Let me give you an example – followup

There was probably a few things missing from my previous post on the Perimeter article from Wired, so this is part two. If you haven’t read the first, you either should, or skip this one too ;-)


I think now I ended that one kind of abruptly, without completing my thoughts on critical thinking. I can’t accurately tell anyone what the “average” view of the original article is, but I can throw out some of the more likely responses. First, Wired is considered by many, I believe, as a reputable magazine. At the very least, it’s not prone to sensationalism or grossly exaggerated articles like many others. Part of my point is, thinking this way is a shortcut, and one that can lead to problems. No magazine, no writer, no source, should be considered completely trustworthy. All can suffer from simple mistakes, bad research, personal biases, or even the overriding drive to simply make money from controversy. National Geographic, perhaps one of the best researched and most neutral magazines ever published, has made some recent embarrassing mistakes. The best thing is to recognize the fallibility of anyone and anything, and avoid prejudgment in favor of treating each case individually. Settling for the easy answer of, “It must be an accurate article, it’s published in Wired” [or insert reason of choice here] means you get caught when they’re actually inaccurate. Worse, it means you fall for the trap if and when anyone counts on you thinking that way. This is the premise behind dressing actors in TV commercials in white lab coats for authority. They’re no more scientists or doctors than the Chuckwagon Dog, but it’s easy to miss this and consider them (and thus their product) as reputable.

And this leads me into an interesting thought. On later reviewing the article, I began wondering if it wasn’t really a hoax. There are certainly enough hard-to-accept premises in it. But I think that’s unlikely, since Perimeter is far from being his own creation, and bears more than a few references from other sources.

Getting back to my review, however, one might ask (“one” means “you” in this context) if I had proven that Perimeter is completely mythical. And the answer is, “No.” Nor was that the goal. It’s entirely possible that Perimeter does exist – this is not hedging, and my personal opinion is that it’s horseshit. But, I can’t demonstrate that, and the details of the article are too few to really proceed from.

Science, logic, and critical thinking all assume one thing, though: the null hypothesis. As in, until and unless you demonstrate good evidence for the existence of something, there is no reason to consider it as existing at all. In other words, it ain’t real until you show me. Stated this way, it seems kind of arrogant, until you realize that we operate our entire lives this way. Do you go to bed at night worried about the neural worms sneaking in your nostrils and dissolving your brain overnight? Why the hell not? Yes, of course it’s silly – it’s silly because no one has ever seen or heard of a neural worm. That’s the null set.

So, we return to the question of, “Does Perimeter exist?” But let’s restate the question slightly to make it more effective and in line with logic: “Is there reason to believe that Perimeter exists?” See the difference? The first is a seeming statement of condition that requires no outside confirmation. Things can exist whether anyone knows about them or not. This is often equated with “truth” (a very maligned word,) and is reflected in the whole “tree falling where no one can hear” style of arguments. The second question, though, is much more useful, and able to be answered with a much greater degree of accuracy, even though it’s more of an opinion. It asks you to examine the evidence and form a conclusion – moreover, it can even be interpreted as asking for a conclusion that stands up to the scrutiny of others. There’s some legwork involved in producing an answer now. However, the answer that is provided is much more useful.

What I tried to show, in the previous post, was that Thompson did a really poor job of establishing reasons to believe in Perimeter. Not only did he have virtually nothing but rumors about its existence, he failed to provide even a decent rationale behind building it in the first place, and contradicted himself while making the attempt. He also provided extremely weak representations of motivating events – I still love the idea that Reagan somehow backed down the snarling dogs of communism by whapping Grenada on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper. But here’s one that’s even more egregious, and that I missed in the first part of the review: While Grenada was somehow supposed to be one of Reagan’s threats to the Soviets, only 45 days before the invasion of Grenada, the Soviet Union had shot down Korean Airlines flight 007, with 62 Americans, including a congressman, on board! Yeah, Reagan had the Soviets quaking in their boots, all right.

