Traumatic ideologies: the harm of evidence-free populism

The human psyche has the unfortunate property of being susceptible to unbending conviction. As much as societies praise such convictions, it is however the primary enabler behind virtually all of the atrocities committed during human history, no matter the justification. Because of this existing conviction, the people involved know that what they are doing is the righteous serving of justice. It is this knowledge that promotes the production of neurotransmitters in the brain which evoke the pleasurable sensations that will ultimately reinforces these convictions.

The intoxicating effect of the conviction of being correct and doing the right thing is what drives much of human societies, along with other addictive experiences, whether chemical in nature, or induced by our brain chemistries. History is in many ways written by what felt good and right at the time. Regrets and reflection are for later once the dust has settled and we can look upon the past events with clear vision once more. If more than a fraction of the population does so at all, as we can observe after e.g. the major conflicts of the 20th century.

Is all of this noticeably different from a person struggling with substance abuse or, say, a gambling addiction? The constant conflict between parts of the psyche and society which advocate for the impulsive, for what feels good, for what seems right, versus the plodding, tedious task of applying reason and seeking out evidence with which to support cautiously postulated theorems and theories and thus convince one’s peers based on the strength of the evidence thus found. Or to be convinced instead due to the strength of their evidence, as befits the scientific method.

Rather than the latter process, we see humanity’s thousands of years of written history littered with the ruins and eternal scars of these mental shortcuts. There never was a reasonable argument to be made or evidence presented to support the invading of nations, in favour of mass-incarceration, work camps, slavery, eugenics, genocide or the treatment of other humans as somehow being ‘lesser’ based on their ethnicity.

Yet all of that happened, repeatedly, and thus this is the history as it was written. Even if we, the victors, wrote said history to make it look less ugly than it really was. After all, what is the purpose of expressing regret at a past event if nothing is done to prevent the same tragedy from happening again? What purpose serves reflecting upon these thousand years of tragedies other than to make one question the theorem of human civilisation and its foundation of intelligence and reason?

When we look at the war waged on Ukrainian soil today, it’s almost impossible to not see it blur together with the countless conflicts of the past centuries. What justification is given there, but that of nationalism and some allusions to ‘serving justice’? When Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939, it was basically the same story. Only there the Western countries were even more convinced that the aggressor in this case would relent once they had obtained that bit of extra ‘Lebensraum’ to satisfy the needs of its rapidly growing population.

Yet instead of a firm response to today’s aggressor – in the form of a totalitarian Russia – the world’s nations and parts of its populations find themselves stuck in their respective ideologies. Thus rather than a response based on the available evidence with a calculated response to fit the situation, we get a patchwork of responses, all of which has to be forced through the biases and mazes of countless forms of nationalism, ideologies and what can only be described as a refusal to engage with the situation.

When there’s the weekly mass-shooting in the United States of America, grief is expressed and thoughts and prayers are poured onto the altar of populist rhetoric. Here it is beyond obvious that none of the discussion is waged on an intellectual basis, but is instead a visceral, purely emotional response where the rare voices that propose an evidence-based solution are drowned out and legislation vetoed into oblivion. Thus nothing will change, and any progress made on this and other topics will happen through sheer coincidence rather than any expression of intelligence or planning.

The sole difference between the quality of policies being pursued would appear to be the severity and quantity of ideologies that affect the minds in a particular region. This is why e.g. nations like New Zealand, Australia and the UK managed to both restrict the availability of firearms and other weapons, while simultaneously improving mental healthcare as mental health problems are often indicated as factors in mass-shootings. This is an indication of evidence-based policies leading to a favourable outcome. Such incidences of reason are however tragically uncommon.

Evidence-free policies and rhetoric are not an issue only with these topics, however. Beyond such large-scale tragedies and events of human suffering there exists suffering that is less visible, yet no less the result of ideology-driven policies. The most well-known here is probably that of poverty, which is unimaginable when we live on a planet with so many resources, and every day many tons of perfectly fine food are trashed. Where it becomes clear that this is wilful policy rather than coincidence is in the realisation that while the poor are heavily audited by the tax office and other government instances, the wealthy not only get to dodge taxes via off-shore banking accounts, but also create these severe auditing rules for the less affluent.

Is any of this based on evidence that such enforced poverty is good for anyone? Not quite. This is where scientific studies on e.g. universal base income (UBI) show that policies such as UBI are not only far more humane, but also more efficient and less costly to society in the long run than enforced poverty.

