Skip to comments.Why stuff just happens (Twelve bio-scientists die )
Posted on 08/18/2002 4:28:56 PM PDT by USA21
Why stuff just happens
by Lisa Belkin
Twelve bio-scientists die in apparently suspicious circumstances and the conspiracy theorists have a field day. Surely they must be connected? Not so. We see conspiracies when we search for patterns to make sense of random events
When the Miami police found Benito Que he was slumped in a desolate sidestreet near the empty spot where he usually parked his Ford Explorer. At about the same time, Don C. Wiley mysteriously disappeared. His car was abandoned on a bridge outside Memphis, where he had just had a jovial dinner with friends. The following week, Vladimir Pasechnik collapsed in London, apparently from a stroke.
The list would grow to nearly a dozen in the space of four nerve-jangling months. Stabbed in Leesburg, Virginia; suffocated in an air-locked lab in Geelong, Australia; found wedged under a chair, naked from the waist down, in a blood-splattered apartment in Norwich; hit by a car while jogging; killed in a private plane crash; shot dead while a pizza delivery man served as a decoy.
What joined these men was their proximity to the world of bioterror and germ warfare. Que was a researcher at the University of Miami School of Medicine. Wiley knew as much as anyone about how the immune system responds to attacks from viruses such as ebola. Pasechnik was Russian; before he defected he helped the Soviet Union to transform cruise missiles into biological weapons. The chain of deaths these three men and eight others like them began last autumn, when emergency teams in moonsuits were scouring Washington, when US postal workers were dying and the entire nation was afraid to open its mail.
In more ordinary times, this cluster of deaths might not have been noticed, but these are not ordinary times. Now we are spooked and startled by stories such as these all these scientists dying within months of one another, at the precise moment when tiny organisms loom as a gargantuan threat. The story of these dozen or so deaths began as a curiosity and was transformed, rumour by rumour, into the spectre of a conspiracy that circulated first on the internet and then in the mainstream media. What are the odds, after all?
What are the odds, indeed?
For this is not about conspiracy but about coincidence unexpected connections that are both riveting and rattling. Much religious faith is based on the idea that almost nothing is coincidence; science is an exercise in eliminating the taint of coincidence; police work is often a feint and parry between those trying to prove coincidence and those trying to prove complicity. Without coincidence, there would be few movies worth watching (Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine), and literary plots would come grinding to a disappointing halt. (What if Oedipus had not happened to marry his mother?) The true meaning of the word is a surprising concurrence of events, perceived as meaningfully related, with no apparent causal connection.
In other words, pure happenstance. Yet by merely noticing a coincidence, we elevate it to something that transcends its definition as pure chance.
We are discomfited by the idea of a random universe. Like Mel Gibsons character Graham Hess in the new movie Signs, we want to feel that our lives are governed by a grand plan. Coincidence feels like a loss of control perhaps, says John Allen Paulos, a professor of mathematics at Temple University in Philadelphia. Finding a reason or a pattern where none exists makes it less frightening, he says, because events get placed in the realm of the logical. Believing in fate, or even conspiracy, can be more comforting than facing the fact that sometimes things just happen.
In the past year there has been plenty of conspiracy, of course, but also a lot of things have just happened.
We need to be reminded, Paulos and others say, that, most of the time, patterns that seem stunning to us arent even there. For instance, although the numbers 9/11 (9 plus 1 plus 1) equal 11, and American Airlines Flight 11 was the first to hit the twin towers, and there were 92 people on board (9 plus 2), and September 11 is the 254th day of the year (2 plus 5 plus 4), and there are 11 letters each in Afghanistan, New York City and the Pentagon (and, while were counting, in George W. Bush), and the World Trade Centre towers themselves took the form of the number 11, this seeming numerical message is not actually a pattern that exists but merely a pattern that we have found. (After all, the second flight to hit the towers was United Airlines Flight 175, and the one that hit the Pentagon was American Airlines Flight 77, and the one that crashed in a Pennsylvania field was United Flight 93, and the Pentagon is shaped, well, like a pentagon.)
