That's the gist of what I want to say,
When I left home to enter college, I believed that the purpose of thought was to discover truth. After all, hadn't Aristotle famously proclaimed, "Man, by nature, desires to know"?
After a couple of undergraduate classes in psychology and critical thinking, I was permanently disabused of this touchingly naive article of faith. Instead, I came to understand that "all persons, by nature, desire to believe that they know." Modern psychology., I learned, has replaced Aristotle's maxim with a realization that "all persons by nature desire repose," and repose, of course, is nicely obtained by a facile belief, warranted or otherwise, that one is in secure possession of the truth.
The universal willingness to accept a wishful belief as justified knowledge has led to the defeat of armies, the downfall of civilizations, and the demise of millions of human beings. The belief that "it just can't happen to me" proved to be a death warrant for millions of European Jews, and every year half a million smokers in the United States face the fatal realization that it can, and has, "happened to them."
With time, experience, and maturity we might come to appreciate that the
short-term comforts of unwarranted belief can cause us considerable grief in
the long term, and thus that the best means to achieve the repose we all
desire is through the attainment of "justified true belief" –
i.e., verifiable and public knowledge. Hence the emergence of
– an institution deliberately designed to thwart the universal inclination
to choose comforting belief over brutal fact.
"Wishful thinking." We all know what it is, and we all appreciate the error and peril to which it has led in the past, and to which it can lead in the future. And yet we are all, more or less susceptible to it. Rationality is a virtue that admits always of degrees, never of perfection. Thus we must forever be on our guard against wishful thinking, personally in our own lives, and collectively in our politics.
Sadly, there is abundant evidence at hand (for those willing to face it) that the American public is in the thrall of an Administration, via a submissive media, which constructs a world-view almost entirely from dogma and wishful thinking, unperturbed by the challenge of compelling facts. As George Bush is famously reported to have said to Bob Woodward, "I can only just go by my instincts ... I'm not a textbook player, I'm a gut player."
Far from being a luxury that we can afford, this wishful thinking -- this deliberate blissful ignorance -- threatens to bankrupt our domestic economy, disrupt international law, commerce and security, and even imperil the life-support systems of our planet.
Examples of this triumph of blissful ignorance over well-informed public policy are seemingly endless. I will focus upon three of them: the Challenger disaster, the health effects of smoking, and the global warming controversy.
The Challenger Disaster provides a vivid and tragic example of how wishful thinking, issuing from politics, investments, and institutional inertia, can overwhelm sound scientific judgment. The informed reader may notice here some disquieting parallels with the ongoing investigation of the Columbia disaster.
In his outstanding (and sadly forgotten) Public Television Series, "The Public Mind," Bill Moyers, examined four recent cases of fatal "group think" – the triumph of wishful thinking over hard, cold evidence and plain reasonableness. These were, in addition to the Challenger disaster, "the Bay of Pigs" invasion of 1963, the Viet Nam War, and the Watergate Scandal. Fortunately, I recorded the series when it was broadcast in 1989, and have used it repeatedly in my classes in Critical Thinking.
From the segment on the Challenger disaster, these were the reflections of Roger Boisjoly, an engineer at the Morton Thiokol Corporation which built the solid fuel rocket that caused the fatal explosion.
The day before the scheduled launch, Boisjoly reports that the Thiokol engineering team in Utah was advised of the freezing temperatures at Cape Kennedy. He continues: "We immediately went to the engineering management at Morton Thiokol and spent that afternoon convincing [them] not to launch under such adverse conditions and they accepted those arguments and presentations... There was not one engineer in that room the night before the launch that supported the decision to launch -- not one... There was no doubt in my mind that we were not going to launch."
In a conference call the night before the launch, the Thiokol engineers conveyed to NASA their strong recommendation that the launch be postponed. In Florida, NASA would not hear of it, and immediately put pressure on Thiokol to change their recommendation. And considerable pressure it was, for the company had a billion dollar contract with NASA that was open for renegotiation.
