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Thursday, July 12, 2007Two Sides Of Coin
Two people are sitting in a room together: an experimenter and a subject. The experimenter gets up and closes the door, and the room becomes quieter. The subject is likely to believe that the experimenter's purpose in closing the door was to make the room quieter.
This is an example of correspondent inference theory. People tend to infer the motives -- and also the disposition -- of someone who performs an action based on the effects of his actions, and not on external or situational factors. If you see someone violently hitting someone else, you assume it's because he wanted to -- and is a violent person -- and not because he's play-acting. If you read about someone getting into a car accident, you assume it's because he's a bad driver and not because he was simply unlucky. And -- more importantly for this column -- if you read about a terrorist, you assume that terrorism is his ultimate goal.
It's not always this easy, of course. If someone chooses to move to Seattle instead of New York, is it because of the climate, the culture or his career? Edward Jones and Keith Davis, who advanced this theory in the 1960s and 1970s, proposed a theory of "correspondence" to describe the extent to which this effect predominates. When an action has a high correspondence, people tend to infer the motives of the person directly from the action: e.g., hitting someone violently. When the action has a low correspondence, people tend to not to make the assumption: e.g., moving to Seattle.
Like most cognitive biases, correspondent inference theory makes evolutionary sense. In a world of simple actions and base motivations, it's a good rule of thumb that allows a creature to rapidly infer the motivations of another creature. (He's attacking me because he wants to kill me.) Even in sentient and social creatures like humans, it makes a lot of sense most of the time. If you see someone violently hitting someone else, it's reasonable to assume that he's a violent person. Cognitive biases aren’t bad; they’re sensible rules of thumb.
But like all cognitive biases, correspondent inference theory fails sometimes. And one place it fails pretty spectacularly is in our response to terrorism. Because terrorism often results in the horrific deaths of innocents, we mistakenly infer that the horrific deaths of innocents is the primary motivation of the terrorist, and not the means to a different end.
I found this interesting analysis in a paper by Max Abrams in International Security. "Why Terrorism Does Not Work" (.PDF) analyzes the political motivations of 28 terrorist groups: the complete list of "foreign terrorist organizations" designated by the U.S. Department of State since 2001. He lists 42 policy objectives of those groups, and found that they only achieved them 7 percent of the time.
According to the data, terrorism is more likely to work if 1) the terrorists attack military targets more often than civilian ones, and 2) if they have minimalist goals like evicting a foreign power from their country or winning control of a piece of territory, rather than maximalist objectives like establishing a new political system in the country or annihilating another nation. But even so, terrorism is a pretty ineffective means of influencing policy.
There's a lot to quibble about in Abrams' methodology, but he seems to be erring on the side of crediting terrorist groups with success. (Hezbollah's objectives of expelling both peacekeepers and Israel out of Lebanon counts as a success, but so does the "limited success" by the Tamil Tigers of establishing a Tamil state.) Still, he provides good data to support what was until recently common knowledge: Terrorism doesn't work.
This is all interesting stuff, and I recommend that you read the paper for yourself. But to me, the most insightful part is when Abrams uses correspondent inference theory to explain why terrorist groups that primarily attack civilians do not achieve their policy goals, even if they are minimalist. Abrams writes:
The theory posited here is that terrorist groups that target civilians are unable to coerce policy change because terrorism has an extremely high correspondence. Countries believe that their civilian populations are attacked not because the terrorist group is protesting unfavorable external conditions such as territorial occupation or poverty. Rather, target countries infer the short-term consequences of terrorism -- the deaths of innocent civilians, mass fear, loss of confidence in the government to offer protection, economic contraction, and the inevitable erosion of civil liberties -- (are) the objects of the terrorist groups. In short, target countries view the negative consequences of terrorist attacks on their societies and political systems as evidence that the terrorists want them destroyed. Target countries are understandably skeptical that making concessions will placate terrorist groups believed to be motivated by these maximalist objectives.
