The Real Danger of the Madman

The horrific shooting in Arizona has brought several cauldrons to a boil, but it has also called some new attention to a rather old fact: in modern society, those with potentially dangerous mental illnesses are subject to extremely little governmental control.  In addition to the direct hazards posed by this state of affairs, most conservatives are well aware that it is a major contributing factor to any number of other serious social difficulties, including the "homeless problem."

Of course, the individual in this specific case may actually be a simple monster. On the other hand, he may be truly out of touch with reality.  Either way, it is very tempting for reasonable people to use an event like this as grounds for revisiting the issue of mental illness and calling for a reassertion of our control over those with potentially dangerous afflictions.  But anyone pondering this issue would do well to evaluate the matter with the utmost care before calling for expanded government power.  The potential danger here is that the decision to commit an individual is ultimately based on a psychological assessment.  Psychology, in turn, is classified as a science, and that gets us to the root of the problem: the effect of the liberal/progressive worldview on the so-called "sciences."

Traditionally, science consisted of the application of human reasoning to the available facts, and it had the ability to draw objective conclusions in proportion to what the evidence would allow.  But in modern times, "scientific" conclusions have been rendered progressively more subjective and prone to the influence of ideological considerations.  At the extreme end, "accepted scientific belief" can be influenced more by what those of a certain ideological bent want to be true than by the objective facts at hand.  To anyone who would doubt either the reality of this phenomenon or the potential severity of its effects, I have only two words to say: global warming.  Even if we could fully set aside the political implications and ramifications (perhaps by bringing in a truly unbiased observer from off the planet), there would be one conclusion about "global warming" that is unavoidable: a number of climatologists have jumped to very concrete conclusions that are beyond what can be justified by the available evidence.  Although such conclusions are unscientific by their very nature, the beliefs are sold to the public as being matters of "settled science."  Fortunately, in this particular case, there is a problem for the ideologically motivated scientist: the general principles of climatology and the conclusions that have been drawn can be understood on a conceptual level by the layman.  This makes it rather difficult for those with ideological motives to sell their bill of goods as wholly scientific.

When we get to psychology, the most obvious danger is that we are dealing with a "soft" science, meaning that its conclusions are particularly susceptible to varied interpretation.  This, of course, makes the "consensus of the experts" especially vulnerable to ideological bias.  But there is a deeper and more specific hazard here, too.  In comparison to fields like climatology and biochemistry, the methods and mechanics of psychology are particularly opaque and difficult for the reasonable man to understand and evaluate.  This means that the field is extremely hard for the layman to police, and it makes the "scientific" assessment of mental competency a dangerous activity, because it occurs within the confines of a black box of sorts.  Self-appointed experts who operate from a framework of theories, assumptions, and conclusions that are impenetrable to the common man are already in possession of considerable power over individual liberty.  Granting them an expanded authority over the very freedom of the individual is therefore an idea which should be approached with the utmost caution.

The potential dangers here can be illustrated by the fact that a number of well-known scientists -- including the biologist Richard Dawkins and the neuroscientist Sam Harris -- are of the absolute opinion that religious belief is a mental defect or an evolutionary hangover of some sort.  It is fair to call such beliefs dangerous because, apparently, these individuals themselves are unable to recognize that their own beliefs are ideological, rather than scientific, in nature.  This is relevant to the issue at hand because many modern humans, including psychologists, are heavily influenced by the worldview of naturalism.  In the specific case of psychology, the naturalistic worldview insists that all the workings of the human mind can be explained scientifically -- that is, in terms of the chemical and electrical processes at work in the brain tissues.  If we combine a strictly mechanical view of the mind with "scientific" beliefs that equate things like religious belief to lunacy, then the floodgates are wide open.  There is nothing to stop ideological opinions from becoming "scientific" ones in the minds of at least some psychologists.  Ultimately, a left-leaning psychologist can label anyone with contrary beliefs about anything from God to guns as mentally abnormal.

Dangers aside, it might be argued that it is necessary in a civilized society to subjugate the liberties of the individual to a scientific assessment of mental competency, at least when some threshold of behavior has been crossed.  But the very question of whether this should be a "scientific" assessment, even under ideal conditions, is worthy of some reflection in closing.  G.K. Chesterton considered the idea of insanity and incarceration many years ago, and his conclusions are likely to be as foreign to the modern thinker as they are worthy of consideration.  Chesterton did acknowledge that the expert may play a legitimate role in the diagnosis and characterization of insanity.  But when it came to defining that sort of detachment from reality which constitutes an unacceptable danger to society, Chesterton argued that judgment should rest firmly in the hands of the common man (see "Eugenics and Other Evils", Part One, Chapter 4, available here).

Of course, such a heretical idea would elicit screams of horror from many psychologists, and these screams would no doubt include many polysyllabic words.  But no matter how deeply the jargon is piled, a couple of very sensible points remain.  First, with regard to defining an "unreasonable danger to society," the reasonable man is surely every bit as qualified as the mental health expert, is he not?  Second, and even more significantly, there is the need to determine whether a given individual is "out of touch with reality."  But who should be in charge of defining reality?  Given the fact that at least some of the "scientific experts" are incapable of correctly characterizing the workings of even their own minds, this is also something that may be best left in the hands of the butcher, the accountant, and the auto mechanic.

