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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Is Campbell’s GMO Announcement Mmmm mmm…good?

Campbell Soup Company (NYSE: CPB) today [January 7, 2016] announced its support for the enactment of federal legislation to establish a single mandatory labeling standard for foods derived from genetically modified organisms (GMOs)….Campbell is prepared to label all of its U.S. products for the presence of ingredients that were derived from GMOs.

There’s an interesting post over at Philoskeptic, “Campbell’s Soup and the Ethics of Food Labeling.”

I recommend the whole post to you. I found we had areas of agreement and (apparent) disagreement in regards to the meaning of Campbell’s labeling, specifically about choice.

















I agreed with:

“Labeling itself is fine, such as including the names of allergens (milk, soy, wheat, etc.), or ingredients which could potentially harm a sub set of the population (such as phenylalanine), but labeling genetically engineered food is simply a bad idea.”

Indeed, one reason (of the many reasons) is that GMO is a placeholder, not an actual thing. Nathaniel Johnson has pointed out on Grist, “It’s practically impossible to define ‘GMOs.‘” that “GMOs, like other cultural constructs — think of gender, or race — do have a basis in reality, of course: We can roughly define ‘male’ or ‘Asian,’ but when we try to regulate these divisions, all kinds of problems crop up. And definitions of ‘GMOs’ are much messier — ‘nerd’ might be a roughly equivalent category. You know what a nerd is, but things would break down fast if you were required to label and regulate all the nerds. The definition of a nerd depends on the context; it depends on who’s asking. Same with GMOs.”

But I take issue with: “Choice is overrated…” He links to a Ted Talk by Barry Schwarz who says, according to the Ted Talk site, “…choice has made us not freer but more paralyzed, not happier but more dissatisfied.”
As Matt Ridley points out in his book, The Rational Optimist, “[According to political scientist Ronald Inglehart]: the big gains in happiness comes from living in a society that frees you to make choices about your lifestyle –– about where to live, who to marry, how to express your sexuality and so on. It is the increase in free choice since 1981 that has been responsible for the increase in happiness recorded since then in forty-five out of fifty-two countries. Ruut Veenhoven finds that ‘the more individualized the nation, the more citizens enjoy their life.'” [Emphasis mine]

I disagree that there are some things that we the people should not be free to choose. Philoskeptic says, the issues of “health and environmental safety, are probably far too serious to be left to the whims of consumer choice….The decision should not be made by consumers, but by an appropriate regulatory body which has the requisite knowledge base to make appropriate decisions regarding food. ”

This argument is akin to an “appeal to authority,” that is, “using the opinion or position of an authority figure, or institution of authority, in place of an actual argument.” In this case technocrats, a la Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), would make decisions for us. So why worry our pretty little heads about such things?

The EPA’s track record is spotty at best. It has always amazed me that the “Best Available Science” applied by the EPA (or other government agency) seems to be highly affected by the party affiliation of our chief executive, the President of the United States.

One thing social media has shown is that the majority of people are quite astute at calling bullshit on organizations and governments and holding them accountable. Companies especially know that the “long shadow of the future hangs over any transaction”(1) and we customers (having choices) will take our business elsewhere if we are not happy with the company’s policies or product.

Again let me stress that Philoskeptic and I do not think Campbell’s call for a federal label is a good one. GMO labeling is as unnecessary as it is costly. Go here to read the complete post.


  1. Matt Ridley




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More Antioxidants. Less Filling.

Let’s hear it for polyphenols!

Last Friday a group of researchers announced their findings ahead of their report on the nutrition of organically produced food to be published in the British Journal of Nutrition. The study is titled “Higher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of pesticide residues in organically grown crops: a systematic literature review and meta-analyses,” and, according to Charles Benbrook of Washington State University and one of the meta-analysis study’s authors, was “funded primarily by the European Commission’s science and technology program.” The study also acknowledged  Sheepdrove Trust “for providing financial and technical support. The Sheepdrove Trust supports independent R&D underpinning the development of organic and sustainable farming and food systems.” The authors are quick to point out, “Financial support was provided by the Trust without conditions, and the Trust had no influence on the design and management of the research project and the preparation of publications from the project.”

Since, with the exception of some minerals (e.g. salt), everything we eat is an organic compound, “organic” means something else in this context. It means that “natural” methods only were used to grow the crop or animal.

Some Background on “Organic” agriculture
In the early 20th century (with the introduction of synthetic chemicals and the Haber-Bosch process for making ammonia) the methods used to grow the food and fiber became a concern to some. The organic movement pushed back against the incorporation of these unnatural synthetic elements and procedures into agriculture, as though creating food for our needs was completely natural. Agriculture is the domesticating of the labor of plants and animals to provide food and fiber for us; humankind has used and modified agriculture for its own purposes for 10,000 years.

Only in the past 25 years, have we in the United States codified the difference in the growing methods between organic and conventional. In 1990, George H. W. Bush signed the Organic Foods Production Act creating the National Organic Program (NOP). This act placed the Department of Agriculture (USDA) in charge of administrating the program and naming the 15 members of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), who were to “assist in the development of standards for substances to be used in organic production” and advise the Secretary of Agriculture on implementing the program. It is the NOSB, in the United States, who set the standards for what can be labelled USDA Certified Organic.

