Stochastic Terror as a Tool of Conformity

In 1170, King Henry II of England, fed up with his former BFF Thomas Becket (who started criticizing the Crown after becoming Archbishop of Canterbury), declared “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” And, of course, since he was the king, four knights (Reginald Fitz-Urse, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy and Richard le Breton) heard that as a call to action, whereupon they rode to Canterbury and murdered Becket in what is likely the first recorded example of stochastic terrorism.

What is stochastic terrorism? Dictionary.com defines it as:

the public demonization of a person or group resulting in the incitement of a violent act, which is statistically probable but whose specifics cannot be predicted

It’s about inciting people to acts of harassment, bullying, or violence without directly telling them what to do.

I’ve been thinking a lot about stochastic terrorism lately, not just in terms of American politics, but in a more immediate, more personal context.

Stochastic terrorism uses inflammatory language likely to get someone somewhere to commit violence, without quite going so far as to say anything that might be directly construed as incitement to violence. You know, like “I only lost the election because the Democrats cheated and they‘ll go on cheating until we all use our Second Amendment rights to take back our country.”

This isn’t a direct command to a specific person to take a direct action, but it has predictable effects.

But I didn’t come here to talk about Donald Trump.

Stochastic violence is a broad idea, and I think it plays out in a thousand tiny ways we might not think about at first. Thing is, we are all susceptible, to some degree, to indirect incitement; it’s just that different people have different levels of susceptibility and different lines past which they won’t go.

All of us are, in the right circumstances, willing to heed the non-specific but righteous call to take up arms, figuratively or literally speaking, for a noble but non-specific cause. Yes, including you.

Stochastic terrorism is, I think, the extreme end of a continuum, a gradual incline from low-level bullying to premeditative violence. Stochastic bullying is the gateway to stochastic terrorism. And we currently live in a world where this has become normalized, a background of our lives.

Stochastic bullying

Let me let you in on a dirty little secret of the human condition:

People like to bully.

People like to bully. People enjoy it. Take your average random person off the street, no matter his political affiliation, and give them a reason to bully someone—a reason that their peers, the people they care about, would find acceptable and justifiable. Let him loose and odds are good he will bully. You can make a bully of anyone; you need only find some value they care about and convince them that someone has violated that value and Bob’s your uncle.

Add the anonymity of the Internet and the deal is, for way too many people, sealed. People like to bully. Give someone a justification, a rationalization that lets them sleep at night, and give them the anonymity of the Internet, and boom, you can make a bully of almost anyone.

People bully for a lot of reasons, but there is no bully as zealous as the self-righteous bully, the bully who bullies with the pious fervor of one who is defending Truth and Justice. The stochastic bully is the keyboard warrior version of King Henry’s knights: a person who rides into battle harassing and doxxing others because someone he (or she) looks up to has declared a righteous cause.

Let me offer an example. I know this essay is getting long, but bear with me.

The Story

Some time ago, I knew a person who, after a bad breakup, was accused of abuse by their partner. These accusations were long on the pushbutton language in sex positive communities, but short on details.

All communities have rules and norms, signifiers that separate in-group from out-group. In sex-positive spaces, for instance, you’ll see people say things like:

  1. All accusations are always 100% truthful 100% of the time, unless they are made by someone who has been accused of abuse first, in which case they are always, without fail, an attempt to dodge accountability.
  2. Nobody ever lies about abuse. Nobody ever distorts, mis-states, or exaggerates…again, unless they’ve previously been accused of abuse themselves, in which case it is 100% certain that anything they say is a lie, 100% of the time.
  3. The only moral action when confronted by an accusation of abuse is to believe the accusation wholeheartedly. Asking for more details is enabling abuse. Asking followup questions is enabling abuse. Any attempt at fact-finding is enabling abuse, if it doesn’t support the accusations anyway.

It’s easy to see where these ideas come from. For decades—centuries, perhaps—we’ve lived in societies that tolerate and condone abuse, particularly along social power lines. Many people, in a genuine desire to create a more just and equitable society, are beginning to push back against that.

Somewhere along the way, though, these things became virtue signals: designators of who is good and who is bad, who belongs and who doesn’t. And, like all virtue signals, they became markers of who it is and is not okay to bully. Someone accused of abuse: OK to bully.

