Monthly Archives: January 2017

Command and Control: Damascus Titan Missile Explosion

Last night I viewed the new documentary film, Command and Control from director Robert Kenner. It was released January 10, 2017, and broadcast by PBS as part of its American Experience series. [11] The documentary is based on Eric Schlosser’s book, Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety. The book focused on the explosion, as well as other Broken Arrow incidents during the Cold War.[6][7] It was a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for History.[10]

The Damascus Titan missile explosion refers to an incident where the liquid fuel in a LGM-25C Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile exploded at missile launch facility Launch Complex 374-7 in Van Buren County farmland just north of Damascus, Arkansas, on September 18–19, 1980. The initial explosion catapulted the 740-ton silo door away from the silo and ejected the second stage and warhead. Once clear of the silo, the second stage exploded. The W53 warhead landed about 100 feet (30 m) from the launch complex’s entry gate; its safety features operated correctly and prevented any loss of radioactive material.

However, we came frighteningly close to a nuclear catastrophe that night. Had the warhead detonated, millions of people would have either been killed outright or died shortly thereafter from the effects of the radioactive fallout.

The documentary is riveting, especially when your realize how many times we’ve had nuclear close calls, incidents that could start an unintended nuclear war, and nuclear accidents, incidents involving nuclear material that led to, or could have led to, events significant consequences to people, the environment or the facility. Examples include lethal effects to individuals, large radioactivity release to the environment, or reactor core melt.”[4] The Chernobyl nuclear accident would be a quintessential example.

The simple fact is that we have so far avoided more costly failures primarily because we’ve been lucky. It is also ironic how the having these weapons poses as much threat to those who have them as to those at whom they are aimed. It’s reminiscent of the idea that the more personal guns we have the safer we’ll be—which is self-evidently absurd and contradicted by all available evidence from societies around the world.

Of course superpowers with thousands of nuclear weapons find themselves in a version of the prisoner’s dilemma. Russia and the USA, who possess more than 90% of the world’s largest nuclear arsenals, find themselves in the following situation: If they both disarm they both do better, they can spend that money on their societies; if they both arm they both do worse, they must spend that money on nuclear weapons and face mutually assured destruction. But both fear that they will disarm and the other side won’t, which would allow the other side to dominate them.

In matrix form, where B = best; S = second best; T = third best; and W = worst; and the first outcome in each parenthesis is the USA outcome, and the second is Russia’s outcome, the situation looks like this:

Russia

Arm                 Disarm

Arm             (T, T)                  (B, W)

USA

Disarm        (W, B)                 (S, S)

It is easy to see here that both do better and neither does worse if they both disarm, but disarming without assurance that the other disarms risks being made a sucker. Still, if each can be assured that the other will comply with an agreement to disarm, both sides should. The alternative is the inevitable nuclear wars and accidents that will result.

All of this reminds me of reading Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth years ago, when he warned of the existential threat posed by nuclear weapons. Then, in today’s New York Times we read that ” Thanks to Trump, the Doomsday Clock Advances Toward Midnight.”

It is now two and one-half minutes to midnight. Our organization, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, is marking the 70th anniversary of its Doomsday Clock on Thursday by moving it 30 seconds closer to midnight. In 2016, the global security landscape darkened as the international community failed to come to grips with humanity’s most pressing threats: nuclear weapons and climate change.

There can be little doubt that humankind threatens their own existence. How things will turn out or whether there will be anyone left to read these or any other words is unknown. The chances for using these weapons, either on purpose or accidentally, is almost certain given sufficient time. And when you consider even more deadly technologies in the future, the situation is truly dire. As for me, I’m not optimistic.

One Million Views!

January 29, 2017

I started my blog in December 2013 and began to use site stats to record traffic in February 2014. Now, just less than three years later, I have passed 1,000,000 page views. It took me roughly two years to get my first half million views, and one year to get the next half million. So readership is picking up. To date I have published 661 posts. I do this work voluntarily, and social security provided my entire income—thanks FDR—so I’m not rich. But I am privileged to share my thoughts in the hope that some might benefit from them.

In addition to weekly posting, I would like to publish a new meaning a life book that elaborates on my own evolving thoughts. My first book on the topic was always meant as the prerequisite research necessary to write a second more personal book.

