Are the Dots Really Connected?

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

A couple of news stories that have come to my attention lately have exemplified for me the importance of resisting the temptation to assume that an explanation, however likely or appealing it might seem, is correct.

The first of these was the tragic loss of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. This was all over the news, so I won't rehash it here, but the leading theory seemed to be that a hijacking had occurred. Indeed, one writer I respect noted that MH-370 had originated in a Moslem country, had Moslem pilots, and put forth a few other similar bits of circumstantial evidence before stating that the conclusion that it had been hijacked by jihadists was practically a no-brainer. To his credit, he admitted that he did not know this, but he sure sounded like he had practically made up his mind.

I wasn't so sure, though. A quote from a Leonard Peikoff podcast I listened to at least a year ago gave me pause -- something like "the damage [the jihadists] could do if they had half a brain" is what popped up. All the coverage about how sophisticated someone would have to be to cause the flight to achieve telecommunications silence and disappear without a trace reminded me of that quote. And then I read a much more plausible scenario involving an electrical fire and a pilot trying to find the nearest emergency airport. The greater plausibility of this scenario didn't rule out terrorism, but it certainly caused me to look at the leading theory much more critically. And, given the loss of the flight in a remote area of the Indian Ocean, it looks like this scenario, or something like it, was probably right.

The second I ran into this morning, in a column by Jack Kelly titled, "It's Raining Bankers: Perhaps They Know of Big Economic Trouble Ahead". Kelly briefly lists nearly a dozen recent deaths of financial professionals, including a few he deems suspicious, and adds:

Suicide is a desperate act by people who think they've no other way out. The bankers probably were haunted by demons unique to themselves. But could they have been filled with despair by something they knew was about to happen in the world economy?

If some of the "suicides" weren't, did they know something powerful people don't want us to know?
These are interesting questions, especially to someone like me who wonders a little why the bottom doesn't appear to have fallen out from our economy yet. I don't have the time or expertise to look into Kelly's speculations in great detail, but I did decide to look into one of the deaths Kelly found suspicious, that of Richard Talley, whose method of choice made suicide sound implausible to Kelly. I almost immediately learned that Talley's company had been under investigation, and that his death occurred on "the very day auditors from a Texas title-insurance firm he worked for were likely to uncover years of embezzled escrow funds". This makes suicide sound more plausible, and Talley seeing Big Trouble Ahead (at least for, or caused by, anyone but himself) less plausible.

As the saying goes, "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you." Terrorism is a big problem. The bottom may well be about to fall out. And there could well be mafia-like scenarios surrounding the deaths of some of these bankers and the government officials who order them around. But jumping to conclusions and using less-than-solid evidence isn't the best way to alert people of the problems.

It also isn't the best way to consider how these problems arose or what to do about them. Blind alleys are best avoided early on, before irreplaceable time is lost solving problems that don't exist or spinning one's wheels when real progress is needed. No matter how tempting a conclusion might be, it is worthless unless one can see a direct path back to its evidence.

-- CAV


Steve D said...

You make a good point. It’s easy to become convinced of one particular cause if you consider all the evidence for that scenario and none of the evidence for alternatives. Most people argue that way – piling on bad arguments after good and thereby stabbing themselves in the feet. Others reply by trying to trash all their arguments, even the good ones. You see a lot, the especially on the internet.
If you’re going to call a spade a spade shouldn’t you also call a heart a heart? If you’re opponent makes a good argument; acknowledge that and move on.
BTW: why hasn’t the bottom fallen out from our economy yet? Maybe for the same reason it took centuries for Rome to fall; they started off so powerful it took them that long to lose it. But I’ve noticed over the years that on average and over time, recessions are lasting longer, they are getting worse and recoveries are slower and shallower. So we have ups and downs but they are superimposed on an overall downward trend.
The pilot being in league with terrorists never made a lot of sense to me, considering his background. Yes, he was a Muslim but he supported a political party which actually stood out in Malaysia because it was opposed to Sharia and Jihad groups etc. So he seemed to be one of the least likely candidates for terrorism. (It seemed more likely that he might actually be a target of terrorism to me).

Gus Van Horn said...

As you say, "If you’re going to call a spade a spade shouldn’t you also call a heart a heart?" I think that can be a good way to both remember to give credit to someone else for a good argument, and to look for alternative explanations.

I recall reading something about the pilot's political leanings, but all I got was something to do with a politician he supported having been ensnared in some kind of scandal. (I no longer remember where I saw this, but the fact was even used to insinuate he might have been prone to terrorism!) Rising above mere scandal to consider the political ideals he espoused is a crucial part of the analysis. (Thanks for bringing this up: I was unaware of that fact.)

Although I was in the dark about the pilot's politics, I did get the impression that the pilot intensely valued aviation. THAT made me doubt he would have been party to a terrorist plot.