by Peter Franklin
Wednesday, 3
February 2021
Spotted
07:00

Why the cleverest man in the world was wrong

21 years into the 21st century and we have yet to nuke ourselves into extinction
by Peter Franklin
Number one, the end of human life. Number two, barbarism. Number three, a new world government… Credit: Getty

In 1950, Bertrand Russell published an essay entitled The Future of Mankind, which opens with a stunning prediction. It’s tweeted here by Stefan Schubert — a researcher at the University of Oxford:

21 years into the 21st century we have yet to nuke ourselves into extinction or back to the Stone Age. We haven’t formed a world government either — which was the third and final possibility.

But why was Russell wrong? What was it that was so “unforeseeable”? A few suggestions:

1. Providence. Russell didn’t believe in God, and so could not have considered the possibility that our creator isn’t done with us.

2. The enduring power of conservatism. Russell was a progressive thinker in a progressive century. But despite the blandishments of modernity, some of the old ways are still quite popular — things like family, nation and not living in a radioactive wasteland.

3. The unenduring power of communism. In 1950, the Cold War was in full swing. But by the end of the 20th Century, the USSR was gone and as for China…

4. Nuking export markets is bad for business. Long live global capitalism!

5. Mutually Assured Destruction. M.A.D. is mad — a moral obscenity. And yet, compared to the sort of war that one might actually win, it’s not terribly enticing.

6. Nukes are a faff. Nuclear weapons have proliferated, but not to the extent feared in 1950. To join M.A.D. Club you don’t just need one nuke, but a whole arsenal — plus the launch systems. For most countries, it just isn’t worth the bother.

7. One world government is silly. Have you seen the European Union lately? Now imagine Ursula von der Leyen trying to run a planet. In any case, did Russell never think that one bunch of people having all the weapons might be a problem, not a solution?

8. Intellectuals aren’t as clever as they think they are. If we really wanted to reduce the world to rubble, the best way would be to put some academics in charge. Lovely people, I’m sure — and quite bright in their own way. Nevertheless we’d be eating our pets within three months.

9. People tend to muddle through. In 1950, was it really “unforeseeable” that they might?

10. Stanislav Petrov. The most disturbing explanation for why Russell was wrong is that he was almost right. Despite the absence of a world government, we never had a nuclear war — but there were some close calls. Most notoriously, there was the 1983 incident in which a Soviet early warning system showed that the Americans had launched an attack. Luckily for us, a duty officer called Stanislav Petrov realised it was a false alarm.

We’ll never know what would have happened if he hadn’t — but, thankfully, there are some people in this world who know when to use their common sense.

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Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 year ago

Another expert who got it wrong. I like this line about a world run by academics:

‘Nevertheless we’d be eating our pets within three months.’

David Stanley
David Stanley
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

As they say, intelligence and wisdom aren’t the same thing.

Kiran Grimm
Kiran Grimm
1 year ago
Reply to  David Stanley

Nope! “Wisdom” is a kind of natural, environmentally friendly, non-patriarchal, non-discriminatory, equal-opportunities, non-aggressive, non-mechanistic, traditional and folksy sort of spiritual cleverness favoured by people who wish we had never left the Garden of Eden.

Matt N
Matt N
1 year ago
Reply to  David Stanley

And never underestimate the importance of blatant cunning, either.

Doug Pingel
Doug Pingel
1 year ago
Reply to  David Stanley

And from the Armed Forces – Bullshit baffles Brains

Cassian Young
Cassian Young
1 year ago

Outside the sphere of philosophy, Russell was a fool.

He was a deluded anti-american fanatic, claiming that the US was as much a police state as Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia. e.g. this from 1962 “YOU ARE TO DIE… WHY? Because rich Americans dislike the Government that Cubans prefer, and have used part of their wealth to spread lies about it”

According to his biographer the “over-simplification of the issues involved would have been startling had it come from a schoolboy; from one of the greatest thinkers of our age it was truly astonishing.”

If Russell were alive today, he would be the ultimate Twitter-bore, contributing the lowest grade material possible. No one should pay his opinions on topics outside philosophy two thoughts.

(See Nevan Sesardic’s excellent book “When Reason Goes on Holiday” for the details.)

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 year ago
Reply to  Cassian Young

It sounds as though he would have been a combination of Noam Chomsky and Owen Jones. Just imagine…

David J
David J
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Aargh…

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

I don’t know about Squealer, but the comparison with Chomsky is spot-on – a brilliant philosopher of language and simultaneously the absolute epitome of the Idiot Left.

Judy Englander
Judy Englander
1 year ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

The philosopher A C Grayling comes to mind.

Matt N
Matt N
1 year ago
Reply to  Cassian Young

Basically the Jeremy Corbyn of philosophy.

Terence Raggett
Terence Raggett
1 year ago
Reply to  Cassian Young

Add Stalin apologist, Shaw to the list of academic fools. As Muggeridge observed; intellectuals intent on abolishing intelligence.

