Rejecting Nature – and Breastfeeding

Far away into the future, when people look back at the 20th century, they’ll say that it was the century when mankind has truly begun rejecting Nature.

What is “Nature”? That term, which some of us regard so highly today, is simply the current products of an ongoing evolutionary process – just the same as us. Human beings are a similar product of an evolutionary process which has left us with physical, hormonal and mental characteristics that have served us well in the prehistorical past, but are far from beneficial in our present society.

The most impressive way in which we’ve rejected Nature in the 20th century is probably with the invention and proliferation of use of birth control measures.

The 20th century has seen women reject Nature with the establishment of the first permanent birth-control clinic in 1921, where women were taught how to use a cervical cap, in a time when distribution of birth control information was illegal by law in the United States. In 1957, the FDA approved the first contraceptive pill to be taken orally, but only “for severe menstrual disorders,” which has led to an unusually large number of women suddenly reporting severe menstrual disorders. Those women were desperate to escape the decrees of Nature which have been enforced on their bodies without their willingness or consent. Just how much do they want that? According to a series of 2012 surveys in developing countries, the number of women who want to avoid pregnancy has reached 867 million out of 1520 million, or 57%. Many of those women want to promote their careers or expand their education before having a child. In short, they want to fulfill their potential as human beings instead of plodding blindly along the path evolution has set for them. They want to choose for themselves.

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The first birth control clinic in the United States. Source: Everett Collection, as posted in Time

Society, of course, has been trying to hold them back in the meantime. While it is no longer illegal to use contraceptives, the clergy is still speaking harshly against such practices. Even the currently reigning Pope Francis has not authorized the use of contraceptives, and Pope Pius XII explained in 1951 that the teaching against contraceptives –

“is in full force today, as it was in the past, and so will be in the future also, and always, because it is not a simple human whim, but the expression of a natural and divine law

 

Natural Breastfeeding?

Society keeps on holding people to the standards of that ‘natural and divine law’, even if those human beings aren’t catholic. Breastfeeding, for example, has been promoted in recent decades as contributing to the baby’s health, wellbeing and development. Now new evidence begins to appear that contradicts some of these claims. Specifically, it seems studies from the last 25 years that have compared between breastfed babies and non-breastfed ones, have not ruled out some important economic, social and cultural confounding factors. When those factors are taken into account, it turns out that breastfeeding is marginally better, at best, for babies.

Does that mean women shouldn’t breastfeed? Of course not. There are plenty of studies out there showing that breastfeeding has benefits for mothers as well as for babies. But we shouldn’t forget that it has its share of issues as well: for many it’s a painful, stressful and time-consuming exercise, making it difficult for women to continue advancing their careers, education and yes, their sex lives too. This is a noble sacrifice many mothers make – but what if it’s not needed after all? What if our technology has already improved formulas enough to replace breastfeeding with no damage to babies?

I fear that even in that case, many people will remain convinced that “breast is best”. Why? They will say that it’s natural, that it’s just the way Nature designed us. And they won’t consider that just a hundred years ago, it was deemed unnatural and illegal for women to use contraceptives, and that two hundred years ago life-saving vaccines were considered unnatural too.

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“Breast is Best” ad by PETA

This all means that we need to be more suspicious towards arguments that advocate for the ‘natural means’. The scientific evidence for ‘breast is best’ for babies seems to have been shaky right from the outset, and I suspect that had it not resonated so well with our natural fallacy and bias, the scientific and medical establishment would not have accepted them as easily.

 

Conclusions

There is a widespread perception that Nature is an infallible and benevolent mistress. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Nature is that semi-random evolutionary process which has shaped us in ways that would’ve been beneficial (occasionally) ten-thousand years ago, but which now come into conflict with our modern values and ways of life. Every aspect of our biology and psych that is considered ‘natural’ should (and will) be scrutinized carefully in the 21st century, and if it does not fit our modern values – it should be reconsidered.

Does that mean we should tell women not to give birth to children, or to avoid breastfeeding them? Of course not. We should, however, give them the choice over their bodies.

Even though, you know, that sort of thinking would’ve been considered unnatural a hundred years ago.

 

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The New Age of Conspiracies

Last week, the most famous monster in the world has finally been discovered: Nessie, the Loch Ness monster, has been found. It is nine meters long, with a long and truly monstrous neck. The abomination currently resides some 200 meters below the surface of the water, where it is waiting for no one in particular. Because, you see, it’s a film prop.

The prop was built for a Sherlock Holmes movie back in 1969, and unfortunately sunk below the surface and never came back up. It has now been discovered by an underwater drone equipped with sonar imaging, operated by Norwegian company Kongsberg Maritime.

