Sunday, 22 February 2015

Law is not Rocket Science

     I would be surprised if there were anyone reading this who is unfamiliar with the term "pseudoscience". Although it's often used simply as a pejorative to condemn any claim about the natural world one disagrees with (creationists call evolution pseudoscience, oil company flacks call climate change pseudoscience, etc.) there really is a meaningful distinction to be made between actual science and pseudoscience. Science is not so much a body of knowledge as it is a method of acquiring and testing that knowledge; something is properly said to be pseudoscience when it attempts to establish credibility and authority by adopting the superficial trappings of scientific claims, without actually following scientific methods.
     To some extent, I can understand the appeal of pseudoscience, especially because the subject matter of real science is usually so complex and difficult to understand. When someone speaks confidently about enzymes and antioxidants and leptons and Higgs bosons, it sure sounds like they know what they're talking about, even if we don't, so for most of us just accepting what a pseudoscientist has to say is no different from accepting what a real scientist has to say. We defer to the person who sounds like an expert.
     And the reason science is often so hard for non-experts to understand is that the natural universe was not built for the purpose of being easily understood by us. The only reason we are able to understand as much of it as we do is because our brains, which evolved to solve certain kinds of problems (including some rudimentary physics problems), are also reasonably good at general problem solving. That makes it possible to make sense of physics (we hope), but there's no reason to expect it to be easy. Indeed, when you start getting into areas of physics that are completely outside of our ancestral experience, such as the quantum mechanical realm of the extremely small or the relativistic realm of the extremely fast/massive, the discoveries of modern physics become extraordinarily difficult for our hunter-gatherer brains. So I have some sympathy for those who are taken in by pseudoscience. Science is hard, and so people who don't get it do have a kind of excuse.

     But I have less sympathy for pseudo-law, which may not be a word but is enough of a thing to prompt an Alberta Court of Queen's Bench Justice to compose a lengthy and thorough refutation of what he calls Organized Pseudolegal Commercial Arguments. A common feature of many of these arguments (often promulgated by people calling themselves "sovereign citizens" or "freemen on the land") is that they seem to understand law as being some kind of arcane magic, complete with special and secret incantations. OPCA theories often include bizarre and unnecessarily complex entities, like the following graphic which came across my Facebook feed some months ago:

     This is kind of preposterous. A corporation is an artificial person, a legal fiction, invented and modelled upon the ancient and pre-legal concept of the natural person. Yes, plain old ordinary personhood. You are not a corporation, you are not stock, you are not collateral. You're just a person, and you have been since you were born. There's nothing magical about your social security number (or our Canadian equivalent, the Social Insurance Number). It's just a unique number meant to allow the government to know which John Smith is which for its various administrative purposes. This nonsense about corporate entities is all just ignorant hocus-pocus from people who know just enough legal terminology (and just little enough of its actual meaning) to get themselves hopelessly confused, and then to try to turn that confusion to their advantage.

     To be fair, even lawyers seem to be subject to somewhat superstitious beliefs about the law, particularly when it comes to drafting contracts and other legal documents. There is tremendous risk-aversion, so simply copying the language of previous instruments is perceived as safer than drafting up new language from scratch. That's actually a pretty reasonable strategy most of the time, but it can get a little silly on occasion, especially if one is refusing to change something not because the existing text is exactly what one means, but because one is uncertain what will happen if this or that word is removed.
     For example, the reason many legalese documents include redundant phrasing ("I hereby give, bequeath and donate...") is a legacy of the time after the Norman Conquest, when the Engish nobility spoke French, the commoners spoke English and the people who could read and write spoke Latin. It wasn't that "give" and "donate" had different meanings; it was that the courts wanted to make sure everyone understood the meaning, so they included as many synonyms as possible to ensure that at least one of them would get through. Of course, the adversarial process being what it is, some clever shyster might call attention to one of these words being missing at some point ("Normally, my Lord, in a contract of this sort, one gives, bequeaths and donates the property in question, but clearly here both the latter two words are absent, meaning that the contractor could not have intended to bequeath or donate the property..." so there has always been a kind of pressure against simplification. Lawyers don't want to get into trouble by messing with something that seems to work, even if they don't fully understand why it works. But the lawyer who doesn't understand exactly why a particular contract precedent is the way it is generally isn't stumped by a cosmic mystery, but rather faces an eminently solvable problem she just doesn't have the time or inclination to bother solving.

