Sunday, 8 June 2014
Where is the F in Zebra? 08.06.14
My mum had to buy our encyclopaedia by instalments. We just didn't have the money to buy the whole thing in one chunk. The volumes arrived once every two months, provided we had the cash, with the idea being that over three years or so you’d have the whole of human knowledge in your own home. That was fine, up until the point when you get an assignment on Zebras and you realise you've only got to the letter F. It’s tricky to get a three-year extension on your homework. Still, back then and back there, it was amazing. None of my friends had anything like that. They had to resort to their school books and maybe a dictionary. Their families just couldn't invest that much of their income on knowledge that may not be essential. My family was different: we valued knowledge above pretty much all else. However, information wasn’t free, and the cost of it hurt us. I had to fight to get my mum to buy me my very own atlas, because "your grandfather's is a perfectly good one!" And I had to explain that yes, it was a very good example of cartography for its time, but I wasn't going to pass my geography test referring to the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Friends of mine who didn’t have many books at home had to go to the public library to do their homework. If the information they needed or wanted wasn’t there, they couldn’t get it. It was as simple as that. In fact, it was sometimes hard to even find what information you wanted, because you didn’t know what was out there without looking, but you didn’t know where to look unless you knew what you were trying to find.
Things have well and truly moved on. For well under £100 I recently got myself a tablet that gives me access to hundreds of free books. If I don't know a word I can click it and the in-built dictionary gives me a definition. If that is not enough, I can click again to connect to the 'net for a deeper explanation. I can do all this without lifting my butt off my armchair. I've got more information at my fingertips than all my ancestors put together, which is why I’m routinely compelled to headbutt the nearest wall. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not the information that upsets me. It’s the fact that, despite the resources we have available to us, most of what I see circulated is nonsensical misinformation or meaningless drivel that would have made my great-grandmother ashamed.
I look at my Facebook feed, and what do I see? Brown bananas/cinnamon/you name it cures all diseases, but big pharma is hushing it. A boy getting a stiffy over a scantily-clad girl is a sign of rape culture. Pain is “all in the mind”, hence it's our fault if we can’t make it go away. All you need to change your reality is to change your outlook. Really? Would you like to say that to the children of Rwanda? I’d be glad to pay for your one-way airfare.
I mean, seriously, what in the name is wrong with us? I appreciate this is nothing new. My own grandmother was fond of using a two-way explanation for, well, everything. Everything was caused either by the devil or by god, acting through various means (people, natural phenomena, objects, you name it). Everything could be parsed as either an act of god, or something sent from the devil – but she had to leave school at twelve to go to work, for crying out loud. She was ignorant through lack of information – what’s our excuse? How can we justify completely disregarding the centuries and centuries of accumulated human knowledge when we can access it by merely pushing a few buttons?
Listen up, sunshine; the rant’s about to start.
Pain is not all “in the mind”; it’s all in the nervous system. That doesn’t mean that all pain is made up. Yes, there is psychogenic pain – “physical pain that is caused, increased, or prolonged by mental, emotional, or behavioral factors”. Yes, there are also people who can’t withstand any discomfort because they lack the mental fortitude. However, that isn’t ALL of the pain out there. There is plenty of pain that arises from physical damage or illness. Furthermore, physical pain, particularly if intense or prolonged, can be the cause of personality changes or even psychological issues. It can be an enervating, depressing, frightening experience, even when it’s not accompanied by visible physical damage. When the physical damage is obvious, that can add psychological pain to the physical one, and yes that does make things worse. However, to say that all pain sufferers should just pull a magic wand out of their rectum and wish the pain away is somewhat disingenuous – and also liable to make them very, very angry. If you don’t believe me, as a long-term back injury sufferer I’m personally willing to stab you in the eye so you can find out for yourself.
If your body is broken, it can hurt, even if you’re a little ray of positive sunshine. That’s why we’ve invented pain killing medication, which yes, can fuck you up in a multitude of ways but is sometimes preferable to the grinding, draining, unbearable pain with no respite. It is true that if we removed your nervous system from you, you couldn’t feel any pain. You also couldn’t think, but hey, who’d notice the difference? And yes, there would be the small matter of your death, but I’m personally willing to put up with it.