Finally, I would like to thank my readers, many of whom have made insightful comments, and a few of whom I’ve come to know through email. Despite what they might say about writing for themselves, most writers also wants to be read. So again thanks to all who have viewed these pages.

JGM

Alternative Facts: Did Orwell Make This Stuff Up?

A photo showing the head and shoulders of a middle-aged man with black hair and a slim moustache.

For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable—what then? ~ George Orwell, 1984.

In an earlier post I wrote how Donald Trump—an amygdala with a twitter account—had tweeted: “In addition to winning the electoral college in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” Later Trump repeated this false claim in a meeting with congressional leaders, and Mike Pence has defended Trump’s false claim by saying: “He’s entitled to express his opinion on that.”

Then, in the first official White House briefing, Press Secretary Sean Spicer blasted the press and contradicted all available evidence by claiming that the crowd was the “largest audience to ever witness and inauguration, period.” Trump’s senior adviser Kellyanne Conway recently defended Spicer on “Meet the Press,” saying that Spicer didn’t perpetrate falsehoods but “gave alternative facts …”

These are just two recent examples of Trump’s mendacity. As of November 4th, 2016, The Toronto Star had already collected a database of almost 500 Trump lies. That Trump and his minions lie with impunity is hardly news. But as a retired philosophy professor who devoted his life to a search for truth, I’d like to briefly remind readers why the defenses offered by Pence and Conway are so ridiculous, and why the truth is so important.

Let’s begin by asking:  Do you have a right to your own opinion? For example, suppose that you claim that you don’t believe in evolution since it’s just a theory. In response, I point out that when scientists use the word theory—as in atomic, gravitational, quantum, relativity, or evolutionary—it means what normal people mean by “true beyond any reasonable doubt.” I then explain that multiple branches of science converge on evolution—zoology, botany, genetics, molecular biology, geology, chemistry, anthropology, fossil evidence, etc. I also provide evidence that no legitimate biologist denies evolution, and that evolution is confirmed in laboratories around the world every single day. Now suppose your respond, “well I disagree and I have a right to my opinion.” Is that relevant? No it isn’t! I wasn’t claiming that you didn’t have a right to an opinion, I was showing you that your opinion is wrong.

The key here is understanding what you mean by a right. If you are referring to a political or legal right to believe anything you want, no matter how groundless, then you are correct that free speech allows you to ignorantly profess: “the earth is flat,” or “climate change in a hoax created by the Chinese,” or “the moon is made of cheese,” or whatever other nonsense you believe in. But you do not have a right to believe anything if you mean an epistemic right—one concerned with knowledge and truth. In that sense you are entitled to believe something only if you have good evidence, sound arguments, and so on. Ignoring this distinction, many people believe that their opinions are sacred and others must handle them with care. Then, when confronted with counterarguments, they don’t consider that they might be wrong, instead they take offense. But if someone is really interested in what’s true, they won’t take the presentation of counter evidence as an injury.

Of course many persons aren’t interested in what’s true; they just like believing certain things. If pressed about their opinions, they find it annoying and say: “I have a right to my opinions.” There are many reasons for this. Their false beliefs may be part of their group identity; they may find it painful to change their minds; they may be ignorant of other opinions; they may profit from holding their opinion; etc. But if someone continues to defend themselves against counter-evidence with “I have a right to my opinion,” you can be assured of one thing—they aren’t interested in whether their opinion is true or not. So no Trump doesn’t have an epistemic right to his opinions because generally he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

As for “alternative facts” this idea defends a discredited theory that philosophers call epistemological relativism. The basic idea is that there are no universal truths about the world, just different ways of interpreting it. The theory dates back at least to the ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras, who said: “man is the measure of all things.” Today we capture this idea with clichés like: “What you believe is true for you and what I believe is true for me” or ” truth is in the eye of the beholder,” or “it’s all relative.” While it is easy to say such things, it is also easy to see that they are wrong.

Do you really think there are alternative facts? Your math teacher says that 2 + 2 = 4, but you like 6 so your alternative truth is 6. Really? Physicists say that the earth is spherical, but your alternative fact that the earth is flat. Just as good? Engineers have their way of constructing bridges but your alternative fact is that duct tape works just as well. Want to cross that bridge? Your doctor tells you to eat healthy, exercise, maintain an ideal weight, and engage in stress reduction activities, but your alternative facts are that eating poorly, living a sedentary lifestyle, being overweight, and smoking to relieve stress is just an alternative fact. No, you don’t really believe any of this. If you think about it for even a moment, you’ll realize that the truth is independent of your opinions; you’ll realize that there are true statements and false ones. And alternative facts are just falsehoods.

