Sunday, November 11, 2007

Alarmism 101

I've been reading another bad book over the past week - a really bad book. It's a long spray at consumerism and urban sprawl. It follows a fairly familiar formula - after the introduction (where you tell the reader what you plan to say), the author moves onto a quick survey of the human condition, cramming in as many references as possible, then launches into several chapters of condemnation and denunciation.

Writing that first chapter is a complex job. To show readers you're not an intellectual snob, you have to mention popular culture, so references to pop music and movies (but not cinema) are a must, the earlier the better. Of course you naow have to convince them that you're not a bogan either, so you bung in the literary references. Reference one or two web-sites to show that you're not a complete Luddite (very necessary in this writer's case). Top that off with some guff about human evolution, neurology and psychology, add a dash of philosophy and religion and there's your first chapter written.

Pull it off, and your readers will be convinced that you're a very knowledgeable person, whose facts are reliable and opinion trustworthy. Well, some of them - enough, you hope to preserve you from the ingnominy of the remainer bin. As long as no-one notices the non-sequiturs and the fact that you're relying completely on emotive argument - including the odd dose of alarmism - you're home and hosed.

Here's an entertainingly alarmist passage from that first chapter, with some explanatory notes from me.
The fantasy [of a world without pain or mental suffering] approaches. A recent Scientific American article by Stefanie Reinberger showed how unpleasant tastes could be eliminated with a new type of food-additive called adenosine monophosphate (AMP).
A very good start - scare the reader by dropping in a frighteningly polysyllabic chemical name lifted from one article in Scientific American. On no account should you do any background reading - you might learn a couple of facts that might get in the way of your very enjoyable self-inflicted panic:
  • Adenosine is one of the four nucleosides that make up RNA - a vital part of the biochemical mechanism that transcribes DNA sequences into proteins. Without adenosine, there would be no life as we know it.

  • Adenosine monophosphate is a precursor to two other compounds - adenosine diphosphate (ADP) and adenosine triphosphate (ATP). All three compounds are used within living cells to transfer energy obtained from breaking down sugars and lipids (fats) to processes that build other cell constituents - like proteins. Without AMP, ADP and ATP there would be no life as we know it.
Moving on:
AMP is a 'bitter blocker' that overrides our ancient sensitivity to bitterness, acquired to protect us from eating toxic substances like strychnine, by preventing communication of the recognintion of bitterness from tastebud to brain.
A good, strong continuation: OMFG! They could use this "new" food additive to poison us all with strychnine and we wouldn't even know it!
The additive has already (2004) been approved by the US Food and Drug Admininistration; the application of similar principles could mean we never have to taste anything unpleasant.
A bit of a slip there - noting the US FDA's approval of the drug was a plus, but the second clause of the sentence is a bit of a let-down. Most of us prefer to avoid unpleasant tasting stuff, most of the time, which is why some cook, others eat out, and others buy take-away. But this is bad for us:
Brussels sprouts could taste like gruyere, or ice cream, or chocolate and still be as good for us as the bitter cruciform original.
It's important, in alarmist writing, to strike the right note of hysteria and the prospect of chocolate flavoured brussel sprouts is certainly hysterical. Also, while a malapropism (cruciform for cruciferous) assists in convincing the reader that you're hysterical, it reinforces the reader's tendency to respond with the kind of hysteria you don't want to engender.
But is this really what we want? Do we, even at the relatively trivial level of taste, want a world where our only sensations are pleasurable ones? Will pleasure have meaning when that's all there is?
Poor execution, but the author of this passage has the right idea - miss the major issues completely so you can pose a set of rhetorical questions whose answers will strike guilt and fear in the hearts of all but the most decadent of hedonists. The reason that adenosine monophosphate poses such a threat to civilsation and culture as we know it is because it's us that have gone soft - it has nothing to do with anything the food processing industries might do. Nothing at all.

The book, by the way is Blubberland by Elizabeth Farrelly, of the Sydney Morning Herald. This post is a by-blow from a more extended review that the anonymous one appropriated for another shot at temporary notoriety and a bit of ready money, fame and fortune being completely beyond his capabilities. No doubt that review will turn up here, later in the week.

(Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo in exile)