Some thoughts on porn, coercion, and the Fundamental Reconstruction Error

If you spend any time in any forums where people talk about sex, it is a truth as inevitable as night following day that, sooner or later, someone is going to talk about porn.

And as soon as someone starts to talk about porn, a certain predictable conversation will come up.

“Porn performers are coerced and trafficked,” someone will say. “Porn is bad because women are forced into it. It is a terrible meat-grinder industry. We need to rescue all the victims of porn.”

The same narrative comes up around sex work as well. Sex workers, according to a certain kind of person, are victims, people there because they have been forced, threatened, or tricked into it.

The people who make these arguments, in my experience, almost certainly don’t know any porn performers or sex workers. They will cite “studies” they read on the Internet, like the rather dreadful study that claims legal prostitution in the Netherlands has resulted in a huge increase in trafficking in that country. (I’ve read that study. Buried in the fine print: the study’s authors define a “traffick victim” as any person who for any reason crosses national boundaries and then ends up working in any capacity in the sex trade. So a person who immigrates legally and voluntarily goes to work as a sex worker is a “trafficking victim” according to the study.)

A particularly pernicious variant on this “women-as-victims” narrative is circulating amongst folks who are generally politically liberal and see themselves as allies of women, but still face discomfort about porn and sex work: Well, yes, women can and do freely choose to go into porn or sex work, but, you see, not abuse porn like what you see at Kink.com. Those women go into normal mainstream porn, and then they get “groomed” to do abusive porn.

I’ve seen variants on this narrative turning up in places where people are otherwise open to the notion that not all sex workers or performers are victims–sure, “mainstream” porn (whatever that is–I would say there really isn’t any such thing as “mainstream” porn; porn is, by its nature, niche) isn’t inherently exploitive, but that kinky stuff? Man, just look at it! Sometimes the performers cry! That’s clearly abuse!–and for a long time, I’ve simply chalked it up to standard, ordinary squicks about exchanging money for sex, cultural taboos about sex, ideas about what is “normal” or “not normal” around sex. You know, the ordinary soup of preconceptions, emotions, and cultural norms that oozes through the public discourse on sex.

But lately, I’ve started thinking there’s something else at work, too. Something that lies rooted in a tacit assumption that those who hold these ideas about porn and sex work hold, but don’t directly articulate, and an assumption that sex-positive folks who support the right of people to choose porn and sex work don’t directly address: the starvation model of sex work.


The starvation model of sex work starts with the assumption that it is hard to find people who want to do porn or sex work. A reasonable person wouldn’t make that choice, except through coercion or the most dire of necessity. Therefore, to feed the demand for sex workers and porn performers, there must be coercion and abuse.

In places where porn and sex work are criminalized, that makes sense. Production of porn and sex work becomes a criminal enterprise. The pool of people willing to work in criminal enterprises is small.

In places where these things are not criminalized, the equation is different. I personally know many porn performers and sex workers (yes, including performers for Kink.com). They report they enjoy what they do and choose to do it freely. I have no reason to doubt them.

And yet, whenever I ask the folks who criticize the porn and sex work industries, or cast sex workers as victims, if they’ve ever talked to sex workers, the answer is almost always “no.” And when I say the people I know choose what they do, the response is almost always incredulity.

If we assume that it is true nobody would voluntarily choose to do porn or sex work, then it makes sense to think the folks who are doing it, aren’t there by choice, and to look for coercion. If we assume there are lots of people who are willing to do porn or sex work, but nobody would choose to do “abusive” sex work, then the same thing holds–the folks who appear in Kink photo shoots must be being groomed, tricked, manipulated, or coerced.

If, on the other hand, we assume that there are actually quite a lot of folks who are totally okay with porn and sex work, the narrative falls apart. Why would I, as a porn producer, risk my business (and prison) forcing women to perform when I can simply put out a call that I’m looking for performers, and people will come to me voluntarily? Why would we assume that every sex worker is a trafficking victim, given that there are people who like the idea of doing sex work?

For the women-as-victims narrative to hold true, a necessary prerequisite is women wouldn’t choose to do this voluntarily. But that premise is rarely stated explicitly.

So why would people make that assumption?

I spent some time asking questions of people who promote the sex-worker-as-victim narrative, and discovered something interesting.


Psychologists often talk about a quirk of human psychology called the fundamental attribution error. It’s a bug in our firmware; we, as human beings, are prone to explaining our own actions in terms of our circumstance, but the actions of other people in terms of their character. The standard go-to example of the fundamental attribution error I use is the traffic example: “That guy just cut me off because he’s a reckless, inconsiderate asshole who doesn’t know how to drive. I just cut that car off because the sun was in my eyes and there was so much glare on the windshield I didn’t see it.”

We do this All. The. Time. We do it without being aware we’re doing it. We do it countless times per day, in ways large and small.

The penny dropped for me that something similar was going on in discussions about sex work during a different conversation–not about sex work but about polyamory. There was a guy who was railing, and I mean railing, about polyamory. Nobody, he said, would ever truly be okay with it–not really. No guy would ever willingly share a woman with another guy. Sure, poly folks say they are okay with it, but that’s just because they think it’s the only way they can keep the one they love. You give any poly person the magical power to have absolutely anything they wanted, he declared, and nobody would choose to share a partner.

Now, this is a load of bollocks, of course. I would, in a perfect world, still be poly, and still not have any desire to have my partners be sexually fidelitous to me.

When I told him that, he flipped out. That’s disgusting, he said. No man–no man, no man ever–would be okay with it. No man. If someone says otherwise, there’s something wrong with him.

We see the same line of reasoning used in other arenas. No man would be okay with having sex with another man–if a guy fancies other men, there must be some kind of damage or trauma, as one example.

And then it clicked.

I would like to propose that there is another bug in the operating firmware of humanity, similar to the fundamental attribution error. Call it the fundamental construction error, if you will. We as human beings re-construct the world in our own image, assigning our own values, ideas, squicks, taboos, likes, and dislikes to the great mass of humanity as a whole. “Nobody likes,” “everybody wants,” “nobody would,” “everybody thinks”–all statements of this class can most properly be understood to mean “I don’t like,” “I want,” “I wouldn’t,” and “I think.”

“You must be damaged in order to be gay” really means “nobody would want to be gay,” which really means “I wouldn’t want to be gay.”

“All sex workers are victims” really means “nobody would want to be a sex worker,” which really means “I wouldn’t want to be a sex worker.”

The fundamental reconstruction error makes it extremely difficult to realize that other people can be, on a very deep level, not like us. We assume that others are like us. This tacit assumption is the foundation of most of the models we build of the social world around us. It doesn’t get explicitly mentioned because it’s wired so deep it doesn’t even get noticed.

Why are porn performers and sex workers victims? Because nobody would do these things voluntarily. Why would nobody do these things voluntarily? Because I wouldn’t do these things voluntarily. Ergo, it must be–it follows inevitably that it has to be–that people who do these things are damaged, broken, victimized, or have no other choice.

And since it follows that these people are damaged, broken, victimized, or have no other choice, then the stories of people who work in the sex industry voluntarily can be discarded–because they are the words of someone who is damaged, broken, victimized, or has no other choice.


I would like, therefore, to propose a radical idea:

The world is made of lots of people. Some of those people are different from you, and have different ideas about what they want, what turns them on, what is and is not acceptable for them, and what they would like to do.

Some of those ideas are alien, maybe even incomprehensible, to you.

Accept that it is true. Start from the assumption that even if something sounds weird, distasteful, or even disgusting to you, it may not be so to others–and that fact alone does not prove those other folks have something wrong with them. If someone tells you they like something, and you have no compelling evidence that they’re lying, believe them–even if you don’t understand why.

How do you do it?

Awareness of the fact that your cognitive impulses are buggy is a good place to start. I started looking at myself any time I caught myself saying “oh, that driver is an asshole” or “oh, that person is obviously an inconsiderate jerkoff”–I would stop and say “huh. Have I ever done that? Is this an example of the fundamental attribution error?”

Doing the same thing when you find yourself assuming that all X are Y, especially if it’s “all X are victims” or “all X are damaged goods,” is probably a good mechanism for sorting out the fundamental reconstruction error. Is that really true, or are you just re-creating the world in your own image?

Intermission: How Not to be a Dumbass on the Internet

A few days ago, on my various wanderings through the wretched hive of scum and villainy known as the Internet, I came across an image that made a…rather startling claim. This image showed a beach full of dead starfish accompanied by the headline “Fukushima radiation hits California, millions of starfish dead.”

I found that wildly improbable, for a number of reasons (the radiation from Fukushima was not great enough to cause mass die-offs–indeed, the scientists who installed monitoring equipment to measure it didn’t even bother to wear protective gear; the radiation was so dilute by the time it crossed the ocean it’s a testament to how exquisitely sensitive modern radiation detection gear is that it was even measurable at all; and most of the radionucleotides, like iodine-131, have very short half-lives measured in days), so I did some research. It turns out that–surprise!–the image meme is a hoax.

So in the spirit of public service, I’d like to present to you:

Franklin’s Guide to Not Being a Dumbass on the Internet

It’s my hope that by following a simple 2-minute procedure, you can help prevent yourself from looking like a fool when you venture online. Ready, kids? Here we go!


Okay, so here’s the image:

It turns out that this is not a mass starfish die-off caused by radiation, the photo dates from nearly two years before the Fukushima accident, and on top of that, it’s not in California. The actual photo shows a mass of starfish on Holkham Beach in Norfolk, Britain.

Here’s the real image:

So what magical wizardry did I use to research the actual source of the image? What deep magic uncovered the fraud? Well, it took about 35 seconds with Google.

You see, Google has this feature that lets you search for images rather than words. If you use Google Chrome as your Web browser, this feature is built right in! Simply right-click on any image on any site, Mac or PC, and you’ll see this popup menu item:

If you don’t use Chrome, fear not! Just surf to https://images.google.com/imghp and you can drag an image from just about anywhere (your hard drive, another Web site, whatever) onto the Search bar to search for that image.

Seriously, it’s that easy. When you do this to image memes, especially alarmist memes that try to scare you, it’s astonishing how often they turn out to be frauds.

Let’s look at another example from Fukushima. This image was making the rounds a while ago, with the claim that it shows how “radioactive contamination” from the Fukushima power plants has crossed the ocean.

A Google image search for this image turns up this Snopes page. This image doesn’t show radiation. It doesn’t have anything to do with radiation. It shows the wave height of the tsunami that hit Japan after the earthquake, with red areas corresponding to higher ocean levels.

Of course, a close look at the image should clue in a wise person that something’s amiss if this is a radiation map, because radiation isn’t normally measured in centimeters:

Derp.

It’s not just Fukushima. All kinds of images can be subject to this in-depth, detailed, 30-second scrutiny. For instance, right after police officer Darren Wilson shot black teen Michael Brown, an image purporting to show a badly-beaten Wilson in the hospital was getting shares and favorites all over conservative parts of the Internet.

Problem is, the image wasn’t Darren Wilson. It wasn’t even close. A Google image search quickly revealed it was a 2006 photo of motocross rider Jim McNeil who had been hospitalized following a motorcycle accident.

So there you have it. This one weird trick called “fact checking” can save you from countless hours of embarrassment online. The next time you want to share that image that, like, totally proves some political feeling you have, stop and check! Google is your friend, folks.

Here endeth the lesson.

GMohno! Part 1: “Because Society”

This is part 1 of a series about GMO foods. The previous two parts of this series can be found at GMohno! Part 0: What It Is, which talks about what GMO actually means; and GMohno! Part 0.5: How to Tell when you’re Being Emotionally Manipulated, which talks about some of the techniques of emotional manipulation frequently encountered in any discussion about GMOs.

The remaining parts of this series are this one, which looks at the legal, political, and social consequences of GMOs; the next one, which addresses health and safety issues; and the third, which looks at the “evil corporate malfeasance” arguments.

So, let’s begin!


Imagine this scenario: You’re a farmer. Your parents and grandparents were farmers. Your family has worked the same field with the same techniques for generations.

But now, you’re offered new seeds. These new seeds, you’re told, will make your farm more productive. But there’s a catch. The seeds are patented by a seed company; in order to plant them, you must pay a patent licensing fee. Also, if you plant these seeds and then, at harvest, try to keep some of the seeds the plants produce so you can plant them next year, the seeds you save won’t produce well. You will have to buy new seeds from the seed company next year, and the year after that, and the year after that.

