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Friday, March 9, 2012

The "anti-Cassandra" curse: being always believed

It is well known that Cassandra was cursed so that her prophecies would never be believed. But there exists also an opposite curse affecting charismatic leaders who are always believed by their followers. In the long run, leaders are deluded into believing themselves infallible and the results are often disastrous. We could call that the "anti-Cassandra" curse.

People are easily duped into following charismatic leaders, as it is well known. But, while the psychology of adepts is not so difficult to understand (we all may fall in the trap, at least occasionally), it is less clear what passes in the minds of leaders. Do they really believe that they are as smart and powerful as they present themselves to their followers? Or are they consciously misleading their adepts for personal gains? Of course, both possibilities may be true in different circumstances, but a recent posting by Sam Harris convinced me that, in many cases, the leader is even more deluded than his/her followers.

Let me explain this point. First of all, give a look to this clip, taken from Sam Harris's blog. (No need to watch it all, just the first minute or so)

Now, I think you'll agree with me that what we are seeing looks very much like a staged fight. It is hard to say what exactly these guys are doing: maybe it is a show or maybe they are training as actors for some Chinese Kung-Fu movie. For sure, it seems unthinkable that their black-clad leader, Mr. Yanagi Ryuken, would believe that he can really defeat people in this way; without even touching them.

Really? Well, then give a look to this clip where we see again "master" Ryuken, but in a very different situation: fighting against a tough opponent who doesn't accept to be intimidated by Ryuken's alleged power. (note: be careful because it is really disturbing.)

How was that Master Ryuken agreed to submit himself to this punishment? The only explanation I can think of is that he really believed in his magic chi power.  This is also the opinion of Sam Harris, who states:

Master Ryuken apparently believed himself capable of defeating multiple attackers without deigning to touch them. Rather, he could rely upon the magic power of chi. Video of him demonstrating his devastating abilities shows that his students were grotesquely complicit in what must have been a long and colorful process of self-deception. Did these young athletes actually think that they were being hurled to the ground against their will? It is hard to know. What seems certain, however, is that Master Ryuken came to believe that he was invincible; otherwise he wouldn’t have invited a martial artist from another school to come test his powers.

I think this is a very general principle: leaders are easily subjected to this kind of self-delusion that we could call the "anti-Cassandra" curse. Whereas Cassandra was cursed so that she was never believed, charismatic leaders are cursed so that they are continuously believed and praised by their followers. Apparently, at some point something goes short-circuit in their minds and they start thinking that they really are invincible geniuses able to perform miraculous feats. Mr. Ryuken gives us an especially impressive example in the area of martial arts.

But the anti-Cassandra effect is active in many fields and it may be especially common in politics. Think of Benito Mussolini; Italy's charismatic leader for more than 20 years. During those times, a common political slogan in Italy was "Mussolini is always right."  In the end, it backfired, affecting Mussolini's mind and the disastrous results are well known. From Hitler's invasion of Russia to Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, country leaders consistently overestimate their power, most likely being misled by the aura of power that their own propaganda creates. 

Science is not immune to the anti-Cassandra curse. Think of the recent case of the "Energy Catalyser" or "E-Cat," the miracle nuclear device invented by Mr. Andrea Rossi. The lack of evidence on the powers of the E-Cat is rapidly consigning the device to the depths of "pathological science", where it belongs. Nevertheless, Rossi still claims that his invention is a nuclear reactor and he maintains a number of faithful followers who heap lavish praise on him (see here - in Italian). Does Mr. Rossi actually believe in the E-Cat power, just as Mr. Ryuken believed in his own chi power? Of course, we can't say for sure, but there are hints that Rossi may be a believer, not a scammer. If he had been consciously cheating, he could easily have used tricks to make his device appear to produce plenty of energy. Instead, what we see in the purported "demonstrations" of the E-Cat operation is simply a poor set-up that can't demonstrate anything. That, of course, leaves space for the believers to keep their faith intact. That's a group which may well include Mr. Rossi himself.

