Slate has an article entitled How to escape a partisan echo chamber which talks about how people tend to seek out and rely on information that simply reinforces their previously held beliefs, resulting in a "closure of learning" and greater polarization. I was wondering how the escape suggestion in this article can apply to the partisan echo chamber built around Iran's nuclear program.
In a striking empiral regularity, deliberation tends to move groups and the individuals who compose them, to a more extreme point in the direction indicated by their own predelibertion judgments.
This empirical observation of human nature of course has some serious implications for the traditional theory of democracy and free-speech theory, according to which deliberation results in consensus and "truth" emerging from the "marketplace of ideas." But that was the subject of a long-abandoned thesis which I won't get into.
The Slate article's suggestion on escaping the echo chamber includes the following,
9. Test your theories. One sign of a closed worldview is its refusal to risk falsification. No fossil can debunk creationism; no atrocity can discredit the party; whatever happens is God's will or history's mandate. The surest way to puncture this stupor is to make your theories testable. Ezra Klein and David Brooks have brought this spirit to the epistemic closure debate, seeking data that turn out to complicate the picture of who's closed and why. Douthat, too, has challenged the original theory by showing how politicians, thinkers, and interest groups behave differently. In the face of evidence, theories must evolve.
I think this applies quite well to the echo chamber-created and perpetuated myth that Iran "must be" planning on making nukes, or intends to do so, or seeks the capacity to do so, as a form of deterrence against foreign attack. The echo-chamber short-hand label for this claim about Iran is "Japan option" or "breakout option".
This theory is popular with the Iran-doves(?), who pose this argument to counter the claim (even less supported by evidence) by the Iran-hawks that Iran is dead-set on making nuclear weapons.
I have long challenged this "Iran seeks merely breakout options as a form of deterence" idea on a number of grounds. For one thing, it is a non-sequitur. Just as a butter knife can be characterized as potentially a murder weapon, any country which is developing or has developed a purely civilian nuclear industry can be similarly accused of seeking a nuclear weapons "capacity" or of obtaining a "breakout option." That's because civilian and military nuclear technology are essentially alike. According to the IAEA there are currently 40 and countries that have this breakout option already, and more following. As Green Peace notes:
140 countries now have the basic technical capacity to produce nuclear weapons. Over 40 countries have the materials and knowhow to build nuclear weapons quickly, a capacity that is referred to as “rapid break-out”.
The second problem is that the claim that Iran seeks a breakout option as a form of deterrence simply does not take account of all the evidence. Nevermind that the Iranians stated -- in agreement with many Western analysts -- that nuclear weapons would not serve as a real deterrent, but would actually undermine their security by sparking a nuclear arms race in the region. Nevermind that they proclaim that nuclear weapons are contrary to Islam and so would never be used by them (a claim that is not so easily dismissed as mere rhetoric when you realize that the Iranians similarly refused to respond to Iraqi WMD attacks on Iranians by resorting to retaliatory chemical weapons use -- they did not, and specifically said they would not, even though they were legally entitled to do so under the laws in effect at the time which only prohibited the first-use of chemical weapons. More than 60,000 Iranians died in Iraqi chemical weapons attacks that were aided and abetted by the United States.)
Aside from all of that, the Iranians have offered to place strict limits on their nuclear program that go well beyond their legal obligations and what any other country has agreed to implement. These limits include opening the program to multinational participation, making it impossible for Iran's nuclear program to be used to secretly make bombs. Is this what a government seeking a "breakout" capacity does? Offer to put greater limits on its nuclear program? Now of course you can say that the limitations offered by Iran were not adequate, but the fact remains that the US and the EU never even acknowledged Iran's offers or used them as a basis for negotiation. The offers -- endorsed by the IAEA as well and international experts as a potentially peaceful way out of the current standoff -- were simply ignored as the US continued to insist that there should be zero enrichment in Iran, a clearly non-attainable goal (and as I have opined before, deliberately so in order to keep the nuclear standoff alive as a pretext and justification for aggression towards Iran.)
Leaving that aside the other problem with the theory that Iran merely seeks a breakout option is that is is not testable or falsifiable. This is mainly because it incorporates a fallacy of proving a negative as well as shifting the burden of proof: Iran is supposed to prove that it won't do something (see my post on Nukie the Nuclear Spaghetti Monster.) How do you prove that, short of giving up nuclear technology entirely (and then how do you prove that you have in fact given up all your nuclear technology?) Even worse, how to you prove that you won't do something in the indefinite future? No amount of IAEA inspections, and no amount of Iranian transparency about its nuclear program can ever refute the allegation that Iran intends to seek the capacity to make nuclear weapons at some indefinite point in the future, because there is no way for anyone to judge what can or can't happen in the indefinite future. Iran could indeed make nukes one day. Martians could indeed invade earth. Elvis could indeed turn out to be alive. How do you prove otherwise?
Anyway, the point is that we cant' rely on the echo-chamber's tendency to create truth-through-repetition to actually create falsehoods. Certainly not when the echo chamber can -- again -- lead to a war.