So, predictably, the person I knew became a target of harassment and bullying…and, of course, being stripped of her social circle made it far easier for bullies to harry and hound her.

Funny, that. Throughout history, it has always, always been true that depriving someone of their social support is the #1 tool of abusers. And so it is in many sex-positive communities, which say “Beware anyone who tries to separate people from their social support, that’s what abusers do…oh, so-and-so has been accused of something by someone? SHUN! SHUN”

You abused me by refusing to give me what I wanted

This person’s accuser was shy on details, and when I and someone else asked for those details, we eventually got something that was…distinctly not abuse, and in fact was reasonable and healthy boundary-setting. But the thing is, those details were never part of the accusation, and somewhere along the way, in many sex-positive circles, it became evil to ask for followup information when someone says “I was abused.”

I naively believed once the details of the accusation were known, the harassment and bullying would stop. I was wrong.

I was surprised at the time. I’m not any more. In fact, nowadays, it’s exactly what I would expect. It turns out that people who are logical and rational, who make reasoned decisions, who see themselves as genuinely good people, regularly—routinely, even—support and enable bullies and abusers.

And guess what? That’s a completely rational response.

The Bank Robber’s Gun

Picture the scene: It’s the middle of the afternoon. A bank robber bursts into a crowded lobby waving a pistol. He says “This is a stickup! Everybody down!” Chaos, panic, confusion. Maybe the security guard jumps at him and gets shot or something.

Now, there are 20 or 30 people in the bank. The robber is holding a revolver. It’s got six shots, or maybe five; and if he’s just taken a shot at the security guard, that leaves him with five, maybe four. If all the customers rush him, he cannot win. He can’t reload fast enough.

No rational person would rush him. Each of the 20-30 people in the bank will make the same calculation and come to the same conclusion: The first person to rush him is getting shot. I’m not going to let that be me. And so, nobody rushes him.

So he takes everyone hostage, and ties them all up, and now if things go sideways he can kill them all at his leisure. What was a situation where he could not possibly hope to win becomes a situation where he is certain to win, all because rational people made a reasonable decision in their own self-interest…a decision made by everyone else, that dooms everyone.

Classic example from history: the McCarthy Communist hunts. Anyone who is accused is assumed guilty. People on the sidelines who know a particular target of the McCarthyists is innocent sure as hell aren’t going to say so, because anyone who does, becomes the next target too. Silence becomes self-preservation.

So imagine some person in a subcommunity facing a situation like the one my acquaintance was in:

  1. He knows they’ve been accused of something bad.
  2. He knows they’ve being bullied and harassed.
  3. Beyond that, he knows them only as a vague blur, a face in the crowd. He has no connection with her other than that.

Of course he’s going to shun them. Of course it doesn’t matter if the accusations have merit. Of course it doesn’t matter if he even believes them or not. It would be stupid to expect anything else.

He would, in a purely rational sense, be a complete moron to do anything but shun them. Anyone who doesn’t go along with the shunning ends up on the wrong side of the in-group/out-group signaling, and becomes the target of the same people who are bullying her. If he lets her back in, he puts himself .

What rational person would stick up for someone, put himself in the line of fire for someone who is essentially a stranger?

That’s how stochastic bullying works.

And so, entire communities become held hostage by small numbers of bullies.

Virtue Signaling: Believing the Unbelievable

There’s an absolutely fascinating essay over on Slate Star Codex called The Toxoplasma of Rage. In it, the author makes an interesting observation:

But in the more general case, people can use moral decisions to signal how moral they are. In this case, they choose a disastrous decision based on some moral principle. The more suffering and destruction they support, and the more obscure a principle it is, the more obviously it shows their commitment to following their moral principles absolutely. For example, Immanuel Kant claims that if an axe murderer asks you where your best friend is, obviously intending to murder her when he finds her, you should tell the axe murderer the full truth, because lying is wrong. This is effective at showing how moral a person you are – no one would ever doubt your commitment to honesty after that – but it’s sure not a very good result for your friend.

The larger lesson here is this:

Virtue signaling is most effective when you signal some virtue that other people don’t necessarily agree with. You can’t make a useful virtue signal from something everyone always agrees with, like “serial killers are bad” or you shouldn’t eat babies.” The more dramatic, controversial, and absolute a virtual signal is, the more power it has.

And this causes values and moral principles—even generally sound moral principles, like “honesty is generally good”—to become completely decoupled from real-world consequences.

