Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Sincere and Comfortable Conviction

Some years ago I found this parable quoted in Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World. It's from The Ethics of Belief by the mathematician and philosopher William Clifford, written in 1874:

"A shipowner was about to send to sea an emigrant ship. He knew that she was old, and not overwell built at first; that she had seen many seas and climes, and often needed repairs. Doubts had been suggested to him that possibly she was not seaworthy. These doubts preyed upon his mind, and made him unhappy; he thought that perhaps he ought to have her thoroughly overhauled and refitted, even though this should put him to great expense. Before the ship sailed, however, he succeeded in overcoming these melancholy reflections. He said to himself that she had gone safely through so many voyages and weathered so many storms, that it was idle to suppose that she would not come safely home from this trip also. He would put his trust in Providence, which could hardly fail to protect all these unhappy families that were leaving their fatherland to seek for better times elsewhere. He would dismiss from his mind all ungenerous suspicions about the honesty of builders and contractors. In such ways he acquired a sincere and comfortable conviction that his vessel was thoroughly safe and seaworthy; he watched her departure with a light heart, and benevolent wishes for the success of the exiles in their strange new home that was to be; and he got his insurance money when she went down in mid-ocean and told no tales.

"What shall we say of him? Surely this, that he was verily guilty of the death of those men. It is admitted that he did sincerely believe in the soundness of his ship; but the sincerity of his conviction can in nowise help him, because he had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him. He had acquired his belief not by honestly earning it in patient investigation, but by stifling his doubts."

It's a nice time-warped exegesis on the Upton Sinclair saw, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it."

At the time I found this and shared it with my friend Keith, he was leading the van to debunk a now-notorious swindle, and I was one of the many flankers.

The peddlers of the DKL Lifeguard made the mistake of attempting to sell their dowsing rod qua Klingon disruptor at a meeting of the board of the Appalachian Search and Rescue Conference. We were meant to swallow their pitch that the magic whizzbox could detect live humans -- and only live humans -- through walls and at great distances out in the shrubberies.

Because, you know, buncha dumb grunts who schlepp around in the briars and mud, right?

Including aerospace engineers, herds of extra-class HAM operators, physicians, physicists, a biochemist, nurses, and yours truly, who served as the alpha-test audience for a professional sleight-of-hand magician starting at age three.

Don't try to pull a amateur snow-job on a room full of that much geeky goodness.

Separately, the sharp minds in that room saw sundry holes in the DKL peddlers' lines about radio frequencies, antennae, cardiology, electronic circuits, and recognized the ideomotor effect in action as well as the half-competent use of stage misdirection, during the demonstration.

Over lunch, we put it all together. Keith literally dropped a dime and called the FBI that day.

The upshot? The FBI initially expressed interest and then mysteriously dropped the matter; we surmise that they had already bought some of the units on our tax-paying nickel, and were embarrassed or else infested with True Believers who quashed the action. Or perhaps our Commonwealth's former senior Senator put the kibosh on it -- gotta help out those constituents. Sandia National Laboratories conducted double-blind tests of the whizbox, in which it performed slightly worse than random chance, and then deconstructed one of them to find no actual circuitry, and some human hair intentionally glued to the boards.

James Randi offered DKL his million dollar challenge prize to prove the whizbox worked; no nibbles.

Oh, and Keith was threatened by DKL via lawyer-letter, and I was threatened by a True Believer cop whose department had bought a couple whizboxes and was using them in, for example, hostage standoffs. Nothing came of either set of threats, though if you ever hear of me being pulled over and the fuzz "finding" fifty kilos of cocaine and a dead hooker in the trunk, you can be pretty sure about what happened.*

And DKL's officers are not in prison for fraud, not bankrupt, not ridden out of town on a rail, and are happily selling their whizbox to the Chinese. Probably a good idea for them not to travel to China themselves, given that government's penchant for shooting a few scapegoats when too many of its citizens die due to fraud and corruption in too-public a manner. (Hey China. Bet you could have avoided this expensive and potentially lethal error with a simple Google search. Too bad about that.)

