The Most Horrifying Possibility

     What comes to mind when you hear or read the phrase “weapon of mass destruction?”

     For most, it stimulates thoughts of things that can wreak physical destruction. H-Bombs. Poison gases. Biowar bacteria and viruses. And yes, those certainly are nasty things we’d rather not have to face. But physical destruction isn’t the only kind we should worry about.

     Some talented writers have made use of another kind of mass destruction: the destruction of freedom of thought. If Jones can nonviolently compel Smith to accept a specific position on a chosen subject as unquestionably true, Smith is a mental slave to Jones. Vernor Vinge, one of the most creative science fiction writers of our time, called such a “You Gotta Believe Me” weapon a weapon of mass destruction in his award-winning novel Rainbows End. I concur.

     I trust no one will ask “But who would want such a weapon?” The aspirants number in the tens of millions.

     Vinge isn’t the only writer to have toyed with that notion. John Barnes exploited it in Kaleidoscope Century. Larry Niven gave that power to the Grogs, a sessile race, in his “Known Space” canon. No doubt there are others.

     But “You Gotta Believe Me” (henceforth YGBM) isn’t a conception reserved solely to fictional technology. It can be pursued through much more mundane means…and many alive today are pursuing it.


     How, using noncoercive, informational methods only, could any person or organization acquire a power approaching YGBM? While it might not be universal and absolute, I think such a “dilute” version of that power is achievable. However, the route toward it would be a long one, possibly measured in centuries.

     The core to the concept, immediate and unquestioning acceptance on the part of the target of the YGBM weapon, implies the acquisition of unquestioned credibility on the part of the wielder. There are known ways to build up one’s credibility with others. However, none of them can convince someone absolutely and permanently that one’s statements are always:

  • accurate: i.e., a correct and complete statement of the relevant facts;
  • valid: i.e., any conclusions drawn from those facts are logically unassailable.

     Is that status even asymptotically approachable?

     Don’t be too quick to wave it away. Remember Walter Cronkite and his status as “the most trusted man in news?” An awful lot of people took him at his word without ever bothering to examine the facts or what other conclusions they might support. His calm, fatherly demeanor had a lot to do with that, though just as much and maybe more could be attributed to CBS’s dominance of the broadcast news business at that time.

     Cronkite was opposed to American participation in the Vietnam War. That’s not a criticism; I was too, as were a lot of my contemporaries. But Cronkite lent his credibility to serial defamations of the American war effort and the conduct of our troops in Vietnam. He was believed more often than not.

     There is no individual of Cronkite’s status in our time. I have no doubt that many in the news business are avid for it. Perhaps we should be on the lookout for such individuals. I would consider Zaphod Beeblebrox’s prescription for things more important than his ego to be an entirely suitable treatment for them.

     There’s more to consider, of course, including questions of relative credibility and the disqualification of alternative sources of information and reasoning. And so, as you’ve heard all too often, dear Gentle Reader:

     More anon.