To the Commission investigating the disaster, Boisjoly testified: "[The senior Thiokol manager] said ‘we have to make a management decision.' [Then] he turned to [the chief engineer ] and asked him to take off his engineering hat and to put on his management hat. I was never asked or polled, and it was clearly a management decision from that point." To Moyers, Boisjoly added, "Four top executives in that division convened their own meeting in front of us [engineers] without our participation, and it became very obvious that they were seeking some information to put on a piece of paper that would justify a decision to launch. That [memo] was almost immediately accepted by NASA without any troubling questions or discussions, because they had received the answer that they had hoped they would receive from the beginning– the decision to launch."
"We all thought that it would blow up on the pad, when they ignited the motor. So when it cleared the launch tower, we thought we were home free. In fact, I made the statement ‘we've just dodged a bullet.'"
In a "shoot the messenger" response, typical of culpable corporations, Thiokol demoted Boisjoly who soon thereafter resigned.
Moyers concludes: "The Challenger disaster cost Roger Boisjoly his job, it cost Morton Thiokol almost nothing, it is [in 1989] still NASA's sole source for boosters and received a larger contract to redesign the boosters. It cost the entire nation a measure of confidence and prestige, and it cost seven astronauts their lives."
Predictably, the Select Commission appointed to investigate the Challenger disaster, brought forth a whitewash, essentially exonerating NASA and Thiokol. "A tragic accident," they said. To his everlasting credit, Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman submitted a brilliant and devastating dissent:
The shuttle ... flies in a relatively unsafe condition, with a chance of failure on the order of a percent. (It is difficult to be more accurate).
Official management ... claims to believe the probability of failure is a thousand times less. One reason for this may be an attempt to assure the government of NASA's perfection and success in order to ensure the supply of funds. The other may be that they sincerely believe it to be true, demonstrating an almost incredible lack of communication between the managers and their working engineers.
In any event, this has had very unfortunate consequences, the most serious of which is to encourage ordinary citizens to fly in such a dangerous machine -- as if it had attained the safety of an ordinary airliner. The astronauts, like test pilots, should know their risks, and we honor them for their courage. Who can doubt that ["Teacher in Space," Christa] McAuliffe was equally a person of great courage, who was closer to an awareness of the true risks than NASA management would have us believe.
Let us make recommendations to ensure that NASA officials deal in a world of reality, understanding technological weaknesses and imperfections well enough to be actively trying to eliminate them. They must live in a world of reality in comparing the costs and utility of the shuttle to other methods of entering space. And they must be realistic in making contracts and in estimating the costs and difficulties of each project. Only realistic flight schedules should be proposed -- schedules that have a reasonable chance of being met. If in this way the government would not support NASA, then so be it. NASA owes it to the citizens from whom it asks support to be frank, honest, and informative, so that these citizens can make the wisest decisions for the use of their limited resources.
For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.
Cigarette Smoking and Health: For decades, the tobacco industry and the public have been warned of the health risks of cigarette smoking. A milestone in this long journey was passed in 1964, when the Surgeon General, Dr. Luther Terry, issued a report on Smoking and Health. Industry responses at the time were as expected. For example:
"nobody has produced evidence proving that cigarette smoking causes cancer."
"nobody has ever shown anything conclusive about cigarettes and health – lung cancer and all that. It just hasn't been proved."
"The hypothesis about smoking [and health] has not been proved."
"There is no proof – no established proof – of
cigarettes being harmful"1
In the almost four decades since Dr. Terry's report, an
endless parade of scientific studies and lawsuits have at last eroded away
some of the tobacco industry's "no proof" defense. In its place
have emerged the arguments that cigarettes are "not addictive" and
that smoking is a "free choice" by responsible adults. (See
I will not ask, yet again, if cigarettes are really hazardous to one's health. That issue is settled in the mind of anyone even moderately acquainted with the evidence. Nothing that I might add can conceivably change the minds of those still not convinced.