In other words, terrorism doesn't work, because it makes people less likely to acquiesce to the terrorists' demands, no matter how limited they might be. The reaction to terrorism has an effect completely opposite to what the terrorists want; people simply don't believe those limited demands are the actual demands.
This theory explains, with a clarity I have never seen before, why so many people make the bizarre claim that al Qaeda terrorism -- or Islamic terrorism in general -- is "different": that while other terrorist groups might have policy objectives, al Qaeda's primary motivation is to kill us all. This is something we have heard from President Bush again and again -- Abrams has a page of examples in the paper -- and is a rhetorical staple in the debate. (You can see a lot of it in the comments to this previous essay.)
In fact, Bin Laden's policy objectives have been surprisingly consistent. Abrams lists four; here are six from former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer's book Imperial Hubris:
End U.S. support of Israel
Force American troops out of the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia
End the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan and (subsequently) Iraq
End U.S. support of other countries' anti-Muslim policies
End U.S. pressure on Arab oil companies to keep prices low
End U.S. support for "illegitimate" (i.e. moderate) Arab governments, like Pakistan
Although Bin Laden has complained that Americans have completely misunderstood the reason behind the 9/11 attacks, correspondent inference theory postulates that he's not going to convince people. Terrorism, and 9/11 in particular, has such a high correspondence that people use the effects of the attacks to infer the terrorists' motives. In other words, since Bin Laden caused the death of a couple of thousand people in the 9/11 attacks, people assume that must have been his actual goal, and he's just giving lip service to what he claims are his goals. Even Bin Laden's actual objectives are ignored as people focus on the deaths, the destruction and the economic impact.
Perversely, Bush’s misinterpretation of terrorists' motives actually helps prevent them from achieving their goals.
None of this is meant to either excuse or justify terrorism. In fact, it does the exact opposite, by demonstrating why terrorism doesn't work as a tool of persuasion and policy change. But we’re more effective at fighting terrorism if we understand that it is a means to an end and not an end in itself; it requires us to understand the true motivations of the terrorists and not just their particular tactics. And the more our own cognitive biases cloud that understanding, the more we mischaracterize the threat and make bad security trade-offs.
Last weekend, Kent Couch settled down in his lawn chair with some snacks -- and a parachute. Attached to his lawn chair were 105 large helium balloons.
Balloons suspend Kent Couch in a lawn chair as he floats in the skies near Bend, Oregon, on Saturday.
With instruments to measure his altitude and speed, a global positioning system device in his pocket, and about four plastic bags holding five gallons of water each to act as ballast -- he could turn a spigot, release water and rise -- Couch headed into the Oregon sky.
Nearly nine hours later, the 47-year-old gas station owner came back to earth in a farmer's field near Union, short of Idaho but about 193 miles from home.
"When you're a little kid and you're holding a helium balloon, it has to cross your mind," Couch told the Bend Bulletin. Watch Couch make the shot of the day »
"When you're laying in the grass on a summer day, and you see the clouds, you wish you could jump on them," he said. "This is as close as you can come to jumping on them. It's just like that."
Couch is the latest American to emulate Larry Walters -- who in 1982 rose three miles above Los Angeles in a lawn chair lifted by balloons. Walters had surprised an airline pilot, who radioed the control tower that he had just passed a guy in a lawn chair. Walters paid a $1,500 penalty for violating air traffic rules.
It was Couch's second flight.
In September, he got off the ground for six hours. Like Walters, he used a BB gun to pop the balloons, but he went into a rapid descent and eventually parachuted to safety.
This time, he was better prepared. The balloons had a new configuration, so it was easier to reach up and release a bit of helium instead of simply cutting off a balloon.
He took off at 6:06 a.m. Saturday after kissing his wife, Susan, goodbye and petting his Chihuahua, Isabella. As he made about 25 miles an hour, a three-car caravan filled with friends, family and the dog followed him from below.
