political

Let’s hear it for treating the symptoms of problems

Should the Thames Barrier have been opposed for merely treating the symptoms and not the causes of flooding?

Should the Thames Barrier have been opposed for merely treating the symptoms and not the causes of flooding?

“But you’re just treating the symptoms, not the causes of the problem.”

It’s a common refrain in policy debates, and one that has long bugged me because it is often treated as if it should be as destructive of the opponent’s arguments as a tornado up against a set of shelves built by me.

Except, of course when it comes to climate change. Because you do not hear even the deepest green of environmentalists protest against flood defence for improvements for merely treating the symptoms and not the causes.

Nor do you have car safety experts demand the immediate abolition of all car seatbelts and bumpers for being a distracting attempt to handle symptoms rather than dealing with causes.

And I bet a good few of those who deploy the would-be tornado have been known to take an aspirin now and again without collapsing into self-loathing at treating the symptoms rather than the causes.

In fact, our lives are surrounded by people whose lives are made better – and even saved – by actions which treat the symptoms and not the causes.

Which makes the certainty with which “but you’re just treating the symptoms, not the causes of the problem” is so often deployed rather odd.

There are some circumstances when it is a sensible warning. But only when the very treatment of the symptoms undermines or blocks the treatment of the causes. That is though a very specialist case, which should be justified on its own merits and usually requires a fair amount of practical evidence to make it stand up.

One example are the cases where the removal of road markings and other ‘safety’ features on the basis that their removal makes drivers more careful and hence cuts road deaths better than an accumulation of remedial measures. Yet even in this example – for which the evidence seems quite solid – is restricted to only certain roads in certain situations. Overall treating symptoms of bad driving saves an awful lot of lives, every day.

For an approach which, if applied to road safety, would kill thousands of people every year, the antipathy to treating symptoms is surprisingly resilient.

So next time someone says to you, “but you’re just treating the symptoms, not the causes of the problem”, you could always reply, “when can I join you on the demo against the Thames Barrier?”

1 comments
RobGilliam
RobGilliam

I think you misunderstand the argument usually being made: it's not that one should treat the causes and not the symptoms, it's when people claim to be "solving the problem" when they're actually only (or almost only) treating the symptoms and having little or no regard to the causes.


So yes to seatbelts and flood defences, and we'll continue to take our painkillers when we're in pain, but let's also strive for better driving and controls on carbon emissions, and lets continue to fund research into the causes of pain and how pain can be avoided.


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