Let Me Tell You a Story

“Muse reading Louvre CA2220” by Klügmann Painter – Jastrow (2006). Licensed under Public Domain

We love a good story. In fact, we are hardwired for stories.[1] [2] “And the elements of a good story are always the same,” says journalist Dan Gardner. “It has to be about people. And it has to have novelty, drama and conflict.”[3]

“The elements of a good story are always the same. It has to be about people. And it has to have novelty, drama and conflict.”

Stories follow a pattern called the Hero’s Journey.[4] Often the Community’s way of life is threatened by a disturbing change. As a result, one, or a group, from the community will venture out of his or her normal life to try to defeat the thing that is harming the community to bring the world back to the way it was.

Hero stories have been told ever since humans became humans. They were, and are, ways for us to understand what is happening around us. Before there was science to postulate, test, and interpret how everything works, there were myths—stories that related the tribe’s past events and, usually, how their gods’ caused and fixed those. Everything within the world served their god’s or gods’ purpose.

The storyteller, who is often a shaman, relates and reveals unknown “facts” to the listener. He or she manipulates minds, often with the acquiescence of the community; they believe the story is the truth.

The scientific method, which started during the Enlightenment, has not completely supplanted mythology. Scientists talk of probabilities. Storytellers speak of truths.

Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, Greenpeace, Sierra Club, to name a few are good storytellers, telling stories to alert their tribe to the dangers of new technology—genetically engineered food (aka genetically modified organisms—GMOs), industrial farming, and processed food. The old ways are being destroyed. These technologies threaten them. They say that no good can come of it. They say that “real food” is, and according to them has always been, what our great-grandmothers would have recognized.

That they are stupendously wrong about food safety and the new technology’s environmental impact does not seem to matter a whit. They tell marvelous stories. They may even believe the stories they tell, certainly many of their listeners do. They can repeat sayings from the story: “If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.” – Michael Pollan, Rule #19.

Scientists tell lousy stories. Instead of  “novelty, drama and conflict,” their stories have complexity, data, and confusing conclusions, not tidy and neat answers. And herein lies a problem. Non-scientists, which is the majority of us, tend to be innumerate. We use story to inform our actions. “Scientists like to say ‘anecdotes aren’t data’ but human nature actually sees things the other way around,” Gardner says, for us non-scientists, “numbers are nice but stories are truly meaningful.”

“Numbers are nice but stories are truly meaningful.”

Science storytellers cannot expect the population to become numerate. They have to tell their story in a way that connects to people.

The stakes could not be higher. Unfortunately, the stakes are numbers: the number of people, primarily children, who will die every year from malnutrition[5], the number of acres of rainforest that will be slashed and burned[6], the number of acres of critical habitat lost to organic crops (because organic practices require more land to grow equivalent harvests compare to conventional farming)[7], the number of farm workers exposed to dangerous “natural” pesticides.

But people won’t care. They know the mythmakers tell the truth.

Those other things are just numbers; those people and places aren’t “real.”

[1] Roche, Loick, and John Sadowsky. 2003. “The Power of Stories (I): A Discussion of Why Stories Are Powerful.” International Journal of Information Technology and Management 2 (4). Inderscience Publishers: 377. doi:10.1504/IJITM.2003.004233.

[2] Haven, Kendall. 2007. Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story. Greenwood Publishing Group. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=uspfMRlGXVoC&pgis=1.

[3] Gardner, Dan. 2008. “Numbers Are Nice, but Stories Matter.” CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association Journal = Journal de l’Association Medicale Canadienne 179 (1): 108. doi:10.1503/cmaj.080848.

[4] Campbell, Joseph. 2008. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New World Library. https://books.google.com/books?id=I1uFuXlvFgMC&pgis=1.

[5] 3,100,000 source: http://cdn.static-economist.com/sites/default/files/imagecache/original-size/images/print-edition/20140510_USC830.png

[6] All of the rainforests

[7] 30% more land


Further Reading

Burke, Katie L. 2015. “12 Tips for Scientists Writing for the General Public?» American Scientist.” American Scientist. http://www.americanscientist.org/blog/pub/12-tips-for-scientists-writing-for-the-general-public/.


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In Defense of (Processed) Food

Great-Great Grandma’s Food:  an easy way to lose weight…and lower your life expectancy

I live north of Harbin Hot Springs, a new-age “health resort,” which catered (it burned in the Valley Fire) to new-agers who have yet have to find an alternative-anything that they don’t like. Alternative medicine. Alternatives to clothing. They distrust modern technology (except computers and mobile phones, which they use to complain to their friends about how awful modern technology is), especially biotechnology.

New-agers are the sort of people who name their child Raspberry.

You can spot them easily in the Safeway supermarket; they are the ones, usually with dreadlocks, peering intently at the label of a can of pasta sauce and muttering to themselves, “Fuck. I knew it! I knew it: high fructose corn syrup! Fucking Monsanto and their fucking poisonous GMO corn made into high fucking fructose corn syrup!” They put the can back on the shelf and stomp out of the store, leaving the scent of patchouli oil in their wake.