Is this the way big agribusiness uses GMO technology to control your farm and make more profit from you? Well, maybe.

It might also be the consequence of buying patented organic hybrid seeds for an organic farm.

In conversations about GMOs, it’s very common for someone to raise the point that GMO foods are often protected by patent law. This patent protection means that farmers must pay patent licensing royalties to the seed producer in order to plant the seeds. Many seed companies also prohibit saving and re-planting seeds, which can create a dependence on the seed company for annual resupplies of seed stock.

This might seem to be a pretty compelling argument against GMOs, particularly in the developing world. But it ignores some information, and it’s based on misconceptions and ignorance about plant patents and seed licensing.

Let’s talk first about the economics of using patented seeds. In the US and Western countries, the genes of a plant are often the limiting factor on the maximum yield per acre. Modern Western farms are heavily mechanized and use irrigation, fertilizers and pest management to provide nearly optimal growing conditions for the plants, so the limiting factor on production is how good the plants themselves are.

Anti-GMO activists often talk about seed companies such as Monsanto “forcing” farmers into seed purchase and non-reuse contracts. This argument infantilizes farmers; farmers have a choice, and are not forced to use GMO seed if they don’t want to. There’s no contract that says “you have to buy our seed every year from now on.” The contracts instead say “if you use this seed, you can’t save seeds for next season and you agree to pay a per-acre fee to license the patent.” If the deal isn’t beneficial to farmers, next year they choose a different seed; there’s quite a lot out there to choose from.

Most US farmers–and I’ve talked to quite a few–really don’t mind not saving seeds. Indeed, they generally don’t want to save seeds. For one thing, on a modern US farm, the cost of seed is a very small part of the yearly cost of a farm; it might typically be anywhere from 5% to 7% of a farmer’s annual expenses, depending on the type of crop and the type of seed. In exchange, the farmer is getting seeds that have been dried and treated to maximize germination rates. It’s important to consider that saving seed is not free; the seed, once it’s saved, must be processed, dried, and stored, and the storage not only isn’t free but also brings pest management issues with it. On large-scale Western farms, the cost of seeds is worth it. It saves work, increases germination, and in many cases comes with written guarantees from the seed company.

Similarly, licensing fees for GMO seeds are modest. They have to be, or the farmers wouldn’t use them. For example, Monsanto’s GMO soy license fees are typically about $17 an acre. DuPont charges about $40 an acre for GMO alfalfa. On average, DuPont alfalfa produces about a thousand pounds more per year per acre of alfalfa over similar non-GMO alfalfa varieties. As of mid-year this year, alfalfa was selling for about $280 a ton, meaning that thousand pounds returns $120 per acre per year to the farmer, three times the DuPont licensing fee.


If this is what your farm looks like, patents aren’t a big deal

So in the US, where farm yield is bound by plant genetics and the licensing fees for GMO patents are more than offset by increasing yields, the economics of plant patents makes sense.

But what about in developing nations, where farms may not be running close to the theoretical maximum yields, and plant patent restrictions are more costly in terms of total percentage of outlays on farming?

That’s a more complicated issue, and addressing it will require a brief digression into a technique often used to lie with statistics: the problem of excluded information.


“But patents!” people say. “We shouldn’t be allowing seed companies to patent GMO seeds. Seed patents give corporations control over our food supply!”

I’v heard a lot of folks say this. I think there’s room to debate whether or not basic food stock should be patentable.

But here’s the missing bit: Organic and conventional crops are also patented. I never really understood the objection about GMO crops being protected by patents until I finally figured out that most people simply don’t know that plant patents apply to all kinds of plants, not just GMOs.

The first plant patents were issued in the 1800s. Natural mutations of crops can be patented. So can hybrids. Plants created by mutagenesis can be patented.

There is an excellent overview on the Johnny Seed Company’s Web site that talks about plant patents, which I highly recommend reading.

This is an example of the problem of excluded information. When a person says “GMO seeds are bad because they are patented and patenting seeds gives the seed companies too much power,” that person is, intentionally or unintentionally, excluding information that undermines the argument: conventional, hybrid, and organic seeds are also patented. When you include this information, the argument against GMO seeds becomes far less compelling.

The argument that GMO seeds often can’t be saved also rests on excluded information. Most folks may not be aware that hybrid seeds also can’t be saved.

A hybrid seed is a seed from two different plant lines whose genetics are stable enough that they produce a particular trait generation after generation. Let’s say, for hypothetical example, that you have two lines of some fruit. One line is highly resistant to drought, and survives well with little water…but it produces small, bitter fruit. The other produces plump, tasty fruit, but is fragile; it dies without lots of water.

It may be possible to cross-pollinate these two lines and get something that produces tasty fruit but also is quite hardy. This is an “F1 cross“–a first-generation cross between two lines that tend to consistently express the same trait.

The problem is the desired qualities of the hybrid may not be stable. That is, if you save the seeds from the F1 cross and re-plant them, you may end up with only half your plants able to resist drought, and only half your plants producing tasty fruit…so only a quarter of your crop has the traits you want, robustness and good fruit. The characteristics of a hybrid are not necessarily stable, and only the first generation may have the traits you want! If you want to be sure to get both traits, you have to go back to your original two lines and cross them again. Only the F1 crosses will consistently have both.

That means the seed companies that produced the cross must maintain fields of the original robust but inedible variety and the fragile but tasty variety, so they can go back to those lines and hybridize them each year. That means farmers who want to use that hybrid must buy new seed each year. They’re legally allowed to save seed, if they choose to–but the seed they save may not be any good! Hence the example that started this article–a farmer buying hybrid seeds but not being able to save seeds from his harvest. Hybrid seeds can be patented, and hybrid seeds generally can’t be saved.

So the “but patents!” and “but saving seeds!” arguments both rest on missing information: non-GMO crops are also patented, and non-GMO crops also prevent farmers from saving seeds.

In extreme cases, missing information in an argument can actually lead to a conclusion that is exactly the opposite of the truth. That’s why it’s important to evaluate any claim in the context of the environment in which the claim is made.

For example, a couple of years ago there was a surge of news reports of suicides in the Foxconn factories where Dell laptops, Apple iPhones, Microsoft mice, and other consumer electronics are made. People blamed poor working conditions and long hours for causing suicides among factory workers.

What’s the missing information in these claims? We don’t know if people at Foxconn factories are committing suicide at high rates because we don’t know the normal rates of suicide for the areas where the factories are located.

The Foxconn factories employ about 400,000 people. In any group of 400,000 people, there will be some incidence of suicide.

The base rate of suicide in China is 7.9 suicides per 100,000 people per year. The base rate of suicide among Foxconn’s employees is 14 people per year, or about 3.5 suicides per 100,000 people per year. That is, the rate of suicide at Foxconn factories is unusually low–Foxconn employees are less likely, not more likely, to kill themselves. In isolation, “14 suicides at this factory!” sounds high; in context, the reverse is true. (By way of comparison, the base rate of suicide in the United States is 12 suicides per 100,000 people per year.)

An argument made by anti-GMO activists follows this exact model. Many folks have claimed that farmer suicides in India surged when GMO cotton (specifically, Bt cotton, a variant resistant to insect pests) was introduced. In fact, the rate of suicide among farmers in India has been flat for decades and showed no measurable increase after the introduction of Bt cotton. The reports linking GMO cotton to farmer suicide relied on omitted information: the base rate of suicide before the introduction of Bt cotton.


So back to the issue of farms in the developing world. It’s a complicated one, and there are a lot of factors at play…which virtually guarantees that there will be a lot of arguments on the Internet that distort and oversimplify the issues to the point of absurdity.

Is it advantageous for farmers in the developing world to use GMO crops? It depends on the kind of farm, the kind of crop, the place, and a lot more.

White Westerners tend to have a view of the developing world that’s both overly homogenized and overly primitive. When we think of a farm in the developing world, a lot of people probably have a mental image that looks something like this:

On the other hand, we tend to think First World farms look more like this:

In fact, that first picture is from Oregon; the second is from Africa. The reality isn’t as simple as the pictures we have in our head.

When pro-GMO folks say “GMOs are good for the developing world” and anti-GMO activists say “GMOs are terrible for Third World farmers,” they’re both wrong, or both right, depending on which specific farm in which specific part of the developing world you’re talking about.

It also depends on which specific GMO crop you’re talking about. You see, there’s yet another piece of missing information in the “GMOs are bad for farmers because of patents” argument: Not all GMOs are patented.

Plant patents are complicated. Some plants that are not GMO are protected by patents. Some GMOs are not patented. Some GMO licensing terms forbid saving seeds. Some organic hybrid crops prevent saving seeds. Some GMO crops permit saving seeds.

For example, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation finances research and development on GM crops, and any GM technology financed by their foundation must allow farmers to save seeds (note: link is a PDF).

Is it beneficial for farmers in developing countries to plant GM crop? If the farm’s productivity is bound by plant genetics, or the farm is facing a specific problem (for example, poor water or pests) for which a GM-resistant crop exists, then probably yes, depending on the cost and licensing terms, if any, of the GM crop. If productivity isn’t bound by plant genetics and there’s not a compelling reason to use a particular GM variety, then maybe not. That’s one of the key points to remember about GM food: it’s not a cure-all or a magic technology. It’s simply one tool among many in the toolkit. It’s a powerful tool, but not the only tool…and it’s just as silly to think it will solve all the world’s problems as it is to think we shouldn’t ever use it.


So let’s talk about Golden Rice.

This is golden rice. It’s a strain of GMO rice that has a gene to produce beta carotene, which is used by the body to produce Vitamin A. In parts of the world where rice is a staple crop, vitamin A deficiency is a leading source of blindness and death.

Golden rice was not invented by a huge multinational corporation; it was developed by university research supported by a charitable grant. It is not encumbered by patent restrictions; it is public-domain and open-source, freely available to whoever wants it. It requires few pesticides, reducing pesticide exposure by farmers who plant it. And yet, distribution of golden rice has been effectively blocked by anti-GMO activists–primarily wealthy Westerners who don’t have to contend with vitamin deficiency–who have destroyed fields and worked hard to create fear and doubt around it. According to an article published in Environment and Development Economics,The economic power of the Golden Rice opposition,” the fact that golden rice has not been distributed has has cost 1,424,000 life years since 2002, the year it was, arguably, first ready for commercial planting. This accounts not only for death but for loss of life due to debilitating disease…and, most tragically, the majority of human beings affected have been children.

This is one of the most insidious costs of irrational hysteria. When people fear vaccination, it’s most often children who are sickened or killed. With fear of GMOs, it’s most often children who suffer.

The people who oppose GMOs rarely seem to consider the human cost, and even when they do, it tends to be in a shallow and superficial way. (On one online forum I read, an opponent of golden rice said, and I quote, “why can’t those people just plant carrots?”) Golden rice is intended to be used in parts of the world where rice is already a staple crop. It’s resistant to flooding (which carrots aren’t), it can be used as a staple food (which carrots can’t), it requires no new investment in infrastructure or farming technology (which carrots don’t). It is, in fact, precisely the kind of solution that self-described “environmentalists” claim to want: openly available, not controlled by big for-profit Western corporations, able to be used in farms that already exist, and without creating reliance on Western companies.

There is often an irony in movements based on fear. When environmental activists succeeded in creating widespread fear of nuclear power, power utilities started investing in more coal-fired plants, which are far more dangerous. Coal kills about 10,000 people a year in the United States, mostly from complications from air pollution. In China, where coal is less regulated and even more widespread, coal kills about 300,000 a year. And coal power is, of course, a huge source of greenhouse gas. So in creating fear of nuclear power, environmentalists pushed the world to greater use of coal, which has killed far more people than even the worst-case nuclear power scenarios, and has created a global threat. If every coal plant were replaced with a nuclear plant, and as a result there was a Chernobyl-sized disaster every six months, nuclear would STILL kill fewer people than coal! Opposition to nuclear power created exactly the opposite of what the opponents claim to have wanted.

With GMOs, the reactionary opposition to GM food has, in the case of golden rice, created exactly what the activists claim they want to avoid: greater dependence on Westerners in the developing world.

UNICEF distributes vitamin A to children in need. In 2012, they celebrated a milestone: reaching 70% of the kids in the developing world who would otherwise have suffered from vitamin A deficiencies. It’s a commendable achievement, but when we consider the billions of people who live in developing nations, I’m not sure a C+ grade is sufficient. And aid organizations distributing vitamin A pills doesn’t help ensure food security or sovereignty. What’s the endgame, a never-ending program of aid distribution?

