound in 1991.570 Although Iraq denied having developed these UAVs for BW delivery, Iraq’s later admission—after an initial denial—that the MiG-21 program was for the purpose of delivering biological agents led analysts to believe, given Iraqi deception, that Iraq’s small UAVs had a similar purpose.571 Analysts also focused on Iraqi admissions—in their 1996 declaration to the United Nations—that, in the late 1980s, senior Iraqi officials had met to discuss the feasibility of using small UAVs as BW delivery vehicles.572

This history, along with evidence that Iraq had flight-tested small and medium-sized UAVs, led most Intelligence Community analysts to conclude consistently from the late 1990s through 2002 that Iraq was maintaining its UAV program for BW and CW delivery.573 Briefings and written products to senior policymakers in mid-2002 reflected this assessment.574 As with the other elements of Iraq’s purported weapons programs, however, intelligence on UAVs in the years preceding 2002 was partial and ambiguous. While it was clear that Iraq did have a UAV program, the key question—whether that program was meant to be a delivery system—remained unanswered. Therefore, analysts’ judgments again depended heavily upon assumptions based on Iraq’s earlier behavior and Community views about Iraq’s sophisticated denial and deception activities.575

Finally, once again, the UAV episode reflects the tendency of Intelligence Community analysts to view data through the lens of its overall assumptions about Saddam Hussein’s behavior. As noted, the NIE itself did not discuss other possible purposes for the UAVs or explain why the Estimate focused only on a weapons-related purpose. In addition, however, the Intelligence Community was too quick to characterize evidence that contradicted the theory that UAVs were intended for BW delivery as an Iraqi “deception” or “cover story.” And a Senior Executive Memorandum warned that Iraq “probably will assert that UAVs are intended as target drones or reconnaissance platforms” to counter the claim in the British and U.S. “white papers” that the UAVs have a BW delivery role.646

The task of collecting meaningful intelligence on Iraq’s weapons programs was extraordinarily difficult. Iraq’s highly effective denial and deception program (which was employed against all methods of U.S. collection), the absence of United Nations inspectors after 1998, and the lack of a U.S. diplomatic presence in-country all contributed to difficulties in gathering data on the Iraqi regime’s purported nuclear, biological, and chemical programs. And these difficulties were compounded by the challenge of discerning regime intentions.

Conclusion 4 Iraq’s denial and deception efforts successfully hampered U.S. intelligence collection. Iraq’s well-developed denial and deception efforts also hampered the Intelligence Community’s ability to collect reliable intelligence. On the human intelligence front, for instance, by the early 1990s the Community had identified significant Iraqi efforts to manipulate U.S. human intelligence operations. The Iraqis sought to saturate U.S. intelligence collection nodes with false and misleading information.734 Furthermore, Iraq’s pervasive security and counterintelligence services rendered attempts to recruit Iraqi officials extremely difficult.735

Iraq’s denial and deception capabilities also frustrated U.S. signals and imagery collection due to Iraq’s excellent security practices. The specifics of these capabilities are discussed in the classified report.

Conclusion 5 In the case of Iraq, collectors of intelligence absorbed the prevailing analytic consensus and tended to reject or ignore contrary information. The result was “tunnel vision” focusing on the Intelligence Community’s existing assumptions. At the same time, the knowledge that Iraq’s denial and deception techniques had been so successful in the past hampered efforts to develop quality human sources. For example, several human sources asserted before the war that Iraq did not retain any WMD.736 And one source, who may have come closer to the truth than any other, said that Iraq would never admit that it did not have WMD because it would be tantamount to suicide in the Middle East.737 But the pervasive influence of the conventional wisdom—that Iraq had WMD and was actively hiding it from inspectors—created a kind of intellectual “tunnel vision” that caused officers to believe that information contradicting the conventional wisdom was “disinformation.”738 Potential sources for alternative views were denigrated or not pursued by collectors.739 Moreover, collectors were often responding to requirements that were geared toward supporting or confirming the prevailing analytical line.740 The reliance on prevailing assumptions was not just an analytical problem, therefore, but affected both the collection and analysis of information.

As the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s (NGA’s) has conceded, the inherent nature of chemical and biological weapons facilities means that the infrastructure and activities of suspect WMD programs are difficult to assess even with sophisticated and expensive U.S. satellites. Imagery analysts must therefore look for “signatures” of suspicious activity. These signatures hold open the possibility of identifying suspect activity but are susceptible to error and denial and deception. As such, to answer the question whether a facility is intended for the production of biological or chemical weapons, imagery analysis must be supplemented with other kinds of intelligence.

Conclusion 12 Analysts skewed the analytical process by requiring proof that Iraq did not have WMD. One consequence of this tendency was that analysts effectively shifted the burden of proof, requiring proof that Iraq did not have active WMD programs rather than requiring affirmative proof of their existence. Though the U.S. policy position was that Iraq bore the responsibility to prove that it did not have banned weapons programs, the Intelligence Community’s burden of proof should have been more objective. CIA’s WINPAC nuclear analysts explained that, given Iraq’s history of successful deception regarding the state of its nuclear program and evidence that Iraq was attempting to procure components that could be used in a uranium enrichment program, they could not envision having reached the conclusion that Iraq was not reconstituting its nuclear program. The analysts noted that they could have reached such a conclusion only if they had specific information from a very well-placed, reliable human source.765 By raising the evidentiary burden so high, analysts artificially skewed the analytical process toward confirmation of their original hypothesis—that Iraq had active WMD programs.

Analysts’ discounting of contradictory information reflected, in part, an awareness of Iraq’s sophisticated denial and deception efforts and of Iraq’s past success in hiding the extent of its WMD programs. Reacting to that lesson, analysts understandably (if not wholly defensibly) began to view the absence of evidence of WMD as evidence of Iraq’s ability to deceive the United States about its existence. For example, both CIA and the National Ground Intelligence Center simply assumed that Iraq’s claims that the alumi- num tubes were for rockets was a “cover story” designed to deflect attention from Iraq’s nuclear program. Similarly, analysts had imagery intelligence from 2001 that contradicted Curveball’s information about mobile BW facilities, but analysts believed that this discrepancy was attributable to Iraq’s denial and deception capabilities.767

Conclusion 17 The Community did not adequately communicate uncertainties about either its sources or its analytic judgments to policymakers. More generally, the pre-war assessments highlight the importance of correct presentation of material to consumers, particularly regarding the uncertainties of given judgments and how these judgments were made. While finished intelligence needs to offer a bottom line to be useful to the policymaker, it should also clearly spell out how and from what its conclusions were derived. In the case of WMD programs in hard target nations like Iraq, this means that policymakers must be made aware when—as will often necessarily be the case—many of the Community’s estimates rely largely on inherently ambiguous indicators such as capabilities assessments, indirect reports of intentions, deductions based on denial and deception efforts associated with suspect WMD sites, and on ambiguous or thin pieces of “confirmatory” evidence. For example, the fact that the evidence for Iraq’s biological weapons program relied largely on reporting from a single source, and that the evidence for Iraq’s chemical weapons program derived largely from limited signature- based evidence of “transshipment” activity, should have been more transparent.

Conclusion 22 The President’s Daily Brief likely conveyed a greater sense of certainty about analytic judgments than warranted. As part of its investigation, this Commission was provided access, on a limited basis, to a number of articles from the President’s Daily Brief (PDB) relating to Iraq’s WMD programs. Although we saw only a limited cross-section of this product, we can make several observations about the art form. In short, many of the same problems that occurred with other intelligence products occurred with the PDBs, only in a magnified manner. For instance, the PDBs often failed to explain, or even signal, the uncertainties underlying their judgments. Information from a known fabricator was used in PDBs, despite the publication of a fabrication notice on that source months earlier. PDB articles discounted information that appeared to contradict the prevailing analytical view by characterizing, without justifications, such information as a “cover story” or purposeful deception. The PDBs attributed information to multiple sources without making clear that the information rested very heavily on only one of those sources. And the titles of PDB articles were sometimes more alarmist than the text would support.


Our favorite deceivers: Octopodes

If the Dancing Faun has been the historical emblem of 20th Century deception efforts, the octopus could be its mascot. More cool stuff on these remarkable creatures.

Via cryptogram: Camouflage in Octopodes
Last month researchers released a video of an octopus camouflaging
itself with coral and shells, and then walking across the ocean floor.

I have a fondness for security countermeasures in the natural world. As
people, we try to figure out the most effective countermeasure for a
given attack. Evolution works differently. A species tries different
countermeasures at random, and stops at the first one that just barely
works. The result is that the natural world illustrates an amazing
variety of security countermeasures.

Camouflaged octopuses 'walk' on two tentacles
Emma Young
24 March 2005 news service

IF YOU are using your arms to disguise yourself as a coconut, how do you
flee without being detected? The answer, when you have eight arms, is to use
six for camouflage and two to walk across on the sea floor.

This extraordinary behaviour has been spotted for the first time in two
species of octopus by Christine Huffard's team from the University of
California, Berkeley. Defying the notion that you need muscles attached to a
rigid skeleton for bipedal motion, the octopuses walked across the seabed
using the strong, flexible muscles in their back arms when pursued by
camera-wielding biologists. "Kinks" move down the arms involved in walking
as the animals move, and an analysis of their gait shows it qualifies as
true walking (Science, vol 307, p 1927).

Nature article
More remarkable videos
Still more videos
Christine Huffard, University of California



How smart? They built "a house of cards built over a pool of gasoline."

