Informed Consent in Our Lives

Apparently in a time when we in democracies need most to be able to think for ourselves, take in information, and analyze complex matters, we are to believe that most of us if not all are inherently unable to do so (The Knowledge lIlusion: Why We Never Think Alone, Steven A. Sloman; The Influential Mind: What the Brain Reveals About Our Power to Change Others, Tari Sharot; Strange Contagion: Inside the Surprising Science of Infectious Behaviors and Viral Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves, Lee Daniel Kravetz;  How Emotions Are Made: the Secret Life of the Brain, Lisa Feldman Barrett; Connected: the Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, Nicholas A. Christakis; The Secret Life of the Mind: How Your Brain Thinks, Feels, and Decides, Mariano Sigman; The Ideas Industry, Daniel W. Drezner). But we who do have individual thoughts may be able to influence those others, not because we are authoritative nor perhaps persuasive in any way, (New Power: How Power Works in Our Hyperconnected World- and How to Make It Work for You, Jeremy Heimans) but simply because we are heard by people near us. The task is to influence others more than they influence us on a certain matter.

Why? What problems does this influence by others known and unknown, present?

The first is that politicians and/or representatives of the State, and business, can exercise power over you without your knowledge, let alone consent. As people are influenced by false information, the amazing power of electronic communication over our brains and our susceptibility to chemical pleasure through impulses caused by a smart phone, we could be manipulated into acceptance or disregard of measures that are bad for us and for others. Or we could be coopted simply into whatever a particular crowd of people want to do at the moment, with or without particular reason for the action. Safety from harm, the privilege and right of individual thought, freedom and wherewithal to plan a good future for ourselves and others, opportunity to understand what is happening around us and to us, these are all important things.

Simple, basic things in our lives which are affected:

There is already so much which happens without our knowledge, but the results of which influence us. An example is the way that food is grown, developed, and marketed. It is an accomplishment just to have the time to

a) know what foods are in themselves good for us or harmful

b) know whether they are more healthful cooked or raw

c) know how they are grown healthily (e.g. are chemicals good for us because they protect the animals we eat from disease or bad for us because we may ingest them ourselves, and they may later enter the water sources around us); whether those who grow them are paid fairly for their labour and are enabled to improve their own lives by growing/raising food.

d) know the various varieties and look to which of them are available to us, e.g., different colours of carrots, different coffee beans roasted in particular ways, the terroirs of wines and the provenance and growth conditions of vegetables, the provenance and treatment of drinking water and the water used to grow crops and fruits, and trees.

e) know about the methods used to harvest, preserve, and transport the foods, e.g., tomatoes, lettuces. and fruits, and what we should do to them once at home ( wash off chemicals, allow to ripen further, refrigerate or not, etc.).

f) know about whether the imported products in the local store are substituted for local production simply because of greater economic power of the suppliers from away (see Packaged Pleasures: how Technology and Marketing Revolutionized Desire, Gary S. Cross), thus making it difficult for more artisanal or at least local farmers/producers to thrive in our community.

g) know about the healthiness of canned or packaged foods, i.e., where the food is grown (is the growing of foods the centre of gang warfare as in Mexican avocadoes); the process of preserving by irradiation, canning, or freezing; how long the food is good for; how fresh it was when preserved; the chemicals used or not used.

h) how to plan healthy meals (e.g., serving vegetables of several colours because of the inherent food value in each colour, serving some together for greater value such as strawberries and blueberries at the same time), the different methods of preparation, use of spices and herbs, and preservation or uses of leftovers. What do the labels’ words mean – all natural, organic, non-salted vs. salt-reduced, no artificial sweeteners? What about too much real sugar and what kind, how much refined white flour and how much whole grain in your bread, is your supermarket-packaged meat pre-seasoned?

i) the benefits and drawbacks of different cooking tools, e.g., is Teflon healthy for you, does a particular design of frying pan or pot cook your food with energy efficiency, does a heavy iron pot deliver better flavour in a particular food than a light aluminum pan; gas or electric stove, various countertop cooking devices, barbeques, virtues of particular types of storage containers depending upon whether for freezing or refrigeration.

And, of course, if you eat out, how to know about these matters as your food is prepared for you and served to you?

Your day is busy. Attending to all this doesn’t get you through the door on your way to work, and at the end of your work day, so tempting to disregard all this and do something simple.

Your day is complicated enough without having to actually think about your food, let alone something like politics, or the decisions government has made on your behalf today. Consider all the information you really need to ensure that you are eating healthily and not destroying the planet.

Of course if there is another person in your life who will take on the responsibility for knowing this and keeping up with the information, you may be able to get on with your life and still feel that you have given informed consent to the choices made.

But whether it is you or the other making these decisions, how do you validate your sources of information? Lately the newspapers (which I use as a generic term for whatever sources of information you use) inform us that significant amounts of research which they and others publish, is questionable. So if the sources which “experts” or columnists or bloggers cite, are questionable, how do you vet your experts if they depend upon questionable sources? You must continually compare writers’ conclusions with others’. There goes more time out of your day.

We must, essentially, distrust others until we find reason to have confidence in them, to base our sense of informed consent on what we learn from them. That is, we must not automatically allow others near us to influence us to the point at which we forfeit giving our informed consent. This is true in our everyday concerns; it is true in politics and other activities involved in keeping democracy working.

This is why individual informed consent is important for our democracy.

But there is more (next blog).