So what are the objections to golden rice? Well, here’s a sample:

If you read Part 0.5 of this essay series, you’ll probably be able to spot the various types of emotional manipulation going on in this argument. The argument doesn’t make sense on a number of levels (Monsanto doesn’t have anything to do with golden rice, golden rice has no magical powers to ‘contaminate’ any other rice strain, farmers can make choices about whether or not to grow it, and so on), but ultimately those shortcomings aren’t relevant because information, by itself, almost never changes attitudes. The objection to golden rice is primary emotional; knocking down the objections is as unlikely to change ideas as farting into a hurricane is to change the trajectory of the storm.

I live in the liberal side of Oregon, where for a while it was trendy to oppose vaccination. The antivax movement is beginning to sputter, thanks in part to measles and whooping cough making a comeback in Oregon. Kids in the antivaxers’ back yards–sometimes, kids in the antivaxers’ families–are dying, and that changes attitudes right quick.

Unfortunately, with vitamin A deficiency, the kids who are dying aren’t in our families or neighborhoods. They’re in far-flung corners of the globe where we as white wealthy Westerners seldom see them. They’re in places where white wealthy Westerners expect kids to die. One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic. The anti-GMO movement, which predicates many of its arguments on the idea that GM technology will take food sovereignty out of the hands of people in the developing world and concentrate it in the hands of rich Western corporations, play the opposite tune with golden rice: the solution to vitamin A deficiency is not a food that helps provide vitamin A, it’s aid organizations handing out pills, now and tomorrow and next week and next year.

When we consider any technology, whether it’s agricultural or power generation or whatever, we have to look at its risks not in isolation, but in comparison to what the alternatives are. When people opposed nuclear power without thinking of the alternatives, we ended up with coal…and people died. When people reject GM technology out of hand without thinking of the alternatives, we get aid communities celebrating the 70% of kids they are able to supply with vitamin pills…but who’s mourning the 30% they are not?

These are not abstract ideological crusades. They’re real problems with real consequences. We tend to run with what we’re afraid might be true, even when our fears are not substantiated, but decline responsibility for the consequences of our choices. You will never meet those kids; what problem is it of yours?


While we’re on the subject of unintended consequences, let’s talk monoculture.

Let’s backtrack for a moment to the late 1950s. The developing world was on the edge of mass starvation. India, Mexico, and Pakistan could not feed their populations. Norman Borlaug, an American biologist, dedicated his entire life to finding ways to feed a hungry population.

By the time he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, Borlaug was credited, personally, with saving the lives of a billion human beings. In a world that more often remembers people who commit murder on a massive scale, that’s an amazing feat. He spent ten years in Mexico, crossing thousands of wheat varieties to develop a strain of high-yield, disease-resistant wheat. From there he traveled to Pakistan, which was facing a famine so acute that even emergency food aid in the form of millions of tons of US wheat couldn’t feed everyone. In five years, he doubled Pakistan’s food production. By 1974, India became self-sufficient in food, no longer requiring foreign aid to feed its population (something which, just for the record, many of Borlaug’s contemporaries flatly dismissed as ‘impossible’).

Norman Borlaug saved a billion human lives, but there was a downside. The high-yield, resilient, drought and disease resistant crops he developed became very widespread, because they survived and thrived and fed a lot of folks. Now, enormous parts of the world rely on only a handful of crop species for their food.

This is a “monoculture,” a practice of growing a single strain of a single crop on large areas of land. Monocultures can be bred for toughness and resistance to pests, but if a pest or a disease should affect them, the consequences are potentially huge.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has a statement on their Web site that dismisses current large-scale agriculture as “a dead end, a mistaken application to living systems of approaches better suited for making jet fighters and refrigerators.” Which sounds smug and patronizing when you consider that “dead end” saved a billion lives. Oh, but pish-posh, they’re just brown people, right? So it saved a billion Mexicans and Indians and Pakistanis…dead end.

Today, one of the arguments against GMO technology is the “but it will create crop monocultures!” argument. The anti-GMO activist GMO Journal says “Since genetically modified crops (a.k.a. GMOs) reinforce genetic homogeneity and promote large scale monocultures, they contribute to the decline in biodiversity and increase vulnerability of crops to climate change, pests and diseases.”

There’s an incredible, and probably unintentional, irony here.

Monocultures are fragile. Everyone knows this. Everyone has always known this. When you’re faced with a billion human beings dying right now, you (well, if you’re a decent person, anyway) solve that problem first, then deal with solving more far-off problems like crop monocultures. If you think Norman Borlaug shouldn’t have developed his crop strains that saved all those people because you think crop monocultures are a bigger problem than a billion human deaths, you’re a special kind of evil and I don’t want to talk to you.

Now, about GMOs.

As I said, everyone knows crop monocultures are problematic. I think it’s callous in the extreme to dismiss large-scale agriculture as a “dead end” as if the lives of the people it saved don’t matter, but I also think that, yes, monocultures are inherently fragile. They represent a problem that needs to be solved.

Here’s the unintended irony part: The development of GM technology was seen as a way to solve the problem of crop monocultures.

Prior to GM technology, developing new strains of crops was incredibly difficult and labor-intensive. There were two approaches: hybridization (crossing thousands and thousands of strains of plant to look for hybrids that have desirable traits, then back-crossing those to try to get a strain that breeds true) and mutagenesis (taking seeds and bombarding them with chemicals or radiation to deliberately disrupt their DNA, in the hopes that some of the seeds will then by random chance end up with desirable traits…then back-crossing those to try to get a strain that breeds true).

GM technology is precisely targeted. When we find a plant with a gene we want (say, immunity to a plant virus, or drought resistance, or whatever), we can introduce just that gene in a controlled way. We don’t need to do large-scale, random reshuffling of tens or hundreds of thousands of genes. We don’t need massive disruption of DNA in a spray-and-pray fashion. We can get just the strain with just the traits we want.

This was hailed, at first, as a way to custom-tailor specific plant strains to exactly the growing conditions and needs of farmers. No more giving every farmer the exact same strain; farmers could choose from a wide variety of different crop strains with different genes, selecting just the traits they needed. GM technology, in other words, was developed partly as a solution to the problem of monocultures.

Anti-GMO activists complaining that GMOs promote monoculture is a bit like religious Fundamentalists saying that homosexuality MUST be bad, because look at how many gay teenagers commit suicide! The problem is one of their own creation. Fundamentalists start with the idea that homosexuality is bad, and bully, harass, and intimidate kids based on real or perceived sexual orientation…then when those kids kill themselves because they’re being bullied and harassed, the Fundamentalists say “see? Look how bad it is to be gay!”

Similarly, the anti-GMO activists create a culture of hostility and fear around food technology, that creates an environment where it’s almost impossible to produce new GM strains and get them approved. Then they point and say “see? There are only a handful of GM crop strains out there! GMO technology leads to monoculture!” And, like the environmentalists whose effort led to the proliferation of dirty coal-burning power plants, they create an outcome exactly at odds with their professed goals.

The next part of this series will deal with another big area of fear around GMO foods: food safety. Stay tuned!

Note: This blog post is part of a series.
Part 0 is here.
Part 0.5 is here.
Part 1 is here.
Part 2 is here.
Part 3 is here.

GMohno! Part 0.5: How to tell when you’re being manipulated

This is the second part of a series of essays about GMOs, safety, and GMO labeling.

GMOs are a hot-button topic that inspire passionate emotions, and as with any hot-button topic people feel passionate about, there’s a lot of emotionally manipulative language being batted around on the subject.

While I was working on Part 1 of this essay series (which will, apparently, be the third part), I realized I need to back up a bit and talk about what a GMO is–hence, Part 0 of the series. I then realized I needed to back up a bit more and talk about how to spot emotional manipulation in rhetoric, which is why there’s a Part 0.5. In this essay, I’m using actual examples drawn from articles and essays on the Web, rather than hypothetical examples. Not all the examples are about GMOs specifically, but all of them show the types of emotional manipulation you’ll see in conversations about GMOs. (In gathering these examples for this essay, I took the hit to my sanity so you don’t have to.)

How to win friends and influence people

We all like to think of ourselves as reasonable, rational people, who do the research, evaluate evidence, and come to reasonable, rational conclusions.

The truth is different. Human beings tend to be emotional thinkers. We make decisions based on emotions, and then after we’ve made the decisions, we rationalize them. The decision comes first; the reason comes after. Yes, you do this. And you. And I do this, and you, and you in the back there too. (Think you don’t? Think again.)

That makes emotionally manipulative rhetoric extremely powerful. If you can influence a person’s emotions, it doesn’t much matter how faulty the rationalizations, how bogus the facts, or how shoddy the logic is–people will be powerfully motivated to preserve the emotional decision they’ve already made.

An excellent telltale that someone is rationalizing an emotional decision is goalpost-moving. If someone cites a fact or a study to explain why they believe something, and then that fact is shown to be false or the study is debunked, a rationalizer will not abandon the belief, but will instead move the goalposts, shifting to a different argument for the belief. This is why, as my mother is fond of saying, information by itself almost never changes attitudes.

Emotionally manipulative language is a rhetorical device designed to circumvent a person’s reason and lead to an emotional response. Once that emotional response has been triggered, it becomes really difficult for that person to change his mind, no matter how strongly the facts speak against his belief. I’ve blogged about this before; the “entrenchment effect” or “backfire effect” is a tendency of people to become more and more firmly entrenched in their beliefs when confronted with evidence that proves the belief wrong. And the beginning of the process is emotional.

So, let’s discuss some types of emotional manipulation.


Technique #1: Good guy/bad guy polarization

If you can make your own side out to be good guys, with noble motives and pure objectives, while simultaneously demonizing people holding contrary views as agents of pure evil, you can dramatically strengthen the emotional appeal of your argument.

This is a very common strategy in political debates, but it’s widely used outside politics as well. And to an average early twenty-first-century Westerner, there is no icon of absolute evil quite as vivid as the Nazis.

Some of the first folks to make their opponents out to be Nazis were the creationists, who painted EVIL-loution as the root cause of the Nazi Holocaust:

Creationist Ben Stein, the former actor famous as the principal in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and that annoying guy in the old Visine TV commercials, made an entire movie from the premise that evolutionary biologists and Nazis are the same. The device was so effective that everyone else jumped on the emotional manipulation bandwagon. Before long, we had Nazis in every cupboard.

The quality of the facts, as I said, doesn’t matter. Note, for example, the phrase “GMO (pesticide-laden) foods.” As I mentioned in part 0, a common misperception about GMOs and organic foods is that GMOs use lots of toxic pesticides and organic foods are pesticide-free. This isn’t true; all large-scale agriculture, including GMOs, conventional crops, and organic crops, uses pesticides. The list of approved pesticides for organic food includes natural, as opposed to “chemical” or “synthetic,” pesticides, but natural doesn’t mean less toxic. Indeed, the pesticides used on organic foods are, in many cases, quite a lot more poisonous to humans than the pesticides used on GMO or conventional crops. (I’ll get into this more in Part 2.)

The comparisons with Nazis are among the most blatant examples of this kind of good guy/bad guy rhetoric. I’ve seen sites that directly state all people who advocate for GMOs are “Nazi shills” who knowingly tell lies to make money. They are irredeemably evil; there’s no reasoning with such an agent of evil. Ergo, their arguments can be discarded without consideration at all.

But many folks cast their opponents as evil without invoking the Nazis. It’s often simply enough to brand an opponent or an entity “evil” and their motives utterly malign, which by implication suggests anything they have to say is not to be trusted.


Technique #2: The Grand Conspiracy

We love a good conspiracy. It’s in our blood. Conspiracy theories have been part of the Western social and moral fabric since Europeans ventured to the New World. They’re fueled by the Book of Revelation, with its description of a grand battle between absolute good and diabolical evil.

The players have changed: in the 1600s, people saw agents of the Spanish Empire everywhere. In the 1940s, the Soviets were plotting and scheming, hiding secret agents under every rock. Nowadays, especially among the political left, corporations engage in machinations to thwart the forces of Right and Good.

Conspiracies offer easy explanations to a world that’s often confusing or inexplicable. Why is AIDS turning out to be so challenging to cure, when we dealt with polio and smallpox so handily? It’s a conspiracy! Explanations of how the human immunodeficiency virus conceals itself from immune cells are complex and difficult to understand. It’s easier to believe we could cure it, but pharmaceutical companies are conspiring not to. Why do most scientists say that global warming is real and GMOs are safe, when these things don’t feel true? It’s because they’re conspiring to hide the truth!

