By Richard Girard
I am reading Professor Richard P. Feynman's book, Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman, his collection of autobiographical anecdotes published in 1985. I am saying reading, because while I am relatively certain I have read it--or at least parts of it--before, there are some parts that I do not remember reading, and I know it was not in my personal library until I found a copy in the 25 bin at the local used bookstore. I think I either read it while house sitting for someone in the late 80's, or read excerpts in various magazines like Playboy and Omni, and then never bothered to buy my own copy.
Professor Feynman had a light and irreverent style that made him easy to understand and read, and he manages to keep his reader interested even when discussing his undergraduate days at MIT, or his graduate work at Princeton.
One of his most interesting anecdotes involves the time he was working for the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, where he got a reputation as a " safecracker. "
Mr. Feynman had learned lock-picking from an acquaintance when he was a teenager, and had reason to use his skill at Los Alamos when a fellow scientist was out of town and one of the project's chief scientists needed a report from the first scientist's locked file cabinet.
Soon after Los Alamos switched from key lock filing cabinets to Mosler combination lock filing cabinets. Mr. Feynman got his reputation as a safecracker by first taking apart his own combination lock filing cabinet to see how it worked, and then applying various dodges (noting the last two numbers of a combination, which were visible when the top drawer was open; learning that you could feel a soft click when you passed a correct number in the combination, etc.) to open the drawers, together with bad security and some plain dumb luck. In other words, many of the same problems that plague computer security today.
I would argue that if Professor Feynman had been born four decades later, we might never have heard of Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. Many of the strategies he used to crack safe combinations and uncover the secrets of quantum electrodynamics and the weak nuclear force are equally viable for computer hacking and programming, especially the idea of understanding how the device you are working with actually works. Had Richard Feynman grown up in the 1970's or 80's, he probably would have been one of the top computer innovators, or at least one of the world's great hackers.
Just as it was a lackadaisical attitude towards security that permitted Mr. Feynman to earn a reputation as a "safecracker" at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project, and a similar attitude towards computer security that is at the root of most of our computer security problems today; it is a lack of our own system of mental security that permits so many conservative rabble-rousers like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh to be believed by so many Americans in all walks of life today. This laziness in turn leads to far too many Americans voting against their own economic best interest on the basis of one or two non-economic issues, for example abortions and guns.
I think that with a minimum amount of work, we can make ourselves beings of rational action, rather than irrational reaction. Let's see if I can help you install firewall and anti-virus programs in your mental processes, before your minds get swamped by another attack of propagandistic malware , worms, Trojans, and other factual distortions.
I should begin with the most important concept for establishing a firewall against any propaganda: skepticism. The most essential and consistently missing element in skepticism is epistemology; "The branch of philosophy that studies the nature of knowledge, its presuppositions and foundations, and its extent and validity." (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition copyright 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Company.)
To put it more simply, in a context that you can use everyday, it is the difference between knowledge and belief or opinion.
Propaganda is very much dependent upon belief, rather than concrete knowledge, in order to work properly. The great problem with belief is that it does not have to be based upon the truth, only upon those things that fit either comfortably within, or reinforce our weltanschauung, our comprehensive philosophy of the world or human life. For this reason, lies, half-truths, distortions, and hyperbole work every bit as well, and sometimes better, than independently verifiable, testable data. If we are receiving the information we want or expect, then we tend to accept it without question, like the mother who cannot believe that her little darling (who denies all wrongdoing) is the terror of the neighborhood. All other information is rejected simply because it runs contrary to our belief system.
There are some people who take advantage of this human failing by intentionally feeding into the belief system of certain people in order to manipulate them in one direction or another on a given subject. In ancient Athens they were called "demagogues," meaning "people's leader," implying that they led and manipulated the "mob," the lower classes of the city-state. In modern America, they are called Fox News opinion makers.
We must always be skeptical of any and all information that we receive--regardless of source--remembering that it is human nature to put the best possible light on our own actions, or on the actions or pronouncements of those we admire, so that people have the best opinion of us that is possible at the moment. The number of people who are able to take the long term view of the value of their reputations, as well as those who place the good of others ahead of their own because it is right--people like the men who pledged "our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor;" in America's Declaration of Independence--are a rare breed.
A favorite trick of the propagandist when he is exploiting belief is to attempt to focus the public's uninformed attention on a narrow range of communities, to the exclusion of all others. In Nazi Germany, it was the trade unionists, Communists, Socialists, and the Jews, who were chosen by the Nazis to be the focus of the German People's anger. These groups were painted by Hitler and his cronies as being directly responsible for the infamous "stab in the back" that had caused Germany to lose the First World War.