     That's the difference with science. Science studies the natural world, which doesn't care whether or not we understand it. Law, however, is ultimately about human interactions and how to resolve disputes between humans about what ought to be done. In other words, law by definition must be intelligible by human beings; it cannot be some inscrutable mystery. Sure, no single individual understands all of it, but the very nature of law is such that all of it is human-made reasoning about human choices. Moreover, it is supposed to be transparent and available to everyone; the very notion of a secret law is absurd. There can be secret contracts and proceedings conducted behind closed doors, but a secret law cannot be binding on people who can't know about it.
     So, for example, consider the preposterous claim that some Sovereign Citizen types like to make in Canadian courts. They point to the motto displayed on the wall, "Ad mare usque ad mare" which is Latin for "From sea to sea", and claim that it means the Canadian court is an admiralty court with no jurisdiction on land. What's wrong with this argument, apart from the complete failure to understand what a motto is? Well, it implies there's some kind of secret "real" law that we're all in the dark about, and this secret law is somehow binding upon the courts and prohibits them from exercising authority over those who cite it.
     That isn't how courts work. There may be points of law that the courts take time to understand correctly, but there are no secret laws. In practice, the law really is whatever the court says it is. You absolutely can argue that a court has no jurisdiction, and such arguments are often made, and successfully, too. But here's the thing: you actually have to convince the court, which means if they say they have jurisdiction after you've made your argument, well, too bad. If you think she's wrong, you can appeal to a higher court, but it will be a higher court that decides.

     Don't get me wrong. Law can get complicated, and yes, you probably should talk to an expert (i.e. a lawyer) if you have any questions, and even if you don't think you have any questions, you probably should have some. But a lot of the time, the reason you need a lawyer is not because the law is complicated so much as it is because lawyers are trained to see disputes in a dispassionate, non-partisan way, and when you're in the middle of a dispute it can be very hard to get the emotional distance to be even a little bit objective. The basic principles of law itself are easy, and not at all mysterious.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

A challenge to anti-vaxxers

     Today, a friend suggested I google for "vaccine chemicals", and click "feedback" on the boxed link that comes up on top, which as of this writing is this ridiculous monstrosity of stupid. I did, and indicated that the link was "inaccurate", which hopefully will help Google to refine its algoritm in selecting reliable results.

     Now, I realize that calling something stupid isn't particularly constructive, although I'm trying to use the word in a clinical rather than pejorative sense. The reasoning in the linked article really is preposterously deficient and ill-informed, but what that's not what makes it clinically stupid. Ignorance is ubiquitous, after all, but stupidity is something more profoundly debilitating. Ignorance can be treated by learning new facts, but stupidity is a pathological inability to receive and process new information, and here (in boldface italics) is the telltale marker of genuine stupidity in the article:

That's the real purpose of vaccines: Not to "protect children" with any sort of immunity, but to inject the masses with a toxic cocktail of chemicals that cause brain damage and infertility: Mercury, MSG, formaldehyde and aluminum. The whole point of this is to dumb the population down so that nobody has the presence of mind to wake up and start thinking for themselves.
This is precisely why the smartest, most "awake" people still remaining in society today are the very same ones who say NO to vaccines. Only their brains are still intact and operating with some level of awareness.