A much more interesting question is, "how is it possible for anyone to deny the risks of smoking – and more fundamentally, to fail to see the moral implications, in the light of this knowledge, of continued marketing of this deadly substance, especially to children."
Consider these facts: there are over 400,000 tobacco related deaths per year in the United States, 90% of smokers acquire the habit before age twenty, and on average those who begin smoking at age fifteen lose eight years of life as a result.2
How can anyone with a sliver of conscience willfully engage in the promotion of this deadly practice? And yet, millions do.
First of all, there is a kind of "counter-Darwinian" selection at work here – a "survival of the morally unfittest." Surely many advertising and business management professionals simply refuse to work for tobacco companies or, if involved, soon depart. In this industry, as Garrett Hardin said in a different context, "conscience is self-eliminating."
The remainder, as they go about their business of enticing the youth to take up the habit (and thus condemn one in three to an early demise), simply shut down their consciences and go into deep denial. If the truth is troubling, then just ignore it. As Roger Rosenblatt wrote in his disturbing New York Times Magazine article, "How Do They Live With Themselves?" (3/20/94, p.36), tobacco executives
... reject the overwhelming epidemiological evidence in the Surgeon General's Report of 1989, connecting smoking with lung and throat cancers, emphysema and heart disease, insisting that direct causation has not been proved... They ridicule people who say they are pushing a drug, noting that their product is legal... , and that what they are really promoting is freedom of choice.
In other words, if they experience denial as a psychological response, they also use denial as an aggressive tactic. This mirrors the way they live with themselves in general. Individually, they remove themselves from most of the rest of the country and create their own moral universe of explanations and justification...
Nonetheless, the facts of human physiology, and the consequent toll of tobacco use in human lives and suffering, are what they are. The billions of dollars invested by the tobacco companies in public relations, advertisements in the news media, and political campaign contributions can not and will not alter these stubborn facts by one iota.
Finally, and most urgently, Global Warming.
The essential message of the Bush administration is that "the scientific jury" is still out on global warming, and thus more study is needed. Besides, we have more urgent energy problems directly before us – problems that require an increase in fossil fuel (i.e., "greenhouse gas") consumption.
Bush's reversal of his previous promise to regulate CO2 emissions came within days of the release of a report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – a report described by Richard Kerr of Science magazine as "the closest thing to a global scientific consensus in the contentious business of climate forecasting. The IPCC Report (available at www.ipcc.ch) disclosed that the earth could heat up by as much as nine degrees (F) in the next hundred years.
Is "the jury still out?" Donald Kennedy, the editor of Science, observes (3/30/01, p. 2512) that
"by now the scientific consensus on global warming is so strong that it leaves little room for the defensive assertions that keep emerging from the cleverly labeled industrial consortium called the Global Climate Coalition and from a shrinking coterie of scientific skeptics... During the past year, [Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, has] published over thirty peer-reviewed reports and articles documenting findings that relate to global climate change... All of them, in one way or another, support the concerns that the president now says he is not prepared to address."
And in Environment magazine (March, 2001), Sherwood Rowland writes:
The earth's climate is changing, in large part because of the activities of humankind... The possibility exists for noticeable deterioration of the climate in the United States even on a decadal time scale. Furthermore, unless the drivers of climate change are successfully addressed and controlled, no future stabilization point can be identified against the otherwise inexorable warming of the globe...
... a changing climate offers numerous possibilities for extensive, possibly severe, impacts upon society... .None of the currently available remedial responses, such as the Kyoto Protocol, provide a solution to the problems brought about by climate change. Rather, they are directed toward slowing the pace of change. amelioration, and adaptation rather than cure. Consequently, the climate change problem will be much more serious by the year 2050 and even more so by 2100... We need to be exploring all the potential avenues of response to climate change, and we need to do it now because the development of long-term solutions will require decades to develop and decades to put into action.
