A new generation of leaders for new global challenges

In collaboration with the Clinton Global Initiative University


What’s your commitment? How to become an effective change-maker.

As an activist, public health professor, mom, author, and Vice Chair of the Clinton Foundation, Chelsea Clinton sure is pretty busy. Here, she explains to us that there is a divide between wanting to make the world a better place and actually having a direction and a unique goal to make it happen. In order to help others both see and meet their goals, the Clinton Foundation launched Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U) to give mentorship to those looking to make positive change. This video, part one in a series, is a great introduction to CGI U and to Chelsea's overall worldview. You can find out more about CGI U right here.

Learning is more than retaining information—how mentors make the difference

Is America's achievement gap crisis caused by long summer vacations? "In lower income neighborhoods, kids forget anywhere from two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half months of what they learned during the school year over the summer, while their middle-class peers break even or even make gains," says Karim Abouelnaga, CEO of Practice Makes Perfect. This startling statistic is why he started a different kind of summer school, one based on a chain of near-peer mentors, where kids are connected with college students and college students are connected with teaching professionals. "This model, where everyone is sort of a participant but also a beneficiary, creates this win-win-win situation for everyone, making summer school a lot more fun and exciting." Why do some eighth grader students only have a fourth grade reading level? Theoretically speaking, they’ve only been in school for half the time, says Abouelnaga. To find out more, visit practicemakesperfect.org.


How financial innovation is giving cities jobs, wealth and health

Ever since President Jimmy Carter put solar panels on the White House in 1979, innovators and green-minded politicians have been trying to unlock the enormous benefits of energy efficiency across America. But those benefits have remained illusive for two reasons, says BlocPower founder Donnel Baird: financial constraints and engineering complexities. Aged infrastructure like power plants cost us a lot, financially and environmentally. Our best shot at efficiency is by "greening" existing buildings so they can create power locally, rather than burning fossil fuels at a plant and transmitting electricity over long distances, wasting much of it along the way. The problem is that greening isn't cheap: it needs building analysis, and lots of capital to make the initial changes, which not all building owners have. Baird's startup BlocPower has developed technology to lower the cost of building analysis by a huge 95 percent, and matches investors with building owners—it turns out greening buildings is a very profitable investment. Here, Baird explains the details of how updating infrastructure can bring health and wealth to a city: "We know that energy efficiency is going to reduce energy costs for building owners. It’s going to create local jobs. It’s going to reduce our dependence and reliance on foreign oil. And it’s just going to be awesome all around for the environment."

How one Ugandan is fighting human trafficking in Africa—and the U.S.

After fleeing the Lord's Resistance Army in her native Uganda, Igoye came the University of Minnesota. There she began finding resources to combat the scourge of human trafficking. Igoye was so determined to make a difference that she stopped buying food—choosing to eat at university events instead—which allowed her to save money. With her first $1,000 of savings, she supplied her native Ugandans with 23,000 books, knowing that education is an essential part of improving communities and stopping human trafficking. Through the Clinton Global Initiative University, Igoye is committed to building care centers for survivors of human trafficking and training law enforcement to better recognize and combat the illegal activity.

How 'Violence Against Women Centers' are reforming Pakistan’s deadly cultural norm

Approximately 5,000 women die at the hands of domestic violence in Pakistan each year, and thousands more are maimed or disabled. In the socially conservative country, justice is heavily compromised as the reporting of rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence carries a social stigma, the prosecution process is biased and fragmented, and the conviction rate is just 1-2.5%. In 2014, global conflict advisor Hafsah Lak asked herself: what can we do to provide survivors a real and effective justice delivery system? While working at the Punjab Chief Minister’s Strategic Reforms Unit (formerly, known as Special Monitoring Unit - Law and Order) in Punjab, Pakistan, she co-drafted the Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act of 2016 and Punjab Women Protection Authority Act 2017. When the former Act was passed into law, it was hit with heavy conservative backlash. Recognizing that reform cannot be carried out by people who do not share the vision, Lak worked as a project lead at the Strategic Reforms Unit to create Pakistan's first-ever Violence Against Women Center (VAWC), which opened on March 25, 2017 and has successfully resolved over 900 cases of violent crimes against women thus far. The VAWC has streamlined the case file process all under one roof (removing all roadblocks to reporting crimes) and is staffed by at least 60 all-female staff including 30 female police officers, 5 female medical officers, plus dedicated prosecutors and psychologists who were hired for their commitment to protecting women, and to providing a real deterrent for perpetrators of gender-based violent crimes. For more information, go to vawcpunjab.com.