April 22, 2005


Those You Love to Hate: A Look at the Mighty Laid Low


If you are looking for a good dose of outrage at a theater near you, you won't find a better bargain than "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," a new documentary directed by Alex Gibney. Documentaries have recently been making up for a shortfall in genuine movie heroes - those plucky child orthographers in "Spellbound" and the gritty wheelchair jocks of "Murderball" come to mind - and Mr. Gibney's film is the latest evidence that nonfiction cinema can supply worthy, hissable villains as well.

Anyone who might be in the jury pool for the coming trials of Kenneth L. Lay and Jeffrey K. Skilling, the top Enron executives who have yet to face justice, should probably stay away, since the movie makes the case against them with prosecutorial vigor. Based on the best-selling book by the Fortune magazine reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, "Enron" is a tight, fascinating chronicle of arrogance and greed. Interweaving Peter Coyote's sober, ever-so-slightly sarcastic voice-over narration with interviews and video clips (as well as one ill-advised and unnecessary re-enactment) and accompanied by an anthology of well-chosen pop songs, it manages to be both informative and entertaining.

Much of the entertainment value comes from the undeniable pleasure of feeling morally superior to many of the people on screen, a nice antidote to the envy they might have inspired when they were riding high. Mr. Gibney uses video from Congressional hearings and financial chat-show appearances to damning effect; in the era before CSPAN and CNBC, the case against Enron might have been much harder to make.

He has also obtained in-house video from company meetings, in which Mr. Skilling and Mr. Lay, in their very different styles, strut and brag through the company's boom years. Mr. Lay is a bit like a classic Texas football coach - gruff, tough but also possessing a measure of courtly charm. Mr. Skilling is more tightly wound, supremely confident of his intellect and abilities, with a chillier demeanor than his boss. When their enterprise starts to collapse, Mr. Skilling, expressing no remorse and accepting no responsibility, abruptly quits. Mr. Lay, rallying his troops, indulges in one of the most dismaying appropriations of the Sept. 11 attacks ever recorded, declaring to employees in the autumn of 2001 that, just like America, Enron is under attack.

Among its tormentors were members of Congress from both parties, and also Mr. Elkind and Ms. McLean, who had the temerity, in the spring of 2001, to write a gently skeptical article called "Is Enron Overvalued?" What eventually became clear was that the company had been concocting value out of thin air, thanks not to the trading strategies it promoted as visionary but to financial games that turned a once-solid natural-gas distributor into the most notorious debacle in the era of corporate scandals. At times, the movie's explanation of Enron's business practices is hard to follow - and the practices themselves seem to have been deliberately made complex to the point of opacity - but the gist is clear enough.
When boilerplate fails, many of the film's interview subjects resort to metaphor. The Titanic comes up more than once. Jonestown, the Lusitania and earthquakes are also mentioned. A Houston minister whose congregation includes many former Enron employees likens the company to "a house of cards built over a pool of gasoline." Appropriately enough, Mr. Gibney's quick, fluid editing gives his film the suspenseful, queasy fascination of a disaster flick, even - or perhaps especially - because you know exactly where it's headed. As the story moves forward, keep your eye on the bottom of the screen, where the stock price is periodically shown. Watch it soar, and then watch it plummet.

Of course, the consequences of Enron's foray into funny money were quite serious, and "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" does not forget the real costs of this catastrophe. While it notes the friendship between Mr. Lay and the Bush family, and details Enron's role in the California energy crisis and the political destruction of Gray Davis, the film is for the most part too journalistically scrupulous to indulge in anything that might smack of conspiracy theorizing.

Which is not to say that its scope is narrow or the implications of its story confined to one reckless Texas company. While the audience's contempt for Mr. Lay and Mr. Skilling feels good and is duly earned, Mr. Gibney does not encourage undue smugness. Without spelling too much out, "Enron" suggests a widespread moral deficit underlying Enron's eventual bankruptcy. Accountants held no one to account, governments abandoned their regulatory functions, the media turned cheaters into stars and a culture of self-righteous mendacity was allowed to flourish as long as the stock prices were high.
The smart guys at Enron were clever - and amoral - enough to profit from those circumstances. In all likelihood, they regard themselves as scapegoats, even as the public views them as villains. It's not impossible that they are, to some extent, both.


Regime change? What regime change would that be?

April 28, 2005
Blair, in Reversal, Releases Iraq Paper in Bid to Defuse Election IssueBy ALAN COWELL

LONDON, April 28 - Prime Minister Tony Blair, in a remarkable reversal today, published the full text of the confidential advice he received on the legality of the Iraq war, in an effort to defuse the sustained pressure that has overwhelmed his re-election campaign a week before election day.

Parts of the 13-page document, written by the attorney general, Lord Peter Goldsmith, on March 7, 2003, were leaked to the press on Wednesday, prompting a renewed furor about whether Mr. Blair misled the nation by depicting the war as unequivocally legal.

The document showed that while Lord Goldsmith said in public on March 17, 2003, that the war was lawful, the private advice he gave to Mr. Blair 10 days earlier showed far greater concerns about the legal consequences of going to war.

"There are a number of ways," the document said, "in which the opponents of military action might seek to bring a legal case, internationally or domestically, against the United Kingdom, members of the government or U.K. military personnel."

Lord Goldsmith went on to a discussion of the level of force permitted by United Nations resolutions dating back to Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait more than a decade earlier.

"But regime change cannot be the objective of military action," his document concluded. "This should be borne in mind in considering the list of military targets and making public statements about any campaign."


The leader of the opposition Conservatives, Michael Howard, said: "If you can't trust Mr. Blair on the decision to take the country to war - the most important decision a prime minister can take - how can you trust Mr. Blair on anything else ever again?"

And Charles Kennedy, the head of the smaller Liberal Democrats, the only mainstream party to oppose the invasion, took issue with the prime minister's attempt to minimize the impact of the document.

"This is not a damp squib for those who have lost loved ones in the service of the British armed forces, or for the families of thousands of Iraqi innocents who have been killed," Mr. Kennedy said.


The document nonetheless raises tantalizing questions about a period in March, 2003, when Mr. Blair was under strong pressure from President Bush to join the invasion, whether or not the United Nations Security Council approved a resolution specifically authorizing the war.

Lord Goldsmith's advice makes clear how much pressure Britain was under from the United States to overcome its own reservations about the need for a further United Nations resolution with a specific ultimatum threatening force.

Britain, Lord Goldsmith wrote, believed that, since the cease-fire terms ending the earlier Iraq war in 1991 had been set by the Security Council, "it is for the Council to assess whether any such breach of those obligations has occurred."

"The U.S. have a rather different view: they maintain that the fact of whether Iraq is in breach is a matter of objective fact which may therefore be assessed by individual member states," the document says. "I am not aware of any other state which supports this view."

Monday, April 18, 2005


Harvard Plagarism Sleuths

A note from some Cambridge deception detectives:

We just saw your November post on plagiarism. You may be interested in
this blog:


More Harvard Plagiarism
What is it with these superstar profs?
By Timothy Noah Posted Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2004, at 12:02 PM PT

Sunday, April 03, 2005


Tapping the Messenger

First step before killing the messenger?
If they know we tap, how sure can anyone be of what is being said?

"They know."
"We know they know."
"They know you know."
"We know they know we know."
"They know you know they know."
"We know they know we know they know."
"They know you know they know you know."

Peter Ustinov, Romanoff and Juliet

IAEA Leader's Phone Tapped U.S. Pores Over Transcripts to Try to Oust Nuclear Chief
By Dafna Linzer, Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 12, 2004; Page A01

The Bush administration has dozens of intercepts of Mohamed ElBaradei's phone calls with Iranian diplomats and is scrutinizing them in search of ammunition to oust him as director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, according to three U.S. government officials.

But the diplomatic offensive will not be easy. The administration has failed to come up with a candidate willing to oppose ElBaradei, who has run the agency since 1997, and there is disagreement among some senior officials over how hard to push for his removal, and what the diplomatic costs of a public campaign against him could be.

Although eavesdropping, even on allies, is considered a well-worn tool of national security and diplomacy, the efforts against ElBaradei demonstrate the lengths some within the administration are willing to go to replace a top international diplomat who questioned U.S. intelligence on Iraq and is now taking a cautious approach on Iran.

The intercepted calls have not produced any evidence of nefarious conduct by ElBaradei, according to three officials who have read them. But some within the administration believe they show ElBaradei lacks impartiality because he tried to help Iran navigate a diplomatic crisis over its nuclear programs. Others argue the transcripts demonstrate nothing more than standard telephone diplomacy.

"Some people think he sounds way too soft on the Iranians, but that's about it," said one official with access to the intercepts.

In Vienna, where the IAEA has its headquarters, officials said they were not surprised about the eavesdropping.

"We've always assumed that this kind of thing goes on," IAEA spokesman Mark Gwozdecky said. "We wish it were otherwise, but we know the reality."

The IAEA, often called the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog agency, coordinates nuclear safety around the world and monitors materials that could be diverted for weapons use. It has played pivotal investigative roles in four major crises in recent years: Iran, Iraq, North Korea and the nuclear black market run by one of Pakistan's top scientists.

Each issue has produced some tension between the agency and the White House, and this is not the first time that ElBaradei or other U.N. officials have been the targets of a spy campaign. Three weeks before the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the Observer newspaper in Britain published a secret directive from the National Security Agency ordering increased eavesdropping on U.N. diplomats.

