They just want you to think you were suffering from hindsight bias all along.

I’m currently on a break from idiots on the internet. I’m less than 72 hours in and the temptation to break the fast is building with every passing minute. When Friday comes, I’ll have a lot of catching up to do. There’s a local student article on why everyone is a fascist and Answers in Genesis responding to that photograph of a creationist school test – the one that Reddit insists is genuine. Soon, darling, soon you will eat, yes you will eat heartily on the souls of… ahem. Sorry. As I said, less than 72 hours in and this is worse than when I go off coffee for a month.

Anyway, I want to make a slight exception for this story because it’s responding to a news article that’s current rather than some real-life morons on a backwater Facebook group. Mostly, though, because I haven’t written much in a little while. Here it is:

EXCLUSIVE: Saudi Arabia ‘warned the United States IN WRITING about Boston Bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev in 2012

WARNING: The above is a link to the Daily Mail.

For those sensible people with Kitten Block installed, here’s the tl;dr (you don’t really gain much more insight by reading the full article anyway);

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia sent a written warning about accused Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in 2012, long before pressure-cooker blasts killed three and injured hundreds, according to a senior Saudi government official with direct knowledge of the document.

This is really two interconnected rants. One on uncritically accepting tripe, and the other on hindsight bias. They might seem like they contradict, but like any other rational person, my position is thus: I’m keeping an open mind until I get better evidence.

But that’s what they want you to think

The Mail is reporting on the usual “I told you so” routine, and conspiracy theorists are lapping it up as evidence of the government’s incompetence or malice (either/or, they don’t care). This is always something that has intrigued me about conspiracy theories – that the government is a vast shadowy organisation capable of, say, faking the moon landings with devastating effectiveness, but are also massively incompetent at everything they do. Conspiracy theorists lap it up because they see motive everywhere. Either the government isn’t doing its job – or it’s doing it’s “job”, which is to allow terrorists to selectively bomb there own country for, well, Reasons. Curiously, the motive for foreign governments to discredit the US is gleefully ignored, but that wouldn’t fit in with the story. It’s not like people lie. Well, they do, but whether someone is telling a Truth or a Lie is decreed not on the basis of evidence but on the basis of whether it fits in with the conspiracy. It’s the same bit of doublethink that stops people realising that perhaps Alex Jones is an “info warrior” because it’s a good way of maintaining his staggering net worth. No, it couldn’t possibly be…

I’m not saying that this is reason enough to dismiss the story out of hand as a fabriaction (in fact, on balance, I’m swayed towards “true with a but” – more on that below). I’m just saying that with respect to the conspiracy aspect (yeah, I broke the fast and caught a brief glimpse of what people were saying, then quickly darted away) leaping over this particular hurdle is curiously absent from the critical thinking of idiots-on-the-internet.

Actually, a slightly more reliable indicator as to the truth value is that these Saudi officials decided to break their story exclusively to the Daily Mail. And to be fair as I can to the paper, it doesn’t have a great reputation in the reality-based community. This outright stinks of a media stunt rather than a grand reveal. Again, this is part of the “true with a but” thing; they might well have sent a written warning, but their motive for saying “I told you so” probably isn’t entirely benign.

Let’s be even more fair to the Daily Fail here. It’s still a newspaper. An actual, factual newspaper that people pay for. Even for us cynics who find its mere existence an embarrassment, it’s still a newspaper and not a whack-job conspiracy site. The line blurs on occasion, but it’s still a visible line. As a result, the integrity they have left gives them some obligation to get a right-of-reply from people. And they do get a statement from the DHS and the White House. It goes as follows:

‘DHS has no knowledge of any communication from the Saudi government regarding information on the suspects in the Boston Marathon Bombing prior to the attack,’ MailOnline learned from one Homeland Security official who declined to be named in this report.

The White House took a similar view. ‘We and other relevant U.S. government agencies have no record of such a letter being received,’ said Caitlin Hayden, a spokesperson for the president’s National Security Council.

“A-a-a-a!!!” You stutter, with a finger waving in the air. “But that’s a denial, that’s what they want you to think!” After all, they do later say that an “unnamed person” had “heard of” the communication, which is totally a smoking gun.

The “that’s what they want you to think” defence (and no matter how many details and justifications you tack on to it, it does just boil down to this) is one of the most selective and pathetic arguments ever used. The government is a shadowy cabal that can manipulate all information, yet it’s so transparent when they’re lying! They always lie, except when they’re telling the truth and some admission comes out. Again, truth and lies dictated by whatever combination supports the theory.

Oh, now you tell me…

Let’s assume they are lying, though. After all, doesn’t it make sense you want to cover your tracks in this sort of event? Agreed? You’re sure, right, that you want to say their motivation is to not make themselves look incompetent or malicious? Yes? Good.

In that case, why deny knowledge of it?

Go on, answer that. Actually, don’t, I’ll save us some time.

If you issue a denial that you know to be false, then it puts you in a very vulnerable position. All it takes is one intern or lowly staffer with nothing to lose to just whistleblow some proof that it was received and intentionally ignored (fat-fetched, I know!) and you’re done. Someone will investigate and dig down, you will not last long in wilful-denial-land. You’e been caught with your pants down by the original accusation and then been caught out lying about it! Taking this approach makes you incompetent and useless. So, maybe they are lying about this, and if someone does blow a whistle they’ll look outright incompetent and useless because of it.

If the government is some vast shadowy conspiracy with intent and ruthless intelligence behind it, you’d expect better. And the better solution is thus: outright admit that you received a warning.

“Whoa there!” You say, and you’d say it just like that. “That would be admitting they were warned and did nothing about it, how does that help?” Well, Simplicio, the reason is simple. Governments and security agencies get more warnings and tip-offs in a day that you could possibly believe. Thousands, maybe, and that’s being conservative about it. Facebook gets millions of people clicking the “report” button every day and they can’t respond to them quick enough, and if a vast network of spies and snoopers did exist (I swear conspiracy theorists actually would like living in an Orwellian fantasy) then that would be generating countless reports of its own. Except instead of child grooming and molestation buried under a mountain of butthurt over a meme-image like the Facebook report button, intelligence analysts would be dealing with potential murderers buried under a mountain of racism coming from paranoid idiots. Out of thousands of reports, hundreds could be credible, dozens could be viable, one could actually lead to trouble. Daily. Before the fact, they all look the same. We don’t live in Brazil (that’s the film, not the country) where it’s revealed that 90% of GDP goes on anti-terrorist activities. Not every lead can be followed up with a good waterboarding. You have to pick and choose, and more often than not, you will pick incorrectly.

This is actually a well known problem in critical and rational thinking – hence something that newspapers fall for all the time. It’s called hindsight bias. Prior to any bombs actually detonating, any reports featuring the names that we know now would most likely have been in good company. There will be a vast database of names out there, so one of them is bound to be the lead conspirator of the next big terror plot. But what of the others? The ones that go nowhere, the ones that may even be completely innocent? They’ll sit there on that database, sucking up attention and distracting from the real thing precisely because we don’t know what the real thing is until it happens. And worst of all, people will forget their very existence. So what this news article is really doing is no different to a Derren Brown trick where the prediction is actually revealed after the event, and the magic is actually an illusion.

This is a real effect. It’s a real problem for people in general. It’s a real problem for intelligence and security forces.

So, if these people had intelligence pointing towards known bombers, they’re picking the wrong time to shout about it from the rooftops. If their sources were credible, and they were so sure, then they could have done this, say, I dunno, back on April 14th 2013?


Go on, derp away...

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