What’re The Odds?

If I were to take a coin and flip it 17 times, the odds that it would come up heads every time are 1/131,072. In theory, then, those might be the odds that all 17 “mistakes” in the four Carter Page FISA applications would point in the same, pro-spying direction, assuming that they were innocent mistakes.

But if you think about it, the chances that the “mistakes” were random are considerably, if less precisely calculably, worse than that. First, one would have to think about the chances that there would be 17 “mistakes” on any random four FISA applications. Since lying to the FISA court is a crime, and the FBI is by reputation a careful and competent law enforcement agency, I would prefer to assume that “mistakes” are quite rare; if that’s the case, what are the chances that any given four applications would contain 17 “mistakes”? Vanishingly low, one hopes. Let’s say, 1/50; if so, I suppose that the odds of both there being 17 mistakes in four FISA applications and all of them pointing in the same direction might be something like 1/6,553,600.

Further, what are the odds that these particular FISA applications – the ones that opened the door to spying on a presidential candidate, then investigating a president, would be the ones with the extraordinarily (one hopes) high error rate? I would certainly like to believe that since these must have been among the highest-profile FISA applications ever, the FBI would have applied the highest possible level of care to ensuring their accuracy – and, indeed, such oversight was provided in these instances by Big Jim himself and by Rod Rosenstein, who acted as signers of the applications.

Given that level of oversight, the odds that these would be the four applications in which thoughtless, random “mistakes”, all pointing in one one direction, just happened to slip through the FBI’s awesomely competent teams would have to be – what? – let’s just say: low.

And the fact that all these “mistakes” were made by people with well-demonstrated levels of dislike for President Tump – at the very same time when the same people were letting Herself off the hook for amply demonstrated crimes that, according to Comey’s 2016 announcement (reaching well beyond his legal authority) no reasonable prosecutor would charge? Now there’s another odd coincidence.

All of these less clearly calculable factors make the likelihood that the 17 “mistakes” were the result of random, sloppiness by low-level FBI employees incalculably remote. One in ten million? One in a billion?

In any event small enough for those of us who pay attention to such things to believe on the basis of the overwhelming weight of inferential evidence – and what evidence isn’t ultimately inferential? – that these were not random “mistakes”, they were part of an intentional effort to hurt Trump and help Hillary.

And yet, the self-proclaimed “party of science”, and its many allies in the media, proclaim full-throatedly that those who think there was a plot by senior members of the FBI, likely aided by rogues within our other “intelligence” services, to use the government’s awesome investigatory powers to defeat Trump, and then, when that didn’t work, to hobble the new president, are nothing but right-wing conspiracy theorists.

Just how dumb do they think we are?

***

Switching topics (well, mostly), merrily: I read a terrific book twice last week – The Devil’s Delusion by David Berlinski.

The book is an attack (actually, many attacks) on the militant, allegedly science-based atheism of people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Berlinski, a secular Jew (I’ll come back to his secularism), holds a PhD from Princeton, and has both taught and written about mathematics and philosophy at many of the world’s great universities. He is deeply versed in both logic and the history of science, and a most entertaining – because he’s very funny – polemicist.

At one level, the book’s central theme, that the militant atheism of many now-prominent men doesn’t come close to proving that here is no God, is entirely unsurprising. After all, it’s impossible to prove a negative. On the other hand, Berlinski makes no effort to prove that there is a God, either – indeed, given his own secular outlook and professed agnosticism, he is indisposed to trying to do so.

Instead, what he does is point up two things, both of which are interesting. The first of these is the downright shoddy logic often employed – even by very eminent scientists and cultural leaders – to assert as proven things that are not.

The second is more subtle and, to me, more interesting (hence my second reading of the book). Berlinski argues that there are limits to human knowledge that will, and can, never be overcome by logic or science. In the first instance, these limits have been bridged by various faiths; more recently by our society’s true current faith, which is in science itself. But science, as Berlinski brilliantly demonstrates, is itself based on its own kind of faith (in logic, to begin with), which is no better at explaining life’s deepest mysteries than traditional faiths, and in many respects worse.

I do Berlinki’s book a disservice by summarizing it so narrowly. It is a deeply learned, relentlessly logical and very funny discourse. I recommend it highly; reading it probably won’t give you any hard-fought answers to life’s big questions, but it will amuse you and make you think twice about any number scientific theories that are treated as the equivalent of Received Wisdom.

And it will provide whatever comfort or otherwise you take from the realization that for all our advances in knowledge and circumstance, we still face the same mysteries that people always have, and will face for as long as there are people – they’ve just changed names.

M.H. Johnston

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