when a small but stubborn fact means something disastrous is about to hit.

This blog is organized on warnings that were not listened to, but another angle is separating “noise” from vital information. This has been in the news dramatically, though people may not see it that way.

When Israel went into Gaza, it found many tunnels into Israeli territory, and captured Hamas people told them that there was a plan to send a large force of men through them on the Jewish new year, who would pop up in Jewish communities and kill a lot of people, and also abduct a lot of people.

Hamas barraged Israel with rockets recently, which galvanized the Israelis to invade (the Israelis kept offering ceasefires, and if these had been accepted, the invasion would not have happened, and the Israelis would not have found out about those tunnels.)

But the interesting question is from this news item:

“Shai Hermesh, a resident of the Gaza Belt and a former MK for Kadima, said Wednesday that local residents have been hearing digging sounds from the ground for years, as Hamas terrorists dug their tunnels into Israel, but authorities preferred to hush up the matter…

Hermesh said that while members of his kibbutz did not hear digging sounds from underground over the years, members of neighboring kibbutzim did. “Sounds like that rose up [from the ground] and they were even recorded, but someone made sure this was forgotten and kept out of public discussion. Maybe they did not want to create panic, but on the other hand, hiding information like that from the public is like not telling the residents around the Dimona nuclear plant that it is leaking radiation…”

“The thought that under your home, there is such bustling activity that no one controls or locates,” he added, “is a very problematic one for the state of Israel.”

Now, think about this. People are hearing digging noises. But they don’t really understand what they mean. Gaza tunnels were supposedly for smuggling. There doesn’t seem to have been an understanding of what else could be done with them. In fact, Hamas stored tranquilizers in the tunnels, to aid with kidnapping civilians.

Israel would have had a really serious problem if many of its citizens had been kidnapped – it would have frozen it into helplessness.

We can think of the digging sounds as “noise” – and you ignore noise. Noise is just some random phenomena that doesn’t mean anything.

Now that this has happened, there is another interesting aspect.

In Israel’s north, also on the border with a hostile Islamic organization – namely “Hezbollah”, Mayor Nissim Malka of the city of Kiryat Shmona sent a letter on Wednesday to Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and said this:

[residents of the north] “have complained of hearing noises coming from under the ground. I have heard these complaints several times, but yesterday, when I came back from a tour of the Gaza border communities, I understood.”

Malka wrote that “if this is what they did in the South, I am certain [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah is not sitting idly and giving out candy.”

Again, its quite interesting – if you don’t know what something means, you forget about it. Its just “noise”.

And in fact, no tunnels have yet been found in the North. Though there has not been a big search.

In science, when “Chaos Theory” with its “strange attractors” and fractals came along, scientists understood that some phenomena that they had just dismissed as inevitable noise that accompanied measurements was really something else.

And it was “background noise” that led astronomers to the theory of the “big bang” which created our universe. You can’t get any bigger than that.

There are times when a very small but stubborn fact means something very, very big is going on.






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How “killing the messenger” gets you killed too

A fog was dogging the British ships that had just won victories against the French (in the year 1707). Sir Admiral Clowdisley Shovell summoned his navigators together to figure out where his ships were, and they decided they must be safely west of an island off Brittany (France).

Then the admiral was approached by a sailor, a member of his crew, who claimed to have kept his own reckoning of the fleet’s location during the whole cloudy passage. Such subversive navigation by an inferior was forbidden by the Royal Navy, as the unnamed seaman well knew. However, the danger appeared so enormous, by his calculations, that he risked his neck to make his concerns known.

Admiral Shovell had the man hanged for mutiny on the spot.

The sailor, however, turned out to be correct. One ship after another hit rocks, and sank with all the men drowning except for two.

One of those two was Sir Clowdisley himself. He collapsed on the dry sand, and a local woman found him. She saw the emerald ring on his finger, and murdered him for it. 30 years later, on her deathbed, she confessed to her clergyman, producing the ring as proof of her guilt and contrition.