Earlier this year, Clare Short, who served in British Prime Minister Tony Blair's cabinet, said British spies had eavesdropped on U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan's calls during that period and that she had read transcripts of the intercepts.

The NSA, which is responsible for collecting and decoding electronic communications for the U.S. government, had no information to provide on the ElBaradei intercepts. The CIA refused to comment.

ElBaradei, 62, an Egyptian diplomat who taught international law at New York University, is well-respected inside the United Nations, and many of the countries that sit on the IAEA board have asked him to stay for a third term beginning next summer.

To block that, Washington would need to persuade a little more than one-third of the IAEA's 35-member board to vote against his reappointment.

But even some of the administration's closest friends, including Britain, appear to be reluctant to join a fight they believe is motivated by a desire to pay back ElBaradei over Iraq. Without clear support and no candidate, the White House began searching for material to strengthen its argument that ElBaradei should be retired, according to several senior policymakers who would discuss strategy only on the condition of anonymity.

The officials said anonymous accusations against ElBaradei made by U.S. officials in recent weeks are part of an orchestrated campaign. Some U.S. officials accused ElBaradei of purposely concealing damning details of Iran's program from the IAEA board. But they have offered no evidence of a coverup.

"The plan is to keep the spotlight on ElBaradei and raise the heat," another U.S. official said.

But another official said there is disagreement within the administration, chiefly between Undersecretary of State for Arms Control John R. Bolton, who aides say is eager to see ElBaradei go, and outgoing Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, over whether it would be worth diverting diplomatic capital that could be better spent on lobbying the board to get tougher with Iran.

In September, Powell said ElBaradei should step aside, citing a term limit policy adopted several years ago in Geneva by the top 10 contributors to international organizations.

"We think the Geneva rule is a good rule: two terms," Powell told Agence France-Presse. "It's not been followed in the past on many occasions, more often than not, but we still think it's a good, useful rule." Powell said he discussed it personally with ElBaradei, who decided he would stay on if the board wanted him.

"However this effort is justified by the administration, the assumption internationally will be that the United States was blackballing ElBaradei because of Iraq and Iran," said Robert Einhorn, who was assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation until 2001.

Several months ago, the State Department began canvassing potential candidates, including Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, two Japanese diplomats, two South Korean officials and a Brazilian disarmament expert.

But the South Koreans and Brazil's Sergio Duarte are now considered to be problematic candidates because both countries are under IAEA investigation for suspect nuclear work. Downer, who is not willing to challenge ElBaradei, still remains the administration's top choice. The deadline for submitting alternative candidates is Dec. 31.

"Our original strategy was to get Alex Downer to throw his hat in the ring, but we couldn't," one U.S. policymaker said. "Anyone in politics will tell you that you can't beat somebody with nobody, but we're going to try to disprove that."

That strategy worked once before when the administration orchestrated the 2002 removal of Jose M. Bustani, who ran the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), a U.N. organization based in The Hague. Bustani drew the administration's ire when he tried to involve his organization in the search for suspected chemical weapons in Iraq.

The administration canvassed the organization's board and then forced a narrow vote for his ouster. A successor was found three months later, and there was little diplomatic fallout from the administration's maneuver, mostly because the OPCW has a fairly low profile and its members wanted to avoid being drawn into the diplomatic row leading up to the Iraq war.

But John S. Wolf, who was assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation until June, said such action comes at a cost and makes it harder for the United States to keep the world's attention focused on pressing threats.

"The net result of campaigns that others saw as spiteful was that even where the U.S. had quite legitimate and proven concerns, the atmosphere had been so soured that it wasn't possible to recoup," Wolf said.

Gareth Evans, a former Australian foreign minister who now heads a high-level panel on U.N. reform, said that ElBaradei has been excellent in his job and that Washington would be making a mistake to challenge him:

"If they think they can get anyone who could have better handled the complex and difficult issues surrounding North Korea, Iran and other controversies, they are not understanding the world right now."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company


Stupidity Trumps Fraud

...but fraud also trumps the stupid.

It's Time to Take Your S-OX Off

By Paul Kocourek, Jim Newfrock, and Reggie Van Lee

More shareholder value has been wiped out in the past five years as a result of strategic mismanagement and poor execution than was lost in all of the recent compliance scandals. A Booz Allen Hamilton analysis of 1,200 firms with market capitalizations of more than $1 billion found that the poorest performers -- the 360 companies that trailed the S&P 500 between 1999 and 2003 -- destroyed almost seven times more value through strategic missteps than by compliance failures. Fully 87 percent of value destruction was attributable to such failures as management ineffectiveness in reacting to competitive pressures or forecasting customer demand, or operational blunders, such as cost overruns and M&A integration problems. These findings suggest that even in the face of Sarbanes-Oxley, to manage for growth, companies must design a robust and integrated strategic planning process built on a broad understanding of all risks to the business.

The full article


Red Faces & Red Violins

Rare New Jersey violins?

The value we place on art makes deception in the arts a perennial fact of life, and (as the review at the end of the Times piece reflects) a perennial source for fiction as well.

The NJ Case has every earmark of the classic con-they might as well have called the package deal, "The Sopranos:"

"The instruments were appraised at $50 million, a number trumpeted by the orchestra in a lust for publicity to "put itself on the map," the report said. The appraisal was a major source of the problem. It was made by Mr. Axelrod's main violin dealer. According to the report, the orchestra obtained informal opinions from other appraisers, although more complete valuations were not carried out because of the expense and because Mr. Axelrod was pressing for a quick sale. That was a mistake, it said."

"All's well, that ends well"? Perhaps, but with violins, and New Jersey, you never know.

Report Faults Orchestra Officials on Deal for Rare Instruments
December 18, 2004


Officials at the New Jersey Symphony, driven by a fear of sabotaging a deal to purchase a rare string collection for its players, deceived their board and the public over the instruments' value, according to an internal report released yesterday.

But the report put a stamp of approval on the $18 million purchase of 30 violins, violas and cellos. It said the price was fair for a "spectacular and unique collection" that will adorn New Jersey and set the orchestra apart from its giant rivals in New York and Philadelphia. While acknowledging that the deal was not nearly as spectacular as the orchestra had made it seem, the authors said they would still support it.

"Good intentions, terrible process, good outcome," Bill Baroni, an author of the report and a member of the New Jersey State Assembly, said in summarizing the Text Box: New Jersey Symphony Orchestra Albin Ifsich, left, and Darryl Kubian with two rare violins episode at a news conference.

The report, by Mr. Baroni and two other members of the orchestra's board, none of whom had played any role in the transaction, was commissioned after questions were raised about the authenticity of some of the instruments last summer. The collection's seller, Herbert J. Axelrod, a philanthropist and pet-care magnate, has been indicted on an unrelated tax fraud charge, casting additional shadows on the transaction.

It portrayed a board inexperienced in such large-scale, sophisticated purchases manipulated by a publicity-minded and shrewd negotiator, Mr. Axelrod.

"A financially challenged symphony based in Newark, N.J.," the report said, "trying to buy 30 rare instruments from a quirky but generous millionaire with an all-volunteer group represented a once-in-a-lifetime deal in all respects."

The purchase of the instruments, mostly made before 1750 by masters like Stradivari, Guarneri and Guadagnini, was announced in January 2003 with great fanfare. It was also credited with luring the noted conductor Neeme Jarvi to the orchestra as music director.

The instruments were appraised at $50 million, a number trumpeted by the orchestra in a lust for publicity to "put itself on the map," the report said. The appraisal was a major source of the problem. It was made by Mr. Axelrod's main violin dealer. According to the report, the orchestra obtained informal opinions from other appraisers, although more complete valuations were not carried out because of the expense and because Mr. Axelrod was pressing for a quick sale. That was a mistake, it said.

At the time, the orchestra's appraisers put the value of the collection at between $15.3 million and $26.4 million. An instrument committee established to pursue the deal told the full board only about the upper-end appraisal, the report said - another error.

"Many on the board were not even aware of that fact and were only aware of the seller's publicity that kept referring to a $50 million collection," the report said.

The report said doubts about the original Axelrod appraisal were hidden because the committee felt that if such word got out, Mr. Axelrod would be embarrassed and back out of the deal. That decision was wrong, the report said. The committee also worried that Mr. Axelrod would back out of forgiving a $4 million loan toward the purchase that he had given the orchestra.

At the same time, Mr. Axelrod was pressing for a fast deal, saying other potential buyers were keenly interested in the collection. Those claims later turned out to have been false. Members of the committee saw those accounts of other potential buyers as a negotiating tactic, but other board members took the claims at face value, the report said.

"Given the size of the transaction, there was too much concern to avoid conflict with the seller," the report said, "and not enough to ensure that the board understood what it was getting for the money it was investing."

When asked why the board did not check out the competition, Simon Woods, who became the orchestra's president in April, said: "I think that's a great question. What I'm trying to do now is start a new era of transparency and accountability."

In the end, Mr. Axelrod forgave $1 million and donated $1.1 million toward the collection's purchase. He thus ended up receiving only $15.9 million - not far from the lowest evaluation, Mr. Woods said in an interview. The report recommended valuing the collection on the orchestra's books at $18 million. Mr. Woods said management agreed with that in principle but was waiting to hear the opinion of the orchestra's auditors.

