Bicycle Helmets IV
(Warning: non-sports post, including speculation on subjects on which I have no expertise. Read at your own risk. (I'll try to be back with a sports post soon.) This is part IV ... here are parts one, two, and three.)
On Friday, you decide to take the day off work to go golfing. Your boss objects, because you have an important report to finish for Monday morning. You tell him you plan to come in tomorrow and finish it, and even Sunday if necessary. Your boss is satisfied with that.
You decide you want to take the family to Disneyland. Your wife objects that money is too tight. You answer, you've decided to keep your car an extra year, and you've already quit your $4-a-day latte habit. That's more than enough to cover the trip. Your wife is satisfied.
On your next bike ride, you're not wearing a helmet. Your friend says, that's risky! You reply that riding without a helmet is only 40 percent riskier than with a helmet, and that you're compensating by riding less, and not at night. Your friend is NOT satisfied. He thinks you're dangerous and irrational.
Why the difference? How come, in the first two cases, it's OK to make a trade-off, but in the third it isn't? How come, when it comes to work and money, it's OK to evaluate based on achieving an objective ... but, when it comes to bicycling risk, it's not?
I've been thinking about it, and I've concluded that it's not really about risk at all. It's about following a moral code. Wearing a helmet has kind of established itself as the only right thing to do, kind of an ethical law.
It seems to me that when you find tradeoffs are frowned upon, it's because of morals. It's wrong to commit a murder, even if I save a thousand starving Africans to compensate, because murder is immoral. It's wrong to commit adultery, even if I compensate by treating my wife like a queen afterwards. It's wrong to cheat on an exam, even if I deliberately score lower on my next exam to make up for it.
When there are moral issues, the bottom line doesn't matter -- the ends can't justify the means.
In terms of helmets, risk barely figures into it at all. Suppose I got rid of the helmet, but started reducing my risk by riding only half as much. But you get so outraged that I can't do that any more. So, I give in. I put on a helmet, but resume my normal riding schedule. My risk actually rises 40 percent ... it drops 30 percent for the helmet, but then rises 100 percent for the extra riding. But you don't care. You're satisfied, even though my risk has gone up.
Because: without the helmet, I was breaking a rule. With the helmet, I'm not. It's morally OK for me to take on more risk, as long as I do it with a helmet on.
There are lots of other things that are rationalized as practical issues, but treated with the non-negotiability of moral issues.
Suppose I refuse to recycle, because I think it's too much hassle. Instead, I decide to cut down on the packaged goods I buy. Instead of canned pop, I switch to tap water. I switch all my utility bills to electronic delivery, and I buy a Prius. I convincingly show you that doing all these things have done much, much more for the environment than if I just recycled.
My guess is: you're not buying it. You're going to feel like, when I throw a pile of newspapers in the garbage instead of the blue bin, I'm doing something morally wrong, and I'm using these other things to try to justify my immoral behavior.
There are others ... "wasting food" is a big one. Yes, people are starving in Africa. Is it OK to "waste" $1 worth of food if I send $5 worth to Africa? No. It's better to eat the $1 worth of food and send nothing to Africa. Because it's not about the starvation, it's about the moral principle that you don't waste.
Another aspect is that when something becomes a moral issue, it moves from a "how much" issue, to a "yes or no" issue.
It doesn't matter a whole lot *how much* I smoke ... a pack a day won't get me 20 times more disapproval from you than a cigarette a day. It doesn't matter *how much* I drive without a seat belt ... a trip to the corner store gets me the same lecture from the cop as a five-hour drive. And it doesn't matter *how much* extra risk there is in riding without a helmet. Because it's no longer about how much; it's about the fact that I would dare to consider it acceptable at all.
That's why there's so much outrage about "light" cigarettes. Even if they *are* less dangerous -- which I believe is true -- they're considered no less immoral. To some people, talking about "light cigarettes" is a lot like talking about "light rape".
