Social Cost of Taboo

A taboo is an unspoken social rule of omission: things you may not talk about. You have every right to say it, but people agree that the speaker will come off badly if they do. Obesity is one of these, where telling a fat person they are fat means the speaker comes off worse than anyone else; being skinny is not a taboo. Obesity is even a taboo when smoking is not. The way we think about obesity, as a right, is warped. It is the result of self-entitlement.

I probably have a low-level body-image dysmorphia, so my decision to isolate obesity as the taboo that has social cost could well be an externalisation of personal concerns (i.e. my fixation on my body image). I understand that bias from the outset. However, I do not think that bias undermines the fact that as a society we are all paying a cost for other people’s obesity.

Obesity is seen as a right: the right to freedom of food and the right to freedom to exercise. A right like this, when upheld, always extends to abstinence and indulgence. The right to be obese is not upheld by other people’s recognition that an obese person has the right to be obese. The right to obesity, like all rights, is upheld by the public’s acceptance that they have responsibilities relating to the right to obesity. In a country with healthcare free at the point of use, which the UK is, the public recognises its responsibility to pay for the people who have indulged in the right to eat and not the right to exercise. Doctors recognise that although that recommend a new diet plan, if the obese person refuses, the doctor still is responsible to treat that person for long-term illnesses and weight-related operations.

A list of publications available from the Million Women Study outlines some of the weight-related health concerns they have researched since 1996. Whether the female-only investigation can be extrapolated to men as well is debatable, but the summary is, that for women at least, 1 in 8 hospital admissions are weight related. Weight alone is responsible for 2 million extra patient days in hospital every year. This is important when you consider that every bed costs £1,000 ($1,651) per day to keep a patient in (and that’s before the medical care).

According to David King, writing for the Lancet, between 50 and 60% of people in the UK could be obese by 2050. The cost of this is not just beared by the NHS. Weight-related sickness costs companies money. If half of people need an increase in the number of sick days they take, that will cost money in lost productivity. Already failing companies will be under increasing strain. Small businesses may fail just because of unreliable staffing. There is also the motivation concern: as a company becomes increasingly dependent on its healthy staff, the healthy staff become overworked and demotivated. Both stress and demotivation can lead to diminishing productivity and further health concerns. King’s report, titled The Future Challenge of Obesity, estimates the cost to the economy to be about £45.5 billion ($75.12 billion).

At the point of care, doctors can’t mitigate risk. This is another right/responsibilities issue. A doctor can recommend a low-calorie, healthy diet with light exercise. But a patient assumes the right ignore all advice, compound existing issues and still expect health care.

The parallels between this and smoking are quite clear. Smoking severely damages your health putting strain on the NHS and small companies that depend on reliable staff. The difference is that few people perceive being informed about smoking to be a taboo. It can be seen as concern or even encouragement to stop. From what I have observed, it seems people default to the assumption that people want to quit smoking. Such a position on eating habits is considered rude and obnoxious. The effects of smoking on the economy are slowly being lightened by stigmatising smokers. This is a freedom social norms have permitted. But social norms aren’t ready to put down the donut. And the taboo costs money.

(If you want to guest post here, writing about the cost of taboos about both drugs and sex will be well received.)

Related reading (including a little less doom and gloom)

The linked references.

William H Dietz (2011) Reversing the Tide of Obesity. The Lancet.

Harry Rutter (2011) Where Next for Obesity? The Lancet.

Laura Donnelly (2013) NHS will not survive without ‘courageous action’. The Guardian.

On the “Spiritual Impulse”

Originally posted on Enquiries on Atheism:

There is a certain deistic argument I recently met that I think deserves a response. The argument is that similarities in religious texts and appreciating beauty and justice are symptoms of a “spiritual impulse”. Said spiritual impulse is said to be a symptom of a message all people are simultaneously receiving. Said message is meant to be a yearning from a God. I have intentionally broken the argument down into stages so that the “complexity” of the argument is clear. That will be important later. But first, I want to agree a small philosophical point: if a particular evidence can sensibly be used to defend two mutually exclusive views, the evidence is in support of neither. If you can’t agree to that, ruminate on it for a minute or two. If you still can’t agree, please leave a comment to explain why.

I would like to argue that the similarity…

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The Social Cost of Ignorance

It is not uncommon to be asked why I feel critical thinking and research are important. There are two key reasons: one is that I do not like the idea of middle-minded conservative people with antiquated ideas feeling they have a right to run a country without reason; second is the fact one needs to have a way of establishing facts to make sure they are not making decisions out of ignorance. To illuminate this issue I am going to start a small series called “Social Costs”. This particular post will be about ignorance, and my next post will be about obesity. I haven’t decided on any further topics yet, but no doubt a reader will give me something to formulate an opinion on.

It is unrealistic to assume I can outline all the possible ways ignorance can have social costs, so I am going to pick an example from within consumerism. Consumerism is probably the way we are most empowered; if we can make change a commercial concern then change will immediately follow. But we simply don’t know about the problems out there we will no doubt want to change. And that is a social cost of ignorance.

Here’s a simple challenge: I have a choice between cultivating land in a way that is responsible and renewable or cultivating land in a ‘slash and burn’. The responsible method includes taking one plot of land and treating it in a way that I can farm there year-after-year. The ‘slash and burn’ method includes cutting down sections forest, making all the local wildlife homeless leading to their inevitable, slow death (particularly of the infants), leading to local extinction. Which method should I choose? There are companies that have this very decision before them, and they pick the one you know they will (not the one you picked). They will slash and burn an area, annihilating the rainforest and all for one or two years of production. The product they are producing is palm oil. The wildlife they are endangering is Orangutans (as well as many other areas in the biodiverse rainforests of Indonesia and Malaysia: Tigers and sun bears. These are vulnerable and endangered species, according to the IUCN).

