In general or specifically relating to public health 'crises':

What is the ethical, or legal/political concept, term or anecdote (even slang - I am sure there is not precedent, law etc.) that #may# be used to describe: "a process of regulatory legislation which proceeds without valid, supporting evidence of public health benefit" on which to base the legislation?

Background: Specifically relating to evidence-based, public-health research that could drive legislation, the cost benefit of firearms legislation relative to death rate remains unclear as the CDC group studying firearms related deaths in the 1990s was shuttered. With the lack of available data that is free of confounds, recent public health/epidemiology literature has been unable to conclude quantitatively that a causal relationship between firearm legislation and firearms related death.

Reference case: In contrast, the 1960s public health emergency would have been the huge number of traffic/automobile deaths. The government created a task force to research the issue from an evidence-based public health standpoint, determined an airbag device would reduce the number of fatalities by a significant number (statistically) - and drove the legislative battle to require automakers to implement them - which worked.

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    I believe that's called "par for the course". I don't believe there are rules stating all legislation has to be based on reputable research.
    – user1530
    Aug 12, 2013 at 4:45
  • @DA - Ha. I understand. I absolutely know there are no rules - was curious more if there was at least any sort of politicolegal term relating to it that might allow me to convey it briefly, and find any other examples, cases etc. for my research - I will clarify.
    – cerd
    Aug 12, 2013 at 4:53
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    "Politics as usual" seems like a proper descripton
    – user4012
    Aug 12, 2013 at 16:01
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    Related but different concept: policy based evidence making en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Policy-based_evidence_making Aug 13, 2013 at 5:04

1 Answer 1


My favorite term/explanation for this kind of legislation is the economic term rational irrationality.

Popularized by Bryan Caplan in his book The Myth of the Rational Voter this term refers to the tendency of democracies to choose beliefs that cannot stand up to scrutiny over the complicated truth.

The basic idea is this: thinking things through is expensive. In your example (for the sake of argument, let's assume the data is rather definitive, I honestly don't know) a careful analysis would reveal that firearm regulation produces no benefit for society. But reading a large number of studies on the matter thinking critically about all the options is costly in both time and the mental anguish of abandoning tightly held beliefs.

When people have much to lose, they are willing to pay high costs. Someone with cancer is much more motivated to read all the information on cancer treatment and get the science right than someone without cancer. The basic principle is that the more you have to gain or lose from acquiring a piece of knowledge, the more time and effort you will spend researching it.

In a democracy, unfortunately, the benefit of voting for a specific legislation is almost zero. This means that the cost of having a belief that bears no resemblance to reality is very low. If such a belief makes you feel better about the world, your life, or just seems prettier than the truth there is very little incentive for you to study the truth and vote for it. Since being rational would make you unhappy and do nothing better for the world(since your vote will change nothing) it is rational to be irrational.

So getting back to your example, the support for gun regulation is rationally irrational. It will not make the world a better place, but the people who support it can sleep better at night believing there are fewer dangerous guns in the world. Since no one person's individual vote will change the world, no one has reason to study the literature, come to the heart wrenching conclusion that violence is around for good, and vote for the option that bears closer resemblance to reality.

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    And to just add a bit of balance to the reading list, a book on pretty much the same topic but coming from the other direction: amazon.com/Dont-Think-Elephant-Debate-The-Progressives/dp/… (all political parties tend to embrace rational irrationality)
    – user1530
    May 20, 2014 at 4:25
  • @DA I absolutely agree (and I think Caplan would too) that rational irrationality is phenomenon of democracy like 'tyranny of the majority' or 'concentrated benefits beating diffuse costs' rather than a critique of any particular political party. I only used that example for continuity with the OP's original question.
    – lazarusL
    May 20, 2014 at 23:18

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