Welcome Lecture at the Erasmus School of Philosophy

I’m pleased to be giving my welcome lecture to the students and faculty of the Erasmus School of Philosophy, where I have been an Assistant Professor since November 2018, on March 13, 2019.

In this lecture, I will survey my research career thus far, in light of the overarching themes of social epistemology and the social determinants of health.

In other words, I will discuss the Pragmatist perspective on political philosophy, ethics, epistemology, and ontology, and explore the mereological tensions between subjects and the communities from which they emerge. This discussion will, furthermore, unfold according to a critical public health perspective, which takes account of the differences in recognition and resources humans experience.

Disposable is NOT Environmental

I was perusing Kickstarter when I happened upon a solution to a problem that I didn’t know was that big of a deal: spices going bad. As it turns out, it’s not that big of a deal, it’s what could easily be classified as a “first world problem.”

Spices, because we live in a commodified society with more supply than demand, often sell us large quantities of pre-picked, pre-ground spices. Moreover, these spices are picked from around the world, very far from where we live, and so by the time we use much of them, they lose some of their pungency.

For the same reason that many people grind their own coffee beans, and in many parts of the world including Europe, their own grains, many people still grind their own spices. (Full disclosure, wherever possible, I grind my own spices too – they taste way better fresh that way; no pre-ground spice, no matter how well packed, will taste as good). There is no secret to this. A couple of good kitchen tools, and you’re good to go with most spices. It keeps the nutrients fresh and less degraded (though of course, from picking a spice, it’s shelf-life starts ticking away), and much more pungent and enticing.

Yet, this Kickstarter doesn’t say, “hey, I’d like to make some money by selling you high quality spices, but you’ll still have to grind them yourselves and take an extra minute of delight every time you cook!” No, instead, it fails to see that good cooking, by its nature is a meditation, not something to create a lot of trash with for convenience’s sake. It is a fail because it does not understand that gourmands who like fresh spices are happy to take the extra 30 seconds and grind their own pepper, ginger, or nutmeg. Instead, it grinds the spices already, prematurely, and puts all of its heft on the claim that it has found a better “preserving” mechanism, better than glass containers, but somehow stopping short of formaldehyde.

By appealing to “design” this company is yet another hipster gourmand appropriation of disposable trashy production in order to pull the wool over consumers’ eyes. They have the gall not to merely discuss how their throw away, potion enough for a bachelor(ette) only spice capsules, but to call their product “revolutionary” for its ability to “keep spice fresher at the molecular level.” At the molecular level! I love it–they don’t explain what they mean (except through appealing to the boogieman of “oxidation”) by saying “molecular,” other than that it has become the new buzzword after “neuro” and “nano.” But hey, if you’re already in the business of commodifying trends, why not throw in meaningless buzzwords to prey on consumer gullibility?

Beyond their appeals to their product perhaps rightly being “more flavorful,” than old forgotten spices, they also make the much more suspect claim of it being more “affordable” as well. But worst – and here it’s just a blatant lie – they also claim that their throwaway aluminum pod peel trash wrapper is also more “sustainable.” And that’s why I’m calling bullshit on Occo, and all products like them that attempt to solve a non-problem for people who have more money than they know what to do with, by creating more trash for future generations.

For fun, let’s take a look at some of their misleading and fallacious sustainability claims:

(1) That aluminum is “the most recyclable material in the world”

(1) A: The price for aluminum is higher today than it has been in many years. That’s why there have been, for the first time a rash of thefts of aluminum bleacher seats at parks. So I ask the very Instagrammable Connie and Lisa: do you know what bauxite is? (The raw material from where aluminum comes from). Have you ever been to a bauxite mine? How about a bauxite processing plant? Ever breathed in those fumes? No, because otherwise, you would avoid aluminum like the plague that it is.

Sorry to burst your bubble, but disposable aluminum (where do you even discuss recycling, and the fact that in many jurisdictions your customers may not even have adequate access to recycling facilities?) is a loser. It’s an environmental nightmare, not the paragon of recyclability you paint it as.

