Category: Rootclaim Analyses (page 1 of 2)

Rootclaim shifts to agile, simplified analyses

We’re proud to announce some exciting updates to Rootclaim. Since its inception, Rootclaim has focused on exposing the truth on many issues in public discourse using probabilistic inference. Rootclaim has established an outstanding track record, using proven mathematical models and publicly available information to overcome the flaws of human reasoning. However, this time consuming approach limited us to being able to respond to relatively few events.   

We are glad to announce upgrades to Rootclaim that will deliver more agile, simplified, and timely analyses.

Previously, much of the analysis work had gone into the tricky effort of identifying and dealing with evidence dependencies. Going forward, we will group dependent evidence and analyze them jointly. This will allow Rootclaim and the readers to examine the evidence in the context of the investigation that exposed it, easily evaluate interdependencies, and assess the significance of missing evidence. Likewise, previously, a large portion of the effort had gone into the analysis of minor pieces of evidence, which have little effect on the calculated results. When analyzed as a group, minor details often lose their relevance.

These new efficiencies will allow us to publish analyses and provide the most reliable estimates about developing stories within a few days instead of the weeks of work that have been previously required.

The new analyses will be more readable while still maintaining Rootclaim’s high level of accuracy, and they can be read from top to bottom without knowledge of probability theory. Each group of evidence and its effects on the likelihood of the hypotheses will be clearly explained. 

We have republished the following two analyses using the new model:

  1. Who carried out the chemical attack in Ghouta on August 21, 2013, reiterating the unpopular finding that the Syrian government did not order the attack.
  2. What caused the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370, confirming that the pilot likely committed suicide. 

We are also working hard analyzing the 2020 election results for indications of fraud, and will soon publish our analysis on how the COVID-19 pandemic started, with some surprising results…

We invite you to keep following us on social media (and invite your friends!) for updates on new stories, and ask for your help reviewing our analyses and contributing your inputs.

$100,000 Debate Challenge: Chemical Attack in Syria

Among the many atrocities of the Syrian Civil War, the one that stood out was the use of chemical weapons, and particularly the nerve agent sarin. 

While there is general agreement that there were multiple sarin attacks, most of the Western population has accepted that the attacks were carried out by the Syrian government. This assumption is so entrenched that objections to it are widely considered to be “conspiracy theories”.

Rootclaim, however, examined the evidence using a probabilistic analysis, and the calculated conclusion revealed that it is much more likely that opposition forces were at fault

Most of Rootclaim’s conclusions on other issues later became the consensus opinion, despite some initial pushback. Since this is yet to happen with regard to the sarin attacks in Syria, we decided to issue an open $20,000 challenge to debate anyone on this matter. This challenge has gone unanswered since April 2018, and we are now presenting it here in more detail, and increasing the bounty to $100,000. By doing so we hope to demonstrate the superiority of reasoning methods that integrate honest consideration of multiple hypotheses, unbiased analysis of evidence, and probabilistic inference.

The challenge

Win a debate with a Rootclaim team member about the sarin attacks in Syria and take home $100,000. See our Rootclaim Challenge page for additional topics.

The debate

Who carried out the sarin attacks during the Syrian civil war?

  • Rootclaim will argue that opposition forces were responsible.
  • Will anyone defend the commonly accepted hypothesis that the Syrian government was responsible? 

This is the conclusion reached by the US government, Britain, France, and the joint investigation by the United Nations and OPCW (Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons).

Do you have another hypothesis (e.g. Russia did it, or that some attacks were by the Syrian government while others were by the opposition)? Write to us and we’ll consider it.

The stakes: $100,000 each

This is the first in a series of Rootclaim Challenges, modeled after projects such as James Randi’s million dollar challenge, offered to anyone who can demonstrate paranormal powers in a lab setting (all attempts failed). To deter repeated submissions with the intention of winning by luck, we require the challenger to risk the same amount. Applicants who can’t afford to risk $100,000 are encouraged to pool funds together or even crowdfund it. We are willing to reduce the stakes as low as $10,000 for applicants already involved in public debate on the issue.