The report gives a sense of the lust over the instruments when their purchase was being considered. Boston has the Pops and Tanglewood, the leadership felt, the Philadelphia Orchestra has its famed string sound, Chicago has its brass sound, "but New Jersey would have 'all those Strads,' " the report recounted. Even now, the report recommended a public relations campaign to spread the word about the collection.

The committee also withheld information about refitting and changes to some instruments over the centuries, or different opinions about their authenticity, because the most important thing was the "exceptional musical quality of the collection as a whole" and what was called the instruments' playability. That, too, in hindsight, was a mistake, the report said.

It said the board, and even members of the instrument committee, were not told about rumors that federal authorities were investigating Mr. Axelrod for inflating the value of other gifts of rare string instruments.

Mr. Axelrod pleaded guilty on Dec. 8 to one count of tax fraud in a plea agreement with federal prosecutors, who promised not to go after him for any crimes relating to the string collection sale.

The report did not single anyone out by name, laying most of the blame on the instrument committee. Its members included Dr. Victor Parsonnet, the orchestra board's chairman, and Lawrence Tamburri, the orchestra's president at the time, who has since moved on to run the Pittsburgh Symphony. Along with six other board members, the committee had two musicians, the principal violinist, Eric Wyrick, and the principal cellist, Jonathan Spitz.

Mr. Tamburri declined to speak with a reporter. He issued a brief statement through the the Pittsburgh Symphony praising the New Jersey orchestra for investigating the purchase but did not address its criticisms.

"While the report found flaws in the process, it concluded that the opportunity to acquire such valuable instruments was in the best interest of the organization," he said.

When Mr. Wyrick was asked about failing to inform the full board about the collection's valuation or doubts about provenance, he said he was not involved in discussing how to disseminate the committee's information.

"We knew the collection was a sound collection, and we were very savvy about the pitfalls, and what's a normal violin deal," he said. "A normal violin deal is fraught with mystery and tough decisions to make. You follow your advisers as best you can and make a tough decision."

As for not knowing about Mr. Axelrod's background, he said: "Should I re-evaluate my belief in the instrument because Mr. Axelrod has been found to have done some illegal business? I can't. He has nothing to do with the instrument as far as I'm concerned."

"The instrument is great," and so was the deal for the orchestra, he added.

The members of the review panel took great pains to describe the difficulty, contradicting opinions and vagaries in valuing old string instruments. It quoted the founder of Sotheby's musical instruments department, Graham Wells, as saying, "The violin trade has always been corrupt."

In an appendix, the report gave the opinions of Mr. Axelrod's appraiser and of the orchestra's experts, and past descriptions for each instrument. Supplementing the evaluations were musicians' words of praise for the instruments, as if to support the orchestra's longstanding argument that no matter what the details, the violins, violas and cellos sound beautiful and make a big difference in the orchestra's sound.

...and now the fictional version (recetly playing on HBO)

The Red Violin

Canadian director Francois Girard, best known for his inventive Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, again uses music as an inspiration in his new film, which is ostensibly five short films about a fabled violin. This beautiful, visually lush, and breath-takingly romantic epic tells the story of a fabulous violin, the last creation of master builder Nicolo Bussoti, and follows the instrument across three continents.

The film opens in 17th century Italy, where Bussoti (Carlo Cecchi) creates the violin as a lasting legacy for his beautiful young wife, who died during childbirth. Supposedly possessed by his wife's soul, the magnificent violin plays haunting music that inspires all who come in contact with it, and it becomes an object of obsession for all who cross its path. Over the centuries the violin passes across Europe to England, and then on to China, where it narrowly escapes destruction at the height of the Cultural Revolution. The 300 year old instrument then finds its way to a famed Montreal-based auction house, where it is put up for sale.

The thread that links all the various stories is the auction itself. This key sequence is replayed several times, from the different perspectives of the various interested parties who have come to bid for the violin, which brings an element of suspense to proceedings.

Girard has written the film in collaboration with Canadian writer/director/actor Don McKellar (Exotica, etc), who plays a small role here as an antiquities expert called in to help verify the violin's authenticity. However, not all the strands of this multi-layered narrative dealing with lust, greed and the enduring power of love and music, are successful. Subsequently, the film is a little uneven. The modern day scenes in particular lack a sense of passion and beauty.

Girard has assembled an impressive international cast to breathe life into the story and the characters, but many of them play small roles. Samuel L Jackson lends dignity to his ambivalent role as an expert called in to trace the provenance of a shipment of rare violins due to be auctioned. He becomes obsessed with the famed red violin of history when he discovers it amongst the collection. Jason Flemyng (from Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels, etc) and Greta Scacchi steam up the screen as a flamboyant nineteenth century English musician and his demanding and jealous mistress. Christoph Koncz is memorable as Kaspar Weiss, a young child prodigy.

The film has been beautifully shot by cinematographer Alain Dostie, and the stunning visuals are further enhanced by John Corigliano's compositions. Francois Seguin's production design is also impressive and brings alive the 17th century European settings.

Copyright C 1998 Greg King


Towards a Theory of Deception

David Ettinger and Philippe Jehiel
22nd November 2004


This paper proposes an equilibrium approach to deception where deception is defined to be the process by which actions are made to induce erroneous inferences to take advantage of them. Specifically, we introduce a framework with boundedly rational players in which agents make inferences based on a limited number of cues providing only limited aspects of other agents’ strategies. We define an equilibrium concept to describe the interaction of such agents - the concept is called Analogy-based Perfect Bayesian Equilibrium and it shares elements of the Sequential Equilibrium (Kreps and Wilson (1982)) and the Analogy-based Expectation Equilibrium (Jehiel (2004)). We next illustrate the phenomenon of deception and how reputation concerns may arise even in zero-sum games in which there is no value to commitment. We then consider the phenomenon of deception in a number of stylized applications: a monitoring game and two simple bargaining games.

Full Paper


Scam Claim Trio to Keep Casino Winnings

Scam Claim Trio to Keep Casino Winnings
By Neville Dean, PA

Three people investigated over an alleged hi-tech scam after they won more than £1 million at the Ritz casino will be able to keep their winnings, it emerged today. The two men and one woman, all from eastern Europe, had been on bail since winning the cash playing roulette at the casino roulette in March.

Police had investigated the possibility that the three used a James Bond-style gadget consisting of a hi-tech laser scanner inside a mobile phone to help them win the cash. The device could have been used to measure the speed of the roulette ball when released by the croupier and the declining orbit of the wheel. A microcomputer would then use this data to calculate which section of numbers the ball would land on, before sending this information back to the phone.

The three – two Serbian men, aged 38 and 33, and a 32-year-old Hungarian woman – were arrested after casino bosses became suspicious of their amazing run of luck and contacted police.

Officers also seized a “significant quantity of cash”. The three were questioned and later released on bail. However, Scotland Yard today said its inquiry had now ended and that all three would face no further action. A spokeswoman added that all the money – which had been held pending the outcome of the inquiry – had been returned.

According to a report in The Times newspaper, the gamblers had not broken any law because the alleged scam would not have interfered with the ball or roulette wheel. A spokeswoman for the casino refused to comment on the story.

The alleged scam happened at one of the world’s most high-profile gaming houses, which is frequented by Arab princes and international playboys. The secret rooms of the Ritz Club casino are tucked away off London’s Piccadilly in the former ballroom of The Ritz Hotel. It opened as a casino in 1978 and is now one of the world’s most exclusive, privately owned members-only clubs, featuring chandeliers, ornate ceilings and plush red carpets.


Debunking Photoshop Fakery

The sum of these parts created an untruthful whole. Corbis

Counter-deception a winner! On the NYT's annual compendium of ideas from A to Z.

Debunking Photoshop Fakery
December 12, 2004 Magazine


Our faith in photography has been forever compromised by computer programs like Photoshop that doctor images with a relatively high degree of ease and verisimilitude. When you come across a provocative photo on the Web -- John Kerry and Jane Fonda protesting together, say -- it can be hard to know what to make of it.

But not for Hany Farid. In May, Farid, a professor of computer science at Dartmouth College, unveiled software that helps determine whether a digital image has been tampered with. Much as art experts detect forgeries by studying the minutia of brush strokes, Farid has devised methods of analyzing the clusters of pixels that make up a digital photo. After crunching the numbers, his program generates a map of the suspect image that
calls attention to suspicious areas where tampering may have occurred.

Here's how it works. Each pixel in a photo represents a small piece of coded information, and Farid's program looks for patterns of information within the overall composition of the photo. Unaltered images, he discovered, tend to have what you might call naturally occurring patterns of information. Images that have been altered, by contrast, tend to have abnormal patterns of information that, while invisible to the eye, are detectable by computer. Making things easier, most doctored images are produced with common manipulations -- like resizing, duplication, adjusting the contrast and airbrushing.

Farid began thinking about how to authenticate digital imagery after discovering that photos taken with a digital camera could be considered admissible evidence in United States courts. As a pioneer in this type of forensic analysis, he receives numerous unsolicited e-mail messages from Photoshop-fraud victims, including one from a Brazilian model who claimed Budweiser spliced her head onto the body of another woman in a print ad. "You gotta love this job if you've got supermodels calling you," Farid says.


Connect the Dots? Jigsaw Puzzle?

Jigsaws are for the Deception Planner

Connect the Dots? Jigsaw Puzzle?

