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

Saturday, December 31, 2005


Chalabi Watch 2

Chalabi Named Iraq Oil Minister
Fuel Crisis Spurs Mandatory Leave For Incumbent

By Jonathan Finer and Naseer Nouri
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 31, 2005; A11

BAGHDAD, Dec. 30 -- As a fuel crisis deepened in Iraq, the government replaced its oil minister with controversial Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Chalabi, whose poor performance in the Dec. 15 elections was a setback in his recent attempt at political rehabilitation.

The oil minister, Ibrahim Bahr Uloom, was put on a mandatory, month-long leave. He had previously threatened to resign over the government's recent decision to increase gasoline prices sharply, a move that has outraged motorists and sparked attacks on gas stations and fuel convoys.

Violence has escalated across Iraq since the elections. On Friday, two U.S. soldiers were killed, one by a bomb south of Baghdad and another by small-arms fire in the western city of Fallujah. Two mortar shells hit near a bus station in the capital, killing five people and wounding 24, police at the scene said.

Threats by insurgents seizing on the unpopularity of the gasoline price increase led to a shutdown this month of the country's most productive oil refinery, in Baiji, north of Baghdad. Assim Jihad, an Oil Ministry spokesman, said the shutdown would cost $20 million a day until the refinery reopened. Meanwhile, foul winter weather has halted oil exports from the southern city of Umm Qasr, Iraq's only major seaport. Many of Iraq's largest power plants, already struggling to meet even a fraction of the country's energy demands, run on refined fuels.

"If these issues are not solved soon, the country will be facing an uncontrollable situation," Jihad said. "Dr. Chalabi will be here for the short term, but this will need to be solved by the new government, by the Ministry of Defense and by the coalition forces."

Chalabi, whose government portfolio already includes heading the country's energy committee and overseeing security for oil infrastructure such as refineries and pipelines, will temporarily take the reins of Iraq's only major industry. He had briefly led the Oil Ministry earlier this year while the current government was being assembled.

Jihad suggested that Uloom would probably resign rather than return, meaning Chalabi's appointment would last until the parties that prevailed in the recent elections formed a new government.

Negotiations toward that end continued Friday in the northern city of Sulaymaniyah between Abdul Aziz Hakim, who heads the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a dominant Shiite Muslim party, and Kurdish leaders. Also Friday, an ally of the influential Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, whose political followers joined the Supreme Council's election ticket, said Shiite parties should pursue an alliance with Iraq's Sunni Arabs, rather than with Kurds.

Iraq's leaders have said no major decisions would be made while the composition of a new governing coalition was being determined.

"I don't think there will be any drastic changes," said Chalabi aide Haidar Moussawi when asked about Chalabi's intentions for his new post. "But I will say we have seen a lot of problems facing the industry with security and weather, and the focus will be on trying to get things under control and exports back to a level Iraq can do."

Once tabbed by some U.S. officials as a future leader of Iraq, Chalabi suffered a series of blows following the U.S.-led invasion, beginning when intelligence he provided to the Pentagon about Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction proved false. He was later accused of passing U.S. secrets to the government of Iran. But in recent months, several U.S. officials have praised Chalabi's technical expertise and ability to facilitate agreements among feuding factions within the government.

"He has proven himself quite capable and experienced in dealing with all aspects of Iraq's energy sector and is well-qualified for this position," a U.S. official said on the condition that he not be named because he was commenting on an Iraqi government decision.

Based on preliminary results from the December elections, Chalabi received 8,645 votes in Baghdad, well below the threshold a top U.N. official suggested this week would be required to win a seat.

Moussawi said Friday that Chalabi could still end up in the parliament, depending on how officials interpret a technical detail of election rules relating to how remaining seats are allocated after each party meeting a specific threshold is awarded its seats.

"There is still confusion, even today at the election commission, about this, but we are hearing the party will have at least one seat," Moussawi said.

Meanwhile, in Baghdad, mortar shells fell a few minutes apart late Friday afternoon -- one on a cafe and the other on the roof of a car -- in a crowded section of the city center. Sadoon Ali, 48, was playing backgammon in a nearby restaurant when he heard the explosion. "We were standing there wondering what happened when another explosion surprised us," he said.

A man who police said was drunk and angry because a friend had been wounded in the explosion began firing shots into a crowd, sending people scattering in all directions and wounding one man in the left leg.

Also in Baghdad, the government of Sudan said it would close its embassy to meet a demand issued by the insurgent group al Qaeda in Iraq, which claimed to have abducted six Sudanese citizens last week, the Associated Press reported. Five of the men were shown in a video released by the group in recent days. Insurgents have carried out a wave of abductions and attacks that they say is designed to compel diplomats to leave Iraq.

Special correspondent Omar Fekeiki contributed to this report.

Thursday, December 29, 2005


Inmate IRS Fraud

Irony of the Month: Inmates have little incentive to stop because they seldom face punishment. Authorities say that's because law enforcement doesn't have the resources to investigate criminals already behind bars.

Inmates scam IRS with false tax returns: Prison inmates are trying to scam the IRS big time.
Dec 25, 2005, 07:32 AM EST

IRS officials detected $68 million in false tax refund applications filed by 18,000 US prisoners for the 2004 tax year.

