Today, an excerpt of Chapter 9 from Everything You Believe Is Wrong. A refutation of the precautionary principle. See if you notice any similarities with what is happening our your window.
You may also download a PDF of the entire first chapter (with Table of Contents).
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Chapter 9: Somebody Might Hurt!
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 our non-citizen visitors firmly 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 kimchi. 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 would raise their voices.
Yet the whole thing is obviously preposterous.
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, a.k.a. 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. The joke is the same, but without the laughs, when “mother” has been swapped for “government.”
Now for the structure of the fallacy. 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 a giant pizza 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 possibilities.
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, social justice warriors might become tolerant of dissent. Anything that can be imagined to happen that is not impossible to happen might happen.
This includes the worst that could happen: the world might be destroyed. Yet just as the entire planet may be in peril, it may also be saved if only we exert enough effort to guard against the danger. The costs incurred from an apocalypse would by definition be astronomical, incalculably large, almost infinite. Therefore, no expense would be too large, no measure would be too draconian, no action would be too desperate to “Save the planet!” Anything the government wants to do would be justified, as long as it is done in the name of “Saving” the planet.
It Can Always Get Worse
The kicker is that because any peril that can be named might happen, those the rule over us always have an excuse for any action. As long as the peril is made convincing enough, and if the action can be justified in the name of removing the peril.
In spite 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 are informal fallacies. This means that calling out an argument by labeling it one of these fallacies is not a rigorous proof your enemy’s argument is false. This is why it never does any logical good to tell the government that its latest action is silly or absurd. 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…
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