Independent Thought, Pesticides, and ADHD

Conspiracy theories are almost always idiotic. Surely the Watergate scandal gave credence to many crazy theorists; it was proof that the government really did go behind people’s backs and wasn’t just capable of being corrupt, but truly was. However, I never give conspiracy theories much thought, even though it is amusing at times to imagine them containing even the smallest nugget of truth.

While I like to stay grounded in reality, I do like to theorize, so the following is my attempt at a marginally plausible conspiracy theory. It has to do with several things I have strong opinions about, notably American laziness, over diagnosing of mental illness, and thinking independently. Here it is.

There was a study I looked at recently which pointed out a relationship between pesticides used in food and being diagnosed with ADHD. The study found that out of 1,139 children, the ones exposed to byproducts of the pesticide were about twice as likely to develop ADHD than those who weren’t exposed.

In addition, it is increasingly simple to be diagnosed with ADHD. This could be attributed to a greedy pharmaceutical industry, or the need for people to deflect blame for their shortcomings (procrastination, lack of focus) and to seek medication for something that isn’t necessarily wrong with them, but part of their personality. With the latter example, I’m more or less also alluding to when people with colorful personalities are given medication to “even them out.”

But what if those were minor factors, and the most significant reason for the increase in diagnosing ADHD is that ADHD is simply on the rise in people. Or rather, it isn’t that there has been an increase in diagnosing ADHD, but an actual increase in people with it. And pesticides could be a part of that increase.

Now what does ADHD do to people? Well, it makes it very hard for them to focus. They may jump from activity to activity, conversation to conversation, and generally have very limited attention spans. And furthermore, it seems that in our globalized world, those with limited attention spans are being catered to. Newspapers are in decline, because fewer people want to spend the time to actually read an article. Pundits like Glenn Beck are increasingly popular. The internet is on the rise as a source of information, as well. Blogs are still rising in popularity. What do these factors have in common? They present news, but also what to think of the news that is presented. Old fashioned news was supposed to be shown in a way that allowed the reader/viewer to formulate their own opinions about the story. Now that emphasis is less and less important in the market for news. Writing a story about a bank robbery isn’t marketable. But writing one that places the blame on someone or something in a politically charged way is both juicy and extremely marketable. Maybe a journalist would say that Obama’s tax increases are driving more and more people to crime, and to robbing banks in particular, and that this represents the sorry state of Obama’s America. Does this sound familiar? People have such short attention spans these days that hardly anyone even bothers to look at their tax forms and realize that their taxes have been cut under Obama (34% of Americans believe their taxes have increased under Obama. 95% of working people have had their taxes reduced).

But infotainment, as it were, has prospered in this era of ever accessible information. Glenn Beck himself claims to not believe all of what he preaches, and admits that the words he says have a price on them. The more outrageous his statements, the more money he makes. And yet Americans eat all of this quasi news up. In our hectic schedules, it’s far easier to be told what to think, than to actually think.

I remember when I was a kid, sitting in the computer lab and typing up some sort of writing assignment. After you had printed the project, obviously you would exit out of the program and shut down the computer. Those were our instructions. I remember looking around and hearing kid after kid raise their hand feverishly into the air to ask, “It says ‘are you sure you want to shut down!’ Do I click OK??” Basically any wrench thrown into the plans of these kids, no matter if that wrench was insignificant as a simple yes or no, threw them into a panic.

I’m not sure what created this phenomenon. Perhaps it is that so much of K-12 education is memorization and not actual critical thinking skills. Perhaps it is that there is such an emphasis on the what, as opposed to the why. Imagine these scenarios:

Okay kids, I want you to add 1+4+5+3+7+3+5

Okay kids, I want you to add up the ages of the 7 kids in this problem and find the total, in order to gauge your ability to perform addition.

The first scenario is what I’ve been talking about. The kids may very well be able to add those seven numbers together, but when they are given a similar problem later, and not told the exact steps, they may not be able to complete the problem. They know how to complete the process, but they don’t understand the overall objective.

In the second scenario, the kids are taught what their objective is; to find the sum of the seven ages. They may not succeed at first, but once they figure out that to find sums, you have to add up all the numbers, I would guarantee they would be more successful than the kids in scenario 1 in solving future problems. They might also find different ways to come to the same conclusion. Perhaps they can eyeball the average age and then multiply that by seven. Or add in clusters. The important thing is that they are learning how to problem solve.

The kids in scenario 1 are being told what to think.

The kids in scenario 2 are being taught how to think for themselves.

Perhaps the kids in these scenarios have a high propensity towards ADHD. Can’t you imagine a teacher not even bothering with the second scenario, seeing this hyperactive kid who can’t focus, and saying, “Okay kid, it’s not hard. Just add these numbers up.” The kid completed the problem, the teacher didn’t have to go through the arduous process of getting an ADHD kid to understand the broader objective behind a math problem, and everything seems fine, right? Well the kid basically had someone else do the problem for him. He might know how to add, but he doesn’t understand situations where addition would be needed, and he doesn’t understand figuring out problems himself.

Now this kid, let’s call him Jimmy, because hypothetical children are always called Jimmy in my mind, grows up. He was taught to write essays in 5 paragraph form, and he can, but he doesn’t understand why that organization is useful in expressing his arguments, he would never bother trying to think of a more useful essay format and he often writes very incoherently. He knows the scientific formula, and can perform it, but he couldn’t tell you why it’s important in coming to scientific conclusions, and he’ll never apply it to real life. He can follow instructions in building a model airplane, but there is no chance that he could come up with his own ways to make the airplane better. Jimmy has a job, and does what his boss tells him, even if what his boss says leads to lower productivity. He doesn’t know the difference between whether what he’s doing is inefficient, wasteful, smart, or that if he made some slight alteration he could save his company millions. He’ll tell you he’s just trying to do his job.

