Vignette #1 Irrational Beliefs

There are a number of irrational beliefs that are foundational to how many people think. These beliefs have a profound impact on public policy at all levels. An irrational belief is one which contradicts the known evidence or cannot be reasoned from cause to effect. Many of our national policies are based on irrational beliefs.

An irrational belief is different from an unsubstantiated belief.

For example, the belief that every person has an immortal soul is not supported by objective evidence. Neither is it contradicted by any known evidence. It is therefore unsubstantiated but not irrational.

On the other hand, belief that people of colour are on average less intelligent that white people is an irrational belief because it contradicts the known evidence. However, this belief informed social policies in the US and Australia into the 1970’s.

Let’s now highlight some irrational beliefs.

If I don’t like something it isn’t true

Statements are either true or false in the real world regardless of your beliefs, values, preferences, agenda’s, politics, psychological tags or vested interests. As self-evidently absurd as this highlighted statement is, it is the real basis for objections to any number of evident truths or policy formulations, from same sex marriage to climate science.

If I don’t like the person saying it, it isn’t true

People whose view of life, agendas or politics are opposed to yours can still say things that are factually correct.

Black people are not human

This belief was considered scientific until recent times based on Darwin’s theory of evolution. It reflects the title of his seminal work: “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.” It was considered that people of colour were closer to apes on the evolutionary scale. This belief was reinforced by the view that people of colour were less intelligent because they achieved on average lower IQ scores and educational attainment was less. Social and economic factors in IQ scores[1] and educational attainments were generally ignored until the civil rights movement began making inroads into public policy in the 1960’s. The belief that intelligence and race are correlated was finally put to rest by the human genome project and more recent understanding of brain function and the role of genetics in human characteristics.

The unborn are not human

You are a human being. Therefore, at some point between conception and today, you became human. When was that?

If babies are not human until they exit the birth canal, then no one born of caesarean section is human. If babies are not human in the last trimester, then numerous survivors of premature birth are not human. If babies are not human before they can survive outside the womb, then no-one who was placed in a humidicrib as a baby is human.

If babies are not human at any time before the last trimester, then humanity is judged on physical characteristics, intelligence, and location.[2] If so, then intellectually disabled and brain damaged people are not human.

If humanity is only ascribed to people who can exist independently of the mother or significant care giver then no one is human until at least the age of 12, and no one in an advanced care facility is human. Belief that the unborn are not human is based on denial of the evidence of foetal development in utero, and an inconsistent valuation of human life. It is therefore an irrational belief.

Carbon based fuels can be consumed forever

Carbon based fuels are formed from organic matter. The process of formation is slow. Carbon based fuels are therefore being consumed many times faster than they are being formed. Consequently, they cannot be consumed at the level required for an industrial civilisation to exist indefinitely. Since this is self-evident any contrary belief is irrational.

There are no ecological limits

All natural systems have limits. There are numerous examples from antiquity to the present of the loss of the productive capacity of natural systems when overused. Examples include the collapse of sea fisheries, the loss of productive top soil, destruction of wetlands, and the extinction of previously abundant species. While some ecosystems adapt to changed conditions this usually occurs at the expense of productive capacity and species diversity. There is no evidence for the proposition that ecological systems are indestructible. Therefore, this is an irrational belief.

The economy can grow exponentially for ever

This is the subset of the previous irrational belief. Economic growth is counted as the net increase in the production of goods and services measured against a historic base line. Growth is assumed to be exponential since, for example, 5 per cent growth is measured against last year. Last year the economy grew 5 per cent over the year before. Therefore, this year’s 5 per cent growth is bigger in absolute terms than last year’s 5 per cent growth.

Some economic growth can occur within ecological limits. For example, agricultural production could increase without harming the environment, there could be more efficient recycling, and more energy could be harnessed from renewable sources. Potentially the economy could grow while reducing its impact on the environment. However, the environment cannot supply infinite goods or absorb infinite amounts of pollution. Since economic growth is exponential and infinite, it will face ecological limits in the physical world.

Human population can grow exponentially for ever

Human population has increased exponentially for two reasons. Firstly, human intervention has enabled other populations of environmental goods such as food crops to increase exponentially and this has sustained increases in human populations. Secondly, advances in public health have reduced the death rate. With an increasing birth rate and a decreasing death rate, human population has exploded. While overall this has led to an increase in human welfare, we are using up environmental goods faster than they are being replaced. At some this cannot be sustained. Even it could be sustained, there is only so much standing room on planet earth.

Removing minimum wages and penalty rates will make workers better off

These policies have been applied in both developed and undeveloped countries since the 1970’s. There is now a 40 year evidence base. In addition, there are historical examples from the nineteenth and early twentieth century. These prove that when minimum wages and penalty rates are removed, labour force participation does not significantly increase and the bulk of people have less disposable income. Without disposable income demand is reduced and economic activity is reduced. If this contraction is severe or prolonged it can lead to a cascading series of collapses or retractions as follows:

When demand collapses small to medium businesses collapse.

Taxable revenue collapses.

Employment in both the public and private sectors collapses.

