Lethal Absurdity

Phil Hansten | June 26, 2015

"Leucocephalus" Phil Hansten

“Leucocephalus” Phil Hansten

The most costly of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind. H. L. Mencken

We seem to have an epidemic of absurd thinking. Discussions based on empirical evidence and rational arguments still occur, but they are drowned out by the disputes in which one side has adopted an absurd position—that is, an intransigent stand on an issue in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

It is absurd, for example, to avoid giving life-saving vaccines to your children. It is also absurd to defend a health care system with per capita costs that are roughly twice that of any other country, yet give results that are inferior to most other developed countries.

It is absurd to claim that unlimited amounts of political donations will not debauch our elections. It is absurd to claim that giving the super-wealthy tax breaks will result in trickle-down to the middle class.

It is absurd to promote gun policies that allow purchase of assault rifles, guns in bars (guns and alcohol… what could possibly go wrong?), and high-capacity magazines. It is absurd to promote a death penalty that does not act as a deterrent, regularly kills innocent people, and costs substantially more than life in prison without parole.

And probably the most chilling absurdity of all is denying the compelling evidence that climate change is largely caused by human activity, and that it represents an existential threat to every person on the planet… including, ironically, the billionaires who are desperately trying to obfuscate the scientific evidence.

We thus have a cadre of state and national politicians who have allowed their self-interest and willful ignorance to distort or deny the empirical evidence on a wide range of issues. They constitute a confederacy of dunces and knaves in a theater of the absurd who are fighting against rational and evidence-based solutions to serious problems.

In the case of climate change they are sabotaging energy policies that are needed to reduce the risk of an unfathomable catastrophe to the human race, one in which the worst-case (but plausible) scenarios suggest that billions of people may perish. Blaise Pascal aptly called humankind the “mindless worm of the earth.” Ironically, by the time we are done destroying the earth, worms may be one of the few life forms left.

What all of these absurdities have in common is that they are on the wrong side of empirical evidence and rational thought. Unfortunately, absurd positions often have the backing of powerful interests or—as with the vaccine avoiders and supporters of capital punishment—they emanate from the pervasive intellectual indolence of the American public.

quoteMere opinions are not inherently misguided, of course. It may be my opinion that chocolate ice cream tastes better than strawberry, and even some moral opinions do not necessarily have an objective and rational basis. I can be for or against gay marriage, for example, without being asked to present any facts about the matter.

But the central question is seldom considered: is absurd thinking immoral? Sometimes not. I think we can give a pass to the person who put rectangular (not square) pants on SpongeBob SquarePants or who painted the trucks of the Yellow Truck Company orange (not yellow). I would argue, however, that absurd thinking can indeed be immoral for those in a position to influence public policy. Most of the absurdities discussed above result in a net increase in the deaths of innocent human beings. People who promote public policy based on these absurd positions are no doubt sincere, and consider themselves moral creatures. But I think Pascal was right when he said in his Pensées, “So Let us work on thinking well. That is the principle of morality.” Irrational and counterfactual thinking leading to deaths of our fellow humans is not “thinking well” and it is not moral, no matter how much spin they apply.

One could, therefore, divide public policy debates into three categories: 1) moral questions that do not require much consideration of evidence (e.g., gay marriage, abortion), 2) policy questions that have at least some legitimate arguments and evidence on opposing sides (e.g., education, economic policy), and 3) issues where the empirical evidence has clearly reached the threshold for action, but absurd positions prevail due to predatory self-interest (e.g., climate change) or ignorance (e.g., death penalty). There is hope for correcting absurd positions if they derive from ignorance, such as the death penalty issue, because there is little money supporting the absurd side. For many absurd positions such as those on health care, gun control, and climate change, however, lasting solutions depend on minimizing the overpowering effect of money in politics. It will not be easy, but our very survival may depend on it.

7 Comments

  1. Vaccines do not save lives. It’s bothers me a great deal that people like yourself who have not studied health as they find themselves too busy for such matters can be so ignorant in believing that people who have spent literally years studying health, and science and who have come to conclusion that vaccines are dangerous; are loony. Try looking at yourself! You have one less subscriber!!

    • Dear Jodie,

      I am very sorry that you are no longer going to read the Denial File; most posts do not discuss vaccines. I realize that the vaccine issue creates considerable emotion, but the science is clear: when weighing the benefit of vaccines (to the individual and to society) versus the risks of the vaccine, it is about as close to a scientific slam dunk as we ever get. Vaccines do indeed save lives, and the studies suggesting that vaccines cause autism, for example, have been thoroughly debunked.

      Regarding the accusation that I have ventured outside my area of expertise, I have been a professor in the health sciences for 45 years (in drug interactions), and have also participated in a number of epidemiological research studies on the etiology of various malignancies. In the philosophy of science class I teach at the University of Washington, one of the invited lecturers has a PhD in epidemiology, and he has presented, several times and in great detail, the scientific data on vaccinations.