Male sexual arousal is not a sign of “rape culture”. It’s a physiological response. “Penile erection is the result of a complex interaction of psychological, neural, vascular and endocrine factors, and is often associated with sexual arousal or sexual attraction, although erections can also be spontaneous. (…) As an autonomic response, erection may result from a variety of stimuli, including sexual stimulation and sexual arousal, and is therefore not entirely under conscious control. “ The fact that the arousal is caused by certain visual cues is also not a sign of “rape culture” – we are a sexually dimorphic species. Yes, there is a cultural influence on what we find sexually attractive, but the underlying mechanisms have nothing whatsoever to do with culture: they’re pure physiology. Both genders tend to be attracted to the secondary sexual characteristics of the opposite gender – and if you want to blame something for this, it’s not our culture, but the evolutionary path we took.
A male sees an attractive female, and his system gets activated. Culture doesn’t come into this. Culture comes into the fact that the male does not then proceed to grab said female and hump her regardless of the situation. To describe an involuntary physiological reaction that isn’t followed on as a sign of “rape culture” is frankly so stupid that it would likely make a medieval witch-doctor guffaw.
The big pharma conspiracy. Pharmaceutical companies are money-grabbing bastards, that’s a fact. They exist solely to turn a profit. They do not have any kind of humanitarian ethos. However, what they are not, is hushing up a huge array of herbal remedies that would cure us all from all diseases if it wasn’t for them. Herbal medicine was, indeed, used for millennia – until better remedies came along. Those herbal remedies that worked safely, reliably and efficiently have become part of “Western” medicine – aspirin, anybody? You could find a willow tree and suck on the bark directly, but you will not be able to control the dosage and it’s marginally inconvenient, particularly if you live in a city. Start nibbling on trees in a public park, and the care you’re likely to get will go beyond the medical. Much as it would be nice to believe it, honey, cinnamon, brown bananas, and so on are not about to save us all from all diseases. If they did, we’d be using them already, in pill form, thanks to one of the pharmaceutical giants that we like to berate.
As for the vaccine controversy, it’s very easy for us, with access to good medical care, to forget how easily contagious diseases used to kill us off in past decades. They still kill people without our resources, whether medical or physical; they kill the poor, the weak and the sick, either directly or through complications. My uncle was sterile due to mumps; I nearly died from whooping cough; congenital rubella syndrome, passed from a pregnant mother to the foetus, can result in “cardiac, cerebral, ophthalmic and auditory defects”, when it does not result in miscarriage. This is serious stuff.
Yes, vaccines carry risks, as do all medical procedures and products. However, in the past those risks were offset by the huge advantages they gave us, like, you know, not dying. While you may not see the advantages so clearly now, the infection you may easily be able to survive can spread to people who can’t get inoculated because they are too young or too weak.
As for any information you get from an unverified source, if a source is unreliable, you can’t trust what it says. I know this sounds like a ridiculous piece of circular speech, but apparently this baffles a load of people. If you know that a source is unreliable, it pays to check the veracity of its claims before launching on an emotional rollercoaster over something which may turn out to be quite simply untrue.
Say that an article from the Daily Mail – that notorious rag best suited to lining cat litter trays and starting fires – states something quite shocking, as per usual. For instance, children are forced to compete in full-contact cage-fighting matches. Well, we’re three clicks away from checking the veracity of their claims. You can put the article’s keywords in Google, or the search engine of your choice. You see what, if any, other articles or references are out there on the same theme (and, if there are none, that ought to tell you something too…). You can open one or even more of those sources. You can verify if the claims are true – or rather, in the case of the Daily Mail, how badly they have been warped out of shape. It’s a matter of minutes at most, which is why it drives me demented when people circulate the latest shocking revelation that is, essentially, bullcrap. Given our ability to cross-reference, I can’t understand how these publications still exist.
As for “untainted” sources, such as any random person who decides to pontificate on a subject with no kind of knowledge or training, yes, they may have a candid, open, “pure” point of view. However, they are not unprejudiced: they have formed their opinion without knowledge, hence their opinion is nothing but prejudice. Not knowing anything about Western medicine doesn’t make you an expert in any other form of medicine (ditto economics, politics, natural resources management, and so on) – it just makes you ignorant in the field you are attacking. It may make you open-minded, but unless you fill that vacuum with some sort of knowledge prior to talking, you’d be better not fancying yourself an expert.
It really makes me mad, in case you’ve missed it. We have centuries of collected information, not only the facts, but also the theories that we can use to explain those facts We are truly standing on the shoulders of giants. We also have the resources to circulate this information freely and easily, which is unprecedented in human history. So how about instead of “sharing” the latest meme on the newest miracle cure that was tried and thrown out back in the Dark Ages, or the hottest shocking scandal that never took place, we put some of these resources to good use?