People have told me to avoid the phase "connect the dots" when describing counter-deception, because it drives some of the Intelligence Community crazy. And others in the Community use the jigsaw puzzle as a logo. This quote describes how a master deception planner from World War II saw the question, and so is more than an historical curiosity:

"[World War II Allied Deception-master] Dudley Clarke kept on his office wall a "careless talk" poster showing a swastikaed hand fitting together a jigsaw puzzle with the caption "Bits of careless talk are pieced together by the enemy." Actually, the common mosaic and even commoner "jigsaw" analogies are inexact. It [intelligence analysis] is a process of connecting dots, discerning a pattern or Gestalt, having more in common with crossword puzzles-or, indeed, with reading Rorschach blots-than it has with jigsaw puzzles.) An intelligence officer deduces the enemy's capabilities and intentions and other relevant information from a rumor here, an observation there, a captured document somewhere else."

The art of implementing a deception consists in knowing the enemy's methods, breaking your story into bits and pieces, and feeding him those bits and pieces through selected channels and according to a precise timetable, designed to lead him to draw the desired conclusion for himself. Some pieces may be very significant; others may be "merely corroborative detail, to add artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative," to quote from The Mikado.

Thaddeus Holt, The Deceivers: Allied Military Deception in the Second World War, Scribner, 2004, p. 78.


Cyber detective links up crimes

New Scientist Print Edition. 01 December 04

Many more crimes might be solved if detectives were able to compare the records for cases with all the files on past crimes. Now an artificial intelligence system has been designed to do precisely that. Working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, it could look for telltale similarities in crime records and alert detectives when it finds them.

Developed by computer scientists Tom Muscarello and Kamal Dahbur at DePaul University in Chicago, the system uses pattern-recognition software to link related crimes that may have taken place in widely separated areas whose police forces may rarely be in close contact.

Called the Classification System for Serial Criminal Patterns (CSSCP), the system sifts through all the case records available to it, assigning numerical values to different aspects of each crime, such as the kind of offence, the perpetrator's sex, height and age, and the type of weapon or getaway vehicle used. From these figures it builds a crime description profile. A neural network program then uses this to seek out crimes with similar profiles.

The neural network the DePaul team uses, called a Kohonen network, is particularly good at finding patterns in a set of input data without any human intervention, Muscarello says. Some neural networks require an operator to "train" them to find patterns in data sets - but this requires foreknowledge of the pattern.

If it finds a possible link between two crimes, CSSCP compares when and where they took place to find out whether the same criminals would have had enough time to travel from one crime scene to the other.

Armed robberies

In a ring-fenced lab trial of the system using three years' worth of data on armed robbery - it was not operating on a live police network - Muscarello claims the system was able to spot 10 times as many patterns as a team of detectives with access to the same data.

Muscarello stresses that CSSCP will not replace human detectives. It simply provides a starting point for detectives by flagging potentially related crimes. While detectives could probably identify the same patterns, the sheer mass of available data usually makes this too time-consuming.

In the UK an online version of a manually searchable crime database called Crimelink was launched this week. But while Crimelink can be used to search for specified patterns of criminal activity - querying if, say, a certain type of car has been used in armed robberies in Cambridge - it will not search for similarities that have not been suggested by a human operator.

Muscarello is now hoping to convince the Chicago police department to run trials of the system. Feedback from six leading detectives in the Chicago area have been positive, and he says one reason for this is that the researchers consulted detectives on how the system should work.

"To a certain extent we based it on the way detectives solve these crimes," Muscarello says. In conventional investigations, the work of finding a pattern may be split between several detectives, with each one handling a different aspect of the case.

For example, one might focus on the witnesses or victims, while another might try to trace a getaway vehicle. CSSCP can do the same by applying different neural networks to find patterns in different facets of the investigation.

The amount of information being filed for each crime is constantly increasing, says John Kingston, director of the Joseph Bell Centre for Forensic Statistics and Legal Reasoning at the University of Edinburgh, UK. This means that "data mining" is likely to become increasingly necessary in crimefighting, he predicts.

Duncan Graham-Rowe


Department of Computer Science, Depaul University


Joseph Bell Centre for Forensic Statistics and Legal Reasoning, University of Edinburgh


More confidence, but not more accuracy

Repeatedly research finds that lie detection techniques do not improve accuracy in lie detection, but often increase (inappropriate) confidence that the detection is correct.

"The Effects of Training Professional Groups and Lay Persons to use Criteria-Based Content Analysis to Detect Deception."
Lucy Akehurst, Ray Bull, Aldert Vrij, and Günter Köhnken.
Applied Cognitive Psychology 18, no. 7 (2004): 877-891.

As Akehurst et al. write, "[t]his experiment was designed to assess, for the first time, the effects of training police officers, social workers, and students in Criteria-Based Content Analysis (CBCA) in an attempt to increase lie detection accuracy." Training in CBCA did not increase lie detection accuracy. However, training increased subjects' confidence in their (often inaccurate) judgments. The data suggest that accuracy would have been higher had subjects more strictly attended to the scores they assigned on specific CBCA items. Instead, subjects seemed to look beyond the CBCA scores when judging truthfulness.


This experiment was designed to assess, for the first time, the effects of training police officers, social workers and students in Criteria-Based Content Analysis (CBCA) in an attempt to increase lie detection accuracy. A within-subjects design was implemented. Participants rated the truthfulness of a maximum of four statements before training in CBCA and rated the truthfulness of a different set of four statements after training. The raters were only exposed to the written transcripts of the communicators. Two thirds of the statements utilized were truthful and one third were based on fabrications. Before training, there were no significant differences in detection accuracy between the police officers (66% accuracy), the social workers (72% accuracy) and the students (56% accuracy). After training, the social workers were 77% accurate and significantly more accurate than the police officers (55%) and the students (61%). However, none of the three groups of raters significantly improved their lie detection accuracy after training, in fact, the police officers performed significantly poorer. Overall, police officers were significantly more confident than social workers and lay persons regardless of accuracy. Further, participants were most confident when labelling a statement truthful regardless of whether or not this was the correct decision.


Counter-Deception in the Arts

Who Really Wielded the Paintbrush?

December 23, 2004


Art historians have long used scientific tools to help them decide whether drawings and paintings are real or fakes, like counting isotopes in lead-based paints to spot anachronisms or shining X-ray and infrared radiation on oil portraits to discover what lies beneath.

Who Wielded the Paintbrush?

A statistical analysis of brush strokes done with a computer program suggests that four painters were involved. Without using a computer, however, one art specialist believes that the two saints on the far right and the one on the far left were not painted by Perugino.

Now researchers at Dartmouth College have introduced a forensic tool appropriate to the digital age: they have fed digitally scanned artworks into a computer, and then used image-processing techniques to create statistics describing the pen and brush strokes.

Like a connoisseur - a blend of Bernard Berenson and HAL - the computer analysis detected subtle differences in these strokes that might help distinguish an artist from an imitator.

First the scientists tried out their computational technique on drawings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the Flemish master, to see whether it could differentiate among landscapes accepted as Bruegel's and those considered bogus. Then they examined "Madonna With Child," an Italian Renaissance painting attributed to Perugino that depicts the pair with four saints. They hoped to determine whether one set of hands created the work, or as some art historians think, Perugino assigned parts of it to his students.

The computer program agreed with the Bruegel experts, grouping eight drawings attributed to Bruegel in one category and assigning the imitations to a separate pile. The analysis of the brush strokes in the Perugino suggested that four sets of hands contributed, jibing with the view of some art historians but not others.

David Donoho, a statistician and professor at Stanford University, said that although the software did reasonably well in its debut performance, researchers had far to go. For one thing, he said, the method was used only on a handful of artworks. "It's a first step, but a promising one," he said.

Yet some art historians are quick to point out that the technique disregards factors like an artist's technical skill.

"The computer was asked to analyze only a few aspects of the painting," said Laurence Kanter, a Renaissance art specialist who is the curator in charge of the Robert Lehman Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "And it missed fundamental ones like how color was applied and mixed."

Dr. Kanter has his own opinions of the Perugino based on the old-fashioned method - looking at it. On a visit to the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth, which owns the painting, he decided that Perugino in fact painted three of the six figures. As for the rest, he said, "The two figures on the right are by someone mechanical and second-rate, and the figure on the far left is by someone more capable and technically proficient than Perugino."

The computer did not register these details, he said. "That's why these programs are potentially interesting, but need to be developed," he added.

An article by the researchers ran this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. One of its authors, Daniel Rockmore, a mathematician and professor at Dartmouth, said the project began when he toured a Bruegel show in 2001 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with the exhibition curator, Nadine Orenstein, a Bruegel expert at the museum. The show gathered actual and imitation Bruegels in one space. As Dr. Rockmore looked at the landscapes, he began to wonder if a computer could do what experts had done, identifying the real drawings.

"There's a long history of drawings attributed to Bruegel that we now know are not by him," he said. It occurred to him, he said, that "maybe the mathematics of modern digital-image processing could see it, too," particularly if he used the mathematics of wavelets.

"This type of mathematics is good at determining the characteristics of lines and curves, or jagged lines and jagged curves," he said. Such an analysis, he thought, might be perfect for distinguishing Bruegel's characteristic lines and shadings.

To perform the analysis, Dr. Rockmore collaborated with a colleague and co-author of the paper, Hany Farid, an associate professor in the computer science department at Dartmouth, who has long experience in characterizing images using wavelet-based statistics. In particular, Dr. Farid had been working on computational algorithms to determine when a digital image had been doctored.

"I was already in the business of thinking about the statistical properties of an image," Dr. Farid said.