Tim Thorstenson is a scientist (chemist) by education.
The horrific shooting in Arizona has brought several cauldrons to a boil, but it has also called some new attention to a rather old fact: in modern society, those with potentially dangerous mental illnesses are subject to extremely little governmental control.  In addition to the direct hazards posed by this state of affairs, most conservatives are well aware that it is a major contributing factor to any number of other serious social difficulties, including the "homeless problem."

Of course, the individual in this specific case may actually be a simple monster. On the other hand, he may be truly out of touch with reality.  Either way, it is very tempting for reasonable people to use an event like this as grounds for revisiting the issue of mental illness and calling for a reassertion of our control over those with potentially dangerous afflictions.  But anyone pondering this issue would do well to evaluate the matter with the utmost care before calling for expanded government power.  The potential danger here is that the decision to commit an individual is ultimately based on a psychological assessment.  Psychology, in turn, is classified as a science, and that gets us to the root of the problem: the effect of the liberal/progressive worldview on the so-called "sciences."

Traditionally, science consisted of the application of human reasoning to the available facts, and it had the ability to draw objective conclusions in proportion to what the evidence would allow.  But in modern times, "scientific" conclusions have been rendered progressively more subjective and prone to the influence of ideological considerations.  At the extreme end, "accepted scientific belief" can be influenced more by what those of a certain ideological bent want to be true than by the objective facts at hand.  To anyone who would doubt either the reality of this phenomenon or the potential severity of its effects, I have only two words to say: global warming.  Even if we could fully set aside the political implications and ramifications (perhaps by bringing in a truly unbiased observer from off the planet), there would be one conclusion about "global warming" that is unavoidable: a number of climatologists have jumped to very concrete conclusions that are beyond what can be justified by the available evidence.  Although such conclusions are unscientific by their very nature, the beliefs are sold to the public as being matters of "settled science."  Fortunately, in this particular case, there is a problem for the ideologically motivated scientist: the general principles of climatology and the conclusions that have been drawn can be understood on a conceptual level by the layman.  This makes it rather difficult for those with ideological motives to sell their bill of goods as wholly scientific.

When we get to psychology, the most obvious danger is that we are dealing with a "soft" science, meaning that its conclusions are particularly susceptible to varied interpretation.  This, of course, makes the "consensus of the experts" especially vulnerable to ideological bias.  But there is a deeper and more specific hazard here, too.  In comparison to fields like climatology and biochemistry, the methods and mechanics of psychology are particularly opaque and difficult for the reasonable man to understand and evaluate.  This means that the field is extremely hard for the layman to police, and it makes the "scientific" assessment of mental competency a dangerous activity, because it occurs within the confines of a black box of sorts.  Self-appointed experts who operate from a framework of theories, assumptions, and conclusions that are impenetrable to the common man are already in possession of considerable power over individual liberty.  Granting them an expanded authority over the very freedom of the individual is therefore an idea which should be approached with the utmost caution.

The potential dangers here can be illustrated by the fact that a number of well-known scientists -- including the biologist Richard Dawkins and the neuroscientist Sam Harris -- are of the absolute opinion that religious belief is a mental defect or an evolutionary hangover of some sort.  It is fair to call such beliefs dangerous because, apparently, these individuals themselves are unable to recognize that their own beliefs are ideological, rather than scientific, in nature.  This is relevant to the issue at hand because many modern humans, including psychologists, are heavily influenced by the worldview of naturalism.  In the specific case of psychology, the naturalistic worldview insists that all the workings of the human mind can be explained scientifically -- that is, in terms of the chemical and electrical processes at work in the brain tissues.  If we combine a strictly mechanical view of the mind with "scientific" beliefs that equate things like religious belief to lunacy, then the floodgates are wide open.  There is nothing to stop ideological opinions from becoming "scientific" ones in the minds of at least some psychologists.  Ultimately, a left-leaning psychologist can label anyone with contrary beliefs about anything from God to guns as mentally abnormal.

Dangers aside, it might be argued that it is necessary in a civilized society to subjugate the liberties of the individual to a scientific assessment of mental competency, at least when some threshold of behavior has been crossed.  But the very question of whether this should be a "scientific" assessment, even under ideal conditions, is worthy of some reflection in closing.  G.K. Chesterton considered the idea of insanity and incarceration many years ago, and his conclusions are likely to be as foreign to the modern thinker as they are worthy of consideration.  Chesterton did acknowledge that the expert may play a legitimate role in the diagnosis and characterization of insanity.  But when it came to defining that sort of detachment from reality which constitutes an unacceptable danger to society, Chesterton argued that judgment should rest firmly in the hands of the common man (see "Eugenics and Other Evils", Part One, Chapter 4, available here).

Of course, such a heretical idea would elicit screams of horror from many psychologists, and these screams would no doubt include many polysyllabic words.  But no matter how deeply the jargon is piled, a couple of very sensible points remain.  First, with regard to defining an "unreasonable danger to society," the reasonable man is surely every bit as qualified as the mental health expert, is he not?  Second, and even more significantly, there is the need to determine whether a given individual is "out of touch with reality."  But who should be in charge of defining reality?  Given the fact that at least some of the "scientific experts" are incapable of correctly characterizing the workings of even their own minds, this is also something that may be best left in the hands of the butcher, the accountant, and the auto mechanic.

Tim Thorstenson is a scientist (chemist) by education.