Friday, July 24, 2009
KALW just aired two pieces that I did on the rising rate of pregnancy related deaths and the black-white disparity. You can see a longer post from June. I'm hoping this will get more media attention - it's a particularly troubling example of the broader problem that Atul Gawande and others (and still others) have identified. How does this tie in with Nature? Well when you live in a world we look to science for all the answers, science sometimes ends up providing best-guess answers when it should just be saying - "we don't know enough about that yet."
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Finished Daniel Botkin's book "Discordant Harmonies" last night. It has a lot to offer, but what I'm most interested in is Botkin's perspective on the trajectory of thought on nature. We start out with competing myths: The earth is a divine creation with everything made according to a plan to foster life (Jewish creation story) - versus - The earth is a living organism passing through different stages of life (pagan/animist). And then around the industrial revolution - when people had complex machines available to refer to in their metaphor making, and when Newton's breakthroughs offered a vision of a universe governed by an elegant set of simple rules - a new myth grew and dominated the others: The earth is just an piece of machinery. There are several implications if you think of the world this way. The most important implication (to Botkin) is that the world tends toward a steady state - it should just keep chugging along unless we really screw things up.
Monday, July 20, 2009
Monday, July 13, 2009
I found this especially interesting:
"As a 19th-century position, romanticism never broke with rationalism: rather, it was rationalism's mirror-image," writes the historian and philosopher of science Stephen Toulmin.
"Descartes exalted a capacity for formal rationality and logical calculation as the supremely 'mental' thing in human nature, at the expense of emotional experience, which is a regrettable by-product of our bodily natures. From Wordsworth or Goethe on, romantic poets and novelists tilted the other way: human life that is ruled by calculative reason alone is scarcely worth living, and nobility attaches to a readiness to surrender to the experience of deep emotions. This is not a position that transcends 17th-century dualism: rather, it accepts dualism, but votes for the opposite side of every dichotomy."
This is my point exactly - that the fight between the techies and the all-naturals is stupid one and that we should stop arguing about it. (So thanks, Virginia, for introducing me to Mr. Toulmin) I think Postrel is proposing the same thing - though she wants to replace reason v. passion with what she calls dynamism. Dynamism sounds basically like libertarianism. Get a lot of minds working creatively on figuring out problems for themselves and then let the market and natural selection do its thing. Rather than trying to predict and control the future, she says, allow the process to take its course.
Hmm. What about cases where we are pretty darn sure of the future? Should we really cut down the last Truffula tree to improve our lives - knowing that we are eating off the plates of our children? Or climate change blah blah blah?
I'd now like to make up a new law - Nate's law if you will. I haven't thought about this at all and have no idea if it's really right - but hey, isn't that what blogging is all about?
Nate's law: Whenever a simple gesture toward a concept creates massive sales, it means we must have deep and (crucially) unexamined associations with that concept. ie, it's gotta be universal, and vague.
My explanation for the appeal of natural is that the pendulum swings back and forth between the desire for "natural goodness" (pristine waters blessed by the singing of tree sprites), and mechanical control. (Glaceau manages to have it both ways - check out this brilliant copy: "smartwater is inspired by the way mother nature makes water, known as the hydrologic cycle (you remember the ocean, cloud, raindrop diorama from fifth grade right? Actually, it's how we got our name too (hydro=water/logic=smart)." But then they "one up ma nature with electrolytes.") Anyway - I think we are still swinging toward natural but as we do we are going to see a lot more mixing like this - where products are going both back to the land and back to the lab. With any luck that will lead to confusion and a lot of tough questions about what's actually natural and what's not. Science is going to be prominent in this confusion: Is science natural? any sane smart person is on the side of science right? But as the graf below demonstrates (also from the Mintel presser) science (ie calorie, fortified) easily falls into the role of opposite to nature (ie pure, holistic, genuine).
"In the past, low-fat and low-calorie were the hallmarks of good nutrition and
dieting, but today, that lifestyle seems passé. On top of this, fortified
products are falling out of favor," comments Lynn Dornblaser. "Food and drink
manufacturers today realize that natural and pure have become healthy eating
ideals, as people look for holistic, genuine nutrition they can trust."
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
Watching the parade I started thinking about the way that "natural" has been used as a rhetorical bludgeon to fight the sort of celebration of difference that I was seeing. Now that we know there are gay dolphins and gay seagulls we should hear a change of tune from the people who argued that homosexuality was bad because it wasn't natural. But of course we won't. In cases like this the natural claim gets grafted on to support the belief - if something is bad it's unnatural.
Often, I think what we are really saying if we say something is unnatural is that it is foreign to our system of beliefs.