By Ernest Partridge
University of California, Riverside
That's the gist of what I want to say,
now go out and find some facts to base it on.
New Yorker Cartoon
If you keep relying on the facts and logic,
then we're going to lose this battle."
Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA)
Nucleus, Fall 1995
For a successful technology, reality must
take precedence over public relations
for nature cannot be fooled.
Richard Feynman, Dissenting
The Challenger Report
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 all 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 science
– 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 our current politics is driven more by wishful thinking than by
well-founded knowledge, to the peril of ourselves, our civilization, and
even 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
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.
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
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
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
"The hypothesis about smoking [and health] has not been
"There is no proof – no established proof – of cigarettes
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
this site). And finally, albeit irrelevantly, there is the "good corporate
citizen" ploy, epitomized by those self-congratulatory Phillip Morris TV
ads, which reportedly cost far more than the charitable contributions they
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 long 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 the
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")
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
Is "the jury still out?" Donald Kennedy, the editor of
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
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 tells 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.
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 Challenger crew.
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.4
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
The View from
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 Mind,"
1. The first two quotes cited in
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
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.
4. In other words: I did not know Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was not
a friend of mine. Even so, it is clear that George W. Bush is no Jack