"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, December 21, 2015

Suspension Of Disbelief–Fantasy, Conspiracy, And True Believers

A recent book called Lactivism Courtney Jung punctures the myth that ‘Breast Is Best’ and contends that a practice that has little benefit for American mothers has rather unnecessarily restricted their economic opportunity, tethered them to house and home far longer than required, and created a cult of arrogance, shaming, and guilt.   Lori Gottlieb reviewing the book for the New York Times (12.20.15) says:
Never mind that according to Jung’s rigorous reporting, the belief that “breast is best” was largely based on inconclusive science. Culling an impressive array of research, Jung learns that the supremacy of “liquid gold” has driven commerce and public policy in ways that have little to do with the true needs of mothers and babies — and may even be harming them.


The benefits of breastfeeding for women of the developing world are considerable.  First and foremost exclusive breastfeeding avoids contact with a highly pathogenic environment.  Dirty bottles filled with powered formula mixed with contaminated water are a major cause of diarrhea and death.  The immunological properties of breast milk when delivered exclusively can afford unique benefits to infants, and the nutritional properties of breast milk are uniquely suited for the growing baby.
Iowa, however, is not Chad or Ethiopia.  Hygiene and sanitation are the rule not the exception.  Commercial breast milk substitutes have been formulated to very closely approximate the real thing, and the bottle allows women the freedom to return to remunerative employment – the economic benefits for the family far outweigh the supposed health and nutritional benefits to infants.
Compared with formula-fed infants, breastfed infants experience less acute and chronic otitis media, bronchiolitis, diarrhea, meningitis, and necrotizing enterocolitis. Children who were breastfed during infancy suffer less recurrent wheezing…and develop insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus less frequently than those who are fed formula (Ball and Bennett, 2001, Science Direct).
Earaches are common and easily treated with antibiotics.  Diarrhea is rare in infants reared in the hygienic conditions of the United States.  Meningitis is rare in the US and there is now a vaccine against it.  Type 1 diabetes is relatively rare and genetic factors cannot be overlooked. 

The purported link to IQ is specious at best.  Tests to determine intelligence have been shown to be flawed, socially-biased, and unreliable.  The difference of a few percentage points on a discredited test is meaningless.

Furthermore, breastfeeding advocates have championed the practice for its emotional and psychological benefits.  Breastfeeding promotes intimacy and maternal bonding that are beneficial for both babies and mothers.  Yet, there is no evidence that earlier generations of Americans for whom the bottle was the preferred option to infant nutrition suffered.  Vaccinations, improved sanitation, and better overall nutrition had a far greater impact on child mortality and morbidity than breastfeeding. 

For years breastfeeding militants fought Nestlé's tooth and nail, vilifying them as complicit in millions of child deaths overseas and manipulating American women to enrich their corporate coffers.  Nonsense, said Nestle’s.   Infant formula is a way to free Third World women from the bondage of husband, hearth, and home; and besides, if it is environmental pathogens that are the cause of infant mortality, then governments and private volunteer organizations should focus on them, not formula itself.


No such arguments could blunt the advance of the breastfeeding juggernaut.  The attacks against Nestle’s took on virulent anti-capitalist tone.  It was once again the One Percent enriching themselves on the backs of the poor.  Women who did not breastfeed were the enemy.
If you’re a parent with young children, you’ve likely encountered a sanctimommy. Sanctimommies, of course, are that modern species of sanctimonious mothers who liberally dispense parenting advice laced with the subtext, “I’m not saying you’re a bad parent, but. . . .” Smug in their maternal superiority, they crusade perhaps most vehemently against moms who choose not to breast-feed.
After a certain point facts were no longer an issue.  Radical breastfeeding advocates still took to the streets regardless of the indicting evidence increasingly published.  In fact they became even more committed and passionate about their cause.    Their political sunken cost was such that they couldn’t admit that their policies were as enslaving of women as those of pre-Feminist America.  

Women have never been  more slaves to biology and traditional female roles than in the modern breastfeeding era.   In order to comply with the authoritarian rules of the breastfeeding establishment, they have to exclusively breastfeed for six months; and if they can't, then should resort to the breast pump – an ignominious 19th century mechanical contraption that takes unnecessary time, effort, and inconvenience for very little.  In fact, it removes one of breastfeeding advocates’ most heady promises – the emotional bonding of mother with child.

