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How to Change the World
People sometimes ask me is how to change the world, in my context in a libertarian direction. One of my answers is that, because of rational ignorance, political outcomes are largely determined by free information, what everyone knows, true or false. One way of changing outcomes is by putting ideas in an entertaining and easily remembered form so that they will be remembered, repeated, spread, become part of what everyone knows.
My standard example is my explanation of how we grow Hondas:
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There are two ways we can produce automobiles. We can build them in Detroit or we can grow them in Iowa. Everyone knows how we build automobiles. To grow automobiles, we first grow the raw material from which they are made—wheat. We put the wheat on ships and send the ships out into the Pacific. They come back with Hondas on them.
From our standpoint, growing Hondas is just as much a form of production—using American farm workers instead of American auto workers—as building them. What happens on the other side of the Pacific is irrelevant; the effect would be just the same for us if there really were a gigantic machine sitting somewhere between Hawaii and Japan turning wheat into automobiles.1 Tariffs are indeed a way of protecting American workers—from other American workers. (Hidden Order, Chapter 6)2
I recently came across another example of the same approach to changing the pool of free information, this time a historical anecdote. Ward Churchill, then a professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado, published multiple accounts of the U.S. army creating a smallpox epidemic among the Mandan Indians in 1837 by giving them smallpox infested blankets.
Every aspect of Churchill's tale is fabricated. Between 1994 and 2003, Ward Churchill published at least six different versions of this accusation against the U.S. Army. While the Mandans and other Indians of the Upper Plains did suffer horribly from a smallpox epidemic in 1837, Churchill presents no evidence whatsoever to indicate that the infection was anything but accidental, or that the U.S. Army was in any way involved. Fort Clark was a privately owned fur trading outpost, not a military base, and there were no U.S. troops in the vicinity. The closest U.S. military unit was an eight hundred mile march away at Fort Leavenworth. (Thomas Brown, “Did the U.S. Army Distribute Smallpox Blankets to Indians? Fabrication and Falsification in Ward Churchill's Genocide Rhetoric)
The fact that Brown says Churchill was lying does not prove it is true, but as far as I can tell it is — if curious, read the whole essay or search out more information online.3 Churchill was eventually fired by his university for multiple counts of research fraud.
The story was a lie but a well designed one. Many people, myself among them, enjoy feeling morally indignant. Many people sympathize with the American Indians for a variety of reasons. The story supports what many wish to believe, is dramatic, moving, easily repeated. Long after it was refuted, people continue to believe and repeat it.
Morally speaking I disapprove. Tactically, given the views Ward Churchill wanted to spread, it was very clever.
According to a story originating with James Vicary, a market researcher, messages flashed on a screen too quickly for conscious perception can influence behavior. He claimed to have demonstrated this by experiment, flashing messages such as "Drink Coca Cola" or "Hungry? Eat popcorn” on a movie screen and observing a large increase in sales of Coke and popcorn. The idea was picked up and widely repeated; many people still believe it. Only after multiple researchers failed to reproduce the effect did Vicary confess that his experiment never happened, that the story had been concocted as a gimmick to attract customers to his failing marketing business.
Vicary’s motive was self-interested, not ideological, but the story has ideological implications. One is that companies can use subliminal advertising to manipulate their customers at a level below conscious thought, sell them trash they don’t want, hence that the market mechanism is not a reliable way of satisfying human wants. Another is to encourage conspiracy theories according to which some malign actor, possibly the government, is secretly controlling us for its own purposes.
On December 28, 1917, an article titled "A Neglected Anniversary" by H. L. Mencken was published in the New York Evening Mail. Mencken claimed that the actual anniversary of the first American bathtub, the alleged 75th, had gone unnoticed the previous week. This was supposedly in spite of the fact that the Public Health Service of Washington, D.C., had prepared for celebrations several months prior, which were ultimately quashed by the intervening enactment of Prohibition in that city.
The article claimed that the bathtub had been invented by Lord John Russell of England in 1828, and that Cincinnatian Adam Thompson became acquainted with it during business trips there in the 1830s. Thompson allegedly went back to Cincinnati and took the first bath in the United States on December 20, 1842. The invention purportedly aroused great controversy in Cincinnati, with detractors claiming that its expensive nature was undemocratic and local doctors claiming it was dangerous. This debate was said to have spread across the nation, with an ordinance banning bathing between November and March supposedly narrowly failing in Philadelphia and a similar ordinance allegedly being effective in Boston between 1845 and 1862. After Brooklynite John F. Simpson was claimed to have invented the zinc tub in 1847, the price of bathtubs was said to have plummeted and much of the criticism against them was said to have abated. Around the same time, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. was claimed to have campaigned for the bathtub against remaining medical opposition in Boston; the American Medical Association supposedly granted sanction to the practice in 1850, followed by practitioners of homeopathy in 1853. (Wikipedia)
According to the article, then-Vice President Millard Fillmore visited the Thompson bathtub in March 1850 and having bathed in it became a proponent of bathtubs. Upon his accession to the presidency in July of that year, Fillmore was said to have ordered the construction of a bathtub in the White House, which allegedly refueled the controversy of providing the president with indulgences not enjoyed by George Washington or Thomas Jefferson. Nevertheless, the effect of the bathtub's installation was said to have obliterated any remaining opposition, such that it was said that every hotel in New York had a bathtub by 1860. Fillmore's bathtub was said to have remained in operation until the first administration of Grover Cleveland, when it was supposedly replaced by a bathtub that was still in operation at the time of the article's publication.(Wikipedia)
The story was ainconsistent with easily checked historical facts, a prank by Mencken to demonstrate the credulity of the public.