That accounts for more than one-seventh of all phony refunds nationwide.

In Arizona, convicts were responsible for roughly half of the $600,000 in fraudulent claims detected by Department of Revenue investigators this year.

Nancy Jardini is the chief of IRS criminal investigations. She says that nationwide, inmate fraud has increased 700% in three years.

Inmates have little incentive to stop because they seldom face punishment.

Authorities say that's because law enforcement doesn't have the resources to investigate criminals already behind bars.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


The Chalabi Watch

Meanwhile, Iraqi oil officials quoted by Dow Jones said yesterday that the deputy prime minister Ahmed Chalabi would take over the oil ministry, replacing Ibrahim Bahr al-Ulum, who has taken a month's leave.

Sunni lead mass Iraq poll protests
By Steve Negus, Iraq Correspondent, and Jan Cienski in Warsaw
Published: December 28 2005 02:00 Last updated: December 28 2005 02:00

and the Kurdish parties have maintained their iron grip on the south and north respectively, but with 89 per cent of votes counted in the Baghdad melting pot, both Dr Allawi and his arch rival and one-time Pentagon darling, Ahmed Chalabi, face marginalisation….Dr Allawi's secular coalition, the Iraqi List, scored 14 per cent and way behind was Dr Chalabi, whose paltry vote in the capital, less than 0.5 per cent, could deny him a slot in the first round of seat allocation in the new assembly.

US hopes of secular Iraqi state fade away
Posted: 12/22 From: Source By Paul McGeough Chief Herald Correspondent in Baghdad
December 21, 2005

Former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and Ahmed Chalabi are being backed by the US. …Allawi, a secular Shiite, former Baathist and a well known CIA asset who assisted in the planning and preparation of the US invasion of Iraq, was installed by the Bush administration as the interim Prime Minister in June 2004. …Among many Iraqis, Allawi's reputation for brutality is such that he is referred to as "Saddam without the moustache". …The Iraqi National Congress (INC) of Ahmed Chalabi is also being promoted as an alternative to the Shiite fundamentalists. Chalabi is one of the main Iraqi exiles who collaborated in the US invasion. In early 2004, Chalabi fell from favour with Washington. He resurrected his political fortunes by negotiating a ceasefire between the Sadrists and the occupation forces. He was named as the transitional Government's Deputy Prime Ministers. The Washington Post, citing unnamed White House officials, referred to him as Vice President Dick Cheney's preferred candidate for Prime Minister. Although the election results will not be formally announced till perhaps the New Year, one can imagine the end already.

POST EDITORIAL The Independent Dhaka, Bangladesh Issue 1708 December 23 2005 Gulf oil, Iraq war and Cheney By NASRINE R. KARIM

"Iran wins big in Iraq's election," reads an Asia Times headline, speaking a truth that American policy makers and much of the media is bent on ignoring: "The Shiite religious coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), not only held together, but also can be expected to dominate the new 275-member National Assembly for the next four years," the paper predicts based on the returns to date. "Former premier Ayad Allawi's prospects of leading the new government seem virtually nil. And Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Accord suffered a shattering defeat." Allawi and Chalabi are the Iraqi exiles and US intelligence "assets" who played such a huge role in getting the United States into this war. Chalabi, in particular, will go down in history as one of the great con artists of all time, managing to feed phony intelligence to the White House, the New York Times and countless other power players who found his lies convenient for one reason or another. Now, despite--or, more likely, because of--their long stints on the US payroll, both of these wannabe George Washingtons have been overwhelmingly rejected by their countrymen. Chalabi, long the darling of the Pentagon, seems headed to obtaining less than 1 percent of the vote nationwide and will fail to win his own seat. Allawi's slate, favored more by the CIA, will end up in the low teens.

Pyrrhic Victory TruthDig posted December 21, 2005 (web only) by Robert ScheeR


Deception Arts: Pranks -- A Competition

The Economist is holding a best pranks competition; helpful links added below.

The Counter-Deception Blog will copy the winning entries.

Pranks: a competition

From Hermes to bonsai kittens

Dec 20th 2005
From The Economist print edition

What makes a jape great?

AS A pupil at a minor English boarding school, one of the rituals your correspondent dreaded most was morning chapel: 600 boys and a dozen berobed “masters” crammed into a cold, dim chamber for ten minutes of dreary hymns and prayers. Until, that is, one morning, the solemn atmosphere was shattered by an unforgettable act of comic bravado. Seconds after the headmaster—known as the Head Horse on account of his equine features—took his seat, a giant white sheet rolled down over the arched entrance. On it was a caricature of a grinning horse wearing a mortar-board. Lord, how we laughed.

The perpetrators' identities did not stay secret for long—what schoolboy could resist boasting of such a jape? The rolled-up sheet had been held in place by thread that was tied to the switch for the headmaster's reading light so tautly that when he turned it on, the thread snapped and the caricature was unfurled. The Head Horse had been forced to humiliate himself. Even he had to admit it was ingenious.

