Food fads

I find it a little odd the fascination that many people have with food.

I know people who watch the cooking shows on TV with almost a religious fervor. Diet books abound. People eagerly seize on the latest ideas about what may be good for your health and what may be bad and make wholesale changes in their diets based on news reports.

Ben Goldacre, writing in London’s The Guardian jokes that there seems to be a drive to divide everything in the world into two classes: those that cause cancer and those that cure cancer.

In pursuit of this goal, the ‘science’ reporters in newspapers and magazines seize on the most tenuous and dubious links coming out of research laboratories and draw sweeping conclusions that may actually harm people. We have become prey to all manner of pseudo-experts on food.

Goldacre reports on the red wine-breast cancer link that recently made news:

The story follows a standard template which they clearly now teach as valid in all journalism schools: a food contains a chemical, the chemical does something in a dish on a lab bench, therefore the food kills cancer in people. Or rather, red wine contains resveratrol: this chemical has been found to increase the activity of an enzyme called quinone reductase, which converts a derivative of oestrogen back to oestrogen, and that derivative can damage DNA, and damaging DNA causes mutations, and mutations cause cancer, so therefore, in the world of journalists, red wine prevents breast cancer in people.

This is a phenomena we might call “data mist”: where someone gets one piece of research information lodged in their imagination and suddenly, for them, it explains the entirety of medicine.

In reality, though, meta-analyses show that “overall, half a glass of red wine a day increases your risk of breast cancer by 10%. If their figures are correct, alcohol causes about 6% of all breast cancer in the UK, meaning 2,500 cases a year.” (emphasis added)

There is no question that people who try to keep up with food news are perplexed. Quick: which of the following foods are good/bad for you: butter, eggs, sugar, salt, chocolate, wine? In truth, all of them have had their ups and downs and I personally have no idea what their present status is. And I don’t care.

I share Michael Pollan’s wonderment, expressed in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006), about the way food has become a major source of anxiety in the US.

As a culture we seem to have arrived at a place where whatever native wisdom we may have once possessed about eating has been replaced by confusion and anxiety. Somehow this most elemental of activities – figuring out what to eat – has come to require a remarkable amount of expert help. How did we ever get to the point where we need investigative journalists to tell us where our food comes from and nutritionists to determine the dinner menu? (p. 1)

America seems to lurch from one food fad to another, one day avoiding all beef, and the next day all carbohydrates. The swings are so violent that they can result in huge changes in the marketplace of foods, causing some businesses to even go bankrupt. Words like ‘antioxidants’ and ‘transfats’, which were unknown except to scientists just a couple of years ago, are now household words even though most people don’t know anything about them except for the simple equations ‘antioxidants=good’ and ‘tranfats=bad’. Watch for the word polyphenols to achieve similar stardom very soon.

Pollan thinks that such wild swings are a sign of a national eating disorder.

Certainly it would never have happened in a culture in possession of deeply rooted traditions surrounding food and eating. But then, such a culture would not feel the need for its most august legislative body to ever deliberate the nation’s “dietary goals” – or, for that matter, to wage political battle every few years over the precise design of an official government graphic called the “food pyramid.” A country with a stable culture of food would not shell out millions for the quackery (or common sense) of a new diet book every January. . . . It would not be apt to confuse protein bars and food supplements with meals or breakfast cereals with medicines.
. . .
Nor would such a culture be shocked to discover that there are other countries, such as Italy and France, that decide their dinner questions on the basis of such quaint and unscientific criteria as pleasure and tradition, eat all manner of “unhealthy” foods, and, lo and behold, wind up actually healthier and happier in their eating than we are. (p. 2,3)

Pollan speaks of the ‘American paradox’: a notably unhealthy people obsessed with the idea of eating healthily.

I myself long ago decided to pay only a passing interest to reports about what kind of food is good for you or bad for you. All I ask is that my food not be messed with by the addition of hormones, antibiotics and high levels of processing. I figure that as long as I eat moderate amounts of a balanced diet of minimally-processed foods that have been around and eaten for a long time, I should be ok. What did not kill off my evolutionary ancestors should be fine for me. Oh, and the food should be tasty too.