A conspiracy mindset lends itself to easy manipulation; when you’re predisposed to conspiratorial thinking, anyone with a plausible-sounding conspiracy has an easy in. Evidence is not necessary; indeed, evidence that would disprove the conspiracy becomes proof of the conspiracy. And if a crank or a quack postulates some fanciful idea and is rejected by his peers, well, they’re part of the conspiracy too!

As we move into the second decade of the twenty-first century, conspiracies of Russkies have become passé; now, it’s conspiracies of scientists. It is, as I discovered, hard to keep all the science conspiracies straight–there are so many things scientists are supposedly being paid to keep secret that it’s amazing they’re not the wealthiest demographic on the planet.

Climate change deniers are some of the noisiest about a conspiracy of scientists. The latest twist on the conspiracy theory claims that these scientists are scheming to brainwash public school students.

There’s a reason climate change deniers tend to be concentrated on the political right, whereas political lefties, who deride the right for its anti-science bias, endorse equally anti-science ideas about vaccines and GMOs. When an idea becomes enshrined in our sense of self or political identity, it becomes very difficult to dislodge; challenging the idea is challenging to our sense of self. So a person who believes that government regulation is always bad and free enterprise is always good rejects the idea of human-caused climate change, because if climate change is actually happening, government intervention is the most plausible solution. (Interestingly, climate change deniers tend to be more willing to accept climate change if the evidence is provided along with proposed private-industry solutions.)

Similarly, a person who believes corporations are inherently evil and invariably seek to profit by harming people will be reluctant to accept things like vaccination or genetically engineered food, because they are created by corporations. The idea that corporations might create something beneficial doesn’t fit with that worldview; the perception that corporations are intrinsically harmful is difficult to let go of. When presented with evidence that contradicts an identity belief, it’s easy to see the evidence as part of a grand conspiracy, especially when the opposing side has already been declared “evil.”

The Grand Conspiracy creates a hermetically sealed echo chamber, impervious to evidence. Scientific evidence shows GMOs are safe? The evidence comes from the conspirators! There’s no evidence showing harm? The conspiracy has blocked it! People claim evidence of harm that is later debunked? Victims of the conspiracy! Once you’ve accepted the Grand Conspiracy, no confirming evidence is necessary and no disconfirming evidence is sufficient.

In reality, you simply can’t buy a conspiracy of scientists. For one thing, nobody–not even Big Oil–has enough money. For another, scientists are often a viciously competitive lot, their joy of discovery eclipsed only by their joy of proving another scientist wrong. The process of peer review is one part bar brawl, one part gleeful vindictiveness, and one part “I’m smarter than you are!”–all wrapped up with a bow and delivered by a dagger in the back.

You can, however, buy a handful of scientists, which is why it’s important to look at the total consensus of scientific thought. The tobacco industry was not able to buy all scientists, but they were able to buy one or two, who made enough noise to make it seem like there was no consensus on tobacco’s harmfulness. Big Oil wasn’t able to create a conspiracy of scientists to say lead additives in gasoline were safe, but they did manage to get one scientist to say it was safe–and then ginned up a faux “controversy” over its safety, even when the evidence was clear that lead additives were a bad idea. The antivax movement has managed to corral only a couple of scientists, the leading one being Andrew Wakefield, the man who accepted nearly a million dollars from law firms to try to manufacture evidence that vaccines cause harm.

There’s a lesson in here: When you have a couple of scientists on one end claiming something, and the entire scientific community on the other end saying something else, there might indeed be a conspiracy. But it’s probably not a conspiracy of the whole scientific community. It’s far more plausible that a couple of scientists are being paid off than the whole of the scientific establishment is!


Strategy #3: Scientific-sounding language: Baffle them with bullshit

Science and scientists are neither understood nor respected by many people. Yet despite this, people want the approval of science; they want the stamp of credibility that science gives their positions. Whether it’s religious bookstores with their books that claim science “proves” Christianity is true or quack medicines advertised with scientific-looking charts and words, science lends a cachet to even the most anti-intellectual ideas. I think of this as “science appropriation,” and I’ve written about it here.

Science appropriation becomes emotional manipulation when a person uses scientific-sounding words or concepts in order to try to make an argument appear legitimate when it is not. Often, the person making these arguments is counting on the intended audience not understanding the scientific terms. It’s emotional manipulation, not communication, because the words are used solely to provide an illusion of credibility. Often, the scientific-sounding words are grossly misused or even complete gibberish.

Here’s a great example:

These sentences are pure garwharbl. You can’t “choke nutrients at the DNA level”; DNA is simply a molecule, and by itself it isn’t even alive, much less in need of nutrients. And “mitochondrial cells”? Mitochondria are not cells; they’re parts of cells.

It’s a bit like if an oil company said, “Using our competitor’s gasoline chokes your car of fuel at the crankshaft level by depriving the distributor engines of oxygen.” It’s word salad, a mishmash of technical-sounding terms slung together at random without any appearance of comprehension of what the words mean, intended to evoke the feeling that the argument has the imprimatur of science.

This kind of argument is often used by people trying to argue that WiFi routers are dangerous.

Yes, wireless routers use the same “general frequencies” as microwave ovens. Scary! Or is it?

There’s an important bit that matters, and that’s how much energy there is. We understand this intuitively; your stove gets much hotter than, say, your electric blanket. One is dangerous at even a slight touch; the other keeps you nice and cozy. They’re both doing basically the same thing, but what matters is the total amount of energy they’re releasing. An electric blanket, a stove, and a blast furnace radiate electromagnetic energy at the same general frequencies, but how much they radiate is kind of important!


Strategy #4: False cause

Let’s say you were cruising the Internet one day, and you came upon this chart. Say the purple line shows rates of autism in the United States; say the red line shows the rate of GMO food sales in the United States. The lines match pretty well.

Would that support the idea that GMO food “caused” autism? (This is a real chart, by the way. More on it in a minute.)

There’s a thing you’ll hear in every college-level science course: “correlation does not mean causation.” But that’s not emotionally satisfying. Human beings are pattern-recognition machines. It’s one of the things our brains are optimized for. When it works, it helps us stay alive. We put a hand on a hot stove and get burned; heat causes us pain. Our ancestors hunted upwind of gazelle and the gazelle escaped; being upwind of prey animals leads to poor results.

Pseudoscience relies more than any other single tool on the principle of false cause–if two things occur together, one must cause the other.

You’ll often read things like this, almost invariably without sources for the statistics:

Nearly 100% of all serial killers have drunk milk at some point in their lives! You can not draw conclusions about one thing causing another thing until you’ve ruled out other causes, shown that absence of the first thing results in a corresponding decline of the second, and ideally linked thing one with thing two in a randomized controlled experiment. It helps if you can also propose a (testable) mechanism linking thing one to thing two.

Controlling for confounding factors–things that might actually be the hidden cause of something–is incredibly hard. For example, we used to believe that women taking hormone replacement therapy were at lower risk for cancer. But randomized trials showed that HRT actually increases cancer risk! So why did the initial data suggest lower risk? Because women who take HRT tend to be well-off, with good insurance coverage and good diets, and in good shape to begin with…in other words, they were in a socioeconomic group already at lower risk for cancer than people who were less well off.

Why might the percentage of people with chronic illnesses have increased in the last ten years? Many reasons: better diagnosis and better record-keeping (that is, maybe the incidence hasn’t increased but our awareness of it has); more coal-burning power plants (which produce pollution linked to a number of different chronic illnesses); increased numbers of people, especially children, living in poverty; the statistical aging of the population…it’s a complex question with a lot of variables and a lot of potential causes.

Emotionally, we don’t like complex questions with lots of variables and lots of potential causes. So that makes us easy to manipulate. “There are more sick people today, and people today are (getting more vaccinations|using microwave ovens|eating GMOs|spending more time in front of a computer|drinking more fluoridated water)! The connection is clear!

Oh, about that chart? It’s a genuine chart, but I’m afraid I have a confession to make. I fibbed a bit. The red line shows sales of organic food, not GMO food.


Strategy #5: Disgust

Disgust is one of the most primal of emotions. It appears to have a powerful survival value; it’s been linked to things that have a high likelihood of being associated with disease: spoiled food, bodily fluids, infection, that sort of thing. Because disgust is such a primal emotion, it can easily be enlisted to emotionally manipulate.

One of the easiest ways to do this is to create a link between something you’re arguing against and something disgusting. Once that emotional association is forged, it may prove remarkably resistant to the light of disproof.

The owner of the “Food Babe” website uses this strategy frequently, aggressively, and with great creativity:

They don’t actually put coal tar in tea, of course. This article was ranting about tea that’s made with “fractional distillation”–basically a technical term for “using heat to separate things.” Coal tar and gasoline are both made by fractional distillation, as are tea, herbal supplements, and many other things. Using heat to separate things is not exactly a controversial or newfangled idea.

Phrases like “coal tar in my tea?” are calculated to produce a feeling of disgust, an emotional response that helps cement the idea that this is something bad.

Children on schoolyard playgrounds often do this same thing, trying to gross one another out. Rumors of spider eggs in Bubble Yum got started this way, with kids trying to make each other feel disgusted; I first heard these stories when I was nine or ten.

These same tactics are often employed against GMOs.

This is a modern variant on a gross-out tale as old as time; bubble gum (or, as one tale commonly spread in vegan circles has it, beef) have all been rumored to “leave material behind inside us.” Never mind the biological implausibility of it; the emotional response is what matters.

In many ways, the anti-GMO movement isn’t actually about health, or environmental concerns, or any of the other rationalizations people claim for being opposed to GMOs. It’s really an emotional food purity issue, no different except in detail from the obsession with “purity” that led to kosher or halal dietary restrictions. This is why conversations about GMOs tend to involve so much goalpost-shifting…the real objections are rooted in feelings of purity and disgust. So when one rationalization is knocked down, the goalposts shift and another takes its place. It’s also why so many anti-GMO arguments rely on evoking feelings of purity or disgust.


Strategy #6: Natural Nature, Made Naturally by Mother Nature

When you hear the word nature, what’s the first thing you think of? What’s the first thing you feel?

Is nature, to you, a serene, beautiful place where everything is in harmony and balance?

Or is it a place where every organism fights and claws its way to survival, and what looks like “balance” is really little more than a temporary stalemate?

In the excellent series of essays Panic-Free GMOs, Nathanael Johnson says,

You have one side that sees humans as fragile and dependent on maintaining the nurturing environment in which they evolved. The other sees humans as tough survivors of a fundamentally chaotic environment. One side sees huge dangers in technologies that alter our surroundings. The other sees technological advance as a defense against nature red in tooth and claw.

Over and over, this difference in emotional starting points creates division in risk assessment. People who see nature as a nurturing, benevolent force, full of springtime meadows and beautiful butterflies, tend to fear new technology; those who see nature as a battlefield, “red in tooth and claw,” tend to be less fearful of new technology. Where you stand on GMOs likely has more to do with how you feel about nature than about any evidence you’ve seen.

And this creates a very powerful lever for manipulating our emotions. People who are predisposed to see nature as kind and benevolent are also predisposed to the cognitive error known as the Appeal to Nature. Essentially, it’s the logical fallacy of believing that what’s “natural” is inherently good and what’s “unnatural” is bad. Evangelical church leaders rant that homosexuality is “unnatural,” antivaxers decry “unnatural” vaccines, and anti-GMO activists rail against “unnatural” manipulation of food (something I’ve seen someone do while eating a banana, which is irony in action if ever there was any).

The “natural gift from nature” folks tend to forget that cyanide, asbestos, deadly nightshade, Ebola, smallpox, and arsenic are all among nature’s gifts as well.

Hand-in-hand with natural goodness straight from nature comes what’s known as “chemophobia,” or fear of “chemicals.” The word “chemical” can conjure up powerful associations of strange, synthetic toxins, lurking in the environment ready to poison us.

This fear of “chemicals” and the associated belief that nature is “better” often leads people to fear “synthetic pesticides,” when in fact their natural variants are often far more poisonous and dangerous to humans.

