Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Gadarene Swine Fallacy

The Gadarene Swine Fallacy is a common mistake, the assumption that, because a group is all heading in the same direction, following one plan and one path, they must be going in the proper direction, and, conversely, that an who deviate from that path must be in error.  Unfortunately, it has also spawned a counter-fallacy, as have most logical mistakes, which I shall dub the Perpendicular Truth Fallacy1, in which those who make a practice of being perpetually contrarian attempt to prove the value of their beliefs by pointing to this error, arguing that deviating from conventional wisdom makes it more likely they will discover the truth2. Of course, the existence of a counter-fallacy does not prove the original fallacy is mistaken, any more than the original fallacy makes the counter-fallacy valid. Each is true and of some worth, when used in the proper context. And it is with that in mind I wish to look at the Gadarene Swine Fallacy and how it applies to three arguments I have made, and the counter-arguments I have heard offered.

The first form of argument this fallacy brought to mind was the objection I hear relatively frequently when I object to a particular regulation, that being that the state has always regulated this or that. Or, alternately, that all states choose to regulate it. The problem with this argument should be obvious yet we hear it again and again. To make the point plain, let us look at a short list of those things that have traditionally been the purview of the state and ask if, just maybe, being a frequent object of state interest is not the same as being a legitimate one.

To begin, religion has been almost since the beginning, an area of state interest. Which religions are valid, which are not. Which can be practiced, which would suffer persecution. Which were dangerous cults and which were acceptable faiths. All of these were the areas of state interest since the start. Nor have we wholly abandoned it, as the IRS still decides which religions are acceptable for tax exempt status3. But that is a relatively small intrusion compared to most of our past, and many nations still today, where the state decides what is and is not a religion.

There, that is an area which has traditionally been an area of state interest, and one which most governments have regulated. And yet, for the most part, we now recognize it is an area in which the state should not be involved. So, in at least this case, most of us see the folly of the Gadarene Swine Fallacy in this case. Most states may regulate religion quite closely, or have done so throughout history, but even though it is a common practice, most of us recognize it is not a valid one.

Likewise, the idea of hereditary nobility, or other forms of caste or birth privilege, of inborn advantage and disadvantage, have been common throughout man's history. They may not be quite universal, but the idea of inherited privilege has been a common one throughout most of our history. And yet, once again, at least in much of the west4, we recognize this is not a viable practice, and look upon it where it still exists, as a mistake. Again, though it is a common practice, we recognize it as an error.

From these examples, I hope it is obvious that the simple fact that something has always been done by the state, or that it is common practice among states, either past or present, is nothing but an example of the Gadarene Swine Fallacy. There is nothing sacrosanct about what the state has done, or what the state does. States can err as much as men, since states are nothing but groups of men, and state practices nothing but a record of the decisions made by men in the past. Thus, while one may offer the common behavior of states as an argument in evidence for a particular practice, it carries little weight, since the past shows states to have erred as often as not5.

The other area where I encounter arguments that remind me of the Gadarene Swine Fallacy is when I discuss business regulation6, in particular the regulation of medicine. Now, I will grant, the argument I offer has been used by some unsavory characters to support some very dubious practices, but that alone does not mean the argument is invalid, any more than supporting due process of law means you think it right that the guilty are sometimes freed because of legal technicalities7.

Let us look at the arguments I have made about medical regulation, as in most cases, the same arguments can be applied, with some adjustment, to most other forms of protective regulation, and, for the most part, all of our regulation is justified as being protective in nature8,9.

The basic premise behind medical licensing is that it ensures that doctors are well trained, by legitimate medical professionals, and are capable of exercising their skills with a certain degree of ability. At least, that is the argument offered in their favor. And, for many, doctors, regulators and certainly among the general public, I am sure that is their sincere belief. However, historically, the purpose many of these laws were enacted was the same as most commercial regulations going back to the medieval guilds, restraint of trade, limiting access to a profession to ensure higher wages for practitioners. There were others who honestly wanted to prevent those they saw as promoting invalid medical practices as well, but there were a goodly number, among whom some even admitted as much, who wanted to limit the competition from -- at the time many laws were proposed in the 19th century -- more popular herbalists, folk healers, and others, who were taking away business.