How the foster care system fails so many kids—and how we can do better

When it comes to life after foster care, there is typically not a lot of hope on the horizon, says Sixto Cancel, who has been in and out of the foster care system since he was 11 months old. He was lucky enough to take part in programs that set him up for an independent life when he turned 18—how to manage finances, find a job, apply for an apartment, buy a car—but his story is the exception, not the rule. The stats are not good: 20 percent of young people in foster care will experience homelessness within the first two years of leaving the system. 50 percent are underemployed. Only 3 percent earn a bachelor's degree. These negative outcomes are the reason Cancel founded Think of Us, a non-profit platform that gives vulnerable youths tools and resources to plan their life, and empowers them to build a network of adult mentors they trust. For more information about Think of Us, visit www.thinkof-us.org

More playlists
  • Polarization and extreme partisanships have been on the rise in the United States.
  • Political psychologist Diana Mutz argues that we need more deliberation, not political activism, to keep our democracy robust.
  • Despite increased polarization, Americans still have more in common than we appear to.


Imagine everyday citizens engaging in the democratic process. What images spring to mind? Maybe you thought of town hall meetings where constituents address their representatives. Maybe you imagined mass sit-ins or marches in the streets to protest unpopular legislation. Maybe it's grassroot organizations gathering signatures for a popular referendum. Though they vary in means and intensity, all these have one thing in common: participation.

Participatory democracy is a democratic model that emphasizes civic engagement as paramount for a robust government. For many, it's both the "hallmark of social movements" and the gold standard of democracy.

But all that glitters may not be gold. While we can all point to historical moments in which participatory democracy was critical to necessary change, such activism can have deleterious effects on the health of a democracy, too. One such byproduct, political psychologist Diana Mutz argues, can be the lessening political tolerance.

Participation or deliberation?

In her book Hearing the Other Side: Deliberative Versus Participatory Democracy, Mutz argues that participatory democracy is best supported by close-knit groups of like-minded people. Political activism requires fervor to rouse people to action. To support such passions, people surround themselves with others who believe in the cause and view it as unassailable.

Alternative voices and ideologies — what Mutz calls "cross-cutting exposures" — are counterproductive to participation because they don't reinforce the group's beliefs and may soften the image of the opposing side. This can dampen political zeal and discourage participation, particularly among those averse to conflict. To prevent this from happening, groups can become increasingly intolerant of the other side.

"You can have a coup and maximize levels of participation, but that wouldn't be a great thing to do. It wouldn't be a sign of health and that things were going well."

As the book's title suggests, deliberative democracy fosters a different outlook for those who practice it. This model looks toward deliberation, communication, compromise, and consensus as the signs of a resilient democracy. While official deliberation is the purview of politicians and members of the court, it's worth noting that deliberative democracy doesn't mean inactivity from constituents. It's a philosophy we can use in our daily lives, from community memberships to interactions on social media.

"The idea is that people learn from one another," Mutz tells Big Think. "They learn arguments from the other side as well as learn more about the reasons behind their own views. [In turn], they develop a respect for the other side as well as moderate their own views."

Mutz's analysis leads her to support deliberation over activism in U.S. politics. She notes that the homogeneous networks required for activism can lead to positive changes — again, there are many historical examples to choose from. But such networks also risk developing intolerance and extremism within their ranks, examples of which are also readily available on both the right and left.

