It was painful to watch the aggressive global groupthink on climate change last week in Bali — as painful as a 1980s constitutional episode of Meech Lake. Basic message: “Say yes or we all die!”
One of the heaviest burdens of contemporary life is that we are forever being warned to be afraid, of everything from toxins to teeter-totters.
Economists are warning of the end of the economy. Environmentalists are warning – in ceaseless dread – about the end of the environment. Socialists are warning about the end of society, nationalists the end of the nation, and libertarians the end of liberty.
All these things we are told, constantly and loudly, to fear.
What’s burdensome about it is not that we are urged to consider this course or that. What’s burdensome is the panic – the endless resort to threats, guilt and dire consequences. We have reached the point where no subject is taken seriously unless presented as a horror story that can be escaped only if we all
To understand low voter turn-outs, look no further than this. The idea takes hold that only hysterical people worry themselves about such things, because they’re always predicting catastrophe, and when the catastrophe doesn’t happen, they just move on to a new one. So people just turn it all off.
Down the fading hallways of memory I recall from school that there are in logic several kinds of argument: argument by evidence (very good), argument by authority (weaker), argumentum ad hominem (attacking the man, completely invalid), etc.
To these I propose we add “argumentum ab hysteria.”
Argument by hysteria is all around us. “Unless we shut down free speech minorities will be attacked!” “Unless we pay a carbon tax the planet will die!” “Unless we ban every last trace of second-hand smoke in public, children could die!” “Unless we ban guns people will die!”
Never mind that the evidence for all these things ranges from sketchy to nil. It’s the induced fear – the pictures and self-righteous sermons – that clinch it.
This, of course, is not new. There have been inexplicable social panics before. One that comes to mind is the witch-burning craze in Protestant Europe in the 1600s. Earlier we saw the heresy panic of Catholic Europe in the late middle ages.
Like today’s examples, these were mass paranoia masquerading as official policy. But nothing I have ever read about in ages past compares to the scale and diversity of popular paranoias today.
There is no obvious antidote to this mood of crisis. Appeals for calm and reason are all that can be made, and have already been rejected.
It’s democracy’s misfortune that all these arguments are the domain of experts, just like the anti-heresy and anti-witchcraft programs of long ago; argument by authority. Increasingly the main task of democracy is for inexpert voters to sift and arbitrate expert arguments. How is this possible?
We have two ways, neither reliable but both better than argument by hysteria.
One is to ask if a claim accords with our own experience and common sense. For example, since climate experts can’t reliably predict the weather next week, how they can reliably forecast the next century?
This question drives scientists nuts, partly because it’s true, and partly because so much science is counter-intuitive. “Common sense” would also decree the world to be flat and the stars little diamonds in the sky. True. But remind them that the need to burn witches was based on the best inductive scientific reasoning of the 17th century.
In addition, we can judge the strength of a case by the behaviour and attitude of the people making it. Are they rational or in hysterics? Do they explain or do they scold? Do they disguise possibilities as certainties? Do they respect or revile sceptics? Are they trespassing into policy and/or religion?
One thing’s certain: this problem will not go away any time soon. It will probably get worse. In fact, it is already so severe it probably heralds the end of civilization.
Just kidding. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
Link Byfield is an Alberta senator-elect and chairman of the Citizens Centre. The Centre promotes the principles of personal freedom and responsible government.