Brian Martin: Misinformed, under-informed, and unrealistic

March 22, 2009

Up until recently, I worked for a tech company for whom I reviewed business proposals submitted by staff, would choose ideas to be developed into business plans by our team, and would help initiate the launch of approved plans. Some ideas were fantastic, some were silly and ill conceived, and others seemed fantastic. The latter type of plan is often the most troubling. Depending on the skill level of the person proposing the plan, it could have been easy to accept the “game-changing” plan and spend endless hours trying to turn it into a venture.

Here is an example of a plan that seems fantastic: “PetroCat, Inc will change the energy market forever. After minutes of planning and testing, the PetroCat team has developed a process by which kitty litter can be turned into an environmentally friendly energy source.” Have you ever heard of PetroCat, Inc? Probably not. I just made it up.

People often have grand ideas that could change the world. Whenever confronted with such an idea, the most important questions to ask are: (1) Is the idea backed by legitimate research? (2) Is it feasible? and (3) Is it realistic?

In Chapters 1 and 3 of Technology for Nonviolent Struggle, Brian Martin proposes his own grand idea. Perhaps, his idea is a little bit more realistic than fueling the cars of the future with cat excrement, but its not much better. Statements like “if manufacturers, commanders or operators refuse to cooperate, weapons will not be created or used” are not constructive or realistic. Instead of presenting the utopian view, Martin should have used his knowledge of the world as it stands to present a reasonable course of action.

Maybe this is what he is trying to do; however, there are other major underlying problems with his argument. A number of the proposed “facts” that underlie his argument are simply wrong. Given that I was able to find a few and don’t have any real academic experience with international relations or world affairs, I have to assume that there are many more.

Competition vs Cooperation

Statement by Brian Martin in Chapter 3: “All the available evidence shows that human beings have no instinctual urge to physically harm other people. Indeed, cooperation is much more “natural” than competition. Without day-to-day cooperation, what is called society would be impossible.”

The first and last sentence may be fine. I simply don’t have the background to affirm or dismiss them. The second sentence, however, is clearly false. In fact, I would bet that a freshman that only took Introduction to Psychology for two weeks and then dropped would be able to guess with some degree of certainty that the second sentence is false.

The statement is true in some Eastern countries (e.g. some of China) but does not hold for any Western or Westernized countries. There are almost endless journal articles and reports that argue just the opposite of Martin’s statement. Martin did cite research for the first and second statements; however, you can find research that supports nearly anything. (If you ever watch the news, you’ve seen some of it featured there!) The good academic or researcher does extensive research to back up his or her statements rather than taking the ideas put forward in one article as the ultimate truth.

Examples are meaningless
Throughout his writing, Martin uses an arsenal of powerful and descriptive examples to support his ideas; however, examples are in themselves meaningless unless they comprise a general truth. If an academic uses examples to give deeper meaning to a correlation, trend, or effect, the example can produce greater understanding. On the other hand, using singular examples as Martin does to attempt to back ideas does not produce the desired result. It is as inane as saying that just because I have trouble sleeping that everyone in the world has trouble sleeping. What is true in one example is not necessarily true in all or any other examples or situations.

Martin should have been attempting to code all examples to find correlations. Since an academic cannot ethically manipulate level of violence or nonviolence, Martin’s research would have had to be observational. This produces another problem. Given that the situations he would have been coding for are complex and largely novel, it would be impossible to tell whether the correlation was truly between the variables of interest or if an intermediary variable was what really should have been of interest.
– Parker Noren


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