There are many more examples of the Anti-Cassandra effect at work, but at this point the mechanism should be clear. It is the result of a feedback which occurs between the leader and his (rarely her) followers. It is self-sustaining: as leaders are praised by their followers, they become more convinced of their own powers. This makes them very sure of themselves and that affects their followers who believe more and more in the power of their leaders. The end result can only be disaster. We could use the term "Ryuken effect", to define the sad fate of a lone deluded leader. But, more often, the disaster strikes also followers and innocent bystanders.

In the end, perhaps it is better to be a regular Cassandra. Nobody believes you, of course, but, at least, you don't overestimate your powers!


  1. It's been said that the only man who wasn't irretrievably ruined by being lionized was a certain Hebrew named Daniel.

  2. Ugo,

    more Cassandras definitely on the way, since NYT informs us that

    "Japan’s Nuclear Energy Industry Nears Shutdown, at Least for Now"

    52 of 54 nuclear reactors are closed... that a record budget deficit may be an unintended consequence is another matter...



  3. Worth spending 21 min:

    Jim Hansen's TED talk

    According to Hansen we have less than 10 years to start to reduce global CO2. According to EIA we have 5 years. According to me, we are fuc*ed...


    1. Black Swans, highly improbable energy innovations with enormous implications, are being born. Nickel Hydrogen systems are only one of them.

      See CHEAP GREEN and MOVING BEYOND OIL on the Aesop Institute site for a few others.

      400 Chernobyls? on that website may be a lever to accelerate the superseding of fossil fuels with decentralized green energy.

  4. I have not examined the E-Cat. I have Attended ICCF-7 in Vacouver. I Have questioned extensively BEN BUSH, MIKE MCKUBRE,Martin Fleischmann, ED STORMS and many others. It is not faith. It is a Real Mystery!!! Do your own Experiment. Look Martin & Stanley made fools out of all the "HOT FUSION" guys that spend $50,000,000,000 and never made one watt. Elementary Particles guys just skipped over low energy reactions to get to the sexy high energy BIG SCIENCE. LENR is Real and is"impossible" but it happens anyway. It's some kind of BOSE-EINSTEIN condensate phenomenon .

  5. Ugo
    Thanks for the warning.
    Ryuken seems to have forgotten the real logic behind his sport and behind extreme hierarchical dominance.
    'No fool like an old fool'; as the saying goes.
    Phil - aged 71 :(
    PS Stalin died in his bed. But maybe those at his back were too scared of one another? Someone took care of Beria pretty fast.

  6. Rossi is not surrounded by sycophants and is a hard nosed engineer not some old fool from an eastern culture where it is anathema to criticize masters of any sort. There have been too many people barking at him for him to maintain his face. Every video interview I have seen of him, I come away with the impression of a very rational level headed person and often of one with a sense of humor that is times self deprecating. That is not the sign of a deluded person.

    I have run the calculations on one case of criticism of lack of heat out of the hose and found the critiques to be bogus and in some cases the assumed parameters were chosen in such a way to suggest that the analyst was attempting fraud. It is remarkable how often we find the pot calling the kettle black.

    1. Zedshort, I have to agree. Time will tell whether Rossi has what he says he has. But your distinctions are important ones, and he does come across as entirely "undeluded" in every interview I have seen.

  7. Error has many ways, but one of the most efficient ones
    is to use BAD ANALOGIES. To compare things of very limited
    similarity. As in this case to compare Rossi with sportsmen
    and politicians. Logical fallacy one of the worst.
    Actually the case of Rossi is a device with serious engineering
    problems, difficult controllability- but giving excess heat. Add
    to this an unusual behavior psychologically and a permanent stress
    due to the lack of a patent and an accesible "secret"
    You will receive he proof of what I am saying indirectly via
    the Defkalion team that has solved the engineering problems.
    Anyway, the ROSSASSINATION campaign became very boring and
    counterproductive. To continue it is ethical only if the organizer
    promises to make seppuku (intellectual)if eventually Rossi will
    have a commercial product.

  8. I was very pleased by these two last comments. I was starting to think that the E-Cat madness was a purely Italian phenomenon. Instead, I am relieved to see that it affects also the English speaking world. Phew.....

    By the way, Zedshort, about the "hard nosed engineer", Rossi is not one (I mean, not an engineer). He bought his degree from a diploma factory.