This story raises an important point about feedback. We have organizations that are not, and cannot be, democracies. These include the army, and intelligence agencies, and corporations. However, if the leadership does not listen to feedback from competent subordinates, you could, as the admiral did, lose 2000 people that you have responsibility for, to the depths of the sea.

Feedback is important in war, and should be one advantage that Western armies have over dictatorships. Dictatorships have proven that they can raise very motivated soldiers. Totalitarian ideological movements can produce the best soldiers in the world, like Nazi Germany did, or very motivated ones, as those who served in Japan’s armies. The recent success of ISIS, a Islamic army of true-believers, in taking over half of Iraq against a numerically superior force is partly because they were motivated, and their enemy was not as motivated.

So what advantage do WE have? Maybe one advantage is that we respond to feedback. To illustrate this point a little more, when Hitler sent his forces into the Russian winter, he refused to ever allow his soldiers to retreat, not even for tactical advantage. This proved disastrous for his cause. Stalin had a similar problem with retreat, which meant that large numbers of his troops got encircled and captured.

In the western democracies, we have a free media, and a freedom ethic that should, in theory, lead to learning from mistakes, or avoiding mistakes.


Longitude – The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time – by Dava Sobel (published 1995)

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Unheeded Warnings – Some Conclusions

The “unheeded warnings” blog contains ten posts on people being disastrously wrong. When this happens in medicine, patients can die, or come close to death. When it comes to not protecting installations from an enemy, or not even realizing your enemy will attack, or not even knowing you have an enemy, then in the worst case, many thousands of people can die.

Its amazing what people will not believe. One American soldier, mentioned in one of the posts, told his parents about the atrocities he saw in WWII, and his parents told him he didn’t know what he was talking about.

I try to present some interesting cases, usually where there were warnings and the warnings were ignored. If you look at the ‘categories’ on the right side of the blog, you can choose which categories you are interested in, or you can just browse through the posts.

This was my summary post in 2012, and I expected not to add any more posts after that, though I did break down and add one or two. But at the time, I asked if there any general conclusions that can be drawn from the cases I mentioned, which ranged from the surprise attack by Germany on Russia in World War II, to the case of a sufferer from an auto-immune disease who was persistently mis-diagnosed, or to Americans who persisted in not believing in the Holocaust while it was happening, or to Jews in the path of the Holocaust who could not believe it either.

One lesson I think is that subjective experience can be all you have to rely on, in some situations. One example of this is when a person staggered back to his Jewish village in Eastern Europe, and told them of his vivid experience of a Nazi massacre. He had no proof of any kind, but should have been believed (he wasn’t). Perhaps it was just too big a leap for the villagers to believe that a civilized nation (Germany) now wanted them all dead, and perhaps if they had known more about human nature, they would have been more afraid. So on the one hand, they had to weigh the “subjective experience” of one person, and on the other they had to revise a lot of assumptions about human nature and ideology. So they chose to reject the subjective experience and not revise any assumptions.

Its interesting to ask what the difference is between subjective and objective experience? You might say that a witness who accuses a drug kingpin in a court of law is presenting only subjective evidence, but if he has a wiretap, he has objective evidence. But on the other hand if you were a juror in that court, and then suddenly found yourself on a desert island, far away from humanity, and far away from hope of rescue, would you have that objective evidence? It would seem that all the evidence you would have of the court is your memories, and memories are subjective. You remember the witnesses, you remember the wiretap being played, but still, it’s all in your brain.

I think that the answer to the subjective/objective question from your mind’s viewpoint is that the objective is subjective, but it just has more reinforcing subjectivity to it. There are many experiences that hang together and make sense together, and so we trust ‘objective’ experience as corresponding to something real out there. For instance, if you were stranded on that desert island, and thought of your aunt Abigail, you would be very certain she existed, even though you have zero proof, in writing, or on video, or by witnesses, available on that island. The reason you would be so sure is that there are so many pieces of different types of evidence in your mind, – the time Abigail took you to the mall, the time your mother talked about Abigail’s winning the “prettiest girl on the block” award, the time you phoned Abigail for a ticket from her travel agency, the time Abigail was stranded at your house during a snow storm, the family tree your father made that had Abigail in it, etc. etc. etc. All this, may be subjective memory. But it is such a interlocking and reinforcing net of memories, that you are very, very sure Abigail is real.