But of course, holding a nuanced view of the world—considering every situation on its own merits, thinking about edge cases, looking at your moral values with an eye toward seeing how well they fit in each individual circumstance…that takes work. Who has that kind of time?

Especially when it might put you in the crosshairs of someone who enjoys bullying people, and does so with the fire of zeal to purge the heretic and the unbeliever?

So a reasonable, completely supportable moral virtue, like “honesty is generally good,“ becomes an absolutist value.

What? You lied to the killer who asked where your girlfriend was??! You despicable person! I thought you agreed that honesty is good! And now to find out you’e nothing but a disgusting liar, someone who will throw away honesty whenever you find it convenient…what is wrong with you? How can anyone ever trust anything you say? Why should we believe a single word from you, you liar?

This plays out in sex-positive circles with the “believe survivors” trope.

Bumper Sticker Morality

“Believe survivors,” like “honesty is good,” is a fair, decent moral value. We live in societies that have spent far too long not believing when people talk about abuse they’ve suffered, harm they’ve experienced, particularly from people and institutions in power. I mean, great example: Catholic Church. Hell, even law enforcement institutions have a long and revolting history of refusing to take, for example, rape reports seriously.

But somewhere along the way, all moral values must confront the fact that no moral situation is absolute.

“Honesty is good” does not, therefore, mean “do not lie tell your friend’s murderous ex where she’s hiding, even though you know he wants to kill her, because dishonesty is wrong.”

When you reach the point where some moral value becomes more important as a bumper-sticker-sized signal of your virtue than as a guideline for treating others well—Honesty is always good, regardless of circumstance! Dishonesty is bad!—it ceases to be a moral value, instead serving as a justification to bully others (“You lying sack of shit, how dare you show your face among decent, honest folks when you’re such a mewling, festering liar you told a lie to an enraged murderer about where he could find the person he was looking to bury his hatchet in!”).

Any reasonable person will, at least in private, say there’s no such thing as a class of people who should always be believed under all circumstances. “Believe survivors,” like “honesty is good,” is an excellent general moral guideline—as long as you’re alert to the fact that no moral value is ever 100% true in 100% of circumstances. Human beings are messy, and when you create entire classes of people who are never to be doubted, you open the door to someone somewhere exploiting that for gain. “Always believe survivors” is exactly the same as “never believe survivors”—a way to avoid having to do the hard, messy work of evaluating individual people and individual situations. (Who has that kind of time, amirite?)

Stochastic Bullying, Stochastic Terrorism: Power Without Responsibility

As a tool for, you know, living a life that’s respectful of others, zealously defending bumper-sticker morality that brooks no exception, no nuance, no edge cases is a bit rubbish. But where stochastic bullying really shines is as a way of enforcing conformity and obedience to in-group/out-group borders.

Not long ago, I wrote about a bizarre, Twilight-Zone situation where some Internet personalities somehow decided I was running, or profiting from, or organizing, or something, a conference in London. I still have no clue where this notion came from, but someone got it in their head, and wrote about it online, in a This Will Not Stand kind of way, and the next thing you know, the conference organizers were receiving hate mail and threats. It got so bad, the organizers suspended the conference.

Now, this is serious “Jewish space lasers” territory. We’re so far past rationality here, we’ve looped all the way around Bizarro World and ended up in “Democrats secretly run a sex trafficking ring from the basement of a pizza shop that doesn’t have a basement” land. It shouldn’t really be too hard for someone who hears this story to say ‘hang on, a dude in Portland secretly runs a conference in London that’s been going on for years and how does that work exactly?’

But that’s the thing: Virtue signaling becomes more powerful as it becomes more outlandish. Sure, anyone can say they believe in QAnon, but believing that a secret trafficking ring works from the basement of a building that doesn’t even have a basement shows true commitment to the cause.

And the thing is, the person who started spreading rumors that I secretly run this conference in London never actually said ‘and therefore, you, specifically, should send death threats to the conference organizers.’ That’s how it works.

Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?

Will no one do something about this conference?

It is power without responsibility. It’s a way to accumulate control in a community, enforce boundaries between who’s in and who’s out, and let people know: Don’t be the hero. Charge me and you’ll get shot. Keep your head down and do as I say.

