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Killer blueberries: Inside the reality of paranoia

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Encyclopedia Paranoiaca, out today from Simon & Schuster. Cover design by Kyoko Watanabe.

Think blueberries are your super-oxidizing, super-healthy friend? Think again. Unless you’re consuming the organic variety, you’re probably better off skipping them altogether—unless you want to be hit with so much pesticide it would make maggots and bagworms squirm and wilt. Not only are blueberries on the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” list—named exactly for what it is, the dozen dirtiest fruits and vegetables—but even if you buy organic ones, you can’t be sure what you’re getting. After all, organic farmers can continue to use a number of chemicals in their crops and still be certified as following all guidelines. The whole organic food industry, in fact, might just be one big money-sucking scam.

So says the Encyclopedia Panoiaca, Henry Beard and Christopher’s Cerf’s latest book (helpfully co-authored, if you take a close look at the cover, by the staff of the Cassandra Institute), a.k.a, the only guide to super-paranoia that you’ll ever need. And there go those non-organic blueberries in my fridge. (After I have one, ok maybe two, more.)

While we’re on the subject of food, you would also do well to avoid such healthy-seeming alternatives as farmed salmon, which apparently contains so many contaminants that, if you eat it any more frequently than a single time within five months, you’ll be increasing your risk of cancer exponentially; salads of the fast-food variety, which are often no more (and sometimes, less) healthful than a burger (actually, make that all salads, as leafy green vegetables are on the FDA’s top ten riskiest regulated foods list—and in 2009, more foodborne illness was linked to salads and thirteen common leafy green ingredients than to any other food); milk, which commonly contains rBGH (recombitant bovine growth hormone), a substance that has been banned most everywhere—except for the United States; and basically, almost anything else you might choose to eat. Yes, I’m afraid it is time to starve. This book is by far the best diet I’ve ever had.

Are these blueberries organic? And does it matter? Photo credit: brx0, Flickr, Creative Commons.

Encyclopedia Paranoiaca, however, is about oh-so-much-more than just food. There are biohazards and biflation hazards, geomagnetic disturbance hazards—did you know that the earth “would seem to be long overdue for a potentially catastrophic flip-flop” in its magnetic fields, which might lead to “a disaster on a global scale” (that second quote, from the Institute of Physics)?—and escalator injury hazards (no laughing matter; escalators get not one but two separate entries, one for the germ-infested handrails alone), cosmic threats and active nanodevice warnings (that last one, a part of the broader category of KMD, knowledge-enabled mass destruction). The volume contains hundreds of references and helpful—and not-so-helpful, when they trap you in a continuous loop of paranoid meandering—cross-references on everything that you ever knew or didn’t know that you should be afraid of. Start worrying now. And I mean right now. Wait a minute, and the world just might end with nary a whisper.

I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I nodded with understanding at a few too many of these entries—but of course, my mind said, doesn’t everyone know this?—but I am admittedly a bit (ok, a lot) more freakishly paranoid about food, cleanliness, and the like than most normal people. I would place myself firmly toward the not-so-normal part of that particular spectrum. My close friends have learned to put their hands out obediently for Purell® when we’re eating out together in restaurants—after the menus are removed, of course; it makes no sense before then, given how dirty a restaurant menu can be (as Beard and Cerf remind us, cold and flu viruses survive for 18 hours on hard surfaces—and have you ever seen anyone, anywhere, washing off a menu?)—and to politely endure forced reapplications of said Purell® should the need ever arise (one can’t ever be too careful). Come to think of it, though, I should probably go a little easier on the hand sanitizing. I was reminded, in leafing through (ok, taking copious notes on) Encyclopedia Paranoiaca just how problematic my dependence might be: not only do hand sanitizers (see also: hand washing) dry out the skin, which may actually increase the risk of germ exposure, but they can catch on fire, poison you, and destroy your furniture and purse, both. Not to worry, Henry and Chris. I also carry around a pocket-sized hand moisturizer lest my skin get too cracked from over-alcoholization.

Rubber ducky: not as innocent as he looks. Photo credit: Joshua Smith, Flickr, Creative Commons.

