Tom Chi  

Technology and the battle of Rhetoric vs. Reason

November 1st, 2004 by Tom Chi :: see related comic

We are in a grave, grave time. Or at least this is what we’ve been told. There is ‘terror around every corner’ and the only rational response is to go ‘on the offensive’ with troops on the ground and bunker-busting nukes. For good measure we should toss in hyped-up surveillance technologies and missile defense… yes — then we will be safe.

I’m not a particularly political person — I am just an engineer. But as an engineer, I realize the enormous transformative properties that technology can have, and when our decisions start being directed by the rhetoric of terror, I start to get worried. I get worried because our world is very often defined by the technologies we create, whether it be the long shadow of nuclear proliferation or the open flow of ideas that is the internet. Being an engineer I also respect the power of science and reason, and in this regard we are in a grave time indeed.Will we construct a world around ourselves that is based on fear, or one that is based on reason? Will we succumb to the power of flawed rhetoric, or will we demand rational debate before action? So far, the prognosis is not good. The motivations for our (the U.S.) war on terror have been listed as:

  1. Protecting our freedom.
  2. Protecting the American people.
  3. Establishing a bulkhead of democracy in the Middle East.
  4. [off the record] Revenge.

Now one could argue endlessly as to whether tapping phone conversations and tracking our library book does much for protecting our freedom, but I’d like to focus on number 2. To rationally answer number 2, we need to look at what is killing the American People. This site gives us a good start, and if you feel dubious about numbers you read on a website, the same numbers are available from JAMA and NIH. Now that some of those numbers are in your head (~435,000 tobacco-related fatalities per year), we can look at the numbers from the anthrax terror threat for comparison. While fighting global terrorism is not unimportant, if our goal is really our stated goal of protecting the American people, we might look at doing more about tobacco, poor diet & inactivity, alcohol, environmental toxins, and motor vehicle safety.

All that is fine and good, but what does technology have to do with these things? Well we might use technology to find better ways to treat nicotine addiction, or perhaps a safer delivery mechanism that would make it no more dangerous than a cup of coffee. We could do a better job of qualifying what goes into our food. We could build distributed systems that detect environmental toxins, or cleaner industrial technologies that prevent their production in the first place. We might even rebuild cars from the ground-up so that they are safer and so that they needn’t run on black liquid shipped in from unstable regions of the world. All these things would do quite a bit toward protecting the lives of the American people, although they certainly don’t provide the network ratings boost that war does.

However we end up making our decisions, the technology we create will cement those decisions for generations. The next 50 years could be defined by a new breed of nuclear weapon that we are unafraid to use, or it could be defined by advances in sustainable energy, information technology, communications, and health. As engineers, and as citizens, it is our choice to make.

As an addendum to this discussion, here are some old graphs that I put together in Jan 2003 (before we put another $87 billion into the war):

2003 Discretionary Budget2003 U.S. Budget

These numbers were taken from US Budget website in Jan 2003.

12 Responses to “Technology and the battle of Rhetoric vs. Reason”
Bob Salmon wrote:

Thanks for this post Tom - something we definitely need to think about. I also think that protecting the supply of oil to the U.S. / West is something that arguably could be included in the war on terror rationale. I assume that “environmental toxins” includes greenhouse gases and hence global warming.

Putting that aside, I think that there’s another controversial side to this. Yes, I think that part of the answer to these problems is technology, but not all. Part of it is the unfashionable ideas of moderation, self-denial and self-restraint. I’m overweight (not much, but a bit). Should I take a slimming pill (invented by clever technologists) or simply eat fewer calories and possibly exercise more?

Should I get a fuel-efficient car, or choose where I live and work so that I don’t need to drive to work? (Ideally, both, if I feel a need for a car.)

To avoid misunderstanding, I feel that the developing world is entitled to as high a standard of living as that in the West. This is all about what that standard of living should be, how sustainable and equitable it is and so on.

This is something of which I need to keep reminding myself. As a technologist I have a tendency to see everything as a technology problem, when sometimes it could be something much messier, involving people instead of/as well as things, and less amenable to a technology magic wand. But then I suppose that’s the kind of issue visitors to this site have to wrestle with all the time in their professional lives. Users? The system would be so much easier without them!

Tom Chi wrote:

Excellent points, Bob. Definitely, we need the will of the people as well as good technology to navigate these complicated times. My hope is that having an actual transparent discussion of the issues will do something positive for the direction of both. I focused on technology in this essay not because I see it as a cure-all, but because it is a significant component that our readership community can directly affect.

Sarah Brodwall wrote:

Please notice that the second leading cause of death on that list is “poor diet and physical activity”, not “obesity”. These two concepts are not the same thing–there are plenty of thin people who have poor diet and get little physical activity, and plenty of fat people who exercise and eat sensibly. Conflating these two concepts causes people to attack the symptom and not the problem itself, which, ironically, rarely makes us thinner or healthier.