They obviously agree with:

“If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.” – Michael Pollan

Labels on food came about in the United States from the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938. In 1990, Congress passed the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act. This is generally the nutrition label we know today. It is enforced by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The criteria for what gets labeled revolves around nutrition and safety.

Producers try to get a leg up and an edge on their competition by using nutrition labels to game the system, such as making serving sizes small. “Marketing experts from Germany found that shoppers bought more yogurt when the recommended serving size was smaller,” an article on Science 2.0 says. “‘Smaller recommended serving sizes will let all nutrition values on the label appear smaller too, independent of the product’s actual nutritional composition’ says lead author Dr. Ossama Elshiewy from the University of Goettingen. Shoppers, who read nutrition labels, tend to ignore the smaller recommended serving size and think that these products are healthier than others.”

As to the safety of any genetically modified (GM) corn, even Gregory Jaffe of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has admitted it is safe: “There is no reliable evidence that ingredients made from current GE crops pose any health risk whatsoever.” Lest you think CSPI is in Big Ag’s pocket, CSPI “has made a name for itself by tackling the food industry’s big guns…” You can look it up. Jaffe says this about labeling, “Consumers should know how their food is made and where it comes from. But as this is not a food safety or a nutritional issue—it’s not like allergens or trans fats—we don’t feel it should be mandated on labels that foods are produced with GM crops.”

In fact, we have the safest food (leading to healthier citizens) than any time in our country’s past, despite what Michael Pollan says…

“What an extraordinary achievement for a civilization: to have developed the one diet that reliably makes its people sick!” – Michael Pollan, Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual

When was the last time you saw a goiter? Adding iodine to salt banished them. Pellegra? Body lesions are caused by inadequate niacin or tryptophan in the diet. A pellegra epidemic occurred in the U.S. starting in 1906 and lasted four decades. It cost the lives of 100,000 people. Enriching flour with niacin put away pellegra. Scurvy?  The discovery of vitamin C has thwarted it. Typhoid fever, scarlet fever, and diphtheria? No longer transmitted through milk because of pasteurization.

“Meanwhile,” Ronald Bailey notes, “stomach cancer rates are down by 75 percent since 1950 because old-fashioned food preservation techniques like salting, pickling, and smoking have been replaced by refrigeration.”

So much for Pollan’s proscription: “Don’t eat anything your great-great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”

Obesity and Type-2 diabetes, which Pollan is probably referring to, is a problem of plenty (and perhaps high-fructose corn syrup), not one of scarcity or processing.

But, let’s consider for the sake of argument, that maybe yesterday’s food that great-grandma would recognize was better. For that, let’s check out going to a farmers market and buying food there:

Marc Bellemare, writing in the New York Times, found “positive correlations between farmers markets per capita and outbreaks per capita of norovirus[2], a common cause of gastroenteritis. Likewise, we found a similar positive correlation between farmers markets per capita and outbreaks per capita of Campylobacter jejuni[3], a bacterium typically found in animal feces that is also a common cause of gastroenteritis.” He points out that correlation is not causation, even if they could identify causation, “most cases of illness are caused by consumers who undercook or fail to wash their food. Indeed, our results may suggest that many people erroneously believe that food bought at farmers markets needn’t be washed because it is ‘natural.'”

Now, there is a food illness great-great grandma would recognize. Between 1933 and 1935, more than 5,000 children in the United States alone died from diarrhea and enteritis,  caused primarily by food-borne pathogens. Today, the rate is 1/2 of 1% of what it was in the 1930s for Americans of all ages. Though, given what Bellemare and his colleagues found, the rate may be higher for farmers market folks.

Those who think Pollan’s food rules are true, might want to remember H. L. Mencken’s words:

“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

Sound bites are not a meal. And as I wrote here, Pollans’ bromides resemble little “linguistic amuse-bouches that foodites dutifully repeat as though they were really wisps of wisdom” rather than the “self-indulgent bits of twaddle” they really are.

Rachel Laudan, a food historian, knows what great-great-grandma’s food was like:

“By the standard measures of health and nutrition—life expectancy and height—our ancestors were far worse off than we are. Much of the blame was due to diet…No amount of nostalgia for the pastoral foods of the distant past can wish away the fact that our ancestors lived mean, short lives, constantly afflicted with diseases, many of which can be directly attributed to what they did and did not eat.”

Food technology and processing, despite what American foodie Agony Aunts such as Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman have to say, has improved human lives here in the United States for more than the past 100 years.

Our problems stem from having too much food rather than too little.

Unless you think diarrhea is a great idea as  a weight loss program, returning to the dangerous diets of yesteryear does nothing to fix the obesity problem.

Disclosure: To my knowledge, I own no shares in any food or biotech company. I receive no compensation, other than lower prices at the supermarket (like everyone else), from any biotech firms or any farming cooperative, organization, lobbyist, company, etc. Since I buy at Costco, I do (reluctantly) eat and buy organic food. I also compost and recycle.


