Moulton Lava

Moultonic Musings

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Location: New England, United States

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Let Facts Be Submitted To a Candid World

The most powerful act any individual can perform is to bear accurate witness.

Two weeks ago, US Secretary of State, John Kerry, stood up to bear accurate witness as to what transpired in Syria, based on his reading of US Intelligence.

So far so good.

Now what?

Now the US — having clearly observed Assad engaging in crimes against humanity — is obliged to act by taking the evidence to the International Court, there to indict and try Mr. Assad and his participating lieutenants on war crimes, under the aegis of International Law.

This is how the US, being a leader among civilized nations and a leader in the practice of the Rule of Law, demonstrates how a civilized nation operates in accordance with the Rule of Law, as it applies to international law governing war crimes and crimes against humanity.

This is how a Nobel Peace Prize Winner demonstrates how state-sponsored violence is answered with non-violence, under the Rule of International Law.

In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “Let Facts be submitted to a candid world.”

Hypothesis Testing 101

However, there is a problem with the US evidence.

The problem is that it doesn't rise to scientific standards for hypothesis testing.

I have no idea which of several competing hypotheses is the ground truth. Kerry says he has evidence to support one of the hypotheses.

But that's not how the scientific method works. In the scientific method, one tries like the dickens to falsify each and every conceivable hypothesis. If one survives unscathed, then it emerges as the most likely one to be accurate.

Kerry has not even mentioned the competing hypotheses. Nor has he revealed the outcome of diligent efforts to falsify them.

For this reason, his claims cannot be relied on to have any scientific validity.

Deeper Analysis

My opinion is that the Null Hypothesis has almost surely been falsified: There almost surely was a release of some chemical or nerve agent in the suburbs of Damascus. It was not a Hollywood movie stunt with fake victims.

That leaves at least three plausible working hypotheses on the table to be subjected to the rigors of the scientific method.

It could have been an attack launched by Assad's own military, as Kerry claims.

It could have been a false flag by one of the rebel factions, as some have suggested.

It could have been an accidental spillage by one of the rebel factions, as Dale Gavlak has reported.

As a (now retired) scientist and science educator, I watched closely to see how well Mr. Kerry adhered to the protocols of the scientific method in his attempt to demonstrate how US Intelligence specialists sought to falsify each and every conceivable alternative hypothesis by rigorous application of forensic science.

Did Mr. Kerry conscientiously adhere to the protocols of the scientific method to ensure that the hypothesis he put forward last week was the sole surviving hypothesis after rigorously undertaking to falsify each and every conceivable hypothesis on the table?

I was frankly alarmed and chagrined to observe that Mr. Kerry substantially departed from the protocols of the scientific method, in much the same way as the government had done in previous historic examples in this recurring pattern.

For reasons not entirely clear to me, the US mainstream media isn't even mentioning the competing hypotheses. It's not a matter of declining to report Dale Gavlak's account for lack of a second source. Whether she had reported it or not, it's still a plausible hypothesis that has to be ruled out. And the US Government owes it to those whom it seeks to convince that they have considered and falsified all such alternative hypotheses, whether the mainstream press or independent press have reported them or not.

In any event, whatever analysis US Intelligence puts forward as their best assessment, it still must be submitted for scientific peer review. I am in no position to examine the undisclosed (classified) evidence, and I have no way of knowing if Kerry is withholding evidence that potentially falsifies the conclusion that he (and the Military-Industrial Complex) favors.

But one thing occurs to me that bears review. Sarin is an oily liquid with a high boiling point. In a conventional airborne attack, the liquid Sarin must be atomized into an aerosol spray at a carefully computed altitude so that the droplets rain down on a circular or elliptical footprint over a populated area. It's a grisly calculus, to be sure, but that's what it takes to ensure that a lethal concentration arrives over the dispersal area. When this is done in accordance with the dispersal models, the expected casualty rate is 90% lethality and 10% survival of those exposed to the atomized droplets.

If Sarin is spilled on the ground, most of the liquid goes into the soil and is not dispersed. A limited amount escapes in vapor phase, where it has to waft in the breeze. If the spill were in an underground tunnel, the fraction that is released as vapor has to travele some distance along the tunnel to emerge at a surface vent to reach civilian population. Dispersal through a tunnel could be aided by a non-thermal blast.

In the suburbs of Damascus, the hospitals reported only 10% fatalities and 90% survival. Those inverted statistics suggest a ground-level spill rather than an aerial dispersal attack.

Ground inspectors doing forensic analysis would be expected to look for evidence in the tunnels and at the locations of surface vents for evidence to support or refute the theory of an accidental spillage. We don't know yet if the UN inspectors gathered any such data to either corroborate or falsify the story of an underground release in the storage tunnels.

I don't really care if it turns out the CW in Ghouta was released by a rocket attack from Assad or by an accidental spillage in the rebel's own storage tunnels.

What I do care about is how well the US adheres to the protocols of the scientific method while resolving which (if any) of the proposed hypotheses are fully consistent with the data, having survived all diligent efforts of falsification, as demanded by the scientific method.

Mr. Kerry simply has not done that. It's possible he accidentally selected the most accurate hypothesis, but it's also quite possible he simply fooled himself by skipping the protocols that would have overturned his favored hypothesis in the event one of the alternate ones were closer to the ground truth.

I simply cannot rely on a government that so blatantly departs from the protocols of the scientific method. Maybe he guessed the correct answer and maybe not, but guesswork is not the method I expect my government to rely on.

The Meta-Question

As I see it, this is not a referendum on who released the chemical agents. As I see it, this is a referendum on whether or not the US subscribes to and adheres to the protocols of the scientific method when examining evidence to sort among all conceivable hypotheses (including the Null Hypothesis) to explain an anomalous observation.

All Mr. Kerry has done so far is to falsify the Null Hypothesis. He has convinced everyone that there really was a release of chemical agents in the suburbs of Damascus; it was definitely not a Hollywood movie stunt faking the story of civilians succumbing to some mysterious deadly agent.

Modern day humans devised the Protocols of the Scientific Method as our most reliable method for sorting out accurate hypotheses from incorrect ones. Politicians, alas, are notorious for declining to rely on the Scientific Method for drawing conclusions.

Will this episode prove to be yet another failure of our government to arrive at the ground truth by a trustworthy method?

Or will this episode mark an historic turning point in our methods and practices for making wise and sensible decisions?

I fear the political operatives scripting this drama will once again go out of their way to depart from the protocols of the scientific method.

The first duty of a scientist is to array all conceivable hypotheses and then try like the dickens to falsify each and every one of them.

I have not yet seen any attempt to array the alternate hypotheses or to falsify the one that the Obama administration (and the Military-Industrial Complex) favors.

And so the meta-question stands before us. We have the Null Hypothesis and the Working Hypothesis, and the challenge to falsify either of them.

H₀ (Null Hypothesis) — The US rigorously adheres to the protocols of the scientific method and the concepts of the Rule of Law.

H₁ (Working Hypothesis) — The US routinely departs from the protocols of the scientific method and the concepts of the Rule of Law.

This episode now in play will help determine which of the two hypotheses best characterizes the practices of our national governance model and methodology.

The function of the scientific method is to sort out false hypotheses. Kerry's failure to adopt and employ the protocols of the scientific method leaves open the fear that, once again, the US may have blindly jumped to an erroneous conclusion.

I am frankly not sanguine about the outcome of this trial.