New Scientist special issue on debunking groupthink delusions: its relevance to debunking political propaganda falsehoods on nuclear weapons effects!
The New Scientist on page 45 has an article by Michael Shermer which correctly explains: "Denialist movements can be beaten. Patient rebuttal is a powerful weapon."
Patient rebuttal. Exactly what the arrogant, egotistical, impatient scientists, engineers and politicians lack when dealing with propaganda claims both from lobby groups and also from genuine critics. The arrogant, egotistical, and impatient prefer to ignore any criticisms instead of answering them, or they simply adopt the stance of Prime Minister Gordon Brown by Gillian Duffy, in taking the perceived path of least resistance when making decisions, then later trying to sweep concerns under the carpet and dismiss the critics as mere bigots, instead of undertaking the harder work of taking the hard choices, listening to the concerns, doing the research to find out the facts, and patiently explaining and discussing the facts in detail:
Living in denial: The truth is our only weapon
12 May 2010 by Michael Shermer
ENGAGING with people who doubt well-established theories is a perennial challenge. How should we respond?
My answer is this: let them be heard. Examine their evidence. Consider their interpretation. If they have anything of substance to say, then the truth will out.
What do you do, however, with people who, after their claim has been fully discussed and thoroughly debunked, continue to make the claim anyway? This, of course, is where scepticism morphs into denialism. Does there come a point when it is time to move on to other challenges? Sometimes there does.
Case in point: Holocaust denial. In the 1990s, a number of us engaged Holocaust deniers in debate and outlined in exhaustive detail the evidence for the Nazi genocide. It had no effect. They sailed on through into the 2000s making the same discredited arguments. At that point I threw up my hands and moved on to other challenges. By the late 2000s the Holocaust deniers had largely disappeared.
Throwing up your hands is not always an option, though. Holocaust denial has always been on the fringe, but other forms - notably creationism and climate denial - wield considerable influence and show no signs of going away. In such cases, eternal vigilance is the price we must pay for both freedom and truth. Those who are in possession of the facts have a duty to stand up to the deniers with a full-throated debunking repeated often and everywhere until they too go the way of the dinosaurs.
Those in possession of the facts have a duty to stand up to deniers with a full-throated debunking.
We should not, however, cover up, hide, suppress or, worst of all, use the state to quash someone else's belief system. There are several good arguments for this:
■1. They might be right and we would have just squashed a bit of truth.
■2. They might be completely wrong, but in the process of examining their claims we discover the truth; we also discover how thinking can go wrong, and in the process improve our thinking skills.
■3. In science, it is never possible to know the absolute truth about anything, and so we must always be on the alert for where our ideas need to change.
■4. Being tolerant when you are in the believing majority means you have a greater chance of being tolerated when you are in the sceptical minority. Once censorship of ideas is established, it can work against you if and when you find yourself in the minority.
No matter what ideas the human mind generates, they must never be quashed. When evolutionists were in the minority in Tennessee in 1925, powerful fundamentalists were passing laws making it a crime to teach evolution, and the teacher John Scopes was put on trial. I cannot think of a better argument for tolerance and debate than his lawyer Clarence Darrow's plea in the closing remarks of the trial.
"If today you can take a thing like evolution and make it a crime to teach it in the public schools, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private schools, and next year you can make it a crime to teach it in the church. At the next session you can ban books and the newspapers. Ignorance and fanaticism are ever busy... After a while, your honour, it is the setting of man against man, creed against creed, until the flying banners and beating drums are marching backwards to the glorious ages of the 16th century when bigots lighted fagots to burn the man who dared to bring any intelligence and enlightenment and culture to the human mind."
I want to take issue with the climate change assertion above by Michael Shermer: he builds a straw man by missing the whole point that human caused climate change is smaller in both rate and magnitude than natural climate change, just as global fallout from nuclear testing was smaller than natural background radiation. The temperature on this planet is never constant! It is always either increasing or decreasing!