The same goes for the way we think of miraculous intervention. We need to be told that those lucky last-minute stops for an Egg McMuffin at McDonalds or to pick up a watch at the repair shop stops that saved the lives of people who would otherwise have been in the towers when the first plane hit certainly looked like miracles but could have been predicted by statistics.
What are the odds? The mathematician will answer that even in the most unbelievable situations, the odds are actually very good. The law of large numbers says that with a large enough denominator in other words, in a big wide world stuff will happen, even very weird stuff. The really unusual day would be one where nothing unusual happens, explains Persi Diaconis, a statistician. Given that there are 280 million people in the United States, he says, 280 times a day, a one-in-a-million shot is going to occur.
Throw your best story at him the one about running into your childhood playmate on a street corner in Azerbaijan, or marrying a woman who has a birthmark shaped like a shooting star that is a perfect match for your own, or dreaming that your great aunt Lucy would break her collarbone hours before she actually did and he will nod politely and answer that such things happen all the time. Statisticians emphasise that when something striking happens, it only incidentally happens to us.
When the numbers are large enough, and the distracting details are removed, the chance of anything is fairly high. Imagine a meadow, he says, and then imagine placing your finger on a blade of grass. The chance of choosing exactly that blade of grass would be one in a million or even higher, but because it is a certainty that you will choose a blade of grass, the odds of a particular one being chosen are no more or less than the one to either side.
Robert Tibshirani, a statistician at Stanford University in California, uses the example of a hand of poker. The chance of getting a royal flush is very low, he says, and if you were to get a royal flush, you would be surprised. But the chance of any hand in poker is low. You just dont notice when you get all the others; you notice when you get the royal flush.
Which brings us to the death of Benito Que, who was not, despite reports to the contrary, a microbiologist. He was a researcher in a lab at the University of Miami Sylvester Cancer Centre, where he was testing various agents as potential cancer drugs. He never worked with anthrax or any infectious disease.
But those facts got lost amid the confusion and the prevalence of distracting details in the days after he died. So did the fact that he had hypertension. On the afternoon of Monday November 19, Que attended a late-afternoon lab meeting, and as it ended he mentioned that he hadnt been feeling well. A nurse took his blood pressure, which was 190/110. Dr Bach Ardalan, a professor of medicine at the University of Miami and Ques boss, wanted to admit him to hispital but Que insisted on going home.
Que had the habit of parking his car on Northwest 10th Avenue, a side street that Ardalan describes as being beyond the area considered to be safe. His spot that day was in front of a house where a young boy was playing outside. Four youths approached Que as he neared his car, the boy later told the police, and there might have been some baseball bats involved. When the police arrived, they found Que unconscious. His briefcase was at his side, but his wallet was gone. His car was eventually found abandoned several miles from the scene. He was taken to hospital, the same one at which he worked, where he spent more than a week in a coma before dying.
The mystery, limited at first to small items in local Florida newspapers, was What killed Benito Que? Could it have been the mugging? A CAT scan showed no signs of bone fracture. In fact, there were no scrapes or bruises or other physical signs of assault. Perhaps he died of a stroke? His brain scan did show a huge intracranial bleed, Ardalan says, which would have explained his earlier headache, and his high blood pressure would have made a stroke likely. In other words, this man just happened to be mugged when he was a stroke waiting to be triggered. But it is not a coincidence that the world would have noticed if Don Wiley had not disappeared.
Don C. Wiley was a microbiologist. He did some work with anthrax, and a lot of work with HIV, and he was also quite familiar with ebola, smallpox, herpes and influenza. At 57, he was the father of four children and a professor of biochemistry and biophysics in the department of molecular and cellular biology at Harvard.
On November 15, four days before the attack on Benito Que, Wiley was in Memphis to visit his father and to attend the annual meeting of the scientific advisory board of St Judes Research Hospital. At midnight, he left a banquet in downtown Memphis. Friends and colleagues say he had a little to drink but did not appear impaired, and they remember him as being in a fine mood, looking forward to seeing his wife and children, who were about to join him for a short holiday.