Abbie Hoffman, a 1960s radical-cum-trickster, said most pranks fell into one of three categories: “good” pranks were amusingly satirical, “bad” ones gratuitously vindictive, and “neutral” ones surreal and soft on the victim (if there was one). An example of the first is the time Mr Hoffman and his fellow “Yippies” showered the floor of the New York Stock Exchange with dollar bills in 1967, thereby managing to stop the tickertape for six minutes while traders scrambled to pick up the notes. For a taste of the second, go to any college fraternity initiation. Examples of the third are many and delicious. A master of the art in the early 20th century was Horace de Vere Cole, an inveterate British prankster. Cole bore a striking resemblance to the then leader of the Labour Party, Ramsay MacDonald, and one of his favourite japes was to appear at Labour rallies posing as MacDonald, stride on stage to rapturous applause, and denounce everything the party stood for.

Priceless or puerile? There's the rub, for one man's brilliant prank is another's mindless stunt. Most would agree that the best pranks offer more than just deception, mischievousness or ridicule, and that much of the genre dished up on television now—the mutant progeny of shows like “Candid Camera”—falls well short of the mark. But what is that special ingredient? Elaborateness or simplicity? Satirical bite or surrealism? Irony or bluntness? Even dictionaries seem unsure how to define “prank” (orig. unk.): it is, by turns, a malicious trick, a conjuring act performed to deceive or surprise, a mischievous frolic, and more.

Homeric humour

If the prank is one of the more elusive arrows in the comedic quiver, it is also one of the oldest. The Homeric world is full of them. Hermes, for instance, was “full of tricks—a bringer of dreams”. He played his first when only a day old, stealing a herd of cattle belonging to his brother, Apollo, and driving them into a cave backwards to suggest that they had left instead of entered. So beguiling were his tricks that Zeus “laughed out loud to see his mischievous child”.

Pranks were a feature of ancient seasonal festivals. During Saturnalia, a Roman winter celebration, participants would dance, drink and play jokes on each other; slaves pretended to rule their masters, and a mock king, the Lord of Misrule, reigned for a day. Later, court jesters took advantage of a similar inversion of roles, playing tricks on kings and courtiers. Medieval magicians and tricksters had their own bible, the 14th century “Secretum Philosophorum” (which taught, for instance, how to turn water into wine by soaking pieces of bread in dark wine, drying them in the sun, and dropping them into the jug when no one was looking).

The best pranks have always blurred the lines between legality and illegality, good and bad taste, right and wrong conduct. Festivals like Saturnalia appeared to undermine the social order, but paradoxically helped to reaffirm it, by allowing people to act out their frustrations in a harmless way. The nearest thing to this today is April Fool's Day—“the day we remember what we are the other 364 days of the year,” as Mark Twain gently put it—though the best April 1st jokes tend to be media hoaxes, rather than traditional pranks. A classic of the genre is a 1957 BBC “documentary” on Swiss spaghetti farmers. Many British viewers asked where they could buy pasta trees.

Some of the best April Fool's stunts are those that send up national characteristics. To prove the point that Germans who break even minor rules struggle with their guilt, a few years back a newspaper in Tübingen announced a new experiment by the traffic authorities. Local drivers who had knowingly exceeded the speed limit in recent days were to turn themselves in, pay a fine and take lessons in safe driving. More than 60 sinners obliged.

Sportive students

For the most impressively elaborate pranks, however, go to a university campus. Take thousands of bright young things with too much time on their hands, itching to achieve, amuse and misbehave, and splendid acts of delinquency will follow.

The best colleges strive to out-prank one another. Students at Yale scored a big victory during last year's football match against Harvard when they passed out pieces of paper to thousands of fans on the Harvard side of the stadium. The fans were told that, when held up, the bits would spell “Go Harvard”. In fact they spelled something else (see photo that opened this article).

At Harvard's neighbour, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “hacks”, as the MIT crowd calls them, are more serious. So serious, in fact, that in 2003 the institute's best hacks were assembled in a 178-page book, “Nightwork”. The pranks at MIT tend to be feats of engineering. They are positively encouraged, because they teach students to work in teams, solve complex problems and, sometimes, get a message across. Mr Peterson's book includes an 11-point code for pranksters: leave no damage, do not steal, do not drop things off a building without a ground crew, and so on. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, at least, student pranks have become an establishment activity.

But the scene of what many consider the best-ever engineering prank was that other academic Cambridge, in England, where, one morning in 1958, the town awoke to see an Austin Seven van on top of the Senate House building. After weeks of preparation, a group of mechanical-sciences undergraduates had pushed the van, wheelbarrow-like, minus its doors and back wheels, into place, then hoisted it using a derrick of five 24-foot scaffolding poles, 250 feet of steel wire, 200 feet of hemp rope, pulley blocks and hooks, planks, and even sacking to protect the building. Once the vehicle had been dragged to the top of the sloping roof, the doors and wheels were re-fitted.

The world's media rightly applauded the prank. It was breathtakingly ambitious, requiring both brains and brawn in prodigious quantities; the planning was meticulous (the dozen or so students involved were split into sub-teams, including one comprising two pretty females to distract curious passers-by); and it created a spectacularly surreal sight that could be seen across town. The perpetrators were particularly pleased that what took them under three hours to do took the Civil Defence Force four days to undo. The dean of the college from which the prank was launched sent the ringleader a case of champagne.

