Another victory of evidence over ‘common sense’ in Canada

There are few terms so intellectually offensive to me as ‘common sense‘. Every time someone invokes ‘common sense’ in an argument, I immediately stop listening to them. What they invariably mean is “I have no evidence to support my position, so I will substitute what I think is obvious”. The problem is that there is very little that is ‘common’ between people with different perspectives, and it very rarely makes any kind of ‘sense’. If you have an argument built from logical first principles, I will be happy to hear it; however, if it’s just based on your own particular handful of prejudices, please don’t waste my time.

It’s incredibly gratifying to see that even in this day and age where ‘common sense’ has become a mantra in our political and social life, we still see examples where evidence and reason win out:

Vancouver’s controversial Insite clinic can stay open, the Supreme Court said Friday in a landmark ruling. In a unanimous decision, the court ruled that not allowing the clinic to operate under an exemption from drug laws would be a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The court ordered the federal minister of health to grant an immediate exemption to allow Insite to operate. “Insite saves lives. Its benefits have been proven. There has been no discernible negative impact on the public safety and health objectives of Canada during its eight years of operation,” the ruling said, written by Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin.

American liberals – our chief justice is a lady. U jelly?

A brief backgrounder – Vancouver is home to an unreal level of addiction and drug use. While most of Vancouver proper is really quite beautiful and upscale, there is one pocket that looks like a war zone – the area referred to as the Downtown East Side (or DTES). Rather than try to describe it, I’ll suggest you read this blog written by a beat cop working in that area. Insite is what is known as a ‘safe injection site’ where addicts can bring their drugs and be provided with clean needles, a place to inject, and access to health care professionals. Since it opened under a special exemption in drug enforcement law (under a much more liberal government), Insite has made life as an addict much less harrowing. It has also had the effect of drastically reducing the number of fatal overdoses, and increased participation in detox programs. Basically, it’s been a wildly effective tool in an attempt to manage the harms of drug use.

As you might imagine, the city is wildly supportive of Insite. It saves taxpayer money that would otherwise be spent on emergency hospitalizations and public order enforcement. It reduces the number of deaths. It connects drug addicts to a place where they can get treatment, should they so desire. Because health care is a provincial matter, the province is wild about it too. The federal government, however, is married to the idea of being ‘tough on drugs’ in the same way that the United States has been. They have tried to pull the exemption in municipal, provincial, and now federal court. This latest decision means that, barring some kind of miraculous legal jiu-jitsu, Insite will remain open and operating.

When I shared this story with a friend from Greece, he was bewildered: “why the hell would they want this thing shut down? It works so well!” This perfectly echoes the response from millions of head-scratching Canadians, who are baffled by the stern opposition that the federal government has stubbornly insisted upon for years now. Aside from the fact that they’re walking a weird tightrope between the two, conflicting bases of their party, their policies are almost exclusively based on ‘common sense’ approaches to problems for which the evidence suggests things that are counter-intuitive.

For example, ‘common sense’ would dictate that if you make being a drug addict suck less, people will be more likely to use drugs. After all, making something more attractive by removing a barrier will make it more popular, right? Except the evidence suggests that people are more likely to get off drugs if they go to Insite. Maybe, just maybe, people who are so addicted that they will use dirty water from puddles on the street to cook heroin aren’t chiefly concerned with safety. It’s the same argument that people use against the HPV vaccine – as though 14 year-old kids are holding off from boinking because they’re worried about the risk of cervical cancer 30 years down the road.

‘Common sense’ also tells us that taking a stance that is anything other than “don’t do drugs” represents an erosion in an anti-drug policy. Bleeding heart liberals (you rang?) are undercutting the moral fibre of our once-great society by allowing moral lassitude to pervade the minds of our children by suggesting that some people will do drugs regardless of punishment. Of course, the evidence tells us that people do drugs regardless of how tough you make the laws – that accessibility and price are much better predictors of use than likelihood of punishment. Given that people are going to do drugs, it makes nothing but actual sense to minimize the harm that they do to users and non-users alike.

It seems as though our Supreme Court overwhelmingly recognizes the strength of this argument, and has ruled that the government does not have the jurisdiction to legislate what is essentially a health care issue – which falls squarely under the auspices of the enthusiastically-supportive provincial government. Other municipalities across the country are eagerly looking into what this means, legally speaking, for their desire to open up similar facilities. For me personally, I am just glad to see another example of evidence-based health policy that will ultimately benefit us all, despite what the forces of stupid would like to see happen.

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  1. says

    A clarification (as I understand the ruling), the decision didn’t grant that Insite could stay open because the provincial government had full jurisdiction, but rather because shutting it down kills people and therefore violates their Charter right to life. The feds still have the right to stop safe injection sites that are not for the public good.

  2. Crommunist says

    Hmm, you’re quite right. I am not sure where I got the jurisdictional bit – maybe from the provincial appeal? It is certainly an unusual interpretation of the ‘right to life’ clause, but maybe that’s because the issue was about withdrawing the exemption rather than granting one.

  3. Kiwi Sauce says

    Hooray for BC and Vancouver for being so open to evidence. I wish all the governments could just admit that people, throughout history, have used mind altering substances or put themselves in another situation (e.g. in a trance state) in order to achieve the same objective. The whole “war on drugs”, is permanently lost because people want to get into altered states. Make one drug illegal, and chemists will synthesize a chemically different replacement. And then there is the hypocrisy of treating alcohol as though it is some type of special case.

    One thing I have been wondering is whether we should, as societies, examine how we can allow people to take drugs in a safe environment – so that anyone who wants to get into an altered mind state can in an environment that supports user and non-user safety. Then we can go down the path of decriminalisation, with severe consequences for supplying non-safe drugs (e.g. where kerosene has been used as a solvent, where the drug is adulterated). Penalties for impairment during driving, on the job, etc, should remain as responsible drug use would be encouraged.

    The international war on drugs is an evidence-free initiative. One would have thought that the effects of alcohol prohibition at the time were a clear warning of things to come.

    It also worries me that, because governments have made shit up to support their anti-drug stances, people continue to think that the government makes shit up to support other decisions which really do have positive public health outcomes. Which means that the “war on drugs” has wider harmful outcomes.

  4. ambrosia says

    What infuriates me most about the “tough on (some) drugs” policy is the refusal to acknowledge that nearly everyone uses something to get over rough patches, short-term or long-term. Reality is often an unfriendly place. The better-off can go through the health care system for pharmaceutical assists (I often wonder how many of our Con MPs have a nice safe scrip for Prozac or something), or self-medicate with booze & tobacco, or occasional trips to the wild side for some “recreational” drugs. As long as the demons can be kept at bay without taking over and leaving one destitute it’s all good.

  5. khms says

    I don’t know – to me, common sense says to look at the evidence and go from there. I mean, how can ignoring the evidence ever be called common sense by anyone not insane?!

    (I know, I know.)

  6. Crommunist says

    Most people using the phrase ‘common sense’ mean that you don’t NEED to have evidence to back up your assertions – you can just figure it out through cursory mental review. Entire political parties are formed on ‘common sense’. I lived through what was known as ‘The Common Sense Revolution’ in Ontario that saw major cuts to nursing and education, because “common sense” told us that unions are full of greedy dicks. Ontario is just now pulling itself out of the morass of crap that this “revolution” dumped all over its citizens.

  7. machintelligence says

    J. K. Galbreath had such a wonderful comment about common sense (which he referred to as conventional wisdom in his book The Affluent Society), that I memorized it fourty odd years ago: “The crushing blow to conventional wisdom comes when it fails to deal with contingencies for which obsolesence has made it signally inapplicable.”

  8. says

    “Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.” The internet claims Albert Einstein said this but I don’t know if the internet should be trusted. In either case it’s well-put. Common sense is often just prejudice. The more valuable the knowledge and insight, the less common it is. This is, I might add, of course a most Nietzschean theme.

  9. Kiwi Sauce says

    There are two main issues with common sense:
    1. it is applied post hoc, and has no predictive value. Hindsight is 20/20. 🙂
    2. there are often two common sense ideas that apply to the same situation, that are exact opposites. For example, he who hesitates is lost, but look before you leap. Opposites attract, but birds of a feather flock together. This means that there is always a common sense notion that applies, and we’re back to point 1 again.

    Was Nietzshe a social psychologist? 🙂

  10. Aliasalpha says

    Of course you should trust it, its written down! They wouldn’t let people write down things that aren’t true, thats just common sense…

  11. Crommunist says

    I really wish I could parse that sentence. Any chance you could paraphrase it for me?

  12. CanadianSteve says

    Fellow Canadian here,
    I was very happy to learn of the decision, having visited this area before and knowing the benefits.
    In case it isn’t 100% clear the federal gov’t here in Canada is conservative (by Canadian Standards, they are politcally left of American democrats), and the move to try and shut down Insite was an attempt to please their social conservative base. These social conservatives show their colours in comments on news sites that range from “we should just let all the junkies die anyway, give them specially infected needles” to “it’s their own fault they are addicts, they don’t deserve our help”. It just amazes me that these people feel themselves to be so morally superior.

    Even the conservative judges on the court all agreed with this decision because the evidence is so compelling.

    Anyway we all need to cheer for these small victories.
    Hooray! Victory for Reality over Myths!

  13. khms says

    Most people using the phrase ‘common sense’ mean that you don’t NEED to have evidence to back up your assertions – you can just figure it out through cursory mental review.

    Seems to me that you can’t start by ignoring evidence you already have, no? (Yes, I know some do.) And the evidence I already have, plus cursory mental review, tells me I want to have evidence before going further. (Something about upper body television, from some ancient guy with a name like Old-Note?) Of course, if for some reason I can’t get that evidence, I’ll have to try more of that mental acrobatics. Given that that comes up regularly in my day job as a software developer, I believe I have a good grasp on how unreliable that way of doing things is.

    As to unions, of course they’re full of greedy dicks. So what? Employers have a lot of greedy dicks too. And so has pretty much every other segment of the population. (So says common sense (and anecdotal data), inasmuch as I’m not aware of any scientific study about the distribution of greedy dicks throughout society.) Conservatives have a wonderful ability of making cows vote for more beef.

  14. khms says

    (And if you couldn’t place that “quote”, it’s Newton going on about seeing farther from standing on the shoulders of giants.)

  15. khms says

    Make that by whatever age you currently are, and I’ll mostly agree, with the note that this is the more neutral sense of prejudice as in you apply what you already (believe you) know, not the more narrow and more common sense of just those instances that are actually wrong.

    You couldn’t handle life if you didn’t do that (nor if you weren’t actually right enough most of the time). Doesn’t mean you don’t get in trouble when it turns out you were wrong, of course. Some people are just more aware of this than others.

  16. Didaktylos says

    The trouble with “Common Sense” is that we have a tendency to be wrong about why and/or the degree to which a previous apparently correct decision was the correct decision. This means that we risk coming a cropper should we try to apply what we think are the lessons of that decision in a new situation.

  17. says

    Drugs make people behave irrationally.

    Even — especially? — people who haven’t actually taken any drugs themselves.

  18. collinmerenoff says

    I don’t agree with your definition of common sense.

    An example of common sense is if a hospital declares that homeopathy is obviously nonsense and not even worth considering whether to add to their specialty list. Common sense is also what keeps creationism out of the good schools.

    Decisions like these have evidence to support them, but the people who oppose them derail all attempts to cite the evidence. Sometimes the only way to move forward is simply to declare that some issues don’t have perspectives, only facts.

    In cases where there actually are perspectives, like the one you mention here, common sense has no statement. There is, however, a statement from what I’d call “popular opinion”, which is what you seem to mean by “common sense”. And yes, popular opinion is often wrong, and often worse than useless.

  19. Crommunist says

    I disagree even with your examples. Let’s say that we rejected homeopathy from hospitals because it was OBVIOUSLY stupid. If evidence came to light that it was useful (never gonna happen, but indulge me), then the decision to reject it would be a bad one. We should be going by what is evident, not by what is obvious. This is not at all the same as “popular opinion”, which may or may not be “common sense” at all. Climate change denialists think that it’s just “common sense” that CO2 is harmless. The people who oppose Insite are in the minority of opinion, but they think it’s “common sense” that we should beat addicts with a stick until they stop doing drugs.

    Also, if you’re going to disagree with a definition, it would be helpful if you provided an alternative definition rather than just two asserted examples.

  20. says

    Unfortunately, the ruling didn’t tell the PCs that they have to mind their own business when it comes to harm-limiting options such as InSite. The court ruled only that that one location could stay open. The Fed. Gov. is free to block other sites from opening.

    Unfortunately, the PCs are in the grip of an ideology that values “showing our disapproval” over “minimizing harm to citizens.” It’s the same ideology that prefers punishing desperate women over providing safe abortions, despite evidence that the numbers are almost constant whether they’re legal or not. The big variable is how many women are maimed or die.

    Let me try:
    “The crushing blow to conventional wisdom comes when it fails to deal with contingencies for which obsolescence has made it signally inapplicable.”

    Conventional wisdom fails when it has to deal with new circumstances that have made it obsolete.

  21. Crommunist says

    The conservative philosophy seems to rely heavily on the idea of ‘deterrence’ as a means of prevention. They don’t seem to understand what a poor strategy that is, and they’re certainly not interested in the evidence that explicitly says how bad an idea it is.

    Thanks for the translation. I thought it might be something like that, but I was thrown by the word “signally”.

  22. MCJB says

    That’s great. Would probably never happen in the states, at least not in the South. Although I could be wrong (hopefully speaking)

  23. says

    Totes jelly.

    We have a similar issue around here with wet houses–public housing for people whose alcoholism would otherwise have them homeless in which their clients are allowed to drink. The benefits, even with respect to their alcoholism, are subtantial.

    Fortunately, because alcohol is legal, all the opponents can muster is “moral outrage.” They don’t have any legal basis for interfering.

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