blunt essays with sharp points

Essentialism and Food: Why We Seek Natural and Shun Artificial

by Scrvpvlvs
Mar 31, 2010 6:56 AM–Essentialism creates practical problems for feeding humanity. This and many other interesting problems of human nature are highlighted by Steven Pinker in his 2002 book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Here is a sampling:

When a 1999 cyclone in India left millions of people in danger of starvation, some activists denounced relief societies for distributing a nutritious grain meal because it contained genetically modified varieties of corn and soybeans (varieties that had been eaten without apparent harm in the United States). These activists are also opposed to “golden rice,” a genetically modified variety that could prevent blindness in millions of children in the developing world and alleviate vitamin A deficiency in a quarter of a billion more. Other activists have vandalized research facilities at which the safety of genetically modified foods is tested and new varieties are developed. For these people, even the possibility that such foods could be safe is unacceptable.

A 2001 report by the European Union reviewed eighty-one research projects conducted over fifteen years and failed to find any new risks to human health or to the environment posed by genetically modified crops. This is no surprise to a biologist. Genetically modified foods are no more dangerous than “natural” foods because they are not fundamentally different from natural foods. Virtually every animal and vegetable sold in a health-food store has been “genetically modified” for millennia by selective breeding and hybridization. The wild ancestor of carrots was a thin, bitter white root; the ancestor of corn had an inch-long, easily shattered cob with a few small, rock-hard kernels. Plants are Darwinian creatures with no particular desire to be eaten, so they did not go out of their way to be tasty, healthy, or easy for us to grow and harvest. On the contrary: they did go out of their way to deter us from eating them, by evolving irritants, toxins, and bitter-tasting compounds. So there is nothing especially safe about natural foods. The “natural” method of selective breeding for pest resistance simply increases the concentration of the plant’s own poisons; one variety of natural potato had to be withdrawn from the market because it proved to be toxic to people. Similarly, natural flavors—defined by one food scientist as “a flavor that’s been derived with an out-of-date technology”—are often chemically indistinguishable from their artificial counterparts, and when they are distinguishable, sometimes the natural flavor is the more dangerous one. When “natural” almond flavor, benzaldehyde, is derived from peach pits, it is accompanied by traces of cyanide; when it is synthesized as an “artificial flavor”, it is not.

A blanket fear of all artificial and genetically modified foods is patently irrational on health grounds, and it could make food more expensive and hence less available to the poor. Where do these specious fears come from? Partly they arise from the carcinogen-du-jour school of journalism that uncritically reports any study showing elevated cancer rates in rats fed megadoses of chemicals. But partly they come from an intuition about living things that was first identified by the anthropologist James George Frazer in 1890 and has recently been studied in the lab by Paul Rozin, Susan Gelman, Frank Keil, Scott Atran, and other cognitive scientists.

People’s intuitive biology begins with the concept of an invisible essence residing in living things, which gives them their form and powers. These essentialist beliefs emerge early in childhood, and in traditional cultures they dominate reasoning about plants and animals. Often the intuitions serve people well. They allow preschoolers to deduce that a raccoon that looks like a skunk will have raccoon babies, that a seed taken from an apple and planted with flowers in a pot will produce an apple tree, and that an animal’s behavior depends on its innards, not on its appearance. They allow traditional peoples to deduce that different-looking creatures (such as a caterpillar and a butterfly) can belong to the same kind, and they impel them to extract juices and powders from living things and try them as medicines, poisons, and food supplements. They can prevent people from sickening themselves by eating things that have been in contact with infectious substances such as feces, sick people, and rotting meat.

But intuitive essentialism can also lead people into error. Children falsely believe that a child of English-speaking parents will speak English even if brought up in a French-speaking family, and that boys will have short hair and girls will wear dresses even if they are brought up with no other member of their sex from which they can learn those habits. Traditional peoples believe in sympathetic magic, otherwise known as voodoo. They think similar-looking objects have similar powers, so that a ground-up rhinoceros horn is a cure for erectile dysfunction. And they think that animal parts can transmit their powers to anything they mingle with, so that eating or wearing a part of a fierce animal will make one fierce.

Educated Westerners should not feel too smug. Rozin has shown that we have voodoolike intuitions ourselves. Most Americans won’t touch a sterilized cockroach, or even a plastic one, and won’t drink juice that the roach has touched for even a fraction of a second. And even Ivy League students believe that you are what you eat. They judge that a tribe that hunts turtles for their meat and wild boar for their bristles will be good swimmers, and that a tribe that hunts turtles for their shells and wild boar for their meat will be tough fighters. In his history of biology, Ernst Mayr showed that many biologists originally rejected the theory of natural selection because of their belief that a species was a pure type defined by an essence. They could not wrap their minds around the concept that species are populations of variable individuals and that one can blend into another over evolutionary time.