Anything that can be used more than once, or say, used many, many times, for years, is more sustainable than something that is only used once. Period. You don’t have to be an industrial ecologist to do the math and realize that even in the best case scenario, if you melt something down, you’re using a tremendous amount of energy to do so, (coming from where?), and then refashioning that raw material into another thing–losing material and energy along the way.

(2) “Saving food waste” claim.

(2) A: Another fallacy is that Occo is helping reduce food waste and saving the planet by selling expensive spices in high quantities in disposable aluminum. The company even does a masterful deflection of using a loaded label against the waste in bulk food items (they call it the “Movie Soda Mark-Up”), that strikes a chord with their Millennial audience of single, big income, no children. They say that food waste is created because people buy more than what they need, and when people are more minimalistic (I love the movement of minimalism, but detest the way it has become commodified to sell more crap that people don’t need to them in the name of minimalism!). But I truly have to question how true this is around spices: what percentage of the 40% of food waste boils down to spices? 1%? 0.5%? If so, that would boil down to 0.4-0.2% of food waste blamable on too many spices. And this is a generous estimate. Nice try, but this is a clear case of the misuse and abuse of pulling on legitimate environmentalist heartstrings.

 

To sum up: the problem with this scheme and so many like it is that there’s no money in simply telling people to go quality over quantity; and to buy less instead of buying more. The “super premium” segment of the nouveau riche, always eager to virtue signal their “style” and “taste” is one of the leading contributors to ecological disaster and climate chaos.

To falsely claim some sort of ecological currency in doing so, should be met with a healthy dose of reality and opprobrium. There are enough charlatans around; the last thing we need is more cannibalism of truth by poseur minimalists willing to say any ecological lie to make a quick buck.

P.S. After writing this, I just found some more spurious reasoning from these poster-children for the Dunning-Kruger effect (a little bit of knowledge is dangerous–you might actually think you know something when that’s not the case). I’m not going to comment on it, I’ll just put it here:

Thoughts and Prayers and Regulations

There is an epidemic of thoughts and prayers in America. It seems the more politicians think and pray, the more school shootings happen, the more places of worship get gunned and burned down, and the more people die.

Maybe to reverse this trend, politicians need to stop sending their thoughts and quit praying, and instead begin doing their jobs: defending the commonweal against those who would sacrifice it for profit.

New Article in Biosemiotics: I am a Fake Loop

My article, “I Am a Fake Loop: the Effects of Advertising-Based Artificial Selection,” just appeared in the journal Biosemiotics. You can read it here for free.

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In this piece, I explore Niko Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz’s ethological understandings of the human animal, and how certain instinctual heuristics override rational control and analysis. Using the case study of advertising, I investigate how various ways in which human life is subverted through the artificial selection of single-metric selection processes of profit. The myopia of profit even undermines itself in short-term extractivism, so it is definitionally unsustainable.

Also interrogated in this study is the way in which desires are manufactured. Using Tinbergen’s discovery of “supernormal stimuli” and Deirdre Barret’s application of this ethological finding to human epidemiology, I take a public health approach to supernormal stimuli and find that marketing and advertising strangely undermine their form of mimicry, deceiving both the intended targets and the signaler simultaneously. Analyzing sophisticated mass mimicry in contemporary culture, in both intended and unintended forms, allows for insights into how to decolonize human evolution from these insidious forms of artificial selection.

E-cigarette e-waste litter is an environmental health harm that can be stopped before it metastasizes

My op-ed in the American Journal of Public Health that appeared this week discusses the new tobacco waste stream of electronic cigarette waste. Electronic waste is already the fastest growing waste stream globally. Creating a new product that has no current responsible recycling infrastructure, and that may be littered widely, contributing to plastic sinks such as the Great Pacific Gyre (garbage patch) in the Pacific Ocean, is a mistake. This op-ed discusses the problem and some of the solutions that can be taken to avoid a possible environmental health and ecological disaster.

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Photo of a dropped Juul vape on SF MUNI by Julia McQuoid, used with permission

Regarding this article and other research I am conducting, I also wrote a piece in the online academic blog/forum The Conversation on e-cigarettes as the Nespresso of tobacco products, environmentally speaking.