While students generally prank for fun or pride, another breed does it for political ends. Anti-corporate pranking took off in the 1960s, as giant corporations began to be feared as much as nuclear weapons. Hoffman's Yippies blazed the trail, engaging in playful political theatre against big business as well as politicians. Their modern-day heirs are the likes of RTMARK and the Yes Men. RTMARK is a sort of online brokerage bringing together “investors” who give time and money for anti-corporate stunts. The Yes Men fancy themselves as satirical guerrillas. A favoured tactic is to pose as spokesmen for big companies: one Yes Man infiltrated a banking conference, at which he unveiled an “Acceptable Risk Calculator” that helped companies to work out the point at which deaths linked to their products began cutting into their profits. Several delegates asked for more information.

Another popular target of such groups is the media. To many, the master media-hoaxer is Alan Abel, who over the years has passed himself off as Howard Hughes, faked his own death (the New York Times published an obituary) and, when Idi Amin was on the run from Uganda, lured the press into covering a wedding ceremony in which the former dictator apparently married an American woman to secure citizenship. Mr Abel's tip: strut your stuff on Sundays, when the gullible, junior reporters are on duty.

To some, pranking is a bit like drugs—good fun when you're young, but not something respectable adults do. Mr Abel, now in his 70s, belongs to a rare breed that considers it a lifetime's work. That his like are rare is perhaps for the best. When serious grown-ups try their hand at pranks, the result is often ham-fisted.

Corporate bosses are a case in point. In the go-go 1990s, larks became de rigueur in the executive suite. There has been less of this since boom turned to bust, though at a few firms, such as Sun Microsystems, “pranking the boss” is still ingrained. “It encourages employees to be innovative,” a Sun spokeswoman earnestly explains. Occasionally, a big corporation gets it just right. In 1996, Taco Bell Corporation of America announced it had bought the Liberty Bell from the federal government and was renaming it the Taco Liberty Bell. Cue outrage across the country.

These days, the medium of choice for many tricksters is the internet. Spoof websites and bogus e-mails proliferate, and a cottage industry offers downloadable prank phone calls and the like. While the web has democratised the art, it has diluted it. Most of the stuff is crude—the online equivalent of the whoopee cushion. The Prank Institute, an online community “dedicated to the pranking sciences”, has logged tens of thousands of decidedly variable quality. A glorious exception is the site that offers “bonsai kittens”, reared in small jars, which outrages animal-lovers.

Ranking the pranking

Perhaps it was ever thus: many having a go, few producing anything genuinely funny and admirable. After all, nobody likes to think they have no jocular streak. Even Adolf Hitler claimed to have been a prankster in his youth. If so, he lost it spectacularly.

With that warning in mind, we invite readers to nominate their contender for the finest prank in history, explaining in 750 words why it deserves the title, to reach us by January 20th. The three best entries will be announced in February and published on Entries, please, to

Wednesday, December 28, 2005


Bogus Science Conferences and Hoax Papers

Random Science Too much of this and we will need to make science an elite secret society to keep out the riff-raff; or develop better counter-deception tools. I’ve run this random paper-writing program a bunch: over 50% of the papers prove there is an Intelligent Designer.

SCIgen - An Automatic CS Paper Generator


SCIgen is a program that generates random Computer Science research papers, including graphs, figures, and citations. It uses a hand-written context-free grammar to form all elements of the papers. Our aim here is to maximize amusement, rather than coherence.

One useful purpose for such a program is to auto-generate submissions to conferences that you suspect might have very low submission standards. A prime example, which you may recognize from spam in your inbox, is SCI/IIIS and its dozens of co-located conferences (check out the very broad conference description on the WMSCI 2005 website). There's also a list of known bogus conferences. Using SCIgen to generate submissions for conferences like this gives us pleasure to no end. In fact, one of our papers was accepted to SCI 2005! See Examples for more details.

New: We went to WMSCI 2005. Check out the talks and video. You can find more details in our blog.

Generate a Random Paper

Want to generate a random CS paper of your own? Type in some optional author names below, and click "Generate".

SCIgen currently supports Latin-1 characters, but not the full Unicode character set.

SCIgen currently supports Latin-1 characters, but not the full Unicode character set.


Here are two papers we submitted to WMSCI 2005:

· Rooter: A Methodology for the Typical Unification of Access Points and Redundancy (PS, PDF)
Jeremy Stribling, Daniel Aguayo and Maxwell Krohn

This paper was accepted as a "non-reviewed" paper!

o Acceptance e-mail

o A strange follow-up email, along with our response

o Anthony Liekens sent an inquiry to WMSCI about this situation, and received this response, with an amazing letter (PS, PDF) attached. (Also check out Jeff Erickson's in-depth deconstruction of this letter.)

o With the many generous donations we received, we paid one conference registration fee of $390.

o Our registration fee was refunded. See above for the next phase of our plan.

We received many donations to send us to the conference, so that we can give a randomly-generated talk.

· The Influence of Probabilistic Methodologies on Networking (PS, PDF)
Thomer M. Gil

For some reason, this paper was rejected. We asked for reviews, and got this response.


