Socrates’ Wisdom for Defusing the Nuclear Threat

I recently carried on a correspondence with a student at Princeton who is working on this issue. It started with his telling me that “some of us are having difficulties in persuading stubborn, complacent, or pessimistic Princeton students about the risks of nuclear weapons.” In reply, I noted that arguing with those who disagree is a waste of valuable time. His further reply noted that it “we love to argue, but you’re probably right.” Given how prevalent this problem is, I decided to focus this message on that issue.

The late Prof. Everett Rogers is the recognized pioneer in understanding how new ideas diffuse through a society. His research showed that there is a well established process that starts with a small group of innovators, people who will adopt the idea when few others will even consider it. The innovators create a base from which a larger group of early adopters can come on board. These are followed by three other groups., with the last group being as resistant to the new idea as the innovators were open to it. At this early stage in the process of alerting society to the unacceptable risks posed by nuclear weapons, we need to find the innovators and not waste time arguing with those in the last group.

There’s another good reason not to argue. We just might learn something from those who disagree with us. In fact, all new information comes from such sources. If you and I totally agree, I cannot learn anything new from you. But, if you have a different viewpoint, there is a possibility that you possess new information from which I can learn. This doesn’t mean that I naively accept all viewpoints that differ from mine. Rather, I try to understand why you see things differently and then assess whether you see part of the picture that I am missing and from which I can benefit.

This also fits with ancient wisdom. Socrates was declared the wisest of men by the Delphic Oracle. That made no sense to him since he felt that he knew so little. But, after consulting experts in various areas, he understood. Each of those experts knew more than Socrates within his area of expertise, but mistakenly extended his perceived wisdom to areas where he was ignorant. Socrates then understood what the Oracle meant: The wisest of men were those who accepted how little they knew, and did not pretend to know more than they did.

If more of the world were to emulate Socrates, those of us working to defuse the nuclear threat could take a vacation since international misunderstandings create much of the risk associated with nuclear weapons.

Martin Hellman
Member, National Academy of Engineering
Professor Emeritus of Electrical Engineering
Stanford University


  1. Much has happened in the month since my last message, notably President Obama’s Nuclear Posture Review, the signing of a new START Treaty, and the holding of a Nuclear Security Summit in Washington. With all this seeming progress, one might wonder if we can take a rest. Unfortunately, not yet. If one compares the progress with the level of risk reduction required (at least a thousand-fold) it becomes clear that continuing at this pace is much too slow and leaves the world in a state of highly unacceptable risk for at least a century and probably much longer. The fact that Obama seems to want to go faster, but has to restrain himself due to political considerations, reinforces the need for us to create greater popular support for change.
  2. I have arranged a series of seven events on the Stanford campus on Defusing the Nuclear Threat. If you live in the Bay Area, please consider coming and inviting friends. Using these events as an opportunity to bring up the issue with others is a key part of the plan

Share this article with friends who might be interested. If you live in the Bay Area, see another suggestion under NEWS’ item #2, immediately above.

For other suggestions on increasing your effectiveness CLICK HERE.

Permission is granted to reproduce this page in whole or in part. A reference to would be appreciated, or in print to

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, since 1982, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book, co-written with my wife Dorothie, with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." It's on Amazon and a free PDF can be downloaded from its website:
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