Of course, everything is full of chemicals, because every substance that exists is, by definition, a chemical. The chemical dihydrogen monoxide is more commonly known by the common name “water.” The chemical 1,3,7-trimethyl-1H-purine-2,6(3H,7H)-dione 3,7-dihydro-1,3,7-trimethyl-1H-purine-2,6-dione is more commonly known as “caffeine.” Cyanocobalamin commonly goes by the name “Vitamin B12.” It’s all chemicals, and nature doesn’t care if those chemicals were made in a plant or a test tube–their actions depend on their chemical properties, not where they were born.


Strategy #7: Toxic Toxins that Poison Us with Toxins

The flip side of “nature is good” is “toxins are bad.” Like “nature” and “chemical,” the word “toxin” can carry emotional baggage. We don’t want to be exposed to toxic toxins! They’re toxic! And we certainly don’t want to massage toxic toxins through our hair!

The word “toxin” gets a lot of emotional bang per syllable, but the bit that’s often overlooked is it’s the dose, not the substance, that makes the toxin. If you drink enough of it, water is poisonous.

Fear of toxins has been a selling strategy for hundreds of years. You can browse the Internet or walk through a GNC store and find dozens of nostrums that claim to “detoxify” the body. Many of the arguments against GMOs come down to to toxic toxins of toxicity; for example, a lot of people will say that we should not eat GMOs because they are “sprayed with toxins like Roundup.”

The argument neglects to mention that organic and conventional foods are also sprayed with toxins–and indeed, the “natural” chemicals used on organic foods are very toxic indeed. (It’s a matter of no small amusement to me that Food Babe, known for her “toxic toxic toxic poison toxic toxic” rants, drinks alcohol, which…is a toxin.)

Not everything that’s toxic is toxic to everything that lives. The theobromine in chocolate is toxic to dogs but not people. Chemicals that are toxic to bacteria but not people are called by the name “antibiotics.” Synthetic herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides are often less poisonous to humans than their natural counterparts, because we can identify differences between people and insects or people and plants, then custom-tailor pesticides to act only on those specific differences. Roundup works by interfering with photosynthesis, so it’s extremely toxic to plants…but to humans, it is less toxic than baking soda!

There’s an area of special concern around Bt crops, which are engineered to create the natural insecticide called Bt. “I don’t want to eat plants that have insecticides in them,” I’ve heard people say. “It’s one thing when insecticides are sprayed on a plant, because I can wash it off. But if the plant makes it, I can’t wash it off. Toxic food!” Of course, this leaves aside the issue that organic farmers can and often do inject Bt directly into their plants, especially with vines.

But more importantly, almost all plants produce some sort of insecticides that can’t be washed off. The caffeine in tea and coffee, the eugenol in basil, the pungent sulfur compounds in onions and leeks that give them their aroma and flavor, the capsaicin in peppers, the allyl-thiosulfinate that gives garlic its smell and taste, the methanethiol in asparagus, the maysin in corn (yes, organic corn produces its own pesticide!), the terpenes responsible for the distinctive flavor of citrus fruits–all these are pesticides. When you’re a plant and you don’t want to be eaten, chemical warfare is one of your only alternatives! (Eventually, I’d love to compile a list of naturally-occurring pesticides in plants.)

And it’s…bad to use synthetic pesticides that are less toxic? The most toxic of the pesticides are…the ones we should use on “natural organic” foods? Aye, it’s a head-scratcher, it is!


Strategy #8: Rights! Your rights! Your rights are being violated!

A while back, I linked to an essay that describes the 6 Arguments Used by Science Denialists. To recap, the six are:

  • Cast doubt on the science.
  • Question the scientists’ motives and integrity.
  • Magnify any disagreements among the scientists; cite gadflies as authorities.
  • Exaggerate the potential for harm from the science.
  • Appeal to the importance of personal freedom.
  • Object that acceptance of the science would repudiate some key philosophy.

Item number five–appeal to the importance of personal freedom–is one of the standard tools in the toolkit of emotional manipulation.

The appeal to the importance of personal freedom is the backbone of the GMO labeling campaign. Advocates of labeling say we have a right to “know what’s in our food,” despite the fact that GMOs are not a “thing” that is put into food. The labeling initiatives tend to be quite fuzzy on what, exactly, needs to be labeled. If sugar is made from a GMO sugar beet or oil is produced from GMO soy, the result is pure sugar or pure oil, with no DNA, proteins, or anything else that has anything to do with GE technology in it. Yet labeling advocates claim such things should be labeled–even though there is nothing in it that has anything to do with the GMO source of the product.

Another form of this same emotional manipulation occurs when sinister forces, such as evil food producers, are accused of using you as a “guinea pig,” experimenting on you without your consent. You are being experimented on, and denied your freedom to live a non-guinea-pig lifestyle!


Strategy #9: X is used as a Y

This is tangentially related to provoking an emotion of disgust, but it’s more specific.

Say I told you that a common food preservative was manufactured from a deadly poison gas used as a chemical weapon in World War I. Or I told you that one of the most common ingredients found in prepared food is an industrial solvent also used in floor cleaners and paint thinners.

Both of those statements would be true. The most common preservative is ordinary table salt, which is sodium chloride–a combination of sodium and chlorine. Chlorine was used as a chemical weapon in WWI. And one of the most common ingredients in all foods is indeed an industrial solvent used in floor cleaners and paint thinners: water.

That’s the essence of the “X is used as a Y” argument: take an ingredient in food that also has some other use, and trigger an emotional response by juxtaposing the two uses. Eww! You want to EAT chemical weapons and floor cleaner??!

So what about it? Does this ingredient keep hemoglobin in your blood from carrying oxygen? Sure, if you eat a lot of it–and water prevents nerves from firing and stops your heart from beating by diluting the sodium and potassium ions that allow nerve cells to work, if you drink enough of it. Those nuances, though, aren’t relevant; the aim is not education, but manipulation.


When I was growing up, my mother always used to say “education is not the solution if ignorance is not the problem.” (She said a number of other cool things too; all in all, my mom is pretty awesome.)

A lot of folks believe that people are easily swayed by pseudoscientific ideas because they lack the facts, and that providing access to those facts will solve the problem. This is the “deficit model” of science communication. This model has a lot of flaws, chief among them the presumption that people make rational decisions based on the best information available to them.

In fact, people often make decisions for emotional reasons, then rationalize those emotional decisions after the fact by inventing (or accepting) plausible-sounding ideas that confirm their emotional decisions. This is why emotional manipulation is so effective, and why discussions of emotionally charged topics like vaccination and GMOs has to include conversation about emotional manipulation.

Now that that’s out of the way, the next part of this series will actually discuss the facts around GMOs, I promise.

Note: This blog post is part of a series.
Part 0 is here.
Part 0.5 is here.
Part 1 is here.
Part 2 is here.
Part 3 is here.

Keeping Up with All the Conspiracies

It’s a good time to be a scientist, if you believe the various shouty, fearful corners of the Web.

Today, all across America (and indeed the rest of the world), scientists everywhere are swimming in dough courtesy of various dark, sinister forces paying them to conceal The Truth from you, the sheeple. These vast, complex conspiracies, bankrolled by vast corporations with almost unlimited wealth and power, run entirely unchecked…that is, until they’re unravelled by a tiny but determined handful of unsung Web site owners, who pierce the veil of conspiracies by revealing the real truth, often given to them by…people who stand to make money from getting others to believe the conspiracy theories.

But that’s not what’s important! What’s important is the vast legions of scientists being paid untold sums to conspire with other scientists. These huge conspiracies are directly responsible for the sharp increase in the number of research scientists driving Rolls-Royces1, owning enormous 200-foot luxury yachts, and buying tropical islands in the Caribbean.


Typical view from an average scientist’s living room window

A quick Google search using terms like “scientists conspiracy” and “scientists conspiring to hide *” turns up so many scientific conspiracies that these days, even a first-year grad student research assistant must be making serious bank. Some of the various scientific conspiracies people–and I mean a lot of people, not a handful of nutters in tinfoil hats muttering to each other down at the pub–actually believe include:

  • Scientists are being paid to conceal the truth that fluoride in drinking water and toothpaste causes impotence, erectile dysfunction, Alzheimer’s, arthritis, low IQ, high cholesterol, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, and AIDS
  • Climate scientists are creating phony evidence of global warming in order to get grant money
  • Monsanto is paying scientists to conceal the truth about the link between GMOs and autism, cancer, infertility, birth defects, baldness, IBS, colitis, “leaky gut,” autoimmune diseases, depression, and migraines
  • Scientists invented AIDS in a lab, and are being paid by the US military to keep quiet about it
  • There is no such thing as AIDS; scientists are being paid by pharmaceutical companies to publish phony papers about AIDS to frighten people and make them more easily controlled by the pharmaceutical industry
  • Scientists are being paid to say HIV causes AIDS in order to conceal the fact that AIDS is actually caused by recreational drug use2
  • Pharmaceutical companies have a cure for AIDS, but they are paying scientists to suppress the cure because treating AIDS is more profitable
  • Pharmaceutical companies are paying scientists to suppress the evidence that vaccines cause autism3
  • Scientists are taking payouts from oil companies to conceal “free energy” devices that would free us from dependence on oil, gas, and utility companies4
  • Scientists are taking payments from drug companies to conceal cancer cures
  • NASA is paying scientists to cover up evidence that the moon landing was a hoax
  • The government is paying scientists to fabricate evidence that the world is more than 6,000 years old and make up fake evidence supporting evolutionary biology, or alternately, paying scientists not to publish evidence that supports Creationism
  • The government is paying scientists to support the “official” story about what happened on 9/11 and conceal evidence that the attack was an inside job
  • The government is paying scientists to cover up evidence of a UFO crash-landing at Area 51
  • Big Oil is paying scientists to say that fracking is safe
  • The “climate change lobby” is paying scientists to say fracking is dangerous
  • Oil is not produced from the breakdown of fossil organisms; it’s produced by natural geological processes in endless quantities. We will never run out of oil; scientists are being paid to say oil is a limited resources in order to artificially inflate the price (or in order to try to get people to invest in alternative energy, depending on who you ask)
  • Scientists are being paid by cell phone makers/cellular service providers to cover up the dangers of cell phone radiation
  • Scientists are taking money to conceal the fact that eating food cooked with a microwave oven causes cancer, high blood pressure, slow heartbeat, baldness, joint pain, insomnia, and nervous disorders

Whew! That’s quite a list–and it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Looking at it, I can understand why scientists aren’t really living on idyllic tropical islands or sipping martinis on their yachts–all that conspiracy money is going toward whiteboards and dry-erase markers just so they can keep track of all the conspiracies they’re participating in!

And it’s not just scientists. Half the world’s bloggers, yours truly included, are regularly accused of taking money from Big Oil, Big Pharma, Monsanto, the government, and a host of other sinister organizations to write blog posts…well, just like this one.


Make my check payable to “Franklin Veaux”–make sure you spell my last name right, ‘kay?

There’s an essay on Patheos about six arguments commonly used by science denialists. The normal course of arguments against science or in favor of pseudoscience are:

1) Cast doubt on the science.
2) Question the scientists’ motives and integrity.
3) Magnify any disagreements among the scientists; cite gadflies as authorities.
4) Exaggerate the potential for harm from the science.
5) Appeal to the importance of personal freedom.
6) Object that acceptance of the science would repudiate some key philosophy

I would argue that #6 should actually be #1 on the list, because it has invariably been my observation that people accept or reject science based on whether or not the science agrees with whatever personal worldview they hold. So liberals might accept the science of climate change but scream adamantly that GMOs are dangerous (and the scientific consensus about their safety is the result of a massive conspiracy), whereas conservatives accept GMO safety but hoot and holler about a scientific conspiracy about climate change.

The idea of a scientific conspiracy is, of course, utter bollocks. Folks who talk about conspiracies of scientists have absolutely no idea what science is or how it works.

Take the conspiracy about scientists hiding a secret cure for AIDS. Any scientist who announces a cure for AIDS is going to be set for life. She’s guaranteed a Nobel Prize, her own research facility, and research funding from now until the end of time. I mean, what do these people imagine happened? Do they think the executives of Giant Pharmocorp convened a meeting of their top researchers and said “I understand you folks have come up with a cure for AIDS. Tell you what–we’ll just keep mum about that, okay?” What do they would think would happen? The scientists at the table would all nod their heads–and then race each other to the patent office. (And seriously, do people think you could threaten researchers into keeping quiet? Researchers talk. Research is a collaborative exercise. It’s not likely you’d be able to have one research team make significant progress on a cure for AIDS without other teams knowing it, and it’s really unlikely a company could threaten its scientists without other people knowing.)

