We seem to have learned nothing from the long battle against the tobacco industry.
We humans are a funny lot. Our brains aren’t very good at thinking because we evolved under conditions of scarcity. As thinking can consume up to 30% of our blood glucose, robbing muscles of energy that may be needed to flee from predators or engage in extensive foraging, we evolved to do as little thinking as possible. For most of our history as a species, this made a lot of sense.
Therefore the best strategy was to accept assertions from authority figures without question; even if they were wrong, the consequences would be minor. So what if Fred passes on an inferior technique of flint-napping or Mary gives sub-optimal instructions about how best to pluck ripe berries from the bush? So long as the information passed on was good enough, the group would survive. And during most of our evolutionary history our rudimentary tools and skills were sufficient for us to eke out an existence by simply going along with what everyone else was saying and doing.
What this means for us today is that we’re suckers for simple-minded “rules” that tell us what to believe. Once a “rule” is established we defend it blindly and become very agitated when anyone challenges the basis for our belief.
This leads us into all manner of mistakes, many of which have very harmful consequences.
Today most people have forgotten how prevalent tobacco was for several generations. When the narcotic effects of tobacco were first discovered in the late sixteenth century there was a tussle between those wishing to profit by selling the leaves of the plant and those who rightly saw it as a menace. Early seventeenth-century literature is full of references to “the stinking weed” and the noxious smoke resulting from burning tobacco.
By the eighteenth century many of the negative effects of tobacco smoking were known: coughs, increased susceptibility to breathing ailments, and the atrocious burned ash smell that clings to the skin and hair of those who breath in the smoldering weed. It was still a minority pursuit.
But by the twentieth century, thanks to the advent of modern marketing techniques and communications technologies, smoking went mainstream. It became fashionable…