LaLaLaWhat’s the first thing you do when you hear, or think you are about to hear, bad news? You go into denial mode. “It can’t be. You must be mistaken. I don’t want to listen to this. Change the channel. Why are you (the messenger) doing this to me?”

It’s human nature to react this way. We are programmed to change s-l-o-w-l-y.

Prior to the collapse of Enron (and any of the other spectacular recent corporate frauds) there was a ton of hints that something was very wrong. The auditors, Arthur Andersen, must have been virtually tripping over it. But this was an American icon, the golden boy of the new economy, so they ignored the clues. They didn’t want to believe them. Neither did the directors or the analysts who went on bragging about and recommending the company to the bitter end. There’s now a new law, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, that prescribes exactly what auditors must do to try to unearth evidence of this type and follow up when they find it. Will it prevent more Enrons? Maybe. If the evidence is overwhelming enough to counter human nature to deny and discount bad news. I wouldn’t bet on it.

AIDS, Mad Cow, the Avian Flu virus, and other epidemics of our time all caught hold largely because of our reticence to believe there was a problem. We didn’t want to know. In some African countries AIDS continues to spiral out of control because governments refuse to believe the causes of it could be happening in their country. “Not happening here.”

When we began to realize that our pollution was threatening the ecological stability of our planet and threatening Earth with catastrophic global warming, we were just waiting for the deniers* to show up and tell us not to worry, everything was all right. Opportunists like Bjorn Lomborg** jumped into the fray, with the support of and later in the pay of the corporations causing much of the pollution, to provide ‘evidence’ that if we just go on doing what we’re doing and think good thoughts, the problem, if there is one, will go away by itself. The overwhelming evidence that Lomborg is dead wrong has been largely ignored, notably by the US Presnit whose news is ‘filtered’ so he only hears what he wants to hear, but as well by the corporate establishment and their media handmaidens like the WSJ and the Economist. We just don’t want to hear the ‘bad news’. “Make it go away!”

There is a long tradition for this kind of ostrich behaviour. During World War II both the British, initially, and for even longer the Americans, simply refused to believe that Hitler planned to conquer the whole world militarily. And throughout the war and to this very day millions, perhaps billions, still refuse to believe the atrocities and death toll of the Nazi concentration camps. “It couldn’t have happened. Not that many. Not like that”. We just don’t want to believe humans could treat other humans that way. Likewise, we refused to believe the treatment by Stalin and Mao of their own people could have caused tens of millions of deaths and suffering unprecedented in human history. And as recently as 1994 we refused to believe that humans could be so deranged in one of the world’s worst ecological disaster zones, Rwanda, that in a few short days 800,000 of them would be massacred by their neighbours, with machetes. It just couldn’t happen. So we denied the evidence and stood by and let it happen.

Canada has just reported its third case of Mad Cow. The reactions were swift and immediate: Denial that there was any kind of systemic problem. “It’s an isolated incident. One guy got sloppy”. But it turns out the conditions were and still are ripe for a full blown epidemic of Mad Cow in Canada, because, unlike Europe, which learned its lesson the hard way, Canada still allows farmed animals to be fed the entrails and waste products of other farmed animals susceptible to the prions that cause BSE (Mad Cow). When this came out, the immediate response was predictable: An expert in animal epidemiology said that US standards are the same as Canada’s, sources of stock are the same, and inspection standards there are even lower, so it’s “virtually certain” that “isolated” cases of BSE are present in US herds as well, just not detected. An American farmer interviewed said “No, it couldn’t happen here.” So if the Americans are ignoring a ticking time bomb (and conveniently using the Canadian cases as a means to protect their domestic cattle industry from Canadian competition) why shouldn’t Canadians?

