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.