Thanks to the generous donations of 165 people, we went to WMSCI 2005 in Orlando and held our own "technical" session in the same hotel. The (randomly-generated) title of the session was The 6th Annual North American Symposium on Methodologies, Theory, and Information. The session included three randomly-generated talks:

· Harnessing Byzantine Fault Tolerance Using Classical Theory
Dr. Thaddeus Westerson, Institute for Human Understanding (Max)

· Synthesizing Checksums and Lambda Calculus using Jog
Dr. Mark Zarqawi, American Freedom University (Jeremy)

· On the Study of the Ethernet
Franz T. Shenkrishnan, PhD, Network Analysis Laboratories (Dan)

As promised, we videotaped the whole thing. You can download the resulting movie, titled Near Science, below. Movie length: 13:15.

· High quality (AVI: 88 MB, RealMedia: 65 MB):
Download AVI Download RM
Bit Torrent AVI
AVI Mirrors: MIT (MA) Berkeley (CA) CMU (PA) Brown (RI)
RM Mirrors: MIT (MA) Berkeley (CA) CMU (PA) Brown (RI)

· Medium quality (AVI: 48 MB, RealMedia: 42MB):
Download AVI Download RM
Bit Torrent AVI
Coral cache AVI Coral cache RM
AVI Mirrors: MIT (MA) Berkeley (CA) CMU (PA) Brown (RI)
RM Mirrors: MIT (MA) Berkeley (CA) CMU (PA) Brown (RI)

· Low quality (AVI: 20 MB, RealMedia: 9 MB):
Download AVI Download RM
Bit Torrent AVI
Coral cache AVI Coral cache RM
AVI Mirrors: MIT (MA) Berkeley (CA) CMU (PA) Brown (RI)
RM Mirrors: MIT (MA) Berkeley (CA) CMU (PA) Brown (RI)

Trouble playing the AVI? Try downloading a DivX codec for Windows or Mac, or try the open source VideoLAN player.

You can read more about the trip here, and check out some pictures here.

Many thanks to everyone who made this possible, especially Tadd Torborg and family, Open Clipart, the PDOS research group, and of course all the SCIgen donors.

Related Work

Other papers:

· Another fantastic submission to SCI 2005, by David Mazières and Eddie Kohler

· Alan Sokal's brilliant hoax article (i.e., the Social Text Affair)

· Researchers in Vienna take down the VIDEA conference

· Justin Zobel raises some questions about the validity of SCI

Other generators:

·'s list of the best online generators

· The Dada Engine, another tool that generates random text from context-free grammars

· List of text generators from (on the right)

· Barath Raghavan's Systems Topic Generator

· An essay generator

· SBIR grant proposal generator

· We initially based SCIgen on Chris Coyne's grammar for high school papers; Chris is now making neat pictures with context-free grammars.


We are graduate students in the PDOS research group at MIT CSAIL.

· Jeremy Stribling

· Max Krohn

· Dan Aguayo

Contact us at this email address: scigen-dev at the domain


How NOT to blow off reporters


"This is not about monitoring phone calls designed to arrange Little League practice or what to bring to a potluck dinner. These are designed to monitor calls from very bad people to very bad people."
- TRENT DUFFY, a spokesman for the White House, on reports about the government's terrorism inquiries.

For a bunch that is supposed to have exquisite PR smarts, the GWB WH occasionally makes some plays that seem pretty Little League.

NEVER put gratuitious specifics in a blow-off response. The very first follow-up question will be "Are you saying Little League practise was spied on? Can you guarantee that no Little Leaguers were spied on?"

Now "Trent Duffy" (can that actually be somebody's name? Parents can be cruel...) will get more and more questions abuut the details of the spying on Little Leaguers and specifically what dinner plans got intercepted, by design or accident.

Imagine being "Potluck" Duffy the rest of your WH career.

Saturday, December 24, 2005


The "Intelligent Design" Scam

Online at:

War Against Reason: The "Intelligent Design" Scam

12-22-05, 9:07 am

In November 2005, the first significant legal challenge involving the so-called "Intelligent Design" [ID] theory of creationism wrapped up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Court arguments in Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District lasted 22 days, and involved a challenge by 11 parents who oppose the teaching of "intelligent design" (ID), a "lite" variation of the same old creationism theory that has been constitutionally excluded from the public schools since 1987. Even televangelist Pat Robertson has checked in on the issue, pronouncing damnation on Dover for having voted out a pro-ID school board. Yet if things go as planned, this may be only the opening skirmish in a broad offensive by powerful ultra-right forces whose openly stated goal is total control of every aspect of American life.

Intelligent design itself is in essence a scam: a theory based on lack of knowledge rather than knowledge, and as such impossible to disprove. ID theory claims that the anthropic principle, the remarkable series of low-probability cosmic events that allowed the development of multicellular life on Earth, the mysteries of quantum weirdness, the astounding complexity of DNA, the yet-undiscovered material basis of human consciousness and numberless other still-unexplored corners and closets of science all demand the presence of a "God of the gaps," an Intelligent Designer. This heavenly Designer is painted as a sort of divine CEO benevolently micro-managing The Universe, Inc. for the very special benefit of America, for private profit and for the Republican Party.

It is fascinating to observe that ID advocates nowhere dare to claim that our "intelligently designed" universe is perfect or even moderately well functioning. Pointing out the obvious, that hurricanes, smallpox, Scooter Libby, appendicitis or bird flu have no logical place in an intelligently designed universe fails to faze them, probably because the fragile artificial tissue of ID theory was never intended to stand up under hard questioning in the first place. Further examination reveals that ID always has a convenient escape clause for these sorts of questions. The universe was indeed designed perfectly to start, but sin, Satan, Eve, feminists and/or the liberals screwed it all up and left us where we are now.

