Sunday, January 31, 2016

Science and Conspiracies

My students can testify that I have often told them that anyone with a Ph.D. in physics can think up a b.s. explanation for anything.  Sometimes this is just harmless fun, but sometimes it can cause real problems, even when it is done with no ill intentions.  I'm afraid a recent study that has received publicity is likely to be entirely counterproductive.  I am referring to the study by Oxford Professor David Robert Grimes that was summarized at under the title "Large-scale conspiracies would quickly reveal themselves, equations show" and by the BBC under the title "Maths study shows conspiracies 'prone to unravelling'"; because there are serious flaws in his approach, he is likely to increase the very skepticism he is trying to answer.

Let me start by saying that I understand exactly and sympathize with what he was trying to do, even without knowing the precise details of how he was trying to to do it.  

For one thing, although I enjoy the thrill (and sometimes creepiness) of the "What if?" that was so embodied by the 1970's show "In Search Of...", starring Leonard Nimoy, the truth is that pseudoscience rapidly becomes unsatisfying because it is so limited. That nudges my relationship with potential X-Files material in a slightly antagonistic direction, but what really gives it a shove is the unhealthy pattern of thought that typifies the enthusiasts of Bigfoot, UFOs, and ghost hunting.  For far too many of these enthusiasts, their chosen topic is only an excuse for their real interest, which is to play the role of a kind of high priest in a mystery religion that the general public is too stupid or fearful to understand and that is actively persecuted by a conspiracy of the government, the military, and the scientific community.

The other thing is, I understand first-hand how tempting it is for a physicist to build a simple model to see if it can provide at least a semi-quantitative explanation of a complicated phenomenon.  What he was trying to do in modeling conspiracies is not very different from what I was trying to do when I modeled the NCAA basketball tournament.

All models are simplifications, but his model simplifies too much.  All conspiracies have something to do with secrecy, but he appears to interpret this in an absolute sense, so that if any hint of the conspiracy were to become known, the conspiracy would immediately collapse.  Of course, some conspiracies are in fact like that.  For instance, if you are in North Korea, you had better hope that no one ever dreams that you are part of part of a conspiracy to assassinate Kim Jong Un, because even the merest suspicion of that is a Very Bad Thing for you.

Many, probably most, conspiracies are not like that, though.  In some cases, the "signal" can be lost in the "noise".  For instance, the Soviet Union got several key pieces of accurate intelligence that told exactly when Nazi Germany would attack them, but these were ignored because (a) Stalin didn't really want to believe them and (b) there were also a large number of contradictory, inaccurate reports.

Then there are "conspiracies" that merely have, to use a term from the Reagan years, "plausible deniability" -- and that "deniability" can be strongly influenced by biases and vested interests.  I think most people today would say there was a conspiracy for decades to deny the health risks of smoking tobacco.  There was evidence from fairly early on that smoking was unhealthy, but it is not what people wanted to hear, and the tobacco companies had a strong financial motivation to shout down that evidence and the resources with which to finance studies that would seem to cast doubt on the dangers of tobacco.  The tobacco conspiracy did not unravel because of some single revelation, but because a critical mass of the public and the powers that be decided to stop pretending that smoking is no problem.  [We have probably gone too far in the other direction now, but the point is that no one is now pretending tobacco is totally harmless.]

Another example that I think could be called a poorly hidden "conspiracy" is racial slavery.  In order to "justify" slavery, it was necessary to provide arguments and evidence that blacks (and American Indians) are somehow inherently inferior to whites, either or in terms of their intellect, or their character, or both.  Of course, the circumstances of slavery could easily be manipulated to provide "support" for the inferiority of slaves -- a lack of education could be called stupidity, for example.  None of this was honest, and to quote Chesterton
Against all this dance of doubt and degree stood something that can best be symbolised by a simple example. An ape cannot be a priest, but a negro can be a priest. The dogmatic type of Christianity, especially the Catholic type of Christianity, had riveted itself irrevocably to the manhood of all men. Where its faith was fixed by creeds and councils it could not save itself even by surrender. It could not gradually dilute democracy, as could a merely sceptical or secular democrat. There stood, in fact or in possibility, the solid and smiling figure of a black bishop.
What put an end to the conspiracy of slavery was not the amazing discovery of "the manhood of all men," but the decision to stop pretending to be in doubt of what was known all along.