At some point both women and breastfeeding advocates crossed a line.  Breastfeeding – the most natural act in the animal kingdom – simply had to be good, they said; and from then on willingly suspended rational judgment.  The economic, social, and cultural facts that mitigated against exclusive breastfeeding were staring them in the face.  So were its negligible and contested benefits (as above, epidemiological evidence, antibiotics, etc.). What were they thinking?
Suspension of disbelief or willing suspension of disbelief is a term coined in 1817 by the poet and aesthetic philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who suggested that if a writer could infuse a "human interest and a semblance of truth" into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgment concerning the implausibility of the narrative (Wikipedia)

In other words, people tend to suspend their rational judgment – in the case of breastfeeding hard cost-benefit analysis – because the ‘fantastic tale’ is appealing.

Conspiracy theorists are perhaps the best example of this suspension of disbelief.  No matter how much evidence is offered to prove that President Obama was born in America, there are many who flatly refuse to believe it.  Fluoride conspiracists not only refuse to reject the notion that it is harmless but that the widespread fluoridation of drinking water was a Soviet program to weaken the resolve of capitalist Americans.  Millions more believe in alien visitation, an international Jewish cabal, and the imminent coming of the end of the world.  


In an excellent article on the origin of conspiracy theories in The Psychologist (July 2010) Viren Swami and Rebecca Coles have detailed the sociological and psychological determinants of conspiracy theories.  There are an astounding number of conspiracy theories that abound today; and for just about every current event, there are many who believe that some dark cabal is behind it. 
The truth’, the TV show The X-Files told us, ‘is out there’. Millions of people worldwide seem to agree, disbelieving official accounts of important social and political events. In the United States, for example, scholars have noted a steady increase in the number of poll respondents who believe that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone in killing John F. Kennedy.  In the wake of 9/11, commentators highlighted the proliferation of conspiracy theories about the event, with polls suggesting that more than a quarter of respondents believe the US government knew in advance, participated in, or took no action to stop the attacks.
So why do people go off the logical rails and look for answers in the realm of fantasy? Some of the earliest work on the subject in the 60s was by Hofstadter who suggested psychopathology:
The paranoid style, Hofstadter argued, was a result of ‘uncommonly angry minds’, whose judgment was somehow ‘distorted’. Following this vein, some scholars came to view conspiracy theories as a product of psychopathology, such as extreme paranoia, delusional ideation or narcissism… In this view, the delusional aspect of conspiratorial beliefs was thought to result in an incapacity for social or political action.
Later researchers turned to what they felt were more compelling social factors.  How, they argued, could psychopathology be the principal cause of conspiracy theories when there were so many of them?
A belief in conspiracy theories is more likely to emerge among those who feel powerless, disadvantaged or voiceless, especially in the face of catastrophe. To use a contemporary example, believing that the 7/7 London bombings were perpetrated by the British or Israeli governments may be a means of making sense of turbulent social or political phenomena.
These are but two of many explanations for widespread conspiracy theories; but whatever the reasons, they are alive, well, and increasing.

Even more legitimate activists such as those against climate change pass a certain threshold of belief-disbelief.  After so many years of warning the world about the coming disaster of global warming, they simply have to continue their dire predictions no matter what.


A recent BBC World Service round-table discussed the ‘post-human’ era, where the engineering of human DNA and the complete interface between mind and computer would completely alter the nature of human life.

One important implication of this rapid evolution will be Man’s complete control of his environment.  No amount of global warming, Ice Age cooling, or variant climate change will be of any consequence.  Just as agriculturalists are genetically modifying plants to be resistant to drought, pests, and soil depletion; so will human engineers be able to modify our genome to adapt to current environmental conditions.   Cities will not have to be changed to accommodate global warming.  Human beings will change.  The ability to thrive in water, to breathe different compositions of air, and to live well in either colder or warmer climates will be easily programmed.  Environmentalism will die as a movement, and human modification will be the focus of all attention.

Yet environmentalists refuse to accept human adaptability – either Darwinian or engineered – as a viable alternative.  To admit any alternative premise would be apostasy and heresy. 

Some wags attribute all this conspiracy nonsense to the Santa Claus myth.  Hardly. Every Christian child believes in Santa Claus, and most turn out just fine.  The fact that we all share a willing suspension of disbelief throughout our adult lives and are given to the most irrational and nonsensical convictions has nothing to do with Santa Claus per se.  It probably has much more to do with our inability to use more than a tiny fraction of our brainpower.

To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, “It’s not the unknowns we need to worry about, it’s the unknown unknowns”.   There is simply too much complexity around – too much unknowability – for us to make sense out of anything.   Not only conspiracy theorists are flummoxed by the world.


So perhaps we should give La Leche League, The Environmental Defense Fund, PIRG,  Occupy Wall Street and the thousands of other true believers a pass. We should go easy on Biblical fundamentalists, creationists, and social anarchists and cut Area 51 trans-human advocates some slack.  There is so much suspension of disbelief around, why be so fussy?

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