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Food Fight: Why Are We So Passionate about What Enters Our Bodies?

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


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Why is that there can be such divergent views about basically the same body of evidence regarding organic and GM food? This debate/argument illustrates two things; the subjective and emotional nature of risk perception, and the fallacy of our faith in pure fact-based Cartesian reason as the be-all and end-all way of figuring out the truth.

In the response to Christie Wilcox’s challenge of the organic orthodoxy both sides wielded their data and experts like weapons, but underneath this war is not about the details. Defenders of the orthodoxy called Wilcox “an industry shill” and scolded “Shame on you Christie Wilcox! Any true ecologist knows that GMO is destroying our world”. Others attacked those critics as “organic zealots” and said “It is mind-boggling how anti-science some organic proponents are”. Can you hear something else going on there, something more fundamental than disputes over yield-per-acre and whether organic pesticides are somehow less dangerous than industrial chemicals, something almost…well…cultural?

Indeed. Research under the rubric Cultural Cognition Theory has found that our views on many issues are shaped by underlying cultural ‘group’ identities. We subconsciously develop views that align with the group with which we most strongly identify. That contributes to social cohesion, which strengthens our group’s dominance in overall society, and enhances our group’s acceptance of us as members in good standing. To a social animal, both are really important for health and well-being, for survival. Given those stakes, it’s small wonder that our views can be so visceral and resistant to change

To Cultural Cognition, group means something deeper than what normally comes to mind. This theory (an outgrowth of the Cultural Theory of Risk, from Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky) finds that we orient into four basic groups, and that these identities reflect how we’d like society to operate;

- An Individualist prefers a society that mostly leaves the individual alone, where individual rights and choices have the greatest say, and there is generally less government and social interaction/interference, not more.
- A Communitarian prefers a “we’re all in this together” society where the collective is more involved in determining how things go, and government involvement is generally a good thing.
- A Hierarchist prefers a society that operates within fixed divisions of class and race, a predictably rigid status quo constrained by the familiar old way of doing things.
- Egalitarians bristle at what they see as the injustice of restrictive economic and social class and hierarchy. They prefer a more flexible and fair society, free of the limitations and inequalities of class that limit social and economic mobility. Egalitarians tend to blame Hierarchists (usually political conservatives), and Big Business, for imposing many of the social and economic class restrictions that limit a fairer world.

Egalitarians criticize the major institutions of the modern economy – big corporations and their money and power – for contributing to unfair and restrictive class structures. By extension, the products and methods of these corporations are also attacked. Listen, then, for the Egalitarian world view in the following comments:

— “When a company like Monsanto or ADM patent (sic) the genes of their crops and then go around suing people whose own crops have cross pollinated with GM crops, it makes these potentially useful crops very, very bad for business.”

— “…the unscrupulous methods of firms like Monsanto cause a lot of suspicion and distaste for GMOs.”

— One person said they would not be opposed to genetically modified food if there were “greater controls placed on the corporations marketing these GM crops.”

And remember, Egalitarians want society to operate in a fairer, freer way. One respondent defended organic agriculture as “democratic”.

But Cultural Cognition isn’t the only subconscious force compelling a disagreement over basically the same factual evidence. Much has been written lately about the Theory of Argumentative Reasoning, the idea that human reason developed not as a tool for figuring out the truth but as a way to advance the fitness and survival of those who could win arguments and have things go their way. Winning arguments, then, is not about something as superficial as the truth. It’s a much more important battle about whose truth wins. Which may help explain why when the facts don’t work, we disparage those with whom we disagree, challenging their veracity, their honesty (funding), their intelligence.

Said one frustrated writer, “…most people who buy organic do not want to know the truth. They would rather not spoil their idea that they are doing the right thing for their family and the environment. It is much easier and feels better for them to buy into the whole organic myth.” Others invoked the ‘Denialist” label, clearly as an epithet. “It is abundantly clear that devotion to organic farming is part of a faith based belief system. Facts and data do not matter – if a fact or piece of data contradicts your faith, you simply dismiss it or attack the messengers as being tools of ______ (fill in the blank: satan, evil industrialists, arrogant scientist know-it-alls who are playing god, etc.)”

The conflicting views about these forms of agriculture, based on the same core body of evidence as seen through such different affective lenses, teach an important lesson. Pure fact-based reason is a wonderful ideal, but an unattainable myth. On top of what we have learned about how Cultural Cognition shapes our views, and how reason is an adapative/fitness tool for winning arguments, the study of risk perception psychology has revealed emotional/instinctive characteristics that make some risks feel scarier than others, the facts notwithstanding. Human-made risks like pesticides and foods that have been genetically modified in a test tube evoke more fear and concern than natural ones like organic (i.e. natural) pesticides and foods that have been genetically modified the old fashioned way via natural hybridization.

Then there is neuroscientist Antonio Damasio work. In Descartes Error he described a study subject whose prefrontal cortex –where we do conscious thinking and deciding – could not communicate with his limbic system – the area of the brain associated with feelings and affect. This man could not make any choices or behave rationally, because the facts had no valence. Without input on how the facts felt, they literally had no meaning.

Satirist Ambrose Bierce defined the brain as “the organ with which we think we think.” There is a large, robust, and diverse body of evidence from various sciences that suggest Bierce was right. The argument over organic food and GM crops is just one more real-world example of an argument that invokes the facts, but in fact is about much much more.

(And if any of the above is accurate, the comment stream that hopefully follows will probably include a lot of fact-based arguments in support of or criticizing the orthodoxy of organic food, which will be more evidence of the phenomenon I’ve tried to describe.)

Related at Scientific American: Science Education and Changing People’s Minds: Writing to convince:

David Ropeik About the Author: David Ropeik is an Instructor at the Harvard Extension School and author of 'How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts'. Follow on Twitter @dropeik.

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






Comments 2 Comments

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  1. 1. mem from somerville 10:30 pm 08/11/2011

    I’ve been reading a lot of your stuff lately, and I agree with many of the assessments of the state of argumentation on GMOs/organic, vaccines, etc.

    But what I’m not getting is what *is* effective. Show me a good example of how each of those personas should have responded to that organic article to effectively make their case–you don’t have to take a side, show me all of them.

    For example, I might have considered myself an egalitarian. I want all farmers to have access to the best technology to create food security for themselves and their communities. And I want them to be able to reduce pesticides for safety as well. And I think the way to do that includes GMOs.

    But I’ll bet a lot of people characterizing my view would have called me a shill.

    Show me what to do here.

    Or should we stop commenting on blogs and news sites and stuff? Is that only making things worse?

    Link to this
  2. 2. bucketofsquid 11:31 am 08/12/2011

    Apparently I’m an egalitarian communitarian. We are all in this together and we need to level the playing field. Putting a harsh cap on inheritance would be a good start. I have no problem with modified foods as long as they keep me from malnutrition and ill health. I buy organic if it is sold at the same price as regular food. There are many different agricultural methods that improve value of crops to the end consumer. It would be wiser to adopt the method that works best for the situation each grower is in.

    As for the evil of Monsanto, if they allow the pollen from their crops to cross pollinate someone else’s field they have clearly released the patented DNA into the public domain. This means anyone can grow it at any time without paying them a dime. If on the other hand, someone deliberately cross pollinated their own fields with Monsanto DNA with out paying Monsanto then they are guilty of theft.

    Link to this

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