“You can not prove a negative”
For quite some time I thought the sentence above was a widely used English saying. More recently I looked into it and found that it actually is a quote by James Randi, the American magician and skeptic. Very brilliant guy. So I might have to tone down my appreciation for the English speaking world and raise the one I am feeling towards James Randi. The sentence sounds very trivial and Randi is certainly not the first one to understand the concept – Russels Teapot points to the same conclusion -, but I find this idea to be absolutely crucial for many of the problems we are facing today.
The idea of the sentence above, is that to prove that something does not exist you could never find a positive evidence. The absence of something leaves naturally no trace. So if there is a mouse in your attic, you might find mouse droppings and these could be counted as evidence. But a non-existing mouse would leave no droppings. But the thing is that the absence of droppings could never be considered evidence for the absence of the mouse. Maybe the mouse is too clever and shits somewhere else. The absence of evidence is not the evidence for absence.
But I am not so much interest in mouse poop, but rather this – quite simple – concept might explain a lot. Or better, the problems people are having coping with this concept explains a lot. Why is terrorism so scary? Why does society freak out when a pig somewhere sneezes and dies of the flu?And why do surveillance operations keep growing? Maybe many of our fears come from our inability to deal with the concept on non-existence.
Terrorism is scary, because we are made to believe that terrorists are hiding within our society – and since we could not prove otherwise, the only valid response seems fear.
While working on my Stasi project, I came to the conclusion that surveillance systems actually like this fear created through absence – you can never be sure that big brother is not looking in your direction and therefore you better control you own behavior.
But the same mechanisms might have helped to destroy the system. The Stasi was a massive undertaking. 80something thousand full-time agents and tens of thousands of informers. And this operation kept growing over time. In fact it peaked a few years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. This decline was due to the economic troubles in the GDR and not due to a voluntary decision to take things easier. But why did the Stasi grow? There was not much of a demographic grow – quite the contrary, the population was in constant decline due to low birth rates and emigration towards West Germany. The Stasi grew because of paranoia.
Systems like this one – I would argue – lack the power to question its own existence. You can easily question everything, but questioning your own being and your role within you part of society is hard, the same is true for large scale organizations. So, since the Stasi would not or could not question its own existence, it seemed clear that there must be a threat to society – that was basically the premise for the whole Stasi operation. The idea was that, the West was constantly trying to undermine the system and topple the regime. So all the Stasi needed to do was to find evidence for that.
But as matter of fact, it turned out that most politicians in West Germany and Western Europe were too afraid of instability on their eastern borders and the incalculable risks this instability might bring. Therefore West Germany prolonged the life of East Germany by giving loans and paying ransom for political prisoners. As far as we know now, West Germany never actively tried to topple the regime. Sure, there was support for dissidents, but that was not like funding an underground army. But since the absence of a plan to bring down the regime could never be proven by a surveillance apparatus, the Stasi could never come to the conclusion that the threat they felt was not real.
Poor Stasi guys. How could they have reacted? Once they did not uncover “The Big Plot” for ten years, who would have gotten up to tell his colleagues “Guys, listen! We have been searching for ten years and we did not find any evidence. So lets all go home.”? Of course no one does that, since the guy who desperately wants a promotion, would answer that the enemy is just too clever and therefore the threat is just very hard to uncover. But one day, for certain, evidence will be found, all that is needed is just one thousand new agents. Maybe it is just me, but to me that sounds very contemporary.
It is the same dilemma the NSA, CIA, BND and all the others are facing. Once you come to the conclusion the threat you are facing might be invisible you have already lost. There is no way to find any evidence that gets rid of the fear that you have just created. Maybe the fear becomes weaker, or it is covered by more powerful fears, but it is here to stay.