This may seem off-topic (and I admit this assumption that “fat lazy and gluttonous” is one of my pet peeves!), but you’ve asked “Will we construct a world around ourselves that is based on fear, or one that is based on reason?” I think it’s important to examine all the assumptions we make in our attempts to apply reason to a problem. We need to aim our technology to the actual problem at hand, not what we assume the problem to be. This topic, especially with regard to the fear/reason angle, is discussed further in Paul Campos’s “The Obesity Myth”, if you’re interested.

Tom Chi wrote:

No, I think that is a fair statement. It is certainly possible to be unhealthy and thin, and certainly possible to be ‘obese’ and healthy. I used the term “obesity” since this is what many health experts refer to the problem as, but as you have duly noted, the accurate term is “poor diet and lack of physical activity”. From the little that I’ve now read about it, it seems that Campo sees the lack of physical activity being the far more dangerous problem.

In the spirit of presenting more good data, I’ve changed the term to the accurate one, and here is a link to the book that Sarah mentioned.

also, an interview with Paul Campo, the author.

Now — back to the topic of technology and terror…

Another Bob wrote:

Some interesting thoughts here. Perhaps we should expand the second point to read “protect the American people from otners but not from themselves”.

While I don’t want to a cheerleader for killing people, let’s not forget that very large defense budget also drives a lot of technology. (Confessional, I made my living off of defense money for over twenty years.)

Bob Salmon wrote:

Talking about fear and facts, the BBC have recently been showing some interesting programmes:

Ron Zeno wrote:

Will we construct a world around ourselves that is based on fear, or one that is based on reason?

I don’t know what it would mean to have one based upon reason… I’d ask rather what emotions do we choose to construct our world around, and how much reason will we allow in spite of our emotions?

Some politicians appear to be counting on overwhelming fear and little reason. I take great offense at their arrogance.

Tom Chi wrote:

Emotion is an extremely powerful factor in our decision-making, and rhetoric often exploits this via emotional appeals, ad hominem attacks and of course, fear.

While there will always be an emotional aspect to how we decide, we should not allow our logical faculties to be shut down by rhetoric that maliciously paves over fact. Despite the multitude of media sources, we live in a news vacuum. Sound bites fly, but there is no well published baseline of fact on which to grow informed opinion. This creates fertile ground for spin. For example, a candidate could claim to be an environmental champion by raising EPA funding by 10%, while raising miliary funding by only 1%. While the statement is not ‘false’, it hides the fact that a 1% military increase is 4 billion dollars while a 10% EPA increase is 0.8 billion.

Without a baseline of knowledge, politicians can pick whichever numbers sound best (or simply make up numbers — see www.factcheck.org), and package their spin with hyperbole and fear. While amazingly effective, these tactics are incredibly dishonest and worse yet, serve to undermine the democracy and freedom that the candidates swear to protect.

Bob Salmon wrote:

I’ve just watched an interesting / depressing programme on (UK’s) channel 4 about how undemocratic the US Presidential election is (which is ironic given that democracy and liberty are the supposed cornerstones of current US foreign policy). Key points - most (US) people surveyed for the programme couldn’t point to Afghanistan or Iraq on a world map, most people attributed Kerry quotes to Bush because they sound so alike given they’re targetting the same (relatively) tiny group of swing voters, how phoney the rallies are, how willing the candidates are to say things diametrically opposed to their own beliefs in order to court opinion, how blurred the church/state separation has become (c.f. the goals of the founding fathers), how everything is reduced to pre-digested soundbites that are repeated until the public repeat them, and how negative advertising (particularly TV advertising) is.

Seriously off-topic? Probably. Smug - I hope not (we in the UK are far from perfect). I only hope that the election is won fairly, rather than stolen like the last one. Please feel free to delete this Tom/KC - I don’t want to start a political scrap on a usability forum, but I’m saddened and afraid.

Ron Zeno wrote:

A few related links:

It’s the Mundane Stuff That Kills (pdf)

Special appeals: Fear

Appeal to Fear

Tom Chi wrote:

Yes… reason is going to need some help. Well I guess we can be happy that there is a reason to develop more weapons again. After the cold war we were getting a little rusty at that.

Bob Salmon wrote:

Probably pushing my luck, but what the hey.

There is an excellent song by the UK band XTC from 1984. It’s called This World Over (see lyrics - worth the click) and about nuclear war. My sister bought the single and it had a postcard on the front of a city devastated by nuclear war with “Greetings from London”. Then you realise it’s actually a concertina of postcards stuck on the single’s front cover, all showing the same devastated city but “Greetings from New York”, “Greetings from Moscow” etc. Hidden underneath the bottom postcard is a picture on the cover itself, which is of a red button. Around the button it says “Press once”.

I know that we’re not worrying about the cold war any more, but much of the song is still true today. Also, the first line is what came into my head when I woke up and heard the result of the election on the radio.


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