Since they cannot (yet) push fundamentalist creationism back into the public schools, ID advocates, who never seem adverse to twisting truth to serve their utterly righteous cause, claim that it is the duty of science teachers to "teach the controversy" between science and ID, a controversy that they themselves are in the process of fabricating from whole cloth. In addition, according to Science magazine book reviewer Steve Olson, "recently, intelligent design creationists have been forging alliances with some members of the discipline known as the rhetoric of science, which holds that scientific conclusions inevitably emerge from a process of persuasion, giving rise to the odd sight of conservative Christians making common cause with radical deconstructionists."

Historical Background

At first glance it seems rather obvious that virtually any religious believer (except, perhaps, a Buddhist) must necessarily subscribe to some theory of intelligent design. However, the larger historical debate as to whether a "hand of God" is visible in the material universe is not a new one. Remarkably enough, in recent centuries it was mostly Calvinist Protestants (the doctrinal predecessors of today’s Evangelicals) who proclaimed the "sola scriptura" dogma that fallen humanity is despicably wretched and thus absolutely incapable of discovering or deducing the existence of a God from the design of the material universe. In the 19th century it was this evangelical challenge, much more than atheism or nascent Darwinism, that prompted the Catholic Church’s First Vatican Council to cast its "anathema" (damnation) on those who would deny that reason alone can discover (even though not conclusively prove) the existence of God from observation of material reality.

In the specific case of today’s ID debate, there is an additional element of extreme bad faith. In an amazingly frank document called "The Wedge Strategy," (available at leading creationists wrote in 1999 that "we are convinced that in order to defeat materialism, we must cut it off at its source. That source is scientific materialism. This is precisely our strategy. If we view the predominant materialistic science as a giant tree, our strategy is intended to function as a ‘wedge’ that, while relatively small, can split the trunk when applied at its weakest points."

The authors of this document blame evolutionism for most of the "evils" in today’s world, from product liability suits and welfare to the crime of trying to better the world. "Thinking they could engineer the perfect society through the application of scientific knowledge, materialist reformers advocated coercive government programs that falsely promised to create heaven on earth." And the ultimate goal of ID is made crystal clear. The movement "seeks nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies."

The authors put forth an aggressive 20-year plan of action to achieve their goals, "to cultivate and convince influential individuals in print and broadcast media, as well as think tank leaders, scientists and academics, congressional staff, talk show hosts, college and seminary presidents and faculty, future talent and potential academic allies." By 2019, they aim for the complete and total defeat of American civilization as we know it, in order "to see design theory permeate our religious, cultural, moral and political life."

Today’s Relationship of Forces

It is crucial to understand the balance of forces that are involved in today’s ID struggle in North America. As a website of the American Association for the Advancement of Science warns, "creationism appears again to be in a period of ascendancy," and ID is aptly described by science writers Barbara Forrest and Paul R. Gross as "Creationism’s Trojan Horse." Olson emphasizes that "intelligent design [advocates] have produced no evidence that anything other than naturally occurring mechanisms is responsible for the empirically observed world. But, as is meticulously documented in Forrest and Gross’s book, they have produced a flood of pamphlets, press releases, popular books, websites, and other pronouncements" carefully aimed at school boards, legislators, clergy, rural white churchgoers and other "soft" targets.

Science writer Ushma S. Neil reported in a 2005 issue of the Journal of Clinical Investigation, "A 1999 Gallup poll showed that a startling number of people (38 percent) believed wholly in creationism, 43 percent believed in a more intelligent design-like theory, and only 18 percent of those surveyed believed in evolutionary theory as the sole explanation for the origin of humans. The same poll showed that increasing levels of education correlated with a belief in evolution (65 percent with postgraduate degrees versus 20 percent with a high school degree)." As always, purveyors of right-wing pseudoscience rely on ignorance and lack of education as necessary preconditions for successfully peddling their poisonous product. However, Neil points out that even among scientists, some 40 percent say they believe in God.

Yet, opponents of ID include virtually all working scientists, believers or not, as well as almost every conscientious science educator. Jewish, Muslim and other non-Christian religious believers have overwhelmingly rejected ID as the latest twisted monstrosity to crawl out of the intellectual swamps of American right-wing Fundamentalism. And perhaps most importantly, vast sectors of mainline Christianity, Catholic and Protestant, are firmly speaking out against the ID scam in North America and around the world.

As an example, Dr. Neil Omerod, Professor of Theology at Australian Catholic University, recently wrote a scathing critique of ID entitled "How Design Supporters Insult God’s Intelligence," In his article, published in the Sydney Morning Herald of November 15, 2005, Omerod points out that ID is "just a more sophisticated version of so-called ‘creation science,’ which is poor theology and poor science. As theology, creation science failed to read the biblical story within its historical and cultural context, reading it through the eyes of modern positivism, which equates truth with the accuracy of data. The Bible could only be ‘true’ if it were literally ‘true’ in every detail."