Steven Novella at Science-Based Medicine has an interesting post on the Clean Eating Delusion.

While some parts of the world are concerned with eating, because of food insecurity, the “worried and well-fed well” are increasingly obsessed with so-called “clean eating.”

This is nothing new, but like every cultural phenomenon, it seems, has increased partly due to the easy spread of misinformation over the internet.


Bailey, Ronald. 2002. “I Don’t Care Where My Food Comes From.” Reason.com. https://reason.com/archives/2002/09/25/i-dont-care-where-my-food-come.

Bellemare, Marc F. (associate professor of applied economics at the University of Minnesota). 2016. “Farmers Markets and Food-Borne Illness – The New York Times.” Accessed January 17. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/17/opinion/sunday/farmers-markets-and-food-borne-illness.html?_r=1.

Kava, Ruth (American Council on Science and Health). 2016. “When Food Labels Can Mislead – American Council on Science and Health.” Accessed January 16. http://acsh.org/2016/01/when-food-labels-can-mislead/

Kliman, Todd. 2016. “How Michael Pollan, Alice Waters, and Slow Food Theorists Got It All Wrong – Washingtonian.” Accessed January 17. http://www.washingtonian.com/2015/05/29/rachel-lauden-how-michael-pollan-alice-waters-got-everything-wrong/.

Laudan, Rachel (visiting scholar at the University of Texas). 2016. “In Praise of Fast Food.” Accessed January 17. http://www.utne.com/Environment/Fast-Food-Culinary-Ethos.aspx

Miller, Henry I., and and Peter Van Doren. 2000. “Food Risks and Labeling Controversies – Miller.pdf.” Cato. http://object.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/serials/files/regulation/2000/4/miller.pdf.

News Staff (Science 2.0). 2016. “Seduced By The Promise Of Food Labels.” http://www.science20.com/news_articles/seduced_by_the_promise_of_food_labels-163437

Splitter, Jenny (Grounded Parents). 2016. “I Watched Michael Pollan’s New Fantasy ‘In Defense of Food’ so You Don’t Have To. | Grounded Parents.” Accessed January 24. https://groundedparents.com/2015/12/31/i-watched-michael-pollans-new-fantasy-in-defense-of-food-so-you-dont-have-to/.

Watson, Elaine. 2013. “CSPI: There Are Concerns about GMOs, but Not around Food Safety.” http://www.foodnavigator-usa.com/Regulation/CSPI-There-are-legitimate-concerns-about-GMOs-but-not-around-food-safety-and-labeling-would-be-misleading.

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Organic Pesticides and Labels: Good for the goose and all that…

This caught my eye this morning:

Food Chain RadioAmerican Council on Science and Health President Hank Campbell was on the airwaves Saturday with host Mike Olson and an organic trade rep to talk about labeling GMOs. Most fun was when the organic trade rep sputtered at the notion that there should be complete transparency on food labels – like pesticides used.

The trade rep protested that, saying their certification already covered it. Yes, the group getting paid by companies to ‘certify’ their status is using that certification to exempt its clients from transparency about its process. But insisted their competitors need to have a giant warning label about that part of the growing process.

You can listen to the archived version of the program here.

Rather odd that the organic folks who call for transparency of the use of biotechnology (which is recognized by the Food and Drug Administration to be safe and having no significant difference in the food) should balk at providing another piece of information that is of concern to consumers, namely pesticides.

An article at Foodnavigator-usa.com indicates consumers are quite concerned:

According to a survey released recently by Stonyfield Farms, a majority of Americans are concerned about pesticides in the food supply. The survey of 1,000 Americans conducted by Lindberg International on behalf of Stonyfield, the leader in the organic yogurt category, found that 71% of Americans are worried about pesticides in their food and almost three out of four respondents (74%) would like to eat food produced with fewer pesticides.

Organic public relations types obviously like the current public perception (or, at least the misperception) that pesticides aren’t used in organic food.
An ABC News poll said that in their survey “Organic foods were described as raised ‘without the use of pesticides, chemical fertilizers or feed additives.'” From their sentence it’s hard to know if they said this in the survey question or if it came from the answers. Either way, it shows the wide public misunderstanding of how USDA Certified Organic crops are grown.


Campbell, Hank. 2016. “Real Truth In Labeling: Why Organic Groups Object – American Council on Science and Health.” Accessed January 18. http://acsh.org/2016/01/real-truth-in-labeling-why-organic-groups-object/.

Schulz, Hank. 2016. “Survey Reveals Consumers Want to Avoid Pesticides, but Are Unsure How Label Certifications Help Them Do That.” Accessed January 18. http://www.foodnavigator-usa.com/Regulation/Survey-reveals-consumers-want-to-avoid-pesticides-but-are-unsure-how-label-certifications-help-them-do-that.

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