Nobody can take power this way in a subcommunity without everyone else being complicit. It’s hackneyed to say this, but all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for people of principle to do nothing.

But when you feel you have to keep your head down, because stepping out of line targets you for bullying and attack from quarters you cannot anticipate, it becomes a rational choice.

And we all lose.

The Evolutionary Root of the Internet Hate Machine

Your Rage is a Commodity

Faces in the Crowd: Tampa, Florida, late 1990s (photo by author)

You do not love all humankind.

This is a fact. It’s written into your biology. There is a limit, coded into the size and structure of your brain, on the number of people you can form close, personal connections to, or even remember as individuals before they start to blur into faces in a crowd. That is, I think, is one of the things that makes the online world so toxic, though perhaps not in the way you might think.

Before I get into why social media is so toxic, let’s talk about that limit. It’s called Dunbar‘s Number, named after anthropologist Robin Dunbar. The basic idea is there’s a specific, quantifiable number on the close interpersonal connections—not passing acquaintances, not faces in a crowd, but meaningful social interconnections—you can make. People debate exactly what this number is (and some anthropologists have questioned the validity of research that extrapolates from other primates to humans), but the most commonly accepted figure is in the neighborhood of 150 people or so—which tracks nicely with the size of early hunter/gatherer tribes.

That means we all have emotional space for somewhere around 150 people in our inner orbits. Again, these aren’t acquaintances—they’re your family, your friends, your lovers, your confidantes, the people you have a genuinely close connection to. Above this number, people tend to become faces in a crowd. You don’t fundamentally connect with people outside your inner orbit the way you do with people inside your inner orbit. You can’t. Regardless of whether your own personal limit is, 150 people or 200 people or 147 people or whatever, at some point you lose the ability to form independent, differentiable emotional connections. With eight billion humans on the planet, you can’t even remember everyone’s name!

That worked fine when we all lived in small tribes of a couple hundred people at most. Things started getting a little weird when human social groups got bigger than that. We had to invent surrogates for those close personal connections: governments, religions, structures that could impose boundaries on our behavior…because make no mistake, we hold very different standards for how it’s acceptable to treat people inside our personal spheres and outside them.

And that sorta worked for a long time, though at a cost. When you replace individual connections to people you know with abstract bonds with members of your religion or your city-state or your nation—in other words, with a group of people you’ve mostly never met—it becomes easy for people to hijack that apparatus and tell you who to love and who to hate. Instead of your tribe being defined by personal connections, it becomes directed for you from the top down: your in-group and out-group are defined not by people you personally know and trust, but by the hierarchy that directs these abstract groups.

Remember how you’re hard-wired to behave differently toward people within your personal sphere and outside it? Yeah, that. If someone convinces you that all members of your religion or your city-state are inside your sphere and everyone else is outside it, then getting you to trust people you shouldn’t trust, or commit acts of atrocity against people who’ve done you no harm, gets a whole lot easier.

It doesn’t help, too, that when you start dealing with people outside your inner circle, you have to make hasty group generalizations, which means you start judging entire groups of people based on superficial characteristics. So there’s that.

Being Human in an Age of Social Media

If our evolutionary heritage didn’t prepare us for living in groups bigger than a couple hundred people or so, it definitely didn’t prepare us for social media.

There are eight billion of us sharing space on this planet. Eight billion. That’s a number of people literally, not figuratively, impossible to grasp emotionally. We cannot really even imagine eight billion people.

Most of us live in enormous societies several orders of magnitude larger than the hundred and fifty to two hundred our brains evolved to cope with, so we create our own little subcommunities, social circles, networks of family and friends.

Social media gives us an easy, low-friction way to interact with other people. Problem is, interactions on social media feel like in-person interactions, but they aren’t. You’re presenting, and interacting with, carefully curated personas. Social media makes it much easier to curate these personas than it is in person—we choose what we show and what we share. And, importantly, it’s easy for us to hide things.

So we end up feeling like we have genuine connections with people we don’t actually know. We know only a carefully constructed facade, but to our emotional selves, to the parts of us that define our family, our tribe, these connections seem genuine.

Psychologists have a name for this: parasocial relationships. We become invested in people on social media, people who might not actually share a connection with us, who might not even know us at all except as a name on a follower list.

The thing about parasocial relationships is they occupy a slot in our inner sphere, even though they are not, in fact, genuine close relationships.