Meanwhile, the cross-cutting networks required for deliberative democracy offer a bounty of benefits, with the only risk being lowered levels of participation.

As Mutz writes: "Hearing the other side is also important for its indirect contributions to political tolerance. The capacity to see that there is more than one side to an issue, that political conflict is, in fact, a legitimate controversy with rationales on both sides, translates to greater willingness to extend civil liberties to even those groups whose political views one dislikes a great deal."

Of politics and summer camp

(Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Take that! A boxing bout between two members of a schoolboys' summer camp at Pendine, South Wales, takes place in a field within a ring of cheering campmates.

Of course, listening openly and honestly to the other side doesn't come naturally. Red versus blue. Religious versus secular. Rural versus cosmopolitan. We divide ourselves into polarized groups that seek to silence cross-cutting communication in the pursuit of political victory.

"The separation of the country into two teams discourages compromise and encourages an escalation of conflict," Lilliana Mason, assistant professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland, writes in her book Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity. "The cooperation and compromise required by democracy grow less attainable as partisan isolation and conflict increase."

Mason likens the current situation to Muzafer Sherif's famous Robbers Cave Experiment.

In the early 1950s, Sherif gathered a group of boys for a fun summer camp at Robbers Cave State Park, Oklahoma. At least, that was the pretense. In reality, Sherif and his counselors were performing an experiment in intergroup conflict that would now be considered unethical.

The 20 boys were divided into two groups, the Rattlers and the Eagles. For a while, the counselors kept the groups separate, allowing the boys to bond only with their assigned teammates. Then the two groups were introduced to participate in a tournament. They played competitive games, such as baseball and tug-o-war, with the winning team promised the summer camp trophy.

Almost immediately, the boys identified members of the other team as intruders. As the tournament continued, the conflict escalated beyond sport. The Eagles burned a Rattlers flag. The Rattlers raided the Eagles' cabin. When asked to describe the other side, both groups showed in-group favoritism and out-group aggression.

Most troubling, the boys wholly assumed the identity of an Eagle or Rattler despite having never been either before that very summer.

"We, as modern Americans, probably like to think of ourselves as more sophisticated and tolerant than a group of fifth-grade boys from 1954. In many ways, of course, we are," Mason writes. "But the Rattlers and the Eagles have a lot more in common with today's Democrats and Republicans than we would like to believe."

Like at Robbers Cave, signs of incendiary conflict are easy to spot in U.S. politics today.

"Political Polarization in the American Public", Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (June 12, 2014)

A 2014 Pew survey found that the ideological overlap between Democrats and Republicans is much more distant than in the past. More Republicans lie further right of moderate Democrats than before and vice versa. The survey also found that partisan animosity had doubled since 1994.

In her book, Mason points to research that shows an "increasing number of partisans don't want party leaders to compromise," blame "the other party for all incivility in government," and abhor the idea of dating someone from outside their ideological group.

And let's not forget Congress, which has grown increasingly divided along ideological lines over the past 60 years.

A dose of daily deliberation

Painting by Charles Francois Jalabert (1819-1901) 1846. Beaux-Arts museum, Nimes, France. Photo by Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images.

Horace, Virgil and Varius at the house of Maecenas.

A zero-sum mindset may be inevitable in a summer camp tournament, but it's detrimental if taken into wider society and politics. Yet if participatory democracy leads to the silencing of oppositional voices, a zero-sum mindset is exactly what we get. Conversely, creating networks that tolerate and support differing opinions offers non-zero benefits, like tolerance and an improvement of one's understanding of complicated issues.