Could I increase my life expectancy by a scientific monitoring of my food intake? Possibly. But it would not be worth it for me. I eat whatever I like and enjoy my food.

POST SCRIPT: The unbearable lightness of Cokie Roberts

I find it amazing that NPR continues to have Cokie Roberts as an analyst. I cringe whenever she comes on and spouts her poll-based drivel and conventional wisdom. When did she last say anything that was even remotely insightful? She is one of those annoying people who constantly speaks, without any evidence, about what “the American people” want or think, which somehow always seems to be exactly what she and her coterie of Washington insiders think they should want or think.

Eric Alterman, writing back in 2002, described her best: “With no discernible politics save an attachment to her class, no reporting and frequently no clue . . . a perpetual font of Beltway conventional wisdom uncomplicated by any collision with messy reality.”

The etiquette of food

After grappling with some heavy moral issues involving the treatment of animals and the eating of meat, I want to look at a related but lighter topic: the etiquette of food restrictions in the host-guest relationship.

Sometimes I wonder if we have gone too far in being accommodating of people’s food restrictions, to the extent of creating a sense of entitlement. As someone who organizes meal-based meetings at work where I feel obliged to ask people in advance what restrictions they have, I am sometimes surprised by the specificity of some requests (“I would like wraps”, “I would like fresh fruits and vegetables”, etc.).

This raises an interesting question that I have been thinking about: How far we should go as both guests and hosts in specifying and meeting dietary restrictions or preferences?

Michael Pollan says in The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) that during the time he was a vegetarian, he felt that he had in a subtle way become alienated from other people.

Other people now have to accommodate me, and I find this uncomfortable: My new dietary restrictions throw a big wrench into the basic host-guest relationship. As a guest, if I neglect to tell my host in advance that I don’t eat meat, she feels bad, and if I do tell her, she’ll make something special for me, in which case I’ll feel bad. (p. 314)

Whenever we invite people to our home for a meal or as house guests, we always ask them whether they have any dietary restrictions. We get the usual spectrum of requests: no pork, no beef, or vegetarian. But there are more severe restrictions that we have not had to deal with as yet: vegan, strict kosher, no wheat products, allergies to specific foods such as peanuts, salt or sugar free diets, etc.

These restrictions can be split onto four classes: Those that are based on medical reasons, those that are based on religious reasons, those that are based on political/ethical/moral/environmental reasons, and those that are based on personal preferences. The etiquette question is this: which, if any, of these categories of restrictions is it appropriate for a guest to request accommodations and which ones should a host be obliged to meet?

As a host, I feel obliged to ask people what restrictions they have and try to accommodate them, irrespective of the class of restrictions to which it belongs. But I realize that I am laying myself wide open to a potentially awkward situation. Suppose someone says that they have some restriction that would require very elaborate and unfamiliar food preparation on my part. What should I do? Go to extraordinary lengths to meet them, such as preparing a separate meal? At what point does a food request become so onerous that I can feel comfortable declining to meet it?

Similarly, from the point of view of a guest, what is a reasonable request to make of a host to accommodate your preferences? Should people who have very specific and restrictive needs simply decline invitations because they feel that they are imposing too heavy a burden on their host?

Pollan says that, “On this matter I’m inclined to agree with the French, who gaze upon any personal dietary prohibition as bad manners.”

Perhaps this is the way we should go. Hosts should stop asking guests what restrictions they have and prepare whatever the host wants. Guests who choose to attend should decline their host’s offer to specify dietary limitations, and simply eat and drink what they can from whatever is offered, even if it ends up being just some vegetables and fruit and water. And neither party should feel offended or put out.

(Of course, this suggestion only applies to single-meal events. The situation with houseguests who are staying for some time is different and then some accommodations must be made.)

Some might feel that it is easy for me to advocate this policy since I am an omnivore and thus can eat anything, and that I might view this differently if I were someone who had strong food restrictions and might be faced with having a very restricted choice of food items to eat at a dinner party.

