I recently got into a Twitter discussion (yes, I know, bad idea) with someone who was convinced that the currently fashionable idea of the ’15 Minute City’, rather than being a modest attempt to make urban living more sustainable, was part of a sinister plot to control people. I was dismissive, as it was was clear to me that this idea was being peddled on social media by the same people who were promoting anti-vax and climate denial stories. Predictably it got a little heated.
However, I was touched when, the next day I received an email from one of my interlocuters, apologising for any intemperate language, but reiterating his concerns. I felt that he deserved a more thoughtful reply than the rather flippant and dismissive responses I’d given on social media. I’ll reproduce it here.
“No worries – the nature of Twitter as a medium tends to make exchanges generate more heat than light. I’ll confess that I’m occasionally guilty of using sarcasm more than I should.
“Anyway, thank you for your email. I recognise the sincerity of your concerns about ‘15 min cities’, but having looked at the evidence, I don’t share them. In fact, I think you’ve been taken in by a fairly sophisticated and co-ordinated disinformation campaign.
“However, I’m not going to try to persuade you that the information you’ve been fed about 15 min cities is wrong. The reason I won’t attempt that is because the 15 min cities story falls into the category that the philosopher Karl Popper called unfalsifiable. The essence of Popper’s approach is that for a truth statement to have scientific validity it must be capable of being disproved. The problem with stories such as the 15 min cities story is that there is no conceivable piece of evidence that could ever ‘disprove’ it. This is largely because it depends on belief in a conspiracy by a powerful but shadowy group of people. This type of story that has been around for centuries – the group changes over the years, variously cited as the Illuminati, the Knights Templar, the Elders of Zion, more recently the Globalists, the WEF, the UN, the Deep State, (or simply The Elites). These stories have power because they tap into an essential truth about the power imbalances in the world and then offer a simple and apparently plausible explanation.
“If for the sake of argument, let’s call this ‘group’ The Elite – their supposed existence makes stories like 15 min cities unfalsifiable. Any evidence that seems to disprove the story will be dismissed as coming from a source controlled by, or duped by The Elite. The story is not covered in the media, it will be ‘explained’ that the story is being ‘suppressed’ because the media is owned by The Elite, If there is no evidence whatsoever to support the story, that in itself is deemed to be ’proof’ that the story is true, because the very lack of evidence confirms that power of The Elite to ’suppress the truth’.
“So as you see, there is no possible way to disprove an unfalsifiable story. All I can do is to put in in some context. I’ve mentioned Popper, I’ll also mention a related concept illustrated by the philosopher Bertrand Russell in what is known as Russell’s Teapot: “If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes.”
“One good way of countering such teapot stories is to apply the tool developed by Christopher Hitchens, known as Hitchen’s Razor: “what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”
“So, I’ll leave you with two useful texts – in the first, Teri Kanefield offers a brief, readable and fascinating overview of the history of disinformation: https://terikanefield.com/the-power-of-disinformation/
“The second is a more substantial and academic read but well worth it. It is about the strategy of Active Measures and explains why I referred to the 15 min cities story as being part of a sophisticated and co-ordinated disinformation campaign.: https://www.marshallcenter.org/en/publications/security-insights/active-measures-russias-covert-geopolitical-operations-0
I hope you find all that interesting.