Friday, 6 April 2018

The Skripal case and the government's thinking

There are two ways of thinking. The first is natural, unconscious, immediate and effortless. The second is a human invention. It is conscious, slow and painstaking. This is the type of thinking one has to use in order to solve mathematical problems, engage in cost-benefit analysis and conduct evidenced, criteria based decision making.

I have been paying close attention to the strange case of the Skripal poisonings and I am convinced that the British political media elite are relying upon the first type of thinking for their conclusion that Russia is culpable.


The first type of thinking relies of a few simple rules of thumb. This is why it can reach conclusions with lightning speed. One of those rules of thumb is based on the ease with which one can recall examples of something. According to this rule of thumb, the easier it is to recall an example, the more likely it is that that thing will happen. Another rule of thumb relies of how typical something is. According to this rule of thumb, the more typical something is, the more likely it is. Another rule of thumb is based on how emotive the issue is. This mental short cut means that the greater the emotional affect, the more something is feared, the greater the risk.

When Theresa May told parliament that it is "highly likely" that Russia is culpable, she was inadvertently revealing that she was employing these mental short cuts. For the British political media elite, it is very easy to recall examples of Russia doing bad things, so immediately it was obvious that Russia did it. This intuitive judgement was reinforced by the Russophobia of the political media elite which construes Russia and Russians as typically engaging in bad behaviour. This Russophobia also ensured that the judgement was further reinforced. To the political media elite, it was simply self evident that Russia was to blame. This is why, within hours of the Skripals being found slumped on a park bench, the political media elite could confidently assert that Russia was to blame.

Once the politicians and the media began telling each other, "Russia did it", confirmation bias kicked in and anything and everything was interpreted as "proof" that Russia did it. Thus, when the Russian government denied having anything to do with the poisonings, Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, immediately cited the denial as proof that Russia did it. Even asking for evidence was used to bolster the judgement. Anyone who asked for evidence was immediately accused of "playing Russia's game".

The leaked government powerpoint presentation that was used to persuade other countries to expel Russian diplomats clearly shows the government relying on the unconscious, effortless way of thinking. The powerpoint consists of six slides. They contain very little information. Some of the claims are demonstrably false, some are unsubstantiated, some of irrelevant. They certainly do not prove that Russia was responsible for the poisonings. Nevertheless, the British government (and a number of their allies) clearly found the presentation persuasive.

The first slide presents a timeline that actually says very little - indicating to a dispassionate judge that the British government knew very little. The slide implies that the government knew that poison was Russian, but this is supposed to be taken from the fact that Theresa May said so. Apparently, the British government were unable to see the problem with this logic - which indicates they were not relying on logic. Another problem (for the government's case) is that the timeline shows that the British government was not observing the procedures of the Chemical Weapons Convention. 

The second slide claims that Russia is guilty of violating the Chemical Weapons Convention. This completely ignores the fact that the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons had verified that the Russian Federation had destroyed all its chemical weapons. The slide also clearly indicates that the British government's case is not based on evidence and logic when it explicitly resorts to the logical fallacy of arguing from ignorance. The slide says: "There is no alternative plausible explanation."

The third slide has a diagram of a human body. It shows how nerve agents affect the body. It is clearly included merely to appeal to the emotions of the audience.

The fourth slide presents a number of examples of alleged Russian malign behaviour. These examples are included in order to appeal to idea that the poisonings in Salisbury are merely the latest example of typical Russian behaviour.

These are the slides that are supposed to present evidence to prove the British government's accusation. However, they do not present any evidence. What they are clearly designed to do is appeal to the natural, unconscious, immediate, effortless way of thinking. It is a blatant example of propaganda, which is ironic, given how loudly and often the political media elite accuse Russia of propaganda.

No comments:

Post a Comment