Hence, you can predict a 50% chance at any random time in history that the temperature will be rising, and a 50% chance that it will be falling. It’s always one or the other: it's not normally constant. Moreover, the temperature has been almost continuously rising for 18,000 years when the last ice age started to thaw, so for this period the expectancy of warming is higher than 50%. Over the past 18,000 years global warming has caused the sea levels to rise 120 metres, a mean rise of 0.67 cm/year, with even higher rates of rise during part of this time. In the century of 1910-2010, sea levels have risen linearly by a total of 20 cm or a mean rate of rise of 0.2 cm/year.
Hence, the current rate of rise of the oceans (0.2 cm/year) is less than one third the average rate which naturally occurred over the past 18,000 years (0.67 cm/year). This tells you that the current rate of global climate change flooding risks is not record-breaking, and is not unprecedented in history. This is a fact you won’t hear from the propaganda cranks. Whatever the cause of the current rate of global warming, it is not unprecedented and the fact we're alive proves that it is possible to survive and thrive during such climate change without spending trillions fighting it. In particular, nuclear power creates very little carbon dioxide relative to fossil fuels, and generally produces very little physical waste, whose radiation is very easily shielded and has been safely contained for literally two thousand millions years, as proved by the Oklo natural uranium ore reactor waste containment in Gabon. The 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor explosion was an inherently unsafe positive void coefficient reactor design, produced due to careless communist technological incompetence. With recent reassessments low-level radiation effects data from the radium dial painters, Hiroshima, and the physical effect of DNA repair enzymes like protein P53 on repairing DNA damage, certain low dose-rate safety limits can be revised in a way that will make nuclear power far more cost effective (by grossly reducing the normal maintenance, decontamination and reprocessing costs).
In assuming that climate change is a problem under attack from deluded critics, and thereby failing to see climate change as a politically-hyped taxpayer-funded mainstream “science” propaganda delusion by environmental fanatics with funding agendas like the deluded "string theorists", Michael Shermer makes the mistake of adopting groupthink himself, in forcing himself to see the equivocal or ambiguous multistable gesalt the way he wants, thereby ignoring the other possibility just because of historical chance or prejudice (as written in a different context in a post on my physics blog, linked here; see also the brief Wikipedia article on multistability). Facts are not multistable.
"She's just a sort of bigoted woman!" - Prime Minister Gordon Brown's denial of the points of disabled children's worker Gillian Duffy, who objected to, and questioned, some of his failures. Prime Minister Brown dismisses Gillian privately in his car in a way which may suggest that he is dangerously egotistical, deluded and paranoid about the motives of such critics, despite being the British Prime Minister at that time (the full video of the incident is below, together with another video of the only previous time that someone was allowed to tell him to his face that he was making errors, namely Daniel Hannan's speech in the European Parliament when the Prime Minister was present and happily smirking with arrogant self-denial).
The latest issue of New Scientist, 15 May 2010, has a special report on Age of Denial: Why so many people refuse to believe the truth, which is relevant to the issues on this blog, such as the "controversies" over nuclear weapons, radiation (see earlier posts linked here, here and here), and whether weakness and pacifism encourages war-mongers in terrorist states and dictatorships to take advantage and push ahead with aggression, instead of making them reform and be reasonable.
In "controversial" subjects, you experience a strong bias against the facts, whereby efforts to present the facts to objectors don't easily succeed in convincing them that they are wrong and making them apologise and correct their assertions: for reasons of intrinsic prejudice, pride and egotistical conceit, people may prefer to dismiss others as being bigoted and to live in denial like the Prime Minister in these videos. Gillian Duffy, a disabled children's worker who had been a lifelong supporter of Prime Minister Gordon Brown's political party, Labour, has a discussion with the Prime Minister and it seems to end very well, until the Prime Minister gets into his car (forgetting to hand back a Sky News lapel radio microphone first) and "privately" vents his fury of having to speak to a critic, and his disrespect and distrust of Gillian. (Prime Minister Brown's claim that a million people from Britain had moved abroad to compensate for the influx from Eastern Europe was inaccurate: most Eastern Europeans working in Britain have been sending money back to families in Poland, not spending it here. The million Britains who have left during Labour's government have not done the same and many have been retired people who have taken their savings with them; they have not left jobs behind which need to be filled by Eastern Europeans. Hence, the two migrations do not cancel one another; there is a net flow of money out of Britain, and jobs have gone to Eastern Europeans, while unemployment has been rising for native Britons. State benefits in Britain are also a magnet for Eastern Europeans.)