Even worse, the outrage continues when there's almost no danger at all. There's a new product called "e-cigarettes," which look like cigarettes, and emit smoke-like vapors (which are really just water). They can be used as a nicotine-delivery system, like gum or a patch, with little to no risk.
But ... some people want to make them illegal. Because, for those people, it has never really been about the risk, or the effects of smoking. The taboo, and moral crusade, is now about the *act* of smoking. "You shouldn't smoke because it's too dangerous" has morphed into "you shouldn't smoke because smoking is evil, and we'll use danger as a rationalization." That's the only way that you could argue that taking a cigarette-shaped piece of plastic, and blowing water vapor out of it, is an activity that needs to be banned. Especially when it has the power to save lives by making it easier to quit.
Robin Hanson has written extensively about "signalling." That's when an activity is done not so much for its own sake, but to display something about yourself that would otherwise be invisible. I think that's what's happening here. I think it's mostly a desire to identify yourself as belonging to a particular peer group, or social/political group, that thinks helmets are a good idea. It's saying, "I'm one of us -- the type that's intelligent enough to know that helmets reduce risk, and understand that it's a good idea to wear them." It's the way you signal to the world that you're a thoughtful, high-status Ken Dryden-type, and not a low-status Don Cherry-type, the type that's too shortsighted to care about his own brain.
For that to work, you have to treat helmet-wearing as obvious and non-negotiable. If you start arguing open-mindedly about risk numbers, you send the wrong signal. You show that your position on helmets is iffy, that it's not an obvious moral issue, that maybe you're not as Drydenish as the rest of your group.
It's like ... let's say I'm a famous and well-respected political pundit. And I say, "You know, the KKK thinks black people are less intelligent than whites. I'm going to go and study that, and see if they're right."
My career is over. Instantly. And it's over if even, next month, I come back and say, I've looked over all this data, and I've studied it from 100 different angles, and you know what? It's not true at all. Those KKK guys have been intellectually dishonest!"
The world would still see me as a potential racist. Why? Because I was willing to *consider* the idea that the moral issue was negotiable. I gave the signal that I care about the bottom line -- whether or not the statement is true -- more than I care about the moral principle that you shouldn't say things like that.
In a way, these kinds of moral issues take on certain aspects of religion. We pick a side, embrace its position, and signal our adherence. We get very uncomfortable when challenged. We have to be that way -- our signals are judged relative to others. In a world where the accepted signal is immediate disapproval, an open mind sounds like something the other side would do.
And considering trade-offs, costs and benefits ... you can't do that at all. As soon as you let in the possibility that your moral principle could be anything less than absolute -- even in theory -- you're denying the moral imperative. If you talk about costs and benefits, you're signalling, "I might be willing to give up my ethics for the right price."
Suppose you're a high-ranking public relations person at MADD. You talk about all the damage drunk driving does, and how the drinking age should be higher, and how there should be more roadside testing, and so forth.
And then someone asks if it should be illegal to drive after even one drink. And you say, "no, we don't go that far."
And the response is: "OK, what's the tradeoff? At one drink, the risk increases maybe Z%. That's X deaths a year. That, you say, is OK. But, you believe that anything over .05%, which results in Y deaths a year, is not OK. Tell us where your cutoff is, and why. What number of deaths is a reasonable, albeit tragic, price to pay?"
You have to duck the question, if your goal is to treat drunk driving as a moral principle. You can't start arguing that it's only bad if it causes more than X deaths. Because then you're arguing about what X should be, which is not compatible with ethical imperatives. Moral standards don't depend on numbers. Moral standards can't admit grey areas.
Ask a Rabbi, "If there were very strong evidence that the bible had been mistranslated, and God actually required pork instead of banning it, would you have a BLT? How strong would the evidence have to be?"
Ask a career anti-smoking activist, "If they figured out an additive to add to tobacco that would make smoking less unhealthy, would you be less opposed to smoking?"
Ask an anti-drug crusader, "How much would decriminalizing heroin have to reduce the total harm, in order for you to come out in favor of it?"