Mutz wrote her book in 2006, but as she told us in our interview, the intervening years have only strengthened her resolve that deliberation improves democratic health:

"Right now, I'm definitely on the side of greater deliberation rather than just do whatever we can to maximize levels of participation. You can have a coup and maximize levels of participation, but that wouldn't be a great thing to do. It wouldn't be a sign of health and that things were going well. Democracy [must be] able to absorb differences in opinion and funnel them into a means of governing that people were okay with, even when their side didn't win."

Unfortunately, elected officials and media personalities play up incivility and the sense of national crisis for ratings and attention, respectively. That certainly doesn't help promote deliberation, but as Mutz reminded us, people perceive political polarization to be much higher than it actually is. In our daily lives, deliberative democracy is more commonplace than we realize and something we can promote in our communities and social groups.

Remember that 2014 Pew survey that found increased levels of partisan animosity? Its results showed the divide to be strongest among those most engaged and active in politics. The majority of those surveyed did not hold uniform left or right views, did not see the opposing party as an existential threat, and believed in the deliberative process in government. In other words, the extremes were pulling hard at the poles.

Then there's social media. The popular narrative is that social media is a morass of political hatred and clashing identities. But most social media posts have nothing to do with politics. An analysis of Facebook posts from September 2016, the middle of an election year, found the most popular topics centered on football, Halloween, Labor Day, country music, and slow cookers.

And what of political partisanship and prejudice? In an analysis of polarization and ideological identity, Mason found that labels like "liberal" and "conservative" had less to do with values and policy attitudes – as the majority of Americans agree on a substantial number of issues – and more to do with social group identification.

Yes, we all know those maps that media personalities dust off every election year, the ones that show the U.S. carved up into competing camps of red and blue. The reality is far more intricate and complex, and Americans' intolerance for the other side varies substantially from place to place and across demographics.

So while participation has its place, a healthy democracy requires deliberation, a recognition of the other side's point of view, and the willingness to compromise. Tolerance may not make for good TV or catchy political slogans, but it's something we all can foster in our own social groups.

Understanding what tolerance means in a highly polarized America

  • At Big Think Edge this week, we delve into ways you can make your conversations sing. So to speak.
  • Learn a valuable lesson about psychopaths, from diagnosed psychopath (and neuroscientsit) James Fallon.
  • If you're not a subscriber yet, join Big Think Edge today. Boost your skills with our 7-day free trial.


To get what you want — to get what everyone wants — learn the 3 levels of listening with Michelle Tillis Lederman's video lesson this week at Big Think Edge. Former Facebook investor Roger McNamee helps you revisit your past decisions to make sure they still make sense and support your goals and beliefs (it's something he knows a lot about).

In Deep Dives this week, you'll learn how conversations can go so much better than they often have, with 36 questions that'll make anyone fall in love. You'll also learn how to handle psychopaths with care, under the tutelage of neuroscientist James Fallon, who is a diagnosed psychopath.

Building relationships through likability: Listen to understand (the 3 levels of listening), with Michelle Lederman

Photo: Joel Mwakasege via Unsplash

Michelle Tillis Lederman, author of The 11 Laws of Likability, explains how to develop listening skills that can help you establish strong, mutually beneficial relationships. Much of our listening involves matching up another person's story to what's happened in our own lives, and that's fine, but it's just first-level listening. Lederman introduces you to the next two levels, in which your understanding deepens and areas of overlapping interest and goals emerge, pointing the way toward a productive connection that works for everyone.

Available September 16 in Boost Your Emotional Intelligence

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Fix your mistakes: How to revisit your decisions and realign them to your values, with Roger McNamee

Roger McNamee is the author of Zucked, and he tells an illuminating story of how his faith in Facebook lasted longer than it should have. An opinion or a decision is a hypothesis, he suggests, that may just seem correct for now. However, conflicting evidence can pop up at any time, and you do yourself no favors by ignoring it even if—especially if—it undermines your belief. McNamee's tale will have you re-examining your own past decisions in the hopes of never finding yourself, as he did, on the wrong side of what you believe to be right.