And that, I think, is a huge part of why the Internet is such a hate machine.

Mass-Produced Synthetic Rage

The Internet is a hate machine, fine-tuned to manufacture outrage in industrial quantities. Part of that is deliberate engineering, of course. Engagement drives revenue. Waving pitchforks and screaming for the heads of the heathens is “engagement.” Outrage sells, so Adam Smith’s ruthless invisible hand has shaped social media into high-efficiency outrage generation machines.

Early pioneers wanted to use the power of this globe-spanning, always-on communications network to bring people together. Looking back, that seems charmingly naïve, though in fairness it wasn’t obvious back then that anger would be more profitable. Who knew?

What happens when you fill up slots in your inner sphere with parasocial relationships—with people you genuinely feel a sincere connection to, but you don’t actually know?

You become easy to manipulate.

You feel a bond to a person you don’t know, whose motives you can never be certain of, who has an entire life lived away from social media. This person is part of your inner circle, and part of that evolutionary heritage I was talking about is that you are predisposed to believe things people in your inner circle tell you. You are descended from a long line of ancestors who were part of a tribe. For our early ancestors, losing their tribe meant death. We are descended from people who survived—the ones who did not get expelled from their tribes. Accepting the values, beliefs, and worldview of the people in your inner circle is wired into your genes.

So when someone who is part of your social media inner circle tells you someone else is a bad person, you’re disposed to believe it without question. When your social media tribe tells you who to hate, you do it. Yes, I mean you. You think you’re far more rational and less tribalistic than all those other people. You’re wrong.

Now consider that in the age of COVID over the past few years, more people are getting more of those social needs met online, and consider the digital generation growing up in a world where parasocial interaction is the norm, and, well, things get weird. How could social media become anything but a hate machine?

And, ironically, spaces that consider themselves “loving” and “welcoming” and “safe” are especially prone to this, because a great deal of in-group/out-group policing is done on the basis of feelings of comfort and safety; if someone tells you that someone else says that so-and-so is a bad person, you want to keep your space loving and safe, right? And it can’t be loving and safe if it has bad people in it, right? There’s only one thing for it: we must lovingly band together to drive out the evil among us.

On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a manipulator

The thing about parasocial interactions is your brain really wasn’t meant for them. You tend, when you interact with someone one or two steps removed, to see only a curated version of them—but at the same time, emotionally, the ancient parts of your brain will respond as if this was a person who’s a member of your family, who you can trust implicitly.

Believe me, that creates some really messed-up opportunities for things to go wrong.

The people you see on social media may have an agenda you’re completely unaware of. As a particularly vivid case, I know of one person who attempted to take over a conference that had been running for many years. She simply tried to walk up and start hosting a new conference using the same name, same trademark, everything. (This sort of thing is more common than you think. There comes a point in the normal development of any subculture or subcommunity when a tipping point is reached; once the community grows to a certain size, it’s easier to make a name for yourself by stealing someone else’s work than by doing the work yourself.)

When her attempted hijacking didn’t succeed, and the conference organizers informed her they would defend their trademark legally if necessary, well…Internet hate machine. She started so many rumors and accusations about the existing conference (each one laughably simple to debunk by itself, but quantity has a quality all its own…where there’s smoke, there must be fire, not someone running around with a smoke pot yelling “Fire! Fire!”, right?), the Internet hate machine did what it does best. The internetverse whipped itself into such a frothing frenzy, people unconnected with anyone remotely related to the conference started sending threats of violence to people scheduled to speak at the conference. It got so bad, the organizers had to cancel.

I might say here that if one person you’ve never met in person but know on the Internet tells you that another person you’ve never met but know on the Internet is a bad person and therefore you should send threats of violence to a whole set of other people you’ve never met but know on the Internet, you’ve completely lost the plot…yet here we are. The thing is, the nature of the Internet and your legacy evolutionary heritage makes this kind of thing feel right. It feels natural. It feels righteous and just.

You are a tribal being. We all are. It’s a fact of our biology. Social media is engineered to produce rage, because rage gathers clicks, and emotions like fear and anger make you less rational. Add that to the fact you’re already inclined to accept people into your inner circle you’ve never met because interactions on social media feel convincingly authentic, and it’s a perfect storm. People can manipulate you and make you feel righteous about it.