The motivation here is not to make money, but to elevate the level of public discourse (read about how challenges like this may help people reevaluate their positions, something that never happens in a heated online exchange).

Format

Both sides will first agree on two judges with strong analytical skills, relevant experience, no previous endorsement of either side, no relevant political biases, and who declare they will examine both hypotheses equally.

Choosing judges will be done publicly on Twitter, so evasion attempts by either side, such as offering biased judges, are exposed. As an example of our honest approach to this process, in a past discussion, when Nassim Taleb offered Glenn Greenwald as a judge, we agreed to bend the rules and accept him, even though he previously said there is “overwhelming” evidence the government is responsible (contrary to Rootclaim’s conclusion) – because we think he is capable of changing his mind when presented with evidence.

Each side will have 8 hours in total to present its case, including time to respond to the other side’s claims, as part of a two-day event.

The debate will be based on all currently available evidence. The goal here is not to trip up or trap the opponent, but to determine which hypothesis is better supported by the evidence. If you have new evidence, or evidence we overlooked, it should first be shared, so we can update the analysis, and if it doesn’t significantly change the conclusion, the challenge can be accepted. We are not claiming to have better evidence, but rather aim to demonstrate the superiority of probabilistic reasoning over human reasoning, when evaluating the same evidence.

Each judge has to declare which of the two hypotheses is more likely. If both agree, the prize pool, minus the debate expenses, is paid to the winner. Otherwise, it is split.

We are flexible – feel free to contact us with offers.

Who declined so far?

The following people have been sent a tweet offering to participate in the challenge but declined or failed to respond. All of them have publicly expressed very high confidence that the Syrian government is responsible.

  1. Eliot Higgins – Founder of Bellingcat.
  2. Brian Whitaker – Journalist and former Middle East editor of The Guardian.
  3. Chris York – Senior editor of Huffington Post UK.
  4. Josie Ensor – Middle East correspondent for The Telegraph.
  5. Scott Lucas – Editor of EA WorldView and Professor at University of Birmingham.
  6. Richard Hall – Middle East correspondent for The Independent.
  7. Julie Leranz – Senior adviser at The Israel Project and a director at The Human Security Centre.
  8. Kristyan Benedict – Amnesty International UK Campaigns Manager.
  9. Dan Kaszeta – Security and CBRN specialist and writer for Bellingcat.
  10. Tobias Schneider – Research fellow at Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi).
  11. Gregory Koblentz – Director of Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University.
  12. Numerous other individuals who were very active on social media discussing this issue.

Have you notified anyone of the challenge and they declined it? Let us know and we’ll add them to the list.

Stonehenge by the numbers

There have been many hypotheses surrounding Stonehenge and its long-lost origins. Can a mathematical assessment by Rootclaim help shed light on its original purpose?

The large prehistoric monument in rural England is comprised of a circle of upright stones. It was constructed around 5,000 years ago, under circumstances that have long been lost in the annals of history. Some believe that Stonehenge served a religious function, while others say it was used as a burial site or a place of mystical healing. Yet others argue that it served as a giant calendar. There are also conflicting claims about how the bluestones used to build Stonehenge were moved from their place of origin 150 miles away. One explanation is that a glacier flow moved the stones, while another view says that people transported them from quarries in Preseli.

How can probability theory help?

Probability theory helps researchers measure uncertainty. And there’s plenty of uncertainty surrounding Stonehenge. By using a probabilistic framework, we can model the likelihood of each piece of evidence relating to Stonehenge. Continue reading

Khan Sheikhoun: Separating Evidence from Speculation in the UN JIM Report

The human mind doesn’t deal well with complexity. It seeks shortcuts, often being fooled by one of many cognitive biases. One of the goals at Rootclaim is to reduce uncertainty by breaking down complex questions into more manageable pieces. This whole system is strengthened by the open crowd-sourced approach, which increases the breadth, depth, and creativity of the analysis. A good case in point is the contrast between the recent UN Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) report on the Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack, and the Rootclaim analysis of the same incident.