Finally, perhaps the most insidious forms of evidence-free ideologies come draped in the flag of personal freedom. This is not only a problem with e.g. the policy response in the case of a pandemic, but even more so when it concerns pseudo-scientific topics, with ‘gender identity’ being one of the most prominent ones. Much like with homoeopathy where it is stated that water ‘remembers’ the last substance it came into contact with, so with gender identity it is assumed that the human brain possesses an innate preference for a specific gender role.

Even when for both homoeopathy and gender identity there exists no scientific evidence that would make either seem even remotely plausible, both nevertheless see continued and even increasing popularity. In both cases there are communities where these forms of pseudo-science are preferred over accepted scientific theory, despite the clear harm posed by denying appropriate care.

Where homoeopathy and similar forms of ‘alternative medicine’ have shown their harm is in e.g. the death of well-known people like Steve Jobs, who refused medical care for his pancreatic cancer, instead opting for ineffective pseudo-science ‘treatments’ which allowed the cancer to progress unchecked until he died from the cancer’s effects on his body. It took nine months for Jobs’ conviction that avoiding medical care was the right choice to wear off, at which point only palliative care rather than a potential cure was left as treatment option.

The issue with such evidence-free systems like alternative medicine is that they give a person false hope, convincing them that a ‘natural’ treatment is best. Even though a cursory look would be enough to convince oneself that such pseudo-science is fully devoid of evidence, each year millions nevertheless put their trust into it.

In the case of gender identity pseudo-science, it gives people the idea that rather than society’s rigid social structures being the problem – as was the focus of feminism’s first and second waves and the demands for the eradication of these structures – the problem is with a supposed mismatch between the ‘gender’ of the body and the brain. What is perhaps the most tragic aspect of this pseudo-scientific ‘theory’ is that it makes the affected person into ‘the problem’, with very expensive and life-long surgeries and medication being offered as the purported ‘solution’.

Considering the incredible physical, emotional and financial burden which this puts on an individual, there are increasingly more voices raised in concern. Not just because of the lack of applicable evidence that would justify these massive, often permanent changes to a person’s body, but also due to the real harm done among those for whom the conviction wears off, and for the children who saw themselves taking so-called ‘puberty blockers’, with the latter resulting in e.g. early osteoporosis and other severe health effects early in life.

As someone who saw themselves thrown into this world of gender identity against their will, the trauma that this experience has left me with is very real. To experience first-hand the pressure from healthcare professionals who push you towards accepting surgery and essentially want you to beg them for hormone therapy as part of them ‘helping you’, even when you came there with a very different set of questions. As a more scientifically-minded person I tried to argue with the people in these ‘gender teams’ using scientific citations and references, but to no avail. Even when the conviction that you are being led to accept there is that you will become ‘happy’ if you follow their protocols, you have to be susceptible.

Where things didn’t quite work for me there was probably due to my body being intersex (true hermaphrodite), as I later found out. The mere fact that the focus at these hospitals was on implanting this conviction rather than providing medical care was traumatic enough. It also shows the dizzying shift from the message from second-wave feminism, where it was stated that there are no fundamental differences between men and women, and both can do the same work, whether physically or intellectually. Whereas this movement was (largely) backed up by science, gender identity can be seen as an ideology which seeks to undo this push for equality.

Rather than pointing out the inflexible ideological gender roles that exist in society, gender identity pseudo-science instead insists that those gender roles are the inevitable result of ‘male’ and ‘female’ brains, and thus that the second-wave feminism calls for equality between the sexes was flawed. Much like how embracing homoeopathy for cancer treatment may not be the smartest decision, accepting such an evidence-free ideology like gender identity over established science will very likely have tragic consequences.

At the end of all these thoughts and musings, does one have any more evidence for the theorem of intelligence and reason underpinning human civilisations? Clearly humanity has achieved more in the past hundred years on a scientific and technological level than can be explained purely by coincidence. Assuming that human intelligence is real and plays at least some role within human societies would thus seem reasonable.

The biggest question that remains then to be answered would seem to be what role intelligence and reason play in human societies, and in how far ideologies hamper their progress. That progress occurs despite rather than because of this unfortunate part of the human psyche would seem to be established beyond any shade of doubt, however.


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