The pedagogy of lying

Or: why I sometimes toss out erroneous factual statements in the classroom, and why I expect that my students will not take everything I say at face value but will engage in their own independent efforts to verify or falsify it.

Last week my World Politics class was having a discussion about Iran's nuclear program, and I posed the question: why is the US worried about a nuclear Iran? We talked about regional instability a bit, and then I pressed a bit on the notion of "threat" by asking why we were threatened by Iran's potential possession of nuclear weapons -- seeking to suggest the point that maybe "threat" was not just about material capacities. [This followed my usual rule of pedagogical discussion-facilitation: if I'm going to intervene, it's going to be on the opposite side of whatever group consensus is emerging.] Now, I could have made that point by talking about North Korea, or the Cuban Missile Crisis, but I saw an opportunity for a pedagogical bonus and instead asked what the second-largest nuclear arsenal in the world was. People tossed out guesses, and I said "Britain" -- a country no one had named. My point: we don't immediately think of weapons possessed by our allies as threats, even if there are a substantial number of weapons involved.

Now, the claim that Britain has the world's second-largest nuclear arsenal is, strictly speaking, wrong. Russia has a far larger arsenal, both in terms of sheer number of warheads and in terms of potential destructive capacity. As Greg rather conclusively demonstrated, there are a lot of Russian nukes out there, considerably more than we would find in Britain. Greg e-mailed me a more elaborate comparative analysis of the issue, the conclusion of which was

By these calculations, the Russian Federation has approximately 1347.85-1697.85 deployed megatons (and this doesn’t count the approximately 6,000 warheads in reserve!). Now, since Britain has a total of four Vanguard-class SSBNs, each of which carry 16 Trident II D5 SLBMs armed with up to three 100 kiloton warheads, they can have a total deployed megatonnage of only 19.2.

19.2 megatons versus 1347.85-1697.85 megatons…I sure wouldn’t want to be Britain in that fight!

I checked the figures with some friends downtown, and the consensus was that if anything Greg's numbers for Russia were a bit low, given the possibility of mating other nuclear devices with delivery systems in the event of a nuclear emergency.

So: my assertion was wrong, as I knew at the time. (I wonder what I was thinking, making such an assertion in front of someone quite knowledgeable about the Russian military . . . hmm.) This doesn't affect the overall point I was trying to introduce, but it does illustrate that no one should ever feel the slightest bit awkward about challenging a factual assertion as long as they are willing to put in the effort to check out the data. The fact that I have degrees in political science does not mean that everything I say should be unquestionably believed.

[Indeed, there's a further wrinkle to this story: part of why I wanted to push this claim was that I had what seems like a plausible conceptual argument to back it up. If it were the case that the Russian nuclear arsenal was largely inoperable because of command-and-control issues, then it might be possible that the actual Russian nuclear capacity would be quite a bit lower than the simple calculation of yield-rates would suggest. Then we'd have an illustration of the old Ben Kenobi line -- "many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view" -- since the issue would move to a discussion about the proper meaning or sense that we should assign to the word "capacity." But it turns out that I was just in error about this, because the Russian command-and-control system has apparently gotten a lot better in the last few years. Were it to come to a nuclear crisis of some sort, Russia would command the world's second-most-powerful arsenal by an order of magnitude. No clever pedagogy this time -- thinking the opposite was just a flat-out error on my part. Yet another reason to check my facts, and everyone else's facts: no one is right all the time!]

No comments: