The Power of Terrible Ideas

While many have criticized the current enthusiasm for judging the past by the standards of the present (and condemning those past leaders who did not meet them), few have noted how many currently dominant beliefs are totally disconnected from reality and have a profoundly destructive impact.  I propose to discuss two of them here: ideas about the nature of mental illness which have produced what Charles Krauthammer called “an army of broken souls foraging and freezing in the streets” and the conviction that our planet is in existential danger from human-induced climate change. The latter has led to a wholly unwarranted, hugely expensive crusade to eliminate fossil fuels.  The chief effect has been to strengthen the leverage of those countries, many of them enemies of the West, that continue to produce these fuels, which remain essential to the functioning of industrial societies.

In the 1960s, a mad idea was born, the notion that there is no such thing as mental illness. Incredibly, it would become the foundation for public policy.  The idea sprang independently from two maverick psychiatrists at opposite ideological poles, on the right U.S. psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, an unsparing libertarian, and on the left the British Ronald Laing.  Szasz disposed of mental illness by verbal sleight of hand: “Mental illnesses do not exist; indeed they cannot exist because the mind is not a bodily part or bodily organ.”  (Never mind that the brain is the bodily organ that malfunctions in mental illness.) Psychiatry is “a form of quackery because it offers cures for which there are no diseases.”  Laing treated schizophrenia, the most disabling mental illness, as a “voyage of discovery”; “we find that a person who is labeled insane is often the sanest member of his or her family.”

Laing was culturally more influential, a guru of the New Left much enamored of his variations on the theme that schizophrenia was a “rational way of healing our own appalling state of alienation called normality.” But it was Szasz who reshaped care (or more accurately, failure to care) for the mentally ill.  The judges who ruled in the major cases that resulted in the massive shutdown of mental hospitals and the inability to treat unwilling (eventually even willing) patients except in extreme circumstances had read neither Szasz nor Laing.  But they did read the law journal articles written by members of the emerging mental health bar, whose ideas came straight from Szasz.  Bruce Ennis, the bar’s pioneer, has described how he taught himself about mental illness.  Asked in 1968 as a young new hire by the New York Civil Liberties Union to start a project on the rights of the mentally handicapped, Ennis says “I went to a library and I looked under ‘law and psychiatry’ and found some books by a man named Thomas Szasz... I decided it was an important enough subject to devote a lot of my time and life to so I did.”  Szasz would write the preface to Ennis’s 1972 book Prisoners of Psychiatry.

Soon entire issues of law journals were devoted to demolishing all psychiatric claims. What was labeled mental illness was simply an alternative lifestyle. Treatments, including anti-psychotic drugs, were all side effects, no positive effects. Indeed, they were a form of torture.  We know that the judges who ruled in the major deinstitutionalization and right to refuse treatment cases read these articles because they quoted extensively from them in their decisions.  While the need for treatment had traditionally been a basis for treatment, only a quasi-criminal dangerousness standard survived.  Intervention was legitimate only when someone was an “imminent danger” to himself or others, and this was defined so narrowly that the individual had to be on the verge of suicide or murder.  Even then, in growing numbers of states, he was presumed competent to refuse treatment, undercutting the very purpose of involuntary commitment.

The tremendously subversive implications of these ideas only became apparent in the 1980s.  American society was helpless to deal with an enormous social problem destroying the quality of life of its cities. It still is.

The notion that our planet is in imminent danger of becoming uninhabitable because of man-made emissions of carbon dioxide is more recent, dating to the late 1980s.  In The Age of Global Warming Rupert Darwall also traces Its roots to two men, Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius who, in 1896, wrote a paper predicting that a doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would increase temperatures by 5 to 6 degrees centigrade, and Guy Callendar, who, over forty years later attributed a global temperature rise from 1934 to 1938 to a rise in C02.  Unlike Szasz or Laing, neither have been celebrated in global warming circles, probably because, as Darwall writes, both men thought rising C02 levels were a happy development, contributing to plant growth and staving off a rapid return to an ice age and “deadly glaciers.” 

For all that believers constantly invoke “the Science!” “the Science!”, Darwall makes the crucial point that today’s global warming theory is not science at all.  He reminds us that the sine qua non of a scientific proposition, as Karl Popper pointed out, is that it can be disproven.  But the theory of dangerous man-made global warming is immune from falsification, with any real-world departure from expectations (e.g., a decade of flat temperatures prior to 2009 despite a steady rise in C02 emissions) explained by some untestable ad hoc hypothesis.  Darwall observes that global warming theory is “scientific” in the same sense as Marx’s theory of history, Freud’s psychoanalysis and Alfred Adler’s “individual psychology.”  In the case of all three, as Popper pointed out, advocates find only confirming evidence, and that they find wherever they look.  (In the case of global warming, believers point to every instance of “extreme weather” as confirming evidence.) Such theories, Popper said, were prescientific, depending for acceptance on the appeal to authority.  This is glaringly apparent in global warming theory, which firmly rests, we are repeatedly told, on the almost universal “consensus” of scientists.   

The attitude toward critics is key.  A scientific theory welcomes efforts to test it against empirical evidence.  Pseudoscience, depending for its “truth” on consensus, is deeply hostile to challenge.  Marxists accused critics of false consciousness or class interests; Freudians dismissed them as in need of treatment.  Former British Labour leader Gordon Brown’s disposal-by-insult of those who dared to question the global warming apocalypse is typical: “We mustn’t be distracted by the behind times, anti-science, flat earth climate skeptics.”

No one points up the absurdity of the entire enterprise as well as MIT emeritus professor of atmospheric science Richard Lindzen.  “Future generations will wonder in bemused amazement that the early 21st century’s developed world went into hysterical panic over a globally averaged temperature increase of a few tenths of a degree, and on the basis of gross exaggerations of highly uncertain computer projections combined into implausible chains of inference proceeded to contemplate a roll-back of the industrial age.”

As the western world seeks to cut off Russian oil and gas in the wake of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the harmful strategic consequences of its obsession with this terrible idea have become obvious.  Pouring vast sums into unreliable wind and solar in pursuit of the will o’ the wisp of “net zero emissions,” Europe has forfeited development of its own fossil fuels.  Biden is embarked on the same course here.  Thus, there is the mind-boggling spectacle of Biden scrambling to enlist rogue regimes like those of Venezuela and Iran to provide the West with oil while doubling down on his efforts to cripple oil and gas development in the U.S.     

While there is a plethora of other prevalent terrible ideas in the ascendant, such as changing the purpose of corporations from promoting the interests of shareholders to those of society (as defined by woke activists), an especially corrosive new idea is now in danger of emerging triumphant. This is the notion that any differences in outcome between groups can only be explained by “racism.”  For proponents, if eliminating differences requires overturning our educational and professional institutions, banishing tests and considerations of merit or competence, so be it. 

China, which this month implicitly expressed its opinion of the climate change apocalypse by vowing to expand domestic coal mining by 300 million tons a year, and has no intention of changing the nature of math so that everyone can master it, awaits the results. 

Rael Jean Isaac is author of Roosters of the Apocalypse: How the Junk Science of Global Warming is Bankrupting the Western World and co-author of Madness in the Streets: How Psychiatry and the Law Abandoned the Mentally Ill.

Image: PxHere

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