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Fear Factor: Understanding the Origins and Consequences of Beliefs about National Security and the Threats We Face

Fear Factor: Understanding the Origins and Consequences of Beliefs about National Security and the Threats We Face

The routine employment of torture on the popular television series 24 has given rise to the charge that the program lends verisimilitude to  the questionable premise that torture is a legitimate and effective means of interrogation. A growing body of evidence suggests the critics' charge is correct. Indeed, the Dean of the US Military Academy at West Point grew sufficiently concerned about the pernicious effects 24 was having on his cadets that he traveled to California to meet with the show's creators to ask them to tone down the use of torture on the program. The Intelligence Science Board has echoed the critics' concerns, arguing that similar reality-distorting attitudes towards torture can be seen in the public at large. But how and why can a wholly fictional program like 24 actually influence political reality? Is this case something of an exception, or more akin to the rule?  Unfortunately, evidence suggests that fiction and other socially constructed portrayals of political reality-including propaganda, false flag operations and conspiracy theories-have long exercised demonstrable effects on political reality, often in unforeseen and unintentional ways.

Through the lens of the invasion panic that gripped Great Britain in the late nineteenth century, Greenhill will explore how and why national security-related "social facts"-i.e., things that are deemed to be "true" simply because they are widely believed to be true-can become broadly adopted and disseminated and, by extension, thereby influence the development and conduct of national security policy. Greenhill will further explore what this historical case can tell us about the theoretical and policy implications such "social facts" may hold for the threats we face today, including terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Kelly M. Greenhill is Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Tufts University and Research Fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. She holds a Ph.D. and an S.M. from M.I.T., a C.S.S. from Harvard University, and a B.A. from UC Berkeley. Greenhill previously held pre- or post-doctoral fellowships at Harvard University's Olin Institute for Strategic Studies and Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and at CISAC.

Her work has appeared in a variety of venues, including the journals International Security, Security Studies, and International Migration as well as in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and in briefs prepared for the U.S. Supreme Court. Greenhill has two books shortly forthcoming with Cornell University Press: the first, Weapons of Mass Migration: Forced Displacement, Coercion and Foreign Policy, focuses on the use of large-scale population movements as instruments of state-level coercion; and the second, Sex, Drugs and Body Counts: The Politics of Numbers in Global Crime and Conflict (co-edited with Peter Andreas), examines the politicization and manipulation of crime and conflict-related statistics. She is currently at work on a new book, a cross-national study that explores why, when, and under what conditions, fiction, so-called "social facts" and other non-factual sources of information-such as rumors, conspiracy theories and propaganda-materially influence the development and conduct of national security policies.

Lynn Eden is Associate Director for Research at the Center for International Security and Cooperation, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Stanford University. Eden received her Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Michigan, held several pre- and post-doctoral fellowships, and taught in the history department at Carnegie Mellon before coming to Stanford. In the area of international security, Eden has focused on U.S. foreign and military policy, arms control, the social construction of science and technology, and organizational issues regarding nuclear policy and homeland security. She co-edited, with Steven E. Miller, Nuclear Arguments: Understanding the Strategic Nuclear Arms and Arms Control Debates (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989). She was an editor of The Oxford Companion to American Military History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), which takes a social and cultural perspective on war and peace in U.S. history. That volume was chosen as a Main Selection of the History Book Club.

Eden's book Whole World on Fire: Organizations, Knowledge, and Nuclear Weapons Devastation(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004; New Delhi: Manas Publications, 2004) explores how and why the U.S. government--from World War II to the present--has greatly underestimated the damage caused by nuclear weapons by failing to predict damage from firestorms. It shows how well-funded and highly professional organizations, by focusing on what they do well and systematically excluding what they don't, may build a poor representation of the world--a self-reinforcing fallacy that can have serious consequences, from the sinking of the Titanic to not predicting the vulnerability of the World Trade Center to burning jet fuel. Whole World on Fire won the American Sociological Association's 2004 Robert K. Merton Award for best book in science, knowledge, and technology.