It is funny. The internet has made the phrase "in my opinion", or some variant thereof, so common that we can't bother to spell it out. Granted it is often offered somewhat sarcastically, usually with a strange combination of self-deprecation and arrogant assertion, but it still is a constant presence in internet conversation.
So, why are those words missing in the one place they should appear, the statements of those seeking government action.
I was considering this today because I am going to the dentist, and I detest seeing the dentist. My main reason is not the discomfort but the fact that dentists tend to be terribly judgmental, acting as if tooth care should be the primary consideration in all life decisions, and treating as reprobates those who did not sacrifice career, family and all other concerns to the care of his teeth. And, while thinking of that annoying tendency I was reminded of the similar behavior of doctors, who feel the need to constantly lecture me about smoking.
The doctors, of course, pretend they are adopting a scientific position, explaining the risks of smoking and arguing there is no reason to smoke. But that second part is the problem.While the statement of risks may be scientific, the evaluation of whether or not it is worth the risk is a matter of opinion. And people recognize this in their own lives constantly, but somehow forget it when it comes to the choices of others, be it doctors lecturing patients, or activists demanding new laws.
For instance, individuals regularly recognize there is a tiny risk (the loss of a few hours of life expectancy) from alcohol consumption, yet accept that tiny risk. Or, on an even smaller scale, a minute risk from taking Tylenol or aspirin. And yet they assume it is "safe enough". Nor do they feel the need to drive at 5 mph while wearing full body armor, they recognize some risk is worth the convenience of driving normally. In fact, they don't even lecture sky divers, or motorcycle riders, even if those activities often cause the same risk of death as other activities they regularly denounce.
The fact is, people find "unreasonable risks" only when considering activities they do not value. When considering activities they consider beneficial, or whose appeal they can understand, they are happy to say "well, that is an acceptable risk," but when considering the risk of activities whose appeal escapes them, the risk becomes unacceptable.
And that shows the problem with attempts to say "with certainty" that something is an "unacceptable risk", they forget to add "in my opinion". Because, be it smoking, skydiving, sexual promiscuity, alcohol consumption, eating puffer fish, eating peanut butter, flying in an airplane, driving a car, or taking illegal drugs, everything has a risk, and every individual has an opinion of how important that activity is. a risk is only acceptable if the risk is less than the value TO THAT PERSON. As values are individual, established by each of us, there is no such thing as an "unacceptable risk" for all people. An activity is only "too risky" for a individual, not for everyone, and certainly not on some sort of scientific basis.
And that is why I am so troubled when the government attempts to prevent individuals form "taking too many risks" or engaging is "dangerous activities". The government, by doing so, applies the opinion of one group of people to everyone, and in the process takes what may be an acceptable risk to some and makes it impossible. In other words, an activity which may be acceptable to a group, and whose risk is understood and accepted, is now unavailable, leaving them less happy.
The truth is, people act in relatively reasonable manners. They may not be aware of all risks, but then again even the experts are not omniscient. Still, considering the risks they know, people decide whether or not their activities are worth the threat. They then act based upon which risks are acceptable and unacceptable. The law, by preventing activities only serves to cut off options. And as a result elaves them less satisfied than before.
I discussed similar topics in "Absolute Values", "The Danger Inherent in Banning "Bad Ideas"", "The Right Way" and "The Limits of "Scientific" Management". All are based on the consequences of ignoring subjective values with absolute ones. Once we forget that individuals decide how much anything is worth and begin to believe in some sort of innate, "essential" value, we are likely to be led into all manner of bad theories.
Originally posted in Random Notes on 2010/03/02.