Scientific consensus emerges when scientists review each other’s work and replicate one another’s experiments. Scientists do not accept something is true because someone says it is. The whole point of the scientific method is that you never have to trust what some bloke says. When someone says something, like “the CO2 in the air is driving a change in climate” or “vaccines don’t cause autism,” other scientists check his work.

The process is called “peer review,” and it’s ruthless. When you publish a paper, everything is examined, poked at, grilled, scrutinized, analyzed, inspected, dissected, reviewed, studied, checked, weighed, sifted, measured, and otherwise put under a figurative (and sometimes literal) microscope. The assumptions, the methodologies, the data, the conclusions–everything is looked at, with an eye toward finding any flaw at all. Scientists love finding flaws in other scientist’s research. They live for that, the way that one kid with the missing tooth lived for taking your lunch money when you were in fifth grade.


The peer review process in action

Now, not all scientists are perfect, of course. Scientists are human, and humans are corruptible.

But what’s more likely–that one scientist (like, say, Andrew Wakefield) will lie and say vaccines are dangerous when they aren’t, because he’s been paid 600,000 British pounds by a law firm hoping to sue vaccine makers, and he wants to release his own brand of “autism safe” vaccine he hopes to make millions on? Or that tens of thousands–possibly hundreds of thousands–of other scientists, all of whom are publishing their data for everyone to see, are engaging in a vast conspiracy to say vaccines are safe when they aren’t?

Seriously, it’s nearly impossible to keep a conspiracy of five or six people quiet. A conspiracy of tens of thousands? Staggering quantities of money flowing to all the world’s scientists to buy their voices, staggering mountains of evidence being suppressed…and there’s no paper trail? Is this really what people think is happening?

The implausibility of these gigantic conspiracies–as if scientists didn’t eat GMO food, get their kids vaccinated, and use microwave ovens themselves!–doesn’t deter the conspiracy theorists, many of whom are simply looking for a way to explain why scientists keep saying things that just plain don’t fit their pre-existing beliefs.

Conspiracy theories help make sense of a world that seems in contradiction to what we feel must be true. They also make us feel good about ourselves; as one Web site devited to conspiracy theories says, “People who are not skeptics of “official stories” tend to be dull-minded. To believe everything these institutions tell you is a sign of mental retardation. To ask questions, on the other hand, is a sign of higher intelligence and wisdom.” We feel good about ourselves when we think we have pulled back the mask of the Great Conspiracy and figured out what’s really going on. We feel clever, wise, vindicated. We don’t have to accept a challenge to our worldview; we’ve outwitted them and, in so doing, totally proved the things we already wanted to believe are right.

That’s one nice thing about conspiracy theories. They are effective solvents, quickly dissolving even the most stubborn inconvenient facts.


1 Obviously, I’m joking. They’re not driving Rolls-Royces; they’re paying their chauffeurs to drive their Rolls-Royces.

2 It’s not clear to me in this conspiracy theory who’s paying the scientists. Big Cocaine?

3 I don’t really know why. Vaccines don’t make much, if any, profit. On the other hand, a hospital stay for whooping cough can generate tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue. So it’s not clear to me where the profit motive is for a pro-vaccination conspiracy.

4 Presumably, the same oil companies that aren’t able to pay scientists to say global warming isn’t a thing.

Some thoughts on listening to patients

A couple weeks ago, before we started the second leg of our book tour promoting More Than Two, I went to the dentist. I had a couple of old-style silver amalgam fillings that were disintegrating (who, I wonder, was the first person to say “Silver and mercury! I know, let’s put that in people’s mouths!”?), so I decided to pay someone to take a small high-speed drill and root around in my mouth for a while.

Now, whenever I go to a new dental practitioner for the first time, there’s a little speech I have to give. It’s my mother’s fault, really. She has some kind of genetic quirk, you see, that makes her for all intents and purposes immune to common local anesthetics in the Novocain/procaine/Lidocaine family. I appear to have inherited a genetic allele from her that gives me a high degree of resistance to these anesthetics, which is, as you might imagine, more than a little inconvenient when facing a trip to the dentist.

Anyway, the little speech. It hasn’t varied much over the past few decades, and it goes something like this:

Before we get started, you should know that I am highly resistant to local anesthetics like Lidocaine. It’s really, really hard to get me numb. It is probably going to take you a lot of work and multiple tries before I’m numb, and it wears off very quickly.

Now, every time I give this little speech–every single time, with only one exception ever (when I went to an oral surgeon to have an impacted wisdom tooth chiseled out with a backhoe, farm equipment and oil-drilling machinery), the result is always the same: “Oh, pish-posh. I won’t have any trouble at all!”

And then the misery starts.

This last go-round, it took my dentist no fewer than six rounds of injections before I was finally ready to have the old filling carved out. Three rounds in, she jabs me with the needle and I’m all like “Ow!” and she’s all like “you can still feel that?” and I’m all like “remember how I said I am resistant to local anesthetics?” and she was all like “wow, you weren’t kidding!” and I was all like “I’ve had this conversation so. Many. Times. Before.”, though that last part was in my head and not out loud, and…

Yeah.

So anyway, about that. It is perhaps not surprising that some folks might greet claims of being resistant to anesthetics with skepticism–genetic resistance is documented, but uncommon1 (thanks, Mom!)–but to just dismiss them outright, and especially for everyone in the profession to dismiss them outright, seems to me to speak to a systemic problem. And that systemic problem is, we train doctors to be good at all the parts of treating patients except listening to patients, which might be argued to be rather an important bit.

Pseudoscience, quackery (“this random thing cures cancer! Big Pharma doesn’t want you to know, which is why you’re finding out about it in a Facebook group!”), and snake oil “medicine” are huge, and deadly, industries. According to an NIH document reported on NBC, alternative “medicines” (which might reasonably be described as anything that hasn’t been shown to work, since the name for things that have been shown to work is just “medicine”), is a $34 billion a year industry. That’s a lot of herbs, acupuncture, and magic water full of mystical energy vibrations but nothing else.

There are lots of reasons why. Anti-intellectualism is a big one, and the fact that anti-intellectualism tends to be joined at the hip to conspiracy nuttery doesn’t help. Rejection of science, distrust of “big corporations” (except the big corporations marketing herbal supplements, naturally), superstition, wishful thinking…all those things play a part.

But some of the problem is, I think, self-inflicted. Too many medical practitioners are at best dismissive of, and at worst hostile to, their patients’ own self-reported information. There are probably a bunch of reasons for that, from fear of drug-seeking behaviors (and the spectacular fuckedupedness of a medical establishment that doesn’t take pain management seriously is worthy of a blog post of its own!) to simple arrogance.

The new flavor of trendy pseudoscientific bullshit is the claim that cavities can be “cured” by minerals and “oil detoxification,” and unsurprisingly, this new brand of bullshit smells pretty much the same as all the old brands.

But dammit, I wish my dentist would listen when I say local anesthetics don’t work very well on me, instead of having to find out through painful (to me, that is, not to her) experience.

1 According to Wikipedia, the genetic allele associated with lidocaine resistance is linked to ADHD as well. Go figure.

Monsanto: The Gigantic Evil Megacorp (that’s actually kinda a pipsqueak)

Among the left-leaning progressives that make up a substantial part of Portland’s general population, there is a profound fear of GMO food that’s becoming an identity belief–a belief that’s held not because it’s supported by evidence, but because it helps define membership in a group.

It’s frustrating to talk to the anti-GMO crowd, in part because these conversations always involve goalposts whipping around so fast I’m afraid someone will poke my eye out. It generally starts with “I don’t like GMOs because food safety,” but when you start talking about how evidence to support that position is as thin on the ground as snowmen in the Philippines, the goalposts quickly move to “I don’t like GMOs because Monsanto.” Monsanto, if you listen to Portland hippies, is a gigantic, evil mega-corporation that controls the government, buys off all the world’s scientists, intimidates farmers, and rules supreme over the media.

So I got to thinking, How big is Monsanto? Because it takes quite a lot of money to do the things Monsanto is accused of doing–when they can be done at all, that is.

And I started Googling. The neat thing about publicly-traded corporations is they have to post all their financials. A quick Google search will reveal just how big any public company really is.

I expected to learn that Monsanto was big. I was surprised.

As big companies go, Monsanto is a runt. In terms of gross revenue, it is almost exactly the same size as Whole Foods and Starbucks. It’s smaller than The Gap, way smaller than 7-11 and UPS, a tiny fraction of the size of Home Depot, and miniscule compared to Verizon and ExxonMobil. That’s it, way down on the left on this graph I made:

You can’t shake a stick in the anti-GMO crowd without hearing a dozen conspiracy theories, almost all of them centered around Monsanto. Lefties like to sneer at conservative conspiracy theories about global warming, but when it comes to GMOs, they haven’t met a conspiracy theory they don’t love to embrace.

Most of these conspiracy theories talk about how Monsanto, that enormous, hulking brute of a magacorporation, has somehow bought off all the world’s scientists, creating a conspiracy to tell us GMOs are safe when they’re not.

Now, hippie lefties usually aren’t scientists. In fact, anyone who’s ever been part of academia can tell you a conspiracy of scientists saying something that isn’t true is only a little bit more likely than a conspiracy of cats saying tuna is evil. As an essay on Slate put it,

Think of your meanest high school mean girl at her most gleefully, underminingly vicious. Now give her a doctorate in your discipline, and a modicum of power over your future. That’s peer review.

Speaking of conspiracies of scientists, let’s get back to conservatives and their “climate change” scientific conspiracy. Look at the left-hand side of the chart up there, then look at the right-hand side. Look at the left side again. Now look at the right side again.

ExxonMobil makes more than 26 times more money than Monsanto, and has a higher net profit margin, too. Combined, the country’s top 5 oil companies have a gross revenue exceeding $1.3 trillion, more than 87 times Monsanto’s revenue, and yet…

…they still can’t get the world’s scientists to say global warming isn’t a thing.

If the oil companies can’t buy a conspiracy of scientists, how can a pipsqueak like Monsanto manage it?

I’m planning a more in-depth blog post about GMOs and anti-GMO activism later. But the “Monsanto buys off scientists” conspiracy nuttiness needed addressing on its own, because it’s so ridiculous.

It’s easy to root for the underdog. One of the cheapest, most manipulative ways to make an argument is to refer to something you don’t like as “Big” (Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big SCAM as I like to think of the Supplemental, Complementary, and Alternative Medicine community). We are culturally wired to love the underdog; a great deal of left identity is wrapped up in being the ones who root for the common man against Big Whatever.

So the ideology of Monsanto as the Big Enemy has emotional resonance. We like to think of the small guy standing up against Big Monsanto, when the reality is Whole Foods, so beloved of hippies everywhere, is basically the same size big corporation as the oft-hated Monsanto, and both of them are tiny in the shadow of far larger companies like 7-11 and Target.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to head down to Starbucks for a pumpkin spice latte and listen to the hippies rant about how much they hate big corporations like Monsanto.

Wrong in the age of Google: Memes as social identity

A short while ago, I published a tweet on my Twitter timeline that was occasioned by a pair of memes I saw posted on Facebook:

The memes in question have both been circulating for a while, which is terribly disappointing now that we live in the Golden Age of Google. They’re being distributed over an online network of billions of globally-connected devices…an online network of billions of globally-connected devices which lets people discover in just a few seconds that they aren’t actually true.

A quick Google search shows both of these memes, which have been spread across social media countless times, are absolute rubbish.

The quote attributed to Albert Einstein appears to have originated with a self-help writer named Matthew Kelly, who falsely attributed it to Einstein in what was probably an attempt to make it sound more legitimate. It doesn’t even sound like something he would have said.

The second is common on conservative blogs and decries the fact that Obamacare (or, sometimes, Medicaid) offer free health coverage to undocumented immigrants. In fact, Federal law bars undocumented immigrants from receiving Federal health care services or subsidies for health insurance, with just one exception: Medicaid will pay hospitals to deliver babies of undocumented mothers (children born in the United States are legal US citizens regardless of the status of their parents).

Total time to verify both of these memes on Google: less than thirty seconds.

So why, given how fast and easy it is to verify a meme before reposting it, does nobody ever do it? Why do memes that can be demonstrated to be true in less time than it takes to order a hamburger at McDonald’s still get so much currency?

