December 12th, 2009

black swan

Peter Watts assaulted by border guards, and some epistomology

Peter Watts, a Canadian science fiction author, was beaten, thrown out into the cold without transportation or coat, and charged with felony assault.

What he did was to get out of his car and ask (twice!) why his car was being searched-- he was on his way back into Canada, and he was dealing with American border guards.

Contributions to his legal defense fund can be sent here.

papersky explains that living in a free country means not being afraid of arbitrary attack from the police.

pecuniam on why letting governments get away with torture is a disaster.

comodorified on the emotional meaning of throwing someone out, unprotected, into deadly cold. And an update on why Watts survived this-- he was dropped off on the Canadian side, not far from Canadian Customs.

Digby on why having police that you need to treat like thugs is a bad thing.

In the comments to the various posts about what happened, there are some who say "I've crossed the border any number of times and nothing went wrong, so I'm not believing that this was an arbitrary abuse of authority." I've recently read The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb-- the premise is that people wildly underestimate how often unusual events with large consequences happen.

It isn't nonsense to assume that your experience has something to do with how things usually are, but it needs to be tempered with information from other people, and a check for asymetries. Does it make sense that only the low status people behave badly?
green leaves

On false confessions

From The Association for Psychological Science:

It wouldn't surprise me if confessions are so convincing that even some of the police who push for false confessions end up believing that the confessions are true.

False confessions seem so illogical, especially for someone like Joseph Dick of the Norfolk Four, who got a double life sentence after confessing. Why do people confess to crimes they didn’t commit? Some do it for the chance at fame (more than 200 people confessed to kidnapping Charles Lindbergh’s baby), but many more do it for reasons that are far more puzzling to the average person. In the November 2004 issue of Psychological Science in the Public Interest, APS Fellow Saul Kassin looked at the body of research and described how the police are able to interrogate suspects until they confess to a crime they didn’t commit.

Generally, it starts because people give up their Miranda rights. In fact, Richard A. Leo found that a majority of people give up the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney. In fact, according to self-report data, innocent suspects gave up their rights more often than guilty suspects (most told Leo either that this was because they felt that they didn’t have anything to hide because they were innocent or that they thought it would make them look guilty).

Once a suspect starts talking, the police can use a variety of techniques to make the accused feel as though they are better off confessing than continuing to deny (these include promises of leniency and threats of harsher interrogation or sentences). If a suspect feels like a conviction is inevitable not matter what he or she says, confessing may seem like a good idea.

But, in some cases, the accused comes to believe that he or she actually did commit the crime. It’s been shown repeatedly that memory is quite malleable and unreliable. Elizabeth Loftus has repeatedly shown that the human brain can create memories out of thin air with some prompting. In a famous series of experiments, Loftus, APS Past President, was able to help people create memories for events that never happened in their lives simply through prompting. She helped them “remember” being lost in a shopping mall when they were children, and the longer the experiment went on, the more details they “remembered.” The longer police interrogate a suspect, emphatic about his guilt and peppering their interrogation with details of the crime, the more likely a suspect is to become convinced himself.

I've never heard of any research on whether some people have more stable memories than others, but I bet there's a large amount of variation.
The results show that confessions can have a powerful effect on other evidence. Of the people who had identified a subject from the original lineup, 60 percent changed their identification when told that someone else had confessed. Plus, 44 percent of the people who originally determined that none of the suspects in the lineup committed the crime changed their mind when told that someone had confessed (and 50 percent changed when told that a specific person had confessed). When asked about their decision, “about half of the people seemed to say, ‘Well, the investigator told me there was a confession, so that must be true.’ So they were just believing the investigator,” Hasel said. “But the other half really seemed to be changing their memory. So that memory can never really be regained once it’s been tainted.” What’s more, people who were told that the person they wrongly pinpointed as the culprit had confessed saw their confidence levels soar. After that confirmation, they remembered the crime better and were more sure about details. The implications for inside the courtroom are obvious if eyewitnesses who incorrectly picked someone out of a lineup can become so sure of their choice after learning that the person confessed. “It is noteworthy that whereas physical evidence is immutable (once collected and preserved, it can always be retested), an eyewitness’s identification decision cannot later be revisited without contamination,” Kassin and Hasel write.

Link thanks to Less Wrong.
green leaves

But will they be good sports about it "over there"?

The Security Crank sez:
But the much more important point remains: how could we possibly have any idea how the war is going, here or anywhere else, when the bad guys seem only to die in groups of 30? The sheer ubiquity of that number in fatality and casualty counts is astounding, to the point where I don’t even pay attention to a story anymore when they use that magic number 30. It is an indicator either of ignorance or deliberate spin… but no matter the case, whenever you see the number 30 used in reference to the Taliban, you should probably close the tab and move onto something else, because you just won’t get a good sense of what happened there.

There's lot in the article about the suspiciously clustered and exact numbers used for the casualties.

Megan Carpetier gathered some information and found

In other words, the Pentagon determined that 30 casualties, even if they were civilian, were too few to matter politically or to attract the attention of the press for more than a few words. If commanders expected more civilian casualties than that, political leaders had to sign off on the attack in advance to make sure they were prepared for the PR fall-out.

Links thanks to Marginal Revolution.

And if you were wondering about the title, it's a reference to the idea of fighting them over there rather than over here.