Things are bad enough in the food world that we don’t need to resort to hyperbole to be worried or even alarmed.
It’s one thing to decry the lack of fairness and consumer protection when businesses and the government decide what gets produced, marketed, labeled, regulated and sold , and how. It also makes sense to be outraged by the health, environmental and economic damage caused by our food “system” and the diet it encourages.
But it’s another to call those things evil. Evidence, for instance, that an excess of something like sugar may well be bad for your health does not mean that the substance itself is “bad.” (In fact, we need sugar to function.)
So, while it’s a point of pride and an overall good thing that we can say pretty much whatever we want in the United States, and that these opinions can now be heard or read almost anywhere, to whom should we be listening? Who speaks with authority?
When it comes to big issues, the answer is “actual experts,” and it’s almost always “not ourselves.” This point is made convincingly in “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” the 2011 book by the Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman .
In it, Kahneman demonstrates that our reasoning “System One” — our “blink,” or fast-reacting system — may instantly judge and conclude based on information that is either inadequate or ill-considered, and frequently both. There is a second system of thought and judgment, says Kahneman, that’s more rational, but we’re usually too lazy to use it unless something forces us to. Difficult as it may be to accept (for sure, I have trouble), our opinions on almost everything are little more than snap judgments, not to be taken too seriously.
Our intuition — the “fast” thinking of Kahneman’s book’s title — is especially untrustworthy in areas outside our expertise, which is to say most areas. Developing expertise usually takes many years of work.
In matters where you’ve become a true expert, you should trust your intuition. Otherwise, it pays to literally stop and think. When I read a news story like this one, which claims that G.M.O.s are linked to leukemia, I might be scared out of my wits — Americans can’t avoid genetically modified food without a huge effort, and even then there are no guarantees. So are we doomed to years of chemo? Perhaps not: If I sit down and do my homework all I can really say with intelligence is that it’s premature to conclude that ingesting food with genetically engineered ingredients is safe.
As I wrote a few weeks ago, barely a day goes by that someone doesn’t say to me, “There’s nothing I can safely eat.” Many of us are afraid of our food and of the way it’s produced, and to some extent that fear is well founded.
But exaggerating doesn’t make our case stronger, as I was reminded while sitting in Bill Maher’s “Real Time” studio last Friday night being “interviewed,” or — to be more precise — serving as straight man in a generally hilarious comedy routine. (His best line, I thought, was when he said that Gov. Chris Christie’s lap-band surgery was “like quitting cocaine by Krazy-Gluing your nostrils shut.”)
In something like seven minutes, Maher expressed fear or hypercriticism of sugar (“really the enemy”), pasta, wheat, yeast (“yeast is bad”) and dairy (“not chemically appropriate”). After the show, he called Monsanto “evil” (hard to argue with that one, as long as you equate it with “immoral” as opposed to a supernatural negative force), and though he didn’t say “frankenfood” in this instance, he does use the word frequently.
It’s easy enough to get caught up in this, but in a way it might make sense to stick to the facts. Since gun control was on the evening’s agenda, for example, I would have liked to make the point that our hyperconsumption of added sugars may lead to more deaths each year than gun killings and will soon lead to more than lung cancer, or that Monsanto’s much-touted Roundup has led to the development of what are generally called “superweeds,” which in turn has led to Monsanto’s developing new weed-resistant seeds . (In a major setback for the dominant seed producer, the Department of Agriculture has said that it wants to look further at the environmental impact of these before approving their planting.) None of this is the same as equating either sugar or Monsanto with the forces of evil.
Maher is as quick a thinker as you’re likely to see, especially compared to his talk-show-host-world competition. But quick thinking, as Kahneman writes, is not really what we need when making a compelling argument, one that others may actually heed. 
When Maher, or anyone else, claims that corporations put profits over people’s health, this makes sense. Monsanto, for instance, has shown a callous attitude toward farmers, consumers, agriculture, the environment and, in some respects,human life. And sugar is a substance that’s relentlessly rammed down our throats and cunningly included in foods where it doesn’t belong, a fact that threatens nearly everyone in the United States. Nothing “evil” or supernatural about that — but, if you ask me, it’s still bad enough.
3. Kahneman’s authority doesn’t derive from his Nobel Prize in Economics but from his half-century of thinking carefully about behavioral economics and exposing his ideas to the scrutiny and testing of others.
5. Although one of Kahneman’s arguments, demonstrated daily in all of our lives, is that we’re most likely to believe evidence that supports our existing beliefs, whether it’s good evidence or bad. Thus the audience cheers at Maher’s most outrageous statements.
Submitted by BK Thomas