At this point, you probably think the lesson is over; you can avoid foods with palm oil in the ingredients and your social responsibility to orangutans is over. Unfortunately, you are mistaken. Palm oil is in a lot of our foods under the name “vegetable oil”. And this is where things get difficult. Oil from many sources are in our food as vegetable oil. How do we overcome this mess? I can’t not eat, so how can I avoid this nature-destroying, bear-and-tiger-killing ingredient? The Independent newspaper, in 2009, created a list of some foods it is it and, with a little extrapolation, estimated that palm oil is in about 50% of our foods, worth an incredible £6bn annually for just the top brands.

And that last statistic is the clue. We are ignorant, yes. But we are kept ignorant by the big brands. I am guilty of this. I love peanut butter. Peanut butter is notoriously high in oils (and it’s healthy and delicious… as part of a balanced diet). I used to buy Meridian Peanut Butter which, for a long time, listed vegetable oil as an ingredient. As it turns out, it is palm-free, orangutan-friendly vegetable oil (just to be confusing, that exists too). Meridian are now better at advertising that fact! But as it dawned on me that I didn’t know, I swapped out to a different brand: Peanut Butter & Co. They advertised on the jar “No palm oil”. It was the only informed choice I could make.

You may not think this can work. But exactly this kind of consumer power does work. Canada forced the sugar content of cereals down by just admitting they don’t want to eat so much sugar: they are concerned about diabetes, their teeth and their mid-morning blood-sugar plummet. Brands with lower sugar content in Canada now thrive, while the UK continues to leave high-sugar cereals as a back-door conversation that only pushy parents have.

We now needs to decide that we don’t want to eat Orangutan corpses. If an ingredients list has vegetable oil or palm oil and cannot explicitly advertise that is it Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certified, sustainable or Orangutan friendly, then we need to not buy it. Foods which are friendly will advertise, foods which are not will change or die. It’s evolution by consumer selection.

We can make the pathways by which corruption happens in the UK work for us! As soon as big brands find themselves using no palm oil or sustainable palm oil, they will become a part of a pressure group (under the guise of concerned moral onlookers) pressuring and bribing their local MPs to draft bills and the Houses of Commons to vote accordingly for a ban on unfriendly palm oil (just to weaken the slower-to-react competition). This is more democratic than the brands paying to not pass laws like this, because it puts the companies on the back foot and makes them bend to our will (and consumer power).

But we can’t do this. Because we don’t know about palm oil and the devastation it causes across Southeast Asia and to wildlife and the environment. Nature is being ravished, and that is the social cost of the fact we just don’t know.


Related Reading

The Independent (2009) The Guilty Secrets of Palm Oil

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil

WWF Environmental Cost of Palm Oil

Meridian vow not to use palm oil

Peanut Butter & Co uses sustainable palm oil (RSPO affiliated)


In Defence of Evil God

Originally posted on Enquiries on Atheism:

God is good and loving. We all know that, right? In fact, some theists ‘know’ that so vehemently that if God were to kill everybody in a global flood, or create a worm that must burrow into human eye balls, said theist will find defining the words “good” and “loving” much more flexible than the assertion “God is good and loving”. Many theists go a step further, saying that God is necessarily good and loving. Their argument is often derived from the ontological argument, where a ‘maximally great being’ is defined as existing.

Although I can see why goodness is, y’know, good‒great, even‒it is not objectively so. Being good and loving is subjectively great. Even if I change the ontological argument to talk about ‘maximally positively great’ beings, we don’t get around the issue of goodness being subjective. By changing the argument to talk about ‘positively great’ beings, we remove…

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for the linguistic creationists

Originally posted on violetwisp:


Many of you will be familiar with the the cult of Linguistic Creationists and their holy text, the Biblingua, which they believe was revealed in a series of divine whispers from the omniscient deity and creator of language, Hermesa. Although some of us now suspect that language has evolved naturally, many people still cling to the myths and rules of this popular cult.


On the first day, Hermesa created words. May the holy words of Hermes never be subject to the wicked perversion of meaning revision.

It’s difficult when you get to a certain age to adjust to the fact that words, and indeed expressions, are not divinely defined in tablets of stone. There is proof that words evolve, in the form of new words entering our dictionaries on a regular basis. But it’s not just the new words that are a cause of vitriol from the Linguist Creationist…

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Why do people laugh at Creationists? (Thunderf00t)

Hmm… I do wonder…


Originally posted on Pandaemonium:

Like a lion, perhaps, in a den of Daniels, I gave a talk last week on ‘Why I am an atheist’ to theology students at Bristol’s Trinity College. It was an enjoyable event, and hopefully helped me to think through and sharpen my arguments (though not, I suspect, to change anyone’s mind). Here’s the transcript.

There are three kinds of arguments that an atheist can make in defence of the insistence that no God exists. First, he or she can argue against the necessity for God. That is, an argument against the claim that God is necessary to explain both the material reality of the world and the values by which we live. Second, he or she can argue against the possibility of God, against the idea that a being such as God is either logically or materially possible. And third, an atheist can argue against the consequencesof belief in God. This…

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