Beware: Health Warnings

Speaking of self-fulfilling prophecies, which we often are, Stu has a feature in today’s FT magazine about the negative impacts on our health of precautionary health advice:

Worried Sick
What if health warnings could make us ill? Actually, they can – it’s called the “nocebo effect” and there’s a lot of it about

It’s mostly about medical advice, but it also touches on how encouraging negative expectations about the state of the planet can be asking for trouble:

Even non-specific worries about the state of the world in general can be enough to make us ill, according to research from the University of Auckland. Prior to a huge pesticide-spraying programme in New Zealand, people were asked about their attitudes towards new technologies and environmental threats. After the spraying, those who were most concerned about the health risks reported the greatest number of symptoms.

There’s an online version here.

Of course, in the case of environmentalism, the self-fulfilling prophecy is mediated more by politics than physiology – environmental politics creates conditions that leave us more vulnerable to environmental problems. Both, however, are responses to the same institutionalised, precautionary fear-mongering.

7 thoughts on “Beware: Health Warnings”

  1. Interesting piece in the FT. It just goes to show what a dim-witted unconscious lot us humans really are! No self knowledge or independance at all that we can be moved and manipulated so facilely by the media into believing almost anything. We are especially vunerable, it seems, to “scare tactics” and marketing techniques.
    You mention this “fear factor” a lot on this blog. Which intrigues me. What is it exactly you are scared of?

  2. Speak for yourself. Far from showing that humans are a “dim-witted unconscious lot”, it shows that we like to believe what experts tell us. There’s nothing dim-witted about trusting experts. That’s what they’re there for after all. It becomes problematic when that expertise becomes politicised. In this case, the expert advice becomes refocused through the politics of the precautionary principle. The article doesn’t claim that this is making us all ill, and that we are slaves to our physiologies or to the manipulation of our physiologies by others. Just that it can make some people ill. That’s still a problem.

    The fact that the nocebo effect is a physiological reality says little about how vulnerable we are to it. By it’s very nature, we are less vulnerable to it the more we are aware of it. And the more we are aware of it, perhaps experts will be less inclined to sex-up their health warnings.

    In general, we’d say that people are already rather resistant to institutionalised scare-mongering. The majority were not impressed by the hype that led up to the Iraq invasion, and likewise most people don’t believe climate change catastrophism.

    Unlike you, we credit people with the ability to decide for themselves how to respond to the best available expert evidence. It’s just harder to do that when that advice is issued more for political ends than for information purposes.

    So to answer your question, we’re not scared, despite the efforts of the scaremongers. And neither are most people. What concerns us is how institutional scare-mongering degrades both expertise and politics.

  3. “In general, we’d say that people are already rather resistant to institutionalised scare-mongering. The majority were not impressed by the hype that led up to the Iraq invasion, and likewise most people don’t believe climate change catastrophism.”

    If that is so why use the accusation of `scare – mongering´ to discredit climate change experts? Are you suggesting that information on environmental damage is published to scare people for political ends rather than simply to inform, and that the fact that people aren´t scared means that it is just hype? I don´t know how you arrive at the statement “most people” but it seems to me that a lot of people are rising to the challenge posed by environmental damage and rather than being scared, are becoming politically active in attempting to deal with it. Perhaps it it this that “concerns” you?

    “Unlike you, we credit people with the ability to decide for themselves how to respond to the best available expert evidence. It’s just harder to do that when that advice is issued more for political ends than for information purposes.”

    But you don´t credit people with the ability to tell the difference?
    Who, in your opinion, is providing the best available expert evidence?

  4. SJones – ‘“In general, we’d say that people are already rather resistant to institutionalised scare-mongering. The majority were not impressed by the hype that led up to the Iraq invasion, and likewise most people don’t believe climate change catastrophism.”

    If that is so why use the accusation of `scare – mongering´ to discredit climate change experts?’

    We don’t. As we point out, the alarmist statements issued by… erm… climate alarmists in favour of political action don’t have a scientific basis.

    ‘a lot of people are rising to the challenge posed by environmental damage and rather than being scared, are becoming politically active in attempting to deal with it.’

    Hardly. Not enough to even call it a political movement. Just a tiny bunch of very loud, and very well connected and self-important activists who see themselves as ‘above’ politics.

  5. Hardly. Not enough to even call it a political movement. Just a tiny bunch of very loud, and very well connected and self-important activists who see themselves as ‘above’ politics.

    What do you consider a sufficient number to call something a political movement? The Stop Climate Chaos Coalition claims a support base of more than 11 million people, perhaps that is your definition of “tiny bunch”?

    Why do you consider them to be ” self-important”? and how do you arrive at the opinion that they see themselves as `above´ politics. What does `above´ politics mean exactly?

    I am still interested in your answer to my question: who, in your opinion, is providing the best available expert evidence?

  6. “The Stop Climate Chaos Coalition claims a support base of more than 11 million people, perhaps that is your definition of “tiny bunch”?”

    Why should we take their word for it? It certainly doesn’t appear that they have that kind of support. Even the highest profile Green politician – Caroline Lucas – struggled to achieve the support of even 2% of he constituency. And their apparent success is principally owed to disappointment with the other parties, and the appeal of their social agenda following the near total collapse of the UK Left – not climate change.

    We’d characterise the environmental movement as self-important and ‘above-politics’ precisely because of their failure to engage mass support. The same faces – not at all infrequently the offspring of very wealthy and landed families – appear in the media after their high profile actions, to say things like ‘democracy isn’t working’, and to demand ‘stronger climate laws’. It’s elitist character is demonstrated in the contempt it has precisely for anything ‘mass’, and everything that enables ‘movement’.

    Moreover, the silly stunts that are performed are the acts of a group that fails to generate support. If there really were such a huge number of people behind them, there would be no need to invade runways, etc.

    You ask us who ‘is providing the best available expert evidence?’

    Who or what is ‘who’? Which person? Which research institute? Which political party? Which ‘side’ in the debate? Which country?

    If you’d taken the trouble to read some of our archive, you’d see a lot of criticism of the ‘our experts are better that your experts’ kind of debate. Our argument is that there is disparity between the political argument and the scientific claims, and a great deal more nuance than the polarised account of the climate debate suggests.

  7. I am reading your archive. I only recently discovered your website and it is for me a slow process due not only to time constraints, but mainly because the material you have posted requires careful consideration and much thought. I welcome the challenge you have posed, for one simple reason: I wish to examine the issue more deeply. And I appreciate the opportunity for debate.

    You speak of the polarisation of the debate, which is it´s greatest weakness in my opinion, as we all too readily take up sides which we then proceed to defend. The debate becomes entrenched and no-one is really listening to the counter arguments, much less attempting to understand them.

    Your emphasis on the political aspect is a fresh approach and underscores the necessity for an examination of what democracy means in practice. Someone somewhere made a comment that it is not so much a case of our democratic process failing the people, as the people failing the democratic process….

    It would seem that we disagree on one level. but maybe there is common ground at another level. Perhaps this debate, which shows no sign of abating, will lead us there.

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