Nutritional ethics, logical fallacies

Last night I was reading Michael Moss’s New York Times bestseller Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, an e-book borrowed from my public library.

I got to the part where the author claims that those marketing such foods to children, shaping their perceptions of how food should taste and affecting their health, have a responsibility to these children. I don’t know if I actually formed the wry grin alone there in the dark.” Such a sweet, self-righteous, non-capitalist opinion rolled my train of thought back to a run-in I had a decade or so ago.

It was not long after I’d gotten married, and my husband, brother-in-law and I were road tripping up to their parents’ house, presumably for a holiday. My then DH was about to buy or in the process of starting his business. It was just a little liquor store out-of-state, and DH was supposed to be a silent partner. Still, his big brother, with his trademark gung-ho entrepreneurial spirit, brought along an audiobook for aspiring capitalists.

After perhaps an hour or so of listening to the book, however, I’d had enough. Riding in the backseat can be irritating anyway: I can’t always make out what the folks up front are saying, so I’m left out. At the same time, even if I had had a book or a smart phone with me — I don’t remember — I wouldn’t have been able to concentrate on it with that audiobook going. And that book…

I gave it at least a fair chance, as evidenced by the fact that, 10 or 12 years later, I still remember a bit. It was advice on optimizing business processes, and the star exemplar was none other than McDonald’s magnate Ray Kroc. The main thrust was setting up business processes such that even an idiot could carry them out. In retrospect, I can certainly understand why these two brothers might have held out hope that the lessons were transferable, but frankly, the possibility that they could have gleaned a useful nugget was not worth the agony of listening to some slick young male voice glorifying McDonald’s business practices for an hour or so of my life I could never erase or replace.

Finally, I boiled over, exclaiming “Enough!” It never occurred to me that either of them wouldn’t feel my pain. How could two bright, educated young American men not have a negative perception of McDonald’s? For heaven’s sake, DH and I went to the same liberal arts college. We were all Democrats, more or less. In fact, in some ways, DH was an even more radical liberal than I: if memory serves, he may have been a Nader fan. Also, this was a guy who, in our college days, used to jump up and down in front of the TV, spewing distrust of the evils of advertising. But after college, a little lost, he’d joined his brother, and apparently he’d changed.

Now, getting back to my distaste for McDonald’s, my husband had other reasons that should have made him sympathize. He is a veteran ethically-driven vegetarian. Yet he completely refused to stand up for me. I don’t remember how the argument went, only that, surprisingly, there was one. I never would have imagined how offended my BIL would be by my disgust with the idea of taking business advice based on the trajectory of an evil fast food empire. Maybe I’m making a leap, but I’m guessing that the same principles that made McDonald’s so successful are what made their food so awful. So what lesson could they offer the owner of a retail store who presumably wouldn’t want to make similar ethical compromises?

In retrospect, through the comforting haze of memory, I would give them the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps there was something transferrable, salvageable in the book. Or maybe I was correct in my instinct that it was just another successful ploy to sell a get-rich-quick guide to those nearly as naive as they are greedy. But in any case, the fact that my husband had no sympathy for my feelings about the subject should have perhaps given me a clue that my marriage was doomed to fail.

I am looking forward to reading the rest of the book. I am still casting about for a career path, and I find this kind of thing inspiring. Perhaps I can find a way to make a living that also promotes better nutrition. “Nutritional justice.” Is that a thing?


A quick note about a video I saw the other day on the Web. It was just a blurb where a British scientist and others laughed down  an Australian climate change denier. The denier protested that all he was hearing was “appeal to authority” and consensus. That triggered a memory I had of the use of the term “appeal to authority” as a logical fallacy. I don’t have any formal training in logic, and it bothered me, so I Googled it. The most reputable of the initial results I got was Wikipedia, so I took a look. The article confirmed my opinion that naming a logical fallacy “appeal to authority” can be misleading. (Note to self: find a good book on formal logic.) Authority is a good think after all, right? Well, usually. But there is a problem when one of the following occurs: the authority is not really an authority, or is not an authority on the subject at hand, or the appeal to authority is used to quash good evidence (see also “confirmation bias”). Don’t quote me on any of this; I’m not an authority, at least not yet. But do check out the link. There is also a link from that page to another interesting term, the Woozle effect, apparently named for a Winnie the Pooh story. I think this is something that I’ve been suspicious about for a long time in my amateurish research efforts, without thinking about or trying to name it. Another familiar name on the page was Asch, whose research we covered in a psychology course I took this summer. Interesting stuff, indeed.

Here is a link to what seems to be a different cut of that video.

“Shining like a national guitar”

paul simon essentialWhile I love music, I’m not usually interested in interviews with musicians. But this morning Paul Simon‘s familiar voice was welcome as I drove to Zumba class, and, if I hadn’t been late, I would have stayed in the car and listened some more. Speaking about the evolution of his songwriting, Simon was funny and poignant. Of course, I can’t discount personal bias toward an artist who created so many pieces of the backdrop of my life. But maybe you’ll find it worth a listen, too.

By the time the strains to Graceland played, I was interested in his technique and moved by the results. Then again, maybe I was just sleepily nostalgic and subconsciously elevating it by contrast with the lame exercise class I was about to walk into. (Yes, it’s OK to end a sentence with a preposition.)

(Nothing against Zumba as a whole, but this particular class is my least favorite, and arriving post-warmup is never a good idea.)

As compulsively analytical as I usually am, I don’t pretend to know or care what “shining like a national guitar” means, or what the Mississippi Delta could possibly have to do with it. It just works.