Jimmy probably doesn’t care about the news or politics, nor does he follow them. Now if I was a political campaign manager, or ran a news company, wouldn’t it be easier and more beneficial for me to cater to people like Jimmy than to play the game the old fashioned way? I could shout from my podium something like, Obama isn’t an American citizen, knowing that statement will make news, despite it being totally untrue. When it makes news, Jimmy hears about it. He doesn’t care enough to look deeper into the issue; I am who formerly were his teachers and his bosses, telling him what to think. That broad, untrue statement about Obama’s country of origin becomes what Jimmy knows about politics. And certainly any foreigner doesn’t belong in the white house, so Jimmy pledges his support to me. Maybe the injustice of a foreigner in the white house stirs up emotion within him. So maybe he even goes to rallies. Jimmy becomes these people.

Going back to the conspiracy theory origins of this essay, I suppose I should state my original hypothesis. That being, if pesticides in food cause more ADHD, and more ADHD leads to less independent thought in children on through to adulthood, could there be a link between the use of pesticides and susceptibility to being manipulated by corporations and politicians? Would it not be advantageous, from a political and economic standpoint, to create a nation of unfocused drones who would rather have others tell them what to think than to think independently? Wouldn’t it be easier to tell them what to buy, how to act, who to vote for?

Basically it’s advantageous for those who rule, for their citizens to not think independently. Parents don’t want their children to think for themselves, either, they want to think for them. No Billy, don’t go adventuring in the woods, you’ll get hurt! Who cares if you might gain valuable life experience. Just because there is a slight chance that Billy might learn about new things and have to react instinctually and in ways he hasn’t been formally instructed in, doesn’t override the potential danger. I’m sure most parents would like their kids to think for themselves, but it simply can’t be put above the child’s own safety, because no parent wants to see their child in danger.

And if Billy is ADHD, that gives even more incentive to the parent to keep their kid safe. I feel this is a trend with the current generation of parents. They want to give their child every opportunity. They don’t care about whether Billy learns how to apply mathematics, they just want him to be able to do it, so he can get straight A’s, and go to a good college, where he can get a business degree and makes lots of money in his life, so that they can retire comfortably. The fact that Billy is hardly a person is secondary. He has the skills to function like a person, so lacking the ability to actually be one doesn’t matter.

I recently took a class designed for student leaders (I’m not one; I had to take it as punishment. Long story). One day, when studying ethics, we were given a scenario where a man, whose wife was dying of cancer, had to make a decision on whether he should break into a lab and steal a potential antidote.  We were asked, would you steal it? To my shock, about half the class said no. They did not consider that the wife would certainly die if they didn’t steal; they were concerned with breaking the law. All their lives, they had been told that stealing is wrong. They never delved deeper into asking why stealing was wrong, they just accepted the conventional wisdom that stealing is bad. So let’s delve deeper. To steal rattles the foundations of a stable society. If stealing was okay, then it would be impossible to run an effective business. Thus, any enlightened society would make stealing illegal. It shouldn’t be allowed because, if widespread, it creates anarchy. The surface value about stealing just says it’s bad. But would isolated theft in times of life or death situations truly upset the very foundations of a functioning society? I would say probably not, but that isn’t something I can know for sure. If someone were to say that the rhetoric behind stealing being accepted in times of life or death can easily be stretched by criminals and eventually lead to anarchy anyway, that would be a way in which someone could independently come to the conclusion that stealing is wrong under any circumstance. But the fact that half the class couldn’t find a difference between stealing for profit and stealing to save a life is the value of independent thought. Their reasoning all centered around stealing being wrong, and them having a firm commitment to never breaking the law. I’m not saying that everyone who said they would steal in the scenario is an independent thinker, or that everyone who said they wouldn’t, isn’t. But this situation does shed light on the fact that a lot of people wouldn’t think for themselves and would actually put the law above their own family in life or death situations as a result.

Isn’t that a scary thought? But again, isn’t that advantageous to a government? If putting pesticides in food leads to more people putting the law above their own families, couldn’t you see the rationale behind a government giving the go ahead to putting mind altering chemicals in food? If people place their loyalty to the law and not their family, then that could feasibly reduce crime.

But if you turn your own mother in for committing a crime (Assuming it wasn’t against another family member), then what is the value of being a family? If your allegiance lies with the government and not those who you love, then that strikes me as traitorous. The government does a lot of good things for people, but it didn’t raise you, it didn’t give you identity, it didn’t bring you into the world. And I think most people, thinking independently, would think the same way.

I know this essay has become rather pompous, as it might seem as though I am saying that I am capable of thinking independently and no one else is. I assure you that this not the case. I grapple between thinking for myself and for other entities just like anyone. Furthermore, there are plenty of examples of independent thought out in the world. Albert Einstein was a great independent thinker. I find a lot of comedians think independently. Those who invent and create generally have independent minds. Are they pompous, or are they rare gems in a sea of conventional wisdom?

But isn’t the allegation of pomposity partly what makes independent thought so rare? If someone came up to you and told you to reject conventional wisdom and think for yourself, you’d tell them to get real and stop being a self-important asshole, dirty hippie.

But if it comes down to being considered an asshole or thinking for myself, I think the answer is pretty obvious. And I hope I don’t have to tell you which it is. See what I did there?


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