Wileys father lives in a Memphis suburb, and that is where Wiley should have been going after the banquet. Instead, his car was found facing in the opposite direction on the Hernando DeSoto Bridge, which spans the Mississippi River at the border of Tennessee and Arkansas.
When the police found the car at 4am it was unlocked, the keys were in the ignition and the petrol tank was full. There was a scrape of yellow paint on the drivers side, which appeared to come from a construction sign on the bridge, and a right hubcap was missing on the passenger side, where the wheel rims were also scraped. There was no sign, however, of Don Wiley.
The police trawled the muddy Mississippi, but they didnt really expect to find him. Currents run fast at that part of the river, and a body would be quickly swept away. At the start of the search, they thought he might have committed suicide. Detectives searched Wileys financial records, his family relationships, his scientific research anything for a hint that the man might have had cause to take his own life.
Finding nothing, the investigation turned medical. Wiley, they learnt, had a seizure disorder that he had hidden from all but family and close friends. Had Wiley, who could well have been tired, disorientated by bridge construction and under the influence of a few drinks, had a seizure that sent him over the side of the bridge?
That was the theory the police spoke of in public, but they were also considering something else. The week that Wiley disappeared coincided with the peak of anthrax fear throughout the US. Memphis was not untouched by the scare; a federal judge and two area congressmen each received hoax letters. Could it be mere chance that this particular scientist, who had profound knowledge of these microbes, had disappeared at this time?
The circumstances were peculiar, says George Bolds, a spokesman for the FBI. There were questions that had to be asked. Could he have been kidnapped because his scientific abilities would have made him capable of creating anthrax? Or maybe hed had some involvement in the mailing of the anthrax, and hed disappeared to cover his tracks? Did his co-conspirators grab him and kill him?
As a species, we appear to be biologically programmed to see patterns and conspiracies, and this tendency increases when we sense that were in danger. We are hard-wired to overreact to coincidences, Diaconis says. It goes back to primitive man. You look in the bush, it looks like stripes, youd better get out of there before you determine the odds that youre looking at a tiger.
For decades, all academic talk of coincidence has been in the context of the mathematical. New work by scientists such as Joshua B. Tenenbaum, an assistant professor in the department of brain and cognitive sciences at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is bringing coincidence into the realm of human cognition.
Finding connections is not only the way we react to the extraordinary, Tenenbaum postulates, but also the way we make sense of our ordinary world. Coincidences are a window into how we learn about things, he says. They show us how minds derive richly textured knowledge from limited situations.
To put it another way, our reaction to coincidence shows how our brains fill in the factual blanks. In an optical illusion, he explains, our brain fills the gaps. Illusions also prove that our brain is capable of imposing structure on the world, he says.
One of the things our brain is designed to do is infer the causal structure of the world from limited information. If not for this ability, he says, a child could not learn to speak. A child sees a conspiracy, he says, in that others around him are obviously communicating and it is up to the child to decode the method. But these same mechanisms can misfire, he warns. They were well suited to a time of cavemen and tigers and can be overloaded in our highly complex world. Its why we have the urge to work everything into one big grand scheme, he says. We do like to weave things together.
We forget all the times that nothing happens, says Ruma Falk, a professor emeritus of psychology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Dreams are another example, Falk says. We dream a lot. Every night and every morning. But it sometimes happens that the next day something reminds you of that dream. Then you think it was a premonition.
Falks work is focused on the question of why we are so entranced by coincidence in the first place. Her research itself began with a coincidence. She was on sabbatical in New York from her native Israel, and on the night before Rosh Hashana she met a friend from Jerusalem on a Manhattan street corner. She and the friend marvelled at the coincidence. What is the probability of this happening?, she remembers wondering.
How stupid we were, Falk says now, to be so surprised. We related to all the details that had converged to create that moment. But the real question was, what was the probability that at some time in some place I would meet one of my circle of friends? And when I told this story to others at work, they encoded the events as two Israelis meeting in New York, something that happens all the time.
