Copyright © by Len Holman, 8/17/10
Once upon a time, in a universe far, far away, I used to periodically eat dirt. I don’t actually remember dining on mud, but my mother—in a rare moment of candor—assured me it was a semi-regular feature of my diet. I was horrified at first and demanded to know why she let me do it. She shrugged, explaining, “It was just dirt. It wasn’t all the time, just once in a while. You didn’t die.”
No, I didn’t. And this is what bothers me about American caregivers: we don’t let our kids eat enough dirt, don’t let them put enough foreign objects into their mouths and we howl with angst if our little darlings get their hands dirty. If they do get dirty, we snatch them up and run for the hand sanitizer. As a consequence, the up-coming generation is unfamiliar with plain soap and hot water, and is becoming sensitized to avoiding the life Out There, and it’s our fault for letting the men and women in lab coats tell us how to raise our kids and accept products we don’t really need.
Don’t misunderstand; I’m not anti-science. Science has produced wonderful results. We don’t have to go down a hill and lug back a bucket of water for drinking and washing. We don’t burn witches at the stake because they talk and act strangely. We have aluminum foil, mousse for men, and flavored chips and snacks which have the same half-life as plutonium. We’ve put men on the moon and machines on Mars. We don’t die from the small infections we used succumb to and we have science to thank for all that and more. But science can measure, test, theorize, and only rarely—if ever—does it consider that people are not rats in a maze or gerbils on a wheel. And therein lays a problem.
In hundreds of ads on TV, we see germs displayed in animated form, as ugly, sci-fi creature out to attack our young. They’re everywhere: on the telephone, the toys, the keyboards of computers, the game consoles, and especially do these creatures have an evolutionary affinity for the kitchen and the bathroom. Mothers, especially, are warned to keep disinfecting materials close by in case the kids touch something germy and go into cardiac arrest, or convulsions—or both. In TV ads—unlike my childhood life—no one takes some scroungy old rag and wipes up a spill. No one uses a washcloth that smells like it was used to wipe up garlic-laced spaghetti sauce to wipe the hands of the child in question. No, it has to be a special solution of “anti-bacterial” lotion or a special cloth impregnated with stuff that is advertised to keep the kids safe from cartoon bugs. Of course, the manufacturers of these products don’t mention that—to be perfectly logical—if killing germs and keeping kids from touching germs is the mission, then parental protection would necessarily involve counseling the kinder that there shall be no kissing of anyone at any time, at any age, which is REALLY germy and much worse than touching the phone, but the ensuing maturation period would truly be sad and dull and without any sparkle—not to mention impossible to enforce.
And science, which has given regular people so much, which has produced cures and made our lives better is also giving producers of consumer products a lot. Without science, and advertisers to promote scientific endeavors, there would be no special ingredient to kill germs, no cheese puffs, no cereal infused with desiccated strawberry bits, no video games so enchanting as to keep our children off the playgrounds and on their asses 12 hours a day, eating those cheese puffs and delicious snacks. Science is good, but some scientists are not, and they justify their work for the Defense Department, or pharmaceutical companies, or toymakers by saying that the money they get funds their research and thereby—eventually—their work produces a greater good. Universities get a lot of money from clients who hire their faculty to do this and the money is plentiful. But where is the ethical morality?
When scientists produce a devastating weapon, some are appalled, as happened when the atom bomb was tested. As has happened in all wars where weapons designed for maximum killing power are used against women and children and civilians. Here, we have science in the service of government, who want—not cartoon bugs—but real, nasty ones, and corporations who produce curative medicines, but also toothpaste which foams and gum with liquid centers, and who need to make enough money to buy more private jets to fly their high-level managers to the Caribbean. The mid-level guys only get to go to Disneyworld. Scientific Corporatism is partly culpable in our obesity problem, our weapons problems, our social problems, and not many have the temerity to point out science as a contributing factor. Sure, parents need to be, well…parents, and leaders need to be leaders, and you can’t blame scientists for Rush Limbaugh and pictures of the president with a bone through his nose, but science has to take its responsibility for the society in which it operates the same as the rest of us.
I propose that the government open an “Office Of Are You Kidding?” This would be staffed by people from small towns and communities where everyone knows everyone else and learn their communal responsibilities to each other at an early age. They would vet every “scientific” discovery and project and ask questions about it: “Do we really need pretzels inside M & Ms?” And “What good is a bomb which kills people but leaves buildings intact if it’s people that make the buildings productive and significant?” And “Does society need this? Will it make us a better country? What are the possible long-term ramifications of teeth whiteners and smart bombs used against terrorists who hide among innocents?”
Science needs to man up and sometimes just say no. Then we can all go back to our mud pies and be the happier and healthier for it.
Return to Bylines