Hidden Assumptions About the DDT Truck

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“At thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore” (Ps. 16: 11)

Growing Dominion, Part 23

Let me begin with a story that, in the minds of some, may explain quite a bit. When I was a kid growing up in Annapolis, Maryland one of the features of life there was the periodic visit of the pesticide truck. I don’t know what they sprayed out the back of those trucks, but it was some DDT-like spray, and they did it to keep the pests down-mosquitoes and such. Well, the arrival of those trucks in the neighborhood (yes, they would drive up and down suburban streets, spraying their pesticide) was a grand event for all the kids of the neighborhood, and was greeted with about the same enthusiasm as was bestowed on the ice cream truck. And that was because one of the neighborhood kid games we would play would be to have all of us run in a pack behind the truck, in the cloud of spray, and the one who stayed in there longest was the winner. I don’t recall if I ever won, but I do recall the happiness and enthusiasm of the event.

Now the point of this is not to say that we should let the kids play in pesticide, because we shouldn’t. The point is that a large number of cultural assumptions are always invisible to those in that culture. When modern science was going to kill every mosquito on the planet with DDT, there was widespread cultural support for the project. Things were taken in stride that now appall us. There was a shift, and now we prefer the mosquitoes to the DDT (even if that preference is deadlier, but that is another discussion). The point here is that preferences change, and when the new preferences are widely accepted, they become invisible. It is easy to see how bizarre attitudes were to pesticides in the 50s. That is because we are now looking at someone else’s blind spot. It is hard to see how bizarre our attitudes to pesticides are. That is because it is our blind spot.

Twenty years from now we will be looking back on things we embraced now, and we will be shaking our heads. Twenty five years ago anyone who didn’t believe in global cooling was an idiot. Now if you don’t believe in global warming you are an idiot. Perhaps we should stop believing in dogmatic scientific pronouncements about global anythings. I often ask kids about photos of their parents from the 70s, and I always get a good reaction. The mood turns reflective when I tell them that twenty years hence they will look just as weird. The weird thing is how hard this is for some to grasp. We are currently living in a period, an era, and we share the assumptions of that era. And many of those assumptions will prove to be false.

In the 50s, you would sell a loaf of bread by having a bold statement on the wrapper somewhere that said, “Enriched!” Today you do the same thing, but the word has to be “Natural!” Enriched? How silly. But the need for natural stuff is self-evident. The problem is that we too often come to this kind of assumption in exactly the same way that those silly people of another era came to their assumptions. The constant need is therefore for us to strive to maintain intellectual humility.

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