Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Gravy Line

A new contribution to analysis of 9-11 conspiracy claims by JREF Forum member RMackey.

In evaluating alternate theories, and conspiracy theories in particular, one often desires to distinguish whether a theory is plausible, if unlikely, or whether a theory is absurd. This distinction is important to a skeptic, because a skeptic should always respond logically and rationally to a plausible theory, even if it contradicts previous theories and especially if it contradicts poorly supported belief and conjecture. An absurd theory, on the other hand, may and in many cases should be simply dismissed. No amount of logical analysis can salvage an inherently illogical proposition.

Unfortunately, the question of how to identify an absurd theory remains open. The problem of evaluation is in many respects parallel to determining the burden of proof, in the sense that the more plausible theories have a lower burden of proof, or conversely that an argument partially or wholly satisfying its burden of proof is inherently more plausible. This consideration, however, does not give us any actionable formula, since burden of proof is also subjective. While some attempts to quantify burden of proof exist, primarily in the field of trial law, this standard is not directly applicable to philosophy or science.

I think all debunkers have an internal "Gravy Line" sensor built in. For example, Killtown often pleads with debunkers to take on his claim that Val McClatchey's photo was faked. But I think we can all see using RMackey's technique that this claim, even if true, amounts to:

3. Anomaly or Artifact (Score = 0.25): An argument that criticizes an existing theory while proposing no competing hypothesis of its own, such that if the argument is accepted, uncertainty actually increases.

Negative Adjustments? Clearly there are several negatives to Killtown's theory. First, you have to explain how she managed to fake this within a very short period of time while huge attention was being focused on the Shanksville site. That's a major negative. Also, you have to acknowledge that if Killtown's measurements are off by a small amount, the entire conclusion may be invalid. Major negative adjustment. Killtown has never explained a reason for Val McClatchey to fake the photograph; profit is assumed to be a motive, but there was no immediate reason to assume that there would be significant demand for the photograph. Major negative.

We could go further, but there is no real need. Multiplying the factors together: .25 X .5 X .5 X .5 = .03125, below the Gravy Line. Obviously there is some subjectivity to this analysis in determining what values to place on the adjustments, and the .05 Gravy Line may be too high or too low. But this certainly represents an interesting attempt to quantify why some theories just aren't worth debunking.

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