Of course, even those who were sincere in worrying about illegitimate medical practices being used should give us pause. At the time, legitimate medical practice did not include anything like modern medicine. Doctors were prevented from any form of surgery, which was in the hands of a different profession. For the most part, during the period when medical licensing was first proposed, medicine was dominated by mercury purgatives, and, later, by "heroic nihilism", that is, doing nothing and hoping the patient survived. (No, I am not kidding10.) So, had licensing been implemented at that time in a strong way, and frozen practices rigidly at that time, first of all, surgeons of all sorts would be separate from doctors, the way dentists, optometrists and podiatrists are today. Similarly, because of the focus on exclusively medicinal intervention, it seems unlikely many developments would have come about when they did. Not just the incredible success of modern surgery, but even smaller, but more profound, triumphs, such as the germ theory of disease. So, in a way, those who were sincere in wanting to exclude "quacks" -- as defined at that time -- were more frightening than those who simply sought a better pay check.

Now, I am not suggesting that modern licensing is anything like what happened in the 19th century. I do not believe most doctors want licensing to improve their pay (though some with economic savvy may recognize the benefit, and a few may have more than one motive). Nor do I suggest that conventional medicine today is as impractical as 19th century medicine was, or that today's quacks are unsung geniuses. Far from it. However, I am also not arrogant enough to think that today represents the pinnacle of knowledge or that modern science cannot err, and thus, I must argue all regulation, medical or otherwise, suffers from a problem, a problem of the Gadarene Swine Fallacy sort.

You see, if an individual makes a mistake, or even if a majority of people are mistaken, in a free market, there is always the possibility that someone else is doing the right thing, or, if not,t hat sometime in the future someone might. Because anyone can enter the market, and the market can judge their results, there is no way to keep out an unpopular -- but correct -- answer. However, when you put regulation in place, when you make the majority opinion the only opinion, when the truth, to even be given a chance, must first destroy the current consensus, prove to the majority their belief is wrong, then the truth has a very hard time getting an opportunity, and error can be enshrined forever in the law.

Of course, in most cases, the majority is right. At least in some fields. For example, I agree that the medical profession is probably right about almost everyone they say has an invalid cure, or is practicing quack medicine. However, that "almost" is troubling. What about that one time there is an error? Are we not forcing everyone into that same error? And why? To prevent a handful from possibly following the wrong answer in a few other cases? Well, even with regulation people still follow quack cures, either by breaking the law, or leaving the country or otherwise working around the system. In short, the law does not do much to stop quacks, but it certainly does ossify errors. And, the use of scientific approach is not the cure all to this problem many suggest11.

Nor is licensing exactly a success in the other area, its more modest claim, of ensuring those licensed can practice medicine with adequate skill. First, there is the problem with any testing to ensure competence, that being able to pass a test, whether written, oral or practical, is not the same as performing a job daily under varying conditions. Second, there is the problem we see with drivers' licenses and the like, that testing once, then ignoring the individual for years or decades, does nothing to ensure they continue to perform well. Third, there is the fact that, like many other tests (eg the bar exam) much of what is tested has little to do with actual ability to perform a given job well. Thus, while it may screen out some truly incompetent cases, and may ensure some baseline of information, testing of this sort does not do much to ensure competence12.

But that takes us away from my main point, that being that licensing and regulation of professions, of industries and the like, is prone to the Gadarene Swine Fallacy or a related error, that of assuming regulators know better than the rest of us. After all, in a free market, even if the majority errs, even if conventional wisdom is wrong, there is the opportunity for a single, correct, individual to try out his answer and press on. Regulation destroys that opportunity. By making the majority opinion the only possible opinion, by forcing a single solution, it creates the very real possibility of enforcing an error upon everyone, and, as laws change with glacial speed, to enshrine that error forever, or at least a very long time.

I am sure there are other cases where the Gadarene Swine Fallacy applies -- just as I am sure this essay may have strayed a bit from my point here and there -- but for the moment, I think these two cases are more than enough, as they make my point quite well. Yes, I agree, in many cases, the majority may be right, especially when the majority uses sound methods of reasoning, such as scientific groups using peer review and the like (it would be idiotic to assume always that the "rebel" is right, and the majority always wrong), but we must recall, the majority can err, even when they claim to use perfectly reasonable means to reach their answers. And so, we must be certain not to be swayed simply by the fact that the majority endorses a position. We must have some other justification in addition, as simply following the herd is not enough.

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1. I am assuming no one has given it a proper name. I cannot find one after entire seconds spent looking at Google, so I think I am safe in that assumption.