     Stupidity comes in many forms, some of them genetic and some of them memetic. This is a classic form of memetic stupidity, a kind of ideological immune system designed to shut out any consideration of information that might conflict with the ideology. It's a very common mechanism, found in religious cults, political movements, and as here in crackpot conspiracy theories. It works by selectively filtering out and discrediting any criticism, by positing that criticism itself is inherently suspect. Examples:

  • Creationists sometimes argue that fossil evidence for evolution was placed there by the Devil to lead us astray, or alternatively by God to test our faith, but in either case the evidence must be disregarded because it conflicts with the favoured view. More broadly, some fundamentalists claim that all criticism comes directly from Satan.
  • In an interesting twist on this phenomenon, Scientologists claim that people only ever criticize Scientology in order to divert attention from their own crimes, and so in addition to distracting Scientologists away from the substance of  criticism towards the investigation of the critics, even more perniciously it trains them to scrupulously avoid thinking negative thoughts themselves about Scientology for fear of being a critic, and thus a criminal.
  • In Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler asserts that only a "born weakling" would dispute his claims about race and evolution, and then only because of his "feebler nature and narrower mind". In other words, demonstrate your strong mind and independent will by accepting without question what this guy says.
  • "That's just what they want you to think!" is the cry of every conspiracy theorist, especially those who are fond of the "false flag" concept, the idea that any incident that might go to support the claims of their opponents is actually faked by their opponents in order to discredit them. There are gun nuts (and in this case, yeah, the term is apropos) who claim the Sandy Hook shooting was faked to raise support for gun laws, and other nuts who claim 9/11 was carried out by the White House to raise support for invading Iraq. Now, while I'm not saying there's no such thing as a real false flag (the most famous probably being attempt to provoke a war between the medieval kingdoms of Florin and Guilder), seeing everything as a false flag is a convenient way to discredit absolutely anything that might not support your pet theory.

     So, look again at what Natural News is claiming about people who support and people who oppose vaccines, and consider what that would mean for the ability to receive, process and formulate unbiased conclusions based on new data. If you accept that non-vaccinated people are the "smartest, most awake" people and that vaccinated people are all brainwashed dupes, then you're automatically going to disregard what any pro-vaccine person has to say. Even if an intelligent unvaccinated person takes a careful objective look at all the available evidence and decides that vaccination is a good idea, by the time they talk to you to explain their conclusions they've probably already been vaccinated and you can dismiss them on that basis. In other words, the means by which you might otherwise obtain and process useful information to make up your own mind has already been sabotaged by this claim that unvaccinated people are smarter and more "awake" than vaccinated people

     But let's leave that aside. I'm going to propose a way to actually put that claim to the test. If you're going to claim that unvaccinated people are "the smartest, most awake" people, well, that's a pretty ambitious claim, because "smart" is a pretty big word. When we describe someone as "smart", we don't just mean that they don't believe in vaccines; we mean that they have good general cognitive abilities: they think and learn and understand and solve problems well. After all, if you're trying to argue that smart people avoid vaccines, then you must mean that the decision to avoid vaccines is the result of better and more informed thinking than the decision to be vaccinated. And obviously, if the motive in promoting vaccines is to dumb down the population into compliant sheeple, then you're claiming it's not just the ability to reject vaccines that is affected; it should also affect the ability to think critically about government policies on the environment or crime or the economy or international relations or anything else. In other words, you're claiming that non-vaccinated people are generally smarter, not just making the fortuitously correct choice about vaccines.

     So bring it on, then. Show me that anti-vaxxers are actually smarter on a variety of issues other than vaccination. Show me that they're genuinely more independent thinkers, that they have a better understanding of other issues, and better problem-solving skills. Show me that they should pay lower car insurance premiums because they make better decisions while driving. 
     Or hey, let's even make this personal. You think you're smarter than me? Seriously, I'm asking. I've had most of the vaccinations that have been available for someone of my age, and I was born in 1965.  I get my flu shot most years, and I've also been vaccinated against Hepatitis B. Oh, and I've also been through chemotherapy for colon cancer, a regimen of some really nasty chemicals that are decidedly bad for you. So by rights, I ought to be a sitting duck for your towering unvaccinated intellect. You should be able to dance rhetorical circles around me, gracefully refuting my pathetically flawed fallacious arguments.
     Sure, I may think I've made carefully considered and reasonably well-informed decisions about my health care. I may think I disagree vehemently with some of the asinine policies of my government, and I may think I write letters to my MP and argue with my fellow citizens, but if you're right, I'm just a brainwashed dupe, going along with the Powers That Be. You should be able to crush me with your enlightened sagacity.