The Intelligent Design Fallacy and Cyber-Warfare

Kevin Donovan points me to this article about last summer’s “cyber-attacks” against Georgian websites during the South Ossetia War:

what I don’t really understand is why it’s so hard to accept the fact that a bevy of nationalistic Russians may have decided to take revenge on Georgia after reading the news of the war WITHOUT coordinating their actions with the Russian government. Why did they need to coordinate anything if they were capable of launching DDOS without government assistance? By the same logic, we should be theorizing that the hordes of people who launched DDOS attacks on the Iranian government’s web-sites two months ago were also being led by DOD or the State Department. How many reasonable people believe that this wouldn’t have happened if the US government didn’t get involved?

This may look silly, but every time I hear of such theories, I am reminded of the famous conversation between Napoleon and the French astronomer Laplace. When the emperor asked the scientist why he didn’t mention God in his vision for the comprehensive world system, Laplace quipped that he had no need for that hypothesis.

2578321369_eca0a543bcKevin points out that this is an example of the intelligent design fallacy at work. I think this is a smart point, with the caveat that there’s also basic politics at work. It’s convenient for Russia critics to accuse the Russian government of engaging in an underhanded manner. And it’s convenient for people who think the US should beef up its “cyber-warfare” capabilities to exaggerate the scope of the cyber-warfare threat. Postulating Russian government involvement makes the activity seem more sinister than it otherwise would.

This also illustrates the fact that people are most likely to commit the intelligent design fallacy when talking about subjects they don’t know very much about. After all, DDOS attacks are not difficult to pull off, and are particularly well-suited to crowdsourcing; you certainly don’t need the resources of the government to do it. But if you’re a reporter with only a hazy idea of how the Internet works, and someone breathlessly tells you there’s a “cyber-attack” in progress, that sounds like the sort of thing that you’d need the resources of a government to pull off. And so the press magnifies petty vandalism into a potential threat to national security.

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