Dr. Orenstein lent the group her slides of the Bruegel show, and the team, joined by a graduate student, Siwei Lyu, set to work. In the resulting data, Dr. Rockmore said, "all the points representing the true Bruegels clustered together," and all the non-Bruegels were outside the cluster.

"It's certainly not definitive," he said. "But it's amazing that mathematics could distill differences that the experts can spot by eye."

The researchers then turned their attention to the Perugino. "Right now forensic science can't answer the question of how many hands may actually have done a painting," Dr. Farid said. "But if you are buying a Raphael at auction, you might want to know what percentage he actually painted."

To see if their algorithms could detect different characteristics in the strokes of the artists' brushes, the group started by using a large-format camera to produce an 8-by-10-inch negative that they then scanned, converting it to a digital image for processing.

They extracted the six faces in the painting - those of the Madonna, baby Jesus, and the saints Anthony Abbot, Francis, James and Benedict. Using the same method they did with the Bruegel, they looked for consistencies and inconsistencies in characteristics like the texture of the strokes. The analysis, however, was not done in full color. "We converted it to gray scale first because we didn't want to pick up on simple color differences between faces," Dr. Farid said.

Dr. Kanter, the Lehman curator at the Met, said that omission was one of many weaknesses in the technique that would need to be addressed.

Far larger samples will be needed before art historians can take the work seriously, said Dr. Orenstein, the Bruegel scholar at the Met. "The computer would need to draw on a huge database for each artist," she said. "It's going to be decades before they have a connoisseur meter and go around to auction houses."

Dr. Orenstein and Dr. Kanter said that Rembrandt would be a good candidate should researchers decide to assemble data on a large body of work. "There is so much discussion of his work, and so many students," Dr. Orenstein noted.

Conservators have also expressed interest in the method. At the Williamstown Art Conservation Center in Massachusetts, Kate Duffy, a chemist and head of the analytical services department, plans to meet with Dr. Rockmore in January. "It's an exciting tool," she said of the computer technique, one that may someday gain a place in her laboratory already full of chromatographic, X-ray, and other equipment. "We are going to try some things out with it."

Ellen Handy, chairwoman of the art department at the City College of New York, also said the tool seemed promising. "It may help us historians answer some of the most basic questions in the field, like 'How many people made this piece of work?' "

Dr. Handy, who once led a master's degree program in connoisseurship, said the software might buttress the insights of mere humans. "It's a new tool to back up the intuitive judgments of smart people with good eyes," she said.

Dr. Donoho said that he wondered why it took so long to develop statistical tools that could help curators authenticate artworks. "Statistical pattern recognition is useful," he said. "We see it all the time, for example, to rate the risk of credit transactions." Spam filters are also based on statistical decision theory.

"It's about time statistical tools were applied in an artistic context," he said.


You Can Fool Some People Sometimes

Authors: Rasa Karapandza, Milos Bozovic

We develop an empirical procedure to quantify future company performance based on top management promises. We find that the number of future tense sentence occurrences in 10-K reports is significantly negatively correlated with the return as well as with the excess return on the company stock price. We extrapolate the same methodology to US presidential campaigns since 1960 and come to some startling conclusions.

Annual reports, including 10-K reports in the United States, have two major functions: a) to inform current and potential investors, as well as the regulators, about significant developments that shaped previous year's company results and b) to help investors forecast company results for the next period. In such a situation it is conceivable that the top management of companies may use these reports to make excessive promises in an attempt to convince the investors that the situation is rosy even when it is not. To get an idea about a potential relation between such promises and the subsequent company performance we looked at 555 10-K reports of the American S&P 100 companies during the period from 1993 to 2003. We found a whopping 313,852 times that future tense constructions were used in the reports (we define these as sentences that contain either will, shall, or going to). Importantly, companies who used less future tense sentences in their reports achieved significantly higher returns and excess returns in the subsequent fiscal year.

A similar pattern of behavior can be observed among politicians and can give us a simple way of predicting the outcome of the American presidential elections! Namely, in all presidential debates in the period 1960-2000 for which the transcripts from the debates were available (in 1984 two debate transcripts were not available, while the debates were not conducted in 1964, 1968 and 1972), a presidential candidate who made less use of future tense sentences won the popular vote whether he was an incumbent or a challenger. According to this simple rule of thumb, this year's winner of the popular vote should be President George W. Bush.

Paper available at


Department of History Rewriting

Adios to Ted Koppel, whose jounalistic skeptical questions were very much a cut above.

Via FAS: "You're not suggesting that the rebuilding of Iraq is gonna be done for $1.7 billion?" asked an incredulous Ted Koppel in a 2003 ABC News Nightline interview with Andrew Natsios, then-administrator of the Agency for International Development (AID).

"Well, in terms of the American taxpayers' contribution, I do, this is it for the US," Mr. Natsios replied.

"The rest of the rebuilding of Iraq will be done by other countries who have already made pledges, Britain, Germany, Norway, Japan, Canada, and Iraqi oil revenues, eventually in several years, when it's up and running and there's a new government that's been democratically elected, will finish the job with their own revenues. They're going to get in $20 billion a year in oil revenues. But the
American part of this will be 1.7 billion. We have no plans for any further-on funding for this."

The transcript of this April 23, 2003 Nightline interview was quietly removed from the AID web site last year (as reported by the Washington Post on 12/18/03). But a copy is preserved here:


Countering the Bride Scam

The "ISO Wife/Husband" scams long predated the Internet, but the I'net multiplies the size of the victim pool.

The easiest counter-deception ploy is to "apply" to the same individual with more than one identity. If "Nadia" falls in love with "you" and with another "John" and needs travel money help from both of you, she is either real but dangerously conflicted, or a scammer. "Nadia" the scammer will probably evidence a disturbing similarity in her responses to her various suitors, as the news stories of the Russian bride scams suggest. "Nadia" the conflicted will more likely respond very differently to two very different Johns, simply unable to make a choice.

Queen Elizabeth I sort of invented this bride scam over 400 years ago. Elizabeth used similar pre-morganatic deceptions to maintain relations among potential allies and offset her enemies, promising marriage to various kings to keep them on England's side, or to delay their aggressive moves against Britain. A sort of "promise them anything, but protect the realm" strategy. Many were promised much, but none wed "the Virgin Queen."

Counter-deception often requires some deceptive moves.


Putin crushes Bride Scam!

Putin Busts Fake Bride Scammers
November 11, 2004
Copyright 2004. The Sydney Morning Herald.

The story of how an Australian suitor blew the lid on a fake internet bride scam is making news again. In January The Sun-Herald wrote: "Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered the arrest of two alleged marriage agency fraudsters after a Sydney man wrote to him, saying he had been conned by a sexy young Russian brunette offering marriage over the internet.

"Terry McCarthy, from Epping, was so outraged after allegedly being ripped off that he wrote directly to Mr Putin, declaring it was a matter of "Russian honour" that she be brought to justice. "So touched was the Kremlin leader by the carefully crafted letter, he ordered police to track down the criminals, regardless of time or cost.

"Investigations later revealed that the woman, part of a gang run by her Russian husband, had allegedly extracted $US1.5 million ($2 million) from as many as 1500 foreign men. "Not only have the couple since been caught, they face between five and 10 years in prison if convicted on all charges."

"Moscow police sources have confirmed that, on the basis of Mr McCarthy's letter, Mr Putin personally ordered them to find the woman and her associates."

It seems the news didn't travel that fast as on Thursday, reports AAP and AFP, the Russian press has finally picked up the story. It led to the uncovering of the syndicate led by Yury Lazarev, 34. An English translator from the Urals, Lazarev netted $394,500 in two years by faking emails from internet brides to about 3000 unsuspecting foreigners.

Lazarev was caught by police in December 2001 and received a one-year suspended sentence.

He employed women to write flowery romantic messages signed with real names picked off web dating sites, the Gazeta daily said. The photographs of seductive women that accompanied the text caught the attention of about 3000 men from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States and other Western countries.

Once the victim got interested and wanted to meet his potential fiance, the fictitious woman would ask for financial help to pay for visas and airline tickets.
Once the payments had been made, ranging from $131 to $1970, the woman of his dreams would vanish into thin air. The authors of the enticing correspondence got $78 for each successful scam.

Russian women are seen as attractive partners by foreigners, psychologists say, explaining a rise in mixed marriages, many of them arranged by bride agencies.


Scientific Fringe Hijacks Reality

State of the Beat--Blinded By Science
How ‘Balanced’ Coverage Lets the Scientific Fringe Hijack Reality
Columbia Journalism Review Issue 6: November/December
By Chris Mooney

On May 22, 2003, the Los Angeles Times printed a front-page story by Scott Gold, its respected Houston bureau chief, about the passage of a law in Texas requiring abortion doctors to warn women that the procedure might cause breast cancer. Virtually no mainstream scientist believes that the so-called ABC link actually exists — only anti-abortion activists do. Accordingly, Gold’s article noted right off the bat that the American Cancer Society discounts the “alleged link” and that anti-abortionists have pushed for “so-called counseling” laws only after failing in their attempts to have abortion banned. Gold also reported that the National Cancer Institute had convened “more than a hundred of the world’s experts” to assess the ABC theory, which they rejected. In comparison to these scientists, Gold noted, the author of the Texas counseling bill — who called the ABC issue “still disputed” — had “a professional background in property management.”