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Finding Bin Laden: Did Pakistan Know

Hiding in Plain Sight

For almost a decade, Osama Bin Laden eluded escape, despite a $25 million bounty on his head. That ended in May 2011, when two American helicopters touched down outside a walled compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. American soldiers stormed Bin Laden’s safehouse, shooting and killing him. Bin Laden’s death raised more questions than it answered. The most glaring question: did the Pakistani government realize that Bin Laden was hiding under their noses?

The Rootclaim analysis of this question looked at extensive evidence. This included information reported about the Bin Laden compound, leaked communications, US behavior following the raid, statements by Pakistani leaders, and the findings of the Abbottabad Commission Report. Continue reading

Dealing with Dependencies: Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

What Caused the Disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370?

Malaysia Airlines flight 370 disappeared on March 8, 2014. The location of the plane and the reason it is missing remain unknown. In order to find the most probable solution to this mystery, the Rootclaim analysis of this story currently considers nine hypotheses: the pilot committed suicide; the co-pilot committed suicide; passengers hijacked the plane; the pilot hijacked the plane; in-flight fire; turbulence; the flight was shot down; fuselage crack; and that an improperly repaired wing-tip caused the crash. At the moment, the evidence suggests that the pilot crashed the plane while committing suicide.

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Estimating Initial Probability: Don’t Forget the Prior!

Overlooking the Initial Probability

One common trap of human intuition is failing to take into account the plausibility of an event before considering the context-specific evidence of the case at hand. Without knowing how plausible a hypothesis is in general, it is easy to fall into the trap (test yourself!) of overestimating the initial probability for inherently unlikely theories. This is known as the Prosecutor’s fallacy, one of the main flaws of human reasoning.

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Ghouta Attack: Challenging Conventional Wisdoms

Ghouta Attack

On August 21, 2013, the war in Syria reached a new low. Horrific pictures and stories began to spread about an attack near Damascus. Reports of chemical weapon use in the Ghouta region soon followed.

It was soon confirmed that there had indeed been a chemical attack. Deadly sarin-gas rockets had hit multiple areas within the Ghouta region, causing hundreds of casualties. But while there had clearly been an attack, its origins were less obvious. Syria, Russia, the US, UN, and opposition fighters all argued about who was responsible. These claims often reflected political interests more than truth-seeking. At Rootclaim, we set out to sift through the evidence in search of more objective conclusions.

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MH 17: Weak Evidence Matters

Discounting Weak Evidence

One pitfall to avoid is prematurely discounting seemingly weak evidence. Weak evidence can take many forms. It could be evidence that seems very unlikely under all hypotheses. Or it could be evidence that is non-intuitive and doesn’t seem to fit what we consider “conclusive” evidence.

When evaluating evidence, it’s easy to get distracted looking for “irrefutable” evidence (more on that in an upcoming blog post). However, that’s a mistake. What’s really important is the ratio between how likely evidence is under the hypotheses.

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Evidence in Flight 370: Snowflakes Add Up

Strength in Numbers

How much does a snowflake weigh? How about a drop of water? If you’ve ever shoveled snow, or picked up a large jug of water, you know that the weight adds up. The same principle holds true with evaluating evidence. When starting an analysis, we often find little hints that slightly support one hypothesis over the other. Many people might think that these clues wouldn’t really have an impact. Or they might assume that a piece of evidence with a significant influence on the hypotheses renders other evidence meaningless.

However, just like snow, those little pieces of evidence can add up. It’s hard to shovel up thousands of snowflakes at a time (even though individually they’re almost weightless). Likewise, enough evidence pointing in the same direction can have a weighty influence (even if each individual “proof” is not that strong independently).

 

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