I love using logic to solve an argument, but there’s a fundamental weakness that eventually destroys any hope of stamping out crazy theories, and that weakness is trust.
As an example, I’m going to use the “moon landing was faked” argument, because I saw it come up in a discussion on Slashdot recently.
The problem, as I watched both sided argue, was one of who do you trust. The side that believed the moon landing was faked didn’t trust anyone – they didn’t trust NASA, the US Government, or any government for that matter. You could try to argue back with them about any number of things – my favorite is the laser range finding reflectors that Apollo astronauts left on the moon, which can be verified fairly easily – and they’ll just disbelieve you. They don’t trust anything. If you say “astronomers have verified the reflectors,” they’ll just say something like “the government paid them to say that” or “the government sent up a second rocket with only a robot to put the reflectors there; men have never been on the moon, only robots.” If you counter with “well, someone would have noticed a second Saturn V rocket being shot towards the moon,” they’ll just come back again and say “the CIA covered it up” or “the Russians didn’t have deep-space tracking capability.” No matter what you do, they will either disbelieve what you present as facts (claiming that they don’t “trust” your source), or they’ll vaguely link your argument back to something that they don’t trust (the government, the CIA, the Russians, etc.).
Now, in the context of the moon landing, this might not seem like such a huge deal – I mean, so what, right? So there are a few nuts out there that don’t believe that man has walked on the moon. So what?
Well, the problem isn’t that there are people who don’t believe in the moon landing, the problem is that this same sort of phenomenon crops up in more modern, more pressing issues today. Just look at the arguments regarding global warming. The whole thing is one big mess, because nobody trusts anyone. People don’t trust politicians, politicians don’t trust scientists, and the whole thing is just a big mess of the child-like game of “uh-huh!” and “nuh-uh!”
And in case that wasn’t enough, we can take a look at the other side of the coin.
I’ve talked a lot about our government’s attempts to grab more power and reduce individual rights and privacy, and why these are bad things. Recently, a report came out that illustrates this problem rather succinctly:
“According to the indictment, Robinson, began a relationship with an unidentified woman in 2002 that ended acrimoniously seven months later. After the breakup, federal authorities allege Robinson accessed a government database known as the TECS (Treasury Enforcement Communications System) at least 163 times to track the travel patterns of the woman and her family.”
As Bruce Schneier points out (and this has been pointed out by many people, over and over again):
“When you build a surveillance system, you invite trusted insiders to abuse that system.”
There’s that word trust again.
People get all up in a fuss over government surveillance, national ID cards, and so forth not because they don’t see the benefits of the system, but because they don’t trust the government to only use the system for its stated purpose.
If you’ve read around my StarKeith.net site, you might have found that the fictional “Federation” that I use in my stories has a surveillance system that would make Big Brother proud – it tracks just about everything. Why is it that I write about a civilization with so much surveillance, but then seem to opposed to surveillance from our own government? The answer, of course, is trust.
In my fictional world, surveillance is entirely handled by a self-aware computer system that is totally obedient to the laws, and has elaborate, well-tested, well-thought-out, and robust security systems in place to ensure that private information remains private. My fictional government might seem 1984-ish at first glance, but a closer inspection reveals elaborate privacy controls and systems – including things like warrants, probable cause, and so forth – all to prevent abuse. I put these things in my fictional world precisely because I know that they are needed. I know that no matter how good your intentions are, someone will mis-use a system. And it is precisely because I have never seen such precautions proposed for any system build here in our real world today that I stand so strongly opposed to their implementation. Until there are privacy controls and systems that I trust completely, I will continue to oppose such systems.
So there you have it – the problems of trust.
There are no clear-cut answers for how to solve this problem, although I can think of a few simple things to get us all started. Firstly, we need openness and transparency in our government. Only when we can see exactly what’s going on inside can we begin to rebuild the trust that our government has lost. Politicians need to stop lying – or weaseling out of things, anyway. Truth, honesty, and honor (no more scapegoats) will go a long way towards restoring trust.
After all, I’d hate to see the kind of world where there is no trust anymore – the kind of world where everyone thinks the moon landings were faked.
I’m sure you can think of a few more ways to help – feel free to share them. Although, don’t just share them with me – share them with your friends, your family, your co-workers. Write to your representatives, at both the local, state, and Federal level.
But only if you trust me. 😉