Problem Management — principles

All this was inspired by the principle — which is quite true in itself — that in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.
— Adolph Hitler — 1925 — Mein Kampf

The public will believe anything, so long as it is not founded on truth.
— Edith Sitwell

Most people tend to be suspicious of the boring truth, but will blindly accept sensational lies. Politicians, religious leaders, and advertisers are very aware of this.

What follows is one basic technique that has occasionally had incredible success. It requires four steps (the fourth one of which is the real goal) and depends on suppressing a fifth.

  1. Scary fact
  2. Hopeful fact
  3. False conclusion (the big lie)
  4. Inappropriate inversion (the evil lie)
  5. Inconvenient facts

Consider this simple example from the 1930s:

  1. Many Germans are poor and unemployed.
  2. Many Jewish bankers are rich.
  3. Therefore Jewish bankers are taking German jobs and money.
  4. Therefore getting rid of the Jews will make Germany prosperous.

It seems incredible that a whole nation would accept these and other similar lies, but they did, and Hitler and the Nazis used them to build the Third Reich and to start World War II.

The first two points are indisputable facts. The next two do not follow from any known rules of logic, but they were made to appear as reasonable conclusions. Omitted from the issue was the fact that not only Germany but most of the industrialized world was experiencing an economic depression. Also missing was that many non-Jewish Germans were rich too, not to mention that historically the very few Jews that did become rich were forced to do so by banking, jewelry, etc. since they were forbidden to own land.

A marketing example from the 1980s that still lingers:

  1. High levels of blood cholesterol are associated with heart disease.
  2. Certain foods can lower or raise cholesterol blood levels.
  3. Therefore eating food that contains cholesterol is bad.
  4. Therefore eating food that doesn't contain cholesterol is good.

The second fact can be used to promote certain foods (e.g. oatmeal), but their potential market share is quite small making this of limited use to advertisers. The big lie makes certain foods seem undesirable, something that doesn't benefit the food industry, but the small sacrifice (e.g. reduced egg consumption) is worth it compared with the benefits of the evil lie. Suddenly thousands of products can claim to be cholesterol free, and suddenly people will know that these foods are good for them and they will now buy even more of them than they did before.

Again, the first two points are indisputable facts. And again, the next two do not follow the rules of logic, but nevertheless do appear to be reasonable conclusions. What is missing is the fact that blood cholesterol is produced by the liver, not absorbed from food; dietary cholesterol in general has no significant effect on the blood level of cholesterol.


By far, the greatest (and perhaps the final) instance of this technique occurred at the turn of the 21st century. It has been accepted by politicians, the media, and the general public, and has become an integral part of an amazing array of advertising.

  1. Producing too much carbon dioxide will have a serious effect on climate, wildlife, and human civilization.
  2. Per capita carbon dioxide production can be reduced by reducing individual usage of fossil fuels.
  3. Therefore people that reduce their personal energy usage are saving the planet.
  4. Therefore people that don't reduce their personal energy usage are destroying it.

The big lie is now used to advertise almost every product one can think of. It's becoming difficult to find products that aren't promoted as green and eco-friendly. And the evil lie functions to bully others into accepting the party line.

There might be some disagreement over exactly what too much and serious effect mean, but given suitably general definitions the first two facts are well established. The two conclusions seem very reasonable and difficult to argue with. What is omitted is the fact that per capita production of carbon dioxide isn't the only factor in the equation for total carbon dioxide emissions; there is another factor, one that dominates all others and reduces them to insignificance.

Many people use the term exponential far too loosely, but its basic meaning refers to a process that starts off slowly and then suddenly grows to astronomical size. A traditional example of this involves putting money on a chess board: a dollar on the first square, two on the second, four on the third, eight on the fourth, and so on up to the sixty-fourth square, doubling the amount each time. At first the total doesn't seem to grow very quickly, with only about $250 on the first row, but soon the exponential growth takes over and the total amount becomes ridiculous: $18,446,744,073,709,551,615. What if we had used pennies instead of dollars? The total amount is reduced to $184,467,440,737,095,516.15, which might be less, but it's still so ridiculously large that it doesn't make any practical difference.

A perhaps more relevant example would be trying to empty Lake Superior (which has a volume of about 12,000 cubic kilometres or 3,000 cubic miles). If we bail out 1 cup on the first day, 2 on the second, 4 on the third, etc., doubling each time, it would take us 55 days. (Given another day we could empty the other four Great Lakes.) Suppose instead of a cup we had started with something much smaller, say only a one-ounce measuring spoon; it would still have taken only 3 days longer to empty the lake.

And that is the problem with the Church of Environmentology's fundamental doctrine (§4.8). Given that human population growth is exponential (and is now fast approaching the point where it becomes ridiculous), per capita emissions really make no significant difference to the overall effect. Just as with reducing dollars into pennies, or cups into ounces, reducing our individual output might very slightly delay the inevitable consequences, but it will in no way avoid them.

The truly evil aspect of this situation is that not only do so many well-intentioned people falsely believe they are doing good, those people have been distracted from the elephant in the room. The attention and resources that should be going into solving the real problem (one that has been known and ridiculed or ignored since the late 18th century) are being squandered on feel-good organizations and commercial advertising.