I did pick up a few new things, though. Like rubber duckies. You would do well to avoid those altogether. They pose, “a serious health risk to children—and their parents, too—because they accumulate bacteria at an alarming rate from the filthy bathwater they spend so many hours floating in.” Also, meditation. I’d always seen it as a wonderful, welcome form of relaxation. Apparently, it can also come with “disturbing indications of detrimental psychiatric effects”—including the very anxiety it was meant to avoid in the first place. Who knew. I was intrigued, too, by an entry that read “memory loss. See: candlelight dinners; water filters.” That one, I’ll leave for you to explore further.

While the authors’ tongues couldn’t be more firmly in cheek from first entry to last (“abdominal cramping. See: sushi, sashimi, and ceviche.” and “zygomycosis. See: mucormycosis; splinters.”, respectively), Encyclopedia Paranoiaca is written and compiled with scrupulous attention and extensive research into the science and rationale behind each and every entry. The tone might be light, but the interviews are substantial and the listings, compiled and sourced with great care. The resulting volume might make you fear Santa Claus, it’s true—but it may just as well stop your fearing anything ever again, once you realize just how much there is to be paranoid about. It’s like James Alan Gardner wrote in his novel Trapped: “Don’t be a little paranoid; worry about everything, or let it all go.”

I think I’ll exercise my freedom to worry. Pass the Purell®.

Maria Konnikova About the Author: Maria Konnikova is a writer living in New York City. She is the author of the New York Times best-seller MASTERMIND (Viking, 2013) and received her PhD in Psychology from Columbia University. Follow on Twitter @mkonnikova.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Russell Seitz 12:24 am 11/21/2012

    The horrifying steroid rage , argyria and gigantism induced by bovine blueberry growth hormone were first reported in the Northern Journal of Veterinary Medicine & Chiropractic in 1841, after a blue ox belonging to competitive lumberjack Paul Bunyan created the Canadiab border by plowing a river from Thunder Bay to Soo Saint Marie.

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  2. 2. chriscerf 1:48 pm 11/21/2012

    Thanks, Russell, for calling everyone’s attention to the early origins of the horrific threat detailed in Maria Konnikova’s article (and in Henry Beard’s and my book, ENCYCLOPEDIA PARANOIACA, which inspired her piece)!

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  3. 3. bongobimbo 11:17 pm 11/22/2012

    I probably won’t read this book. Been swallowing and breathing in dirt, ingested a great many poisons and picking up germs from other people throughout my nearly 77 years. I sampled mud pies and my own ear wax in kindergarten, traded used chewing gum with other kids, went under a fishing shack crawl space to play with friendly garter snakes & spiders, been licked on the mouth by countless dogs with bad breath, kept several species of rodent in living room cages as an adult, changed innumerable cat boxes, paid little attention to germs on restaurant menus or anywhere else, never sterilized anything except canning jars, and have had no more than routine illnesses and old age arthritis. When my son was an infant he was crawling around on an unheated Catskills farmhouse floor in winter, and in summer popping unwashed & uncooked peas into his innocent little tummy in our (hopefully organic) garden, later he attended a not-too-sterile day care co-op, went to public schools, and at age 41 he’s had the usual childhood ailments like mumps, only one cold, at Navy boot camp where everyone in a crowded barrack was sneezing, and one walking pneumonia episode at age 23. I learned later that he ignored the pneumonia since the lousy job he had provided no medical benefits or paid time off for sickness.

    THAT one made me angry! But apparently wallowing in germs from other people, putting fingers in our mouths after handling dirt, dust, animals and water allowed us to immunize ourselves, so I guess I’ll continue taking dirty (but relaxing) sitz baths with or without a rubber ducky, and eating more than two washed blueberries in a tasty bowl of organic-or-otherwise cereal. That’s because I use tap water for washing, and since fracking hasn’t yet contaminated our city water, it’s currently less lethal than the bottled stuff.

    Obviously poisons developed for the sake of monopoly, CEO aggrandizement and/or quick and outrageous profit (i.e., killer pesticides, nuke power plant wastes, cigarettes, gas fracking, et cet., ad naus.) should be taxed to the sky or banned as soon as possible. And nobody should be without worker rights, including health benefits. But germs are differnt. I’ve seen the little aquatic critters wiggling around through a microscope, and most of them are useful or neutral. Nothing will ever be perfect, and we wouldn’t thrive in sterile conditions anyhow, so let’s march against the greedo privateer profiteers, handle restaurant menus & gain immunity from other people’s germs, ignore paranoia, and have fun while we’re alive!

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