In 19th century London, everyone was certain that bad air caused disease. From cholera to the plague: if you were sick, everyone thought it was because of bad air. It was called the Miasma Theory.
As chronicled in The Ghost Map, it took the physician John Snow years, and cost thousands of lives, to finally disprove the Miasma Theory. He mapped every cholera death in London and linked it back to the deceased’s source of water, and still it took years for people to believe him. Now miasma stands as a by-word for widely held pseudo-scientific beliefs widely held throughout society.
The problem for Snow was that no one could see cholera germs. As a result, he, and everyone else of the time, was forced to measure other observable phenomenon. Poor air quality was aggressively apparent, so it’s easy to see how it might take the blame.
Thankfully, our means of scientific measurement have improved vastly since then. We should hope that any such scientific theory lacking a grounding in observable data would now be quickly discarded.
Where our ability to measure still lags, however, it seems probable that we might still have miasmatic theories. This would seem to be the case with many political and socio-economic policies. There are a staggering number of variables that contribute to society-wide social and economic outcomes, and the impact of a policy may vary greatly from one community to another based on their specific resources or background. Thus, it’s staggeringly difficult to measure the impact of many policies.
And even then people may value those outcomes differently. The very reason politics exists is to have a public debate about which policies will have the outcomes society as a whole deems to be most valuable. It is hard to predict exact outcomes, and different segments of society will certainly value different things.
But there are some policies which are held close enough to unanimously as to have become global standards. These are the ones I see as potentially being modern miasmas. Ideas we hold on to firmly, which guide our public policy, and determine the fate of thousands (or more) or people around the world.
But what if these ideas are wrong? Here are three that I think are worthy of examination.
1) Constitutional Democracy
I’m a huge believer in self-determination of peoples. So much so, that I think sets of rules for governance created generations ago should have only referential influence on contemporary governance.
The problem of a constitutional democracy is a static set of rules, which might quickly become obsolete in a rapidly changing world. The current grid-lock in American politics can be attributed to a great many factors from party polarisation to increased influence of money in the electoral system. And pundits have skilfully forecast a range of disastrous outcomes that await the American system.
However challenging the causes, or calamitous the potential consequences, surely the largest problem is that the government lacks the capacity to self-correct. The cause being that the very structure of the government is rigidly set, with the means of citizen participation to democratically reform their government is limited by rules written more than 200 years ago.
But since the end of the Cold War, there has been little challenge to Western (in particular American) Democracy’s supremacy as a means of government. Hopefully before any predicted collapse of the American system can come to pass, we are able to realise the dogmatic adherence to existing government structures is perhaps a modern miasma, and we would be better served to test other means and models of democratic government.
2) Free movement of capital, but not people
Globalisation has come to mean a promise of prosperity for some, and exploitation and inequality to others. What it means to each person is likely down to where you fall on the scale of global prosperity.
If you’re on the lower end of the spectrum, which should be noted is the majority of the world, it doesn’t look good. Low-skilled and poorly paid workers have seen a drop in wages and living standards. In countries like Bangladesh and Cambodia, there has been a scramble to the bottom. Real wages have fallen in a pyrrhic race to be the most competitive market for textile production.
Companies are able to freely move their operations from one country to another in pursuit of the lost costs. If the companies were to relocate, which they could easily do since capital moves freely, then people would suddenly be out of work since they wouldn’t be able to move with their job. So as a result, people accept low wages with little choice.
On the other end of the spectrum things look rather different. If you’re part of a high-skill labour force, then it’s quite probable a company will want you to relocate for a job. This is so common that for the US tech sector alone, companies are putting forward nearly three times number of applicants than the number of available visas. Since skilled labour is relatively rare, companies are forced to hire where there is a significant supply, even if that supply doesn’t meet demand. The result is soaring wages for workers in those areas, like Silicon Valley, since there simply isn’t enough skilled labour to meet demand.
So the poor in many countries see their wages slide, all the while hearing about soaring prosperity elsewhere. But even if they can gather the resources to move, legal restrictions prevent people from moving to where they might find a better life. Nearly 2000 lives lost in the Mediterranean in the first four months of 2015 is just one indicator that this policy may be just as deadly as the miasma theory. Perhaps it is time to examine how we can balance movement of capital and people.
3) Dietary choice— especially sugar
Type 2 Diabetes costs the NHS, and thus British tax payers, £10 billion a year. It costs the US economy $245 billion a year, which is roughly the GDP of Ireland. And that’s just one of the many diseases from lifestyle choices.
Whether you blame individuals for choosing to eat poorly, companies for peddling unhealthy foods, or the government for failing to educate children there is clearly a problem here. And it’s not just an issue for people living in poverty in wealthy countries, as is commonly asserted. In the US, men with higher incomes are more obese. And around the world South Africa, Libya, Egypt, Mexico, and Iraq all have higher rates of obesity among women than in the US.
When people have access to too many of the wrong calories, there seems to be a trend for us to over-consume. Yet efforts to curb that choice are met with vitriol and legal battles, such as Michael Bloomberg’s failed effort to limit soda sizes in New York.
Beyond the health impacts of free dietary choice, there are also global climate implications. The livestock industry is a bigger contributor to greenhouse gas emissions than all forms of transportation combined. And as California residents have recently discovered with almonds; a global market can mean land and water resources are syphoned away from local residents to meet demand elsewhere.
With a more limited range of dietary choices — whether self imposed or externally mandated — we could certainly achieve better health outcomes for the vast majority of people and also live more sustainably on our planet.
This isn’t to say I think we should launch the campaign to reverse these widely held policies. But, I can imagine a future in which, after looking at the evidence, we see it as absurd they were ever the norm. But if John Snow has a lesson for us beyond the importance of public health, then surely it is that we must constantly question our widely held beliefs and test them against each new piece of evidence we can find.