If The Times disagrees with me, I have to be right

Please join me in shedding a tear for a once venerable newspaper.

In the distant past, The Times voiced opinions with which one could usually agree or occasionally disagree. In either case, the paper’s columnists supported their views with sound arguments.

This is no longer the case. Any intellectual integrity in The Times has fallen by the wayside, and one hardly ever finds evidence of grown-up thinking there.

Today’s article by Libby Purves is a case in point. Miss Purves has taken time off her busy schedule, mostly devoted to ‘gay rights’, to write a piece whose title caught my eye: You Can Have Depression and Still Fly a Plane.

Since my yesterday’s article reached exactly the opposite conclusion, I had to examine Miss Purves’s arguments on the off chance that she may have a point. Alas, having done so, I found no reason to change my mind either on the issue at hand or on my general assessment of The Times.

Her eponymous conclusion is based on three points: 1) Human normality is hard to define (“it is worth remembering what human normality is”), 2) Depressed pilots don’t often crash planes on purpose (“how rare and abnormal such events are”), 3) Most people aren’t mass murderers (“how extraordinarily un-murderous and protective of one another most human beings feel”).

If this is the foundation on which Miss Purves’s conclusion rests, no wonder it comes crashing down.

Her first point is irrelevant in this context, though it wouldn’t be out of place in a philosophical essay contemplating the complex interplay between ontological and existential factors in human behaviour.

Yet airline executives screening potential pilots don’t have to be philosophers guided by abstract ratiocination. They should proceed from that increasingly uncommon quality called common sense.

Hence they should realise that no person who has undergone extensive psychiatric treatment is fit to take control of a plane carrying hundreds of passengers. End of story.

This may sound insensitive, callous and discriminatory, failing to meet the stringent moral demands of a gay-rights campaigner. But if such abominable characteristics save lives, any reasonable person would put his sense of moral outrage on hold.

Miss Purves’s second point is absolutely correct. However, it in no way justifies her conclusion.

As someone who in his somewhat tempestuous and lamented youth used to drive home a bottle of spirits in the bag, I can testify that most drunk drivers get home safely. Would Miss Purves accept this fact as a reason to repeal drink-drive laws?

One suspects not. She would probably decide that statistical probability is a wrong tool to apply to judgement concerning human lives.

Considering that a drunk driver is unlikely to kill more than half a dozen people, and a depressed pilot has just demonstrated an ability to kill 150, why such double standards?

Well, you see, drinking is yobbish, the curse of the working classes, as Victorians used to say. Of course in our progressive times dipsomania has crossed the class barriers, but the old conviction persists.

Depression, on the other hand, is oh-so-fashionable around Hampstead and Notting Hill, while touching sensitivity to it is oh-so-de rigueur. That is perfectly fine, unless of course we don’t let such puny considerations cloud our judgement on matters of life or death.

Miss Purves’s third, pardon the expression, argument refutes itself, making my effort to do so both redundant and unsporting.

It’s God’s own truth that few people are murderers. Does this mean we should decriminalise homicide? Or do nothing to prevent it? Should we force our police officers to assume the duties of social workers, even more than is already the case?

The article goes downhill from there. Miss Purves quotes a German expert as saying that psychiatric evaluations are difficult, depending as they do “on the patient being truthful or the doctor being perceptive.”

Sir Simon Weassely, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, confirms: “no amount of mental health screening will predict [such events].”

Both statements are doubtless correct, but Miss Purves’s conclusion is a complete non sequitur.

It is true that a reasonably clever chap can usually beat psychological tests, especially if he has a strong incentive to do so. But such tests and personal interviews aren’t the only screening tools possible. By far the most reliable one is the patient’s history.

Even the most unperceptive of doctors examining the most untruthful of patients can still read the patient’s notes. If they reveal a long history of psychiatric treatment, any responsible airline should rule that the pilot is unfit to fly.

It’s true that medical mistakes are possible, especially in this notoriously obscure area. But then jurisprudence is also error-prone, which doesn’t disqualify courts from passing prison sentences.

In addition to a deficit of logic, Miss Purves is richly endowed with ignorance.

“To demonise all forms of sensitivity and depression is itself crazy,” she writes. I’m not aware of anyone suggesting that all forms of sensitivity be demonised, and nor does keeping psychiatric patients from airliner controls constitute demonisation.

That’s the crepuscular logic. Now comes the ignorance: “Many people suffer from sadness, depression or family and romantic failure [yet they don’t crash planes on purpose].”

There is such a thing as endogenous depression, Miss Purves, which can be triggered by an unpleasant event but is not caused by it. That type of depression is a legitimate clinical condition characterised by a severe biochemical imbalance, and it is usually resistant to drugs.

It’s touchy-feely ignorance to use the word ‘depression’ as a full synonym of ‘sadness’ in any other than purely colloquial parlance. In general, it’s best to steer clear of such extremely involved and technical areas if one isn’t sure of one’s footing.

Of course the problems with our popular journalists is that they are never unsure of their footing. They have been anointed by the hand of public opinion, and thereby given the licence to say whatever they please with scant regard for logic or facts.

One wonders, however, if Miss Purves would show the courage of her convictions by embarking on a plane knowing in advance that the pilot has been treated for mental disorders. It would be like vaccine pioneers inoculating themselves, though with less of a benefit for mankind.









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