Star wars

A Reading Note

In 1976, then CIA director George Bush created three purportedly independent panels which were to assess the risk from the Soviet Union. One of them—known as “Team B”—returned with a report that unflinchingly declared the Soviets were planning a third world war. Their evidence? The lack of it.

“The absence of a deployed system by this time is difficult to understand,” they wrote. “The implication could be that the Soviets have, in fact, deployed some operational non-acoustic systems and will deploy more in the next few years.” The panel saw evidence that the Soviets had not achieved a particular capability as proof that it had. The writer C.S. Lewis once characterized this style of argument: “The very lack of evidence is thus treated as evidence; the absence of smoke proves that the fire is very carefully hidden.”

Oreskes and Conway, Merchants of Doubt, page 41

Which is to say, you can conclude that anything is true if you’ve been granted the authority to say so.

While the tobacco industry had tried to exploit uncertainties where the science was firm, these men insisted on certainties where the evidence was thin or entirely absent. The “Soviet Union is” they repeatedly wrote, rather than “might be” or “appears to be.” They understood the power of language: you could undermine your opponents’ claims by insisting that theirs were uncertain, while presenting your own as if they were not.

Oreskes and Conway, Merchants of Doubt, page 42

Of course, that leaves open the question: if tricks of language and irrefutable arguments are so successful, how can we defeat them?

Related books

Merchants of Doubt

Naomi Oreskes & Erik Conway

An important and infuriating book. The authors describe in detail the methods by which a few scientists successfully manipulated public opinion about tobacco, DDT, the ozone hole, global warming, and more.