False Dichotomies

“I’ve read those information sheets, Doc, but they don’t give me the answer. I just want to know, is PSA testing a good thing to do — yes or no?”

We all want things to be clear: yes/no, right/wrong, good/evil, 0/1 — a binary world. The trouble is, life is not that simple.


As children, our world is simplified: we’re told that it’s always best to tell the truth, that you can’t divide a number by 0 and that love will conquer all.

Growing up complicates matters, and it seems that the more you know, the fuzzier the boundaries. But we still like to put things in clearly marked boxes.

One of my out-and-proud greenie friends was boasting about how she was “taking every step possible” to reduce the world’s carbon footprint and asked me to sign a petition banning the sale of fruit and vegetables in major supermarket chains.

“You don’t ever buy fruit and veg from major supermarket chains, do you? Do you know how much CO2 we’d save if EVERYONE in the world only shopped at local farmers’ markets and only bought produce in season and grown locally? Plus, without transport and storage costs, prices would come right down,” she pronounced self-righteously.

I itched to point out that eating local fresh produce would prove difficult for people living in, say, Canada in winter, as my family does, and that on the price issue, interestingly, their local supermarket stocks very healthy looking and tasty bananas for less than $1.50/kg all year around. However, such a low price is dependent on under-paid Central American farm workers, amongst other things, so I refrained from opening that particular can of worms.

“It’s more complicated than that,” I replied.

“That’s just an excuse. If each of us did our bit and made sacrifices, the world would be a much better place. But most people are selfish — like those who drive around in big petrol-guzzling 4WDs just to amuse themselves or to make a statement.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean. Like dog owners.”


“People who keep dogs as pets, just to amuse themselves or make a statement. You do realise that a dog has a significantly larger carbon footprint than one of those petrol-guzzling 4WDs, don’t you? Have you still got your two labradoodles, by the way?”

“But, but … dogs are natural!”

“So are fossil fuels. So is carbon dioxide, for that matter.”

The oft-attempted division of substances into “natural”/”organic” (good) and “chemical” (bad) is a particular pet hate of mine. Not only because it’s another false dichotomy, but because of the incorrect terminology. When I try to explain that food is, by definition, “organic”, and that every single substance on the planet is “chemical”, I’m usually met with, at best, blank stares.

But I digress. Back to canines. Before people start bombarding me with angry emails, I want to state, for the record, that I love dogs and I’m in no way advocating euthanasing beloved family pets in the name of helping the environment. Nor am I trying to say that it’s a waste of time for individuals to live more sustainably. And I’m a big fan of trying to eat more locally grown seasonal fresh food. I’m merely pointing out that it’s not a black-and-white issue.

On many of the big controversies, I’m a fence-sitter. I’ve found that it’s easier to see on which side the grass is greener when sitting in the middle, and frequently it’s neither. The only thing of which we can be certain is uncertainty.

“That hasn’t helped me with my PSA question, doc.”


Published in Australian Doctor on 2nd February, 2012. On False Dichotomies


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