"GOOD DECISION-MAKERS THINK LIKE REAL-TIME ANTHROPOLOGISTS."

– ROGER MCNAMEE

Available September 18 in Boost Your Analytical Intelligence

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Deep Dive: No more awkward conversations

We all want to have better, more meaningful conversations, right? That's what comedian, actor, and podcaster Pete Holmes asks in a Deep Dive this week called "Do Your Conversations Fall Flat? Do a 180 by Fostering Intimacy." Holmes shares some of his methods for helping podcast guests open up and be real, from his declaring the conversation a safe space to his trust in the benefits of artful interruption.

What if you want to connect with a total stranger? Psychologist Arthur Aaron's got just the thing for getting intimate with someone else, and fast: 36 questions designed to help you fall in love with anyone.

Available September 16 in Deep Dives

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  • While the cost of food waste is high, the environmental impact of obesity is even higher.
  • According to researchers in Italy, obesity results in an extra 140 billion tons of food consumption every year.
  • Obesity costs Americans $1.72 trillion in healthcare costs and is now the leading cause of death.

In July, while visiting my family in New Jersey, we chose an expectable boardwalk restaurant to eat at while down the shore. As it's been decades since I've lived in the area, I was shocked by portion sizes. You would have thought it was a family-style dining establishment, with each plate designed to feed four. Alas, the amount of food that wasn't eaten saddened me. More is not always better; it's often wasteful.

Americans dominate the world in food waste. Somewhere between 30-40 percent of all food in our supply is thrown away — roughly $160 billion into the dumps each year. Not that the rest of the planet is much better. The global figure is close to a trillion dollars, with 1.3 billion tons of food being tossed.

While this is an unsustainable figure, a new research article in Frontiers in Nutrition presents an even more disturbing assessment: food waste is dwarfed by the obesity epidemic.

Forget 1.3 billion tons; lead researcher, Professor Mauro Serafini at Italy's University of Teramo, claims that overeating results in an extra 140 billion tons of food consumption every year. According to Serafini's "metabolic food waste" (MFW) hypothesis, the environmental cost of that food is equivalent to 240 billion tons of CO2 released into the atmosphere.

Excess body fat compared with food waste per region

Toti, Di Mattia, and Serafini, 2019

Metabolic food waste by region compared with two measures of excess body fat: percentage overweight (OW) and percentage obese (OB).

Specifically, MFW is the amount of food being produced that leads to extra body weight and the impact those calories have on the environment in terms of carbon, water, and land footprints. By his measure, Europe (EU) is the leading culprit, followed by North America (NAO; this region includes Oceania). The other regions are listed in the chart above.

The team writes,

"We provide evidence of the enormous amount of food lost through obesity and its ecological impact. Reducing metabolic food waste associated with obesity will contribute in reducing the ecological impact of unbalanced dietary patterns through an improvement of human health."

As I reported last week, obesity in America costs the national healthcare system $1.72 trillion. Two billion obese adults now walk around the planet, along with 41 million children under age five. If you're beginning life overweight, there are many obstacles ahead, many of which might prove insurmountable.

The team notes that this is in part due to the "push effect" — increased food availability and marketing. Marketing is never honest as to the chemistry involved in producing their foodstuffs. For example, while writing this article, my social media feed is being bombarded with articles on KFC's new sandwich: fried chicken wedged between two glazed donuts. Every new iteration of old products seems to be unhealthier than the last.

How The U.S. Is Exporting Obesity | AJ+

The largest contributors to MFW in the EU and NAO turn out to be dairy products (including milk and eggs), followed by alcohol and cereals in the EU and meat and alcohol in the NAO. Remember, this not only pertains to consumption, but also agricultural, production, and transportation costs. Though the methodology is debatable — even Serafini recommends further research, as does the publication — the ecological costs of obesity turn out to be very high.

