An Inconvenient Truth


When Joshua Slocum put in at Cape Town on his epic single-handed voyage, he met President Kruger.   The South African president, when told Slocum was sailing around the world, angrily corrected him with, ‘You don’t mean round the world.  It is impossible.  You mean in the world. Impossible!’  Which Slocum’s voyage would indeed have been, if the world had been flat.  No doubt opinion polls taken even today would reveal some of us who are of president Kruger’s opinion still.

In much the same way, there are those who deny that the holocaust ordered by Hitler and carried out in the concentration camps, ever took place.  No amount of evidence, of documentary proof, is enough to shake them in their conviction. It is hard to escape the conclusion that sometimes people believe whatever they want to believe, and are able to close their eyes or somehow explain away any amount of evidence.

The same process may be observed in operation regarding the problem of overpopulation.  More than 150 years ago the Reverend Malthus wrote of the coming crisis facing our too-successful species.  He observed that population tended to increase in geometric ratio, by two, then four, then eight, then sixteen etc., whilst the means of sustenance could only be added, farm by single farm.  In a finite world, these simple mathematics would soon lead to a crisis, and mass starvation, unless measures were taken to contain the population explosion.  Many years ago, at school we were told that perhaps there was no need to worry, as ‘for every mouth born there is also born a pair of hands’.  In those days the population of the planet was under two billion.  Today, during a single generation, it has reached over six billion.  The idea that every pair of hands born could support the extra mouth has been now proven faulty, as the amount of arable land shrinks, and in an effort to feed ourselves we are destroying our environment at an unprecedented rate.  Yet today there are those who still assert that Malthus was no more than a scaremonger!   Only the other day I read an article in a reputable paper claiming that the ‘doom merchants’ had been unduly worried by Malthus, who had now been shown to be quite wrong. The article did not go into further details.  This is the way we tend to deal with inconvenient truths.

A final example of the amazing ability of homo sapiens to turn a blind eye to reality when it is uncomfortable can be found in our attitude to the discovery made by Charles Darwin. What was called ‘the theory of evolution’ 150 years ago has today been shortened to ‘evolution’, as new discoveries and DNA studies amply confirm Darwin’s hypothesis.  Yet the results of an international survey, printed in New Scientist 18th April this year, demonstrate a great reluctance to accept evolution.  When asked to comment on the statement, ‘Human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals’, the response in the US was 40% true, 40% false, with 20% don’t knows.  The figures for Iceland, the Scandinavian countries, France and Britain averaged around 85% true, 10% false, with 5% don’t knows.

This human tendency to refuse to accept an inconvenient truth makes efforts to control and abolish weapons of mass destruction much more difficult.  It is not enough to show that hydrogen bombs are quite insanely destructive (one H-bomb tested was 8,000 times more powerful than the atom bomb that destroyed Hiroshima), immoral, expensive, a distraction from addressing the real problems we face, fostering the culture of militarism, with all its huge costs and carbon emissions, etc., etc.  Some people, and perhaps especially those in power who see our bomb as a boost to their international status, will continue to turn a blind eye to the inconvenient truth.  This adverse psychology, this unwillingness to face an uncomfortable reality, is an additional, largely unrecognised extra problem we face in the struggle to achieve a more cooperative, saner world.