2. As I have argued before ("The Virtue of Novelty and the Value of Tradition" ,"The Trap of Tradition" ,"Culture and Government", "In Defense of Standards" , "Addenda to "In Defense of Standards"" , "O Tempora! O Mores!, or, The High Cost of Supposed Freedom" , "The Problem of Established Perspectives" , "A Bit of Clarification" , "Our Unique Age, A Tempting Falsehood" , "Inversion of Traditional Values", "Conservatism, Incremental Change and Federalism" and"In Praise of Slow Changes".), tradition exists because, in most cases, the practice has proved its worth to succeeding generations. Granted, at times tradition may continue unexamined, or error may persists in tradition simply because the correct answer has never been uncovered, but one must at least grant a slight advantage to tradition when examining practices, as the best minds of many generations past have seen no reason to deviate from this course. Which, I would suggest, makes the Perpendicular Truth Fallacy worse than the Gadarene Swine Fallacy, as conventional wisdom, though not invariably correct, is, to some unknown degree, correct more often than random chance. (Please note, tradition -- though I use the term "conventional wisdom" in some cases -- is VERY different from "common sense", which is usually simply a disguise for one's own prejudices. See "Common Sense, Guns and Regulations" , "The Lunacy of 'Common Sense'", "'Seems About Right', Another Lesson in Common Sense and Its Futility", "A Look at Common Sense", "Res Ipsa Loquitur", "The Shortcomings of Pragmatism", "Pragmatism Revisited", "Pragmatism Revisited, Again", "The Plural of Anecdote is Not Data", "Rules of Grammar and Pragmatism", "The Problem of the Small Picture", "Keyhole Thinking", "Impractical Pragmatists", "In Defense of Zero Tolerance, or, An Examination of Law, Common Sense and Consistency", "No Dividing Line", "The Consequences of Bad Laws", "Questions of Law and Questions of Fact", "The Rarity of 'Common Sense'", "Common Sense,Philosopher Kings, Arbitrary Law and Dictatorship" and "The Problem with Common Sense Solutions".)

3. The fact that religions are taxed differently is itself a strange holdover from the days when religion was more closely tied to the state. That other non-profits can also gain tax exempt status does not change the fact that religions are treated differently because they are religions. (Priest-penitent privilege in court, tax exemption,etc.) However, that is a topic for another essay.

4. One could argue citizenship is in a way still an inherited privilege, but in reality there is no other way one could reasonably handle citizenship. If children of citizens needed to somehow achieve citizen status, we would have awkward results where juvenile children would be non-citizens while their parents were, which would never work. Thus, while it may resemble some trace of hereditary privilege, the truth is inherited citizenship is the only way citizenship could work in those circumstances.

5. This is not necessarily in conflict with my praise of tradition. True traditions tend to be informal, cultural, personal, rarely governmental. Sometimes the government may follow a tradition in enacting a law, but it is not a good idea to describe government actions in terms of tradition. Why not? First, because unlike traditions, which tend to be shaped by a large number of hands, seeking the best answer for a given problem, government solutions are often crafted by a single individual, or small minority, who use a given crisis as a pretext to enact a measure which may solve it, or may simply be a ruse to gain them some other advantage. This rarely happens in personal affairs, but is not unusual in government. Second tradition is in some ways dynamic. IT may eventually ossify after it has been unchanged for a long time, but before then, the pressures that formed the tradition also tried it, and allowed for it to be adjusted again and again, to try out other solutions. Government is rarely so dynamic being a relatively inert environment. Excepting those laws which become symbols, over which factions fight, most laws, once created, remain unchanged for very long periods. Thus, laws may persist unchanged for a very long time, not because they are good solutions, but simply because there is no pressure to change them. Again, the incentives are different from those producing true traditions. There is doubtless much more to be said, but this topic is broad enough I may wait and write yet another essay about it.

6. It is interesting to note my mother shares a common misperception about much business regulation. When I was discussing with her the regulation of barbers, I asked why it mattered if a barber could identify the bones in the skull, she responded she wanted regulation as she didn't want just anyone cutting hair, at least regulation ensured they knew how to cut hair.But the truth is, most regulation has little or nothing to do with determining actual skills. For example, most home improvement licensing is entirely focused on laws related to home improvement contracts, not any technical matters. And many others are even less relevant, such as, for example, barbers needing to know the bones of the skull. This becomes still more absurd when we consider that several states require a barber license to BRAID HAIR! That's right, unless she can name the bones of the skull and pay a fee, your little three or four year old daughter or niece is violating the law when she braids hair. Now, explain to me exactly how we would suffer if those braiding hair, even oh so complex corn row braids (which seem to be a favored target for those tracking down unlicensed braiders), were not up to snuff on their skull bone knowledge? And tell me again this is not about limiting competition and ensuring a small revenue stream for the state.