For one last example, consider the Tuskegee Experiment.  It involved secrecy towards one group of people -- in particular, the black men who were the human guinea pigs -- but there was no secrecy about it at all among the medical research community.

They guys discuss the claim that Stanley Kubrick confessed on his deathbed to faking the moon landings.

What about the specific conspiracies addressed by Prof. Grimes?  The mere fact that we have heard of them means that no one is claiming them to be perfect secrets, and in fact there are supposed insiders who have spilled the alleged beans.  Prof. Grimes' model does not correctly describe its subject.

"Bob Lazar" claims to be a physicist who worked on alien technology at Area 51.

So the people who find these alleged conspiracies plausible would say we have a situation parallel to the tobacco conspiracy.  They would tell us that the information is largely available, but that vested interests work hard to suppress and discredit that information, and most of the public simply does not want to know the truth.

In conclusion, there is no shortcut for evaluating whether or not an alleged conspiracy is true or even plausible.  The only way to find that out is by examining the substance of the claims.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Note to British Parliament: Mind Your Own [Obscenity Omitted] Business

I actually agree that Trump is "an 'idiot,' a 'buffoon,' a 'fool,' and a 'demagogue.'"  In other words, the spitting image of a British politician.  But Edward Leigh is right:  it is a very bad idea for the UK to try to throw its weight into determining who governs America.  For one thing, there is the real chance that Trump will win the election, in which case they should expect a distinct cooling of relations between the two countries.  That is possible, though I think unlikely.  Even if it doesn't happen, though, they run the risk of more Americans remembering exactly what the role of the UK with the US has been historically -- remembering, for example, from whom the thirteen newly independent States declared their independence, remembering who it was who burned the White House, and remembering that the way the Union tried to justify the meat-grinder that was the American Civil War was by using the threat of conquest by the British Empire, remembering that although France has aided the USA in the hour of our need, the UK has only partnered with the USA when they found themselves in wars they could not win on their own.  Americans might stop believing that "Mary Poppins" is a documentary accurately describing modern British society.  It would behoove the Limeys not to rock this particular boat.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

My Revolutionary War Ancestors: Lodowick Alford (and My Other Alford Kin)

One of my great-great grandmothers was born Frances Elizabeth Alford (b. March 1870).  One of her great-great grandfathers was Lodowick Alford.  Much of the information I have about Lodowick and his descendants comes from the Alford American Family Association; in particular, the document Known Descendants of Cullen Alford and Pherebe Wooten traces the connection between Cullen (or Collin, the spelling seems to vary) Alford and my maternal grandmother, and Lodwick Alford (ca1710-1800) Genealogy -- Three Generations documents the connection between Lodowick (or Lodwick) and Cullen Alford.

Right away we notice that the spellings of names are not entirely consistent, which can be a source of confusion.  Another is that the same names are used repeatedly by different generations.  In fact, a Captain Lodwick Houston Alford, retired from the US Navy, died in 2007, and yes, he was a descendant of the Lodowick mentioned above. There is also a small community in Texas called Lodwick after a Lodwick Alford -- probably Lodwick Pierce Alford (12 Jan 1812 -- 7 Jun 1896), as he lived and was buried nearby.  Another example:  Lodowick had a brother named Julius (b. Sept. 1717), a son (b. ca. 1750) named Julius, and a grandson named Julius (son of Lodowick's son Lodwick!).

Lodowick Alford was born in the early 1700's (there is some dispute regarding the exact year) in Craven County, NC.  In 1754, he was serving in Captain Benjamin Simm's company of Colonel William Eaton's Granville County regiment of the North Carolina Militia.  He seems to have been a planter of some wealth, as indeed several of his twenty-one children were (more on that in a moment), though perhaps some of that wealth was diminished by being divided among a large family.  During the period of the Revolutionary War, Lodowick Alford was a delegate to the North Carolina House of Commons from Wake County -- unless, that is, the delegate was actually his son Lodwick / Lodowick, Jr.  The same ambiguity lies over which Lodowick was appointed Justice of the Peace for Wake County.

