Monday, 13 June 2016

Business as Usual, Crunchiness and Woo, Part 3: Focusing on the Woo in Crunchiness

In my last post I talked about what's wrong with BAU (Business as Usual—the "culture of maximum harm") and how Crunchies are those who want to do less harm, to their fellow men and to the planet.

I chose to use the terms "Crunchy," "Crunchies" and "Crunchiness" in this series of posts to reflect the degree of derision heaped by BAU culture upon those who are looking for solutions outside that culture. I know full well that many people who are seeking alternatives to BAU will be offended by the term "Crunchy", but I would urge them to wear the term proudly, to make it clear that they are withdrawing their support from BAU. That withdrawal is a very important step to take.

In any case, such people should take heart, because I am about to be pretty hard on the standard sort of flakey Crunchy, pointing out that there is a whole lot of woo bound up with their position, too.

BAU's "religion of progress" teaches that cultural change for our species takes place along a single path, from the "caves to the stars", so to speak. The intended direction is "forward" and anyone who questions this is accused of wanting to go "backwards". This is nonsense, of course, since cultural change can in fact take place along many dimensions, the great majority of which we have not yet explored. Indeed finding a different path is what much of Crunchiness is about.

Of course, another large chunk of Crunchiness is a reaction to what BAU is doing wrong. This is totally appropriate, but it's also a source of the major weaknesses in Crunchiness. Crunchies largely reject the scientific method, I think mainly because of the great degree to which it seems to have been co-opted by BAU. When they don't rejected it, they use it the way a drunk uses a lamppost—for support, rather than illumination.

The trouble with this, of course, is that when you reject or misuse the scientific method you have no reliable way of checking to see if your ideas are correct. Ideas which are not correct then get adopted and propagated with great enthusiasm, just because they seems to support the ideology. If you really want to succeed at saving/changing the world, it would be a good idea to make sure your methods actually work.

Being susceptible to woo also leaves you open to predators who will use your credulity to take advantage of you and make a profit in the process. Indeed there is a great deal of supposed crunchiness that is really just greenwashing by unscrupulous businesses who are clearly part of BAU.

Related to the rejection of science is the personification of nature, including the Gaia hypothesis and the default, but erroneous, assumption common among Crunchies that whatever is natural must be good. And along with this goes technophobia—fear of the many new things created by modern man.

And, ironically, Crunchies often seem to accept BAU's "single path" woo and try to move backwards in order to avoid the consequences of moving forward along that path. Unfortunately there is just as much in BAU's past that we should avoid as there is in its present and future. It may prove beneficial or even necessary to move to a level of energy consumption similar to what was common decades or even hundreds of years ago. This does not mean that we have to adopt a similar level of social justice or scientific/medical/nutritional ignorance. We have learned a lot since then that can be successfully applied to a society that uses much less energy and gets by with much less stuff. There is no need to throw the baby out with the bath water.

Rejecting science and what's good in the modern world leads to problems in several areas and I think it would be useful to look at a few specific examples. I've included links to further details about many of the areas I mention below. If you are a "flakey crunchy", but your mind is even a little bit open, they are worth following. Maybe not the very best that is available on the internet, but good.

One of the best examples is alternative "medicine" which, sadly, is quite popular with Crunchy folks. When an alternative medical technique is proven to work, it becomes part of conventional medicine and is no longer alternative. What's left behind is all the techniques that don't work. But because conventional medicine is very much a part of BAU and because alternative medical practitioners don't really get the scientific method, they keep pushing techniques that are no better than placebos. Naturopathic medicine, homeopathy, herbal medicine, reflexology, reiki, acupuncture, chiropractic and the anti-vaccination movement are all examples, but this is by no means an exhaustive list.

One of the wrong-headed ideas common in alternative"medicine" is that the human body is a perfect creation—that its default, normal state would be complete health. In fact, we are a chance product of evolution, the least worst of all the competing alternatives—just barely good enough to do the job, and with all kinds of built in problems.

There is a lot of money to be made by practitioners of alternative medicine, so it seems very likely that at least some of the people involved are well aware what they are doing, but don't care one bit.