7. This is another common mistake about which I should write more, the mistake of taking the endorsement of an imperfect system to mean one endorses all of its flaws and imperfect outcomes. For example, as discussed above, when I argue that medical licensing has many negative outcomes without stopping most abuses, the counter argument is made that my arguments are very similar to those offered by quacks and con men, and so I must agree with their practices. This simply is not true. For example, if one supports due process of law, does that mean he approves of criminals sometimes going free? No, no more than it would mean he approves of crime simply because he thinks the police should not have the right to arbitrarily execute criminal suspects without a trial. In both cases, clearly guilty men might go free, and both arbitrary executions and the elimination of due process would ensure those guilty would not, however opposing those practices does not mean one supports criminals. We have a bad time understanding arguments that admit the system they endorse is flawed, or, from the other side, of handling specious arguments based upon the imperfection of a given system. We need to understand that in many cases a system may be imperfect, may even have obvious flaws, and yet be the best possible choice. (See "The Threat of Perfection", "Utopianism and Disaster", "Third Best Economy", "Government Quackery", "The Problems With "Safe and Effective"", "Two Examples of "Inefficiency" in Capitalism", "Misunderstanding the Market", "The Secret of Success, or, Why Government Fails", "Imperfect Competition, Abstraction and Anti-Trust", "Technology and 'Natural Monopolies'", "Unfair Advantage and Foreign Trade", "The Importance of Error", "Adaptability and Government" and "Redundancy as a Protective Measure".)

8. There are a handful of regulations justified on more prosaic grounds. For example, license fees for autos are usually explained as required for highway maintenance. Or hunting licenses are generally used to help ensure against over hunting of specific species. However, for the most part, regulations of one sort or another are justified on the grounds of protecting consumers against the sinister motives of unscrupulous sellers (eg most stock laws), against the incompetence or bad judgment of other sellers (eg most professional licenses), or (though it is rarely phrased this honestly) against their own incompetence and bad decisions (eg minimum wage laws or contract rescission periods). (See "Consumer Protection", "Really Silly Fears", "Inspections, Regulations and Bans", "Paradoxical Outcome", "Government by Emotion", "The Bureaucrat Who Cried Wolf", "The Problems With "Safe and Effective"", "Oven Mitts and Safety Regulation", "Consumer Protection, Cartels and the Failure of Regulation", "The High Cost of Protection", "Warnings and More Warnings - Another Look at Consumer Protection", "Two Sided Processes and Claims of "Unfair" Outcomes", "GMO Revisited - As Well as Hormones, Soy, Phytoestrogens, and a Host of Other Food Scares", "Fighting the Wrong Fight", "Fighting the Wrong Fight, Part II", "How Wages Work", "Some Thoughts on Medicine" and "The Problem With Regulation".)

9. There are two reasons regulations are offered up as protective more often than using any other justification. First, because it fits with other, traditional roles of government, such as law enforcement, where the purpose of the state is to protect individuals against bad behavior by others. So it is easier to sell a regulation which does something analogous rather than one which supposedly promotes fairness or order or justice in a more nebulous sense. Second, because many laws are enacted by working up public indignation over some well publicized incident, there is usually some scapegoat involved which the public wishes to punish. Thus, the environment in which most of these regulations are created tends to favor making a target of some specific group or individual, which tends to result in laws having this protective appearance.

10. See "The Toadstool Millionaires".

11. The best example has to be the ban on DDT, which supposedly arose out of scientific evidence, yet was truly unfounded and still, to this day, results in millions of deaths and illnesses a year for no good reason. Or the ban on saccharine based upon faulty research, the error of which has been known for decades, yet, thanks to mandatory warning labels required for years, leaves saccharine a pariah. Or, more recently, the absurd push to make irradiation of foodstuffs an "additive". (See "A Misleading "Right to Know"", ""Better Safe Than Sorry" Usually Leaves Us Even More Sorry, And Much Less Safe", "GMO Revisited - As Well as Hormones, Soy, Phytoestrogens, and a Host of Other Food Scares" and "Why "Hope for the Best, Plan for the Worst" is Bad Policy".)

12. Medicine does have a bit more than most fields, in terms of qualification, since aspiring doctors do need to do a residency and so on. However, even then, it is not exactly the same as practicing medicine. It is much closer, and may be the best possibility, but one can do well in a residency and still fail on one's own. And, as mentioned, doing well in one's residency does not mean one is still competent ten years later.  And most professional licenses are nowhere near the level of medical licensing. Many are little more than tests of legal knowledge relating to one's profession, or tests of trivia to keep training schools in business, or, worst of all, completely pointless fluff tests simply there to garner licensing fees.


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