This demonstrates beautifully some of the problems in trying to make people really listen and take you seriously if there is too much difference. Prime Minister Brown was determined not to admit that he had made costly mistakes. He persuaded himself that every decision he made was backed up by "solid" reasoning, for example he was under pressure from the trade unions which prop up the Labour party, to create the many unproductive but expensive state sector jobs at a time when the economy was shrinking and government tax revenues were falling, not increasing. To him, these decisions were inevitable and necessary. In fact, they were the height of folly, and a sign of his weakness and preference to the path of least resistance for his own party politics, rather than a sign of his strength to take the difficult choices in the national interest. Moreover, like antinuclear protestors, he surrounded himself with like-minded "media spin-doctors" to "educate" and "inform" the "ignorant", a situation slightly analogous to one German Chancellor's use of spin-doctor Dr Goebbels (propaganda minister) to "explain" the "morality" of racist eugenics and ethnic extermination. They rewarded the spin doctor Mandelson with a Lordship, despite claiming to be critical of the democratic basis of the House of Lords! Even when confronted with examples of his failure which he could not deny, like the sale of Britain's Gold Standard at the minimum value of gold which cost Britain a massive £7 billion loss, he refused to accept responsibility and selectively tried blamed his predecessors who were not responsible because they were no longer making the decisions:
In summary, Scottish MP Gordon Brown, between 1997-2010 (first as Chancellor of the Exchequer and later Prime Minister), ran up a record-breaking £777 billion British national debt and a record-breaking £163 billion annual borrowing national deficit by the time he resigned on 11 May 2010. Part of the reason why he failed to see this as a problem let alone a responsibility was that he is a Scottish MP (Scotland has its own devolved Parliament), and Scotland is protected against cuts by massive subsidy under the Barnett formula. Brown surrounded himself by Scots, who applauded and worshipped him for doing the right thing for Scotland, never mind the costs to the rest of Britain. Seen from this Scottish viewpoint, Brown was truly a genius. The Barnett formula is the reason why Scotland, unlike England, has free university tuition for students. It supports inequality; Scotland gets special treatment with £8,623 spent per person at the expense of England which gets only £7,121 per person, despite having a larger population than Scotland! Thus, England props up Scotland with its taxes, and Scottish MP Gordon Brown supported this inequality, despite demands by Lord Barnett himself for his formula to be revised: ‘I only meant the Barnett formula to last a year, not 30’. So he had a fan base of vested interests behind him who he could always rely on for support, taking away the need to listen to critics! This is typical of how groupthink errors persist! By analogy, Stalin and Hitler surrounded themselves with racists who called critics dangerous bigots, thus insulating themselves from reality; you find the same thing in science where peer-review is used not to approve science but to censor according to the orthodox dogma of the mainstream-supported journal. (The Liberal Democrats now sharing power with Conservatives in the government since Brown resigned, have pledged equality for all, abolishing the Barnett formula.)
In the fields of deterrence, nuclear weapons effects, radiation effects and even nuclear power, the mainstream has rarely attempted to present the facts honestly and openly, preferring secrecy (since the days of the secret Manhattan Project, right back in 1943) and treating the public with a patronising, arrogant, simplistic attitude towards the uses of nuclear weapons, weapons test effects data, deterrence and radiation: even the lengthy and relatively excellent Glasstone and Dolan books fail to make the case as effectively as would be possible in the absence of secrecy (fortunately many of the secret reports have since been declassified). They do not present the full facts determined at nuclear weapons tests in a completely convincing scientific and easily understandable way, omitting most direct test data points from graphs because of secrecy. In addition, they obfuscatingly lump together effects information into chapters defined by effects rather than by types of explosion, thereby fostering the popular media delusion that the same general effects occur generally for all types of nuclear explosions, with merely quantitative variations.
Regarding nuclear power, the effects of radiation are the key stumbling block, yet instead of determining the facts scientifically and making those facts clear and straightforward to the public, the people in charge have decided to avoid the issue, to make simplistic errors, to be careless with the facts, and to basically do all in their power to make radiation effects look like something poorly understood and controversial, when nothing could be further from the facts.