If someone were to read the article with the attitude that Wired is reputable, and that journalists and editors are careful to provide only verified and rational content (seems funny when proposed, but this is still a common belief,) and never compared the “facts” provided against even their own knowledge, then they might find the article rather ominous. But as soon as you apply these things, the article becomes practically ludicrous. For all of the supporting evidence, it could simply be made up out of thin air.

In fact, considering this possibility, it has even more of the earmarks of being fictional rather than fact. Perimeter is a threat now because it operates without human input, and the former Soviet Union is in disarray – no one really knows what could be out there. It’s like starting up the Cold War fears again – the bombs could come at any time! As the multitude of slasher movies out there shows, we’re more scared of violence without cause or understanding – the lack of reason, ethics, or compassion. Storytellers have been exploiting this before writing was even invented, I’d bet.

More evidence of fiction? How about that no one at a level of responsibility acknowledges it? How about that no one seems inclined to find it and deactivate it? How about that it was simply an extension of an existing system and therefore redundant? How about that it makes no freaking sense at all?

Here’s something that came to me as I typed this out: Perimeter is an extension of the two questions asked above, the “truth” one versus the “reason to believe” one. The Perimeter system, in and of itself, is a truth question – it may exist, it may not. But the idea of it is a reason question. As noted before, it has value only in concept – only when someone believes it’s there. While it might not be an empty threat (again, does it exist or doesn’t it?), it’s one that works only as a threat. Actually implementing it accomplishes nothing but meaningless revenge, from a populace too dead to get anything from it. That’s simply stupid.

So our questions, with answers, come out like this. Does Perimeter exist? Maybe, maybe not. Is there reason to believe Perimeter exists? Not enough to conclude positively. Is there any reason for it in the first place? None whatsoever (especially when it’s been kept a secret.) Does it sound better as a fictional story than a historical event? Yes indeed. The votes are not really favoring it, are they?

Want some more? Okay then. Does the writer demonstrate good journalism and fact-checking? Nope. Does he understand Cold War technology and events? Nope. Is his source reputable? No one knows. Is his source’s furtive behavior indicative of anything? Not when he publishes a freaking book on the subject! Is the article overly dramatic and does it read like a cheap mystery novel? You betcha!

That’s critical thinking. But okay, what use is it? I mean, this was just some article in a magazine – no one makes life decisions over it or anything.

Well, let’s apply this differently. I used this article as an example, but how about real world events? How about the Cuban Missile Crisis? Do you believe tiny Cuba could have harbored enough missiles to present a threat to the vast US?

How about, “Iraq has Weapons of Mass Destruction”? Well, like what? You know, nuclear bombs! But you need a nuclear plant to make them, or at least to buy the materials from someone who has one. Evidence of either of those? Nope, not a blink. The Shrub Administration got all fired up, supposedly, over the refusal to let inspectors in. But how long does it take to build a nuclear plant, or a weapons program? I’ll give you a hint: much longer than we waited.

Let’s assume, however, that there was reason to believe there really were WMDs (notice the vague terminology? If we’re so sure of our need to invade, maybe we could have determined just what the fuck the threat really was in the first place?). So, how are they going to strike US soil? Iraq had no long-range air force, no intercontinental missile system whatsoever, no trade agreements, no shipments, no transportation coming here at all. Parcel post through Canada? Oh, I’m sure, with enough devious machinations, you could sneak a decent-sized bomb in.

And then what? Ha ha, take that, America! I blew up a bomb! w00t! And that accomplishes… what? Well, pretty much that the US is going to bomb your ass into the stone age. We lived for decades under the threat of a massive coalition of countries that really, truly had the capability to threaten us. That was what that whole “mutually assured destruction” thing was all about – you bomb us, we bomb you. What the hell, was this an agreement we signed only with the Soviet Union, that wouldn’t work against Iraq? Gimme a break.

But because it was our government telling us, we assumed it made sense. That’s why critical thinking is important. By using it, we’ll be less likely to buy the bullshit from the Chuckwagon Dog.

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