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Nessie, underwater. Source: Kongsberg Maritime

This is an amusing story, of course, but it holds tantalizing hints to the future of conspiracies in a world that is rapidly becoming transparent. In a not-so-distant future, we are going to have drones and satellites mapping out every piece of land on Earth, whether it be at the North Pole, in the deepest Amazonian jungles, or on the bottom of the ocean. We are going to be better acquainted with the Earth than ever before.

Robotic drones will not be the only ones to watch over the Earth. We will take part in that venture, too.

In the past, if you would’ve observed a UFO in the sky, or an Abominable Snowman with big feet, or a vampire draining its victim’s blood, you would’ve needed to run away swiftly to get your bulky camera and obtain a proof for the thing you saw. Today, everyone has a smartphone with a high-quality camera in their pockets. Citizens document police brutality, gang wars, and random acts of kindness using these devices. And yet, despite the fact that suddenly everyone can record anything they see, no reliable evidence for the existence of UFOs, yetis or (living) Loch Ness monsters has come up.

The lack of evidence, in an age when everything becomes known, does not seem to bother the general public. A 2012 survey revealed that 36 percent of the American population believe that UFOs are real, which is approximately the same number as uncovered in a Canadian 2008 survey. This is hardly surprising: we’ve only had smartphones for nine years now, and society has not yet reshaped its myths around the idea that anything that happens in the corporeal world is bound to be recorded and analyzed.

In the long term, however, cryptozoology – the search for mythical creatures – will become obsolete and subject to ridicule, even more than it is today.

But conspiracy theories will live on. In fact, they may even become more powerful than they currently are.

 

The Future of Conspiracies

Conspiracy theories have no formal definition accepted by all, but for the purpose of this post we can accept Sunstein and Vermeule’s definition that they are –

“…an effort to explain some event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people, who have also managed to conceal their role.”

Conspiracies are often used by human beings to explain why bad things happen. We are, after all, rational animals, and we look for reasons for everything that happens around us. We search for patterns and for stories that fit those patterns. For example, we have a tendency towards proportionality bias – our automatic belief that big events, like the JFK assassination, must be related to big causes and can’t be the result of a work of a single madman.

Conspiracy theorists also rely on cherry picking – taking a large volume of information and picking out of it the pieces which support a certain pattern while ignoring the rest.

In the future, we will have an abundance of data. However, data does not lead automatically to insights, knowledge and understanding. These rely on careful analysis of the data, usually performed by experts who understand how to suggest and falsify hypotheses and how to differentiate between authentic readings and noise. The plethora in data, therefore, will lead to plenty of ‘evidence’ which conspiracy theorists will use to support their ideas.

 

Why Should You Be Concerned?

Why should this development concern you? Because conspiracy theories can proliferate rapidly in the online world and on social networks. If you’re a business or a government agency that releases data to the public, you should be aware that some conspiracy theorists will mine that data someday. When they do – they will find some correlations there that they could use to support their ideas. And when they find those and post them online, you can expect twitstorm, a Facebook massively shared post, or a viral Youtube clip – all of which will severely damage the reputation of your organization.

To counter that threat, businesses and government agencies should start developing a new role: an anti-conspiracy officer. It is not enough to rely on the new-media experts to calm a twitstorm – they know how to use the medium, but they don’t have the necessary understanding of the content. Anti-conspiracy officers will need to work together with the new-media experts to counter new conspiracy theories by providing correct analyses of the existing data, and presenting them in a way that everyone can understand.

Today, we have public intellectuals – calling themselves Skeptics – as such anti-conspiracy officers acting on behalf of the public. These include Steven Novella, Neil deGrasse Tyson, PZ Myers, and many others. As far as I’m aware, they do not receive compensation for companies or from governments for their time and effort handling conspiracy theories on social networks in real-time.

Maybe it’s time to start funding these skeptical exercises in a more organized way.

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The Skeptic Trumps. Source: The Reason Stick

Conclusions

We gain better and more powerful tools to record and document everything that’s going on in the world, but most of humanity still does not have the necessary thinking tools and methods to derive valuable and truthful insights out of the collected data. Conspiracies will likely thrive in this environment, but we can hinder their proliferation and growth on the internet by educating the public.

Can Social Networks stop Ignorance (and Stupidity)?

Two days ago, the picture above was posted on Facebook by Tom Martindale –

Two things are immediately obvious:

  1. The ‘planet’ to the right is actually the moon with the United States stretched all over it;
  2. About two thousand people thought it was important enough to share this obvious hoax to their friends.

So – are there indeed two thousand people ignorant enough to share this message without realizing just how ridiculous it is? Isn’t that a reason to be worried about the state of the nation, about people’s education, and also to bemoan the tendency of social media to spread rumors far and wide without any criticism?

