Human Grasshoppers

In medicine (my occupation), drug reps cleverly use many cognitive techniques to try a peddle their wares.  I am sure there is a name for this cognitive jujitsu, but let me call it “Lonely Numbers”.  “Lonely Numbers” are numbers which are given without any important comparison.  For example, a drug rep may say, “Our drug reduces incontinence by 1/3”.  See how lonely that “1/3” is?  You se, the reps conveniently don’t tell you, for instance, that losing 20 pounds of fat or cutting your coffee to 1 cup a day does the same thing.  Instead, they want you to spend $90 per month on the drug — or worse, they expect someone else (through “insurance”) to pay for your choice to stay fat and stoked on caffeine.
Another example:  Several blogs have recently posted about this National Geographic project called “The Human Footprint” which is trying to impress the reader with the gross consumptive nature of humans.  The picture to the right is meant to illustrate how much bread an “average American” gobbles up per year.  Gee, we are such pigs!  But wait!  How about some comparison with other amazing biological facts:

  • Bats eat 1/3 their body weight in insects each night.  Think of the horror of that consumptionism.
  • Grasshoppers eat their own weight in food in 16 hours — oh the destruction.  Imagine if humans ate anywhere near those volumes!

Consumption Ain’t Bad

I am not playing down the call to reflect on how we consume, but I am offering relative perspective.  For instance: imagine if the human population were 1/6 of what it is today — which is what it was in 1850.  Well, this sort of consumptionism wouldn’t matter with that population.  It is not the consumptionism that is the problem — all organism do it — it is when the organism destroys its available living space.  Because the fact is:  Nature is all about consumption.

My Egg Consumption

The National Geographic site tries to make me feel guilty for eating eggs with a calculator that saying “You’d need almost 57 hens laying eggs for one year for your lifetime’s consumption!”  So what?  Then they say  “19,826 eggs weigh 1.3 tons — that about the curb weight of a Mini Cooper.”  Again, so what?  Remember, give those “lonely numbers” friends, and a lot of silly propaganda evaporates pretty quickly.  (BTW, we raise our own chickens for eggs)


Filed under Science

11 responses to “Human Grasshoppers

  1. Amen.
    Reminds me of folk who ‘religiously recycle’ – as if they are saving the world – then get in their car and drive many miles at a whim.
    The human footprint is a complicated thing.
    And perhaps human progress as a whole does bring a cost of undesirable side-effects. So to speak.

  2. Ed

    Sabio… your blog has changed my life by a fifth, relative to the 47% of those that have read at least one third of your posts.

  3. Perhaps a more relevant image would be an American’s consumption vs. the consumption of someone in a different part of the world? Or, if it were determined that people are consuming more than the world can handle, an illustration showing excess consumption (however that could be determined).

    What you are saying is that the images do not illustrate overconsumption. However, if it makes you consider choices you are making, maybe illustrating just consumption is helpful? Of course it can also have the negative effect of making us feel guilty for something we can’t control, like say just being alive.

  4. @ Andrew :
    Indeed: the false self-reassurances that work for us all are humorous.

    @ Ed :
    LOL! Thanx

    @ atimetorend:
    Concerning American consumption: Other countries would unhesitantly consume as much as we do if they could. The point is, they can’t. So it is not as if Americans have worse intents than anyone else, we just have a larger capacity to demonstrate our common human habits.

    Again, though, “over-consumption” is a relative term. As I said, if the human population were 1 billion, or 1/2 billion (as it was in the 1600s) our present consumption would not be OVER consumption at all, it would be sustainable if the population held steady. Everything is relative.

  5. I believe the lonely number phenomenon is called stacking the cards, a logical fallacy in which you tweak the representation of evidence and numbers in order to make them seem more severe than they really are. You see this everywhere, though, especially in advertising.

    And I would so eat a Mini Cooper made of eggs.

  6. Thanx Zachary. I looked it up in the “Fallacy Files” where it is called “One-Sidedness” in addition to Card Stacking. It seems a good fit. But I think “The Lonely Number Fallacy” should be added to it as a specific subcategory! 🙂

  7. Boz

    It takes 12 bees their entire lifetime to make one teaspoon (5ml) of honey. So, that 250g jar of honey is the life’s work of 600 individuals!

    In relation to the bread consumption, a better comparison would be the number calories consumed per person, ranked by country.

    I bet every country would be very similar.

  8. Hey Boz,
    I love the bee story. Like we are suppose to feel sorry!

    I don’t understand the calorie issue. Are you wagering that every nation consumes roughly the same calories per capita? I HIGHLY doubt that.

  9. Does the lonely numbers thing rely on our inclinations to over-generalize? There is certainly a lot of examples in the consumption-conversation that rely on the “what if everyone in the world did this?” question. “What if everyone in the world ate beef 5 times a week?” “What if everyone in the world owned two trucks and a motorcycle?” “What if everyone else jumped off a bridge?”

    I usually just sigh at such over-generalizations. But more and more now I fear that everyone in the world is being taught to want the same exact lifestyle.

    Consumption isn’t a bad thing when, as you say, nature is all about consumption. Our problem is more tied to waste, isn’t it? In nature, waste is food, right? If our waste was more quickly or more directly consumed back into nature I’d worry less about our consumptive nature. I don’t know, maybe I’ll only be happy when bacteria learns how to eat plastic… or when we all live like elves in the forest…

  10. @ Andrew: It seems they have bacteria eating plastic and working on improving them.

  11. Yay! I knew there was work being done but I didn’t know they had come that far. Bacteria will bring salvation and restore my hope for humanity!… Oh wait… oh dear, that can be taken the wrong way…

    (I do still think we should live like elves though. Cyborg-elves with PDAs maybe…)

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