James and the Giant Corn Genetics: Studying the Source Code of Nature

March 7, 2010

The Hair Shirt Fallacy

Filed under: Politics — James @ 8:07 pm

Kids are told to eat their vegetables because, even though they taste bad, because vegetables are good for them. They are told they can’t have ice cream every night, even though it tastes good, because ice cream is bad for them. The danger arrises when people generalize that rule, that if it’s pleasant it’s bad for you, and if you don’t like it it must be good for you.

I’m toldĀ ipecac (a plant extract used to induce vomiting) tastes vile, while bananas, for example, taste good and are good for you. Yet a person deep in the clutches of the hair shirt fallacy might insist on consuming ipecac on a regular basis. If it tastes so bad, and makes me so miserable, they reason, it must be REALLY good for me. (Aside: I’m pretty sure this is why some “alternative health” clinics as so into enemas.)

It’s important to understand the hair shirt fallacy (I just made up the name today, someone let me know if there’s already a description for this), not because of its role in the appeal of whatever next years fad diet turns out to be, but because when it comes to debates about the future of our whole planet, far too many of those engaged in the debate seem to be in the grip of this kind of reasoning. While it has never been so humorously phrased, I’ve been accused plenty of times of being the equivalent of a “starry-eyed techno-utopian.” Wanting to solve all problems with scientific or technical quick fixes instead of the real solution (which usually seems to involve unpleasantries ranging from inconvenience to great personal sacrifice.)

Here’s the thing. Getting large groups of people agree to make even the smallest sacrifices for the greater good is HARD. Take, for example, those who say the world already produces enough food to feed everyone enough to live healthily, that it’s only a question of distribution. They’re right. If everyone in the developed world at a lot more rice and beans, and a lot less of everything else, there would be more food available to feed the hungry. But leaving aside some serious unintended consequences I could imagine with this scenario, it completely ignores the issue of how to bring about such a huge change in diet among hundreds of millions of people.

There are scientific and technical innovations that could alleviate some of the suffering caused by hunger and malnutrition we see in the world today. And if some people would care to hold their breaths for mass sacrifice for the collective good, they’re welcome to. Personally I think helping people (or helping our planet) is still a worthy goal even if doing so DOESN’T make us miserable. And now I have a three-word phrase to describe the people who disagree.


  1. Ha! The “hair shirt falacy!” I’m totally stealing that. Best meme since “unicorn hunt.”

    Comment by Matt — March 8, 2010 @ 6:30 pm

  2. Thanks! Now I have to look up unicorn hunt, though I have a guess what it means.

    Comment by James — March 8, 2010 @ 7:53 pm

  3. Marion Nestle once criticized “techno-fixes” in a speech, and called for safe drinking water among several other things. I commented on her blog, how do you get safe drinking water without a “techno-fix?” (no response) In order to clean water you need some sort of technology.

    The inverse of the techno-fix is the “socio-fix” – the idea that social change will fix the problem, without starting up other ones. Frankly, I don’t see how any category of “fix” is inherently superior, a solution must be found that is appropriate to the problem, whether it is a new technology, regulation, social change, habit, etc.

    Comment by Karl Haro von Mogel — March 10, 2010 @ 8:32 am

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