A related area is that of food, nutrition and farming.

There is so much controversy these days about nutrition that it is difficult to sort out, even if you try hard to go with the science. If you don't, then you are open to a great deal of nonsense. All sorts people are making a living promoting fad diets, telling us what we should and shouldn't eat, with little or no science backing it up. Many Crunchies seem to lap this stuff up. The current concerns about gluten and high fructose corn syrup are good examples of this.

Part of the problem is being too eager to accept any single scientific finding that seems to support what you already believe, instead of looking at the overall consensus in the field. Trouble is, there doesn't seem to be a very strong scientific consensus in this area and what consensus there is, is changing rapidly. Best to wait and see, rather than committing to ideologically based nonsense.

Crunchies tend to reject modern industrial farming and the food it produces because it's "not natural". I've spoken at length elsewhere on this blog about what's wrong with modern farming—mainly that it isn't sustainable.

But there has been nothing natural about agriculture since it was invented 10,000 or so years ago. Agriculture is a human creation which isolates us from natural sources of food. Traditional farming techniques are no more natural than modern agriculture.

Organic agriculture started out with a set of techniques to promote healthy soil, which is surely a good thing. But to do agriculture on a commercial scale and produce the uniform, blemish free fruits and vegetables that today's consumer expects, you have to use pesticides. Conventional agriculture chooses its pesticides to maximize effectiveness and minimize harm. But in order to be a certified organic farm, you have to use naturally sourced chemicals rather than synthetic ones. This is based on the fallacious idea that natural is automatically better. With apologies to friends who are practicing what they call organic agriculture (but I would call sustainable agriculture) today's "organic agriculture" is a marketing technique more than anything else, aimed at getting higher prices from people who have been fooled into thinking that "organic " is more natural and produces food that is safer and more nutritious. I am referring, of course, to the large scale industrial organic type of farming, which is no more sustainable than conventional farming and uses "chemicals" with similar abandon, even if they are "naturally" sourced.

Then there is the "bee thing"—the persistent myth that honeybees are about to be wiped out, their decline often being attributed to synthetic pesticides.

Crunchies also seem to fall pretty uniformly on the "anti" side of the genetic engineering controversy. This is a great pity, because it completely ignores the scientific consensus and rejects a technology that has great promise for enabling a more sustainable agriculture.

A good example of the sort of flakiness I am talking about here can be found in "permaculture", a branch of organic agriculture that aims to make agriculture permanent (thus the name)—that is, sustainable on an ongoing basis. This is certainly a laudable goal and one that I would really like to be able to support. Unfortunately I have some serious reservations, because "permies don't do numbers". That is, the promising techniques these folks are so enthusiastic about never get tried out in the sort of way that could determine whether they work or not. This sort of testing involves actually measuring and quantifying results, and would allow the techniques that don't work to be identified and discarded and even more important, allow the ones that do work to be refined and improved upon. Interestingly there is quite a bit of disagreement on this subject even in Crunchy "organic" circles, so it's possible that the "permies" may someday get their act together. One can hope.

When it comes to potential harm from toxic substances, Crunchies' lack of a scientific approach and discomfort with numbers leave them prey to a great deal of fear mongering. The party line seems to be that if something is toxic, then it is toxic even in the tiniest concentrations. The word "chemical" is used to mean something entirely different from its dictionary definition, something like "scary sounding synthetic compound". Of course, all matter is make up of chemicals—many of them, even synthetic ones, are quite beneficial and, in any case, the basic foundation of toxicology is that dose determines toxicity. That is, in sufficiently small doses a chemical may be harmless or even beneficial, while in sufficiently large doses the same chemical may be deadly.

The Crunchy attitude toward radiation is similar to their approach to toxic substances, and is driven by fear and ignorance. Again, understanding that dosage is what determines the harm is critical to understanding what sort of a threat radiation really is. We are all exposed to a background level of radiation and have evolved to cope with this level of radiation rather well.