Derek M
Derek M
1 year ago
Reply to  Cassian Young

You can visualise that alternate history by looking at AC Grayling’s twitter feed (although he’s more deranged than Russell would probably have been); it’s hilarious

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
1 year ago

My experience of philosophers during the course of my own Philo PhD a decade ago is that politically speaking the vast, vast majority of my former colleagues are absolute bellends.

Susannah Baring Tait
Susannah Baring Tait
1 year ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

You wrote Twisted, did you not?

Cassian Young
Cassian Young
1 year ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

Read When Reason Goes on Holiday. It will confirm your opinion e.g. Hilary Putnam used to promote Maos little red book. Wittgenstein was a Stalinist, but not a Communist. Heidegger a Nazi obviously.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
1 year ago
Reply to  Cassian Young

Good call. Putnam was absolutely one of the figures I had in mind in making my comment.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
1 year ago
Reply to  Cassian Young

Update. Just had a look on Amazon. It sounds right up my street. Thanks for that.

Cassian Young
Cassian Young
1 year ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

Particularly with that Yugoslav name of yours …

Susannah Baring Tait
Susannah Baring Tait
1 year ago
Reply to  Cassian Young

His name is Richard Craven. Nothing Yugoslav about that!

Cassian Young
Cassian Young
1 year ago

I was kidding.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
1 year ago
Reply to  Cassian Young

Susannah’s right, although I can quite see why you thought I was Yugoslav – my name spelt backwards does seem entertainingly Balkan.

Mike Boosh
Mike Boosh
1 year ago

I’ve always thought Russell was an utter pillock, and point 8 made me laugh out loud. I think point 9 “people just muddle through” probably hits the nail on the head… Or maybe things just were never as bad as that whining old commie seemed to believe.

Richard Pinch
Richard Pinch
1 year ago

The author may not be responsible for the headline, but Bertrand Russell wan’t the “cleverest man in the world” (although he himself might have thought so). in comparison with Hardy, Littlewood, Moore, Trevelyan and Wittgenstein, he probably wan’t even the cleverest man at Trinity.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 year ago
Reply to  Richard Pinch

Yes, I was about to point out, based on my having recently read a biography of Wittgenstein, that he did not seem to be as clever as Wittgenstein. I cannot really speak for the other names you mention, but quite clearly he was not as clever as contemporaries such as Einstein or the people who developed the nuclear bomb. He probably wasn’t even as clever as the guy called Belisha who invented the Belisha Beacon or whoever invented powdered eggs around that time.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

I think R.Pinch may be referring to G.E.Moore, who bequeathed to posterity the concept of the naturalistic fallacy.

Joe Francis
Joe Francis
1 year ago

I vote for number 8.

Richard Pinch
Richard Pinch
1 year ago

This column gives rise to some more interesting points. Russell wasn’t really an academic at this stage of his life, in the sense of being paid by a university to teach and do research: he was more of a “public intellectual”, a role not quite so clearly established in the UK as it is in France, say. But whatever his status, it’s fair to ask whether it really had any bearing on his public pronouncements. His expertise was in rather technical aspects of philosophy, logic and mathematics, not particularly relevant to geopolitics, and while his training in logic, and undoubted abilities as an expositor, made it possible for him to make a case well, does not establish the rightness of that case. Indeed, considering that Russell had been a pacifist for many years, it’s impossible to conclude that he was opposed to nuclear weapons because he predicted the inevitability of mass destruction and hence adopted a pacifist position — it’s rather clear that he was opposed to nuclear weapons because he had long adopted a pacifist position and that led him to predict the inevitability of mass destruction.

The other question is whether Russell was even attempting to expound a logical argument or simply to make a rhetorical case. Of course anyone is entitled to make a rhetorical case for any point of view they happen to believe in, but it is less than honest to start internally from a point of view, however strongly held, but then present it externally as a conclusion. I think it probable that Russell was not arguing transparently in this sense, and that he knew he was not. He might have held that it was of greater importance to persuade people of his all-important view than to argue honestly, but doesn’t make any the more honest.

David J
David J
1 year ago

Russell repeatedly proved that intelligence does not mean that you are bright.

jonathan carter-meggs
jonathan carter-meggs
1 year ago

“People tend to muddle through” is the only thing we can rely on at the limit.

Johnny Sutherland
Johnny Sutherland
1 year ago

Before you consider using a headline like this one you need a definition of the word “clever” so a quick google

“quick to understand, learn, and devise or apply ideas; intelligent.”

All to many considered (especially by themselves) as clever pass only one element of this definition – devise ideas. They stop at that point and refuse to learn from the real world that their idea was wrong, ignore the fact that it can’t be applied in the real world.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
1 year ago

“The only difference between a visionary and a madman is that the visionary was right in the end.”

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
1 year ago

9 is the best explanation, together with communism’s built-in decadence.

M Spahn
M Spahn
1 year ago

1. Providence. Russell didn’t believe in God, and so could not have considered the possibility that our creator isn’t done with us.

If you are going to include that, and make it number one no less, then you could just as easily posit the possibility that Zeus and Athena and so forth are real, and intervened to protect us because they find us amusing.

