(from July 2011)
Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice:
What I tell you three times is true.”
Lewis Carroll was not alone in recognizing that even the most outlandish claims, if repeated enough, are accepted as truth. Policy makers — from radio pundits to our elected representatives — have mastered the propaganda technique of repetition.
The danger that we will confuse repetition for truth is at its peak when we deal with issues outside our comfort zone. Such confusion threatens effective democracy when we lose the ability to identify evidence that rebuts an oft-repeated proposition.
Three recent examples in Decatur come to mind.
Since before he entered office, we have received the unrelenting message that President Barack Obama has no plan for the future of space flight. We hear it with such frequency that even those inclined to agree with Obama on some topics reluctantly admit that he has failed NASA and damaged America’s proud tradition of space flight.
The repetition is effective because most of us cannot — without considerable effort — familiarize ourselves with the intricacies of aerospace programs. We hear the mantra and, eventually, accept it.
In Decatur, though, we have personal knowledge of information that tends to rebut the proposition that Obama’s plan for space is flawed. While his agenda for NASA calls for the agency to have a reduced role in carrying astronauts to the International Space Station, we can see that United Launch Alliance is prepared to fill the gap. Our neighbors build rockets that, with minor modifications, are capable of carrying astronauts to the space station. Many of our other neighbors work at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, which is busy designing a heavy-lift rocket that will take astronauts beyond low Earth orbit.
Maybe the constantly repeated claim that Obama has a flawed vision of space flight is true, but it is disturbing that we are incapable of recognizing that events in North Alabama suggest otherwise.
Another example involves the effect of environmental regulations on the economy. We hear with such frequency that regulations designed to improve our environment cost American jobs that even environmentalists often accept it as a truism. No wonder: Many of our elected representatives have created careers based on the truth of the proposition, and they repeat it with monotonous regularity.
Yet in Decatur, we have seen evidence that the proposition is false.
Increases in fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles have a positive impact on at least some aspects of the local economy.
Toray Carbon Fibers and Ascend Performance Materials are enjoying increased demand because their products are effective in reducing vehicle weight, a primary method of increasing fuel efficiency.
Are these two examples proof that environmental regulations are good for the economy? Of course not. But we should recognize that information within our personal experience tends to contradict the constantly repeated proposition that such regulations hurt the economy.
Another proposition that many accept as truth because of its frequent repetition is that federal stimulus programs were a failure. We defer to the repeated message because evaluating the success or failure of such expenditures is difficult. Despite stimulus programs, we have an unacceptably high unemployment rate. On the other hand, unemployment might be worse without the funds.
One thing we know, however, is that the funds scored a major victory in Decatur. The General Electric plant was for sale early in the recession. The federal funds it received not only protected the jobs of 1,000 employees, but added more. The money permitted the plant to incorporate innovative technologies that turned it into a world leader in the production of energy-efficient refrigerators.
When we have personal knowledge of evidence that contradicts popularly accepted beliefs, we would do well to question the source of those beliefs. Often we will discover that we have confused repetition with truth.
Despite the Bellman’s repetition, his crew never did capture the ephemeral Snark.