Facts and food in a post-truth world
BY: Mike Feist
“Post-truth” is the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year for no small reason. We have major politicians that believe climate change is a hoax and vaccines cause autism, despite mountains of scientific evidence. Our president’s administration started their first day in office claiming this inauguration was the largest ever, despite aerial images and transit records showing otherwise. The administration later defended the claim, saying “sometimes we can disagree with the facts.” It’s not just a problem here – two days later the new UK Prime Minister kept news of a nuclear missile test failure from the House of Commons and the public. Her defense secretary even said the government “successfully concluded” the operation. Lies, secrets, and the rejection of evidence-based statements are abundant in politics. But this isn’t just the routine “most politicians lie”; the amount of blatant, easily refutable falsehoods is unprecedented.
The term “alternative facts” has taken center stage in much of our news reporting and political debate since Brexit – the United Kingdom’s proposed secession from the European Union – and in the US presidential election. Information sources once deemed reliable by the mainstream are increasingly rejected, and the number of “fake news” websites is on the rise. People are largely ignoring facts and instead gravitating towards repeated emotional ideas and personal beliefs.
In George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, alternative facts are the backbone of government publications. The fictional government’s secret Thought Police surveil everyone and punish dissenting speech, actions, and thoughts. The Ministry of Truth is responsible for creating propaganda, doctoring papers and changing historical records. Orwell’s book, published in 1949, has recently seen a record surge in sales, becoming the top-selling book on Amazon and prompting a reprint of 75,000 copies (which is almost as many books as are found in our Conrad Hilton Library). Obviously a great many people are comparing our current times and foreseeable future to that of Orwell’s fictional world.
Statistics lost public credibility especially after Trump was announced as the election winner, as both the media and the public had become dependent on polling data to determine who would win. Those outlets disseminated their absolute certainty Clinton would win. Though the details behind the poll flaws are complex and vary by poll, the largest flaw may be media and public dependence on poll data. Elections are not science: you simply cannot predict the results with exact detail. A false prediction is not a reason to start losing faith in statistics as a whole, however. And, this premise applies similarly to the fields of food science and nutrition.
As in politics and media, the culinary industry sees a large amount of misinformation and disinformation (intentionally misleading or false claims) and a disregard of scientific evidence, for example, how people receive diet and nutritional advice, how they determine foods’ safety (such as genetically engineered foods), and how they view economically and environmentally sustainable agriculture. Some of these authors take advantage of ideas, like the conceptions that corporations hide data, fund (and thus influence) research, bribe doctors, and lobby Congress. Many alternative lifestyle organizations use partial truths to convince people to turn to unproven herbs and medicines, nutritional claims, or agricultural techniques. And they can play on public fears over published data to allow emotion to become dominant in determining personal beliefs. GMOs may be deadly. Gluten may make everyone sick. Coffee may be bad for you. The problems and solutions in politics, health, nutrition, and food safety are all similar, in that emotion-based sources tell you that terrorists, chemicals, toxins, and all things foreign are present, and they must be kept out, so detox, build walls, eat natural, and eat clean. Right?
Emotional ideas have already impacted our industry in huge ways, turning opinions on biotechnology, like genetically modified foods and herbicides like glyphosate. The latter reduces the use of soil tillage and therefore reduces erosion and runoff. It has also passed the EPA’s and other national institutes’ risk assessments many times. Genetically modified foods are among the most studied, and the process reduces environmental damage, increases the food supply, can prevent allergic reactions, and can literally save lives through nutrient benefits. As an example, golden rice is biofortified with beta-carotene, which reduces vitamin A deficiency, the leading cause of preventable childhood blindness, affecting millions of people.
Marketing plays a huge role in disinformation, with Non-GMO Project labels becoming ever more popular. Similarly, “natural” labels are also everywhere, though any food could be labeled natural: there aren’t any restrictions on the term’s use. There are restrictions on the term “organic” in the United States, but the US’s organic program is flawed, with organic farms requiring significantly more land and resources than conventional farms to produce the same amount of food. Organic farms have a larger carbon footprint and larger environmental effects. Marketing often targets pesticides as a reason to buy organic, and consumers buy into it. However both organic and conventional farms use a variety of synthetic and natural pesticides. Some natural pesticides, such as copper sulfate, are more harmful to the environment, and many of the synthetic pesticides are designed to quickly break down into simple substances. The USDA organic program also has fear-based and unscientific policies against irradiation, antibiotics, and genetic modification. It prohibits any use of antibiotics, which can be an ethical problem regarding the treatment of animals. Overall, organic products are more expensive and bring no demonstrable benefits, to food quality, nutritional content, the environment, or the economy.
Another food industry example is truffle oil. It’s overused and not appealing, and there are a lot of similar opinions most chefs agree with, but what about the facts? It turns out that those are hard to come by. Nearly all of what can be found on truffle oil is opinion-based, and often false. For example, Joe Bastianich said in 2014 that “it has nothing to do with truffles”, “it’s made by perfumists”, and that “it’s bad for you.” Just to be clear: many brands of truffle oil are flavored with pieces of truffle, producers of perfume do not make truffle oil, and no, truffle oil is not hazardous to human health. Contrary to claims published in The Alternative Daily, the WHO’s JECFA report recognizes truffle oil as safe.
According to Tim Wu, professor of communications law at Columbia, part of the problem with false facts is the internet. The beautiful idea of free and open worldwide communication has turned into what he calls a “wasteland of empty articles, celebrity non-stories, and random stuff designed to get your attention for even a microsecond.” Websites like Buzzfeed largely seek an emotional reaction and have no ultimate goal beyond selling advertising. This model where a company’s worth is only based on the number of clicks they get “makes TV ratings look honorable by comparison”, according to Wu. In comparison, Wikipedia is one website which has structured itself to prevent that: on a list of the thirty most popular websites, it is the only nonprofit and the only one not ad-based. Its director has stated that accountability is the most effective way to build public trust – transparency at every level and earnest aspirations towards the truth and self-improvement. Tim Wu expressed hope that other media organizations take on similar standards in order to maintain the public’s trust. If you’re unsure about a controversy or are looking for information on food safety, nutrition, or biotechnology, look to Wikipedia, which has policies requiring neutral content, though still check that the information you find is cited from trustworthy sources.
What does this matter to a CIA student? As a reader, choose your information sources carefully, as there is more disinformation being spread recently. For determining the truth, the best course is to read multiple sources, all with no apparent bias, transparent and appropriate motives for reporting, detailed and reasonable methodologies, authoritative authors and publishers, and a peer review process (like review boards for scientific journals or editors for books, newspapers, and some online media). Maintain skepticism and rigorously challenge even the most basic of claims to see how they stack up against robust evidence.
Regardless of what degree program you’re in, you are going to be affecting what and how people think about food. You may come to be interviewed or asked to write a piece, but even if you don’t, your menu and philosophy as a chef or business owner will speak to the public. But without public trust, as institutions are finding themselves ever more frequently lacking, your words and the truth will be lost to all.