If in doubt, appeal to ridicule

Reading through the comment is free part of the Guardian is enlightening, entertaining and a bit saddening. It is enlightening because it shows how confused people become when they want to find a target to attack, it is entertaining because the commenters are, basically, crazy and saddening because once upon a time you would have thought people who read the Guardian were reasonably educated. Obviously in the internet age, this is no longer the case…

Anyway, a rant against the HSE by Simon Jenkins, titled “The zombie health inspectors should be replaced with a risk commission” drew my attention today. As I have mentioned in the past, I am often drawn into the murky world of health and safety much more than I would normally like, so this intrigued me.

The title of the article seems to draw on this part of Mr Jenkins long, repetitive, rant:

If I were king I would abolish the Health and Safety Executive altogether and its zombie inspectors, who would bring the whole of Britain to halt “to save a life”. I would replace it with its opposite, a risk commission. This quango’s job would be to enforce risk-taking in the interest of a civilised society. It would especially encourage the young and those helping them to grow up and take responsibility.

The majority of the rest of the post is in a similar vein (this is about half way through), and fortunately Jenkins showed a total lack of understanding about what HSE enforced when he wrote this bit of nonsense:

Employers with an exceptionally good safety record should not be considered admirable, since they could just be wasting money and overcharging customers. The test would not be how safe can everything be, but how safe should it be within the bounds of common sense.

It seems not only is comment free, but the people who write it are not burdened by any need to understand their subject either. I await my call to write about how seventeenth century French art is badly designed… In fact, as the set of things I am poorly informed about is pretty large (arguably infinite), there is lots I will write about. I wonder if the Guardian pay for their free comments…

This post by Mr Jenkins attracted a mix of responses as you could imagine. When I say mix, the majority are of the back-slapping “well said, old chap” variety. One dissenting voice (marienkaefer) wrote:

It is quite extraordinary that Jenkins uses an issue which is of no interest or concern to the HSE – food advice – to launch an ill-informed (but alas all too familiar) attack on the HSE.

Let’s get rid of a few myths first. The HSE does not require total safety. The requirement is to “reduce risks to as low as reasonably practicable”.

Nor does the HSE ban things, or only very rarely. Creosote, for example. It held out against banning cockle picking, and against highly expensive train safety equipment, directly contrary to what Jenkins asserts, despite strong political pressure to do so.

And the HSE deals with workplace safety only.

But anyway, let us test the Jenkins model. No major nuclear accidents since the Windscale fire? Too safe! No deaths at Buncefield? Too safe! One of my officers is sent up on to a roof by his mates to “have a look”, falls through a skylight and dies? That’s alright, it is within your quota (Stevens didn’t need to appear at the Old Bailey. He did so because he chose, and because Chief Constables insisted that they should, in person, be prosecuted – evidently never expecting it would happen). Offshore oil rigs? Building sites…?

Well said, I thought. Quite a reasonable rebuttle of Jenkins’ diatribe. Obviously I am in a minority viewpoint here, as a significant number of responses not only supported Jenkins drivel but attacked the author of the above voice of reason. Take this example from Midas:

Oh Dear, Marienkaefer, I think it was intended to be, what we on the other planet, call a “joke”. Or “satire” if you’re ready for a bigger word.
I doubt that the HSE was the prime target, rather the “We know what’s Good for You and You’ll Do it Whether You Like it Or Not” society.
Here in Godzone, the addition of folic acid to bread has just been made compulsory. This will be of unarguable benefit to the small number of folic acid deficient women who get pregnant. But does it have to be , as it were, shoved down our throats? Doesn’t education and choice have a part to play anymore?

Well, really. Once I stopped laughing, I decided this was a reasonably “legit” post and it made me sad (see intro paragraph). The writer of this comment begins by trying to dismiss marienkaefer’s comments by pretending Jenkins post was “satire.” If it was, it falls massively short of what would normally be expected of the term. Conflating satire with joke is also a weak link and if Jenkins post was supposed to be a joke, you would expect it to be funny not just ill informed.

Now, it is possible Jenkins wanted his post to be satirical, but if so, he needs much more lessons in the art form. Even so it is irrelevant, as it creates a strawman for the rest of his nonsense diatribe – a strawman which Midas tries to use again, even after saying its basis is satire. The logical inconsistencies are brilliant. (Remember what I said about entertaining!).

Handily, Midas is using that great old standby the Appeal to Ridicule. He has nothing to contradict marienkaefer’s comments so he resorts to making it look like s/he failed to see the joke. You know what? The emperor still has no clothes on…

I love the final bit about folic acid. There is no argument against adding it to bread, simply the idea that doing something in the public interest is “wrong.” People should be educated about the need to take folic acid and then forced to find it in alternative sources… Choice is great isn’t it. Give people the choice to pay more or suffer ill-health. Amazing society Midas lives in. On the satire/joke front, given the implications of his comment, I like his choice of username…

[tags]Society,Culture, Simon Jenkins, health and safety, Health, Safety,Food, Logic, Logical Fallacies,Guardian,Comment is Free,HSE[/tags]