Why idiotic pseudo-science matters, and why reason is losing the war against it, as explained by lions and rhinos
This is the time of year when media outlets will list their top stories of 2015. Cecil will probably make the list. You remember him: he’s the lion who was killed in a dentist-involved shooting this July. You probably don’t remember Nola or Sudan—not unless you really like rhinos, anyway. Nola and Sudan are more important than Cecil in every respect, but so far I haven’t found them in anyone’s top stories of 2015.
At the beginning of the year there were five northern white rhinos left alive on the planet, all in captivity. One of them, Nola, died this November. Of the remaning four, only one is male. His name is Sudan, and he lives in central Kenya in the Ol Pejeta conservancy, along with two females of his species. It’s highly unlikely that he’ll ever impregnate either of them—he’s 42 years old, fully a decade beyond his best breeding years—but even so, the conservancy is doing its utmost to protect him. Bodyguards with assault rifles follow him day and night. He’s also had his horn cut off. This isn’t to protect his bodyguards, but rather to protect Sudan himself from pseudoscience.
In China there is a folk belief that rhino horn has medicinal properties—most notably as a remedy for erectile dysfunction, though these days cancer has been added to the list. (By “these days” I mean sometime in the past century; Chinese folk beliefs are very, very old.) This belief in the curative powers of ground rhino horn propagated, along with many other aspects of traditional Chinese culture, throughout southeast Asia. The upshot, as far as Sudan is concerned, is that roughly a third of the world’s men have access to markets where ground rhino horn is sold as an herbal variant of Viagra.
This is why Sudan is the last remaining male of his species, why the Javanese rhino is also nearing extinction, and why rhino poaching in South Africa is up 18% this year.
Even this understates the point. This is how the Guardian put it:
So what’s to be done?
If you’re a rhino poacher, you could start by selling pretty much anything other than rhino horn. Bonemeal is cheap. Cement dust is even cheaper. Both of them are exactly as effective as ground rhino horn for curing erectile dysfunction.
Of course, not many rhino poachers will be reading this. Among my non-poaching readership there will be some who find my thesis offensive. Maybe you’re one of them. Maybe you want to say it’s not my place to criticize the traditional beliefs of other cultures. As a philosopher my only response is, “Sure it is, and it’s your place too.” It seems to me that a basic dictum of intellectual responsibility is to critically evaluate the pros and cons of anything you like. I think any intellectually responsible adult ought to be doing this on a daily basis.
I’ll place traditional Chinese beliefs about rhino horns on par with contemporary American beliefs about the dangers of vaccinating children. Neither of these belief sets has the slightest basis in scientific evidence—in fact, all of the available evidence indicates that these beliefs are patently false—and both of these belief sets cause grievous harm to innocent parties.
Yet Cecil the lion is the one to make the list of 2015’s top news stories. Conservationists might point out that there’s more at stake with Cecil if only because his species still exists in the wild and might still be saved from extinction. The northern white rhino has no chance. Genetically it’s already finished; now we’re just waiting for the last four bearers of those genes to keel over. I agree, but I think there’s a larger point to be made.
Here’s why Nola and Sudan are more important than Cecil: because it’s in the nature of celebrities to fade into obscurity. If Cecil’s death had brought his species into the broader conversation—if he’d become not a celebrity but a symbol—then he’d be on par with Nola and Sudan. Instead we saw legislators pay lip service to conservation efforts by making it harder to import some parts of some trophy animals into some countries. Whoop-dee-doo.
This is what’s really frustrating to me as a philosopher, and why I’m basically a pessimist at heart. Idiotic pseudo-science is winning the war against real live scientific science on too many fronts. One reason it’s winning is that stupidity is easier than intelligence. Make ten intelligent decisions in a row and one stupid decision can undo all of them. Make ten stupid decisions in a row and one intelligent decision may be no remedy at all.
So maybe this is the best solution I can offer: if you’re a millennial who just graduated from college into a lousy job market, become the Warby Parker of rhino poaching. Sell powdered rhino horn online at discount prices. Make it look legit by getting yourself a Zimbabwean cell phone number and a web site ending in .zw. Advertise the hell out of it all over Asia, then sprinkle a little Viagra into the cement dust you’re passing off as powdered rhino horn. You’ll have the cheapest, most effective product on the market. Hell, it’s even eco-friendly and cruelty-free.
Just do it soon, okay?