There are other situations that I have not posted to this blog, but have read about that show another principle. People simply cannot believe they are in a big and important and crucial situation. This has been offered as part of the explanation for the lack of preparation by the U.S. in the attack at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, by the Japanese that brought America into World War 2.
It also happens sometimes to the police, especially when a crime is based on the testimony of one person. For instance, the police also didn’t realize a boy testifying that his mother drugged him to the point of unconsciousness for long periods to keep him out of school was telling them the truth. They believed the articulate mother instead. (Her motive for keeping the child out of school was to collect a type of welfare payment).

One reason scenarios may be considered improbable is because they involve believing many things based on scanty evidence. The more of a chain of events you have to believe to make sense of an experience (or a scientific finding), the more improbable a scenario seems. And yet, life does have entire causally related chains of events, that we may not be aware of until a surprising result emerges. In fact, the surprising result can hit us really hard, like the Hungarian Jews (see post) in the concentration camp that had plenty of time to contemplate why they were so wrong in ignoring the warnings that they had been given. If they had the entire causal chain of events in front of them, which explain how Germans became genocidal in the period of 20 years, they would have run for the hills. But all they finally had was the barbed wire around them and the brutality and the crematoria, and from that, presumably they could try and deduce everything else, until they were killed.

When you have a set of assumptions about the world, and facts come in that are inconvenient, you can revise your assumptions, or you can revise the ‘facts’. This is a problem with human perception in general, even on a very low level. Does the perception that is coming in mean that you need to create a new category, or revise an old one that is wrong, or is it just to be ignored?

Apart from this blog, you may also be interested in Engineer William Beaty’s website which includes a large section on ‘close-minded’ views that turned out to be wrong in the history of science. I have some disagreements with the site, for instance, he considers the paranormal as possible, and I do not, but much of the site has nothing to do with that topic. His site is at http://www.amasci.com/. This blog, by contrast is more focussed on history and medicine.

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Chronic Fatigue Syndrome – A Mass Fantasy of Suffering? Or An Unsolved Disease?

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is interesting because of the large number of people who believe they have it and that it is a serious disease, and the divide in the medical community that it has caused. (The topic may not belong in this blog, since we still don’t know what causes it, but it seems clear from what follows that it is not just ‘hypochondria’.) In her book Osler’s Web – Inside the Labyrinth of the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Epidemic (Crown Publishers, 1996), Hillary Johnson describes some cases.

Laura Hillenbrand

One example is Laura Hillenbrand, the author of Seabiscuit: An American Legend, the unlikely page-turner about the ungainly racehorse that became a long-shot champion. This also became a successful Hollywood movie. But Laura often did not have the energy to leave her house (or even her bed), and in fact when she was writing the book, would have a box of cereal next to her so that she did not have to waste precious energy walking to the kitchen. She remembers the day the disease suddenly struck, and left her for more than 15 years with symptoms such as a vertigo so strong that she had to write parts of the book with her eyes closed. You can read more details of what this formerly athletic woman went through at Laura’s Story

Inga Thompson

Another example: Inga Thompson, who was one of the U.S. Olympic Women’s Bicycling Team’s best cyclists, fell ill after six weeks on the team and became bedridden. Her Reno doctor tested her for a number of infectious agents, without results. Finally he told her that she had the “post-Olympic blues” (a diagnosis he seems to have invented). On the other hand, her CT brain scan was abnormal, which is true of other patients also.

Hillary Johnson interviewed neurologist Chris Gallen, who had viewed brain scans of CFS patients, which had many tiny white lesions. “The bottom line is that no one knows what the hell they mean,” Gallen said. But, he added, “There’s a tendency in medicine to dismiss data because it doesn’t fit with your understanding of a problem. As a neurologist, I’ve had doctors explain that they wanted me to see a patient who they thought was probably a crock because the patient had this or that odd set of symptoms. But by the time I finished listening to their history of what I’m going to see the patient about, I knew what the disease was because those symptoms that seeemed like odd, quirky symptoms to the doc added up to a classic neurologic syndrome that they just happened to not know about.”

