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From Witches to Lawsuits

Hi Folks! Today we feature the musings of Jennifer Clarke, who describes herself as “a professional who went back to school at 25 for a Bachelor of Engineering and wishes her mother had been less involved in her life as a teenager.” – L

Subject: Witch Burnings and Litigation

A long time ago people would blame bad events on the spirits that needed to be appeased.  Then the bad events were blamed that needed to be burned. Now bad events are blamed on people/companies that need to be sued.I think it all comes from the same root.
Humans are hypersensitive to seeing intent and patterns;  to the point that we see them when they are not there.  Plus, humans can be arrogant, and don’t want to believe they are powerless.  When forced to face that fact, many will get angry and bitter and find someone to blame.


On your blog you wondered why people assumed bad events are somebody’s fault.  I think people have always thought that way; in the past they were simply focused on supernatural causes. – Jennifer . C.

Lenore here: I not only agree, I also feel  that we make laws, buy products and engage in “safety practices” in our own lives and in schools that are all, at base, superstitious. We are hoping to appease some greater power that will smote us if we don’t obey. Here’s my own piece on that. – L.

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12 Comments     0 Pings

By Kenny Felder Wed Jun 26th 2013 at 9:02 am  

That’s a great analogy! And actually, in a strange way, it’s also the most hopeful thing I’ve heard in a long time. It’s a reminder that every age has its versions of craziness, and some of them have been a lot crazier than ours, and this too shall pass.

By Brian Wed Jun 26th 2013 at 9:23 am  

The vague explanation of “how would you feel if something DID happen?” is a direct expression of this phenomena.

In some ways it was easier when science had explained less of the world. It was easier to prescribe tragedy to God or spirits.

But we are really still in a transition stage. Educated people do not believe in an active controlling God or spirits that impact the world on a daily basis. Thunderstorms are a natural phenomena not a curse from God or Gods.

But we have to advance to understanding statistics and the principles of random events in order to understand and deal with tragedy. That leap requires better education in math and science.

By lollipoplover Wed Jun 26th 2013 at 9:50 am  

…”why people assumed bad events are somebody’s fault”
It’s the irrational belief that we can prevent EVERY accident. But when accidents do occur (and they always will) somehow we must never let it happen again. I thought this article was on par with this post:


By Trina Burton (The Bookinista) Wed Jun 26th 2013 at 10:25 am  

This is very interesting….I agree that we have a problem with assigning blame. One of the things that really stuck with me from Lenore’s book (and really started me on my “free-range” journey) was that oftentimes when bad things happen to kids we want to blame the parents because then those bad things won’t happen to MY KIDS. I used to be that parent who said “how could they leave those kids alone?” It really is just anxiety and fear that if you are a bad parent your kids will die. The truth is that bad things sometimes just happen. I refuse to make my children prisoners to make myself feel better.

By Warren Wed Jun 26th 2013 at 10:59 am  

People love to live illusionary lives. They love to think they are in complete control of their enviroment. That nothing is left to chance.

I am reminded of Jeff Goldblum in Jurrasic Park, and his water drop experiment on the back of Laura Dern’s hand. How the water dropped in the same spot then followed different path off her hand. Affected by all sorts of factors and forces.

Control just like security is all smoke and mirrors. Illusions to make humans feel superior and safe.

By Caleb Thu Jun 27th 2013 at 5:08 am  

My wife and I run a childcare on our farm, and I get to watch children test limits, and explore cause and effect, all the time. In a most innocent manner they constantly break rules, and then must face the consequences. For example, rule #942 was, “Stay away from the rooster,” yet they would dare each other and then run screaming as the rooster chased them. (I had to get rid of the rooster.)

Cause and effect means actions have consequences. However people don’t much like facing the consequences.

In the case of a three-year-old it is downright cute, how they explain why they shouldn’t face any consequences for chucking a rock at a window.

In the case of adults it is less cute and more lame. In the case of Global Warming there is a lot of talk about consequences, and which virgin to chuck into which volcano to appease the gods.