In this context, the fear of genetically modified foods no longer seems so strange: it is simply the standard human intuition that every living thing has an essence. Natural foods are thought to have the pure essence of the plant or animal and to carry with them the rejuvenating powers of the pastoral environment in which they grew. Genetically modified foods, or foods containing artificial additives, are thought of as being deliberately laced with a contaminant tainted by its origins in an acrid laboratory or factory. Arguments that invoke genetics, biochemistry, evolution, and risk analysis are likely to fall on deaf ears when pitted against this deep-rooted way of thinking.

—Steven Pinker. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

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The Associated Press: Disputed isle in Bay of Bengal disappears into sea [link]

by Scrvpvlvs
Mar 26, 2010 10:39 AM–The Associated Press: Disputed isle in Bay of Bengal disappears into sea: What these two countries could not achieve from years of talking, has been resolved by global warming.

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How A Representative Can Use Surveys To Good Advantage [link]

by Scrvpvlvs
Mar 19, 2010 5:43 PM–A friend forwarded an e-mail from U.S. House Rep. Dr. Michael Burgess (R-Texas). Dr. Burgess represents a district my friend left some time ago. But Rep. Burgess is still seemingly interested in his opinion of a health care reform bill up for vote this weekend, and sought to have him complete a short survey.

This e-mail survey is a delightfully clever bit of misdirection and propaganda. Let’s see how it works.

Misdirection: inviting you to tell more about yourself than you realize

The e-mail baits you into action. It calls the bill a product of corrupt acts: “secret negotiations, sweetheart deals for certain Members, and rule-bending procedural gimmicks”. This will delight or antagonize you, depending on whether you agree or disagree with the Republican Party position on this bill.

Having gotten your attention (the bait), the e-mail then immediately invites you to click a link (take the bait) to complete a survey. You are primed by your enthusiasm (or indignation) to do so.

The link you click is the hook. It doesn’t go straight to the survey.

Here are some of the links which take you to Rep. Burgess’ survey. Notice each one has a different ID:

When you see a system like this, it generally means each copy of the e-mail has a different ID. That lets your e-mail address be linked to your survey results.

The survey comes up on your screen, with two questions: (1) Email Address for future email updates (more spam), and (2) are you opposed to the bill (Yes/No/Unsure).

Still enthusiastic, you answer.

Remember: even if you do not give an e-mail address on the survey, your original e-mail address can be linked to your survey response. So Rep. Burgess can know how you voted.

You now enthusiastically forward the original e-mail to your like minded friends. Some of them vote. Some of them give Rep. Burgess their e-mail address on the survey. Now, Rep. Burgess can know not only how you voted, but who your friends are, and how they voted.

But that’s only half of the fun.

Propaganda: using the results for greater influence

For more delight, let’s look at the first question of the survey itself: the Email Address for future email updates. The first question of a survey is the one that is most likely to be answered. So a survey will put the most important question first. Why is this question the most important to Rep. Burgess?

It’s important because it influences you. If you oppose Rep. Burgess, or if you support the bill that he opposes, then you won’t want his e-mail updates. So the first question of the survey deflates a lot of your enthusiasm for completing the survey. In other words, people who agree with Rep. Burgess are more likely to complete the survey.

This is an example of what is called self selection bias. Rep. Burgess’ survey responses will lean towards people who agree with his position. Therefore, so will his survey results.

One way Rep. Burgess can capitalize on this situation is to influence other House members. He could claim he surveyed my mailing list and found that the results were strongly against the bill, more strongly than you would expect if only Republicans opposed it.

Another way is to influence voters at reelection time. He could claim voters can trust him to listen to his constituents, pointing out that he voted against the health bill after surveying his mailing list and finding mostly opposition.

Rep. Burgess should be careful not to point out that his mailing list is not limited to constituents, and that his e-mail could and probably was forwarded to many people not on his list and living outside his district. The e-mail specifically says, “health care reform will affect every single American, so I want to hear from you”—inviting responses from people outside his district.

I do not in any way mean to single Rep. Burgess out for criticism. The e-mail and survey system he uses is the regular House Of Representatives system. It is designed to be used the way he did. Therefore I have no reason to doubt that his survey is a fair example of what all our Representatives from all political parties are doing as a matter of routine.

Delightful, isn’t it?

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