Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Creationist 419 Scam

You would think that outrageous claims are so likely to be rejected that the person making the claim would just give up and go away. For an example of this you might check out this Sensuous Curmudgeon post "ICR: Plants Are Not Alive". The Institute for Creation Research claims that because plants do not move and do not have blood, they are not alive, and they justify this based on the Old Testament and a some quadruple backwards spinning logical somersaults that would make Gabby Douglas gawk. There are plenty of other examples, but I won't belabor the point. As my buddies at The Sensuous Curmudgeon often note, the scammers* have to know they have no scientific standing, but they do it anyway. WHY?

Consider a known scam that everyone can agree is a scam; one that is no farther away than your email SPAM folder. Microsoft scientist Cormac Herley has a paper out:

Edit: Original link seems broken. Try this instead.

... dissecting the mathematics of the Nigerian 419 scam. The Wall Street Journal Online has a less technical summary, see "Why We Should Scam the Scammers".

Here is a brief quote from Herley, with my emphasis added:

"... Far-fetched tales of West African riches strike most as comical. Our analysis suggests that is an advantage to the attacker, not a disadvantage. Since his attack has a low density of victims the Nigerian scammer has an over-riding need to reduce false positives. By sending an email that repels all but the most gullible the scammer gets the most promising marks to self-select, and tilts the true to false positive ratio in his favor."

 Here is Herley again, later on:

"Since gullibility is unobservable, the best strategy is to get those who possess this quality to self-identify. An email with tales of fabulous amounts of money and West African corruption will strike all but the most gullible as bizarre. It will be recognized and ignored by anyone who has been using the Internet long enough to have seen it several times.  [ ... ]  It won’t be pursued by anyone who consults sensible family or fiends, or who reads any of the advice banks and money transfer agencies make available. Those who remain are the scammers ideal targets."
It's brilliant actually. Finding people susceptible to a scam is hard, but weeding out those least susceptible is as easy as concocting a lame story. The more outrageous the tale, the less likely it is to attract those who can see through it, leaving those who are mostly likely to be successfully fleeced by the scammer.

There's is a shorter summary, and an older one; Abraham Lincoln put it like this, "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time."

The scammers know that most people will apply some amount of logic and reason and reject the obviously incorrect, and this is what they want. They want to weed out the majority who will never buy into the scam, and speak to the few they might fool. When the scammer is the ICR and the marks falls for the false dichotomy that religious belief must overrule scientific knowledge, the scam is particularly insidious.

Herley suggests a response to the 419 scams, to counter-SPAM the scammers with automated responses, false positives that waste time and money and take the profit out of the scam. This would be harder to apply to Creationist scammers, requiring a large number of people (or automated facsimiles) to "Go Poe" and troll the Creationists where they live. That doesn't sound like fun, and it doesn't strike me as ethical. Still, the suggestion has been made before.

* I'd like to make distinction between those who hold to Creationist belief and those those making claims in support of Creation science. The former may hold a sincere belief, but the latter are deliberately lying in an attempt to undermine science and science education.