Omerod points out: "This literalist fundamentalism finds few supporters in mainstream Christianity. As science it manipulates the evidence to fit this misreading of the Bible. Intelligent design seeks to go beyond the limitations of creation science. It does not reject or manipulate the scientific data, but argues that the scientific evidence for biological change reveals ‘intelligent design.’" He emphasizes that traditional Christian beliefs clearly allow for chance, and thus Darwinian evolution, and "because something necessarily happens does not mean it happens necessarily.… what God wills to happen by chance, will of necessity happen by chance." He concludes that ID is "an unnecessary hypothesis which should be consigned to the dustbin of scientific and theological history."

It is a major error for opponents of ID (even those who are nonreligious) to allow the right wing to frame the struggle as a serious debate of nonbelievers and secularists vs. Christians. The theory of ID remains political, not religious, at its core, despite advocates’ best efforts to validate it by plugging the issue into older philosophical questions of faith and unbelief. Nor is it entirely correct to portray ID as a struggle of science vs. obscurantism (the ancient canard that "there are some things that humans must never know"). The gurus of ID are far from knuckle-walking Neanderthals or ignorant snake-handling God-shouters, and they do not hesitate to use social science (and even evolutionary theory, as it is applied to petroleum geology, for instance) for their own profit when required – one of the prime movers of the ID movement formerly worked as a geophysicist for the Atlantic Richfield Company. And, as is made repeatedly clear in the "Wedge Strategy" document, profit, and not faith, is what ID is ultimately all about.

The current ID offensive must be exposed and confronted for what it is: a vicious, carefully-planned political (not primarily religious) attack against the American people, perpetrated by a tiny, mendacious clique of well-educated and ideologically-driven right-wingers with virtually unlimited funding and unrestricted media access.
As Neil writes in the Journal of Clinical Investigation:

We all must be informed and we all must get involved to make sure that our lay peers know the facts. The science curriculum is being changed to incorporate intelligent design in Ohio, New Mexico, Minnesota, Kansas and Pennsylvania – it is important to make sure this does not spread to other states, and that it is overturned in the states where it is taught. One thing is unambiguous: this sort of discussion – of religion – does not belong in the classroom.

To achieve this goal, progressives need to increase strategic cooperation with teachers’ unions, mainstream scientific, educational, political, academic and community groups, and should even consider tactical alliances with non-fundamentalist religious groups of all faith traditions.

In this struggle the ultra-right is already busy exploiting existing contradictions in American society (city vs. country – "metro vs. retro," "town vs. gown," Catholic vs. Protestant, gay vs. straight) and is eagerly seeking to create more. Only people’s unity can turn back the extreme Right’s offensive against science, education and reason, and only science, education and reason can guarantee America’s and the world’s future.

Read more about the theory of evolution here:

Read more about the recent court case related to teaching the non-scientific concept of intelligent design here:

--Contact Owen Williamson at

Sunday, December 11, 2005


Potemkin Village Idiots

December 11, 2005
Op-Ed Columnist

It Takes a Potemkin Village

WHEN a government substitutes propaganda for governing, the Potemkin village is all. Since we don't get honest information from this White House, we must instead, as the Soviets once did, decode our rulers' fictions to discern what's really happening. What we're seeing now is the wheels coming off: As the administration's stagecraft becomes more baroque, its credibility tanks further both at home and abroad. The propaganda techniques may be echt Goebbels, but they increasingly come off as pure Ali G.

The latest desperate shifts in White House showmanship say at least as much about our progress (or lack of same) in Iraq over the past 32 months as reports from the ground. When President Bush announced the end of "major combat operations" in May 2003, his Imagineers felt the need for only a single elegant banner declaring "Mission Accomplished." Cut to Nov. 30, 2005: the latest White House bumper sticker, "Plan for Victory," multiplied by Orwellian mitosis over nearly every square inch of the rather "Queer Eye" stage set from which Mr. Bush delivered his oration at the Naval Academy.

And to no avail. Despite the insistently redundant graphics - and despite the repetition of the word "victory" 15 times in the speech itself - Americans believed "Plan for Victory" far less than they once did "Mission Accomplished." The first New York Times-CBS News Poll since the Naval Academy pep talk, released last Thursday, found that only 25 percent of Americans say the president has "a clear plan for victory in Iraq." Tom Cruise and evolution still have larger constituencies in America than that.

Mr. Bush's "Plan for Victory" speech was, of course, the usual unadulterated nonsense. Its overarching theme - "We will never accept anything less than complete victory" - was being contradicted even as he spoke by rampant reports of Pentagon plans for stepped-up troop withdrawals between next week's Iraqi elections and the more important (for endangered Republicans) American Election Day of 2006. The specifics were phony, too: Once again inflating the readiness of Iraqi troops, Mr. Bush claimed that the recent assault on Tal Afar "was primarily led by Iraqi security forces" - a fairy tale immediately unmasked by Michael Ware, a Time reporter embedded in that battle's front lines, as "completely wrong." No less an authority than the office of Iraq's prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, promptly released a 59-page report documenting his own military's inadequate leadership, equipment and training.

But this variety of Bush balderdash is such old news that everyone except that ga-ga 25 percent instantaneously tunes it out. We routinely assume that the subtext (i.e., the omissions and deliberate factual errors) of his speeches and scripted town meetings will be more revealing than the texts themselves. What raised the "Plan for Victory" show to new heights of disinformation was the subsequent revelation that the administration's main stated motive for the address - the release of a 35-page document laying out a "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq" - was as much a theatrical prop as the stunt turkey the president posed with during his one furtive visit to Baghdad two Thanksgivings ago.