Derek M
Derek M
1 year ago

From the people who brought us, everybody will be starving by the 1980s, if the global ice age doesn’t wipe us out first etc etc. Now of course they are peddling other dire predictions of the end of the world which they use to control the plebs

J StJohn
J StJohn
1 year ago

Russell was correct. We have a ‘oneworld’ government. It’s just disguised. The plandemic is just one of many parts of the jigsaw.

Richard Pinch
Richard Pinch
1 year ago

I’ld like to suggest a few more (I think 11 was already taken in a previous comment).

12. Geopolitics is so remote from technical philosophy that Russell’s opinion was no more likely to be correct than that of any other intelligent but uninformed person.

13. Russell was not attempting to articulate his opinion of what would happen, but to suggest what might happen, with opinions swayed by his prior and deeply-held belief in pacificism.

14. Russell neither knew nor cared whether his opinion was correct, but thought it would be useful to promote a position he held for other reasons entirely.

15. Russell thought his opinion unlikely to be correct but viewed public dishonesty as justifiable to promote a position he held for other reasons entirely.

Daniel Björkman
Daniel Björkman
1 year ago

“11. Everything takes longer than you expect”?

I still think there’s a good chance we’ll nuke ourselves back to the Stone Age, is what I’m saying. We just haven’t gotten around to it yet.

In any case, did Russell never think that one bunch of people having all the weapons might be a problem, not a solution?

As far as world-ending weapons go? No, I’m pretty sure he thought the people with those weapons having no one to use them on would be a solution rather than a problem. Better still if no one had them at all, of course, but I guess he didn’t think that was any sort of possibility at all.

Mike Boosh
Mike Boosh
1 year ago

Maybe not “world ending weapons”, but city-destroying weapons could and almost certainly would be used to bring a rebellious province to heel if there was no prospect of retaliation or escalation.

Hilary Easton
Hilary Easton
1 year ago

Yes, No 11 could well be the killer.

steve eaton
steve eaton
1 year ago

Very naive I think.
A man who has a hammer will find a nail on which to use it.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
1 year ago

John von Neumann, pretty much unknown to the general public, unknown to even to many academicians (many years ago I once had a conversation with a young economics lecturer who hadn’t heard of von Neumann, when I bought up Morgenstern and Game Theory) but he was undoubtedly the single smartest human ever to have existed – and I’m not someone given to hyperbole.

Russell though, very interesting indeed, incredibly sharp when he was young.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
1 year ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

And to my knowledge, he didn’t get anything wrong.

Apart from getting cancer from being too close to nuclear tests. And wanting to nuke the hell out of the Bolsheviks while they didn’t have the bomb.

Ian Perkins
Ian Perkins
1 year ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

A fanatic.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Perkins

He was like Edward Teller in that respect, another Hungarian Jew. The two combined were prototypes for Dr. Strangelove. That entire grouping of mostly Hungarian scientists, mathematicians and intellectuals jocularly called themselves ‘Martians’, because they were literally out of this world – utterly unique. The Martians are unknown to the general public, but they essentially created the world we live in.

I kinda understand the fear and loathing many of the Eastern Europeans and Austro-Hungarian empire intellectuals of that period had for both the Nazis and the Bolsheviks – you could argue justifiably. Read their stuff from the period, you get the sense their panic was palpable, visceral.

Ian Perkins
Ian Perkins
1 year ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

I have, and I did. Von Neumann took the panic to extremes, even for them.

Ian Perkins
Ian Perkins
1 year ago

Nuclear weapons have not been used since the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That in no way guarantees they won’t be used again. Israel is making noises about attacking Iran if the USA rejoins the JCPOA. Kennedy took the world to the brink of all out nuclear war over Cuba. And there have been numerous occasions when mistakes nearly led to a nuclear exchange between superpowers – see Wikipedia, ‘List of nuclear close calls’.

Nick Faulks
Nick Faulks
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Perkins

We all know that in certain circumstances Russell’s forecast might have come true. That is obvious. Russell, with typical hybris, said he was sure of it.

Peter de Barra
Peter de Barra
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Perkins

… it is expected that, from deep within the Judean hills, the next nuclear missiles will be fired for detonation in Iran – low yield, super accurate, ending Iran’s malign labs and intent – after due warning which will be ignored, of course, as the leaders will not be the ones to die and” etcetera etcetera

steve eaton
steve eaton
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Perkins

I don’t disagree with your larger point, but I find it interesting that when in the case of Cuba and Kennedy, the USSR was staging multiple nukes aimed at the US a mere 90 miles from the US border, 10,000 miles from the USSR, that you characterize this as “Kennedy took the world to the brink”.

Nick Faulks
Nick Faulks
1 year ago

Suggestion 8 is quite sufficient in itself.

Warren Alexander
Warren Alexander
1 year ago

Not so clever after all. Or perhaps his predictions were influenced by his political views more than a rational analysis.

Dodgy Geezer
Dodgy Geezer
1 year ago

Unless something unforeseeable…

I have news for The Right Honourable The Earl Russell, OM, FRS. The future is completely unforeseeable. People may make guesses or predictions, and these may sometimes be right, but you cannot foresee something that has not happened yet. At least, not with current technology…