In some ways adults are not all that different from three-year-olds. In a long-winded, (but hopefully humorous,) essay, I explore the similarity:


By In the Trenches Thu Jun 27th 2013 at 9:01 am  

Totally agree with everything you have said here, aside from your conjugation of the verb “smite”! :)

By In the Trenches Thu Jun 27th 2013 at 9:10 am  

…But seriously, I loved in your essay the use of the phrase, “as a form of consecration”, in reference to naming a law for a deceased child. That is exactly what it is: the impulse is emotional, and superstitious, in the sense that there is little empirical evidence that supports the use of ad-hoc laws addressing extraordinary events to keep people safe. It is (and I don’t mean this pejoratively) a *religious* impulse, in other words. Religion is faith-based at its root, rather than fact-based, and its power lies, if anywhere, on the emotional level. This is a modern form of ancient ritual, and while I have no problem with the use of religious rituals to help with the grieving process (they might be uniquely suited to that use), religious rituals have no business masquerading as legal processes. Lawmakers rarely invoke deities when proposing legislation, but that is too narrow a definition of religion, which completely ignores the Enlightenment and the line it drew between those two basic mindsets (rational empiricism and religion).

That was a very meaningful phrase, Lenore; it seems like it would be worth expanding on the ideas contained in it! Thanks for that.

By Natalie Fri Jun 28th 2013 at 11:30 am  

So a few things:

1) Jennifer’s comparison of looking at the spiritual/supernatural as a cause of disaster and then trying to appease these forces as a means of preventing accidents is interesting, showing that humans haven’t really changed much.

2) So awesome that she went back to school to study engineering. You go girl! You’ve got a fufilling career ahead of you!

3) I read the debate on Cato Unbound last night about child safety and liberty that Lenore provides a link to – great site. I read two more debates afterwards. This site will provide me quite a bit of reading until I finish going through their archives. And they’ve got an RSS feed.

So about the child safety and liberty debate between Lenore and the other three:

In short, it wasn’t very good, and mostly full of vague demagoguery. Especially when I read the other debate topics that were on this site, this one was conducted very poorly. Nobody ever really talked about imposing safety laws at the expense of liberty in a detailed manner with good examples even though this was the topic of discussion. It was mostly exaggeration, hyperbole and straw men. To that end, neither side was very convincing.

I thought Lenore’s opening lead essay was a good opener, but nothing pertinent got discussed afterwards by either side. Each contributor was writing to an imaginary audience that already agreed with them, rather than discussing the nitty gritty of where the disagreement lies.

On the opposing side, we have two people mentioning car accidents and car seats/safety belts, smoke alarms, helmets and other protective equipment. etc. Things that most people agree on anyway.

On Lenore’s side we have discussion of toe mold and batman ears and driving 5 mph on the freeway. Or that because we’ve got pasteurized milk, vaccinations, antibiotics and seat belts, we’re petty for trying to solve smaller problems.

Neither side was convincing in any way shape or form.

There were some interesting points that were brought up that should have been developed further, but no one bothered to do so. What needed to be discussed is the grey area of balancing safety regulations and impositions on freedom. Instead we got a few extreme examples designed to show how ridiculous the other side was, even though it was unclear whether either side would support those examples.

A great subject that was touched on and could have been explored was that of leaving a kid in the car. Both sides mentioned it. One side says that you can leave a kid in the car and they’ll be fine, nothing happens (and this is true). So, no need to call the police. The other says that you absolutely can NOT leave a kid in the car because it can be dangerous. The car can heat up quickly and the kid can die (also true). And so bystanders should absolutely call the police.

And it was left at that, which was a shame. The issue here, that wasn’t discussed, is at what point do we intervene? Kids can absolutely overheat in the car. It happens. It also happens to pets and elderly people, and more quickly than one would think. Of course, and this is a big “of course,” only under certain conditions.

Making it illegal or calling the cops decreases the chance of it happening because parents are much less likely to leave their kids in the car if society pressures them not to or if it’s illegal. But it leaves no room for a parent to exercise judgement in deeming what they believe is perfectly fine and safe for their own kids. Shouldn’t some exercise in judgement be made before calling the cops on the parent? And shouldn’t the cops exercise some judgement themselves before lambasting the parent and calling DSS? If the car is not parked directly in the sun, if it’s not a really hot day, if the kids have some ventilation, or if they’re happily content reading books, playing, etc, why call the cops? It shouldn’t be the default reaction.

Right now, it seems that the default response is calling the police rather than exercising judgement, for fear that the child will suffer heat injury. Just as the parent should be allowed to exercise judgement, so should people who see children left in cars, and police, and DSS. That is what should have been discussed. It was a classic example of how bureaucratic rulings impose on personal freedom in order to protect. It could have been a launch pad for other issues such as kids staying home alone, playing at the park alone, walking the neighborhood alone, and laws which try to slap a number on the “correct” age to allow a child to do x, y, z, robbing the parent of their own judgement, and the freedom to raise their child in a way in which they deem appropriate.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t discussed. The discussion was: “The kids will die in the car!” And: “No, they won’t!”

