Reductionism addiction

The apples you buy in the supermarket are about to get a grade.  So are the grapes and the Oreos and the Diet Coke. It’s part of a new effort aimed at helping make it easier to know how to buy healthy foods in American and European supermarkets.

Here we go again.  The too-familiar premise is that food is nothing more than its component parts – the nutrients and the carbohydrates, proteins and fats that make it up.  I’m no expert, so I’ll defer to Michael Pollan, author of “In Defense of Food” and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” (worth a read), who recently argued on NPR that the science behind this nutrient reductionism is pretty weak.

More broadly, Michael observes that the human body is capable of thriving with an astoundingly wide array of diets (think Eskimos vs. Mayans vs. Italians). Yet there is just one diet that has consistently proved toxic; one diet that leads to obesity, heart disease, and diabetes; one diet that we as a species cannot adapt to.  You guessed it: the Western Diet.

So we solve for that problem by grading our food.

This kind of reductionism is everywhere, and it’s a poor substitute for intuition, culture, history, and the basic act of coming to your own conclusions.  We know in our gut, in the eighth year of an unprecedented stock market and real estate boom, that something isn’t quite right.  We know in our gut that there’s something fundamentally broken about the amount of money CEOs are getting paid.  We know in our gut that the latest collateralized security might really be risky, AAA rating and analysts’ report be damned.   This is the little voice inside of you that begs to differ.

We don’t need to throw the baby out with the bath water and stop creating metrics and analysis.  But there are times when we need to stand up at the outset and acknowledge that the Emperor has no clothes.  A letter grade to decide which kind of juice is better for me or whether I should buy Milano cookies or Chips Ahoy?  C’mon.  A star rating for charities?  Equally problematic.  An in-or-out screen that rates all large corporations around the world and tells you which collection of 100,000+ people doing a million different activities is and is not ethical?  It’s all mostly meaningless if you don’t make your values system explicit going in (e.g. no liquor, arms, gambling, etc.)

And this is the point.  Measurement and metrics matter, but we’ve put so much faith in the nutritionists and the bankers and the ratings agencies and the charity screeners that we’ve given ourselves and our values and our intuition a pass.  We know deep down that orange juice is more than a collection of sugar, water and vitamin C, but we let ourselves be convinced that fortified Sunny Delight or Countrytime Lemonade is more or less the same thing because the nutritional label tells us so.

So read the label, learn what letter grade your chicken gets and the star rating on the nonprofit you’re thinking about supporting.  But use these only as a way to make sure you’re asking the right questions; don’t be fooled into thinking you’ve just been handed the answer.

Because what makes you think that someone out there knows (or cares) more than you do?

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