None of these problems is unique to the internet, of course, but the parasociality inherent in the Internet makes the problem much worse. And, of course, knowing that the Twitter hordes with the torches and pitchforks might turn them on you if you fail to pick up a torch or a pitchfork and rally to the cause when you’re told to, really doesn’t help.

Don’t be a sucker

What’s the solution?

I don’t know. I wish I did. I’d like to say it’s as easy as fact-checking and being aware, but it’s not. Your fact-checking is emotionally biased by in-group/out-group dynamics. Being aware that you can be manipulated doesn’t help as much as you might think, because awareness is so intellectual and manipulation is so emotional. It’s hard to stop and say “hey, wait a minute” when what you’re being told feels right. That feeling is exactly the Achilles’ heel I’m talking about.

So yeah, don’t be a sucker, but that requires constant vigilance, and the ability to go against the grain of the pitchfork-wielding mob. A lot of folks just plain aren’t prepared to do that.

So I don’t necessarily have a solution, but I will leave you with this:

In a world where you can be anything, be kind.

Image: Adam Nemeroff

Some (more) thoughts on cancel culture

Okay, so. Let’s talk about cancel culture.

Cancel culture isn’t what a lot of folks think it is.

You can’t reasonably address the notion of what “cancel culture” is until you first address what it isn’t. Cancel culture is not saying “I don’t like the way that company does business, so I’m not going to shop there.” Cancel culture isn’t “I don’t like what that person did, so I’m not going to watch her movies.” Cancel culture isn’t even “I don’t like what that company or that person did, so I’m going to tell others how I feel about them.”

All those things are simply you making your own choices. No company is entitled to your money; you’re not taking something away from a corporation that rightfully deserves it by not shopping there. No movie star is entitled to you seeing their movies. No TV comedian is entitled to have you watch their shows. No author is entitled to have you read their books.

Cancel culture, if we are to be intellectually honest, is something else. Cancel culture is the idea that someone or some company did (or you think they did) something wrong, so you aren’t going to patronize them, and you are going to try to force other people not to patronize them either.

Probably the classic example of cancel culture in United States history was McCarthyism, where the government used political witch hunts to force people out of their livelihoods because someone said their brother overheard their hairdresser telling someone else they might be Communist.

Anyone who stood by someone accused of Communism was also branded a Communist. Anyone who defended someone accused of Communism was also driven out of their jobs. Anyone who stood up and said “hey, wait a minute…” was branded a traitor and publicly hounded.

The most dramatic recent example of cancel culture was probably what happened to the Dixie Chicks, who incited the wrath of right-wingers by criticizing the Iraq war.

Many people stopped buying their albums. That’s not cancel culture.

However, they also demanded radio stations stop playing their music. They stalked and harassed managers of radio stations that played their music. They sent death threats to radio DJs who played their music. They phoned firebomb threats to venues that hosted their concerts.

That’s cancel culture.

Cancel culture is not “I will not patronize this person.” Cancel culture is “I will make sure nobody else patronizes this person.”

There are a lot of moving parts to cancel culture; while it predates the Internet (and possibly human civilization), the Internet has made it a flash phenomenon, able to incite enormous fury at the slightest breath.

And while in the past it has frequently been dominated by the political right—I laugh every time an American conservative accuses liberals of “cancel culture,” given the Dixie Chicks thing and the Starbucks thing, cancel culture is neither a left thing nor a right thing. Folks of all political persuasions do it.

Some of the key elements of cancel culture include:

Mass outrage. “Look what they have done! They have criticized our President/sold us out to Commies/said a bad thing/whatever! Outrage!!!” Often, the outrage comes with scanty supporting evidence, and frequently it’s presented with the most emotionally laden spin possible.

Appeal to popular narratives. Narratives are powerful. Human beings are a storytelling species; we understand the world through stories. The stories we tell ourselves—”the government is bad and trying to harm me,” “men are abusers; women are victims,” “nothing an opposing politician says is ever true,” “gay men are pedophiles”—shape our understanding and perception of the world. Stories we hear that fit our narratives tend to be believed without question. Stories that contradict our narratives tend to be rejected without consideration.

These two things often work in synergy. Something that contradicts or violates a narrative we accept will often generate a disproportionate emotional response…not only because it introduces cognitive dissonance, but also because these narratives are:

Tribal markers. The narratives we accept become the way we tell in-groups from out-groups. They are, in a literal sense, virtue signaling and identity politics; the people who believe the same narratives are ‘us,’ while those who reject our narratives are ‘them.’