So that's that story, such as it still is, proof that tenacity is the ultimate virtue of the swindler -- a commercial manifestation of the Big Lie in action.

But the context of the Clifford quote in this story is this: My friend Keith is so generous in his estimation of human nature that he was actually defending the DKL swindlers, because, as he said, they seemed to genuinely believe the hocus-pocus they were selling, and had probably invested their savings in the company based on that belief. He had empathy for them on that basis.

I am not so expansive. I didn't and don't believe for a minute that the sales pitch is sincerely held. We argued a bit about this. But as neither Keith nor I are privileged to peer inside the mind of another, I submitted Clifford's argument to him as a refutation of the morality of his more charitable estimation. Even if the DKL pitchmen believe that their gizmos perform the improbable feats advertised, they have no right to believe on such evidence as is before them.

My mother's second husband was a salesman. Not a man who made his living selling stuff, a salesman. Whatever he was selling was The Greatest Thing Ever. When he was selling some noxious overpriced "diet program" with its vile prepackaged shelf-stable food -- well, the food was delicious, the weight loss was inevitable, everything was healthful, and the cost was absolutely negligible. My failure to appreciate these obvious truths was an affront to morality. He was relentless in attempting to sell me this whole system, despite the fact that I was a skinny and impoverished twenty-something who had zero potential to actually become a customer. It was just as much fun as having an evangelizing cultist in the family. And Mike was immune to all objections, including "I don't like the taste of that sawdust bar you just tried to feed me." Because even aesthetics becomes absolute for a True Believer, especially one who has had to work extra-hard to overcome the overwhelming evidence against his position. The more patently absurd the belief, the more ardently it is held.

This principle holds for so many things in life. On the "demand side," it is always prudent to beware of True Believers who are selling you something, or "selling" you something, such as an idea, religion, political candidate. The greater the investment -- whether material or identity -- in whatever thing, the higher the potential for self-deception. Because a sincerely-held false belief makes it much easier to lie to others and reap the benefits of the lie.

Which brings us to dogs.

Not that human beings ever become irrational about dogs, right?

One of the most productive fisheries of human self-deception that I have surveyed is ongoing over at Jemima Harris' Pedigree Dogs Exposed blog.

Read the comment streams on any post. While all our previous ethological work on the habits of trolls had characterized them as fairly solitary culvert beasts, they descend on PDE in great anonymous insectoid swarms, bringing with them a profane and illiterate alternate reality of eugenic inbreeding, jaunty, healthy English bulldogs, beautifully-moving German shepherds, free-breathing pugs, and champeen cocker spaniels that put their hair up into curlers on Monday and hunt for supper.

Great numbers of the Anon legions appear to be afflicted with reverse body-image dysmorphia by proxy. In other words, they look at a sick, deformed, objectively hideous, crippled and suffering animal, and see beauty, grace, happiness and health. And like those fetishists called "feeders," they seek to amplify the deformity in order to gratify their own twisted pleasure, all the while calling it "love."


I love you so much, you don't need oxygen.

I commend Jemima Harris for providing a venue in which those members of the show dog fancy who, along with their other malfunctions, lack a functioning prefontal cortex -- the part of the brain that would otherwise tell a chronological adult Don't say what you are thinking, other people will know that you are a douchebag -- can reveal in public the disordered groupthink that prevails in their usual deranged self-referential cliques.

Alas, the show-fancy set may set the gold standard for a sincere and comfortable conviction in a self-serving and cruel delusion, but they are not alone in the dog world. They are joined by many fellow-travelers.

Entitled crazies who mistake self-absorbed neuroses for an ADA-protected disability, and their untrained, equally neurotic pets for "service animals."