The answer, I think, is that it doesn’t matter whether a meme is true. It doesn’t matter to the people who post memes and it doesn’t matter to the people who read them. Memes aren’t about communication, at least not communication of facts and ideas. They are about social identity.


Viewed through the lens of social identity, memes suddenly make sense. The folks who spread them aren’t trying to educate, inform, or communicate ideas. Memes are like sigils on a Medieval lord’s banner: they indicate identity and allegiance.

These are all memes I’ve seen online in the last six weeks. What inferences can we make about the people who posted them? These memes speak volumes about the political identities of the people who spread them; their truthfulness doesn’t matter. We can talk about the absurdity of Oprah Winfrey’s reluctance to pay taxes or the huge multinational banks that launder money for the drug cartels, and both of those are conversations worth having…but they aren’t what the memes are about.

It’s tempting to see memes as arguments,especially because they often repeat talking points of arguments. But I submit that’s the wrong way to view them. They may contain an argument, but their purpose is not to try to argue; they are not a collective debate on the merits of a position.

Instead, memes are about identifying the affiliations of the folks who post them. They’re a way of signaling in-group and out-group status. That makes them distinct from, say, the political commentary in Banksy’s graffiti, which I think is more a method of making an argument. Memes are a mechanism for validating social identity. Unlike graffiti, there’s no presupposition the memes will be seen by everyone; instead, they’re seen by the poster’s followers on social media–a self-selecting group likely to already identify with the poster.

Even when they’re ridiculously, hilariously wrong. Consider this meme, for example. It shows a photograph of President Barack Obama receiving a medal from the king of Saudi Arabia.

The image is accurate, thought the caption is not. The photo shows Barack Obama receiving the King Abdul Aziz Order of Merit from King Abdullah. It’s not unconstitutional for those in political office to receive gifts from foreign entities, provided those gifts are not kept personally, but are turned over to the General Services Administration or the National Archives.

But the nuances, like I said, don’t matter. It doesn’t even matter that President George W. Bush received the exact same award while he was in office:

If we interpret memes as a way to distribute facts, the anti-Obama meme is deeply hypocritical, since the political conservatives who spread it aren’t bothered that a President on “their” side received the same award. If we see memes as a way to flag political affiliation, like the handkerchiefs some folks in the BDSM community wear in their pockets to signal their interests, it’s not. By posting it, people are signaling their political in-group.

Memes don’t have to be self-consistent. The same groups that post this meme:

also tend by and large to support employment-at-will policies giving employers the right to fire employees for any reason, including reasons that have nothing to do with on-the-job performance…like, for instance, being gay, or posting things on Facebook the employer doesn’t like.

Memes do more than advertise religious affiliation; they signal social affiliation as well.

Any axis along which a sharp social division exists will, I suspect, generate memes. I also suspect, though I think the phenomenon is probably too new to be sure, that times of greater social partisanship will be marked by wider and more frequent distribution of memes, and issues that create sharper divides will likewise lead to more memes.

There are many ideas that are “identity politics”–ideas that are held not because they’re supported by evidence, but simply because they are a cost of entry to certain groups. These ideas form part of the backbone of a group; they serve as a quick litmus test of whether a person is part of the out-group or the in-group.

For example, many religious conservatives reflexively oppose birth control for women, even if the majority of its members, like the majority of women in the US at large, use it. Liberals reflexively oppose nuclear power, even though it is by far the safest source of power on the basis of lives lost per terawatt hour of electricity produced. The arguments used to support these ideas (“birth control pills cause abortions,” “nuclear waste is too dangerous to deal with”) are almost always empirically, demonstrably false, but that’s irrelevant. These ideas are part of a core set of values that define the group; holding them is about communicating shared values, not about true and false.

Unfortunately, these core identity ideas often lead directly not only to misinformation and a distorted worldview, but to actual human suffering. Opposition to vaccination and genetically modified foods are identity ideas among many liberals; conservatives oppose environmental regulation and deny human involvement in climate change as part of their identity ideas. These ideas have already led to human suffering and death, and are likely to lead to more.

Human beings are social animals capable of abstract reasoning, which perhaps makes it inevitable that abstract ideas are so firmly entrenched in our social structures. Ideas help define our social structures, identify in-group and out-group members, and signal social allegiances. The ideas we present, even when they take the form of arguments, are often not attempts at dialog so much as flags that let others know which lord we march for. Social media memes are, in that way, more accurately seen as house sigils than social discourse.

Some thoughts on appropriation of another sort

The complaints about cultural appropriation by the polyamory community that I talked about in my last blog post got me to thinking about a different kind of appropriation. It often takes place in the same places and the same contexts as cultural appropriation, and a lot of the same people do it, but it’s a very different animal.

I’m talking about science appropriation.

Science appropriation is what happens when someone uses a garbled, factually incorrect, and/or completely unintelligble statement about science in an attempt to justify or rationalize something that has nothing to do with science at all.

This isn’t directly relevant to polyamory, except insofar as there are some folks (particularly in the New Age crowd) who are polyamorous and do it. I’ve also seen it in religious groups, in alternative “medicine” communities…hell, even among conspiracy theorists.

Science appropriation typically goes something like this: A person with little or no formal background in science wants to believe something. What he wants to believe isn’t especially important. Maybe he wants to believe that fluoridated water is a secret conspiracy of shadowy government agencies trying to control us with mind control drugs, or that diseases can be cured by the waving of hands and the application of spiritual energy, or that benign beings from another dimension want to make us all better people, or that after we die things become wonderful forever. Whatever it is, the person attempts to support the belief with a bizarre and often nonsensical application of some poory-understood scientific principle, or at least sciencey-sounding words like “quantum” or “frequency” or “DNA.” The result makes a hash of science, and in the few cases where the belief might have some kernel of validity, completely obfuscates its validity under a blizzard of intellectual rubbish.

This plays out in practice in a number of ways, and often involves other forms of appropriation as well.

Take this Web site. Please.

It talks about raising our “spiritual awareness” to a higher plane by using the powers of the twelve chakras, possibly related in some manner I’m not entirely clear on to the pyramids, to activate the hidden powers in our DNA.

In addition to a staggering amount of cultural appropriation (I’m not sure the authors of this stuff are even aware that the idea of chakras comes from an entirely different culture than the one that gave us the pyramids), the level of science appropriation reaches nosebleed proportions. For example (I can not make this up):

Most people know that DNA is the ‘blueprint of life’ and is located in every cell of the body. In addition to each chromosome’s 2 strand double helix of DNA, there are an additional 10 etheric strands of DNA available to each human, which have been de-activated and dormant since the beginning of recorded history. Each additional strand possesses attributes that permit the individual to perform greater human accomplishments. Scientists acknowledge that we currently only use 3% of our current 2 strand DNA. Thus we live in a society where people are sick, unhappy, stressed out, create wars, have difficulty experiencing love, and are totally disconnected with the universe. Most people have to meditate for many years just to have a so-called ‘mystical’ experience, that’s how disconnected we are now. Imagine activating 100% of your 2 strand DNA, PLUS 10 additional strands! You will go from using 10% of your brain to becoming a multi-dimensional being with psychic, telepathic, and manifestation abilities beyond anything you’ve ever dreamed of. Plus, you will stop the aging process and actually start to rejuvenate to look and feel YOUNGER. […] The portions of the DNA chain that science has presently identified as the “Double Helix”, represent only the SURFACE portions of the chemical, elemental, and electrical components of the active DNA strands. Science has yet to identify the MULTIDIMENSIONAL spectra of DNA manifestation, and has yet to realize that within the structures of detectable DNA, there are levels of structure and function that direct the operations of the entire genetic blueprint, which are not currently detectable by the contemporary scientific method.

This quote hits pretty much all the hallmarks of science appropriation.

First, there’s the garbled misunderstanding of science facts. Science says that a small percentage of the human genome is made up of “coding DNA”–the percentage is actually closer to 20% than to 3%, but never mind–which is DNA that directs the cell to make proteins. However, that doesn’t mean the rest is inactive! Non-coding DNA is involved in many functions: activation and deactivation (usually through epigenetic methylation) of protein-coding sequences of DNA; coding for strands of RNA that affect the translation of messenger RNA into proteins; and more. Many areas of non-coding DNA aren’t well understood but are highly conserved, indicating that they play an active and essential role in biology.

Then there’s the faux pop-sci mythology that we only use 10% of our brains, a nonsensical superstition remarkably resilient to the light of disproof. This and other popular science superstitions (like the notion that science says bumblebees can’t fly) are common in science appropriation.

And then there’s the hint of secret knowledge–information beyond what science can see, or facts that transcend the current state of knowledge–that’s part and parcel of science appropriation.

And finally, there’s the bizarre, anti-intellectual hatred of science and the scientific method that almost always accompanies sience appropriation. The folks who appropriate scientific-sounding language and ideas for unscientific or pseudoscientific notions seem to have a love-hate relationship with science; on the one hand, they speak with derision and contempt about the scientific method, but on the other, they seem eager–even desperate–for the validation of science.

In fact, about the only thing missing from this particular example is the word “quantum,” which as near as I can tell is what science appropriators use when they mean “magic.”

A great deal of science appropriation comes from folks who seem to genuinely want to make the world a better place, but don’t want to invest in the tools to do it because making the world a better place is often very hard work. Folks who want to be healers but who don’t want to get a medical degree or invest the serious amunt of time and money it takes to understand biology are big offenders here. There’s a Web site (and, I gather, a set of beliefs) called Healing Heart Power that’s a great example of science appropriation:

The heart’s electrical field is about 60 times greater in amplitude than the electrical activity generated by the brain.

The magnetic field produced by the heart is more than 5000 times greater in strength than the field generated by the brain

The electromagnetic energy of the heart not only envelops every cell of the human body, but also extends out in all directions in the space around us […]

Research conducted at the Institute of HeartMath suggests that the heart’s field is an important carrier of information.

Our mental and emotional state impacts the quality of contact we offer to another person. When we touch one another with safe, respectful, loving intention both physically and emotionally, we call into play the full healing power of the heart. The greater the “coherence”–a sense that life is comprehensible, manageable and meaningful– one develops, the more sensitive one becomes to the subtle electromagnetic signals communicated by those around them. […]

Heartpower and our genetic make-up: Dorothy Mandel writes, “Genetically, cells adapt to what they perceive their environment to be. Because an event experienced in the midst of a heart response will be perceived and interpreted very differently than an event experienced in the midst of a stress response, the heart can also powerfully affect genetic expression”

Becoming more heart aware and working towards authentic emotional expression and inner peace may positively impact our genetic health.

Anyone who has any backgrund in biology at all is probably cringing and eyerolling right now. The notion that human beings benefit from positive interaction with one another is pretty straightforward, but here it’s dressed up with a level of science appropriation that’s almost physically painful to read.

We see unsourced, vaguely-defined claims about the heart’s electrical and electromagnetic field that are remarkably content-free (what units are we talking about? What’s the absolute strength of these fields?) and that we are expected to infer are important. (If it’s significant that the heart’s electromagnetic field is stronger than the brain’s, what are we to infer from the fact that the bicep’s electromagnetic field is also stronger than the brain’s?) The biological basis for these claims is not presented (I would reasonably expect the brain to have a weak electromagnetic field, as the activity in it is electrochemical rather than electromagnetic!), yet the claims are used to try to support other claims, such as the heart’s electromagnetic field being a “carrier of information” (what information? in what form? From where to where?).

This particular Web page does do one thing that a lot of science appropriators don’t do, though, which is to make a falsifiable prediction (“the heart can also powerfully affect genetic expression”). Unfortunately for the creators of healing heart power, this prediction doesn’t have any evidence at all to support it.


That does bring up an important distinction between science and science appropriation, though. People who appropriate science for non-scientific or pseudoscientific ends don’t actually know what science is.

Science isn’t a body of knowledge. Science isn’t a collection of facts or books. The Theory of Relativity isn’t science; nor is Western medicine or the Hubble Space Telescope.

These things are the products of science. Science itself is a process, not a library of theorems. It’s a way of looking at the world. It’s a carefully designed system for figuring out what’s true and what’s false that s founded on a simple idea:

Human beings suck at separating truth from falsehood. When we want to believe something, we will find ways to fool or trick ourselves into believing it, even if we’re not consciously aware that’s what we’re doing. Therefore, actually separating what’s true from what we want to be true means systematically dealing with our own cognitive shortcomings, confirmation biases, and predilection for fooling ourselves.