      It is true that all scientific “truths” are provisional, and are in principle replaceable by views that are closer to the truth. But for some scientific questions (such as vaccines) the data are so compelling that denying the evidence does indeed fall to the level of the absurd. And because people die from the denial of the evidence on vaccines, it falls to the level of “lethal absurdity.”

      I realize that this will not change your mind about vaccines. But I would like to repeat the quote from Blaise Pascal: “So let us work on thinking well. That is the principle of morality.” We simply don’t have the luxury of magical thinking, whether about vaccines, climate change or any other pressing societal question.

      Respectfully,
      Philip Hansten

  2. I think that you are mixing the empirical and ideological in vetting what is rational thinking on some subjects above. (1) There is much empirical evidence to indicate caution in the use of vaccines (2) The whole field of “global warming/climate change” has been totally politicized and corrupted by ideological agendas (3) what about the effects of the geo- engineering that we are being subjected to worldwide? (4) and finally history has proven that where there is an armed citizenry tyranny is less likely to take root and less violence.

    • As a scientist who is still active in research and teaching, I can assure you that there is a reason that only 6% of scientists are Republicans. Indeed, those of us in the scientific community wonder why the percentage is so high! I also teach philosophy of science (including the history of science) so I deal regularly with the issues you raise.

      When making public policy decisions based on scientific evidence, one must use the best available scientific evidence. Unfortunately, many people come to political decisions first and then try to shoehorn the scientific evidence to fit their ideological preconceptions.

      Let me state this as clearly as I can: The benefit versus risk for vaccines (both for the individual and for society) is so lopsided in favor of benefit that only people who are massively misinformed or misled could possibly conclude otherwise. Certainly, there people (e.g., immunosuppressed) who should not receive some vaccines, but nobody on either side disagrees with that. As I said earlier, the vaccine issue is about as close to a slam dunk that we ever get in science.

      Regarding climate change, I agree that it has been corrupted by those with ideological agendas, and the vast majority of this corruption has been conducted by people with ties to the fossil fuel industry or other self-interested groups. Let me again state this as clearly as I can: The climatologists are telling us that there is compelling scientific evidence suggesting there is a nontrivial chance that humanity is headed for a climate catastrophe, and that human activity has contributed substantially to it. If you are a climatologist, you can dispute them on this… if you are not, you are in no position to do so.

      My field is drug interaction, so suppose I tell you that 97% of drug interaction scientists say that taking a potent cytochrome P450 3A4 inhibitor with your HMG CoA Reductase inhibitor substantially increases your risk of (possibly fatal) rhabdomyolysis. Would you ignore what the overwhelming majority of drug interaction scientists say about this, and go ahead and take the two drugs? That would make about as much sense as ignoring what 97% of climatologists say about climate change, and just continue spewing more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

      Finally, I almost do not know what to say to the contention that the United States has less violence as a result of the 100 million or so guns in this country. Over 30,000 people are killed with guns in the US every year. The idea that all those guns make us safer is beyond absurd, if that is possible. And if the government comes after you, I would submit that you just might be outgunned with your AK-47. You do know that the US military has tanks, and rocket-propelled grenades, and cruise missiles, and drones, right?

      I don’t mean to be flippant here, because I am sure your comment is sincere. But we are indeed faced with many absurd positions promoted by people who are either misinformed about the science, or are intentionally distorting the science. Innocent human beings are already dying as a result, and the future looks even more bleak if we do not come to our senses.

      Philip Hansten

  3. Good blog post! You put your finger on a most important issue when you focus on money in the political realm. It makes me wonder, however, of the viability of a system in which the power flowing from wealth accumulates so consistently in favor of policies that are objectively absurd, and massively contrary to the evidence. People can hold objectively absurd views, but the principles of social evolution suggest that these are maladaptive and should therefore decline rather steadily over time. Yet is our system the absurdities seem to increase in (big money) power and multiply in numbers. We have big money accumulated wealth now backing policies that 50 years ago most would have seen as absurd (guns in bars being a prime example).

    • Thanks, Dan! You make a great point that these absurdities should be maladaptive in society, but so far we have not seen them decline. And the amazing part to me is that the wealthy and powerful do not see that if it all falls apart, they will eventually go down with the rest of us. But as John Kenneth Galbraith said, “People of priviledge will always risk their complete destruction rather than surrender any material part of their advantage.”

      I think Becker’s ideas apply here… accumulating colossal fortunes is part of their immortality project, the irony being that instead of being remembered positively for their huge fortunes, they will be remembered as the people who brought the end of the world as we know it by spending millions obfuscating the scientific evidence.

  4. One last point about the vaccinations. People are certainly correct to be skeptical about what authority figures in general (and pharmaceutical companies in particular) recommend on health issues. So I understand that it can be difficult for the lay person to know when they are being lied to. I get that. It is just that in this case (recommending vaccinations) they are not lying. Failing to vaccinate puts your children at risk of serious (or even fatal) infections, and puts other children (especially the immunosuppressed, but healthy kids as well) at risk too. It is the people who claim otherwise who are lying to you this time.

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