This article was republished by the University of California, Salon, Phys.org, The Houston Chron, the Connecticut Post, The Fresh Toast, Business Insider, EcoWatch, The Chicago Tribune, and many other news sources.

Reuters also interviewed me for a piece titled “E-cigarette policy should consider environmental effects, expert says.”

For my other writing on e-waste, please see my interview with Eric Lundgren in Nautilus.

 

UCSF Chemical Industry Documents

A couple weeks ago, UCSF launched our newest collection of industry documents. The UCSF Industry Documents archive is a repository of almost one hundred million pages of previously secret industry documents now searchable for the public due to discovery and legal mandate.

These documents give unparalleled insight into how the world’s largest and arguably most harmful corporations operate. By reading how these industries regard their own practices, the public, academics, and policy-makers can be more realistic in assessing the rhetoric and claims of toxic industries.

These documents also point to how industries have worked closely with government organizations to cover up bad science and mislead the public. These documents show the important steps that must be taken to restore the credibility of scientific research in the public eye.

 

Whither the Relevance of Print Media?

The great American newspapers have shot themselves in the foot. In the race against online media and decentralized user-based content, when they haven’t been bought up by conglomerates with the intention to destroy them or use them as organs of ideology, newspapers have repeatedly cranked up the sensationalism, obscured good reporting with blaring ads, and made themselves irrelevant.

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The San Francisco Chronicle, our stalwart liberal rag of the Bay Area, regularly obscures its first page with these cover-up inserts that blot out half of the cover with some strident mock-serious ad. While of course they are doing this (1) to obscure the content so people have to buy the paper to read the front page, and moreover, (2) for much-needed revenue, this is a losing proposition. In an era where content is given away for free in order to produce a sale—the shrewd notion of free tasters to lure in the curious, obscuring your headlines deaden curiosity by the miserly action of deliberately obscuring the little free content newspapers show on the upper half of the first page.

 

Revenue can be had through special offers and tie-ins with exclusive companies. Exclusivity should go hand-in-hand with exquisite reporting. Truly unique newspapers, which provide novel rather than recycled content, have thick social capital that they can draw on for higher ad prices, for special offers with honored establishments, affiliate programs, and other arbiters of power. This, rather than sales, is really the primary income stream. But the moment that quality goes down, that uniqueness becomes a liability rather than a treasure, and conformity to the sterile standards of NewsCorp reigns, newspapers become desperate enterprises. They scramble in shambles to keep up the facade of sophistication while serving up only fluff—and still are bemused at dwindling readerships and relevance. Relevance is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Investigative journalism, thoughtful, unorthodox yet principled reporting, and the courage to take stands on controversial issues for the sake of the polity define and build the reputation of news businesses.

 

Diversity in news reporting is needed now more than ever. The dilution of debate to shrill assertions of opinion, often attached with ad hominum uncivil behavior has overwhelmed the 4th estate as fake news. Like the replacement of fact with self-interested, self-promoting fiction (oleaginously patinated as “alternative facts”) has become a major force in monopoly-controlled news companies. The notion of the “free press” even sounds quaint in 2018. While some online groups like Civil aim to harness the trust-embedded authentication of blockchain to develop a new form of press, at best, one has to choose and pick from the grey literature amongst the deluge of SEO (search engine optimized) websites that pay and play to have higher Google rankings. Thus, whatever real journalism that exists, in our quixotic market economy, gets buried at the bottom; while the froth and disinformation rises to the top (in part, because it is financially interested to a magnitude that real journalism never has been and never could be).

 

So, to remake themselves, brick-and-mortar news agencies producing physical (and electronic) products, must lean in to Cory Doctorow’s adage that “Information doesn’t want to be free. People do.” This means giving people the best news agencies have to offer, for free, if possible, with longer, more detailed versions available for purchase (or for favors, such as re-posting, affiliate programs, etc.). Countless creative win-win concepts exist for the flagging newspaper business—if only they take the moral, political, and economic high-ground and learn to adapt rather resist our strange new information environment.