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 now 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 further 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 create.

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.

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33 comments on “Alarmism 101
  1. Paul Burns says:

    The author doesn’t seem to be able to explain the disconnect between the taste of brussels sprouts being chocolate and the fact that they will still look a tepid green and have a particular feel to the tongue.It might taste like chocolate but it won’t look and feel like chocolate. Can you imagine the food people doing this to the bits of brocolli they put in stir fry vegetable packets? Kinda wreck a sort of home-made Chinese meal, wouldn’t it.
    Gummo, I utterly agree wth your distaste at the way non-fiction books are hurriedly thrown together nowadays. You’ve summarised the confidence trick often played on a gullible public admirably.

  2. A recent Scientific American article by Stefanie Reinberger…

    Personally, I find sentences like “A recent X article by Y” vague and unhelpful. Where’s the title? Where’s the footnote where we can look up the information ourselves? (And don’t tell me footnotes belong. Fiction authors from Max Brooks to Terry Pratchett use them all the time.) “Recent” doesn’t belong here either, unless the author intends the book to be remaindered in a year.

    I like the neologism “matronizing”. It describes the style so well.

  3. “And don’t tell me footnotes don’t belong”, I mean.

    Paul: most of the books thrown together seem to be written by journos, under the formula that Z articles make Z chapters of a book. It rarely works.

  4. gummotrotsky says:

    D & O:

    The footnote was an endnote.

  5. Mercurius says:

    Hooray for the new puritans! Citizens, no action is required. All that’s required for absolution is to feel guilty for your prosperity and click your tongue at anybody who’s actually enjoying themselves.

    And if you pay $29.95 for my book, I’ll even vindicate your feeling of moral superiority for no extra cost. It’s like getting two Indulgences for the price of one!

    Did Ms.Farrelly mention whether Bindeez are part of the hedonists’ plan for world domination?

    And does she know a good supplier? 😀

  6. philiptravers says:

    Instead of turning up your nose at brussel sprouts or brocolli turning ice cream flavour,[even then it would be easily cooked chopped into fine bits like mint and added to a home made vanilla ice cream],give it the chocolate melt test..today,at the bite size you desire or the art work sculpture you desire.I have had creammy brocolli that if had of been sweeter,well,it could of been ice cream!? Or was I thinking cauliflower!?

  7. jinmaro says:

    Wow. Thanks for the heads-up on the new book by the hilarious, polymathic, satirical, architecture academic (USyd) Dr Elizabeth Farrelly, the very best writer (no contest) for the SMH. Her opinion pieces on planning, architecture and aesthetics are a joy and are emailed round at my workplace with appreciative commentary, much guffawing and collective head-shaking that she gets away with such savage, witty, subversive, and always beautifully written commentary.

    Elizabeth Farrelly absolutely rocks!

  8. anthony says:

    So much for my idea of combining gin and tonic.

    Don’t suppose anybody thought of removing the more bitter outside leaves of the brussel sprout did they?

  9. Liam Hogan says:

    Elizabeth Farrelly absolutely rocks!

    Contradiction’s not an argument, jinmaro. No, she doesn’t. And will this be a five-minute argument or the full half-hour?

    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?

    Um, yes? Pass the soma, Lenina, and we’ll both have half a gramme before our game of electomagnetic golf.

  10. Liam Hogan says:

    Anyway, if you want terrible painful death served up with your pleasant foods, thallium is the way to do it.

  11. When I was at university I wrote one really good political science essay. It was well researched, planned and argued and my lecturer was so impressed that he awarded me a high distinction for my efforts. As a result I spent the next two and a half years steering every pol sci assignment back towards this really good essay so that I could re-use the source material without having to do any further work.

    Books like this remind me of how I dealt with pol sci at uni. The author has had a good idea here or there and decides to shoe horn these ideas into one narrative without much thought beyond reaching a respectable word count. The book will die on the shelves, a few wankers will congratulate themselves on having read it and the author will be content to continue churning out second rate work for the newspaper because the book proves that they are a ‘serious author’.