The success of this idle hoax, done in time of war, when more serious writing was impossible, vastly astonished me. It was taken gravely by a great many other newspapers, and presently made its way into medical literature and into standard reference books. It had, of course, no truth in it whatsoever, and I more than once confessed publicly that it was only a jocosity ... Scarcely a month goes by that I do not find the substance of it reprinted, not as foolishness but as fact, and not only in newspapers but in official documents and other works of the highest pretensions. (Mencken in 1949)
Stanley Milgram was a social psychologist who studied the way people obey authority figures. In his famous experiment, participants were told that they were delivering electrical shocks to a student as part of a learning experiment. Most continued to go along with it even when the pretend student, being punished for wrong answers, was screaming in pain. It has been viewed since as evidence of authoritarian tendencies in human beings.
The experiment was real but Milgram’s account exaggerated the strength of the evidence:
… the version of the study presented by Milgram and the one that's most often retold does not tell the whole story. The statistic that 65% of people obeyed orders applied only to one variation of the experiment, in which 26 out of 40 subjects obeyed.
In other variations, far fewer people were willing to follow the experimenters' orders, and in some versions of the study, not a single participant obeyed. (Kendra Cherry, “What Was the Milgram Experiment?”)
An alternative explanation of the results:
[Gina] Perry even tracked down some of the people who took part in the experiments, as well as Milgram's research assistants. What she discovered is that many of his subjects had deduced what Milgram's intent was and knew that the "learner" was merely pretending. (Cherry, opus cit.)
Herbert Hoover and the the Great Depression
David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush and a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, blaming the gold standard for the Great Depression:
Threatened with the exhaustion of its gold supply, the government felt it had no choice: It had to close the budget deficit. So, in the throes of a severe downturn, the U.S. government did exactly the opposite of what economists would otherwise advise: It cut spending and raised taxes - capsizing the economy even deeper into depression.
Nicholas Kristoff in the New York Times in 2011:
If Senator Rubio believes that the response to a weak economy is to slash spending, he is embracing the approach that Herbert Hoover discredited 80 years ago."
Both were repeating a widely believed factoid, that Hoover’s response to the events that led to the Great Depression was to cut taxes and government spending. The story makes Republicans look stupid, which appeals to Democrats. It appears to provide evidence for a popular view of how to deal with a depression. It demonstrates the superiority of those who tell and believe it to Hoover in particular, fiscal conservatives in general.
The only problem is that it isn’t true. Under Hoover, from 1929 to 1932 federal spending increased by 66% in nominal terms, doubled in real terms, tripled relative to national income. Judged by that measure, Herbert Hoover makes Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Joe Biden, and even FDR4 look like fiscal conservatives.
Although the story is false for Herbert Hoover it is true for a different Republican president. From 1920 to 1921, unemployment rose from 5.2% to 11.7%, almost as sharp an increase as from 1930 to 1931. President Harding responded by sharply cutting spending. By 1922, federal expenditure relative to national income had dropped almost fifty percent.
And the unemployment rate was back down to 2.4%. It was the other Great Depression. The one that didn’t happen.
Other examples of factoids, true or false, that were widely repeated and affected what everyone knew:
Sarah Palin claimed that our soldiers in Iraq were on a mission from God (false)
Sarah Palin said she could see Russia from her porch (Actually Tina Fey playing Palin on Saturday Night Live)
Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake in 1600. The claim that he was a martyr for science due to his (correct) cosmological views, offered as evidence of a conflict between the Catholic Church and science at least as recently as 2014 (by Neil deGrasse Tyson), is rejected by most but not all historians:
After his death, he gained considerable fame, being particularly celebrated by 19th- and early 20th-century commentators who regarded him as a martyr for science, although most historians agree that his heresy trial was not a response to his cosmological views but rather a response to his religious and afterlife views. Some historians contend that the main reason for Bruno's death was indeed his cosmological views. (Wikipedia)
Margaret Mead, Coming of Age in Samoa: Her account of a sexually liberated society provided an argument for rejecting the traditional sexual mores of contemporary America. Derek Freeman, in Margaret Mead and Samoa, argued that her description was mistaken, that she had been taken in by her teenage informants and accepted a picture inconsistent with available evidence, including crime rates. The controversy is still running.
