Friday, September 25, 2015

Is Doing the Wrong Thing Better than Doing Nothing?

The animal rights movement got it wrong 175 years ago. 
Present day politicians are getting it wrong now.

Donald Trump thinks the solution to an "epidemic" of autism is to stop using vaccines.

Officials in India think the solution to an epidemic of dog bites and rabies is to kill dogs.

Lots of people (including me) think they're wrong in both cases.

Both cases have sparked widespread outrage and protest.

On the other hand..

Winston Churchill once said, "It is better to do the wrong thing than to do nothing."

My mother relayed that bit of wisdom to me when I was a young girl, only she attributed the quote to a famous big-game hunter.
Image result for charging lion
It made perfect sense to me. If you're facing a charging lion and you do nothing, you're dead.
If you shoot and miss, you might have time for another shot.

But there are some critical differences between a charging lion and an epidemic:  whether the epidemic is autism, rabies, plague, ebola, gun violence,..

or anything else where there may be multiple causes
some or all of which may not be well-understood
and the effectiveness of the solution may not be known for some time.

In the case of the charging lion, you have only a split second to decide whether to shout and wave your arms, run, shoot, play dead, or just stand there.

The outcome of your decision will be clear within a few seconds. If the lion abandons his charge or drops dead, you'll know you probably made a good decision. If he kills you, everyone will know you got it wrong. In either case, there won't be much doubt.

Your decision may have unintended consequences (The muzzle flash from your rifle ignited a grass fire. You shot Cecil, the beloved celebrity lion--You are buried under a tsunami of global outrage.)

but these consequences are relatively limited in scope
clearly linked to your actions
and you'll be made aware of them quite soon.

In most other cases, things are a lot murkier
For instance..

In 19th-century England, small street vendors, most of whom couldn't afford to buy a horse, used  dogs to haul their wares,
A Dutch or Belgian Milk Cart

At that time, the animal rights movement was just beginning to gain some traction. In 1822, Bill Burns became the first person put on trial for cruelty to an animal. (He beat his donkey.)
Image result for trial of bill burns
The Prosecution of Bill Burns
The newly minted Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals had as its aim," not only “to prevent the exercise of cruelty towards animals, but to spread amongst the lower orders of the people ... a degree of moral feeling which would compel them to think and act like those of a superior class.”

The SPCA could hardly risk losing their influential donors by calling for a ban on fox hunting. 

Banning dog carts carried little risk--and still allowed them to take the moral high ground. 

After vigorous lobbying and an emotional press campaign, and despite a few protests that poor folks' lives depended on their dogs, Parliament passed the Dog Cart Act in 1842. In order to give the law some teeth, they also passed a tax on the dogs themselves.

Undoubtedly, Parliament and the SPCA truly wanted to stop dogs from suffering.

Instead, in the next few months, thousands of poor people either killed their dogs or turned them out to fend for themselves. A thousand dogs were slaughtered in Birmingham--and thousands more across the country. So many dead dogs littered the streets of Cambridge that the High Constable had to arrange a mass burial for them to mitigate the health hazard.**

SPCA got it wrong.  I think for some of the same reasons that Donald Trump and the government of India are getting it wrong.

The SPCA had plenty of evidence that cart-pulling was a dismal and sometimes cruel life for a dog.

Donald Trump probably has plenty of evidence that autism is a big problem. When other Republicans confronted him over his stance on vaccines, he simply reiterated his concerns about autism.

When authorities in Kerala were confronted with outrage over the culling of dogs, they repeated the scary statistics: "more than 23,000 people were bitten by dogs last year, and nearly half of them contracted rabies."

Anytime people face a dangerous or frightening situation, the gut response is, "We've got to do something!"

Anything seems better than nothing.
Usually, whatever intuitively seems right.
And whatever fits in with what we already believe..
Image result for there ought to be a law
The Solution to Every Problem
Doing the wrong thing might be a reasonable strategy if we're unsure of what to do..
And are willing to consider the possibility of being wrong, and ready to change course if necessary.
But we rarely are
There ought to be a law against that..

**Coren, Stanley, The Intelligence of Dogs, Bantam Books, New York, 1994, pp. 155-156
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