The long term effects of radiation on the survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings are a good example of how the same numbers can be used to support widely different conclusions. Anti-nuclear people will tell you that there was a measurable increase in the incidence of cancer in those survivors, and that sounds like a confirmation of our worst fears about radiation exposure. Pro-nuclear people will tell you that this measurable increase amounted to a little more than 1%. Considering that this was exposure to a nuclear weapon going off and there have been over 70 years for cancers to show up, this sounds amazingly minor to me.

Whenever you get a case of ideology trumping scientific fact, you find some people making a living writing books, giving speeches and essentially being cheerleaders for the ideology. There is also a tendency to toward telling outright lies to support the ideology. Crunchiness is no exception. A couple of names that spring to mind are Vandana Shiva and Rachel Carson. There is much that both these ladies have (or had, in Carsons's case) to say that I agree with, but in their efforts to support their ideologies, they have both played fast and loose with the facts, which detracts considerably from their credibility. One can see how this sort of thinking develops from "it would be great for our cause if that was true", to "it must be true because it would be great", to "of course it's true". This is a shame in so many ways.

Why would Vandana Shiva lie about her educational credentials or about farmer suicides in India? Why does she spout nonsense about Monsanto subverting the whole scientific establishments concensus on the safety of GMOs. Especially when the oil companies, who are larger and more powerful, have had no luck doing this when it comes to climate change. Clearly because in the short term it advances her cause. In the long term, though, she will surely be seen as a fraud.

For details, check out these links:

Note that the argument in favour of DDT use against disease carrying mosquitoes is weak since mosquitoes soon evolve resistance to DDT if it is used regularly. DDT has been used in many areas and then abandoned when it become ineffective. My concern is that Carson's pseudoscientific approach detracts from the credibility of the environmental movement. Why not stick with the facts and present a case that is iron clad, instead of a superficially stronger case built on a flawed foundation?

I could go on for quite a while yet with examples of the woo that is embraced by many Crunchies, but I'll stop here, having covered the sort of things I have most often encountered. You might say, "Well no one is getting hurt, so what's the problem if a few people have confused ideas about how the world works."

But if you look carefully at the examples I have chosen, you'll see that in each case, there is harm being done, sometimes to the folks involved, sometime to those around them and, if nothing else, resources, effort and time are being applied to solve false problems while real, serious problems are being ignored.

Here are some links to a few good sources that will help you sort out science from flakery and woo:

I imagine there are some people ready to fill the comments section with counter arguments proving that their favourite bit of pseudoscience is really legit. Save your breath (or wear and tear on your keyboard)—I'm not here to change the mind of anyone who is already convinced, or to have my own mind changed by anything short of solid scientific evidence. And by the way, when there is one study out of 100 that supports your position, this does not mean your position is proven—in fact just the opposite. I regularly see the purveyors of woo quoting the one outliner study that supports their position, as if that makes everything OK, even though there are many, many other studies which stand against their position, effective disproving it.

There is also a strategy common among Crunchies to discredit science based on where it was done. Scientific results that come from government or corporation labs are viewed as being suspect, if not outright biased. But if they are peer reviewed as part of the publication process, and can be reproduced by other labs, such results are not invalid. They should probably be reviewed with extra care as there is likely more conflict of interest involved than there would be in an academic setting. But the scientific method gives us a way to eliminate that sort of bias. Scientific fact is scientific fact, regardless of the source.

Back at the start of this series of posts, I promised that I was really going somewhere with all this. In my next post, I'll make good on that promise and bring the series to a finish.

This is the fourth post in a series of six (even though the title says "Part 3"):


Anonymous said...

I think the worst Business as Usual thinking today is our Town Council pushing for Natural Gas Service to Kincardine.
Natural Gas emits half as much carbon as coal when it burns so it is not green energy.
Wood and Wood Pellets are used for heating and electricity in northern Ontario and in Europe. The technology is in the can and the combustion is carbon neutral. Today they have pneumatic fuel delivery systems that deliver the pellets smoothly to the furnace so its just as convenient as Natural Gas. It costs about 30% more than NG per BTU but it does not require a $100 M pipeline to bring it to our door.

