About mentioning those dirty secrets, those elephants in the room!

The Panacea Syndrome (7)

May 28th, 2009 Posted in Sightings (All), Sightings: Social Engineering

Buttons Pushed: Innumerable news articles and op-ed pieces about a simple solution to any problem that plagues us.  It could be a new naturopathic remedy for every real or imagined aliment.  Or, more seriously in terms of human rights, it could be a report on some Draconian law passed on the basis of a simple-minded social science study ‘linking’ some social problem to an assumed cause: for example, fining people for not wearing seat-belts as the solution to traffic fatalities; or censoring movies and broadcast media to stop adolescents from hurting each other; or criminalizing the use of recreational drugs to prevent violent crime.
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“Very few problems have a single, simple cause.  And very few simple solutions don’t cause multiple effectsmost of which are just new problems.  Ask any man who thought his wife was  the only cause of his misery and took the simple solution of divorcing her.” Hippokrites
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What is the cure for dusty death?  What is the cure for the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune?  A surprising number of people feel they have the answer.  And want to impose their putative cure on the rest of us.  These people suffer from the Panacea Syndrome
which is highly infectious and dangerous.
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In The Middle Ages alchemists sought an elixir that would cure all diseases and grant human beings immortality.  They named this marvellous remedy after the ancient Greek goddess of healing—Panacea, daughter of Asclepius, the god of medicine.  Unfortunately they didn’t succeed in their search for this wonderful elixir, just as the 16th Century Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León failed in his search for the Fountain of Youth when he arrived at what is now Florida.  (There is a certain irony in that so many of the elderly now retire to Florida to end their days.)
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The number of more recent explorers and alchemists who have claimed to have found The Fountain of Youth is even greater than in the unenlightened past.  They include all the health food and megavitamin nut cases, those who extrapolate wildly from research on telomeres and antioxidants and reduced caloric intake to concluding that some magical diet is the cure for aging, and, at the very extreme, members of religious sects such as the Christian Scientists (sic) who claim all illness and even death is just in our heads.  One could also include in this list of the deluded peering at the world through rose-coloured glasses all those who think medical researchers will find a magic bullet to cure all cancers, despite the fact that it is well established that cancer is not a single disease.  To believe that one treatment would cure it is equivalent to believing that there is one universally effective treatment for every infectious disease from the common cold to Ebola.
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Nobody wants to be sick.  And few of us want to die.  Such wishful thinking about a panacea is certainly understandable, if irrational.  And what does it matter to most of us?  If the delusion gives some people comfort, that may even be seen as a good.  Usually it only causes harm to the deluded not the rest of us, except, of course, when parents impose their delusional beliefs on their children, turning to prayer or megavitamin treatment when their child really needs chemotherapy.
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Unfortunately the belief in panaceas isn’t limited to personal concerns about physical health and well being.  Fortunately true believers in the power of prayer or megavitamins have had relatively little success in affecting public policy, but unfortunately those who believe in panaceas for social ills have had much more success.  No laws have been passed to tell us we are committing a crime if we fail to take 2 grams of vitamin C every day, but laws have been passed to make criminals of those who don’t wear seat-belts.
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Where the sufferers from the Panacea Syndrome have had the most adverse effect on the rights and freedoms of the individual is in the area of social policy.  Politicians love quick fixes even if they don’t work, for it makes them look like they’re doing something.  In politics it’s all about ‘optics’.  So the most absurd panaceas are fast-tracked into draconian laws.
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All this is understandable.  Our brains are hard-wired to find relationships, and a good argument could be made that the ability to do so is a good definition of intelligence.  One type of relationship that particularly concerns us, at it should, is the causal relationship.  Survival depends on knowing what is the cause of our misfortunes, for knowing the cause of misfortune can, at least sometimes, give us the power to prevent it.
