Fake News and Provocation

Fake news is the theme of the year. The worst, of course, is that with an element of truth, but which is deliberately massaged to give a different meaning. As an example, this week Israel launched attacks on Iranian positions in Syria and announced this was in response to an unprovoked missile attack by said Iranians. There was, apparently, such an attack, although not a very effective one. Twenty missiles were launched, and 16, (80%) never even made it to the Israeli border, and the remaining four were shot down by Israeli defences. What the Israelis did not mention was that these missiles would presumably be launched in response to “unprovoked attacks on Iranian positions previously”. But previously, the Israelis would have said those raids were because the Iranians had done . . . Get the picture. The truth is there had been a festering problem for some time. Not that knowing that would make much difference.

There had been previous examples that I have posted about. The assertion that only Russia could have made Novichoks was a lie. The chemistry is very clear and would be reasonably easy for a skilled organic chemist to make, with the right equipment. There were the alleged “chemical attacks” in Syria that needed cruise missile attacks, but there has never been any evidence of the victims. The interesting thing is that very few have questioned any of this.

All of which was exacerbated by Trump pulling out of the Iranian nuclear deal. Interestingly, there was no claim that Iran had violated its side of the deal. That was because it was reasonably clear it had not.

There seems to be a belief among many that their leaders know the truth, and are honourable people. Consider this extract from Wikipedia from an interview with Hermann Göring, a little before his suicide at Nürnberg:

Göring: It is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship.

Gustave Gilbert: There is one difference. In a democracy, the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars.

Göring: Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.

That seems to be unfortunately true. How much real say has Congress had in the US military interventions recently?

Of course, it is not just the military that gets afflicted with fake news. In recent newspaper articles here, President Trump has accused a number of countries for being “free-loaders” and “extortionists” at the expense of the poor US pharmaceutical companies, through not paying properly for the costs of research needed to develop these drugs. There were two articles as examples. One had a company supplying a new anti-ebola vaccine to the Congo to deal with a further outbreak and gave the impression that this was essentially charity in that the company had developed this and would never recover its research costs. The other article said that the company had charged an “extortionate” $5 million for 300,000 vials of the vaccines, and that the company had never developed it; they had purchased the develop vaccine rights from a Canadian national laboratory. See the problem? Real fibs here. Also, note the massaging, by accusing the company of ripping off the purchasers. The cost is $16.66 per vial, and given that the vials have to be very carefully stored and handled, and of course there are significant manufacturing costs because somewhere along the lines they had to handle real ebola, maybe that is quite a fair price.

I recently saw a TV program where an old reporter was complaining that the standard of reporting had been shot to pieces. Yes, the old often find fault with the young, but maybe he has a real point.

Misleading Accusations

Fake news is becoming more common, and most of it is either political in nature or it is an attempt to be humorous. Last week I posted on the attempted murder of the two Skripals. Since then there have been a raft of accusations, some of which border on the pathetic, and some of which are definitely misleading.

The first example comes from the Russians. A Russian ambassador stated that for the British to be able to identify this agent as a Novichok, they must have a sample, therefore they are making it. There was then the implication that this could have been the source, although he never actually said he believed it. This last implication is just plain stupid. I am quite convinced the British would not do this. If they wanted to get rid of the Skripals, which I do not believe they would, at the very least they would do it in a way that would not harm anyone else. It is almost as if the Russian government sees itself as some sort of gangster organization and thinks everyone else is too. That is why I think it was a stupid comment; it is the sort of thing that immediately backfires.

But what about the point that Porton Down must have samples? That is just plain wrong. They must have some sort of expertise, but since it is the UK national defence laboratory, that expertise should be taken for granted. If so, it is a rather straightforward task to identify something like that. We know what the structures involve, and such structures do not occur in nature. You have to have some idea what it could be before you start if your sample is really small, but given the circumstances, that would be a given. One approach would be to run a mass spectrum of the sample (having done some sort of chromatographic purification), and do it under a few different conditions. One such determination would be low energy ionization to determine the overall molecular weight, which tells you how many atoms are there, and if the instrument is good enough, the molecular formula. That is because although all elements comprise protons and neutrons, which have a constant mass, the binding energy varies from atom to atom, and from relativity there are clear but very small mass differences between the various possibilities from the general molecular weight. The next attempt would be hit it with higher energy, which would break it into fragments, and again the molecular weights of the fragments will tell you how the various groups are assembled. Finally, some small groups will give you more information, and the exercise then is to interpret how to put this back together again. Of course had they ever had access to a sample, they would have records of the fragmentation patterns of all the Novichoks they knew about. So there is little doubt the British authorities would have been able to find out what this was without having to go around making or having samples.

However, then the British politicians made a further statement: we can tell where it came from through the structure. Sorry, but you can’t. That statement violates the first law of thermodynamics, from which you can show the nature of a chemical is independent of how it was made, or from where. Had there been tonnes of the stuff, yes, then you might, not directly from the structure but rather once you knew what it was, you would know who made it because chemical plant, by and large, gets dedicated to making one substance and there would probably be only one making some of these components. But at the gram level, there is no way of knowing from its structure where it came from.

The problem with these sort of comments is they sound convincing to those who do not know much about the general subject However, eventually someone points out the errors and conspiracy theories start up. When it becomes known that the authorities made politically desirable statements, all sorts of rubbish comes out of the woodwork. Another problem with such announcements is that they may look to be politically desirable at the time, but what about the downstream consequences? In this case, the desire to blame Russia has set off some tit for tat diplomatic expulsions, and some sanctions. Now what? Why could that not have waited until the evidence came in? If it can be shown that Russian agents did it, then surely the various actions would be stronger and even the Russians might seem embarrassed. But suppose some individual or small rogue organization did it? Now Russia has been made angry for no good purpose. Nothing has been done that could not have waited, so why not wait and make sure the conclusions are right?