But our President's "gut" tells him, and then us, that the science is uncertain and we need further study. After all, what does Prof. Rowland know? All he did was win the Nobel Prize for his work in atmospheric chemistry.3
As we noted at the outset, self-delusive "wishful thinking" is both universally acknowledged and universally indulged in. We can not totally expunge it either from our personal lives or from our politics. But when the lives and welfare of others are at stake (as they are in politics), we have the moral obligation to minimize wishful thinking as much as possible. Fortunately, we also have the means to do this: it is called judicial disinterest, scholarly integrity and scientific method.
John Kennedy succumbed to wishful thinking when he sent the brigades of Cuban exiles on to the beaches of the Bay of Pigs – an enterprise that was clearly seen, in retrospect, to be utterly hopeless and doomed to failure. But when the next Cuban crisis arose, Kennedy was forewarned and prepared to deliberate rationally. (See also, "The View from Wonderland").
And that consideration makes us very uneasy today. George W.
Bush gives us preciously little indication that he has the capacity to rise
above his biases and wishful thoughts. He seems bereft of intellectual
curiosity or the ability to seriously weigh alternative views. His policies
appear to be crafted to serve the short-term interests of his corporate
sponsors, to the detriment of the long-term interests of humanity and of the
global ecosystem that supports us. He surrounds himself with personnel from
his father's administration – notably Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who
act and talk as if they had walked through a time-warp, untouched by
discoveries or conditions less than a decade old. The same tax policies that
tripled the national debut under Reagan and George the First are back again,
as is missile defense – a scheme with technological flaws far more
apparent than those that doomed the crews of Challenger and then of
John Kennedy learned a cruel lesson from the Bay of Pigs that served him and us well during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He learned not to allow wishful thoughts to get in the way of brutal facts and evidence. We can scarcely imagine Bush being equal to that sort of challenge.
So it is up to our Congress to "just say no." And if they don't, then it is up to the American electorate to find themselves a new Congress and a new Administration at the first opportunity.
If not, the consequences of our willful ignorance upon our children, grandchildren, and all succeeding generations, will be inexorable, irreversible, and horrible beyond our imagination.
Copyright 2001 by Ernest Partridge
A Postscript by Bill Moyers:
Nations, like families, can die of too many lies. The founders of our republic knew this, and gave us the First Amendment so America would be safe for second opinions that challenge official lies. Because all of us are capable of deceiving ourselves, each of us needs a personal First Amendment operating within that would protect the quiet, fragile voice that occasionally rises uninvited to say, ‘that's just not so – that's not the truth.'... Beneath the distortion and deception of life in America today there is hard reality: the earth is threatened with pollution, nuclear weapons have been accumulating worldwide... , the United States is sliding into an inferior status in the world economy, yet our public mind is filled with an image of America where the vending machines are always full, the wounded always recover, and the bills never come due. We seem to prefer a comfortable lie to the uncomfortable truth. We punish those who point out reality, and reward those who provide us with the comfort of illusion. Reality is fearsome .. but experience tells us that more fearsome yet is evading it.
Concluding remarks in the PBS series, "The Public
1. The first two quotes cited in The Consumers Union Report on Smoking and the Public Interest, Consumers Union, 1963, p. 109. The second two were cited by Thomas Whiteside in his article, "A Cloud of Smoke," The New Yorker, November 30, 1963, pp 96 and 105.
2. Anne Platt McGinn, "The Nicotine Cartel," World Watch, July/August, 1997, p. 20.
3. For an excellent
commentary on our global warming crisis, see Bill McKibben’s "Now or
Never: What’s an Environmentalist to Do?" In These Times,
April 30, 2001.
Copyright 2003, by Ernest Partridge
Conscience of a Progressive: A book in progress.
Partridge's Scholarly Publications. (The Online Gadfly)
Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers".