William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

The Somebody-Might-Get-Hurt! Fallacy

Hey, it could happen.

Word is our beneficent government, which loves us and would not see us fall into harm, is working on a design for a system of chains to anchor both citizens and illegal aliens to the earth. Why? Because gravity might reverse itself.

That, dear reader, despite its rank absurdity, is a true statement. Gravity might reverse itself. And if it does, we’d be in some pretty deep kimchee. So the government would be well justified in shackling us to the ground.

What we have is an actual possibility, a non-zero probability, of a unimaginable calamity. The ill effects of the calamity would be so awful that nobody could calculate them. Why, they’d be costlier than the entire Federal debt times two. It would be so horrific that the hosts of NPR to raise their voices.

Yet the whole thing is obviously absurd.

This is the Somebody-Might-Get-Hurt! fallacy, a.k.a. the What-About-The-Children! fallacy, a.k.a. the We’re-All-Going-To-Die fallacy, the Better-Safe-Than-Sure! fallacy. It is the only fallacy comes with an exclamation point (technically it should also be written in italics to emphasize its dire nature).

The only time this fallacy is written about soberly is when when it appears in scientific literature, where it is called the Precautionary Principle.

The old joke used to be that a sweater was defined as an article of clothing that a child put on when its mother got cold. Now it’s the same joke but “mother” has been swapped for “government.”

The problem lies in the nature of contingency. All physical events, such as gravity reversing itself, the climate spinning out of control and forcing the atmosphere to resemble an Easy-Bake oven, plastic bags tainting the water supply turning us all into three-armed mutants, dust in air causing hearts to seize up solid, and on and on, are all contingent.

Contingent physical events are not logically necessary. It is a rock-solid undefeatable fact of the universe that what happened could have happened differently, and thus that what might happen could be virtually anything. Mountains might grow legs and dance, goats might swell to terrible size and begin goring the populace, progressives might become tolerant of dissent. Anything that can be imagined might happen.

And therefore, the costs incurred from these mini-apocalypses might be astronomical, they might be incalculably large, almost infinite disruptions.

The means you can always threaten doom and use your lurid fantasy to justify almost any action that would “Save the planet!”

Because of these indisputable truths, the Somebody-Might-Get-Hurt! fallacy is an informal and not a formal fallacy, much in the way that the No True Scotsman and Slippery Slope informal fallacies are also not rigorous proofs your enemy’s argument are false. So it never does any logical good to tell the government that its latest ban is silly. They can always retort truthfully that unimaginable evils await unless they have their way.

Still, the Somebody-Might-Get-Hurt! fallacy is an informal fallacy, which means it can be answered.

When your mother used to tell you to put on a sweater or come out of the water, the natural retort was I am not cold. What that does is reject the premise used by your mom in building her threat. Or you might have been cold but were having too much fun so you said, “Oh, mom. Just five more minutes!” That rebuts the cost. You have to do the same thing with the government.

Yes, you admit, transfats might be killing more people than old age and so should be banned. But if they so deadly, where is the evidence of their effects? The probability of widespread death, given all observation, is apparently near zero. And then it’s none of the government’s business what kind of fats I want to eat.

Just like your mother, the government is not likely to buy that last argument. Everything is their business. They say. Since you are not intelligent enough to figure out for yourself the best way to live, the government, bristling with well credentialed experts, feels it must step in and do the job for you.

This is why instances where somebody invokes the Somebody-Might-Get-Hurt! fallacy turn into shouting matches. Either the argument is over the premises which drive the probability of the calamity, or its over who’s business the effects of the calamity are.

The only chance of winning against somebody beholden to the fallacy is ridicule. You won’t change your opponent’s mind, but you might convince enough others so that you outnumber your opponent.

But the smart money is on the government.

28 Comments

  1. Does this apply to things like Taleb’s “Non-Naive Precautionary Principle”? http://www.fooledbyrandomness.com/pp2.pdf

    He says “Overreacting to to probabilities is not irrational when the effect is large and in the presence of ruin.”

  2. Briggs

    April 11, 2014 at 9:01 am

    Nate,

    Yes, Taleb is wrong. He says in the “real world” what “matters” is “probability x consequences”. Well, to generate a reasonable threat make the probability small but non zero and the consequences approach infinity. The result will always argue for action.

    This is what the global warming enthusiasts do. “Save the planet” forsooth.

  3. Everything is their business. They say. Since you are not intelligent enough to figure out for yourself the best way to live, the government, bristling with well credentialed experts, feels it must step in and do the job for you.

    This is a difficult question from the reactionary (i.e., anti-progressive) standpoint. It is actually true that most people “are not intelligent enough to figure out” for themselves the best way to live. Nature (or Nature’s God or both) seems to have an answer in the development of human culture (traditions, folkways, mores, etc.), which in turn prompts the vast mass of people to use “best practices” often without giving them a whole lot of thought.

    So the wise governor does in fact make public health his business for the common good. It’s just that the wise governor realizes that dietary practices that date back hundreds or thousands of years are probably adaptively beneficial and, at least thus far, “they haven’t killed us yet”. Therefore, without irrefutable evidence to the contrary, the hypothetical wise governor probably ends up leaving people alone in their dietary choices.

    So our foolish governors (and their zillions of high-paid lackeys) are not respecting Chesterton’s Fence. They realize, more or less correctly, that public health is their business, but they are unwilling to admit the implicit wisdom of natural (pre-rational) human preferences and their codification into cultural norms. So they’ll tear down the fence based on tentative or contradicted data and build an even bigger one.

    The solution is not a government that, on hardened principle, stays out of the dietary business, but a government wise enough to realize that this is usually the best option.

  4. Briggs

    April 11, 2014 at 9:09 am

    Nick,

    Excellent points, thanks.

  5. “It would be so horrific that (it would cause?) the hosts of NPR to raise their voices.” Briggs, your enemies have purloined some words. And during Happy Week, too!

    “…progressives might become tolerant of dissent.” No, impossible. Sure, one or two might become enlightened or have a senior moment, but as a group it ain’t gonna happen. Never. As in, NOT EVER.

    Or another strategy to support ridicule is to come up with a balancing fallacious argument. If fallacy rules the day, then use it to bind your opponent. E.g., if CO2 is causing global warming, then everyone must stop breathing as much. Do you know how many billions of tons of CO2 are exhaled every day? And we must get rid of our pets too because they contribute to the disaster that awaits us. You get the point. Sometimes they see through ridicule, but applying a coating of emotional appeal makes it easier to swallow.

  6. Briggs,
    “an article of clothing that a child put on when the mother got cold.” I’m trying to figure out who “the mother” is. Does this child live in an orphanage run by nuns and the reference is to the mother superior? Maybe this kid is a brat and only refers to his mother as “the mother” or maybe even “the old lady”. Say it ain’t that Briggs has succumbed to the progressives and is afraid to say “his mother gets cold”. It is much too late to be squeamish.

    Nick,
    “that dietary practices that date back hundreds or thousands of years are probably adaptively beneficial”. Possibly but then the Bible is full of dietary practices that are ignored by most people without consequence. I agree that great care should be taken in casually throwing out old ways by fiat based on nothing but a government committee’s whim. That being said, culture does change slowly from generation to generation. Breakfast cereals and soft drinks, which are now demonized, were introduced as health foods.

  7. Fletcher Christian

    April 11, 2014 at 10:14 am

    Gary – The CO2 you produce was bound into the food you eat a year or two ago, at a maximum. Just a little different from the 250,000,000 years ago that CO2 from coal or oil was bound.

  8. What’s their contingency for the non-zero probability of the entire planet quantum tunneling outside the orbit of Jupiter?

  9. Mike: It can do that??? Way cool!

    Fletcher: I believe you are assuming that these are fossil fuels–dead animals and microbes. There are other theories as to their origin. If those are correct, there never was 250 million years of sequestration.

  10. “goats might swell to terrible size and begin goring the populace”

    Don’t know about the swelling, but anyone interested in rampant goat could do worse than: http://www.goat-simulator.com/

  11. Fletcher Christian

    April 11, 2014 at 2:17 pm

    Sheri – I assume that you refer to the theory that a lot of oil was incorporated into Earth during its formation – or possibly during the Late Heavy Bombardment c. 3.8 billion years ago, when all manner of volatiles (including most of Earth’s water) were dumped here by comets.

    This theory might be correct. However, it doesn’t really make any difference from the point of view of my argument; in fact, such an assumption would bolster it. The fossil carbon would then be billions of years old instead of hundreds of millions.

    However the oil got there, there is no getting around the virtual certainty that it’s been there for millions of years.

    In the case of coal, there isn’t really much argument. Imprints of leaves, and even tree bark, can be seen in it.

    Mike: I haven’t calculated it (wouldn’t know how to start) but there is also a non-zero probability of the whole of planet Earth quantum tunneling into a black hole. I suspect that the chance of a GRB hitting us square on with its main beam, or a randomly wandering compact object such as a neutron star throwing us into interstellar space, is substantially higher.

    In any case, it doesn’t really matter. There is nothing that could be done about events such as that. For catastrophic global warming, there is.

    Interesting website (name is Exit Mundi):

    http://www.exitmundi.nl/exitmundi.htm

  12. You can only do something about CAGW if people control the climate. Even the IPCC has backed away from that claim, sneaking in “natural” factors and saying “natural” factors can overcome AGW “for a while”, which is why as CO2 rises, the temperatures have not in the last 17 or so years. The policy document now recommended adaption over mitigation in many areas. Seems even they know they have enough evidence to prove CO2 controls the weather.

  13. To be fair, lots of people who would like to see things like trans fats being banned are (a) perfectly willing to give up such things themselves and (b) have actually lost loved ones due to the health issues such bannings are intended to prevent. There’s a big difference between “Think-What-Could-Happen” and “What-Happened-To-My-Father-Could-Happen-To-Your-Father-Or-Anyone’s-Father-So-Let’s-Make-Sure-It-Doesn’t”.

    The fear of anthropogenic climate-disruption catastrophes (ACDC?), on the other hand, is entirely propaganda-born; as Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit has pointed out numerous times, I’ll believe the people who keep telling me it’s a crisis once they start acting like it’s a crisis.

  14. Seems to be one of the most esteemed activities around now to turn your bad fortune into a new law. Something happened to me so I’ll do my best to lobby for a new law so it doesn’t happen to you. Why can’t people say someone made a bad decision and ate too much and it killed them? It wasn’t the food. Food can’t attack and kill someone. The decision to partake in the irresponsible behavior of eating too much killed them. Why not ban irresponsible decisions? Or ban voting for progressives? Same thing.

  15. Stephen J: I’m not sure there is a difference between “what could happen” and “what did happen” when it comes to banning things. Not all smokers die of lung cancer, not all people who eat trans fat die from trans fat. etc. Based on personal experience, I’d want to ban a lot of things due to bad reactions and relatives dying. But no one forced my father to smoke and his ego would not let him admit he could not quit on his own. So who is responsible for this? Other people who smoke know they can get cancer–they simply choose to ignore that or don’t care. Should I be running over and pulling cigarettes out of people’s mouths? What about salt? Now “they” are saying we need more. Sunscreen? Who lets people parachute out of planes???? People die doing that. (And by your example, if one of those individuals was my brother or father or mother, I should go for banning the activity.) Slow cars down to 30 mph–speed kills. People become addicted to pain killers. There’s just way too many things to ban to make us “safe”.
    People have to do their own risk assessments. Others may not like your choices, but when you pass 18, it’s now up to you to do things for your own good, not your parents or your nanny government. It’s time to be an adult.

