Arrogant AND Paranoid–Not a Good Combination

“Masters of Arrogance,” my 27 Feb. 2010 post, talked of the American tendency to assume our mastery over an ignorant and often malevolent world. Unfortunately, there’s another downside to that posture, a paranoid tendency to assume that those ignorant and malevolent fools are out to get us. And these days, treacherous scientists are often at the head of that list.

This 20 Mar. 2010 New York Times article presents a good example: “Academic Paper in China Sets Off Alarms in U.S.”

The authors of this paper made the mistake of using standard science jargon, in this case “attack,” and set off paranoid reactions in the United States reminiscent of the reactions to a climate scientist’s use of the jargon word “trick” a while back.

Here’s the Chinese engineering student’s reaction to his new fame as a potential terrorist:

When reached by telephone, Mr. Wang said he and his professor had indeed published “Cascade-Based Attack Vulnerability on the U.S. Power Grid” in an international journal called Safety Science last spring. But Mr. Wang said he had simply been trying to find ways to enhance the stability of power grids by exploring potential vulnerabilities.

“We usually say ‘attack’ so you can see what would happen,” he said. “My emphasis is on how you can protect this. My goal is to find a solution to make the network safer and better protected.” And independent American scientists who read his paper said it was true: Mr. Wang’s work was a conventional technical exercise that in no way could be used to take down a power grid.

Sure looks that way to me, at least from my layman’s reading of the Science Direct abstract of “Cascade-based Attack Vulnerability on the US Power Grid.” Here it is. I pulled it straight off the Web:

The vulnerability of real-life networks subject to intentional attacks has been one of the outstanding challenges in the study of the network safety. Applying the real data of the US power grid, we compare the effects of two different attacks for the network robustness against cascading failures, i.e., removal by either the descending or ascending orders of the loads. Adopting the initial load of a node j to be Lj=[kj(Σmset membership, variantΓjkm)]α with kj and Γj being the degree of the node j and the set of its neighboring nodes, respectively, where α is a tunable parameter and governs the strength of the initial load of a node, we investigate the response of the US power grid under two attacks during the cascading propagation. In the case of α<0.7, our investigation by the numerical simulations leads to a counterintuitive finding on the US power grid that the attack on the nodes with the lowest loads is more harmful than the attack on the ones with the highest loads. In addition, the almost same effect of two attacks in the case of α=0.7 may be useful in furthering studies on the control and defense [emphasis added] of cascading failures in the US power grid.

Keywords: Cascading failure; Attack; US power grid; Critical threshold; Tunable parameter

If you want to see if this Chinese student is really publicly announcing an attack, buy a copy of the whole article. It’s available for purchase. Just click here.

I’m not saying that Chinese scientists aren’t plotting against us. I’m sure they are, just as I’m sure every country in the world is plotting against enemies real or imagined. I’m just saying that the truly malevolent are hardly likely to publish their plans for real attacks in established journals and offer to let anyone buy these plans for a few bucks.

How stupid do we think our adversaries are? How bleeping ignorant of science have we become that this embarrassingly revealing story hit the NYT?

The article itself contains some zinger observations. Here’s one.

Nart Villeneuve, a researcher with the SecDev Group, an Ottawa-based cybersecurity research and consulting group [said,] “Once you start interpreting every move that a country makes as hostile, it builds paranoia into the system.”

And here’s another:

Mr. Wang’s paper cites the network science research of Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, a physicist at Northeastern University. Dr. Barabasi has written widely on the potential vulnerability of networks to so-called engineered attacks.

“I am not well vested in conspiracy theories,” Dr. Barabasi said in an interview, “but this is a rather mainstream topic that is done for a wide range of networks, and, even in the area of power transmission, is not limited to the U.S. system — there are similar studies for power grids all over the world.”

I don’t know what bothers me more. Arrogance, paranoia, or lousy research skills.

Cassandra

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