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Anomalies

“Life is difficult.”

I hope you don’t do what I did after reading those words from M. Scott Peck’s book, The Road Less Traveled: I stopped reading. The opening sentence of Chapter 1 struck me as so profound at the time that I paused to contemplate it for 30 years, and never got back to the rest of the book, which sits on the shelf unread to this day.

imageSavvy readers might infer from my philosophical tone that I have been mowing grass again, and they would be right. As I mowed, I contemplated something else that I read, just last night, from Loren Collins’ new book, Bullspotting. Loren was commenting on how 9/11 conspiracy theorists frame arguments and said in a section titled Anomaly Hunting:

What Truthers do instead [of providing concrete evidence], and what they do a lot , is try to “poke holes” in the accepted version of the events of 9/11.  This often involves a lot of open-ended questions…

I understand Loren’s point, but it caused me some disquiet because “poking holes” is what I do a lot too. So this article tries to make some distinctions between anomaly hunting the way I do it and the way some birthers do it.

Loren makes one important point about “debunking” and that is the debunker usually approaches questions with his mind made up, and is just trying to prove something he already believes to be bunk actually is. Obviously after 4 years of arguing about Obama’s birthplace, I have made up my mind about where Barack Obama was born, and I do approach every new argument to the contrary with the view that it is bunk. I think, however, with basic integrity and commitment to honesty, plus the methodology of proof I learned as a math student, that honest investigation can be done even by someone somewhat biased. Knowing you’re biased at the start helps compensate. So one difference is that when I make an anomaly argument I take my own admitted bias into consideration.

I’d like to compare and contrast two particular debunking efforts. One deals with my treatment of the fake birth certificate, the so-called Bomford certificate (named from the person named on the source document from which the fake was made). The second deals a popular birther debunking of Barack Obama’s birth certificate, the presence of the word “African.”

When I looked at the Bomford certificate, I noticed that the price listed on the 1964 document form was shown in shillings and pence. That is an anomaly because Kenya used cents and not pence in 1964 (and before and after). The debunking argument goes: “since Kenya used money denominated in cents in 1964, any purported official Kenyan document denominated in pence is a fake.” Government agencies use official currency in their transactions and no objection to this argument has been put forward. The Bomford certificate is a fake. QED.

Many birthers looking at Obama’s birth certificate made an argument: “No official document in 1961 would have used the term ‘African’ as a race, so any purported official document using that term is a fake.” The argument form is the same as mine. The difference is that the premise is false. It was possible to establish from other contemporary birth certificates and a vital statistics data entry manual that national and regional groups could appear on birth certificates, and that black Kenyans considered their race as “African.” Not only is the “official version” plausible, it is exactly what it should be based on this evidence. The difference is that the anomaly in the Bomford Certificate proved decisive based on well-sourced fact, while the alleged anomaly in the Obama certificate didn’t hold up against the facts.

Whenever some new Obama Conspiracy evidence comes forward there is a flurry of activity on the Internet with various people on the “other side” trying to find anomalies, to poke holes in the evidence. We had a world of fun poking holes in the Lucas Smith’s POSFKBC for a year. Most recently, we’ve seen a flurry of anomalies directed at the Peter Rehnquist Obama birth video: Why does the baby have teeth? Why is there so little blood; Why is the flag wrong? [Update: Why is there a 2013 calendar picture on the wall :shock” ?]

What happens over time is that crowd-sourced research on the Internet sorts through the anomalies, separating the plausible from the implausible, from the impossible. New information is found, corner cases are located, and the arguments are tested. In the case of the birth video, that process resulted in an “impossible” verdict quite quickly. It goes: “An image appears in the video that was created in 2005; therefore, any video that claims to be from 1961 with that image is a fake.” QED

As far as I know, the Obama birth video has so many problems that no one except Peter Rehnquist defends it. However, with other evidence regarding Obama’s long-form birth certificate, the birthers have refused to join the consensus, preferring to rely on themselves as sources. There’s no help for that. They don’t admit that they are biased.

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11 Responses to Anomalies

  1. avatar
    Paul October 27, 2012 at 7:18 pm #

    Kudos Doc. After reading so much crap day after day from the Burfer Brigades, it’s good to have my faith in human intellect and reason restored.

  2. avatar
    Loren October 27, 2012 at 7:19 pm #

    I may have actually mentioned it in the book, but the Bomford Certificate provides a fine example of where focusing on anomalies can lead to erroneous conclusions.

    One of the anomalies pointed out by many people in the Bomford Certificate was the certificate number: 47,044. It was argued that this was a wink from the forger, because Obama is the 44th President and he was 47 when he took office.

    But I spoke to the guy who made the Bomford Certificate, and the truth is: that was a total accident. He just chose that number and typed it in. It wasn’t a hint, it wasn’t a code, and it wasn’t, at least for the reasons argued, a sign of fakery.

    My favorite example from the Birther side was the registrar’s signature on Obama’s long-form. Because seriously, it really did look like it had been signed “UKLLEE.” But ultimately that turned out to be just a misreading piled on top of a coincidence.

    That’s the risk of reading too much into anomalies. Coincidences happen. Accidents and mistakes happen. It doesn’t mean anomalies are worthless or shouldn’t be noted; it just means that they have to be taken for what they are. Actual frauds are liable to have anomalies and frauds are detected because of their mistakes, but some anomalies are also just a fact of everyday life. The dude with the umbrella outside Kennedy’s motorcade isn’t a sign of something greater; he’s a weird dude with an umbrella.