Couch said he could hear cattle and children and even passed through clouds.
"It was beautiful -- beautiful," he told KTVZ-TV. He described the flight as mostly peaceful and serene, with occasional turbulence, like a hot-air balloon ride sitting down.
Couch decided to stop when he was down to a gallon of water and just eight pounds of ballast. Concerned about the rugged terrain outside La Grande, including Hells Canyon, he decided it was time to land.
He popped enough balloons to set the craft down, although he suffered rope burns. But after he jumped out, the wind grabbed his chair, with his video recorder, and the remaining balloons and swept them away. He's hoping to get them back some day.
Brandon Wilcox, owner of Professional Air, which charters and maintains planes at the Bend airport, said Couch definitely did it. Wilcox said he flew a plane nearby while Couch traveled and took photos of the flying lawn chair.
Whether Couch will take a third trip is up to his wife, and Susan Couch said she's thinking about saying no. But she said she was willing to go along with last weekend's trip.
"I know he'd be thinking about it more and more, it would always be on his mind," she said. "This way, at least he's fulfilled his dream
Fat from the tummy or bottom could be used to grow new breasts in a treatment which could be carried out in an hour - or a lunch break.
Scientists say they can create a fat mixture with concentrated stem cells, which, when injected into the breast, apparently encourages tissue to grow.
The therapy, detailed in Chemistry and Industry Magazine, could help cancer patients who have had mastectomies.
And if licensed, it may rival silicone for those seeking bigger breasts.
Using fat from the patient's own body to rebuild other areas is not a novel idea, but such reconstructions often fail as the fat is simply reabsorbed.
However using fat-derived stem cells appears to overcome this problem, according to the company behind the procedure, Cytori Therapeutics.
Scientists say they are not sure quite how it works, but suspect that the stem cells emit signals that encourage blood vessels to grow and nurture new tissue.
Rajiv Grover of the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons (Baaps) said he saw the research as a "positive development for medical science", but doubted whether it would provide any immediate results in cosmetic surgery.
"We need to find out how these cells work once they are in the breast before any great claims can be made."
Antonia Dean, a clinical nurse specialist at Breast Cancer Care also said more work needed to be done - "both in terms of how long the new breast really lasts for, but most importantly the safety implications for women who have had tumours."
The procedure - dubbed Celution - could be carried out in an hour.
Fat from the either the stomach, bottom or thigh can be taken out with a standard liposuction procedure, and the stem cells then extracted.
These cells are placed into a cartridge ready for injection one hour later. The company says the breasts will then fill out over the course of six months.
The largest trial so far has involved 19 women in Japan. All of them had had at least partial mastectomies and all responded well to the treatment, with no major side-effects.
A Muslim juror faces a possible prison sentence after being discovered listening to an MP3 player under her hijab headscarf during a high-profile murder trial.
In what is considered the first case of its kind, the woman was arrested for contempt of court after another member of the jury passed a note revealing the indiscretion to the judge, Roger Chapple.
The judge - who previously suspected that he had heard "tinny music" in the background, but dismissed it as his imagination - called the woman into court on her own, and said: “You are going to be discharged from this jury. You will play no further role.”
A police officer then stepped forward and escorted her from court. Outside the woman - who is in her 20s, but cannot be identified for legal reasons - was searched, the MP3 player was found and confiscated, and she was arrested. Contempt of court carries a maximum sentence of an unlimited fine and indefinite imprisonment.
“It is unique for all those who are connected with this court to experience a situation where the juror is suspected of listening to a MP3 player under her Islamic headgear," he said.
“Also, it is exceptional for a juror to appear entirely uninterested in the evidence. It is a bad alleged contempt. If contempt is upheld, I would have thought that prison would be the likely outcome,” he said.
The arrest of the juror - which is considered so rare as to be almost unheard of - took place last Wednesday, although it could not be reported until today when the judge lifted a news blackout on the case.