  12. Paul Burns says:

    To write a good non-fiction book you must be able to write, I suppose, though I wonder with one or two efforts I’ve read lately, but, being able to think and clearly express that thinking is p-robably even more important.
    Journos can definitely write, but how many of them can think?

  13. Any writer who bases their argument on something they read in Scientific American, New Scientist, or (especially) Popular Science without substantial further checking should be beaten over the head with the entire archives of Nature, Science, and the Springer-Verlag TOCS series.

  14. Don’t suppose anybody thought of removing the more bitter outside leaves of the brussel sprout did they?

    No doubt followed by a quick blanch and refresh, then a quick toss in melted butter and cracked pepper, you decadent bastard!

    Brussel sprouts, like broccoli and cabbage, are meant to be cooked into a farty smelling khaki slime, for the moral improvement of children!

  15. Wow. Thanks for the heads-up on the new book by the hilarious, polymathic, satirical … Dr Elizabeth Farrelly

    Thanks for that jinmaro. I can now rest easy, knowing that my obligations to the UNSW PR-PR who sent me the review copy have been fulfilled.

    Hyperbolic repetition of superlatives is no more an argument than contradiction, BTW.

  16. jinmaro says:

    Not interested in engaging with non-arguments, Gummo. (Your “review”, btw, fails the basic requirement of giving any idea of what this book is about.) Rather I come to give well-deserved praise to its redoubtable author.

    I often buy multiple copies of just one book for XMAS and give it as a gift to friends and rels. I think “Blubberland” by the glorious (and gorgeous, and did I mention *radical*) critic and scholar, Elizabeth Farrelly, may well be that book this year for some lucky, lucky people come late December.

    Thanks heaps for publicising it. Should hit the intellectual and funnybone spots – many times over! http://mitpress.mit.edu/catalog/item/default.asp?ttype=2&tid=11404

  17. gummotrotsky says:

    Your “review”, btw, fails the basic requirement of giving any idea of what this book is about.

    Check the first two paragraphs again, jinmaro. And that last one:

    This post is a by-blow from a more extended review …

    As for:

    Not interested in engaging with non-arguments, Gummo

    Fine by me – don’t bother posting any more links to Farrelly hagiography. They won’t get through moderation.

  18. Flapple says:

    Don’t these alarmism books get a bit repetitive? “…but in fact we’ve grown increasingly bloated, bored, and miserable”. Is there some gene that requires some humans to look back at the past and say that things are only getting worse? And that SUVs are the proof? It is true that we need better designed cities and public transport, but they a specific issues, trying to wrap it up in some kind of self-loathing ‘blubber’ non-explanation just seems to be exactly the wrong direction to go in.

    And I personally never wish to here the world “affluenza” ever again.

  19. anthony says:

    In a risotto with celeriac topped with a rack roasted lamb chop and then a punch in the mouth if they seem to be enjoying themselves too much.

    Yes the food processing industries. Between them working a way of making a low calorie pasta dinner out of the residue left from nickel mining and molecular gastronomists boldly redefining our dessert paradigms, there’s a strong case to made against the consumer. As they say in Africa; when elephants battle, it is the ant that provides the homily.

  20. pablo says:

    I’m with jinmaro, Elizabeth Farrelly is a joy. She must have been put up to it. I have a degree in biochemistry and agree with Gumno its a wank, xmas or otherwise. Someone’s waved some big ones in front of the delectable Liz. Perhaps she’s been macro from way back. If I ever get the chance (faint) I’ll tell her stick to architecture, I swear..

  21. Ken Lovell says:

    I can’t get a handle on Farrelly … which is a good thing I reckon. Means she’s got an original mind. And she writes with a bit of style. Some weeks I enjoy her column, others I shake my head in disagreement, a few I shake my head wondering WTF she’s on about. But give me her over the predictable pundits any day.

    Dunno if I could handle a whole book tho … even assuming it wasn’t totally devoted to chocolate Brussels sprouts. Which is actually not as godawful as some of the ‘fusion’ ideas chefs were serving up in the 80s but I better not go off-topic.