Profiteers who prey on the parents of genuinely disabled children, selling them untrained "service animals" for astounding prices with unconscionable promises of burdens lifted and miracle therapies.

Clickerians who keep lowering the bar for what constitutes "training" and "trained" in order to justify their fantasy methods and general lack of skill or standards.

"SAR handlers" who fail to meet the ordinary expectations for competence, but "mean well" and "want to help." The entities and individuals who have never worked in search and rescue who "certify" them for a fee. The responsible agencies who field them because they can't be bothered to learn the difference between a real credential and paperhanging.

Breeders who adopt a see no evil policy to health testing for breeding stock and followup on puppies sold, and construct a sales pitch designed to mollify buyers who may have been helpfully told what to ask about, but have no idea what constitutes an acceptable answer.

Health registries that allow owners and breeders to conceal non-normal results while exploiting any normal results as advertising copy, thereby (wink wink, nudge nudge) making themselves willing accomplices to the defrauding of naive buyers by unscrupulous ship owners breeders.

"Miller Lite" breeders whose slick or folksy websites (watch for Bible verses and cartoon angel animated GIFs) belie the reality that each of their four bitches is bred to the stud that they conveniently happen to own at every opportunity. Paypal accepted. But we are not a puppymill, nooo, we lurve all our goggies.

"Rescues" that are anything from fishy revolving-door retailers to frank back-door sales outlets for unsold puppymill stock.

Buyers who "stifle their doubts" when the flags are all red, when they have even been explicitly warned about a breeder or "rescue," and then complain about having been swindled.

None have come by their convictions, whether sincere or "sincere," honestly. And none can claim exemption from culpability for what their systematically stifled doubts have wrought. All can look forward to being guests here. It's going to be a long winter for patient investigation.


* Especially tricky because my car doesn't have a trunk.


  1. My takeaway: Human hair glued to a pretend circuit board may or may not help find trolls on the internet.

  2. I'm running late for work, taking the time to read it, but I am glad I took the time. I have a 45 minute drive to contemplate all this, re-read again in a bit, and another 45 minute drive home.

    The part, in particular, about the more your paycheck is tied to a belief, the harder it will be to disbelieve. That paycheck isn't just financial, but emotional and/or otherwise intangible. As someone who is a sucker for any heartfelt or compassionate story, and been robbed for that (more than once, aside from the lovely Ms. Crawford's cancer scam, and personally dealt with two other of SAR's lovelies, Oakes and Copp), this article hits home.

    Thank you for posting this. Much food for thought here.

    Kimberly Kelly, aka, Hounddawg Bumpeses

  3. Speaking of research -- you reminded me I have a project thereupon I assigned myself back in June on your post regarding one Katherine Albro Houpt and her "assessment" of canine behavior. It's the offseason; time to get cracking.

  4. I didn't and don't believe for a minute that the sales pitch is sincerely held.

    Doesn't the human hair thing sort of invalidate any possible other reading besides naked fraud?

  5. It is not clear that the individuals (principals of the company) who were shilling it at the ASRC board meeting were aware of what was inside prior to the Sandia deconstruction of one of the units.

    Human hair has been incorporated into dowsing rods in some traditions, including "grave dowsing." So it has been part of a "belief system" in the attempt to detect hidden things.

    It is unclear whether this old superstition plays a role in the "design" of the whizzbox, as DKL ain't talking.

    Or, in short, we just don't know.

  6. Why would anyone waste money on the DKL when you can make a fine dowsing rod from part of a coat hanger and a cocktail straw?

    Then you just have to get it to work for you.

  7. Nice. As a professional bunko buster I salute you! For those looking for a good x-mas gift they can steal from their spouse and read for themselves, I recommend >>

  8. *Standing ovation*
    You are my hero! Thank you!


  9. There was a similar scam that took place a few years ago in Iraq and Afghanistan for detecting bombs. At the cost of millions of dollars and who knows how many lives;


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