Why was her experience so resonant for her, Falk asked herself, but not for those around her? In one of the many experiments she has conducted since then, she visited several large university classes with a total of 200 students and asked each student to write his or her birth date on a card. She then sorted the cards and found the handful of birthdays that students had in common. Falk wrote those dates on the blackboard, then handed out a second card and asked all the students to use a scale to rate how surprised they were by these coincidences.
The cards were numbered, so Falk could determine which answers came from respondents who found their own birth date written on the board. Those in that subgroup were consistently more surprised by the coincidence than the rest of the students. It shows the stupid power of personal involvement, Falk says. The more personal the event, the more meaning we give it. The fact that personal attachment adds significance to an event is the reason we tend to react so strongly to the coincidences surrounding September 11; that tragedy feels as if it happened to us all.
Most often, though, coincidence is a sort of Rorschach test. We look into it and find what we already believe. Its like an archer shooting an arrow and then drawing a target around it, Falk says. We give it meaning because it does mean something to us.
Vladimir Pasechnik was 64 when he died. His early career was spent in the Soviet Union working at Biopreparat, that countrys biological weapons programme. He defected in 1989 and spilled what he knew to the British, revealing for the first time the immense scale of Soviet work with anthrax, plague, tularemia and smallpox.
For the next ten years he worked at the Centre for Applied Microbiology and Research, part of the Department of Health. Two years ago he left to form Regma Biotechnologies, whose goal was to develop treatment for tuberculosis and other infectious disease. Just before he died, Pasechnik had consulted authorities about the growing anthrax scare. Despite all these intriguing details, there is nothing to suggest that his death was caused by anything other than a stroke.
Robert Schwartzs death, while far more dramatic and bizarre, also appears to have nothing to do with the fact that he was an expert on DNA sequencing and analysis. On December 10 he was found dead on the kitchen floor of his isolated log-and-stone farmhouse near Leesburg, Virginia, where he had lived alone since losing his wife to cancer four years ago and his children to college. Schwartz had been stabbed to death with a two-foot-long sword, and his killer had carved an X on the back of his neck.
Three friends of Schwartzs college-age daughter were soon arrested for what the prosecutor called a planned assassination. A few weeks later police arrested the daughter as well. One suspect has a history of mental illness, and their statements to police talk of devil worship and revenge. There is no talk, however, of microbiology.
On the same day that Schwartz died, Set Van Nguyen, 44, was found dead in an air-locked storage chamber at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisations animal diseases facility in Geelong, Australia. A months-long internal investigation concluded that a string of equipment failures had allowed nitrogen to build up in the room, causing Nguyen to suffocate. Although the centre itself dealt with microbes such as mousepox, which is similar to smallpox, Nguyen himself did not.
He was in no way involved in research into mousepox, says Stephen Prowse, acting director of the Australian lab during the investigation. He was a valued member of the laboratorys technical support staff and not a research scientist.
Word of all these deaths found its way to Ian Gurney, author of The Cassandra Prophecy: Armageddon Approaches, a book that uses clues from the Bible to calculate that Judgment Day will occur in or about the year 2023.
After September 11 he entered a news alert request into Yahoo!, asking to be notified whenever there was news with the key word microbiologist. First Que, then Wiley, then Pasechnik, Schwartz and Nguyen popped up on Gurneys computer. Im not a conspiracy theorist, says the man who has predicted the end of the world, but it certainly did look suspicious.
Gurney compiled what he had learnt from these scattered accounts into an article that he sent to a number of websites. Over the past few weeks, Gurney wrote, several world-acclaimed scientific researchers specialising in infectious diseases and biological agents such as anthrax, as well as DNA sequencing, have been found dead or have gone missing.
The Gurney article travelled from one website to the next. Dr James Robins, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Harvard, points out that the web has changed the scale of these things. Had there been a string of dead scientists back in 1992 rather than 2002, he says, it is possible that no one would have ever known. Back then, you would not have had the technical ability to gather all these bits and pieces of information, while today youd be able to pull it off. Its well known that if you take a lot of random noise, you can find chance patterns in it, and the net makes it easier to collect random noise.