Not necessarily.

About two days ago, when the image was still fresh on Facebook and only gathered 500 shares, I took the liberty of going through all the “shares” of the picture that Facebook felt fit to show me. Altogether, I browsed through 86 “shares” – barely a fifth of the full number of people who shared the picture, but still a significant amount. I divided the shares into three categories-

  1. Identified the hoax: Shares by people who recognized the hoax, or that their friends explained to them about the hoax in their replies.
  2. Fooled by the hoax: Shares by people who explicitly mentioned that we were destroying the Earth, which I’m assuming means they thought the picture is authentic.
  3. Unknown: Shares by people who didn’t write anything about the picture, and whose friends did not reply either. We can’t know whether they shared the picture because they believe it is authentic, or because they wanted to have a good laugh about the hoax with their friends.

Care to guess how many people fell for the hoax?

The results are pretty clear. Out of the 86 shares, only one treated the picture explicitly as if it symbolized the destruction of the Earth. Of the other 85 shares, 40 dismissed the picture outright or had it dismissed for them by their friends, while the rest are unknown – they didn’t write anything about the picture in their share.

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That’s actually very impressive. If we assume that the “shares” I counted reflect the overall distribution of shares, it means that for every person who fell victim to the hoax, we have forty people who identified it outright as a hoax, or had it explained to them immediately by their friends.

What can we learn from this (admittedly small) piece of data?

First, just because a certain image gets shared around the social networks, it doesn’t automatically mean that the sharers actually believe it is true or even worth reading. Many may be sharing it simply to ridicule others. I know this isn’t really a newsflash for all of you reading this post, but with everyone being so gloomy about the state of the nation’s ignorance and gullibility, it’s a good thing to keep in mind.

Second, while social networks are often rightly accused of spreading rumors, lies and misperceptions, it’s impossible to ignore their positive effects. Ignorant people can be found in every crowd, but they often don’t even know how ignorant they actually are. In the social network, it can be difficult to remain ignorant unless you’re doing so by choice. Whatever you share is open to debate, to criticism, to ridicule and to corrections by people who often know more and care more for the subject than you do.

Obviously, that’s not the end of the issue by far. Social networks can also be used to spread untruths of many kinds. In many issues, the loudest and most rabid voices are the most heard. If an alien from outer space would’ve logged into Facebook today, he would’ve figured that GMOs are hazardous to your health, vaccines cause autism, and marijuana cures cancer. At least two of the above are clearly and demonstrably false, and yet each conspiracy theory has gathered a large crowd of believers who will defend it online to their dying breath from any rational argument.

So: social networks – are they good or bad for public knowledge and understanding? That’s obviously a false dichotomy. Social networks work just like the agora – the gathering place where all the Greek citizens came together to discuss matters. They bring the agora to us, which means we’re going to get approached by many charlatans peddling their wares and beliefs, and also by the skeptics who are trying to warn us off. Social networks take away the loneliness of the individual, and turn us into a crowd – for good AND for bad at the same time.

A Town in North Carolina has Banned Solar Energy – and You Can Thank Greenpeace for That

 

Recently, a town council in North Carolina rejected plans to open a solar farm in its area, after the town people expressed their fears about the new solar technology. As reported in the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, retired science teacher Jane Mann, complained that no one could assure her that solar panels did not cause cancer. Her husband, Bobby Mann, chimed in and warned the council that solar farms would suck up all the energy from the sun. Needless to say, neither of these arguments has any base in reality. The council, however, heard their warnings and voted against establishing a solar farm in the area. Later, the same town council also voted for a moratorium on future solar farms.

This is probably an isolated incident. In fact, the case has been covered widely in the last day, and the couple’s remarks have been met with worldwide ridicule, so some would say that it’s not likely to repeat itself. All the same, I believe similar arguments are bound to arise in other potential locations for solar farms. People will read about the claims associating between solar panels and deaths from cancer, and conspiracy theories will be created out of the blue. In some places, like that North Carolina town, fear will keep the new and clean technology from being deployed and used.

And if that happens, I can’t help but think that Greenpeace will be the ones to blame.

 

Greenpeace’s Feud with Science

A few years ago, I did a podcast episode about genetic engineering in plants. I wanted people to understand the science behind the technique, so I invited two distinguished professors from the academy who were experts in the field. I also invited a professor who was an expert in bioethics, to highlight the dilemmas surrounding genetic engineering and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Finally, I asked a senior member in Greenpeace to come to the show and provide their take on GMOs. I still remember her words, and this is a direct quote –

“If you’re inviting doctors to the show, I’m not coming.”

