Fake bin Laden audio tape

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On November 30 2002 the Guardian delivered the following story under a very definitive headline: "Swiss scientists 95% sure that Bin Laden recording was fake":

This conclusion was subsequently used by many 9/11 researchers to support the idea that bin Laden may be dead, the US were producing fake tapes to justify the "War on Terror", and so on. Although for some reason the Paris analysis, saying there was a "very strong probability" that the tape was genuine, got rather less attention. And that's odd, because this was also a detailed study, and the experts involved don't appear convinced by the IDIAP methodology:

Read a Google translation explaining the French study here.

Press interpretations of scientific studies aren't always reliable, though, in our experience. Newspaper stories on medical studies, for instance, will frequently take the most alarming part of a report and minimise (or entirely ignore) any caveats introduced by the author: they're really just after the headline. To really understand the story we needed to take a look at the full text:

(Reproducing PDF formatting in a wiki is difficult, and tedious in the extreme. Go follow the link to get the full picture.)

We can see that nowhere in the study do the authors say they are "95% sure" that the bin Laden recording was fake, then. In fact they specifically disown simple percentage reliability conclusions as "unreasonable" and "often drawn by some journalists", while saying they cannot "draw any definite (statistically significant) conclusions".

The furthest the authors go is to say that there is "room for serious doubt" over the recording's authenticity. But this is tempered by talk of "limitations" in the study. And if you look at the graph you'll see the recording in question (the blue circle) is closer to the authenticated bin Laden recordings than any of the non bin Ladens, and in addition the model has said one of those authenticated recordings wasn't him.

The IDIAP have done some clever work here, there's no doubt about that. However the study does not support the certainty in the press headlines, or in any sense prove that the tape was fake. As usual, the reality just isn't that black and white.

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