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Gus Van Horn blog

Reblogged:Empathy Is Selfish...

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So we should practice it much more often...

Before I begin, let me point the reader to the definitions of empathy and selfishness, both of which I advocate and both of which are widely misunderstood.

It is important to understand each term because doing so will help you understand in interesting connection I made when thinking about the best way to combat pseudoscience -- which is ultimately to help individuals become able to detect it for themselves. I am also writing this as much for myself as a means of consolidating this connection and reminding myself of it later, because I see this method as an improvement on something I was already doing, but with a different class of questions.

We all occasionally receive unsolicited advice or sales pitches, and quite often, the latter poorly disguised as the former. Often, it's something fairly easy to see through, but occasionally, it's novel enough or comes from someone who might be knowledgeable enough that it is impossible to judge the claim right off the bat. (Pro tip: Admit you don't know and take you own damned time to figure it out.)

Some examples: an offer via mail for insurance of "exterior electrical lines," a scheme for investing in a foreign currency whose value will supposedly skyrocket, and the occasional fake overture of friendship that turns out to be an attempt to recruit for a multi-level marketing network. The first thing I do when I encounter one of these is plug whatever it is into a search engine plus the word scam. Whether I am doing this because I am having trouble judging the claim, am merely curious, or am thinking about helping someone get or stay out of trouble, this alone is usually enough to debunk the claim -- and when it hasn't been, it has at least pointed me to things that ultimately helped me make up my mind.

So far so good, but some shenanigans are harder to detect, for a variety of reasons: The mark may not lose that much money (and so will be less careful), the scam is being run in an area (such as nutrition or psychology) where even experts aren't in total agreement or there are lots of popular misconceptions, or the scammer's financial interest is hard to see or very indirect.

What to do?

That's a huge question, but here is a tactic that can sometimes apply, particularly when the person pitching the idea relies on common suspicions. Practice empathy.

A blog post about "Food Babe" Vani Hari does a good job of classifying several mistakes Hari repeatedly makes, but oddly fails to go for the jugular when it should have. (Empathetic is not a synonym for non-judgmental.):
To her credit the author does allow a lot of critical comments pointing out some of these mistakes on her posts, but she has rarely responded to them and the comments don't seem to have affected her basic take on these matters.

Food Babe's goal is laudable, but in propagating these basic scientific errors and misleading opinions, she is not only ignoring fundamental facts which are not in dispute but is also performing a great disservice to her readers who are coming to her website for finding out the truth about food products. It's hard to justify getting basic facts wrong if your goal is to seek the truth.
Hari's stated goal is laudable, but actions speak louder than words. Just from the above, it is clear that Hari is dishonest.

But could someone hear one of her pitches and more quickly get to the truth. Consider one of her most common kinds of claim:
Pass the road de-icer, please. (Image by Charles, via Unsplash, license.)
Category mistake 1: Claiming that food ingredient X must be harmful because it is used for some unrelated purpose Y.

Thus, in one of her recent posts, azodicarbonamide which was used in Subway sandwiches was declared to be harmful because it is used in "yoga mats and shoe soles". When employing this tactic the author is using a classic psychology trick, to color someone's opinion through guilt by association. By that token, common salt should be harmful because it is used to deice roads in winter. Or as McGill chemistry professor Joe Schwarcz says, "We use water to wash our cars. Vinegar can be used to kill weeds. If she ever found out, she'd want salad dressing banned."
Food "activists" like Hari are all-too-happy that chemical names are long, hard-to-read, and easily evoke fear of the unknown. This makes it even easier to impute bad motives to the faceless corporations that dump them into their products for profit.

That last sentence is where empathy comes in. Note the presumptuous smuggling-in of moral condemnation on someone (Corporations employ large numbers of people ...) for wanting to make money (... who are working hard to make a living...) so they can raise their families and enjoy their lives (... and so might want their customers around for a while.) Might these people know what the chemical in question does? Might they have a good reason for adding it? Might they be earning their money by improving your life? Isn't that why you're buying things all the time?

These are just a few of the kinds of questions a more empathetic person might ask when someone like Hari fans the flames for the sake of selling a few more books -- while also making it harder or impossible for fellow human beings trying to earn money from you so you can make your life better, too.

This alone obviously won't make anyone a Nobel laureate in chemistry, but asking more questions has the following personal benefits (just off the top of my head): (1) it can reduce the fear of the unknown; (2) it can reduce the stress of living one's daily life after seeing through these things a few times; (3) it can save time otherwise wasted on making unnecessary changes to one's lifestyle. Longer range, individuals doing this can help fellow human beings (and themselves, more or less directly) by (1) not unnecessarily making their jobs harder, (2) not making certain categories of products impossible or expensive (e.g., there is a limit to how many times companies can twist themselves into pretzels to rid a product of a completely benign ingredient), and (3) over time, schemes like this may well become harder to pull off.

Thise are just a few preliminary thoughts of mine on how empathy can blunt certain hysterical attacks on industrial civilization, and on several interrelated levels at that.

-- CAV

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