Likewise, Dr. Paul Cheney, who had studied many patients with CFS, said “In medical school you’re often taught that if you cannot define an illness by the technology of the day, the patient must be crazy”.

A patient of Cheney’s who was himself a surgeon by the name of Thomas English, wrote that “there is nothing in your experience in medical school, residency, or practice with its grueling hours and sleep deprivation that even approaches the fatigue you feel with this illness”. When Hillary Johnson interviewed him, he remarked that in his own surgical training, his fellow students quickly learned “if you think you’ve found anything rare or unusual, prepare to be laughed at. But that ignores the obvious fact that there are lots of rare things. And it took me a long time to realize that people were seeing rare things; they were just squeezing round objects into square holes. Of course, the greatest zebra of all is something new” (from the proverb ‘If you hear hoofbeats, think of horses, not zebras’).

In the case of the skeptics of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, the sufferers were “people strangely wedded to a mass fantasy of suffering and disability”, a “subculture of invalidism”, or a psychiatric disorder thriving among suggestible women

Stephen Straus, an investigator at the NIH, believed that CFS had been around a long time but with different names. In the 1860’s it was known as neurasthenia (a neurosis characterized by weakness and fatigue). In the twentieth century, it has been identified as anemia, chronic brucellosis, hypoglycemia, systemic candidiasis etc.

Straus added that many patients were psychologically ‘different’ before they developed the syndrome.

What is the truth about CFS? Is it a psychiatric condition? A neural condition? Is it a new virus that causes just enough physiological havoc to disable people without causing marked visible symptoms? Is it something else?

More info on Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, by a group that seeks cures, is at http://www.cfids.org/.

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Tobacco – It was So Glamorous

In his autobiography, (pub by Alfred Knopf, 1995) journalist and news commentator David Brinkley talks about his first exposure to the fact that cigarette smoking is unhealthy. Looking for news to report on in 1944 in Washington D.C. he spotted an organization called the Anti-Cigarette Alliance. He asked himself "Why would anyone be anti-cigarette? Weren’t Clark Gable and Carole Lombard and all the great stars smoking all over the screen? Didn’t President Roosevelt smoke Camels by the carton?…Didn’t the magazine ads show the essence of calm and sophisticated satisfaction to be a lovely woman prettily balancing a cigarette in manicured fingers while the smoke floated away in languid curls?…Who could oppose that?" Brinkley visited the organization in its shabby old building where a secretary passed him in to talk to a bouncy white haired little man. Brinkley asked him what was wrong with cigarettes. The man replied: "Plenty. They’ll kill you. Smoke them a few years and you’ll have lung cancer, emphysema or heart trouble. I know you don’t believe me. The tobacco companies with their clever ad agencies have made cigarette smoking look romantic and glamorous . And safe. It’s not."

"How do you know all this? Why don’t others know it?

"They will. My friends in surgery tell me lung cancer was almost nonexistent until recently. Now they’re seeing it more often in the lungs of smokers."

David Brinkley wrote a little story about the Anti-Cigarette Alliance and its founder, and wrote "I regret to say I treated him and his ideas as a joke, when he was right, and right earlier than anyone else I knew."
But it is understandable why David did not believe the head of the anti-cigarette alliance. To believe him meant overthrowing a set of glamorous media images, and it meant believing that a little man in a shabby office was on to something that the mainstream, including presidents, movie actors, and many others, were totally ignorant of, and which could indeed shorten their lives.

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They told her it was ‘all in her head’ – but in truth – it was a degenerative disease

Has it ever happened that someone has had a serious disease and doctors refused to see it? Such an example is provided in the book The Man Who Grew Two Breasts And Other True Tales Of Medical Detection by Berton Roueche.

