Party Game: From Dreams and Delusions to Wars and Wiretapping

Groups of people (administrations, investigative organizations, secret cabals) do not possess minds, of course, but in times of real, perceived, or contrived crisis -- war, stock frenzy, pestilence, even a sufficiently rancorous political campaign -- they do, I think, develop a very primitive sort of cohesiveness, a quasi-consciousness approaching perhaps that of a somewhat doltish person in a deep drug-induced stupor. When the group is in crisis, its fears, anxieties, and ideological biases and agendas will likely strengthen, while its contact with reality often becomes more tenuous. (Of course, I don't mean to deny the obvious, that all sorts of other considerations and motivations were operative at the beginning of the Iraq War as well.)

Furthermore, reporting during a war or other crisis is for a variety of reasons deplorably shoddy. The news the society does get is vague and generic, allowing ample room for the group analogue of dreams and hallucinations to develop. Societies without a free press and a literate population are especially vulnerable, but any society told that it's being threatened and that disbelievers are exacerbating the danger will tend to respond irrationally.

Spelling out the connection, I submit that ambiguity randomness, and lack of solid information in response to a group's obsessive questions and concerns can breed delusions in the group in the same way that the party game induces the subject to fashion his own chimerical fantasy. And, I reiterate, informative, skeptical, fastidious reporting is most needed when it's least likely to be forthcoming.

Add large numbers to the picture, and these speculations and metaphors are not without relevance to FISA and the Total Information Awareness program and its many descendants in the National Security Agency and elsewhere. Having so much unfiltered information (phone records, emails, internet searches, travel itineraries, financial statements, Facebook postings, credit card bills, etcetera) with which to work and having no requirement for specific focus or judicial warrant, any wild hunch or obsession can be pursued relentlessly without fear of disconfirmation.

The resulting combinatorial explosion of connections and interconnections will always provide ample raw material for the development of any investigative group's pet theory. If, for example, there are 400,000 Americans (and a million names) on the terrorist watch list, as the ACLU announced last month, then there are about 80 billion pairs of possible co-conspirators on the list and more than 10 quadrillion possible threesomes on the list. Search this large "party" diligently enough for confirmatory Yesses and ignore willfully enough disconfirmatory Noes, and who knows what will result.

It's unlikely to be a free, open, and peaceful society.

John Allen Paulos, a professor of mathematics at Temple University, is the author of the best-sellers "Innumeracy" and "A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper," as well as of the just-released "Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why The Arguments for God Just Don't Add Up" His "Who's Counting?" column on ABCNEWS.com appears the first weekend of every month.

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