When caught listening to music she was meant to be hearing vital evidence from Alan Wicks, a former businessman on trial for brutally bludgeoning his disabled wife to death after 50 years of marriage. He was later found guilty.
During the trial, members of the jury sitting on the case had become increasingly concerned about the behaviour of the woman, who it emerged had repeatedly tried to avoid legal service.
Weeks earlier, she managed to postpone her first summons. She then answered a second, only to successfully plead toothache two days later.
When the third arrived, and she learnt she had been selected for the Wicks trial which she was told could last up to five weeks, she asked to be excused so she could go job hunting. She mentioned a nursing course she was interested in, but after failing to provide details, she was ordered to serve.
However, problems were reported to have started almost immediately with the first of a number of late arrivals at court, prompting Judge Roger Chapple to repeatedly asked her to change her ways.
The woman continued to arrive late, and left lawyers wondering whether she was “in a world of her own”. Some of those in court became convinced she was doodling instead of reading important documentary exhibits distributed to her and fellow jurors. Neither did she bother putting them away into lever arch files provided for the purpose.
On Tuesday last week, prosecutor Peter Clarke QC asked for her to be discharged, but the judge rejected his application, pointing out the “random selection of jurors was a very important aspect of the trial process”.
Then, last Wednesday, it emerged that she had been listening to her MP3 player, and was discharged and arrested. She was later bailed until July 23, when her case has been listed for a directions hearing before Blackfriars’ senior resident judge Aidan Marron
Can social news sites survive the very openness that makes them thrive?
Devotees of "crowdsourced" media sites love to equate social editing with democracy, and they've got at least one part of the comparison right: social editing is every bit as raucous, messy and enthralling as the electoral process. For the latest proof, look no further than the much-debated DVD hack posted at social-editing titan Digg.com.
In case you missed it, last month a user posted a link to instructions on cracking the digital copyright protections encrypted into HD-DVDs. Digg removed the link, then was so swamped with users reposting the story that the site temporarily shut down. After some soul-searching about the rights of free-speech versus those of privacy and intellectual property, Digg allowed the link to go back up, and the site's founder, Kevin Rose, wrote in Digg's blog that, "now, after seeing hundreds of stories and reading thousands of comments, you've made it clear. You'd rather see Digg go down fighting than bow down to a bigger company… If we lose, then what the hell, at least we died trying." No one ever said the media revolution would be bloodless.
The explosive growth of social editing or social news sites such as Digg.com, Newsvine.com and NewsTrust.net , has made a pressing issue of these debates about the virtues of an unedited public sphere and the control of information. That's because social editing web sites allow users to source, debate and prioritize content without intervention from an editorial staff. Most of the stories at social news sites are not written by users but instead are "seeded" content, or links to stories posted elsewhere in mainstream media or on blogs. Thanks to the sea of information floating around on-line, members can seed nearly any imaginable idea — truthful or libelous, insightful or illegal — to a social news site and let the community vote on it. On any given day, readers at social news sites might find completely unresearched blog rants struggling for creditability alongside front-page news from the New York Times. The idea is that the "wisdom of the crowd," to borrow James Surowiecki's term, will sort the information more effectively and more responsively to the public's needs than an editorial staff. Andrew Sorcini, who spends some 10-15 hours a week on Digg, calls the process a way of making the community "collective arbiters of taste."
The jury is still out on the public's ability to vet information, but the very existence of social editing indicates that a fundamental shift is occurring in way people think about news. Users of social editing sites are no longer passive media consumers. Instead they see media as a live discussion in which the public deserves a voice equal to that of an editor. Skepticism of mainstream reporting runs rampant at these sites, where community members use the social editing platform to engage each other in a debate over the meaning and validity of news. In the best case scenario, then, social editing morphs the public into a giant fact-checker; in the worst case, it means that traditional goals like objectivity and responsibility are replaced by an on-line popularity contest. It matters less if an idea is provably valid than if it's popular.