His tale starts a little past five o’clock on the afternoon of October 11, 1978, when a young black woman came into the emergency room of Alvarado Community Hospital in San Diego, and asked to be admitted for psychiatric help. Her name was Sheila Allen. On October 16 a member of the psychiatric staff named Robert Brewer went in to see her. She looked and acted very weak. He was inclined to categorize her problem as psychiatric, but he started thinking of multiple sclerosis. Then he asked her what she thought was wrong with her. She said "I’m a kook". Brewer replied that this might be so, but she should see a neurologist. She said she did not want to see one, she had seen dozens, and her problem was that she was a kook.

She told Brewer that she had been getting sicker and sicker for four years. In the March of 1974, she was out dancing one night and her legs gave out. She fell. She ascribed the fall to high heels, and went to lower heels and then one night it happened again. Then she developed more symptoms. In her job as a flight attendant, she would lift trays, and her arms would begin to tremble. Even a coffee pot was almost too much. She got tireder and tireder, and sleep did not help. She went to a doctor. The doctor said to take it easy, and prescribed Valium. She had to give up her job.

"I was getting weaker every day. Everything I did hurt. It hurt to comb my hair. My arms were so heavy and weak…I dont know how many times my legs gave out and I fell down the stairs."

So she went to a psychiatrist. He was convinced that her trouble was psychosomatic. He gave her a drawer full of prescriptions – Valium, Elavil, etc. Every doctor she went to see prescribed something. Then she went to another psychiatrist. He also told her that her problem was psychosomatic. Her own family told her that she was crazy. Finally she fell down the stairs again and her mother took her to a hospital. Here a young doctor looked at her, and said "I would think you might have myasthenia gravis, but the symptoms aren’t right. Myasthenia gravis starts with the eyes and face, with drooping eyelids, and trouble swallowing. You don’t have that." He said she should see a psychiatrist.

Her symptoms only got worse, and she visited psychiatrists and psychologists who all agreed that her trouble was psychosomatic.

She decided her only hope was to get hospitalized. In the hospital she met Dr. Brewer, who had her see his colleague, a neurologist named Dr. Fred Baughman. Baughman finally figured out what the trouble was. It was an atypical case of Myasthenia Gravis. When later interviewed about this case, Dr. Baughman quoted a saying about diagnosis "When you hear hoofbeats, you don’t necessarily think of a zebra." By looking at her he saw that she suffered from genuine muscle weakness, nothing psychiatric about it. Dr. Baughman had studied at Mt. Sinai hospital in N.Y. where he developed an interest in this fairly uncommon disease. Myasthenia Gravis is an autoimmune disease. The victim’s own antibodies interfere with the transmission of impulses from the neurons to the muscles. Dr. Baughman realized that the textbook picture of the case, drooping eyelids and all, need not be present.

So Dr. Baughman gave Sheila a medicine that increased transmission at the neuromuscular junction, and her strength came back suddenly, though only temporarily, until he gave her better drugs and other treatments.

Why did many professionals, doctors, neurologists, psychiatrists, and psychologists looking at a patient with dramatically severe symptoms of muscle weakness universally conclude her problem was a psychological one? Because they had a script to refer to when all else failed, the mental illness script. I have come across several examples of this nature, where when doctors fail to explain a set of symptoms, they relegate it to the realm of the psychiatric. In one example, a woman was literally slowly starving to death over the years, and was diagnosed as an “anorexic” when her problem was gastrointestinal. If she had not met the right doctor at the last moment, she probably would have died, and been classified as just another tragedy of an anorexic who would not respond to therapy.

In Follies and Fallacies in Medicine, Prof. Petr Skrabanek and
Dr. James McCormick talk about this as well. "…in the present state
of our ignorance diagnosis (of mental illness) depends upon symptoms and
behavior rather than on any objective test."

They also quote B. Martin, who compiled a list of strategies used by scientists when faced with data that do not fit their preconceived theories.

1. flat denial

2. skepticism about the source of the item

3. ascription of an ulterior motive to the source

4. isolation of the item from its context

5. minimalization of the importance of the item

6. interpretation of the item to suit one’s purpose

7. misunderstanding of the item

8. thinking away or just forgetting the item.

Of course these strategies are also used in other realms besides medicine.