Irv Mills said...

Hi Anonymous (I am guessing) Mike. Yes, the Kincardine Town Council are a little behind times when it comes to natural gas. If the demand for NG in North America where to go up significantly, the price would go through the roof, and it may well, just about the time we get hooked up. And as you say, being a little greener than coal is not anything to rave about.
Large infrastructure investments to support burning of fossil fuels are definitely to be avoided.

Unknown said...

Playing the Devil's Advocate, a few words in defence of the Crunchies.

Irv, you say: "When you reject or misuse the scientific method you have no reliable way of checking to see if your ideas are correct."
Science -- whether it is a nuclear physicist's equation, an AI research paper or a biologist's study of a new vaccine -- is not done in a vacuum. The problem to me is not so much the veracity of the method of the specific scientific undertaking, as it is the bias of the scientific study. Not what is under the microscope, but where the scientist is aiming the microscope. As Israeli historian Yuval Harari says, there are really no scientific answers to many of the problems we are trying to solve today -- ie GMO foods, nuclear safety, climate change -- only political, economic and religious answers.
Harari gives an example:
"Consider the following quandary: Two biologists from the same department, possessing the same professional skills, have both applied for a million-dollar grant to finance their current research projects. Professor Slughorn wants to study a disease that infects the udders of cows, causing a ten percent decrease in their milk production. Professor Sprout wants to study whether cows suffer mentally when they are separated from their calves. Assuming that the amount of money is limited, and that it is impossible to finance both research projects, which one should be funded?

There is no scientific answer to this question. There are only political, economic, and religious answers. In today’s world, it is obvious that Slughorn has a better chance of getting the money. Not because udder diseases are scientifically more interesting than bovine mentality, but because the dairy industry, which stands to benefit from the research, has more political and economic clout than the animal rights lobby."

Science is unable to set its own priorities, and unclear what is should do with its discoveries. Perhaps the Crunchies, rather than being the drunk leaning on the lamp post of reason, are in fact a needed counterweight to the scientific hegemony imposed on society by the BAU crowd. Dressed in skepticism, naievte and even whimsy at times, their ideas can serve as a kind of alternative torch in the black hole of ignorance that science tries to illuminate. Also, as has been pointed out by many philosophers, the scientific method works by elimination; you can arrive at the 'right' conclusion only if it is one of the hypotheses that you have considered. You can't find your car keys if they happen to be in a place that you do not consider. Perhaps the Crunchies are toiling in parallel universes of which you are unaware of Irv. Woo for thought. LOL.

Jim Phillips

Irv Mills said...

Good to hear from you, Jim Philips. I am a Crunchy myself, and I pretty much agree with everything you have to say. Science itself attempts to eliminate bias, but those who fund it can introduce some bias in what they choose to fund. Especially when a lot of the important science that needs to be done today is expensive and can't be done by gifted amateurs, as was the case in the 1800s.
So, yes, since BAU is doing the funding, it gets some say in what questions are asked. Not, I think, to quite the extend that you would have it, since science does to a large extent determine where it shines its light. Talk to some practicing scientists and you find this is a big thing with them.
Further, the nature of science is that you don't get to pay for the answers you want, regardless of the questions you ask. That is the great virtue of science. But people will choose to ignore the answers when they don't suit their ideologies.
What I was trying to do in this post was point out that Crunchies persist in believing things that science has already proven wrong, and refuse to believe in what science has proven right. And when Crunchies try to use science to prove their opinions, they do a very poor job, introducing their own biases in a very unscientific way.
I came very close to including a few paragraphs saying pretty much what you said about studying cows. I'd like to point out that mentally distress may have a negative effect on a cow's output, but BAU isn't interested in hearing it, even when science looks at that and has already proven the point. In many ways BAU is just as bad at ignoring science as Crunchies are.
I didn't add that to the post because I didn't want to distract from my main purpose, which was to nail Crunchies to the wall for their refusal to accept the facts.
In my next post, you may well be surprised by the conclusions I reach and the direction I point us in. Writing this reply has focused my thinking in a very helpful way. Thanks.