Gold’s piece was hard-hitting but accurate. The scientific consensus is quite firm that abortion does not cause breast cancer. If reporters want to take science and its conclusions seriously, their reporting should reflect this reality — no matter what anti-abortionists say.

But what happened next illustrates one reason journalists have such a hard time calling it like they see it on science issues. In an internal memo exposed by the Web site, the Times’s editor, John Carroll, singled out Gold’s story for harsh criticism, claiming it vindicated critics who accuse the paper of liberal bias. Carroll specifically criticized Gold’s “so-called counseling” line (“a phrase that is loaded with derision”) and his “professional background in property management” quip (“seldom will you read a cheaper shot than this”). “The story makes a strong case that the link between abortion and breast cancer is widely discounted among researchers,” Carroll wrote, “but I wondered as I read it whether somewhere there might exist some credible scientist who believes in it . . . . Apparently the scientific argument for the anti-abortion side is so absurd that we don’t need to waste our readers’ time with it.”

Gold declined to comment specifically on Carroll’s memo, except to say that it prompted “a sound and good discussion of the standards that we all take very seriously.” For his part, Carroll — now editing his third newspaper — is hardly so naïve as to think journalistic “balance” is synonymous with accuracy. In an interview, he nevertheless defended the memo, observing that “reporters have to make judgments about the validity of ideas” but that “a reporter has to be broad-minded in being open to ideas that aren’t necessarily shared by the crowd he or she happens to be hanging around with.” Carroll adds that in his view, Gold needed to find a credible scientist to defend the ABC claim, rather than merely quoting a legislator and then exposing that individual’s lack of scientific background. “You have an obligation to find a scientist, and if the scientist has something to say, then you can subject the scientist’s views to rigorous examination,” Carroll says.

The trouble is, the leading proponent of the idea that abortions cause breast cancer, Dr. Joel Brind of Baruch College at the City University of New York, underwent a pro-life religious conversion that left him feeling “compelled to use science for its noblest, life-saving purpose,” as he put it in Physician, a magazine published by a conservative religious group called Focus on the Family. Brind’s dedication to the ABC theory has flown in the face of repeated negative critiques of that theory by his scientific peers. When the National Cancer Institute convened the world’s experts to assess the question in February 2003, Brind was the only dissenter from the group’s conclusions.

Nevertheless, a later article by Gold suggests he may have taken Carroll’s lesson to heart (though Gold says the piece “certainly wasn’t a direct response, or an attempt to change anything or compensate” following Carroll’s memo). On November 6, 2003, Gold reported on a push in Texas to revise the way biology textbooks teach the scientific theory of evolution, which some religious conservatives don’t accept. Gold opened with a glowing profile of one William Dembski, described as a “scientist by trade” but “an evangelical Christian at heart who is convinced that some biological mechanisms are too complex to have been created without divine guidance.” But according to his Web site, Dembski is a philosopher and mathematician, not a biologist. Moreover, he’s a leader of the new “intelligent design” crusade against Darwin’s theory, an updated form of creationism that evolutionary biologists have broadly denounced. (He recently took a job running the Center for Science and Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.) The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world’s largest scientific society and publisher of Science, the highest-circulation general scientific journal, has firmly stated that proponents have “failed to offer credible scientific evidence to support their claim” that the intelligent design theory “undermines the current scientifically accepted theory of evolution.”

Scott Gold had it exactly right on abortion and breast cancer. Then he produced an article on “intelligent design” so artificially “balanced” it was downright inaccurate and misleading.

The basic notion that journalists should go beyond mere “balance” in search of the actual truth hardly represents a novel insight. This magazine, along with its political Web site, Campaign Desk, has been part of a rising chorus against a prevalent but lazy form of journalism that makes no attempt to dig beneath competing claims. But for journalists raised on objectivity and tempered by accusations of bias, knowing that phony balance can create distortion is one thing and taking steps to fix the reporting is another.

Political reporting hardly presents the only challenge for journalists seeking to go beyond he said/she said accounts, or even the most difficult one. Instead, that distinction may be reserved for media coverage of contested scientific issues, many of them with major policy ramifications, such as global climate change. After all, the journalistic norm of balance has no corollary in the world of science. On the contrary, scientific theories and interpretations survive or perish depending upon whether they’re published in highly competitive journals that practice strict quality control, whether the results upon which they’re based can be replicated by other scientists, and ultimately whether they win over scientific peers. When consensus builds, it is based on repeated testing and retesting of an idea.

Journalists face a number of pressures that can prevent them from accurately depicting competing scientific claims in terms of their credibility within the scientific community as a whole. First, reporters must often deal with editors who reflexively cry out for “balance.” Meanwhile, determining how much weight to give different sides in a scientific debate requires considerable expertise on the issue at hand. Few journalists have real scientific knowledge, and even beat reporters who know a great deal about certain scientific issues may know little about other ones they’re suddenly asked to cover.

Moreover, the question of how to substitute accuracy for mere “balance” in science reporting has become ever more pointed as journalists have struggled to cover the Bush administration, which scientists have widely accused of scientific distortions. As the Union of Concerned Scientists, an alliance of citizens and scientists, and other critics have noted, Bush administration statements and actions have often given privileged status to a fringe scientific view over a well-documented, extremely robust mainstream conclusion. Journalists have thus had to decide whether to report on a he said/she said battle between scientists and the White House — which has had very few scientific defenders — or get to the bottom of each case of alleged distortion and report on who’s actually right.

No wonder scientists have often denounced the press for giving credibility to fringe scientific viewpoints. And without a doubt, the topic on which scientists have most vehemently decried both the media and the Bush administration is global warming. While some scientific uncertainty remains in the climate field, the most rigorous peer-reviewed assessments — produced roughly every five years by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — have cemented a consensus view that human greenhouse gas emissions are probably (i.e., the conclusion has a fairly high degree of scientific certainty) helping to fuel the greenhouse effect and explain the observed planetary warming of the past fifty years. Yet the Bush administration has consistently sought to undermine this position by hyping lingering uncertainties and seeking to revise government scientific reports. It has also relied upon energy interests and a small cadre of dissenting scientists (some of whom are funded, in part, by industry) in formulating climate policy.

The centrality of the climate change issue to the scientific critique of the press does not arise by accident. Climate change has mind-bogglingly massive ramifications, not only for the future of our carbon-based economy but for the planet itself. Energy interests wishing to stave off action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have a documented history of supporting the small group of scientists who question the human role in causing climate change — as well as consciously strategizing about how to sow confusion on the issue and sway journalists.

In 1998, for instance, John H. Cushman, Jr., of The New York Times exposed an internal American Petroleum Institute memo outlining a strategy to invest millions to “maximize the impact of scientific views consistent with ours with Congress, the media and other key audiences.” Perhaps most startling, the memo cited a need to “recruit and train” scientists “who do not have a long history of visibility and/or participation in the climate change debate” to participate in media outreach and counter the mainstream scientific view. This seems to signal an awareness that after a while, journalists catch on to the connections between contrarian scientists and industry. But in the meantime, a window of opportunity apparently exists when reporters can be duped by fresh faces.

"There’s a very small set of people” who question the consensus, says Science’s executive editor-in-chief, Donald Kennedy. “And there are a great many thoughtful reporters in the media who believe that in order to produce a balanced story, you’ve got to pick one commentator from side A and one commentator from side B. I call it the two-card Rolodex problem.”

The Stanford climatologist Stephen Schneider echoes this concern. A scientist whose interactions with the media on the subject of climate change span decades, Schneider has reflected at length on the subject, especially in his 1989 book Global Warming. Schneider’s climate-change Web site also devotes a section to what he calls “Mediarology,” where he notes that in science debates “there are rarely just two polar opposite sides, but rather a spectrum of potential outcomes, oftentimes accompanied by a considerable history of scientific assessment of the relative credibility of these many possibilities. A climate scientist faced with a reporter locked into the ‘get both sides’ mindset risks getting his or her views stuffed into one of two boxed storylines: ‘we’re worried’ or ‘it will all be okay.’ And sometimes, these two ‘boxes’ are misrepresentative; a mainstream, well-established consensus may be ‘balanced’ against the opposing views of a few extremists, and to the uninformed, each position seems equally credible.”

Academics have studied media coverage of climate change, and the results confirm climate scientists’ longstanding complaints. In a recent paper published in the journal Global Environmental Change, the scholars Maxwell T. Boykoff and Jules M. Boykoff analyzed coverage of the issue in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times between 1988 and 2002. During this fourteen-year period, climate scientists successfully forged a powerful consensus on human-caused climate change. But reporting in these four major papers did not at all reflect this consensus.

The Boykoffs analyzed a random sample of 636 articles. They found that a majority — 52.7 percent — gave “roughly equal attention” to the scientific consensus view that humans contribute to climate change and to the energy-industry-supported view that natural fluctuations suffice to explain the observed warming. By comparison, just 35.3 percent of articles emphasized the scientific consensus view while still presenting the other side in a subordinate fashion. Finally, 6.2 percent emphasized the industry-supported view, and a mere 5.9 percent focused on the consensus view without bothering to provide the industry/skeptic counterpoint.

Most intriguing, the Boykoffs’ study found a shift in coverage between 1988 — when climate change first garnered wide media coverage — and 1990. During that period, journalists broadly moved from focusing on scientists’ views of climate change to providing “balanced” accounts. During this same period, the Boykoffs noted, climate change became highly politicized and a “small group of influential spokespeople and scientists emerged in the news” to question the mainstream view that industrial emissions are warming the planet. The authors conclude that the U.S. “prestige-press” has produced “informationally biased coverage of global warming . . . hidden behind the veil of journalistic balance.”