As a professional philosopher who devoted his life to a search for truth, the spectacle of constant lying and bullshitting truly pains me. Here is a great quote from fellow professor Michael Brenner who tells us what we might do in response:

“THE TRUTH BE TOLD….”

THAT ADMONITION HAS FAINT RESONANCE WITHIN OUR  PUBLIC DISCOURSE TODAY.  CANDOR, VERACITY AND CONVICTION ARE RARELY DELIVERED NOR ARE THEY EXPECTED.  ARTIFICE AND CONTRIVANCE RULE OUR THOUGHTS. TERMS OF REFERENCE ARE CONVENIENTLY OBSCURED, FACTS ARE NOTED OR MISSTATED AT WHIM.  VIRTUAL REALITY SO ECLIPSES ACTUAL REALITY AS TO MAKE THE VERY NOTION OF TRUTH INFINITELY ELASTIC.  AS A CONSEQUENCE, WE COLLECTIVELY HAVE BECOME LITERALLY MINDLESS.

CEASELESS IMAGE-MONGERING, LAXNESS AMONG THE POPULACE THAT IS ITS TARGET, AND A PANDERING FOURTH ESTATE TOGETHER HAVE DEGRADED THE WAY WE THINK AND BEHAVE IN THE PUBLIC REALM.  OUR ULTRA-PERMISSIVE CULTURE GIVES LICENSE TO PUBLIC FIGURES TO SAY JUST ABOUT ANYTHING WITHOUT BEING HELD TO ACCOUNT – BY ETHICAL, POLITICAL, OR AESTHETIC STANDARDS.  ALL DEMOCRACIES GENERATE ENORMOUS AMOUNTS OF TRASH. THAT IS ESPECIALLY SO IN AMERICA.  THE KEY TO A HEALTHY DEMOCRATIC POLICY IS TO PROVIDE SHOVELLING CAPACITY TO MATCH.  WE NO LONGER DO.  THEREFORE, IT BECOMES EVERY CARING CITIZEN’S RESPONSIBILITY TO GRAB A SHOVEL …

Why Truth Matters

Truth, holding a mirror and a serpent (1896). Olin Levi Warner, Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C.

 “It is morally as bad not to care whether a thing is true or not, so long as it makes you feel good, as it is not to care about how you got your money as long as you have got it.”
~ Edmund Way Teale

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, February 8, 2017.)

In my last post I discussed Princeton emeritus professor Harry Frankfurt’s distinction between lies and bullshit. I suggested that the difference between truth and falsity is even more important than the difference between lies and bullshit. Now I’d like to elaborate.

There are many reasons to revere truth: along with beauty and goodness it is one of the great ideas we judge by; it is universally regarded as a virtue; it is something, on this planet at least, that only humans discern; it is necessary to make good decisions about living our lives; and it allow us to predict the future and avoid future dangers. But there’s more.

When I started teaching ethics 30 years ago I learned that truth-telling is one of the only moral imperatives across cultures. Why would that be? Simply put, human communication is pointless unless we assume that others will tell the truth. If I ask you what time it is or for directions to London, I’m assuming you won’t lie. If I assume the opposite, there’s not much point to those questions. Sincere, honest exchange essentially is communication, all the rest just manipulation. Another problem with lies, ignorance, and bullshit is that they undermine our rationality; they leave us slaves to our passions; and they keep us groping in the dark when we try to solve problems. Problems are hard to solve when you start with truth, much more so when you begin with falsehoods. Lies and nonsense will ultimately be our downfall, however temporarily attractive they may be. But why?

If we disregard the truth we’ll undo the project of classical Greece and the Enlightenment, when humans realized that reason could improve their world; if we disregard the truth we will remain slaves to the reptilian impulses of our anciently-formed brains; if we disregard the truth we’ll destroy our planet’s atmosphere and biosphere and kill ourselves. People suffer when the truth is distorted. So it is our choice. Face the truth of our biological and cultural heritage and transcend them, or we will all perish. But why is this so hard to understand?