Over the months, Gurney added names to his list and continued to send it to virtual and actual publications around the US. Mainstream newspapers started taking up the story. The tally of microbiologists is now at 11, give or take, depending on the story you read. In addition to the men already discussed, the names that appear most often are these: Victor Korshunov, a Russian expert in intestinal bacteria, who was bashed over the head near his home in Moscow; Ian Langford, a British expert in environmental risk and disease, who was found dead in his home near Norwich naked from the waist down and wedged under a chair; Tanya Holzmayer, who worked as a microbiologist near San Jose and was shot seven times by a former colleague when she opened the door to a pizza delivery man; David WynnWilliams, who studied microbes in the Antarctic and was hit by a car while jogging near his home in Cambridge; and Steven Mostow, an expert in influenza, who died when the plane he was piloting crashed near Denver, Colorado.
Janet Shoemaker, director of public and scientific affairs for the American Society for Microbiology, heard the tales and points out that her organisation alone has 41,000 members, meaning that the deaths of 11 worldwide, most of whom were not technically microbiologists at all, is not statistically surprising. This is just a coincidence. In another political climate I dont think anyone would have noticed, she says.
Ken Alibek heard them, too, and dismissed them. Alibek is one of Americas best-known microbiologists. He was the No 2 man at Biopreparat (where Victor Pasechnik also worked) before he defected and now works with the US Government seeking antidotes for the very weapons he developed.
Those who have died, he says, did not really know anything about biological weapons, and if there were a conspiracy to kill scientists with such knowledge, he would be dead.
Don Wileys body was finally found on December 20, near Vidalia, Louisiana, about 300 miles south of where he disappeared.
The Memphis medical examiner, O.C. Smith, concluded that yellow paint marks on Wileys car suggest that he hit a construction sign on the Hernando DeSoto Bridge, as does the fact that a hubcap was missing from the right front tyre. Smiths theory is that heavy lorry traffic on the bridge can set off wind gusts and create roadway bounce, which might have been enough to cause Wiley to lose his balance after getting out of the car to inspect the scrapes. He was 6ft3in, and the bridge railing would have come up only to mid-thigh.
The Wiley family considers this case closed. These kinds of theories are something thats always there, says Wileys wife, Katrin Valgeirsdottir, who has heard all the rumours. People who want to believe it will believe it, and theres nothing anyone can say.
The Memphis Police also consider the case closed, and the local office of the FBI has turned its attention to other odd happenings. The talk of Memphis at the moment is the bizarre ambush of the citys coroner last month. He was wrapped in barbed wire and left lying in a stairwell of the medical examiners building with a live bomb strapped to his chest. Coincidentally, that coroner, O.C. Smith, carried out the much-awaited and somewhat controversial autopsy on Don Wiley.
What are the odds against that?
Who --- that echo-chamber ensemble of environmentalists --- by the way, have no similar "environmental impact statement" such as the "bizarre circumstances" of the bio-professionals in the above story?
Not to mention: You may wonder what other groups of scientifica there are ... and how they have fared lately --- the "double-blind" thing and all?
Yet of course, there are the dozens of people around Bill Clinton who dropped like flies; they are no doubt the chance measuring stick with which to mark off the others.
These constellations are unique to earth. If you were viewing the skies from a planet orbiting Betelgeuse in the Orion constellation, you would see entire different constellations, even if you were looking at the same stars as here on earth.
(...or was it the other way around?)
The utility I worked for used this algorithm to disprove the obvious. Example: Using this program, the probability of the sun rising tomorrow was calculated as 0.37.
Mike, you should include this formula in the next addition of your book, Electricity Comes From Walls c1995.
Well, for one thing, they're not all "world-class bio-scientists" nor did all of them work with anything that could be used in biowar; though worthless garbage sites like Rense.com, the popularizers of the whole thing, repeatedly omit or twist facts to make it all seem more ominous.
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