Surveys indicate that on average about one in ten women and children is routinely physically or sexually abused, one in five suffers such abuse at some point in their lives, and many more suffer psychological abuse, a subtler but just as damaging form of torture, with lasting traumatic effects. But most of us simply refuse to believe it is so widespread, or that it is going on in our own neighbourhoods. “I don’t believe it! I would never have thought him capable of that. He always struck me as such a nice person”. So we don’t clamp down on, or try to treat, any except the most extreme abusers. We don’t have animal anti-cruelty laws that prevent and allow prosecution of the staggering horrors perpetrated by some farmers and most factory farms. We don’t even have legislation that will force many deadbeat parents to provide for children they bore. Why not? Because if we passed laws on these things, we’d have to admit there was a problem. And in all of these areas, there’s always a couple of deniers to allow us to keep our head buried in the sand, where we can’t hear the screams.

Many of us flinch when we see the fundraising ads for children living in poverty and destitution in the third world. We change the channel. We know this happens but we don’t want to know, we don’t want to see the gory details. Then we’d be sick. Then we’d have to do something. Learned helplessness. There is a reason why you haven’t seen many of the dead bodies, most of them civilians, in Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Darfur, or in any of a hundred countries living with perpetual desperation, crisis, and interminable suffering. It’s not because it’s illegal, or too expensive, to get the photos. It’s because we, the customers, don’t want to see them. Someone told me the other day that the most successful charity fundraising campaigns show children laughing. The ‘after’ pictures we can bear. Just don’t show us any of the ‘before’ shots.

In America, and in many third world countries, there is a move afoot to teach creationism in schools. It doesn’t matter that it’s junk science, that it’s not only implausible, it’s factually impossible, and contrary to mountains of evidence. People want to believe in it. They don’t want to learn that we’re evolved from, undifferentiable from, every other species on the planet and every bit as inextricably a part of the ecosystem as the birds and the bees. Because if they believe that then that means they’re responsible for all these creatures, and for the mess of our planet, and it means they aren’t God’s chosen, separate, able to be forgiven and saved. And it means there will be no second coming, no Rapture, no being swept up by some higher power who can get us out of this mess. We don’t want to hear that. Bad news. “La, la, la, la, la, la I can’t heeear you!”

The term ‘plausible deniability’ stems from the Reagan era. It means allowing executives/presidents to be able to deny knowledge of illegal and immoral acts by deliberately blocking communication of troubling information from reaching them. The CIA used it so Reagan could deny knowledge of Iran/Contra. Bush and his lieutenants have been similarly, deliberately, protected from hearing about the abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and now probably the intelligence-gathering to support the invasion of Iran, so they can plausibly deny knowledge of them. This practice is so effective that it has allowed confirmation of an Attorney General who has expressed contempt for the Geneva Convention and indirectly authorized its violation in the torture of prisoners, because although he made it possible, he was not told how the lower-downs acted upon it. He has, thinly, plausible deniability. “I didn’t mean that they should so that! No one told me about that happening! It must be an isolated incident”. And we go along, because we don’t want to hear the really bad news.

I used to bridle when activists told me that my passivity, my lack of effort to find out the gruesome truth, made me complicit in all the crimes and catastrophes listed above. My reply was always to say that there’s no point in dwelling on bad news if there’s nothing I can do about it. It would only make me upset. I still respect that point of view, and for that reason I very rarely do write-ups or show pictures of atrocities against people or animals on these pages (some readers have told me, in fact, that they would stop reading if I did), and I try to temper my whining with some practical, easy steps we can all take to make things better. What’s the harm in being seduced by false comforts if it has no impact on our, or anyone else’s, lives?