The team does not offer specific fixes to the problem beyond public health campaigns that teach consumers the dangers of obesity. People already know this, however. In fact, after my article on obesity last week, a number of readers reached out to inform me that other people's weight is "none of my business."

The problem is, it is. If Serafini's hypothesis is correct — and it's undeniable that obesity is resource-intensive — then this is everyone's problem. We're all paying for the soaring costs of healthcare. Water, carbon, and land costs of overeating are astronomical, serving as yet another driver of climate change. You can't claim that the planet isn't anyone else's business. We're all invested in its health. Right now, we're collectively failing to ensure the survival of our species.

Perhaps this is what happens whenever you give an animal too many options. Alpha predators are known to destroy ecosystems when their power is left unchecked. Throughout history, our power was kept in balance. For eons, our forebears had to scrape together enough food to live. Yet in the time of excess that we now live in, we indulge. The costs are known. Whether or not we have the courage to do anything about them is another story.

--

Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook.

  • The education field has a wealth of cognitive science research that reveals how people learn, yet the applied practice happening is schools shows an enormous disconnect.
  • Things like school bells, siloed 'one-hour-one-subject' classes, traditional grades, and standardized testing are outdated design features of the education system.
  • Equitably educating all learners across diverse populations to help them be as successful as possible will require education innovators to put cognitive science to work in the field, and to re-educate policymakers on what school could look like.
  • This video is supported by yes. every kid., an initiative that aims to rethink education from the ground up by connecting innovators in a shared mission to conquer "one size fits all" education reform.

Many people believe that chemicals, particularly the man-made ones, are highly dangerous.


After all, more than 80,000 chemicals have been synthesised for commercial use in the United States, and many have been released into the environment without proper safety testing. Should we be afraid of the synthetic chemicals that permeate our world?

While it is not possible to compare the toxicity of all natural and synthetic chemicals, it is worth noting that the five most toxic chemicals on Earth are all naturally found. When it comes to pesticides, some of the newer man-made versions are remarkably safe to humans; and at high doses, these pesticides are as toxic as table salt and aspirin. Rats continually exposed to low doses of these pesticides (ie, doses found in the environment) don't develop cancer or problems in growth and reproduction. There are many natural pesticides that are produced by plants, some of which are also carcinogenic, and although this does not make synthetic pesticides safe, it does remind us that simple oppositions between 'safe and natural' and 'deadly and synthetic' are not helpful ways to analyse risk.

I study toxicology: I look at the effects of substances on living organisms. All substances (natural and artificial) are harmful if the exposure is high enough. Even too much water consumed within a very short time can dilute the salts in the blood, and cause brain cells to swell. A number of marathon runners have collapsed and died because of consuming excessive amounts of water with no salt.

Toxicologists believe that nearly every substance is safe in certain amounts. Take the example of botulinum, the most poisonous substance on Earth. Just 50 grammes of the toxin spread evenly worldwide would kill everyone. But, in very minute amounts, it is safely used for cosmetic purposes in Botox. Thus the adage 'the dose makes the poison'.

Apart from understanding what doses make a substance 'safe' or 'unsafe', toxicologists also love figuring out how a substance causes a harmful effect. How exactly does smoking cause lung cancer? Once we find a mechanism through which chemicals in smoke cause cancer (and we have), we can be more confident about smoking's role in lung cancer. Merely showing that smokers have a higher rate of cancer isn't evidence, since it is easy to find two factors whose patterns correlate. Look at the graph below: it shows that higher rates of divorce in Maine correspond to a higher per-capita consumption of margarine:


Courtesy Tyler Vigen/Spurious Correlations


While we wouldn't think that this graph proves anything, we are less likely to question correlations that might seem more plausible. For example, the graph below shows that higher exposure to mercury through vaccinations corresponds to higher rates of autism:


Courtesy David Geier and Mark Geier, 2004


Causal link can be established in two ways: by showing how a chemical can cause a certain effect or by fulfilling a set of conditions called Hill's criteria. Hill's criteria requires that we consistently find a correlation between the chemical and effect in different populations, that the effect only shows up after chemical exposure and, if lab studies are conducted, we should obtain similar correlations between chemical and effect.