Actually in medicine, the incentive is to err on the side of caution, as the authors point out, and make a diagnosis of a "nondisease", rather than miss the diagnosis of a disease that is actually present.

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“A nuisance who was obsessed with security” and who was also right

Prudence Bushnell

In the spring of 1998, Prudence Bushnell, the US ambassador to Kenya, sent an emotional letter to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright begging for the Secretary’s personal help.

Ms. Bushnell, a career diplomat, had been fighting for months for a more secure embassy in the face of mounting terrorist threats and a warning that she was the target of the assassination plot. The State Department had repeatedly refused to grant her request, citing a lack of money. That kind of response, she wrote Ms. Albright, was “endangering the lives of embassy personnel”.

The CIA and FBI had been amassing increasing ominous and detailed clues about potential threats in Kenya. But the State Department bureaucracy still dismissed Ms. Bushnell’s pleas. She was even seen by some of them as a nuisance who was overly obsessed with security – according to one official.

Embassy Ruins

Three months later, on Aug 7, the American Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya were simultaneously attacked with car bombs. Twelve American diplomats and more than 200 Africans were killed in Kenya.

A close examination of events in the year before the bombings, as reported by the New York Times (1/9/99) showed that:

The CIA told State Dept. officials that there was an active terrorist cell in Kenya connected to Osama bin Laden, the Saudi exile who is accused of masterminding the attack.

The CIA investigated at least 3 terrorist threats in Nairobi that year, and took one seriously enough to send a counterterrorism team. The agency concluded that the threat was unfounded, but some officials say the inquiry was botched.

Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, commander of the US Central Command had visited Nairobi and warned that the embassy there was an easy target for terrorists. Zinni’s offer to send his own specialists to review security in Nairobi was turned down by the State Dept. (The State Dept then conducted its own review, and decided that the embassy was secure against a “medium” threat, whatever that was).

The State Dept had adopted a strategy of improving the handful of embassies it believed were at greatest risk. Nairobi was not among them.

On the other hand, State Dept officials insisted that they were sympathetic to Ms. Bushnell’s concerns. They added that it was impossible to respond to each terrorist threat that they received.

Bushnell’s letter to Ms. Albright was an attempt to bypass the State Department.

The CIA had sent numerous reports detailing the activities of people linked to Osama Bin Laden in Kenya. Some of the reports referred to Osama in the first paragraph. Already the inquiry on the 1993 World Trade Center bombing had focused on Mr. Bin Laden and his associates.

In the summer of 1997, the CIA’s Nairobi based officers learned of another possible threat. An informant told them that the Nairobi branch of an Islamic charity, Al Haramain Foundation, was plotting attacks against Americans. The informant eventually warned that the group was plotting to blow up the American Embassy in Nairobi.

The Kenyans arrested nine Arabs connected to Al Haramain, and seized the group’s files. The CIA sent a team to Nairobi, which scoured the files, but could not find evidence of a bomb plot. Members of the team wanted to question Al Haramain members in jail, but the agency’s station chief blocked this request, insisting that he had pushed his Kenyan counterparts far enough.

Without any evidence against Al Haramain, the CIA concluded that the informant was not credible.

Evidence was eventually found linking the group to Mr. Bin Laden, though not linking them to the bombings.

A third warning surfaced in November 1997. Mustafa Mahmoud Said Ahmed, and Egyptian, walked into the embassy and told CIA officers he knew of a group that was planning to detonate a bomb-laden truck inside the diplomats underground parking garage.

The CIA cautioned in its reports that Mr. Ahmed might have fabricated his story..

Mr. Ahmed is now being held in jail in Tanzania in connection with the bombing of the embassy there.

With hindsight, we can marvel at the blindness of the State Department. But the US receives thousands of terrorist threats a year, so it is easy to lose sight of the few that should be taken seriously. Still, there was the lone voice of Ms. Bushnell, who did see clearly that the embassy was not safe and that the US had serious Islamic enemies in Nairobi. Why is it that some people – General Zinni and Prudence Bushnell – could see clearly – and others could not?

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