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Shit happens.  If we only knew the cause, we could prevent it.  Right?  Well unfortunately when shit happens, the cause is usually plural, and for that reason usually unavoidable.  Most of the ills our flesh or our society is heir to do not have a single cause, and so there is no single preventive measure we can take to avoid them.  But our limited intellects simply cannot deal with such relational complexity, and so we stubbornly refuse to believe there isn’t a panacea for each and every misfortune.  This is the Panacea Syndrome, which when it affects social policy often results in consequences more dire than what it was intended to prevent.
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The Panacea Syndrome is one of the underlying causes of the insidious social engineering that has resulted in what the Brits call the ‘Nanny State’ and civil libertarians see as the creeping totalitarianism in democratic states.
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Racism, someone decides, is caused by using derogatory terms for someone of a different complexion or ethnic background, so therefore we can ‘cure’ racism by prohibiting the saying of such words.  Johnny broke his arm falling off the swing set in the school yard, so we can prevent kids hurting themselves at school by removing playground equipment.  People insist on using recreational drugs to excess, so we can solve that problem by making smoking a joint a crime.  Myriad are the examples of such simple-minded reasoning leading to legislation that only made matters worse—and usually introduced new problems.  The thirteen years of Prohibition is the textbook example of the deleterious effects of social engineering.  Not only did it result in an increase in alcoholism, but it was the best thing that happened to organized crime since thugs first had the sense to form into gangs.
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The social sciences are certainly responsible, culpable, for aggravating the Panacea Syndrome.  Psychologists, unlike physicists, don’t seem to realize that causation in human behaviour is complex; it is in some ways more complex than that of subatomic particles.  At least every neutron is identical to every other neutron, but every human being is different from every other human being.  Psychology has no unvarying laws of motion, no really rigourous scientific laws at all.  It only has approximations, best bets on the effects of any causal agent.  The math of physics is calculus, that of social scientists, mere probability theory.
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Simplistic explanations abound in psychology, but what makes these particularly dangerous is the willingness of social ‘scientists’ to assume the mantle of sages.  Science describes; it does not prescribe.  But psychologists blithely generalize from imprecise quasi-scientific studies, and proceed to offer advice on everything from how to raise one’s offspring through what entertainment is ‘safe’ to what defines a person as ‘mentally ill’ and in need of ‘corrective treatment’.
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Social scientists aren’t the only snake oil salesmen: We shouldn’t forget religious leaders, political revolutionaries, psychic healers, ‘alternative’ medicine practitioners, and innumerable others.  But at least all these folk can be easily detected.  There are two tell-tale diagnostic symptoms of Panacea Syndrome.
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First, those who suffer from this disorder usually assign one cause to numerous ills.  It could be original sin, what you eat, the media, the government, gun laws, some ethic group––you name it.
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Second, they consistently offer a simplistic solution based on a simple-minded belief in simple causes.   It could be finding Jesus, becoming a vegetarian, censoring what people can see or read, overthrowing the government, passing some new regulatory law, or applying the “final solution” to that damn ethnic group.
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It is ironic that the very thing that drives the scientific quest for knowledge, our desire to find causal relationships, so often leads us astray.  Complexity and coincidence confound us, and so we fall back on simplistic explanations.  The methods of science are designed to protect us from this pitfall.  As the physicist, Richard Feynman, observed, “Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself.  The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”  So of course I’m not offering science as a new panacea.  That would be absurd, since real science is based on the understanding that causation is complex.  I’m only suggesting that a good dose of scientific, critical thinking would be a useful treatment for Panacea Syndrome.
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We should stop worshipping at the altar of the Greek goddess Panacea and instead heed the advice of that great and mortal Greek doctor, Hippocrates, who wisely warned of the dangers of going beyond describing onto prescribing with his dictum:  “Before all else, do no harm.”

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New Award Winners:

New Whistle Blower Award:  Richard Feynman.
New Magic Weaver Award:  T. N. Robinson, APA, AMA, et al.

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