How to help public officials avoid creating monsters

By: Shelby Steuart

What does Godzilla have to do with predicting how close we are to nuclear war? According to Dr. Jeff Berejikian, who recently presented on this topic at TedxUGA: everything.

For Berejikian, the story of Godzilla offers an important metaphor about the relationship between citizens and their democracy. “When we ignore big problems, they don’t go away, they get bigger,” he said. “Sometimes they come back as giant monsters that seek to destroy us.”

Berejikian describes how, in the 1954 blockbuster, a true a crisis ensued after government officials took it upon themselves to secretly test a hydrogen bomb. While their broader intentions were admirable, officials chose not to tell the public about what was happening, and this, according to Berejikian, is what’s most relevant now. Small groups of public officials, even when well-intentioned, can make terrible mistakes.

To examine this idea, Berejikian described a recent research project in which his team attempted to identify the conditions under which government officials might accidentally start a nuclear conflict.

Building upon principles from the discipline of cognitive science, Berejikian and his colleagues conducted a set of psychological experiments comparing the decisions of military officials and the general public. They found that, for officials, “Re-framing the same situation from gains to losses more than doubled the percentage of experts who recommended going to war with a nuclear-armed country”

Ultimately, they found that military experts were easier to manipulate into starting a war than regular civilians. As we inch closer and closer to nuclear war, it becomes imperative that we have an informed public actively participating in the big, important decisions of our time.

There are many examples of how an informed public can shape our government’s decisions. For example, citizens’ awareness of growing nuclear arms race in Europe, during the Cold War, produces such backlash the U.S. and Russia signed treaty banning the placement of nuclear weapons in Europe.

“Those protests, those demonstrations, and the politics that resulted put pressure on the U.S. and on European governments to negotiate with Russia and create the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Agreement, which got rid of the weapons.”

“However,” he continued, “our attention has waned since the end of the Cold War and the United States and Russia were both able to pull out of the treaty in the past year, all without any media or citizen attention. With public pressure we created that agreement, when public pressure left, the countries withdrew.”

This, he explains, is why it’s still possible for a “Godzilla problem” to result from public officials making decisions without the voice of the people.

He offered a glimmer of hope, which he defined as citizen participation. “I firmly believe, and this is why I teach, that broader-informed public engagement gives us the best chance of solving our problems. I don’t know what the right answers are but I do think the democratic institution is where the answers can be found.”

To watch the TedxUGA talk, click here.