    1. Just out of curiousity, Ugo, what is your stand on the existence of LENR? Do you deny that it is real -- in which case you are calling a whole bunch of people who most certainly did NOT earn their degrees from a "diploma mill" and many of whom work at top labs like SRI, Nasa, or MIT dupes and "true believers" in a manifest fraud -- or is it just that Rossi himself is deluded? Your article does not address this critical point, and your own credibility depends greatly upon it. By the way you are not the only person who is capable of analyzing data and arriving at a conclusion.

    2. I noticed your question a little (a lot) late; sorry. About LENR, I don't know very much, but what I read didn't strike me as very promising. Actually, not promising at all. Surely, anyway, Rossi is not doing a good job in advertising in this field!

  9. Hi UGO,
    do you remember a couple of Cassandras a few years ago: Mr. Malatesta and Mr. Franchini?
    They both predicted that Celani and Mc Kubre presented fake data (along with Arata) when they replicated the 2005 Arata experiment about electrochemical compression of hydrogen (www.lnf.infn.it/sis/preprint/pdf/getfile.php?filename=LNF-06-20%28P%29.pdf)
    Well, a few months later, Malatesta apologized with both Mc Kubre and Celani (http://www.vglobale.it/pub/Allegato/Malatesta_Arata.pdf) because he knows he was wrong, instead Franchini never did that.
    The great knowledge and ability of Franchini in the nuclear chemical field makes he believe he is right even with the evidence of a chemical-mathematical demonstration of the good work made by Arata (and Celani, Mc Kubre as well).
    This is the same case. Maybe your dear friend Franchini is not so different from Rossi, and maybe the same for you, from two opposite points of view

    1. So, let' me see..... One guy I had never heard of says something about cold fusion. Then he retracts it. That, somehow, falsifies all what we know about nuclear physics. Interesting.

    2. First of all the specific case mentioned above it's not cold fusion, secondly I'm talking about two persons who have strong opposite convictions on an argument but until now nobody (including you) have the truth.
      In the same way Mr Franchini was so sure about fake data, the same you are sure about the fact that Rossi is a believer.
      May I suggest you a bit of caution?
      As Celani and McKubre show Franchini up, the same could happen to you.
      Prof. Malatesta apologized, but in the case Rossi is right, are you sure you will be able to do the same?

  10. Dear Ugo,
    I dare to think that it is a bit premature to speak about
    madness- pro or contra Rossi.
    For example you have the absolute, total, irreversibl, definitive
    certainty that Rossi has nothing, zero, nada, niente, nichts?
    How much would you bet on this certainty? (including prestige)?

    1. Couldnt agree more! Are you so sure that Rossi has nothing to put on stake your reputation as a so called scientist? Because if he or Defcalion or MIT guys present some working device you will look like an old retrograde trying to make others look bad in attempt to cover personal inability to create something working? BTW I'm not a Rossi believer, still Im really surprised to look how you go all-in in this article..

    2. Well, the job of the "so called" scientist is to analyze the data and arrive to a conclusion. After more than one year from the first press release by Rossi and Co., I have done that and I've arrived to a conclusion. It is my job, I try to do it as well as I can.

  11. Did Cassandra lie about foreign factories where none exist?

  12. Speaking as both English and Italian I think I might count as 2 scores for you in the delusion stakes :) I'm also a patent lawyer not a scientist, so I wonder if that makes me a better judge of character and arguments, and without doubt less assured in my knowledge of and conviction in the truths of scientific knowledge.

    Hearing him talk I just find Focardi hard to dismiss as a 'believer', and I certainly find it extraordinary, without resorting to conspiracy, that Pons and Fleischman exposed something that has since been independently shown in many different experiments, if not reliably reproducibly; and all that the mainstream scientifc community has done is rubbish the field and scientists involved.

    It appears there is little spirit of adventure in Big Science and this is a truly terrible failing for mankind. It is perhaps part of a predictable systemic pattern where vested interests have gained a stranglehold over wider interests within the last 30 years.