One can argue that, though there is no conclusive evidence presently to show that some chemicals cause health problems, it's better to be safe than sorry and so restrict the chemical before health problems emerge. Yet while this idea is tempting, it ignores a basic truth: risk exists in nearly everything. Walking outside (we could get mugged), travelling in cars and planes (we could crash), eating food (we could ingest plant oestrogens or the organic pesticide copper sulphate) or drinking water (parts of the US and Bangladesh have high levels of naturally occurring fluoride and arsenic, respectively). We therefore need to understand probability: is the chemical exposure high enough for a high probability of adverse effects? We also need to know the risks of using an alternative chemical – or no chemical at all.

Studies have shown that people vary widely at ranking risks. Below is a snapshot of how the general public and experts ranked risk in 1979 (where 1 is the riskiest, and 30 the least risky).


Courtesy Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2007. Adapted from Slovic et al, 1979

It seems that laypeople rank risks that receive more media attention or have more vivid imageries higher than the more commonplace risks. Today, the public perceives a higher health risk from genetically engineered crops than experts do.

So while it is good to strive for the lowest possible risk, it is important to also consider any benefits, and not disallow things merely because of the risk they pose. The following examples explain this reasoning:

  • Wind turbines kill birds and bats, dams kill fish, and the manufacture of solar cells exposes workers to dangerous chemicals. But how do those risks compare with the risks of global warming and respiratory illness through continued use of fossil fuels? Do the benefits of replacing fossil fuels outweigh the risks of developing alternative energy sources?
  • Birth control pills are very effective in preventing unwanted pregnancies and thus lessen our burden on the planet's resources. But their use leads to increased hormone levels in streams and rivers, and the feminisation of male fish and decreases in fish populations.
  • The insecticide DDT (now banned in most countries worldwide) caused several bird populations to crash. Yet prior to its ban, when safer alternatives did not exist, it saved millions of human lives by preventing diseases such as malaria and typhus.

Regulators partly decide whether to allow a certain chemical into the marketplace by tallying up its costs and benefits. This can seem crude. For example, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) values a human life at nearly $10 million. Thus, if a pesticide has a one in a 100,000 chance of causing a neurodegenerative disorder in people who apply it, and 1 million agricultural workers could be exposed to it, then the benefit of not registering the pesticide is $100 million (as 10 people will be protected by this decision). Unless the cost of reducing pesticide exposure to the workers exceeds $100 million, it is unlikely to be registered.

The EPA has been analysing the safety of chemical pesticides for many years, and it recently began analysing the safety of the other chemicals it regulates. Nevertheless, there are several uncertainties when it comes to understanding the toxicity and risks of any chemical. Regulators try to deal with it by using margins of safety. This means that if x dose of a chemical is found safe in rats, then only doses that are at least 100- or 1,000-fold lower are considered safe in humans. However, this doesn't guarantee that we are exposed only to safe levels of chemicals, and toxicologists don't always look for effects – such as disruption of hormonal functions – that manifest only at low doses. Also, concerns about long-term exposure to a mix of chemicals are valid as this is rarely tested in the lab. (One Danish study found that the average adult's risk from consuming different pesticides in food is similar to the risk of drinking one glass of wine every three months. However, this is far from a comprehensive analysis.)

Ultimately, though risk and uncertainty exist on all sides, people seem to be averse only to certain kinds of risks. And while we should undoubtedly work to reduce harmful chemical exposure and come up with safer alternatives, we also need to realise that our excessive phobia of chemicals, particularly synthetic ones, can often be unwarranted.

Correction: this article originally claimed that toxins produced by plants cause cancer at the same rate as synthetic chemicals. This claim was not supported by current research and has been corrected. Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article.