Sunday, December 18, 2011

prunes, polar bears and postmodern truth

According to a report published the European Food Safety Agency in December 2011, the laxative qualities of prunes have no scientific basis and cannot be proven. As such, producers are no longer allowed to sell them as an aid to bowel function. (perhaps if the folks at the EFSA stopped talking out of their backsides for a while the prunes might have a chance?)

If that recent ruling wasn't preposterous enough, it followed hot on the heels of the November report, which brought the ground breaking news that water has no proven effect on dehydration. So convinced are the EFSA of this, that anyone selling water as a rehydration aid faces a 2 year prison sentence.

I'm all for the EU taking action to prevent unsubstantiated claims on food packaging, but things can go too far. I wonder what the EU would recommend as a remedy for dehydration? Have they not noticed the clue in the word? DeHYDRAtion. Hydra. A prefix of Greek origin, meaning water.

In the same week back in December, news reports were filled with the apparent scandalous revelation that some of the BBC's fine Frozen Planet series was, in fact, filmed in a Norwegian zoo. David Attenborough announced that beneath the snowy slopes, new polar bear lives were beginning as the images cut to scenes of the delivery of tiny bear cubs. According to newspapers, this was misleading, blatant deception.

Were viewers misled? Or blatantly deceived? Or were they treated to rare images of an extremely private event, filmed under conditions which meant that the mother bear didn't know the cameras were there and therefore had no desire to eat the crew as a post-labour snack?

Attenborough later defended the decision, reminding the angry viewers that he and his team were making a film and took the necessary actions to make sure that viewers saw the best possible scenes. Whilst the zoo location (and the circumstances of those snowflakes forming before your very eyes, and that weird thing with the furry caterpillar) wasn't made immediately clear in that episode, the availability of several "How we made this..." clips on the Frozen Planet website give clear information.

The EU's pontifications on prunes and water might be funny. And Mr Attenborough's apparent desire to mislead us all may well have fuelled many pub-table debates. But I think they also offer us a mirror on today's post modern desire for truth.

Yeah yeah, so postmodernism claims that there is no absolute truth (save for... blah blah blah) but postmodern society seems to have missed that briefing meeting and remains fixated on the quest for truth.

So much so, that truth is the most important thing, to be revealed at all costs. And there are many costs.

Continuing with these examples, the desire for absolute truth about prunes and water, mean that these remedies that millions have relied on anecdotally and experientially for many years are now dismissed, simply because science couldn't fully prove them infallible. I don't imagine prune sales figures changed much following the release of that report. Those who found them... err... moving, probably continue to be... err... moved. And those who don't continue to find other ways.

When it comes to polar bears, the desire for absolute truth means the death of any sort of magic in film making. Frozen Planet is a fantastic documentary series, with breathtaking footage of some of the most oblique places on earth. Including, in fact, the polar bear labour ward at a Norwegian zoo. It might not have been under the snow in the Arctic Circle. I've never been there, but I've never been to the zoo in Norway either, nor have I ever seen a polar bear give birth. What Frozen Planet showed were scenes that the majority of viewers would never otherwise have witnessed. Whether the new polar lives that Attenborough mentioned were the same ones we witnessed is irrelevant in the context of the documentary as a whole.

At times, it's necessary to suspend disbelief in order to fully engage with a film. That's obvious with fantasy, cartoons, fiction etc. And easier perhaps, knowing from the start that it isn't true. But sometimes it's the case with documentaries and factual material too. The birth of the polar bear (or growth of the snowflake, or cocooning of the hairy 17 year old caterpillar) were no less beautiful or captivating for being filmed in controlled circumstances. In fact, for the 45 minutes of each episode, it wasn't at all necessary to know where or how any of it was filmed. It was simply an opportunity to witness the awesome events of nature which happen in parts of the world I'll never visit. The insistence on immediate factual truth at a level of intimate detail is like the precocious kid at school who proudly announces in the playground that Santa doesn't exist. It might be true, but that doesn't mean his peers need to know. Not just yet.

I'm not saying that we should all just lie to each other for the sake of art, or that truth isn't important. Just that scientifically proven truth isn't always necessary. That having a right to know something isn't the same as actually needing to know.

Take, for example, the first episode of the new series of Sherlock. Aired on BBC 1 on Monday, the Daily Mail the next morning carried stories of complaints of excessive nudity... including pictures of said, apparently unnecessary nudity. If, as the Mail claimed, the scenes were so offensive, did readers really need to see them again?

Are we willing to sacrifice the magic of entertainment and the wisdom of common sense for the sake of absolute scientifically provable truth? And might it not also be true that some truths, perhaps the most important ones, are not scientifically provable?

[Edited to add that Seth Godin has blogged on a similar theme today. Thanks for pointing that out Phil]

1 comment:

  1. Exactly! Well said Rach! Why does something have to have proof to be appreciated, to give hope, to comfort? Science is not infallible.
    I love what Puddleglum says to the serpent queen of the underworld in The Silver Chair (C.S. Lewis) - So what is there is no proof:
    "Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things - trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black it of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that's a funny thing when you come to think of it. We're just babies making up a game if you're right. That's why I'm going to stand by the play-world. I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia"



Sometimes I do go on...