Israel says Iran lied on nuclear arms, pressures U.S. to scrap deal has garnered more short term interest than perhaps any other article I’ve written. By now, I thought I’d be doing talk shows. 🙂 But why is the article so interesting? This is a question of technique, which is a focus of this blog. To keep you reading, we consider a choice for site of a secret plutonium bomb factory.
The article presents a hypothesis, which according to the scientific method is one step short of a theory. Although inspired by observation, a hypothesis need not be testable. A theory adds the requirement that it can be tested. It includes at least one test by which it can be proven wrong.
It’s important to say these things, because deduction, involving sequential logical steps, has acquired a bad name, caused by the abuses of conspiracy theorists. Besides the sleaze of the twisted mind, a common abuse is teleology, the idea that something is proven by the need for it. For example: The Iranians want the bomb, proving the hypothesis in the last article. This is fallacious reasoning.
Fallacious reasoning, disguised by complexity, has been the bane of Western civilization, ever since Descartes introduced basic mental hygiene. In elaborate perfection, the scientific method is the antidote. But since the method disallows all of philosophy except science, the philosophers needed something more compatible to stay in business, and to argue about. Their answer was logical positivism.
Unlike the scientific method, logical positivism is not standardized. It comes in conflict with the scientific method with the idea that some things are known a priori. Quoting Wikipedia,
Modern physics considers the above to be incorrect. The uniformity of physical laws throughout the cosmos is not to be assumed. Logical positivism is not a prescribed method you can use for, say, drug testing. It is open to widespread corruption, by addition of philosophical gee-gaws.
Yet it has had a profound influence on the way we think. The street version of logical positivism is skepticism, as in show me. This is the ultimate defense against conspiracy theories, which, relying on innuendo, show nothing. We rely on this heavily in casual thought, editing the information flow according to:
- If you can see or experience it, it’s real.
- If you can’t, it’s not.
- If you have a strong personal need to believe in something, you just make an exception.
Since there are a lot of things we would like to believe in that fail the above, we lie to ourselves liberally and invisibly. The worst liar is the self. But the hypothesis, “Iran possesses untested plutonium nukes” is not about the self. So we ratchet up stringency. Since it can’t be experienced, and there is no positive evidence in open sources, we kick it out of consideration.
The misuse, and overuse, of logical positivism is endemic to modern thought. We have our example. Given the interest in the hypothesis in the previous article, “Iran possesses untested plutonium nukes” is that example. Having been edited from consideration by the community of people who think about such things, it suddenly became interesting when presented with a few scientific bits about procedures commonly employed in practical physics calculations.
Most of us aren’t philosophers. We may have never heard of logical positivism. When we overlook something, or make an error or omission of thought, we don’t reach for Aristotle. Whatever positivism means, we are vulnerable to it because of:
- Balkanization of knowledge.
- Credence given to foreign powers that employ deceit as a normal tool of international relations.
- An international regulatory agency, the IAEA, which relies entirely on open inspections and methods of analytic nuclear chemistry to fulfill a mission.
Balkanization is most important. The 20th century was the century of physics. It was then the king of sciences, employing the scientific method with exacting precision. In 1938, the atom was split, with the prospect of unlimited energy for mankind. It was with this sugar pill that the best minds set about to make the most destructive weapon ever seen. They worked on the bomb, not in pride, but necessity, anticipating peaceful benefits of atomic energy.
There was some pride of accomplishment, so it was talked about. That much energy from a new source inspired more amazement than horror. That came later, with the arms race, and proliferation. This is why so much information is in the public domain. But in the 21st century, the focus of hope has shifted to the life sciences, and A.I. The quests of physics are very much alive, but are mostly incomprehensible to non specialists. There is no bang. There is plenty to write about, but there is no visceral experience. We can all imagine a nuclear explosion, but all of us have trouble with quantum entanglement.
Credence given to foreign powers has a huge impact on the viability of this hypothesis. It is an issue entirely apart from the personal veracity of Russia’s leaders, or truthfulness of Russia’s leaders to their peer group. Russia’s statements to the foreign policy audience, and to media, are first and foremost propaganda. Russian statements have scant regard for truth, as understood in the West.
Russia assures us that after the breakup of the Soviet Union, none of the inadequately secured nuclear materials were misplaced. Refer to page 21, (pdf) GLOBAL FISSILE MATERIAL REPORT 2015. As of 2014, Russia had 88,000 kg of weapons grade plutonium. A bomb requires only (Page 24) 5 kg.
That plutonium was not smuggled through the Wild West Russia of the 90’s, through the Caucasus, to Iran and other Asia destinations, relies on these assertions:
- Russia’s denial.
- Absence of evidence, as seen by Western intelligence services.
- Logical positivism, with the street name of skepticism. This is institutionalized by the IAEA.
The head of the IAEA just resigned without explanation. (RFE) Chief Inspector Unexpectedly Quits UN Nuclear Watchdog. A conspiracy theorist would leap on this. But it does suggest that the IAEA is dangerously vulnerable to political factors. An excess of logical positivism is used by politicians to influence institutional behavior.
Now for some speculation. If Iran wished to site a plutonium bomb factory, is there an optimal choice for concealment? IAEA analytic methods, to detect clandestine nuclear activity, rely on isotope ratios differing from nature. In Iran, Ramsar County, on the shores of the Caspian, contains areas with the highest levels of natural radioactivity on earth. Iran may hope that high background levels would confuse IAEA methods by obscuring artificial sources.