Quackery about our food and agriculture floods our consciousness and makes it more and more difficult to separate good, useful and trustworthy information from the useless and the dangerous. Here's how to tell the difference.
To my friends and fellow food eaters:
At a certain age, we all become insomniacs, or something akin to it. For me, it manifests in a kind of dream-like state that creeps up and enfolds me as I sit in my overstuffed recliner and listen to late-night television. It happens from time to time – more often than I like to admit, really. And now, it’s beginning to scare me a little bit.
You see, last night I sorta drifted off and in my semi-conscious state gradually became aware of a sound of growing intensity that enveloped me. It sounded like a giant flock of ducks, all circling around my head, quacking and quacking and quacking. Not words or any sort of message. Just endless, mind-numbing quacking.
You know, quackery.
As I slowly regained what at my age passes for normal consciousness, I realized what all the quacking was about. It was an endless stream of hyperbolic claims and promises and revelations from people intent on solving problems I never knew I had. If I somehow did know I had them, I obviously never recognized how dangerous they are.
But here is the answer, the quackers all promise sincerely. The full and complete solution. The exact tonic or supplement or diet or device or magic beans I need for complete cure or immunity from the certain calamity that lurks unseen in my life. The answer – and obviously the bliss that comes with it — are instantly available with just a phone call or the click of the mouse at my fingertips. For a price, of course, payable in three easy installments, plus shipping and handling.
I quibble only with the last two words in that definition. It’s not just medicine. In our modern world of instant and globalized cyber-communications, quackery has become the province of virtually every aspect of our lives.
If it quacks like a duck
I was a victim of the relentless quackery that bathes our daily existence. In this case, it came not-so-quietly in the night through my TV cable box.
But I see it all around me every day – in the countless unsolicited e-mails that clog my in-box, in the annoying flyers that keep the U.S. Postal Service financially alive, in the outrageous headlines and photos jumping out at me as I stand in line at the supermarket waiting to buy my vitamin-infused bran cereal, blueberries, bananas and refreshing adult malt-based-beverage multi-pack.
“Fake news” thrives on a kind of quackery. Modern life makes quackery ubiquitous. (I’ve waited years to use ‘ubiquitous’ in something I write, so cut me some slack with this pretentious display of vocabulary. Give an old man this one last chance.)
It ranges from the simply absurd to frightening misinformation, all garbed in the holy robes of special insight and profound understanding possessed only by some select noble set of the supposedly educated and elite.
Quackery clouds the picture at a time when reliable, fact-based information about what we eat and how we produce it has never been more important. How do we separate the quacking from the truth? How do we separate the solid science from the marketing-spawned BS?
That’s not an idle question for all of us at Dirt to Dinner. What brought all of us together was a profound desire to look at food and agriculture with an impartial, fact-based approach. We wanted to use science and rational analysis to better understand and explain our modern food system to people who wanted something far more truthful than the quackery that permeates the debate.
We believe most people have an active and constructive interest in the food they eat and the system that produces it. They want to know, and they want information that is beyond credible. It has to be trustworthy. And trustworthiness is the antithesis of quackery.
Is there any way to combat quackery?
Maybe D2D’s editorial philosophy helps explain why my nighttime subconscious hears the late-night television promotions and hears quacks, not words. And as an old, old journalist, I still get into occasional debates with my young friends about declining media credibility, and how to combat it.
Over the years, I’ve assumed the heretical position that we simply can’t change the prevailing communication model. There is just too much money involved for that to happen.
It’s always been true, and it has helped make the carnival snake-oil salesman a vivid cultural image. Only now, with the modern communication tools at their disposal, the charlatans have a toolbox bigger than ever before, flashing on any one of dozens of screens in front of our faces at any given moment, whether invited or not.
I argue the better response is to arm the public with a greater capacity for critical thinking.
Help people spot at least some of the characteristics of quackery. Encourage healthy skepticism. Demand proof – real proof, based in fact and science, backed by multiple sources with proven credibility.
That formula sounds deceptively simple. It isn’t. But there are a few guidelines that might help us on our way toward a more peaceful nighttime slumber.
What are some of the key characteristics of quackery?
- A new and novel problem. Something you never realized was a problem. One you’ve never heard of before, especially one never mentioned by your doctor, dietician or other credentialed professional.
- Anything that exaggerates risk or catastrophic effects. Claims designed to scare far more than inform. Anything that seems hyper-active in its presentation, especially if the presenter seems amped up on meth when talking. Squint hard to look for lice type that says “paid endorsement” or “actor portrayal.” If the solution to this previously unknown calamity seems far too good to be true, it probably is. (See “healthy skepticism” below.)
- Instant gratification. If the problem is extreme but the solution is easy and quick, be wary.
- Quick and easy payment terms. If sending money is a major component of the pitch, be leery. Enough said.
And what can I do when I spot quackery?
Once your mental red lights start flashing, think about what you can do to turn them off.
Maintain a healthy skepticism.
Be suspicious. Think critically, and demand proof before you choose to believe. That’s how Dirt to Dinner thrives – by making sure what we provide is based in defensible, rational fact and science. That attitude might help you thrive, too.
Do your own research.
Come on, people. Look for information about the supposed threat or problem – and the credentials of the person doing the quacking. Go to credible sources, like universities, long-standing organizations and institutions, government agencies – real sources rather than a post office box in Fairfield, New Jersey, or some guy with an AOL address wearing a tin-foil hat in his mom’s basement.
Beware the “white coat promise.”
A white coat suggests authority and credentials, as do elegant suits and $200 haircuts. Don’t fall for cosmetics and subliminal signals. Look for actual academic credentials, from reputable schools, or comparable qualifications. Dissect and challenge their claims and conclusions. Think for yourself.
Seek out your own trusted personal sources of information.
This is probably a good rule of thumb for any subject that captures your intellectual interests. But for goodness sake (if not outright survival), don’t take any claim made in late-night TV or the magazines racks along every check-out line as gospel, especially when it comes to food and nutrition. Swap meets also are a notoriously poor source of informed opinion on any matter, especially your diet and health. Ask people you know and trust for their opinion – especially people with real credentials and a history of giving you solid advice.
Finding The Silence of the Ducks
I love classic movies. I can quote dialogue from Bogie, and Mr. Spock, and Bette Davis, and a long, long list of other stars from great cinema. I bore people to death with these quotes at parties, during church sermons, in the line at the Quiki-Mart and all sorts of places. (“Scare people to death” is probably the better way to say that.)
One quote I use a lot is from The Silence of the Lambs, when spooky Dr. Lecter asks FBI Agent Clarice Starling if the lambs from her dreams of childhood trauma have stopped bleating. That quote hits home for me, and I suspect for a lot of food consumers like me, too. Just change the subject noun and the gerund that follows, and follow the simple suggestions presented here to find your own personal answer to this key question of our modern media age:
When will those ducks stop quacking?
The Bottom Line
Equip yourself with a healthy dose of skepticism to avoid quackery's pitfalls for everyone's sake. We all need to be better informed to assure the well-being of individuals, families, communities and the 8 billion people dependent upon available, affordable, nutritious and sustainable food.