Regardless, the Alford family was deeply involved in the Revolution.  The Lodwick Alford who served as a 2nd-major in the Wake County militia was certainly Lodowick Jr.  James Alford, Lodowick's son from whom I am descended, was granted 287 acres in Georgia as compensation for his service during the Revolutionary War, and he is referred to as a captain on his tombstone.  Indeed, all five of Lodowick's oldest sons served in the Revolutionary War, and Sion Alford, son of Lodowick's son Jacob, was a delegate to the North Carolina Constitutional Convention in 1789.

Before continuing on with my own branch, mention must be made of Col. Julius C. Alford, son of Julius Alford and grandson of Lodowick.  His biography is sketched in the second volume of Men of Mark in Georgia; please go there for the details -- I cannot do justice to the story here!  The first half of Col. Alford's life was dominated by Indian troubles:  they killed his wife's father, led to the death of her mother, and nearly killed her and her sisters; he fought them at the Battle of Chickisawhatchie Swamp; and as a congressman, he punctuated his argument for relocating the Creek Indians to the west by simulating an "Indian war whoop".  After the death of his wife, he moved to Alabama.  He did not favor secession, but considered it his duty as a representative at Alabama's secession convention to make the vote unanimous.  Having cast his vote, he also cast his energy and resources into supporting the young Confederacy; it cost him one son, and he only lived halfway through the war.

Although Lodowick and his son James (along with most or all of the rest of his descendants) were slave-owners, James' son Cullen was not, at least as of the 1830 census.  In fact, although Lodowick seems to have owned a number of slaves (Lodwick Jr. owned 13 in the 1800 census), James had only one in the 1800 census.  This is less likely to be due to moral objections to slavery than to the fact that this branch of the family was simply not as wealthy as Julius C. Alford's branch.  These facts have to be borne in mind when evaluating the statements of Faye Mitchell Lawes, a granddaughter of Wiley Walton Alford, who was a son of Cullen.
My grandfather, Wiley Alford, came to Florida in the early 1800’s. He left a wealthy home and family in Wilmington, N.C. because he wanted to work and make his own living without slaves. He had been well educated in North Carolina. He travelled [sic] by stage coach and river boats. He visited relatives in Savannah, Columbus, and Quincy. He worked a few years in Columbus. In Quincy his first cousin was a Love of the Judge Love family . Then he went to Old Aspalaga Ferry, crossed into West Florida and settled there in Jackson County. He cleared land, built a home and farmed there. There were several non-slave-holding families living near them.
This appears to be making a virtue out of necessity, but it could also be a matter of miscommunication.  "I wanted to make my own living without slaves" could mean "I wanted to stop owning slaves but still make a living," or it could mean "I didn't own slaves, but I still needed to make a living."  

In any event, the latter interpretation seems to agree better with the facts.  Remember, Florida was as wild as "the wild West" in the early 1800's; the Indian attack that killed Thomas Cupples Richards near Wewahitchka took place in 1838.  Florida was on the frontier, with all the danger and opportunity that implies, and the frontier has always attracted men who want to get ahead.

That's about it.  Wiley Walton Alford was 50 when the War started, so he appears to have remained at home, probably as part of the Home Guard.  According to Lawes, though, his son Allen died fighting for the Confederacy.  His daughter Frances Elizabeth Alford, with whom I started this posting, married my great-great grandfather, Robert V. Teat (b. October 1862) on Valentine's Day, 1888.  (The "V" is probably for "Vastine", the middle name of their son Henry.)

UPDATE:  I had wondered if the small community of Alford, FL, near Marianna, might be named after Wiley Walton Alford or one of his sons, since he was in that neighborhood at an early date.   It appears, however, to have been founded by "S. A. and Chauncey Alford, naval store operators". This Chauncey, in turn, appears to be William Chauncey Alford, b. 24 Aug 1867 and d.  26 Feb 1938 in Bonifay, FL, and he is not listed among the Known Descendants of Cullen Alford and Pherebe Wooten.  There may well be a connection, but it must be a distant one.