    It’s also worth noting the difference between anomalies and impossibilities. A really oversized baby? That’s an anomaly. A Kenyan flag two years before the flag existed? That would be something more.

  3. avatar
    foreigner October 28, 2012 at 4:06 am #

    you’ll have to analyze the probability of such anomalies happening randomly

  4. avatar
    foreigner October 28, 2012 at 4:09 am #

    not everyone can examine these things, it’s too tedious, takes too much time.
    So we need a credible authority that does it. Regularly. Easy to look up.
    Independent. Unbiased.
    Wikipedia, factcheck,scopes ? What would you recommend

  5. avatar
    Whatever4 October 28, 2012 at 12:08 pm #

    foreigner:
    not everyone can examine these things, it’s too tedious, takes too much time.
    So we need a credible authority that does it. Regularly. Easy to look up.
    Independent. Unbiased.
    Wikipedia, factcheck,scopes ? What would you recommend

    My favorite site for that is http://www.obamaconspiracy.org/

  6. avatar
    gorefan October 28, 2012 at 2:40 pm #

    foreigner:
    you’ll have to analyze the probability of such anomalies happening randomly

    Doesn’t someone have to first decide what is an anomaly?

  7. avatar
    LW October 28, 2012 at 2:57 pm #

    I don’t think “[U]KL Lee” was a coincidence. I think it was Verna Lee being innocently whimsical with her signature.

    Not that this changes the ultimate point — trying to contort this into proof of anything sinister is ridiculous.

    (Hmm; if she had just signed it “Verna Lee” — would the birthers still spring on that?)

  8. avatar
    CarlOrcas October 28, 2012 at 6:28 pm #

    LW: I don’t think “[U]KL Lee” was a coincidence. I think it was Verna Lee being innocently whimsical with her signature.

    Her name is Verna K. Lee or according to some sources Verna K.L. Lee. In any case signing one’s name using initials is hardly out of the ordinary and, of course, a handwritten V can easily look like a U.

    The simplest explanation is usually the best.

    And, yes, if she’d signed Obama’s birth certificate with her full first name birthers would have found other examples where she used her initials and……..well……you know.

  9. avatar
    The Magic M October 29, 2012 at 6:40 am #

    foreigner:
    you’ll have to analyze the probability of such anomalies happening randomly

    Again, you seem to try to make the birther argument that it is “impossible” or at least “highly improbable” that “so many anomalies are tied to Obama records”.

    First, probabilities don’t matter after the fact. My passport once erroneously said “eye colour: blue”. Even if you could prove that the chance for this to happen is 1:1,000,000, it still wouldn’t mean it’s impossible (as about 50-60 Germans would have such a passport) and it also wouldn’t mean it’s forged (as it obviously was a real one).
    It happened. It makes no sense to calculate the probability afterwards and then claim “because it’s so highly improbable, the explanation must be something else than chance or error”.
    My favourite example is shuffling a set of 52 cards and then drawing them all. The chance that you got exactly this combination is ridiculously low, but that doesn’t mean it was impossible to draw them or that a “god” interfered to get you this combination (I usually make this argument when talking to ID people who claim it’s so ridiculously improbable that life came into existence, therefore a “god” must’ve created it).

    Secondly, as long as the “anomalies” are not connected, their probabilities are independent, i.e. for example putting a wrong stamp on a passport that already contains a wrong eye colour is no more or less probable than if the “eye colour anomaly” hadn’t been there.

    Thirdly, until you have some actual numbers of how many “anomalies” are in the records of the average person, it makes no sense to make a claim like “it’s extremely improbable that so many ‘anomalies’ found their way on Obama’s documents”. Who knows, maybe every fourth person has at least two “anomalies” on their records.

    In other words, the mathematical BS that “Lord” Monckton wrote about the BC is only meant to confuse the mathematically illiterate (like those people who believe if politicians agreed to a 5% salary cut, the national debt would be reduced significantly).

  10. avatar
    Dr. Conspiracy October 29, 2012 at 7:56 am #

    And my father’s name is misspelled on my state-issued birth certificate, while my mother’s name is misspelled on my hospital-issued birth certificate.

    The Magic M: First, probabilities don’t matter after the fact. My passport once erroneously said “eye colour: blue”.

  11. avatar
    LW October 29, 2012 at 7:24 pm #

    CarlOrcas: Her name is Verna K. Lee or according to some sources Verna K.L. Lee. In any case signing one’s name using initials is hardly out of the ordinary and, of course, a handwritten V can easily look like a U.

    I totally agree with everything you’ve said. I’m not contesting in any way, shape, or form that this is her signature, or saying that it’s at all out of the ordinary to sign with initials.

    I just like to think that she, in an expression of whimsy no more ominous, unusual or dangerous than dotting one’s i’s with little circles or hearts, intentionally chose to use all her initials and broaden out her “V” a little bit, so that new Hawaiian parents would find a ukelele on their child’s birth certificate.

    …and even if she didn’t, the idea of finding this to be proof of a grand conspiracy would be hard to support even if we didn’t have other examples of her signature on other non-future-presidential documents.

    (Hmm; if she had just signed it “Verna Lee” — would the birthers still spring on that?)

    I figured that one was probably going to go by unnoticed — unless it really was on the president’s BC…