This blog is a record of the intellectual unfolding of the exploration process we go through at Rethinking Nuclear Weapons. It is a place to talk about research, ruminate, try out new approaches. Any similarity to persons living or dead is entirely coincidental.
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Nuclear deterrence blah blah
posted 23 January 14 by Ward
Jeffrey Lewis got ticked off by something a colonel in the Air Force posted on the web. Jeffrey is one of the smartest guys I know and has more insider understanding of nuclear weapons than most. He blogs and edits the most widely read blog on nuclear weapons, Arms Control Wonk. Jeffrey posted and tweeted "'What critics fail to understand . . .' Fuck you, Colonel Meilinger." In the comments on Facebook he explained: "I note the existence of a certain type of officer or bureaucrat who learns the catechism uncritically and who assumes that critical questions represent the failure of the skeptic to have memorized said-same catechism. It's a particularly galling form of intellectual poverty. I regularly find myself having to explain this on Twitter: "No, I understand that's how we do it (or think about it). What I am saying is "That's the wrong way to do it (or think about it)'."

What Jeffrey is angry about is the conflict at the intersection between thought and belief. Jeffrey is a thinker. Col. Meilinger is, apparently, a believer. This got me thinking about the difference between belief and thought and how belief and thought interact in the nuclear weapons debate.

Belief is most easily recognized in religion. Religion is something that, by nature, requires faith, since the existence of God is not subject to ordinary proofs. But belief is not restricted to religion. People can choose belief over thought in any area of human endeavor. I think the field of nuclear weapons is especially likely to elicit this sort of behavior.

I don't want to criticize belief or religion here. Religion has been shown to be an important component of a full and rewarding life. I am just musing on the interactions that result when believers meet thinkers.

Consider what belief requires. Usually it means 1) memorizing a catechism, 2) repeating that catechism, 3) attempting to apply the catechism in everyday life, and 4) sometimes, judging the purity of the beliefs of others. [Or perhaps this is caricature of belief. Perhaps this is just fundamental belief.] This is what Jeffrey is so angry about. Col. Meilinger apparently commented condescendingly in his piece about the difference between what critics of nuclear weapons say, and what he considers to be pure belief.

Col. Meilinger (I'm speculating) was saying something like this: "What you non-believers have missed is the truth of this part of true belief." He's pointing out where their belief falls short.

This is a very difficult sort of attitude to argue with. It's very difficult to talk someone out of a belief. The human brain is maddeningly well equipped to ignore, drown out, or rationalize facts and arguments that contradict something it already believes. This is what makes arguing with true believers so frustrating. It's as if they can't even hear what you're saying. And at some level, that is exactly what their experience is like. I'm reminded of a cartoon captioned, "What you're dog hears when you talk." The first panel showed what you say, "C'mon, Ralphie, jump over the stick. You can do it, boy. Jump over the stick, Ralphie!" The second panel showed what dogs here: "Blah, Ralphie, blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah, blah. Blah blah blah blah, Ralphie!" When you talk to a true nuclear believer, you're saying, "Nuclear deterrence could very easily fail. That's why nuclear deterrence isn't safe." and he's hearing, "Nuclear deterrence blah, blah, blah blah. Blah blah nuclear deterrence blah blah."

Hard to persuade someone that way.

But it is possible to persuade large groups of believers to change their beliefs. The Reformation, after all, consisted of millions of Catholics being persuaded that Protestant beliefs were "better" to believe, for some reason. I think if you're interested in changing opinions about nuclear weapons, it makes sense to look at how you change the beliefs of true believers. I think it might even be worth looking at the Reformation a little. It also might be worth talking to Tyler Wigg-Stevenson. Tyler's Two Futures Project resulted in his persuading the international association of Evangelical Churches (I can't remember what the formal name of this organization is), to endorse the idea that nuclear weapons are a bad thing. The Evangelical church. Pretty amazing. I asked him about it one time and what he did, apparently, was to start by talking to them about something that they already agreed with and then trying to walk them, step by step, to the position that he thought made sense.

Obviously, the key then is to start with something that the true believers you want to persuade can hear. Two lines of attack suggest themselves immediately: First, demonstrate internal inconsistencies in their beliefs. So you don't begin by rejecting their beliefs, you begin by taking them seriously and then showing (if you can) that the beliefs contradict themselves.

Second is to appeal to some other beliefs outside their true belief belief-set. Appeal to patriotism, or morality, or self-interest, or fear of death. Of course, many of the morality and fear arguments have been tried for nuclear weapons. But there have been remarkably few arguments based on patriotism. An argument that said, "Nuclear weapons are not the best way to keep our country safe" would receive a respectful hearing from most nuclear true-believers, I think.

As would arguments that nuclear deterrence might not be pragmatic.

But there's no question that persuading true believers is a daunting, complicated, delicate, and (as Jeffrey's experience shows) frustrating task.