Well, exactly. That’s the ultimate bad news we don’t want to hear: That if we were willing to give up everything, risk everything, drop everything we’re doing, radically and immediately change our life style, agree not to do some things we really want to do (have another child, or buy that house we’ve been saving for) it would have an impact. We could, if we all acted fast, collectively, now, change the world, end poverty and suffering and global warming and crime and restore biodiversity and create a sustainable and harmonious world. But we don’t want to hear that news either. Like the Ten Years After Lyrics say: “I’d love to change the world but I don’t know what to do, so I’ll leave it up to you”. So we find solace in the belief that it’s all bigger than us, that it would be impossible to coordinate such an effort, that most people don’t know and don’t care and so wouldn’t participate so it wouldn’t work, that the powers that be wouldn’t allow it, and mostly that it’s really not that bad, is it?

I’m sorry, dear reader. You didn’t want to hear that. Who the fuck am I sitting here in my easy chair doing nothing more than anyone else and telling people that they should be doing something drastic? What kind of hypocrite am I to be trying to deprive you of your plausible deniability that your inaction and your unawareness of how bad it really is, is complicit in all the horrors going on in this world, and the much worse horrors that our inaction will doom our children and our children’s children to? This idiot Chicken Little Pollard is running around telling us the sky is falling, but we’ve read the fable, and everything turns out just fine. Somebody shut that guy up.

I’m no leader. I learned that long ago. I haven’t the charisma, or the articulateness for that job. I’m a coward, with insufficient courage to go with my convictions.  GI Gurdjieff said that civilized man lives in a dream, and needs to learn, through a very difficult process, how to awaken and live in the real world. You know that state when you first wake up in the morning, especially if it’s really cold outside, and you know you have to get up but you don’t want to, you kind of go into denial, pretending it must be Saturday, or that you’re still dreaming and when you really wake up everything will be warm and beautiful and peaceful? Well I think that’s where I am. I’m just awake enough to know I have to get up and do something, something important, but not yet awake enough to know what that is, or who I need to do it with, and I’m still kinda hoping someone else will call and say “Don’t worry, it’s done, go back to sleep.” But now I’m a little more awake than I was, enough to be aware of the fact that something must be done, and I can’t depend on others to do it for me. And, for the first time, my denials of that imperative, that need for action, have become implausible. And those of us who care enough to have to do something are calling each other up, in our half-awake state, making their denials implausible too.

But wait. It’s really not that bad, is it? Just let me lie here another five minutes, OK?


* The words ‘deniability’ and ‘denier’ do not appear in most dictionaries (in fact ‘denier’ does appear, but only as a measure of the thickness of cloth). And while there is only one reasonable spelling for ‘deniability’, I have occasionally used ‘denyer’ rather than the confusing ‘denier’, and that spelling is consistent with other extensions of English root words (e.g. fryer, flyer). But the ultimate arbiter of new spellings is the people, and through Google they have spoken, and voted for ‘denier’ as the spelling of one who denies.

** One reader has taken me to task for ridiculing Bjorn Lomborg without addressing his arguments. Those who think this charlatan’s nonsense needs to be refuted should read this, this, or this. There’s about 300 pages of detailed refutations by dozens of qualified, award-winning scientists (neither of which Lomborg is). I consider Lomborg’s arguments to be in the same class as Zundel’s.

Cartoon from the latest Tom Terrific strip This Modern World.

This entry was posted in How the World Really Works. Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Oh my God, Dave. Cheer up man! Remember, you ARE a leader now. You’re writing “HOW TO CANGE THE WORLD!” Just the idea of writing it is an act of courage and leadership that goes far beyond the capacities of the average homonid. And that’s not a bad or hypocritical thing. It’s a very good thing.Now, will you please go back to work and find some more effective ways to do the “SAVE THE WORLD” thing! Somebody’s got to write down the instructions you know.

  2. Rayne says:

    Ditto that. Twice, even. ;-)

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Dave: Sorry I came across as so glum. I use the blog sometimes to just think out loud, and I keep asking myself if I believe what I do this passionately why don’t I stop looking for a job in Innovation, sell the house, and use the proceeds to fund some of the stuff I say needs to be done. I was actually kind of teasing myself for being a bit hypocritical, and at the same time raising what I think is a big issue — our very human tendency to want desperately to believe what’s easy and reassuring instead of what’s true. That tendency, along with the learned helplessness that what we’re up against is just too big and too hard to change, is a potent cocktail. And I don’t know how to fight this two-headed beast. How do you motivate someone who thinks it’s impossible to change and maybe it’s not so bad anyway?