Missed opportunity.

Coincidentally, the first person that wrote a letter to the editor discussed precisely this issue and did a better job of presenting the problem than any of the four contributors, and more concisely.

Another topic which should have been explored more was product safety. The drop down cribs which were briefly mentioned could have been used as a basis for a larger discussion. At what point do we have recalls? At what point do we force product designers to go back to the drawing board? Companies should absolutely be held responsible for their products. If they’re using shoddy materials and a shoddy design, they should be held responsible. But the user also holds some responsibility in that they should be using the product correctly.

If children are being hurt/maimed by something despite proper use, how high does do the injuries have to be before a policy change or for a company to discontinue their product? The idea of a cost/benefit analysis was mentioned, but nobody bothered to discuss it in depth. If 10% of users are suffering injury, a company should be compelled to modify or discontinue the product,and would most likely be sued. If 0.00001% of users are suffering injury, should they be compelled to discontinue the product? Should the company be sued? Somewhere, a line needs to be drawn. But nobody wanted to attempt to draw it. No one wanted to outline principles for drawing it. No one wanted to discuss grey areas.

Missed opportunity.

I understand the “safety” side’s fear of slapping a number on things. “1800 kids died this year from x, y, z. We were 3 deaths short of compelling the company to modify the product.” And so they say, in a very misleading way, that they don’t want to do a cost/benefit analysis on a child’s life. And the other side responded, to the detriment of a good discussion, a choking incident via lanyard hall passes.

I was really disappointed.

By Valerie Parkhurst Sat Jun 29th 2013 at 6:04 am  

I have read you off an on over the years and quite frankly you have “branded” your self so extreme that you now come across as just a “Nut.” I dare you to stand in front of Parents of children whose broken bodies have been found in ditch’s or sit in the same room whose little 9 year old has had her insides torn out by one of your “imaginary supernatural” entities.
You dont have the guts to walk into an emergency room and comfort a battered rape victim. Might not give your Bloviating on “Over-rated dangers” the impact you would like. Everytime you minimize the true dangers confronting our vulnerable? You stick another knife of those who have been so hurt. Isnt it nice to know your “largest fan base” consist of sex offenders and or the women banging them? What a legacy..

By In the Trenches Sat Jun 29th 2013 at 9:28 am  

Jesus, Valerie, you’re not helping your cause here. It seems to me that Lenore has addressed the emotional points you make many times, in much more moderate language than you have managed.

The whole point of risk management in general (not just Lenore) is that risk is a more or less manageable thing: but you’ll never get a handle on it by reacting emotionally. You have to find a way to put emotion temporarily aside and look at data to find out what the real dangers actually are. When individuals or governments react emotionally to perceived danger, really bad things happen. It makes it worse, not better. If people are serious about increasing safety to kids, they will refrain from using language such as yours and put their energies into scientifically and statistically valid methods, while balancing concerns about legal and constitutional concerns.

The reason witch-hunts succeeded was because many ordinary, well-meaning people like yourself were unwilling or unable to control their fear and anger, and many, many innocent people were killed or had their lives ruined as a result. Reason, not emotion, will lead us to sensible legislation and regulation. Emotion has its place, but it is not a reliable guide to solving problems.

By AnotherAnon Mon Jul 8th 2013 at 8:54 am  

Lenore, I love your response piece. The most important thing to note is that vilifying parents who leave their kids in the car while they pay for gas isn’t going to save the ones whose parents forgot to drop them off at daycare.

Here in RI, we had a case of a 3-year-old little boy about 4 or 5 years ago who also let himself out of the house and into the car where he died of heatstroke. He had been napping with his mother and woke up before she did. It was very sad. Telling people to keep their car doors locked at all times is a good piece of advice. It doesn’t greatly disrupt people’s lives, and it could provide an effective way to keep children out of an unsafe place. The cost/benefit greatly tips in favor of this kind of advice.

In the case of dragging the sleeping baby out in the rain so you can pay for your dry-cleaning, the cost/benefit tips the other way. Let the baby sleep in the car (if the weather is really inclement, leave it running with whatever necessary climate control device on), pay for the dry-cleaning, and be back in less than 5 minutes. No harm done.