Different countries have different standards yet they generally follow similar production requirements as the U.S. for growing, storage, processing, packaging and shipping. In all cases the avoidance of synthetic chemicals for any reason is paramount. Organic rules allow seed created through chemical or atomic mutation, but prohibit any anything created by transgenic breeding.

“The key principles and practices of organic food production,” explain Diane Bourn and John Prescott, “aim to encourage and enhance biological cycles within the farming system to maintain and increase long-term fertility of soils, to minimize all forms of pollution, to avoid the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, to maintain genetic diversity of the production system, to consider the wider social and ecological impact of the food production and processing system, and to produce food of high quality in sufficient quantity.” Those are noble and worthwhile goals that all farmers would no doubt ascribe to. Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, proclaims organic food production to be sustainable and better for the soil, with yields comparable to conventional farming, and forgoing industrial fertilizers and pesticides means less pollution. Conversely, according to Pollan in 2008, conventional agriculture’s more intensive production means more pollution, “when we eat from the industrial-food system, we are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases.”

Organic versus Conventionally Raised Nutritive Value
USDA certification was not meant to connote that organic food is safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food, only that it has met the paperwork and production standards. “However,” Professor Bruce Chassy and his co-authors note, “organic definitions are not always accurately portrayed by marketers or correctly perceived by consumers.” Some people even believe organically grown food has Mystical Properties. As an example, numerous websites promoting alternative medicine and conspiracy theories, including NaturalNews.com, quote Joel Salatin, founder of Polyface Farm as saying, “If you think organic food is expensive, have you priced cancer lately?” Why eating organic food didn’t protect Atusa the queen of Persia in 440 BCE (it is thought that her Greek slave may have cut off her diseased breast to remove the cancerous lump)from the first recorded case of cancer is left unanswered. There were earlier cases as the fossil records show, Herodotus is the first to record it.

Despite all the hype, most studies have shown little to no difference in the food produced. According to the Mayo Clinic, “No conclusive evidence shows that organic food is more nutritious than is conventionally grown food. And the USDA — even though it certifies organic food — doesn’t claim that these products are safer or more nutritious.” The Mayo Clinic is not alone. Here is what the UK’s Food Standards Agency said in 2003, ”In our view the current scientific evidence does not show that organic food is any safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food. Nor are we alone in this assessment. For instance, the French Food Safety Agency (AFSSA) has recently published a comprehensive 128-page review which concludes that there is no difference in terms of food safety and nutrition. Also, the Swedish National Food Administration’s recent research report finds ‘no nutritional benefits of organic food.’”

The findings of the study appear to be similar to other reviews such as a 2009 study titled, Comparison of composition (nutrients and other substances) of organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs: a systematic review of the available literatureby Dr. Alan Dangour, et. al. It said (italics in original paper):

“In analysis including all studies (independent of quality), no evidence of a difference in content was detected between organically and conventionally produced crops for the following nutrients and other substances: vitamin C, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, total soluble solids, titratable acidity, copper, iron, nitrates, manganese, ash, specific proteins, sodium, plant non-digestible carbohydrates, ?-carotene and sulphur. Significant differences in content between organically and conventionally produced crops were found in some minerals (nitrogen higher in conventional crops; magnesium and zinc higher in organic crops), phytochemicals (phenolic compounds and flavonoids higher in organic crops) and sugars (higher in organic crops). In analysis restricted to satisfactory quality studies, significant differences in content between organically and conventionally produced crops were found only in nitrogen content (higher in conventional crops), phosphorus (higher in organic crops) and titratable acidity (higher in organic crops).”

While Benbrook’s and his co-authors’ “view is that the weight of evidence supports linkages between higher antioxidant intakes and improved health outcomes, despite inability to quantity such linkages or predict fully which factors drive them.” (Italics mine)

The more mainstream view follows the conclusions of Dangour’s team (italics in original):

“No evidence of a difference in content of nutrients and other substances between organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock products was detected for the majority of nutrients assessed in this review suggesting that organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock products are broadly comparable in their nutrient content. The differences detected in content of nutrients and other substances between organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock products are biologically plausible and most likely relate to differences in crop or animal management, and soil quality. It should be noted that these conclusions relate to the evidence base currently available, which contains limitations in the design and in the comparability of studies. There is no good evidence that increased dietary intake, of the nutrients identified in this review to be present in larger amounts in organically than in conventionally produced crops and livestock products, would be of benefit to individuals consuming a normal varied diet, and it is therefore unlikely that these differences in nutrient content are relevant to consumer health.”

This new study seems to be a matter of emphasis. Andrew Kniss, an Associate Professor, Weed Biology & Ecology at the University of Wyoming, suggested an alternate headline: “Organic food has less Vitamin E, Protein, and Fiber than conventional food, study finds.”











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