  4. Ken Hirsch says:

    The phrase “plausible deniability” predates the Reagan era by 30 years or so. National Security Council directive 10/2 authorized the CIA to conduct covert operations “”which are conducted or sponsored by this Government against hostile foreign states or groups or in support of friendly foreign states or groups but which are so planned and executed that any US Government responsibility for them is not evident to unauthorized persons and that if uncovered the US Government can plausibly disclaim any responsibility for them.” The exact phrase “plausible deniability” came into use in the intelligence community shortly after that, but didn’t become widely known until the Church report in 1976.

  5. Ranga says:

    I know that your writings have changed me. I am on the way to greater change. I am constantly thinking as to how to raise my son differently. I have started implementing some of the basic changes for long term results. If I ever move on to build and be part of a reasonably natural enterprise, the credit would go to you.Do not underestimate the impact of your writings. If you manage to motivate one thousand people to build and run natural enterpises and lead less selfish lives, you have done a superb job. People have a tendency to remain in their coccoons until they are woken up with some great writings by thinkers such as you. I know that there is the curse of knowledge factor, but then we all have to grow up some day.

  6. Steve says:

    good post Dave

  7. Rayne says:

    Been thinking about this post since last evening. Somebody has to do what you’re doing, in order to set the universe in motion. The universe is self-organizing — you are encouraging it to change the organization by visualizing and articulating the desired outcome. It’s not easy, and it certainly isn’t as rewarding as you’d like because the progress is so incremental and not entirely visible to you; it’s like turning a battleship on dime to expect otherwise. But if you let up, the self-organizing process changes and may even revert. Not that I want to hold you responsible for the universe — we’re all responsible for it — but backsliding begins when we stop thinking both individually and collectively about a better future. And even if some people don’t want to hear, cannot hear, the cosmos still does. Keep up the good work.

  8. Dave Pollard says:

    Ken: Thanks for the history lesson. Ranga, Steve, Rayne — thank you for your kind words. Rayne, you’re getting especially eloquent and level headed lately (except on non-school days of course) — is your House Project teaching you to be so precise in what you say and so grounded in your thinking? I’d be tearing my hair out and howling at the moon. But it’s looking good and sounds like it’s coming together. And it’s a hoot to read about!

  9. joke says:

    Regarding the footnotes:1. The OED uses denier.2. Comparing Lomborg to a holocaust denier, or making an argument from authority (Lomborg is neither an ecologist, nor an award winner) is unbecoming. He doesn’t claim to be an ecologist, and he doesn’t try to do ecology. Rather, using his expertise as a statistician, he tries to show that different conclusions can be drawn from ecological data than is reflected by ecological rhetoric. He makes the valid and important point that self-described environmentalists are predisposed to overstate the magnitude of any environmental problem, if only for the noble reason that they think this might drive people to action. His arguments deserve to be refuted on their own terms.