A clearly defined Good Guy, clearly defined Bad Guy, and clearly defined crime—often, a crime against whatever values once made the Bad Guy a Good Guy. In the political right, this tends to be defiance of authority figures the Right accepts (President Bush, Donald Trump); in the political left, this tends to be perception of or accusation of sexual or social impropriety.

This is why the US left and US right accuse one another of “cancel culture” but don’t see what they themselves do as “cancel culture.” We didn’t cancel the Dixie Chicks; we responded to their unacceptable disrespect of our President! We didn’t cancel that comedian; we responded to defend disadvantaged groups from his attack!

Targeting not only of the person being canceled, but anyone nearby. Cancel culture is, by its nature, an attempt to coerce everyone into shunning the person or entity being canceled. The best way to do this? Target anyone who stands by that person or entity. Doing this sends a clear and unmistakeable message: Defend the person we are canceling and we will ruin you, too. People like to think of themselves as upstanding moral entities who will do the right thing under pressure. Threaten someone’s livelihood or reputation and I guarantee, guarantee, the overwhelming majority of those who think of themselves as good, stand-up people will fold like wet cardboard. There’s no percentage in having your own reputation ruined and your own livelihood destroyed for the sake of someone else. 

Intolerance of dissent. This same targeting happens to people who say “hold up a second, are you really sure this is what you say it is? Are you certain this person did what you think they did? Should we hear from this person?” Reminding someone in the throes of a full-fledged righteous wrath that stories have more than one side invites you to be cast out, set on fire, and nuked from orbit.

Rejection of nuance. Cancel culture thrives on self-righteousness. The people who engage in canceling truly, absolutely, 100% believe they are truly, absolutely 100% right. They truly believe they are on the side of the angels, casting out unutterable darkness itself. The idea that there might be anything other than a purely good side and a purely evil side lets the air out of that self-righteousness, and that invites in feelings of shame and guilt.

The trouble with all of this is it allows for no self-reflection and once started, cannot be recalled. The people who phoned bomb threats to Dixie Chicks venues continue, to this very day, to believe that what they did was right…because once you’ve taken that step, how can you sleep at night if you tell yourself ‘no, actually, I was over the top, I shouldn’t have done that’? Once you’ve accused something of some wrongdoing, even if on some level you know it isn’t true, you can’t take it back without the risk of that same outrage machine turning on you; you have to keep going. 

In 1937, Winston Churchill wrote:

Dictators ride to and fro upon tigers from which they dare not dismount.

He was talking about populism, but where populism is the politics of human tribalism writ large, cancel culture is the politics of human tribalism writ small, and the same idea applies. When you’ve saddled up that tiger, you don’t dare dismount lest it stop eating your enemies and eat you instead.

So what does this have to do with political correctness?

“Politically correct” is a fudge phrase. It’s like “respect” that way.

In 2015, a Tumblr user on a now-deleted blog wrote

Sometimes people use “respect” to mean “treating someone like a person” and sometimes they use “respect” to mean “treating someone like an authority”

and sometimes people who are used to being treated like an authority say “if you won’t respect me I won’t respect you” and they mean “if you won’t treat me like an authority I won’t treat you like a person”

So when you hear the word “respect” in a political conversation, that should raise the small hairs on the back of your neck. Odds are good someone’s about to pull a lingusitic switcheroo on you, and if you don’t pay attention, you’re gonna get snookered.

Sometimes people use “politically correct” to mean “treating other people with decency and compassion” and sometimes people use “politically correct” to mean “adhering to a rigid dogmatic orthodoxy.”

And sometimes people will go into a conversation using it the first way, and when you agree you think that’s a fine idea, they’ll point at you and say “See! You’re just trotting out your identity-politics dogmatism!”

And then whatever idea you’d been advocating gets dismissed as empty virtue signaling.

It’s easy, oh so very easy, to pick up the torch and the pitchfork when you hear something that presses your emotional buttons. And yes, you do have buttons, and so do I, and so does everyone.

