Nothing is impossible if you give me money

I’ve got a marvelous proposition for you: Give me a picture of a guy, and I’ll tell you if he’s a terrorist. Wait – that’s too easy. Instead, I’ll find one hidden in an Al-Jazeera broadcast.

Unfortunately for all of us, the Justice Department said “we’re listening”.

Government Tries to Keep Secret What Many Consider a Fraud – NYTimes.com

Let’s say you’re a cunning guy with no soul, and want to make some cash. What better way than to take advantage of the government? Lots of money, not so bright – a scammer’s dream.

The “mark”, in this case, was a number of agencies – the Justice Department, Air Force, and others. Our con-man, Dennis Montgomery, gives computer programmers everywhere a bad name. Apparently, finding terrorists is as simple as giving him $20 million dollars. His “patented” (ooh shiny) software could, apparently, decode the hidden messages in Al-Jazeera broadcasts to warn about specific threats. What’s more, it could use footage from the Predator drones to identify terrorists. The government lapped it up, despite warnings from Bloomberg and (oddly) Playboy – and even themselves. The CIA decided his software was worthless, and the FBI discovered that he fabricated his demonstrations. But in this case, the left arm didn’t know what the right arm was doing – or should that be adjacent fingers on the security hand?

But this has consequences for people other than himself, and big ones. Remember all the alerts in the years after 2001? It seems that many were generated by the magic box here. Perhaps most notably was the Great Plane Recall in December 2003 – a large number of airliners in the middle of the Atlantic ocean were turned around and sent away from the United States based on an imagined threat, supposedly hidden in a crawl at the bottom of an Al-Jazeera broadcast. They were even in serious talks to shoot down the identified planes. The day of Obama’s inauguration, his software warned about a Somali plot – which was discovered the next day to be nonsense, though with a large waste of effort. But there’s more, and they’re kept secret for ‘security reasons’.

It’s now 2008. The CIA knows it’s a fraud, the FBI found proof in an investigation, and his backer is gone. So he partners up with a ex-Senator and current Congressman in a new company “Blxware” to do the same thing. When using his new connections to arrange a meeting with a top adviser to Dick Cheney, she was unconvinced. Company lawyers accused the¬† White House of endangering people’s lives. But he still has an in with the Air Force, and makes $3 million off a new deal. The Air Force, apparently, loves the product.

Why isn’t he on trial? Well, it seems the government is mortified. I don’t blame them – I sure would be – but I’m also not the guy who spent $20 million on snakeoil. But this is a systemic problem – since I can’t phrase it any better, directly from the NYT article:

A Pentagon study in January found that it had paid $285 billion in three years to more than 120 contractors accused of fraud or wrongdoing.

$285 billion dollars. Even in today’s political climate, where billions are tossed around like a buck at Starbucks, $285 billion is still a flabbergastingly large amount of money. Imagine how many schools this would help, or poor childrens’ doctor visits, or bridge improvements. It is, admittedly, hard to go through the budget and check everything at once – which is why it should have been happening continuously. But this is the definition of low-hanging fruit, from a budgetary standpoint – what easier way is there to save a few billion a year, than by getting rid of demonstrably-worthless¬† junk peddled by crooks? Cutting funding to Planned Parenthood doesn’t do it.

But enough politics. Fools and their money are easily parted, whether the fool is a Scientologist, a 1920s patent tonic user, a mother terrified of vaccines because of a quack doctor and a Playboy bunny, or a government terrified of ‘teh terrorists’. This phenomenon, clearly, is nothing new. People have been selling illusions for years and years – but it takes a special kind of person to cynically take advantage of it. Assuming that there will always be sociopaths of this sort, what can we do to prevent them taking advantage of us?

Education, in a word. Science is not magic, and if something claims to work in a meaningful sense, it can be tested and explained scientifically. But people need to understand that this is necessary. Unfortunately, with the diminishing standard of education in this country, particularly scientific, this is a tremendous challenge. Uneducated people don’t value education, and often actively oppose it – note the home-schooled Christian contingent over at Conservapedia. Our great national debates, such as global warming and evolution, stem from a lack of critical thinking. Our political process – on both sides – suffers when people are unable to evaluate viewpoints and arguments for themselves and instead rely on talking heads. Uneducated consumers make bad choices, buy bad products, make risky investments, and do things like take out loans they can never repay.

What’s the solution? We don’t have the “benefit” of being able to declare people unfit to make decisions for themselves, or their country (in the form of voting). And we shouldn’t – that’s not what America is about. But a functioning democracy is demonstrably dependent on an informed and involved electorate, and education towards this goal is of the utmost importance. At the moment, we have neither an informed nor involved electorate, so is it any surprise that our entire system falls apart?

As a species, we have gotten to where we are based on our science. Let’s not get left behind

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