I think that those so careless with their bullying, destruction, ignorance, power, and naked pursuit of self-interest just don’t realize or care how fragile biological and cultural life are. We live within a thin blue line that separates us from the unimaginably cold and dark emptiness of space. Our atmosphere, climate, and ecosystem support life only if we support them. Culture too is extraordinarily fragile. It took 10,000 years to achieve, but we can destroy it in an instant. But even if we survive biologically, imagine living in a post-apocalyptic world. A world in which we have to reinvent physics, mathematics, chemistry and computer science. Where we would have to reconquer fire, reinvent the wheel, rediscover electricity. Where we would have to reconstruct atomic, relativity, evolutionary, gravitational, and quantum theory. A world without engineering, dentistry, or medicine, without art, literature, or music. Think really hard about all that. Thomas Hobbes described such a state of nature like this:

“No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

Why then the hubris of ignorant people? They come and go, flickering flames with moth-like lifespans, nonetheless convinced of their importance. For some perspective they might contemplate their own death, or hear the voice of Carl Sagan:

Harry Frankfurt on Bullshit And Lying


(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, February 6, 2017.)

Emeritus professor of philosophy at Princeton Harry Frankfurt‘s book, On Bullshit, was a surprise best seller a few years ago. Given the public musings of our recently installed President, I thought it time to revisit the main idea of the book.

Frankfurt starts his book by jumping right in: “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.” This is a truism, but it provides small comfort to those of us forced to listen to so much of what is said by politicians, generals, clergy, and other uninformed citizens. It is seems no pain is too severe for them to inflict on those with relatively well-ordered minds.

But what is bullshitting and in what ways it is similar to, and different from, lying? Here are the basics as Frankfurt sees them:

Main Similarities

1) Both liars and bullshitters (bsers) want you to believe that they are telling the truth.
2) And both want to get away with something.

Major Differences

Liars – 

1) Liars engage in a conscious act of deception.
2) Liars know the truth, but attempt to hide it. (that’s what they want to get away with.)
3) Liars spread untruths, but they still accept the distinction between the truth and false.

Bsers

1) Bsers do not consciously deceive.
2) Bsers just don’t know or care about the truth. (that’s what they want to get away with.)
3) Bsers ignore or reject the distinction between truth and falsity altogether.

(Notice that what the liar says is necessarily false. If I stole your wallet or know that Jupiter is a gaseous planet, and claim otherwise, then what I’m saying is false. But if I have no idea of what I’m talking about, and then make various claims my bullshit might turn out to be correct.)

To reiterate the main point. Liars know the truth and try to hide it; bsers don’t know or care about the truth and try to hide their lack of commitment to it. Thus bullshitting is more like bluffing or faking. Surprisingly, Frankfurt thinks bullshit is more dangerous than lies because it erodes the possibility of the truth existing and being found. As he puts it:

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth … Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all bets are off … He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of truth than lies are.

As to the cause of so much bullshit, Frankfurt argues that:

Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic.

Brief reflections – I accept the basic distinction between knowing the truth and lying about it, and not knowing or caring about the truth, and then trying to impress people by talking about things you know nothing about.

I’m less convinced that bullshitting is worse than lying. To clarify, consider the following:

1) I am scientifically literate. Therefore I know that biological evolution is true beyond any reasonable doubt. If I lie about this—say because I think that will  make you more likely to contribute to my political or religious cause—then I subvert the truth.

2) I am scientifically illiterate. Therefore I don’t know if evolutionary theory is true or false. If I bullshit about this—say because I want you to think that I know what I’m talking about—then I ignore the truth.

In these two cases I think lying is worse than bullshitting because the liar always subverts the truth whereas the the bser might inadvertently tell the truth.

But if the bser not only doesn’t know or care about the truth, but rejects the very distinction between the two, if the bullshitter believes that there is no truth, then bullshitting is worse. A world that denies the existence of truth is a far worse one that still accepts the difference between truth and falsity.

What I think is more important than any distinction between lying and bullshitting is the one between truth and falsity. Why? One of the reasons that Frankfurt gives for the importance of truth in his follow-up book On Truth. “How could a society which cared too little for truth make sufficiently well-informed decisions concerning the most suitable disposition of its public business?” I think this is correct, but I think there’s a lot more to it.

In my next post I will further explore why truth matters.