I think it was the animated movie “Up” that first introduced the “squirrel!” distraction. In the middle of conversations between the talking dog and the old man, someone says “squirrel!” and the dog’s head swivels and he loses his train of concentration.

The lesson, evidently, is that you can teach a dog to talk but his fascination with squirrels can always de-rail the conversation.

We Americans are a lot like that dog, which is to say, easily distracted.

Were we talking about health care policy? Ebola!! We’re all going to die!! (Okay, so Ebola isn’t easy to catch, and–as my favorite internet snark put it–more Americans have been married to Kim Kardasian that have contracted Ebola, but scaring the shit out of people is so much more fun than policy. Squirrel!!)

Were we talking about the role processed foods, sugar and factory farms play in America’s obesity epidemic? OMG, GMOs!! (Okay, so we’ve altered the genes of plants–created hybrids– for over a thousand years. But if we terrify people about Frankenfoods, maybe they won’t focus on truly dangerous practices like using hormones and antibiotics to bulk up the animals we eat, or overuse of pesticides and herbicides. Squirrel!!)

Were we talking about the environment, and policies to encourage clean energy production and reduce carbon emissions? Solyndra!! (Okay, so one green energy company got government subsidies and went bankrupt. But we don’t want to bore people by going on and on about the massive subsidies taxpayers provide to highly profitable fossil-fuel companies like Exxon and Koch Industries, or about what we need to do to shift the country to greener policies. Squirrel!!)

Were we talking about dysfunction in Congress? Obama’s a Muslim!

Were we talking about 30,000+ gun deaths in the U.S. each year? Ebola!!

Whoops–I guess that’s where I came in…



  1. In politics, it’s more often referred to as the “shiny object”. Politicians, who often have no clue what they’re talking about, can easily be led astray be the newest shiny object placed before them. Like a squirrel.

  2. Sorry to say that I have been dealing with Democrats posting “squirrel” E-mails the past few weeks because they are all wanting more money. Too many are from unknown candidates in other states – yes, I know about “the list”. Sometimes using almost scare tactics to gain attention so I began deleting them except for the few whose Subject line listed new and important information. They were all asking for money (I know it is needed); some have even “announced” that I haven’t sent my money yet. Surely after tomorrow even the Democratic party will cease posting “squirrel” distractions and wasting cyber space…or if Republicans maintain and gain more control, will they begin blaming the lack of donations rather than Democrats who sat at home and didn’t bother to vote? “Squirrel!”

  3. Sheila—I wish you would not try so hard to `blame both sides.’ The anti-GMO movement has not captured one of our major parties and been a staple of the news for weeks. And while I am agnostic on it, I am uncomfortable with several aspects of it (my information comes from a serious lefty source, but one which is not well-known,http://www.democracynow.org/2014/10/28/monsanto_bigag_spend_millions_to_fight). That GMOs are accepted as a normal scientific advance in the US (and only here) is because a task force led by Dan Quayle said so. And in this case there is a very big player in the fight–Monsanto–which has even able to implement policies on farmers in the US, Canada and India. After all, Europe has a more nuanced position than the US, and some experiments there have questioned the safety of some GMO crops. In the US one can’t discuss this.

  4. There is much research going on about the basis for the current culture of anti-intellectualism. One thing that they typically recognize and attempt to explain is that there seems to be right wing topics like global warming and evolution, and left wing topics like GMOs and vaccine safety where people ignore we is known in favor of what they want to be true.

    What they have in common, IMO, are people who haven’t invested in sufficient education claiming expertise. Why’s that?

    I maintain that we are all getting more ignorant every day because the amount that mankind learns every day is impossible to keep up with. So at best we each might choose a few narrow specialties that we are falling behind in more slowly than the average person. The bottom line of this is that we’re more dependant on others for any real expertise that we might require. A situation that many find uncomfortable, and compensate for by pretending to be better informed than they are.

    Every day I read statements about climate change that reveal ignorance about 100 year old physics. Yet those making the statements don’t know what the don’t know and don’t care to invest the time in learning it because it’s both hard and time consuming.

    We are all ignorant, but ignorant about different things. We all prefer talking to listening. We all wish that we could be more self sufficient. But we all waste much time on entertainment. If mankind is to continue down the road of progress our culture will have to transition to much more life long learning, and better informed perspectives about our personal limitations and reliance on others for fields that they are more devoted to than we are.

  5. Well said Prof K.!
    Sat night Live did a wonderful sketch year ago
    “Divertor” was the premise
    Much like what Prof K just described
    This has been going on for years

  6. I used to be a skeptic/agnostic of the GMO movement, and I can’t cite any specific papers I’ve read, but here’s the gist of my feelings today: No one can argue that manipulating the genetic structure of plants to achieve higher yields of crops has been a bad thing for the human race. It’s been done for thousands of years and has consistently and dramatically increased yields. But only to a point. And that point came about 50 years after the start of spraying crops with Roundup and 2-4-D. Those herbicides, when used at low doses, kill off nutrient and water robbing weeds and didn’t harm corn or bean seedlings – it resulted in a phenomenal increase in agricultural productivity and fed hundreds of millions that would otherwise have gone without. Unfortunately, it also resulted in the natural development of weeds that were resistant to those low doses of herbicides. The Big Ag solution? Spray MORE herbicides on the weeds and crops! The only obstacle to this was to isolate the elements of the plant genomes that caused them to be resistant to herbicides. Successfully incorporating these traits into corn, bean and grain crops will allow farmers to drench both weeds and seedlings with even MORE herbicides, leaving the heartier weeds dead and the GMO crops alive. So, the questions are: When does this cycle ever end? Will we have to increase the dosage again in 20-30 years? Do trace amounts of these known carcinogens (2-4-D) make it into the food supply? Our sources of drinking water? Will GMO technology be applied to other crops? All crops?
    No GMO’s for me thank you. At least not until a lot more science has been done on the potential real social costs.

  7. The problem is the herbicides and pesticides–and with livestock, hormones and antibiotics. That is where we need to focus our concerns.

  8. Also, let’s not overlook the fallout from the additional herbicides and pesticides and fertilizers which eventually wind up in the sources of our drinking water. Then the rate payers have to subsidize the clean up through higher rates created by the additional treatment requirements. I received a newsletter from Luke Messer praising farmers for their efforts in protecting our natural resources. I replied to him by attaching an article from the Toledo Ohio newspaper explaining that the drinking water problem they experienced this past summer was caused by agricultural runoff. I noted that this was not one of Mr. Messer’s finer moments. Oddly, I never received a thank you email.

  9. Sheila said: “The problem is the herbicides and pesticides–and with livestock, hormones and antibiotics. That is where we need to focus our concerns.”

    Absolutely This^^^ !!!!

    I’m sure you heard about all of those bee deaths and the birds in Arkansas that fell out of the sky and were dead. Pesticide poisoning. Let’s start there and then with hormones pumped into animals that live in cages and antibiotics to keep them ‘healthy’. We need more small time farmers again and support your local farmer’s market. Yes it’s more expensive sometimes but this is how I look at it, pay now (for good food) or pay the doctor later. It’s no wonder our healthcare costs are sky high.

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