To say that her words blew me away is an understatement. I used to donate monthly to Greenpeace under the presumption that they’re striving to change the world to the better – but how can they know in which area they should invest their political and public influence, if they’re not guided by science and by experts? And can’t they actually do more harm than good, by supporting the wrong causes?

Since that time, I started following Greenpeace’s agenda and actions and scrutinizing them closely. It was immediately clear that the ‘green’ organization was acting more on blind faith and belief in the healing and wholesome power of nature, than on scientific findings.

Oh, you want examples? Here’s the most famous one, that we experience up to this date: the campaign against Golden Rice in particular, and genetically modified organisms in general.

Greenpeace’s campaign against the Golden Rice, for one, has succeeded in delaying the deliverance of genetically modified rice to farmers in poor countries. “Golden Rice” is golden indeed since it had been genetically altered to produce a precursor of vitamin A, which is a vital nutrient for human consumption. Sadly, vitamin A is lacking in many areas in the developing world. In fact, half a million children who suffer from severe vitamin A deficiency go blind every year, and half of them die soon after. The Golden Rice has been ready for use since the beginning of the 21st century, and yet Greenpeace’s campaign against GMOs in general and Golden Rice in particular has kept it off the market. At the same time, study after study show that GMOs are safe for eating, and in many cases are safer for the environment than ordinary crops.

Unfortunately, the scientific evidence on the issue of GMOs does not matter much to Greenpeace, which keeps on fighting against GMOs and utilizing bad science, funding extremely shoddy studies, and scaremongering all over the world. No wonder that Stephen Tindale, ex-director of Greenpeace, has recently denounced anti-GM food campaigns of the kind Greenpeace is leading still. William Saletan, who has studied the issue extensively, published his results in Slate –

“…the deeper you dig, the more fraud you find in the case against GMOs. It’s full of errors, fallacies, misconceptions, misrepresentations, and lies. The people who tell you that Monsanto is hiding the truth are themselves hiding evidence that their own allegations about GMOs are false. They’re counting on you to feel overwhelmed by the science and to accept, as a gut presumption, their message of distrust.”

 

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Greenpeace scaremongering. Image originally from the Genetic Literacy Project.

 

I don’t want this post to become a defense poster for GMOs. You can find solid reviews of the scientific evidence in some of the links above. What’s important to realize, though, is that Greenpeace have deliberately led a tactic that relies on people’s lack of scientific knowledge and their automatic fears of every new technology. This tactic is harmful in two ways: first, it can actually bring harm to environment since our choices do not rely on solid science but on scare tactics; second, it poisons people’s minds against science and scientific evidence, so that they are unwilling to look at new technologies in a calm and rational manner – even if those technologies are much safer for the environment than anything that came before them.

Which is exactly what happened at North Carolina this week, when the public rejected solar energy partly because of irrational and unfounded fears. Ironically, Greenpeace has put a lot of emphasis on solar energy as the preferred direction to solve the world’s energy problems, and their efforts are commendable. However, when they’ve spent the last few decades teaching people to be afraid of conspiracy theories by evil scientists, industry and government, why did they think people would stop there? Why shouldn’t people question the scientific base against solar panels’ safety, when Greenpeace has never bothered to encourage and promote scientific literacy and rational thinking among their followers?

Today, Greenpeace should feel proud of itself – it has primed people precisely for this kind of a response: a knee-jerk rejection of anything that is new and unfamiliar. With Greenpeace’s generous assistance, fear now overrides rational thinking.

 

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I don’t like scare tactics, but when one of them is as beautiful as this one, I just can’t resist the urge to show it here. Image originally from the Inspiration Room, and the campaign was developed by BBDO Moscow.

 

Conclusion

For the last few decades, concerned scientists have watched with consternation as the environmentalist movement – with Greenpeace at its head – took an ugly turn and dived headlong into pseudo-science, mysticism and fear-mongering, while leaving solid science behind. This is particularly troubling since we need a strong environmentalist movement to help save the Earth, but it has to build its demands and strategies on a solid scientific base. Anything less than that, and the environmentalists could actually cause more harm to the environment – and to humanity – than the worst moneygrubbing industry leaders.

Even worse than that, in order to obtain public support for unscientific strategies, Greenpeace and other environmentalist movements have essentially “poisoned the wells” and have turned people’s minds against scientists and scientific studies. Instead of promoting rational thinking, they turned to scaremongering tactics that might actually backfire on them now, as they try to promote solar power technology that’s actually evidence-based.

How can we rectify this situation? The answer is simple: promote scientific literacy and rational thinking. I dare to hope that in the near future, Greenpeace will finally realize that science is not an enemy, but a way to better understand the world, and that its demands must be based on solid science. Anything less than that will lead to eventual harm to the planet.