  10. Yule Heibel says:

    My sense is that “denial” has something to do with scale (tiny individuals & small options, vs. huge impending crises), as well as with one’s own intuitive sense of “action and reaction.” If I hit a ball resting on turf, it will travel (“react”) a distance determined by the force of my strike (“action”). Political & social calls for action are perhaps sensed schizophrenically: as both calls for action and for reaction (reaction to some bigger force or disaster). At some level, we all fear that we’re passive little balls on turf, and we’re mortified by the big action about to strike us: what, we wonder, can we possibly offer as a counterforce? The bigger the disaster (the “action”), the more we individuals (instinctively?) retreat into reaction. When disaster is perceived as a force (an “action”), it’s very difficult to recast oneself as active, and one instead resigns oneself to a passivity (reaction). If the impending doom (action) is indeed as grave as predicted, it seems that nothing that a tiny individual ball on turf can do will suffice to stop the onslaught. At the same time, no one (except dyed-in-the-wool defeatists) really want to be passive, reactive blobby balls on turf. Hence the schizophrenia and the denial. What we need, I think, is encouragement. (By “we” I mean the choir.) What we need to hear is that our actions matter and that they are often good ones. We really don’t want to keep hearing about how this juggernaut is a gazillion times bigger than we are, about how it’s too late. That only reinforces a reactive passivity. Speaking of German (“Weltschmerz”), the Berlin newspaper taz started on April 17, 1979, with the words, “we don’t have a chance, but we’re using it” (Wir haben keine Chance, aber wir nutzen sie): that’s a signal to party! Hard. I love that expression. It’s a well-put foolish thing to say, and it expresses a screwball hard-bitten fuck-you optimism (the “in spite of you” “optimism,” not to be confused with the conventional variant) that turns Weltschmerz reactive-passivity on its head. Perhaps it’s just another type of schizophrenia, but perhaps it’s also a rallying cry that lets all those small actions find one another so they can eventually coalesce into real alternatives. Weltschmerz? That’s for adolescents and for adults who don’t have dependents. I’d rather take my non-existant chances. ;-) Fools do that.

  11. Dave,I have been working on a weblog idea for some time now. I must confess, it is a “heavy” subject and has caused me some considerable struggle. It is difficult to challenge our own assumptions because our assumptions (or articles of faith) are often based on falsehoods, unknowns, or intentional ignorances. But these assumptions, a.k.a. lies, help us to function. So the challenge is to minimize the destructive lies while maintaining the ability to function in a difficult, complex, and uncertain world.I have put up an entry a Mark Twain essay that neatly parallels your post, and is a good part of the reason I came to this subject as an intelectual focus.I would geuss you’ve seen the Twain essay before, but wonder what you might think of such a bold, and possibly quite presumptuous, title and starting point for a weblog.

  12. Jon Husband says:

    Dave, great post, followed by several other great posts … but then again to my eyes and brain you are in a real groove, and are a bona fide thought and action making changes to one’s life and habits so as to challenge ones’ tendency to deny .. I’m guessing you know where I stand.

  13. Syzygy says:

    I was inspired by this entry to write something on finding one’s calling in the world changing process, called Undoing the Impasse:

  14. Dave Pollard says:

    Yule: Your ‘ball’ analogy is an apt one for Gladwell’s Learned Helplessness. We buy an SUV as a ‘reaction’ to the fear of being hurt, but we do nothing about global warming because we feel helpless to do anything, so we turn away and don’t want to hear about it, or embrace a Lomborg who tells us the problem doesn’t exist. And yes we need encouragement because in its absence we settle for reassurance. How would you say “crazy wisdom” in German? Or would you ;-)Dave: The Twain essay is so extraordinary I am replicating a passage here for the benefit of readers who might not click the link: “It would not be possible for a humane and intelligent person to invent a rational excuse for slavery; yet you will remember that in the early days of the emancipation agitation in the North the agitators got but small help or countenance from any one. Argue and plead and pray as they might, they could not break the universal stillness that reigned, from pulpit and press all the way down to the bottom of society–the clammy stillness created and maintained by the lie of silent assertion–the silent assertion that there wasn’t anything going on in which humane and intelligent people were interested.” Thank you for this — it is indeed a bold and powerful foundation on which to launch a weblog. The obvious subject for a follow-up are the lies we tell ourselves, our own self-inflicted implausible deniabilities.Jon: Thank you, my friend.Readers: Please check out Syzygy’s article, which is inspiring and perceptive, and stick around while you’re there and check out the other journals and creative works in Syzygy’s substantial collection of writings.

Comments are closed.