Monday, September 19, 2016
Unfortunately the real world isn’t black and white or true and false. There are shades of distinction. Good evaluation always balances the risks and the benefits of any decision. It is often too easy to overlook the risks or benefits when you are presented with arguments favoring one side or the other. Some presentations come across so strongly and confidently that it’s difficult to even see that there are tradeoffs. This is where critical thinking and appropriate questioning come in.
One blatant example was the controversy almost five years ago over pink slime, a derogatory term used to refer to and gather support against, a beef product that has been in our food supply for years with no ill effects. Some TV chef decided it was yucky to reclaim meat waste, beef trimmings and other meat by-products, and add them to ground beef to lower the fat content. The “crusade” began and, in response, grocery chains stopped ordering it.
There was nothing nutritionally wrong with it. People’s jobs depended on the long-standing practice. It reduced food waste. As a result, we all had to pay more for ground beef just because someone dubbed it yucky and many others jumped on the bandwagon without a single thought or question – another social media triumph (?).
It happened again to a lesser extent in Florida recently. The residents of Miami Beach protested the aerial mosquito spraying. The mayor insisted, “public health experts have assured him the amount of Naled [insecticide] used is harmless to humans and has proven effective” against mosquitos. The public responded that they didn’t think the Zika threat was real. They compared a safe, but probably scary spraying operation against an invisible, but real health threat and came down on the side of the mosquitos.
The same thing happens all the time on a variety of subjects.
Consider hydroelectric power – build a dam to capture the power of a river and provide low-cost electricity with no pollution. Environmentalists block the project with lawsuits to protect a fish or mussel. They don’t even have to prove danger to their fish; just raise the possibility and the developers or governments spend millions trying to prove there is no danger. Meanwhile we all sit around in the dark. But we are not in the dark because we still get electricity from the coal plant where other environmentalists are protesting against the CO2 and particle emissions. Still other protesters are busy condemning nuclear power, a safe, pollution-free option. There is never any discussion about whether the benefits of a decision outweigh the risks (real or imagined).
Sitting around in the dark is not the big problem. We can always light candles. But you can’t light candles to keep the food fresh in the refrigerator, keep the house warm in the winter or keep the equipment running in the hospital emergency room. When we have enough electricity, we take it so much for granted that we are not concerned that various groups with their different agendas keep trying to make it harder and harder to get. At what point do we demand that they or the politicians look at trade offs and not just at one side of the story, usually the side with the most emotional impact.
Now look at all the other subjects where we are exposed only to the negative aspects: climate change, income inequality, vaccination, the economy, air and water pollution, police interactions with the community, drug policy and the rest. As citizens we fail to demand a balanced discussion, so get only the often-exaggerated negative warnings. Many subjects quickly devolve into finger pointing and name-calling to silence opposition. In some cases the cry is that all experts agree; in other cases the cry is that all the experts are wrong. We waste time and energy with these non-critical, knee-jerk reactions. We lose the benefits and go down the wrong road when we are only presented with and react to the risks.