  16. Go Whitecaps!!

    April 11, 2014 at 7:58 pm

    You’re talking about this. Aren’t you?

    http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10584-014-1082-7

    He’s baack. More Lew paper.

  17. You mentioned, “It’s not that cold” and “Just five more minutes” as rebuttals to Moms.

    But there is a much stronger rebuttal to governments:

    “None of your business, mate, now shove off before I fill your britches with buckshot.”

  18. Or Gore could swell to terrible size and start boring the populace! Oh, too late.

  19. The logic of the P-Princ is horribly flawed, but that doesn’t matter. It’s never really about the calamity; it’s always about the tyranny.

  20. Briggs, will you be writing a missive on the new paper by Lovejoy proclaiming that “Statistical analysis rules out natural-warming hypothesis with more than 99 percent certainty.” My statistics is old and rusty but this paper looks like a joke and one must wonder how it ever passed peer-review.

  21. Yes, Lew is back and is the poster child for “peer-review is a failure” posters.

  22. Spot on! The great Milt Friedman once said in response to the old we-need-Government-to-run-our-lives-because-we-are-too-ignorant-and-stupid argument, something like “Fine; show me where these wise angels are, who know my best interests better than me, and I’ll agree.” Okay, he said it better than that, but that’s the jist.

  23. If the precautionary principle can be used to justify government action, can it more validly be used against interventionist action? There is considerable evidence that many large government projects are vastly over-run on costs, and fail to achieve the original objectives. Furthermore, bureaucracies set up to deal with a short-term issue, take on a life of their own, with the employees thinking up reasons for its continued existence.

  24. Manic: I have never seen an instance where the precautionary principle was used to argue against intervention. There’s probably some unwritten (or maybe written) rule that being precautionary by definition requires some kind of action in and of itself. The principle is used to foster the growth of government intervention and elevation of science to the saviour of society. After all, if we are preventing action, how can we be saving you and making your life better? One supposes you could possibly argue against an action IF you had another action to replace it, so you would still be protecting people against a great possible harm. But to just say “don’t do that” because bad things will result? What would people do? They are without guidance. They must have an alternative–some course of action. 🙂

  25. Mr David L Hagen

    April 14, 2014 at 10:26 am

    Re: “We’re-All-Going-To-Die fallacy”
    The historical prognosis of death has been about 99.99999999%!
    I predict that the prognosis of death in the near foreseeable future will continue to be 99.99999999!
    Consequently even a bag of gold (or $100 trillion) is unlikely to statistically change that prognosis.
    PS The two lone exceptions reported are Enoch and Elijah. Their opportunity has been predicted.

  26. “Mike: It can do that??? Way cool!”

    Well yes, it’s just very very improbable, not impossible….

  27. A thought about your picture.

    It looks like an asteroid hitting the Earth. Your caption said, “Hey, it could happen” which is correct. Indeed, since it has happened several times in the geological past and since the cause (asteroids crossing the Earth’s orbit) continues to happen, it is going to happen again. It is only a question of when and (currently) we can’t predict when that will be. What we can do is to say it “won’t” happen in the next x years because we have located those asteroids which could cause harm in the next x years.

    This is a case where there is a REAL threat with massive cost implications (ask any passing dinosaur) but low probability but definitely non-zero. There probably are other high hazard/low frequency scenarios without needing to go to ridiculous examples.

    Footnote: There is a “one man band” observatory in the UK which is playing an important part in determining the orbits of near earth objects. They have been offered Government support but have refused it so that they can continue to contribute determining this low probability/high hazard risk without Government interference.)

  28. Fletcher Christian

    April 16, 2014 at 5:22 am

    Alan Bates – Interesting point about asteroids. But, in fact, we can’t say we won’t get hit in the next (plucks number from air) 200 years because we haven’t found all the possible culprits yet. In addition, there is always the possibility of something coming in from the Kuiper Belt or even the Oort Cloud and that would have even worse implications – because the velocity would be higher. And if the object came in from the other side of the Sun, we would also have very little warning.

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