Saturday, August 11, 2007

For those who just don't get it

One of my most recent jobs was working for a man who felt that anything that he did not understand or know much about was of no value. He could occasionally be convinced otherwise with some education, if you could find him in a patient enough mood to listen, but those moments were few and far between. If a customer inquired about a product that was unfamiliar to him, he would try to convince the customer that the product was no good, eventually berating them if they persisted in asking about it.

Did this mean that the things that he did not understand or know about actually were worthless? Of course not. The man cost himself quite a few sales by driving formerly loyal customers to purchase the items they wanted elsewhere. Instead of acknowledging this as a failure on his part to give his customers appropriate service and care, he would wildly rant about their disloyalty, and demand of his employees an explanation as to why the customer would do such a thing.

One man's belief that something is valueless because he does not understand it does not make it so. How often have size-positive writers heard, "I just don't get people who think it's okay to be fat"? How often do vegetarians hear, "I just don't understand vegetarians"? What follows, but is unspoken, is usually the idea that, "And because I don't understand it, it's stupid and worthless."

It's easy to despair. It's also easy to say, "Well, they're just closed-minded jerks, so I'll pretend it doesn't matter." My opinion, however, is that their lack of understanding underscores the necessity of education and simplification. Turning the tide on these wrongheaded notions and fighting against the cultural indoctrination of misguided lore is going to take a lot of effort. It might not even be successful for many years; look at how many stupid urban myths get passed around for years after reveals them as false.

A more solid plan is needed if we are going to get results. I can tell people to read Campos' and Kolata's books until I'm blue in the face, but I know damn well that people are not willing to invest that kind of effort into educating themselves--especially when it might prove them wrong. The best success I have had is to take the knowledge and condense it into dense little bites of facts, small but rich paragraphs that can be easily cut and pasted into an online discussion, or memorized to be said out loud.

Well-cited nuggets of real science can be invaluable; it's one thing to say, "Go and read this book," and quite another to say, "The Minnesota starvation study indicates that our brains protect a set point of weight by changing metabolism to match lower or higher food intake, and by changing our behavior to focus on obtaining adequate levels of nourishment".

If we had a number of these little responses ready, then the "I don't understand it" crowd would no longer have an excuse for their bigotry. They would be forced to admit that they are either too stupid to comprehend basic facts, or that their treatment of fat people is based entirely on aesthetic preferences--and therefore just as bad as treating people badly based on other physical characteristics. If we take away the, "Well, it's unhealthy, because I know it is, because everybody knows it" excuse, they have nothing left to excuse their behavior.

There are a number of useful things in life that are too complex for the average person to understand. Would it be wise for me to say, "Doctor, I don't understand the physiological processes that make my medication work, so therefore it's just a bunch of crap," when the medication is one that keeps me functional, or alive? Would it make sense for me to deny the value of using good food safety practices because I don't understand the life cycle of E. coli or salmonella bacteria? Of course not.

So I'd like to prepare some very simple, well-cited bites of knowledge to deftly counter the "I don't get it" crowd who don't have anything besides their own lack of knowledge to back their side. Many people need simple blocks of information and lots of repetition to help them wrap their brains around a difficult subject, so let's give them what they need.

In the next entry, I'll expand on the idea of what we can do when scientists have gotten things wrong. Science is an ever-changing tapestry, but sometimes we just have to drag the flat-earth crowd out of the stone age, kicking and screaming.


misfit said...

Great idea!

I see all this crap online about obesity & I really don't know what to do.
I don't think it's right to ignore all of them. But if you post "go read ..." or give them links to something online, you know they won't bother.
It's as if there is an 11th commandment "Thou shall not be fat" and of course the 12th "Thou shall not let anybody else be fat in peace".

I'll be back for your bites of knowledge.

KateHarding said...

Rio, this is a really terrific idea -- and something I've wanted to do for a long time, actually. It's sort of what I was going for with the "Don't you realize fat is unhealthy?" post, in fact -- but concise soundbites are really, really not my forte. :)

Paul also started Big Fat Facts a while back, and I'm sure he'd love it if you contributed some of what you come up with to that.