Science insists on falsifiability because without it we tend to persuade ourselves that anything we want to believe is true. We learn about the Scientific Method in school (at least if we got anything even remotely approximating a decent education), but the version we learn in school is dry and not very illuminating. The scientific method, put more plainly, looks something like this:

  1. You are not as smart as you think you are.
    1. If you want to believe something, you’ll find a way to make yourself believe it.
    2. If you think you are rational, you’re probably good at making yourself believe what you want to believe.
    3. You are gullible.
    4. If you think you’re not gullible, you’re really, really gullible.
  2. If you want to know what’s true, you shouldn’t believe things without reason.
    1. “I really, really want it to be true” isn’t a reason.
    2. An anecdote isn’t a reason.
    3. Your feelings aren’t a reason.
      1. Feelings can lie to you.
      2. Your emotional self isn’t very good at fact-checking.
  3. Reality doesn’t care very much about what you think.
    1. Reality is really, really complicated.
    2. Reality doesn’t give a hairy flying fartknuckle about politics.
    3. Reality isn’t human-centric.
      1. If a person in New York and a person in Tehran both measure the universal gravitational constant, the result better be the same.
      2. If you get different results when the “negative energy” of “unbelievers” spoils the experiment, your results aren’t worth a fetid dingo’s kidney.
  4. if you want to understand how the universe works, you have a lot of work to do.
    1. The universe doesn’t fit human stories.
      1. Storytelling isn’t science.
    2. If it can’t be quantified, it isn’t science.
    3. If you can’t figure out a way to test whether an idea is wrong, it isn’t a scientific idea.
      1. The best way to see if an idea holds any water is to try to prove it wrong, not try to prove it right.
      2. Your own tendency toward confirmation bias will lead you to see evidence that your ideas are true even when it isn’t really there.
  5. Sometimes, the answer to a question is “we don’t know,” and that’s okay.

The things I’ve talked about so far are all examples of pseudoscience, so it might seem like sciece appropriation is simply another expression for pseudoscience.

All pseudoscience is sciene appropriation, but not all science appropriation is pseudoscience. Science appropriation also happens when something that isn’t science claims that its principles have been “scientifically proven,” something that happens often in the world of religion.

My sweetie Eve has remarked about how Westerners are quick to appropriate elemets of Indian culture, what with Tantra this and chakra that and having sex is all about spirituality, really it is, I’m being so sincere right now. But when she was in India, she saw the same thing happening in reverse; Indian mystics ad religious people often tried to claim scientific legitimacy for their religious practices, saying that science has “proven” beliefs such as cutting one’s hair is wrong.

When I was working prepress for a living, one of my clients was a book publisher that specialized in supplying books to Christian bookstores. Every year I worked on their catalog, which had an entire section devoted to books that claimed to show how science “proves” that Christianity is the true religion or that Jesus was the son of god or something.

I don’t think of these examles as pseudoscience. Pseudoscience is when something claims to be a science but isn’t, like phrenology or DNA activation or dowsing. The Christians who claim that science supports the divinity of Jesus or the Sikhs who say that refusing to cut their hair is scientifically proven to be beneficial aren’t saying that Christianity or Sikhism is a science; they’re appropriatng the respectability of science to try to support an idea that at its core has nothing to do with science. To me, that’s a it different from prenology and similar systems that claim to be scientific fields but aren’t.

There are overlaps, of course. Creation “science” is a religious belief that’s also a pseudoscience. Sometimes the boundaries get fuzzy. That doesn’t change the fact that some folks claim scientific legitimacy for a belief without saying the belief itself is a science.

Science appropriation also happens in pop culture. An astonishing number of people believe that humans only use 10% of our brains, that the left brain is rational and the right brain is creative, or if you rescue a baby bird that’s fallen from its nest you shouldn’t return it to the nest or its mother will reject it. None of these ideas has any basis in science, but they’re incredibly, annoyingly persistent and many people pass them off as science fact.


Science appropriation is more than annoying; it’s harmful. We live in a technological, post-industrial society with a public school infrastructure that is crap at teaching basic science. Thanks to that, we’ve created a society uniquely vulnerable to science appropriation. When a person with diabetes uses homeopathic “treatment,” the diabetes goes untreated. When someone spends time and money on “DNA activation” in the hopes that it will let her unlock the other 90% of her brain (whatever that means; ae these folks saying that someone with a 110 IQ will have a 1,100 IQ after DNA activation?), she gets fleeced by a scam. The fact that the scammer might also believe the scam dooesn’t make it any less of a scam; it simply means the educational system has failed the scammer, too. Public policy decisions based on science apropriation have the potential to harm lots of people.

So, as part of my own personal crusade to make the world a better place, I’ve created this handy-dandy Science Appropriation Bingo card. Keep it with you when you read New Age Web sites or browse the alternative healing section of WebMD. If you want to print it out, clicky on the picture for a link to a PDF version!

The Apocalypse Is Coming! (…again)

In less than three weeks, the end of the world will happen.

Or, rather, in less than three weeks, a bunch of Mayan-prophesy doomsdayers will wake up and, if they have any grace at all, feel slightly sheepish.

The Mayan epic calendar is set to expire on December 21, or so it seems, and a lot of folks think this will signal the end of the world. They really, truly, sincerely believe it; some of them have even written to NASA with their concerns that a mysterious Planet X will smash into Earth on the designated date. (There seems to be some muddling of New Age thought here, as the existence of this “planet X,” sometimes called Nibiru, is a fixture amongst certain segments of the New Age population, its existence allegedly described in ancient Sumarian texts.)

It’s easy to dismiss these people as gullible crackpots, uneducated and foolish, unable to see how profoundly stupid their fears are. But I’m not so sure it’s that simple.

Apocalyptic fears are a fixture of the human condition. The Mayan doomsday nonsense is not the first such fearful prediction; it’s not even the first one to grab recent public attention. Harold Camping, an Evangelical Christian, predicted the end of the world on October 21, 2011…and also on May 21, 2011, September 7, 1994, and May 21, 1988. He got enough folks worked up about his 2011 predictions that many of his followers sold their belongings and caravanned across the country warning people of the impending Apocalypse.

These kinds of predictions have existed for, as near as I can tell, as long as human beings have had language. Pat Robertson has been in on the action, predicting the Great Tribulation and the coming of Jesus in 2007. These fears are so common that a number of conservative politicians, including Sarah Palin, believe that the current generation is the last one the world will see.

Given how deeply-woven these apocalyptic fears are in the human psyche, it seems to me they speak to something important. I believe that, at least for some people, such fears of impending doomsday actually offer protection against an even deeper fear: the fear of irrelevance.


My readership being what it is, I bet the percentage of you who recognize this picture is probably higher than the percentage of the population as a whole who recognize it.

This is part of the Standard of Ur, an artifact recovered from archaeological digs from the site of Ur, one of the world’s oldest cities, in what is now present-day Iraq.

Ur was likely first settled somewhere around 3800 BC, or roughly six thousand years ago, give or take. That puts its earliest settlement at about the start of the Bronze Age, plus or minus a century or so. The Agrarian Revolution was already well-established, but metallurgy was fairly new. When it was built, it was a coastal city; that was so long ago that the land itself has changed, and the ruins of Ur are now well inland.

You’ve probably at least heard of Ur; most public schools mention it in passing in history classes, at least back when I was a schoolkid. Unless you’re a history major, you probably don’t know much about it, and certainly don’t know a whole lot about life there. Unless you’re a history major, you probably don’t think about it a whole lot, either.

Think about that for a minute. Ur was a major center of civilization–arguably, the center of civilization–for centuries. History records it as an independent, powerful city-state in the 26th century BC, more than a thousand years after it was founded. People were born, lived, loved, struggled, rejoiced, plotted, schemed, invented, wrote, sang, prayed, fished, labored, experienced triumph and heartbreak, and died there for longer than many modern countries have even existed, and you and I, for the most part, don’t care. Most of us know more about Luke Skywalker than any of the past rulers of Ur, and that’s okay with us. We have only the vaguest of ideas that this place kinda existed at some vague point a long time ago, even though it was among the most important places in all the world for a total of more than three thousand years, if you consider its history right up to the end of the Babylonians.

And that, I think, can tell us a lot about the amazing persistence of apocalyptic doomsday fears.


When I was a kid, I was fascinated by astronomy. I wanted to grow up to be an astronomer, and even used a little Dymo labelmaker to make a label that said “Franklin Veaux, Astrophysicist” that I stuck on my bedroom door.

Then I found out that some day, the sun would burn out and the earth would become a lifeless lump of rock orbiting a small, cold cinder. And that all the other stars in the sky would burn out. And that all the stars that would come after them would one day burn out, too.

The sense of despair I felt when I learned that permanently changed me.

Think about everything you know. Think about everything you’ve ever said or done, every cause you believe in, every hero and villain you’ve ever encounter, every accomplishment you’ve ever made.

Now think about all of that mattering as much to the world as the life of an apprentice pot-maker in Ur means to you.

It’s one thing to know we are going to die; we all have to deal with that, and we construct all kinds of myths and fables, all sorts of afterlives where we are rewarded with eternal bliss while people we don’t like are forever punished for doing the things we don’t think they should do. But to die, and then to become irrelevant? To die and to know that everything we dreamed of, did, or stood for was completely forgotten, and humanity just went along without us, not even caring that we existed at all? It’s reasonable, I think, for people to experience a sense of despair about that.

But, ah! What if this is the End of Days? What if the world will cease to be in our lifetimes? Now we will never experience that particular fate. Now we no longer have to deal with the idea that everything we know will fade away. There will be no more generations a thousand or ten thousand years hence to have forgotten us; we’re it.


Just think of all the advantages of living in the End Days. We don’t have to face the notion that not only ourselves, but our ideas, our values, our morality, our customs, our traditions, all will fade away and people will get along just fine without us.

And think of the glory! There is a certain reflected glory just in being a person who witnesses an epic thing, even if it’s only from the sidelines. Imagine being in the Afterlife, and having Socrates and Einstein and Buddha saying to us, “Wow, you were there when the Final Seal was broken? That’s so cool! Tell us what it was like?”

Human nature being what it is, there’s also that satisfaction that comes from watching all the world just burn down around you. That will teach them, all those smug bastards who disagreed with us and lived their lives differently from the way we did! As fucked-up as it may be, there’s comfort in that.

Most of us, I suspect, aren’t really equipped to deal with the notion that everything we believe is important will probably turn out not to be. If we were to find ourselves transported a thousand, two thousand, ten thousand years from now, assuming human beings still exist, they will no doubt be very alien to us–as alien as Chicago would be to an ancient Sumerian.

They won’t speak our language, or anything like it; human languages rarely last more than six hundred years or more. Everything we know will be not only gone, but barely even recognized…if there’s anything left of, say, New York City, it will likely not exist much beyond an archaeological dig and some dry scholarly papers full of conjecture and misinformation. For people who live believing in tradition and hierarchy and authority and continuity, the slow and steady evaporation of all those things is worse than the idea of death. Belief in the End Times is a powerful salve to all of that.

Given the transience of all human endeavor, it makes a certain kind of sense. The alternative, after all, is…what? Cynicism? Nihilism? If everything that we see, do, think, feel, believe, fight for, and sacrifice for is going to mean as much to future generations as the lives of the citizens of Ur four thousand years ago mean to us, what’s the point of any of it? Why believe in anything?

Which, I think, misses the point.

We live in a world of seven billion people, and in all that throng, each of us is unique. We have all spent tens of billions of years not existing. We wake up in the light, alive and aware, for a brief time, and then we return to non-existence. But what matters is that we are alive. It’s not important if that matters a thousand years from now, any more than it matters that it wasn’t important a thousand years ago; it does matter to us, right here, right now. It matters because the things we believe and the things we do have the power to shape our happiness, right here, and if we can not be happy, then what is the point of this brief flicker of existence?

Why should we fight or sacrifice for anything? Because this life is all we have, and these people we share this world with are our only companions. Why should we care about causes like, say, gay rights–causes which in a thousand years will mean as much as campaigns to allow women to appear on stage in Shakespeare’s time? Because these are the moments we have, and this is the only life that we have, and for one group of people to deprive another group of people the opportunity to live it as best suits them harms all of us. If we are to share this world for this brief instant, if this is all we have, then mutual compassion is required to make this flicker of awareness worthwhile. This, ultimately, is the antidote to the never-ending stream of apocalyptic prophesy.