In a rich irony, a UPI report on August 30, 2004, about the Boykoffs’ study covered it in — that’s right — a thoroughly “balanced” fashion. The article gave considerable space to the viewpoint of Frank Maisano, a former spokesman for the industry-sponsored Global Climate Coalition and a professional media consultant, who called the Boykoffs’ contentions “absolutely outrageous” and proceeded to reiterate many of the dubious criticisms of mainstream climate science for which the “skeptic” camp is so notorious. In the process, the UPI piece epitomized all the pathologies of U.S. coverage of climate change — pathologies that aren’t generally recapitulated abroad. Media research suggests that U.S. journalists cover climate change very differently from their European counterparts, often lending much more credence to the viewpoints of “skeptics” like Maisano.

In an interview, Maxwell Boykoff — an environmental studies Ph.D. candidate at the University of California at Santa Cruz — noted that if there’s one American journalist who cuts against the grain in covering the climate issue, it’s Andrew C. Revkin of The New York Times. That’s revealing, because Revkin happens to be the only reporter at any of the major newspapers studied who covers “global environmental change” as his exclusive beat, which Revkin says means writing about climate change “close to half” of the time. Revkin has also been covering global warming since 1988 and has written a book on the topic. (This fall he began teaching environmental reporting as an adjunct at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.)

Revkin agrees with the basic thrust of the Boykoff study, but he also notes that the analysis focuses only on the quantitative aspect of climate-change coverage, rather than more subtle qualitative questions such as how reporters “characterize the voices” of the people they quote.

After all, the issue isn’t just how many column inches journalists give to the perspective of climate-change “skeptics” versus the mainstream view. It’s also how they identify these contrarian figures, many of whom have industry ties. Take a January 8, 2004, article by The Washington Post’s Guy Gugliotta, reporting on a study in the journal Nature finding that global warming could “drive 15 to 37 percent of living species toward extinction by mid-century.” Gugliotta’s story hardly suffered from phony balance. But when it did include a “skeptic” perspective — in a thoroughly subordinate fashion in the ninth paragraph — the skeptic’s industry ties went unmentioned:

One skeptic, William O’Keefe, president of the George C. Marshall Institute, a conservative science policy organization, criticized the Nature study, saying that the research ‘ignored species’ ability to adapt to higher temperatures’ and assumed that technologies will not arise to reduce emissions.

What Gugliotta didn’t say is this: the Marshall Institute receives substantial support from oil giant ExxonMobil, a leading funder of think tanks, frequently conservative in orientation, that question the scientific consensus on climate change. Moreover, O’Keefe himself has chaired the anti-Kyoto Protocol Global Climate Coalition, and served as executive vice president and chief operating officer of the American Petroleum Institute. Senate documents from 2001 through 2003 also list him as a registered lobbyist for ExxonMobil. (To be fair, when I discussed this matter with O’Keefe while working on a previous article, he said that he registers as a lobbyist “out of an abundance of caution” and keeps his ExxonMobil and Marshall Institute work “separate.”)

Asked about all of this, Gugliotta said he simply didn’t know of O’Keefe’s industry connections at the time. He said he considered O’Keefe a “reasoned skeptic” who provided a measured perspective from the other side of the issue. Fair enough. His industry ties don’t necessarily detract from that, but readers still should know about them. The point isn’t to single out Gugliotta — any number of other examples could be found. And such omissions don’t merely occur on the news pages. Some major op-ed pages also appear to think that to fulfill their duty of providing a range of views, they should publish dubious contrarian opinion pieces on climate change even when those pieces are written by nonscientists. For instance, on July 7, 2003, The Washington Post published a revisionist op-ed on climate science by James Schlesinger, a former secretary of both energy and defense, and a former director of Central Intelligence. “In recent years the inclination has been to attribute the warming we have lately experienced to a single dominant cause — the increase in greenhouse gases,” wrote Schlesinger. “Yet climate has always been changing — and sometimes the swings have been rapid.” The clear implication was that scientists don’t know enough about the causes of climate change to justify strong pollution controls.

That’s not how most climatologists feel, but then Schlesinger is an economist by training, not a climatologist. Moreover, his Washington Post byline failed to note that he sits on the board of directors of Peabody Energy, the largest coal company in the world, and has since 2001. Peabody has resisted the push for mandatory controls on greenhouse gas emissions, such as those that would be required by the Kyoto Protocol. In a 2001 speech, the Peabody executive John Wootten argued that “there remains great uncertainty in the scientific understanding of climate,” and that “imposition of immediate constraints on emissions from fossil-fuel use is not warranted.” Funny, that’s pretty much what Schlesinger argued.

For another group of scientists, the grievances with the press have emerged more recently, but arguably with far greater force. That’s because on an issue of great concern to these scientists — the various uses and abuses of somatic cell nuclear transfer, or cloning — journalists have swallowed the claims of the scientific fringe hook, line, and sinker.

Consider the great 2002 cloning hoax. In the media lull following Christmas, one Brigitte Boisselier — the “scientific director” of Clonaid, a company linked to the UFO-obsessed Raelian sect, and already a semi-celebrity who had been profiled in The New York Times Magazine — announced the birth of the world’s first cloned baby. At her press conference, covered live by CNN, MSNBC, and Fox, Boisselier could not even produce a picture of the alleged child — “Eve” — much less independent scientific verification of her claims. She instead promised proof within eight or nine days. Needless to say, the whole affair should have made the press wary.

Nevertheless, a media frenzy ensued, with journalists occasionally mocking and questioning the Raelians while allowing their claims to drive the coverage. CNN’s medical correspondent, Sanjay Gupta, provided a case in point. When he interviewed Boisselier following her press conference, Gupta called Clonaid a group with “the capacity to clone” and told Boisselier, credulously, “We are certainly going to be anxiously awaiting to see some of the proof from these independent scientists next week.”

Perhaps most outspoken in criticizing the press during the Clonaid fiasco was Arthur Caplan, the University of Pennsylvania biomedical ethicist. As one of the nation’s most quoted bioethicists, Caplan had the advantage of actual access to the media during the feeding frenzy. Yet that familiarity made little difference. As Caplan complained in an column following the Raelians’ announcement, no one wanted to listen to his skepticism because that would have required dropping the story: “As soon as I heard about the Raelians’ cloning claim, I knew it was nonsense,” wrote Caplan. “The media have shown themselves incapable of covering the key social and intellectual phenomena of the 21st century, namely the revolution in genetics and biology.”

Caplan observed that Clonaid had no scientific peer-reviewed publications to prove its techniques were up to snuff, and that cloning had barely worked in live animal species, and then only after countless initial failures. Nevertheless, Clonaid had implausibly claimed a stunning success rate — five pregnancies in ten attempts — in its experiments.

The Clonaid fiasco shows the media at their absolute worst in covering scientific issues. Reviewing the coverage two years later is a painful exercise. As even Gupta later admitted, “I think if we had known . . . that there was going to be no proof at this press conference, I think that we probably would have pulled the plug.” Later on, even the Raelians themselves reportedly laughed at how easy it was to get free publicity.

But this wasn’t just fun and games. The political consequences of the press’s cloning coverage were considerable. Widespread fear of human cloning inevitably lends strength to sweeping legislation that would ban all forms of cloning, despite the fact that many scientists think the cloning of embryos for research purposes holds significant medical promise; it would allow for the creation of embryonic-stem-cell lines genetically matched to individual patients. Thus, on an issue where one side of the debate thrives on fear, the media delivered exactly what these cloning-ban advocates desired. Where the press’s unjustifiable addiction to “balance” on climate change produces a political stalemate on a pressing issue of global consequence, its addiction to cloning cranks provided a potent political weapon to the enemies of crucial research.

None of those examples of poorly “balanced” science reporting arise from precisely the same set of journalistic shortcomings. In Scott Gold’s case at the Los Angeles Times, he appears to have known the scientific issues perfectly well. That gave his writing an authority that set off warning bells in an editor wary of bias. That’s very different from the Clonaid example, where sheer credulousness among members of the media — combined with sensationalism and a slow news period — were the problem. And that’s different still from the problem of false balance in the media coverage of climate change in the U.S., which has been chronic for more than a decade.

Yet in each case, the basic journalistic remedy would probably be the same. As a general rule, journalists should treat fringe scientific claims with considerable skepticism, and find out what major peer-reviewed papers or assessments have to say about them. Moreover, they should adhere to the principle that the more outlandish or dramatic the claim, the more skepticism it warrants. The Los Angeles Times’s Carroll observes that “every good journalist has a bit of a contrarian in his soul,” but it is precisely this impulse that can lead reporters astray. The fact is, nonscientist journalists can all too easily fall for scientific-sounding claims that they can’t adequately evaluate on their own.

That doesn’t mean that scientific consensus is right in every instance. There are famous examples, in fact, of when it was proved wrong: Galileo comes to mind, as does a lowly patent clerk named Einstein. In the vast majority of modern cases, however, scientific consensus can be expected to hold up under scrutiny precisely because it was reached through a lengthy and rigorous process of professional skepticism and criticism. At the very least, journalists covering science-based policy debates should familiarize themselves with this professional proving ground, learn what it says about the relative merits of competing claims, and “balance” their reports accordingly.

© 2005 Columbia Journalism Review


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