According to Sagan and his coworkers, even a limited 5,000 megaton nuclear exchange would cause a global temperature drop of more than 35 degrees Centigrade, and this change would last for three months. The greatest volcanic eruptions that we know of changed world temperatures somewhere between .5 and 2 degrees Centigrade. Ice ages changed global temperatures by 10 degrees. Here we have an estimated change three times greater than any ice age. One might expect it to be the subject of some dispute. But Sagan and his coworkers were prepared, for nuclear winter was from the outset the subject of a well-orchestrated media campaign. The first announcement of nuclear winter appeared in an article by Sagan in the Sunday supplement, Parade. The very next day, a highly-publicized, high-profile conference on the long-term consequences of nuclear war was held in Washington, chaired by Carl Sagan and Paul Ehrlich, the most famous and media-savvy scientists of their generation. Sagan appeared on the Johnny Carson show 40 times. Ehrlich was on 25 times. Following the conference, there were press conferences, meetings with congressmen, and so on. The formal papers in Science came months later. This is not the way science is done, it is the way products are sold." (from “Aliens Cause Global Warming,” a talk by Michael Crichton.)
I formed my own opinion on that particular issue many years ago, after reading a scientific article by the authors of one of the articles that fed into the nuclear winter calculations. It conceded that their earlier article contained, as critics had pointed out, a error serious enough that correcting it reduced the predicted duration of global winter to weeks. But they explained that they had now discovered another error in the opposite direction and correcting it brought the duration back up.
My guess is that they were telling the truth about their analysis. They may even have been correct in their conclusion. But the degree of uncertainty implied by that article was strikingly inconsistent with the confidence with which the nuclear winter conclusion was being trumpeted, largely by people who wanted other people to believe it because they thought that belief would reduce the risk of nuclear war.
More than any of the other examples, Nuclear Winter raises the question of ends justifying means, of whether it is right to make less than honest arguments in order to reduce the chance of a catastrophe — which a nuclear exchange, with or without nuclear winter, would surely be.
Interested readers will find a detailed account of the history and politics of the nuclear winter hypothesis in the Wikipedia article. Among the relevant points:
In articles printed in the Wilmington Morning Star and the Baltimore Sun newspapers in January 1991, prominent authors of nuclear winter papers – Richard P. Turco, John W. Birks, Carl Sagan, Alan Robock and Paul Crutzen – collectively stated that they expected catastrophic nuclear winter like effects with continental-sized effects of sub-freezing temperatures as a result of the Iraqis going through with their threats of igniting 300 to 500 pressurized oil wells that could subsequently burn for several months.
The fires happened, the effects didn’t.
Assumptions of the model were selected to maximize the effect, making it a worst-case scenario presented as a prediction.5
Following his investigation into the Siberian fire of 1915, Seitz criticized the "nuclear winter" model results for being based on successive worst-case events: “The improbability of a string of 40 such coin tosses coming up heads approaches that of a pat royal flush.”
In the words of the same critic:
As the science progressed and more authentic sophistication was achieved in newer and more elegant models, the postulated effects headed downhill. By 1986, these worst-case effects had melted down from a year of arctic darkness to warmer temperatures than the cool months in Palm Beach! A new paradigm of broken clouds and cool spots had emerged. The once global hard frost had retreated back to the northern tundra. Mr. Sagan's elaborate conjecture had fallen prey to Murphy's lesser-known Second Law: If everything MUST go wrong, don't bet on it.
But not everyone agrees.
According to a peer-reviewed study published in the journal Nature Food in August 2022, a full-scale nuclear war between the United States and Russia, which together hold more than 90% of the world's nuclear weapons, would kill 360 million people directly and more than 5 billion indirectly by starvation during a nuclear winter.
Readers are invited to offer their own examples of stories, factoids, true or false, good enough to have altered the contents of “what everyone knows.”
It may occur to readers with good economic intuition that the more wheat we sell, the lower the world price of wheat will be, and the more cars we buy, the higher the world price of cars. So the machine is one that works less well, converts wheat into cars less efficiently, the more you use it.
The invented history may have been inspired by real history, correspondence of a British officer in Canada who proposed infecting the local Indians with blankets from a smallpox ward. It is not known whether he ever carried out the idea. Something a British officer might have done was a less useful story for Churchill’s purposes than something the U.S. army did — even if it didn’t happen.
From 1932 to 1935, federal expenditure increased by 31%. (Figures on both that and the increase in expenditure under Hoover are from Historical Statistics of the United States, p. 1105, Series Y339-342.)
""In almost any realistic case involving nuclear exchanges between the superpowers, global environmental changes sufficient to cause an extinction event equal to or more severe than that of the close of the Cretaceous when the dinosaurs and many other species died out are likely." (Carl Sagan, quoted in the Wikipedia article)