Outrage is the enemy of reason. It’s easy to get swept up in the righteous fury of outrage. I’ve done it. I struggle to name anyone who hasn’t. That outrage makes you a tool, a weapon in someone else’s hands…and sickeningly often, if you scratch the surface of justifiable moral outrage over some clear and obvious moral wrongdoing, you’ll find something cheap and tawdry beneath.

Something like money. Or influence. Or political power.

The irony is that political correctness of the first sort—compassion, empathy, a sincere desire to see things from many perspectives, a rejection of the easy and convenient narrative—is actually the antidote to cancel culture, which rests on a foundation of political correctness of the second sort.

But political correctness of the second sort feels better. Picking up the torch and the pitchfork feels good. You feel like you’re in the right. You feel like a superhero. You feel like you’re riding into battle against evil itself. And best of all, you can do it easily, from home, without risking anything!

Funny thing about that. If what you’re doing makes you feel heroic without risking anything…maybe it’s not as heroic as you think it is.

How Facebook convinced me democracy is in trouble

Today, in The Street Finds its Own Uses for Things:

I noticed something funny when I logged into Facebook last week. My feed, which is normally filled with ads for video games, photography gear, and complicated kits for Stirling engines you can build at home, was absolutely jam-packed with ads for far-right pro-Trump merchandise, antigovernment T-shirts and posters, gun holsters, and “conservative news” sites.

And I mean jam-packed. I’ve never seen this quantity of advertising on Facebook before; literally an ad following every single friend post.

The whole secret of advertising on Facebook is you can target your ads. You can specify exactly who you want to see your ads; for example, when we ran ads for the first porn novel we co-authored, Eunice and I targeted people with an interest in reading who were 35 or younger and lived close to a university, figuring this would likely be the sort of person interested in far-future, post-scarcity science fiction smut.

So why would Facebook, that giant creepy Hydra in the cloud, show me alt-right ads when it knows I’m a lefty Portlander?

Because the advertisers know I won’t buy their products. They don’t care. That isn’t why they’re spending tens of millions of dollars on Facebook advertising.


So first, the ads.

I’ve gotten in the habit of aggressively blocking these ads when they appear, and blocking the companies that place them. Doesn’t matter. There are a zillion other companies placing near-ident0cal ads for near-identical products, and sometimes (this is a telling bit) even with the same stock photos.

The ads look lik e this:

If you ask Facebook “why did I see this ad?”, Facebook will show you the demographic the ad was targeting. And these ads are completely ignoring the laser-focused demographics Facebook likes to brag about. They’re shotguns, not sniper rifles.

So why? What’s the point? Why target so broadly, when it increases your spend without generating sales?

So here’s the thing:

I don’t believe they’re trying to generate sales.

That’s not the point. They aren’t interested in selling you gun holsters or T-shirts. I mean, if you buy some, that’s a bonus, but I believe these ads are a propaganda effort. The purpose is to put right-wing slogans and ideas in front of as many eyeballs as possible. They’re advertising ideas, not T-shirts.


The American political right is very, very good at propaganda. Liberals sneer at “Let’s Go Brandon,” the right-wing oh-so-clever “fuck Joe Biden,” but the thing is, it works. The people who use it don’t care that it’s juvenile. It makes them feel part of something. It’s a tribal identity marker.

And human beings like feeling like part of a tribe.

The hoodie up there that says “Proud member of the LGBFJB” community? It means “Let’s Go Brandon Fuck Joe Biden.” VClever? Not really. A great identity brand for a certain kind of person? Oh yeah.

And this brand is everywhere.

Branding and marketing and propaganda matter in political discourse. Arguably they matter more than policies and proposals and all that other wonk stuff.

They want this branding everywhere, and they’re willing to pay to make that happen.

People don’t make rational decisions. People make emotional decisions and then rationalize them. Often, those emotional decisions are predicated on feelings of belonging and inclusion. The right gets that, in its creepy way. The left? Not so much.


The thing is, the political left is doing nothing to counter any of this.

Do I think this Facebook propaganda is working?

Yes. Yes, I do.

It creates the illusion that right-wing ideas are more popular than they really are. It paints a false picture of what Americal looks like and what Americans want. It lets the right dominate the discourse in ways that the left won’t even try to counter.

The modern American right is intellectually and morally bankrupt, a seething cesspool of reactionary hate. But they get propaganda. They get it on an instinctive level, in ways that confuse lefties.

And that makes them far more effective than their numbers and policies alone would suggest.

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.