As breathlessly heralded by Scott McClellan, this glossy brochure was "an unclassified version" of the strategy in place since the war's inception in "early 2003." But Scott Shane of The New York Times told another story. Through a few keystrokes, the electronic version of the document at could be manipulated to reveal text "usually hidden from public view." What turned up was the name of the document's originating author: Peter Feaver, a Duke political scientist who started advising the National Security Council only this June. Dr. Feaver is an expert on public opinion about war, not war itself. Thus we now know that what Mr. McClellan billed as a 2003 strategy for military victory is in fact a P.R. strategy in place for no more than six months. That solves the mystery of why Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey of the Army, who is in charge of training Iraqi troops, told reporters that he had never seen this "National Strategy" before its public release last month.

In a perfect storm of revelations, the "Plan for Victory" speech fell on the same day that The Los Angeles Times exposed new doings on another front in the White House propaganda war. An obscure Defense Department contractor, the Lincoln Group, was caught paying off Iraqi journalists to run upbeat news articles secretly written by American Army personnel and translated into Arabic (at a time when American troops in harm's way are desperate for Arabic translators of their own). One of the papers running the fake news is Al Mutamar, the Baghdad daily run by associates of Ahmad Chalabi. So now we know that at least one P.R. plan, if not a plan for victory, has been consistent since early 2003. As Mr. Chalabi helped feed spurious accounts of Saddam's W.M.D. to American newspapers to gin up the war, so his minions now help disseminate happy talk to his own country's press to further the illusion that the war is being won.

The Lincoln Group's articles (e.g., "The Sands Are Blowing Toward a Democratic Iraq") are not without their laughs - for us, if not for the Iraqis, whose intelligence is insulted and whose democratic aspirations are betrayed by them. But the texts are no more revealing than those of Mr. Bush's speeches. Look instead at the cover-up that has followed the Los Angeles Times revelations. The administration and its frontmen at once started stonewalling from a single script. Mr. McClellan, Pentagon spokesmen, Senator John Warner and Donald Rumsfeld all give the identical answer to the many press queries. We don't have the facts, they say, even as they maintain that the Lincoln Group articles themselves are factual.

The Pentagon earmarks more than $100 million in taxpayers' money for various Lincoln Group operations, and it can't get any facts? Though the 30-year-old prime mover in the shadowy outfit, one Christian Bailey, fled from Andrea Mitchell of NBC News when she pursued him on camera in Washington, certain facts are proving not at all elusive.

Ms. Mitchell and other reporters have learned that Mr. Bailey has had at least four companies since 2002, most of them interlocking, short-lived and under phantom names. Government Executive magazine also discovered that Mr. Bailey "was a founder and active participant in Lead21," a Republican "fund-raising and networking operation" - which has since scrubbed his name from its Web site - and that he and a partner in his ventures once listed a business address identical to their Washington residence. This curious tale, with its trail of cash payoffs, trading in commercial Iraqi real estate and murky bidding procedures for lucrative U.S. government contracts, could have been lifted from "Syriana" or "Glengarry Glen Ross." While Mr. Rumsfeld and Mr. McClellan valiantly continue their search for "the facts," what we know so far can safely be filed under the general heading of "Lay, DeLay and Abramoff."

The more we learn about such sleaze in the propaganda war, the more we see it's failing for the same reason as the real war: incompetence. Much as the disastrous Bremer regime botched the occupation of Iraq with bad decisions made by its array of administration cronies and relatives (among them Ari Fleischer's brother), so the White House doesn't exactly get the biggest bang for the bucks it shells out to cronies for fake news.

Until he was unmasked as an administration shill, Armstrong Williams was less known for journalism than for striking a deal to dismiss a messy sexual-harassment suit against him in 1999. When an Army commander had troops sign 500 identical good-news form letters to local newspapers throughout America in 2003, the fraud was so transparent it was almost instantly debunked. The fictional scenarios concocted for Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman also unraveled quickly, as did last weekend's Pentagon account of 10 marines killed outside Falluja on a "routine foot patrol." As the NBC correspondent Jim Miklaszewski told Don Imus last week, he received calls within hours from the fallen's loved ones about how the marines had been slaughtered after being recklessly sent to an unprotected site for a promotion ceremony.

Though the White House doesn't know that its jig is up, everyone else does. Americans see that New Orleans is in as sorry shape today as it was under Brownie three months ago. The bipartisan 9/11 commissioners confirm that homeland security remains a pork pit. Condi Rice's daily clarifications of her clarifications about American torture policies are contradicted by new reports of horrors before her latest circumlocutions leave her mouth. And the president's latest Iraq speeches - most recently about the "success" stories of Najaf and Mosul - still don't stand up to the most rudimentary fact checking.

This is why the most revealing poll number in the Times/CBS survey released last week was Mr. Bush's approval rating for the one area where things are going relatively well, the economy: 38 percent, only 2 points higher than his rating on Iraq. It's a measure of the national cynicism bequeathed by the Bush culture that seeing anything, even falling prices at the pump, is no longer believing.


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