And, ask a bicycle helmet advocate, "How low would the risk have to be for you to change your mind about helmet laws?"
You won't get an answer from any of them. Even admitting there's a cost/benefit issue is forbidden, much less actually trying to quantify one. The best you'll get, sometimes, is something absurdly low, one that runs no chance of happening. "I'd repeal helmet laws if it was only one extra death per decade."
Usually, abiding by these moral principles require you to conduct your personal life a certain way -- in other words, to pay a cost, to make a sacrifice. You have to wear a helmet. You have to recycle. You have to go to church. You have to pay a little more for fair-trade coffee.
And most of those things are public -- which, they'd have to be, if the main purpose is to signal. Everyone can see you're wearing a helmet. Everyone in church sees you're there. Everyone notices your recycling bins, and your reusable cloth shopping bags.
But the interesting thing about the signalling is ... the sacrifice is only a small part of the signal. The most important part of the signal is to *not admit you're sacrificing*. You have to pretend that it's no trouble at all, and you couldn't imagine doing anything different.
You're active in your church, and very well-regarded by your fellow worshippers. You go to church every Sunday, and you think everybody should, and you often lament at how attendance is on the decline.
But, then, one day, you admit, "You know, I really hate going to church. Most of it is boring, and it cuts into my golf time. And I have to get up early, which I don't like, and I have to dress up. But, I guess, that's the kind of sacrifice you have to make, because God wants it."
You look a little bit less devoted now, don't you?
In a way, you'd think it should be the reverse. If you go to church every Sunday even though you don't like it, shouldn't that show that you're sacrificing *more* to the cause, and so you're *more* devoted? But it doesn't.
Because, you're not going to church to signal that you go to church. You're going to church to signal that you're the type of person who *likes* going to church, the type of person who goes to church willingly and enthusiastically. Signalling is "a method of conveying information ... by performing an action which is more likely or less costly if the information is true than if it is not true". By going to church, you're implicitly saying, "Look, I must be devout. Would an immoral atheist be doing this week after week?" You're saying, "look at how I can do this *without* sacrificing."
It's the outgroup that has to sacrifice -- the group that you're trying to signal you're not one of. The guy next door, who's not religious. You tell him he should go to church. He says, "I hate it -- it's boring, and it cuts into my golf time, and I have to get up early and dress up." And you reply, "It's for God. You should make the sacrifice and do it anyway."
You're signalling two things here: first, that you abide by the moral principle of going to Church enough that you think other people should do it too, and, second, that you'll still be superior to your neighbor even if he makes the sacrifice you want him to, because, even though he does what he should, he doesn't really *want* to.
So, I doubt you'll ever hear Al Gore, or David Suzuki, say, "you know, I really hate recycling. Those cans are dirty, and they stink, and it's such a pain in the butt. It would be great if we found a way to just throw these things in the garbage while still saving the planet."
That won't look good. See, you're supposed to WANT to recycle. You're supposed to LIKE recycling. If you're environmentally enlightened, the pleasure you get from walking to the bin, and taking it out every week, are worth it, for the glow you get for doing the right thing. It's only a pain in the butt to the people who don't like doing it, the enemies of the planet.
To an environmentalist, not liking recycling is like not liking dogs and babies. It's not something you look good admitting.
What led me to start thinking about this is that I didn't understand why hardly any of the helmet advocates, in any of the other helmet posts, ever mentioned how they find helmets uncomfortable, or inconvenient, or unwieldy, or that they wish they didn't have to wear one. It struck me as strange. Helmets *are* uncomfortable and inconvenient, which is why we choose not to wear them when we drive, or walk, or even when we're making repairs up on our roof (when they would actually make sense!).
But, I think this is the reason. If you admit that you dislike helmets, but you wear them anyway because of the risk, you're detracting from the signal that you're an enlightened, educated, sensible, safety advocate. You're mostly just signalling that you don't want to hurt your head.
Labels: bicycle helmets