    Rossi may be a fraud or self-deceiver, but surely surely the field needs urgent high-profile public exploration funded by governments, or the people. It seems always peculiar when a scientist, and I imagine humanist, appears so keen to expend energies character-assasinating a particular man whilst wilfully ignoring the bigger (and lest we forget scientific) 'domande' that the story is really about. Lest we also forget, Rossi is for all his faults doing AMAZING work in publicising what may in future centuries be seen to be one of the manifest failures of Big Science (and the corrupt market that feeds it) in relation to the world and everything in it. If it's a pipe dream we the people demand to know, shouldn't we?

    1. nice answer.
      people still believe that LENR (Cold Fusion, but not fusion in fact) is not science, not reproduced, not peer reviewed, not powerful... it is however clearly true proved science, and scientist like at the spawar did the job, and even the NASA keep saying that in 89 they had the anomalous heat proof.
      it does not break the law of physics, not more than the fission reactor does, from which it shares many characteristics.
      If you follow Widom-Larsen theory, it does not even change the usual quantum mechanic... just a new phenomenon like superconduction...

      funny to hear the uninformed repeat the lies that have been proved false since 89 (by nasa) and clearly blasted by spawar.

      after that the work of Focardi, Celani, piantelli, is logical and the fact it is not peer reviewed is simply understandable because of the criminal stupidity of science administration today (including magazine, funding, media, regulators)...

      the more I read the answer from rossi, celani, piantelli, defkalion, larsen, the more i understand that cold fusion is easy science, once you know the keys (loading, surface, activation, atomic hydrogen, active sites, selfsustain, stability, multi-stage cascade, )...
      it explain why defkalion so easily make another variant of the reactor, from the public data, and the conviction that it can work (for me the only thing they take from Rossi is his intimate conviction that it has potential).
      my today impression is that Rossi have seen the miracle, but hide tha fact hat he does not control it well. It is clearly a lack of competence, probably because he is too lonely at work. good engineer work in team, and maybe now he work with a good team.
      I'm just annolyed by the fact that e-cat max temperature is so low, compared to defkalion...
      It is possible that rossi sincerely make fraud with some demo, to hid his problems, thinking that they are transient. not so different from many scientist who hides bad results, thinking they will solve later, but that today fraud is needed to get the funding. (see Wade&Broad book, betrayer of the truth)

      now about delusion, if you read the "patterns of denial"
      cited by Roland benabou , you see that people delusioned (like the MIT pretending CF is fake, like CRU about AGW, like enron about it's value, like finance about CDO, and maybe like Rossi about his e-cat), is that at the same time you can belief sincerely you are right, and fraud roughly to avoid the truth to be seen (like MIr did and Eugene mallove see, like CRU dis and FOIA leaks, like enron did when it both keep investing boss wealth and fired the finance controller to avoid him to see the truth)

      Roland benabou papers are fantastic to explain the rationality of many observed behaviors .

      I've made a synthesis of my vision about anti-LENR delusion.
      it could apply also to believers.

  13. Incidentally an interesting article, but too focussed on the one man, even disregarding Focardi, and ignoring the wider implications, in my humble opinion.

  14. It's very nice to see such thoughtful comments, though not all agreeing of course. It's also nice to see this subject brought up at all! These deep sources over-confidence, confusion and self-deception, that intellectuals perpetually struggle with, really need recognition if humanity is ever to progress further, is my general feeling.

    When I get to that point where it seems different people have different, unmentioned, starting points I often reset my thinking by first reading the parts I skipped. Then I tend to do one of two kinds of things, 1) look for a pattern in the confusion for hints of what the lost subjects are, or 2) look for the common natural world subject to discover how nature "connects the dots" so I can then understand how the people differ. The later is also an art, that I’ve worked on as a phenomenological natural science of observation (i.e. studying nature as a working model of herself)(1).

    In both cases that's a choice to step out of what is beginning to feel like a groundless struggle, to look for an independent grounding for it. I wrote a short essay on The "Limits to Growth" as a report on the 40th Anniversary Meeting held Mar 1. It starts from considering the long historic pattern of social rejection of perfectly good science on natural resource limits, showing how science seen as social statements, that are easier to manipulate in that case (2).

    I think the core problem is how VERY easy it is for different minds to become convinced of such different "realities". I think picking out that pattern is quite helpful for displaying how we do it. I think discovering how we do it may be more important than why.