Emergency borrowing leads to indebtedness which results in private bankruptcy and the sale of public assets.

Both private and public assets are purchased at bargain basement prices by the very wealthy.

As markets dry up large businesses undergo mergers and hostile take-overs. Wealth and power become highly concentrated and wealth trickles up.

An underclass of destitute people is created.

The bulk of people become working poor.

The middle classes are wiped out.

Opportunity vanishes and class divisions become inter-generationally entrenched.

Society becomes unstable.

Government becomes authoritarian.

Civil liberties are lost.

The bulk of the population becomes poor, oppressed and disenfranchised.

Democracy fails.

This scenario is playing out in the United States and Southern Europe currently. In light of the available evidence, the notion that reducing wages in a saturated labour market will make workers better off is irrational.

If taxes are radically reduced business activity will increase and wealth will trickle down to the masses making everyone better off

A reduction in taxes can lead to an increase in business investment and a subsequent increase in employment. However, businesses do not exist to create employment, they exist to create revenue and it is in their immediate interests to suck wealth up not trickle it down. A balanced taxation policy acknowledges the need for business to profit and for government to provide non market goods. A collapse in taxation revenue would lead to many of the problems noted in the previous irrational belief.

Private enterprises are always more efficient and deliver better value for money than public enterprises

Enterprises are competitive when they have both positive and negative feedback loops. That is, they are rewarded for efficiency and competence and punished for inefficiency and incompetence. This occurs in efficient markets. The public sector is often insulated from these consequences. For that reason, privatising public enterprises can make them more efficient. However, this is not automatic. A public enterprise which is subject to political scrutiny may be more efficient than a private enterprise if:

  • a public monopoly is replaced with a private one e.g. ports, airports;
  • there is not an efficient market e.g. for electricity generation; or
  • the privatised enterprise retains a public subsidy, regulatory exemption or other support.

All religions are the same

They are not. They differ in their beliefs about the nature of good and evil, the nature of humanity, the nature of reality, right and wrong, the nature of divinity, life after death, and the purpose of life. Specifically, they also differ as to how men and women should be treated, how children should be raised, attitudes to social class, beliefs about social justice, and foundational moral concepts.

For example, religiously sanctioned beliefs include social justice, charity, ego denial, voluntary celibacy, and forgiveness. Other religiously sanctioned beliefs include wife burning, stoning rape victims, killing homosexuals, not touching untouchables, female genital mutilation, male genital mutilation,[3]the death penalty, and stoning or shunning apostates. Variants of Hinduism teach that it is wrong to offer social mobility to lower castes and women.

The notion that all religions are the same contradicts the known evidence and is therefore an irrational belief.

Countries are not a product of the people who live in them

There are many factors which influence the prevailing social and economic conditions of any country. They include for example the history of colonialism and the degree to which geographic boundaries reflect social boundaries. However cultural attitudes, moral beliefs, and social mores clearly impact on the extent to which a society is prosperous, fair, or functional. This is something observed first hand by ex-patriots in any place and can be measured by various indicators such as corruption indexes, levels of societal violence, tolerance of inhumane practices, intergenerational equity, gender mobility etc.

There are reasons why Switzerland is Switzerland and the Congo is the Congo notwithstanding that the latter has vastly more resources than the former. If the Congo was populated by Swiss, and Switzerland was populated by people from the Congo, would anything change?

Equal numbers of each race and culture on earth can live peacefully in one country

There are no historical examples where this has occurred. In every instance where large racial and religious minorities have tried to co-exist there have been significant social, political, and sometimes military conflicts. Objectively, societies like this have only been held together by totalitarian regimes. Examples include the provinces of the Roman empire, the colonies of the British empire, the Soviet Union, and Tito’s Yugoslavia. Consequently, this is an irrational belief.

There is no connection between human behaviour and rates of sexually transmitted diseases

In the public policy discussions around every other form of disease it is accepted that human behaviours play a significant role in transmission. It is extremely difficult to contract a sexually transmitted disease without having sex. You either have to share a dirty needle, or infuse contaminated blood. Therefore, the rate of sexually transmitted disease reflects the social and moral choices of the society which hosts the disease. Consequently, this is an irrational belief.

The death penalty has no impact on crime

There is an extensive literature for and against the proposition that the death penalty deters crime. However, it is universally acknowledged that the recidivism rate in the Western world is around 70 per cent. It is also universally acknowledged that dead people do not commit crime. Therefore, the death penalty ipso facto reduces the crime rate. It is also widely understood that human beings calculate risk in terms of the likelihood of an event vs the seriousness of its consequences. Consequently, the belief that the death penalty can have no impact on crime is an irrational belief.


[1] IQ tests are highly culturally specific. When I first began doing IQ tests in my twenties I scored around 90 which is borderline retarded. I realised that because I was home educated rather than schooled I was interpreting the questions differently. When I adjusted for cultural bias my score dramatically increased (author).

[2] Note that these are the same characteristics by which people of colour were assumed not to be human

[3] Cf the aboriginal practice of ‘whistle cock’.