Saturday, June 6, 2009


This photograph was taken off the coast of North Berwick, a little seaside town in Scotland that boasts the Scottish Seabird Center which was (apparently) built at the behest of HRH the Prince of Wales. The gannets in this photograph are fairly common. The colony on Bass Rock numbers 120,000, and it only stands to reason that other improbably large colonies are scattered elsewhere on impossibly small rocks in the North Atlantic. So, you might wonder, why the hell did I have to go all the way to Scotland to see them?

One of the long-running themes of the Science-Based Medicine blog (on which I sometimes comment) is the despair at how seemingly intelligent people fall for things like homeopathy (which =/= herbal medicines, and that's a whole 'nuther game entirely) and the Anti-Vaccination Conspiracy. The writers on that blog especially bemoan the influence of idiots like Jenny McCarthy for their refusal to believe that vaccines are safe (barring rare genetic conditions), do not cause autism--and their refusal to shut the f*ck up already.

There's a connection between these two. I promise.

The McCarthy campaign* was fed by the rise in autism cases, an "epidemic", as the fear mongers like to call it. I have no idea how they picked vaccines to blame it on, since it's become apparent that it's genetics--but anyway: the point is that autism is only reliably diagnosed at around age 2, the age that coincides quite happily with the recommended age of administration of the MMR vaccine. For your average parent, who doesn't have access to neuroscience textbooks and Piaget's work, it's a simple cause-and-effect. If enough parents--just one other one will do--have similar experiences, you start to wonder if you've missed something. And if someone fakes research telling you that your experiences have been scientifically validated, well, there you have it! Proof that vaccines cause autism!

Both of these illustrations point to the importance of education through experience. In the first case, until I saw the birds for myself, I was inclined to think that these were rare. The second case demonstrates how even nominally intelligent people allow personal experiences to trump their better judgment (although the truly intelligent know when to back down in the face of irrefutable evidence). It's very hard to unlearn something that has a deep emotional significance (i.e., validation that your whack-job theory was right)--the corollary is, it's very easy to learn something that does.

So my interest in environmentalism arose largely because when I was 7, one of my mother's friends gave me, as a Christmas present, a little suction-cup-on-the-window bird feeder that came with a little book showing all the pretty birds I could see. It may surprise you to know that I never saw anything more interesting than a crow, but for some reason I got hooked on birdwatching. I'm the person who will stand and scan every last Canada goose in a flock in the hopes of seeing something different--something new. And I did, often enough to make me realize that birds were interesting creatures which in turn sparked even more interest in how to keep them around.

This is probably the main reason why most people just don't care about the environment to the extent that Greens do. In the suburbs of carefully tended lawns and decor-only plants, they don't hear the awesome chirping of a thousand frogs (or one massive bullfrog). The artificial environs mean that most of the smaller songbirds have to find homes elsewhere, so "wildlife" means robins and the occasional fight with the raccoon over the garbage. To enjoy the "outdoors", you drive to a park, where the wildest thing you'll encounter is a fairly tame mallard. If this is the sum of your wildlife experience, of course you won't feel it's worth protecting.

It's all very well and good to point to rising lines on graphs, but to paraphrase the Governator, we have to make Green connect with people like Coke and Pepsi have done with their legions of fans, and you cannot make a solid connection with guilt. Nobody ever got addicted to guilt. They get hooked by "cool!"

Next: Behavioral modification

*Isn't it ironic that Joseph McCarthy did the same thing in the 1950s? Coincidence? If Jenny McCarthy (their names both begin with "J"!) can ask us to believe that vaccines cause autism, then surely my indulging in some little fantasy connecting her, the Communist Party, and eventual world takeover by China is harmless. Right?


Studd Beefpile said...

The difference being that there actually were hundreds of soviet sympathizers and spies in the American government in the 50s, see the Wikipedia page on Project Venona for starters.

More importantly, I'm not sure your analogy holds. The parts of America that most support environmental action are precisely the places least close to nature, the big cities and their immediate suburbs. It is the rural and exburban places, the people much more likely to actually experience nature, who are the least enthusiastic about the prospect.

Jules: said...

I should have made it more clear that what I'm talking about here is conservation of wild spaces, not clean air/clean water/gaseous emssions.