  22. Ambigulous says:

    Alarmist books must sell well.

    Golly there’s enough of them. I recall circa 1985 a US paperback about how dental amalgam was going to be the end of civilisation. The publishers dress ’em up in alarmist covers, the non-technical reviewers take them seriously…. what a ghastly waste of time. The US and UK publishing industries seem to specialise in these. Then – was it in France & Germany those bestsellers streaked across the intellectual firmament, explaing how Spt 11 had been organised by Mossad, International Jewry, Pentagon, Bush ??

    But Australia has its share of alarmist bulldust, and thanks for drawing my attention to this clown. We don’t seem to get her pieces in “The Age”; she must be a special delight for SMH readers… does she run an SM cloumn??

    “Whip me with your alarmist weapons, whip me!!”

    cheerio

  23. adrian says:

    jinmaro is correct as is often the case. Farrelly is by far and away the best opinion writer in the Herald, no contest. Therefore, I would be interested in any book that she has written, but can’t pass an opinion on it since I haven’t read it, or even flicked through it in a bookshop.

    This small fact doesn’t stop most of the above posters agreeing with GT (who may indeed be right)in another wonderful example of what is fast becoming LP mindless groupthink.

  24. gummotrotsky says:

    adrian,

    On the subject of AMP, ADP, and ATP I am right, if my 1970s copy of RW McGilvery’s Biochemistry: a functional approach is still to be trusted.

    “another wonderful example of … LP mindless groupthink”? All you’ve offered in response is an extended “what jinmaro said” – most of the other commenters have managed to range a little more widely to support their opinions (whether they agree with me or not) adding a little extra interest to the discussion. You haven’t.

  25. adrian says:

    My point is that many people seem to be willing to dismiss a book that they haven’t read, or even glanced through. If you consider ‘extra interest’ to constitute boring, smart-arsed comments that trivialise the substantive issues no doubt raised in the book, then that is your perogative.
    To me, it’s just more of the same and getting rather tedious.

    So my apologies if I refrain from value-adding to this post.

  26. anthony says:

    “Farrelly is by far and away the best opinion writer in the Herald, no contest.”

    All: Ohhhhhh no she isn’t.

  27. gummotrotsky says:

    First maybe we’d better check out who else writes opinion for the SMH these days.

  28. myriad says:

    I think you might be making a good point about alarmist books Gummo, but I can’t say that the excerpts you’ve provided and then jumped all over in your post here even really convince me that Farrelly’s book *is* alarmist. I read the passages you’ve pulled out and see statements, upon which you’ve then layered some rather extreme extrapolations as to the author’s motives that I certainly wouldn’t have jumped to. I find myself more interested in reading more of what these excerpts were about in context.

    It might be helpful if you linked to your full review, because your post comes across as rather skewed and not particularly easy to follow. If the book you’re reading is an example, others would help, or if it’s a particular beef with this book as an example of it, a link to the full review for full context would help.

  29. Andrew says:

    Gummo,
    On my first reading I thought jinmaro was speaking tongue in cheek – surely he/she was. No-one can believe that of any journalist, surely.

  30. Klaus K says:

    On the contrary, I found Gummo’s post quite easy to follow, and a convincing response to the particular points under discussion. The broader conclusions about the arguments presented in the book seem reasonable – in part because the ‘genre’ (and especially the characteristics of that first chapter) has become so familiar – and I look forward to reading the longer review to confirm this. What I think is valuable about Gummo’s perspective is the way in which it can move from strictly scientific objections, to an account of why those (inadequate) ways of using science are deployed in this type of argument.

  31. tigtog says:

    I’m just wondering whether Farrelly is going to wax anxious about that dangerous chemical dihydrogen monoxide later in the book.

  32. jinmaro says:

    Anthony ,Elizabeth Farrelly is not a journalist. She is an Associate Professor of Architecture at the Usyd and has won international architecture awards. She writes opinion pieces for the SMH which are provocative in the best journalistic tradition and she is a consultant to government. She also was once a councillor for the Sydney City Council, i.e. she has a political activist history.

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