But I have had to deal with something roughly equivalent. In Sri Lanka, dinner parties would often start late, say around 9:00 pm, and they would sometimes serve dinner close to midnight. (Unlike in America where the meal forms either the beginning or the middle of an evening of conversation, in Sri Lanka the end of the meal often signifies the end of the party.) Although I get very hungry by that late hour, I did not tell the host that I would like my own dinner to be served early. Instead, if I suspected dinner would be served late, I got in the habit of eating at home before going for the party. That way, I did not care when the meal was served or even what was served. I simply ate what I felt like from whatever was offered whenever it was offered.

Those who have dietary restrictions or preferences that will likely result in them not being able to eat much from what is offered might consider doing the same thing.

These kinds of etiquette issues may have arisen because we have forgotten that the only reason to accept an invitation to someone else’s home is to enjoy their company and the company of their other guests, not to treat their home as a restaurant to obtain food that is acceptable to you. The refreshments on offer should not be a consideration.

I wonder how Miss Manners might respond to this question.

POST SCRIPT: Interesting graphic designs

How to tell if you are in the right place. (Thanks to Progressive Review.)

The ethics of food-10: Minimizing suffering

(For other posts in this series, see here.)

The theory of evolution says that we are all connected in the tree of life. So humans are not only related to apes and other animals, we are also related to plants and even to the ‘lowly’ fungi. But no one is arguing that therefore we should stop eating vegetables too.

Clearly to survive we have to draw at least some lines as to what species we include within our moral community and what species we exclude. Such lines are necessarily arbitrary but need not be without some justification.

If we are going to use suffering as the measure of whether we are justified in killing and eating animals, then that implies that sentience is a key marker. But what level of sentience? Peter Singer and other animal rights philosophers argue that some level of sophistication of the nervous system is necessary to include the species within our moral compass. They draw the line at the nervous system of scallops, so that anything with an equal or more primitive nervous system than a scallop can be eaten. [Read more…]

The ethics of food-9: Does a good life compensate for an early death?

(For other posts in this series, see here.)

In trying to arrive at some ethical consensus on how humans should treat nonhuman animals, I think we might all agree on a minimal condition: that once born, every animal deserves to have a good life while they are living. So that means that the inhumane treatment of animals that currently takes place in the industrial farming system in the US and other developed countries cannot be justified under any circumstances. Those animals are kept in cramped, feces-filled conditions, force-fed with food that their systems are not designed to digest, and treated with drugs to combat the problems arising from an inappropriate diet and awful conditions. The very fact that such places are hidden from public view and guarded to prevent observers entering is a telling indication that those animals are being treated badly.
[Read more…]

The ethics of food-8: Interests of species versus interests of individuals

(For other posts in this series, see here.)

I wrote before that the theory of evolution, by giving all animals equal standing in the evolutionary tree of life, provides a strong argument against the exploitation of one sentient species by another. There seems to be no defensible criteria by which we can prefer the interests of an individual human over that of an individual nonhuman animal, because they each have an interest in avoiding pain and suffering.

This seems to imply that killing animals in order to obtain meat for eating is wrong under all circumstances. But in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006), Michael Pollan suggests that this need not necessarily follow.

The argument is a tricky one that involves disentangling the interests of a species from the interests of individual members of the species. Recall that it was argued that we could not and should not give preferential treatment to our species as a whole over other species as a whole because whatever marker we might use for doing so (intelligence, language, consciousness, etc.), we would find at least some individual members of our species who had less of that quality than some members of other species.

But if we keep the argument at the level of species, a case can be made for eating meat.

One argument says that if the human species as a whole possesses some significant quality (say intelligence or consciousness) that other species either do not possess or possess at a lower level, that entitles all members of the human species privileged treatment, even those who may possess less of that particular quality than some members of other species. In other words, this argument rejects entirely the premise of the argument from marginal cases. But this line of argument has significant consequences if applied within the human species. If, for example, we discovered some important quality that (say) females possessed on average more than males, would we then be willing to privilege all women over all men?

Another argument says that being domesticated for the purpose of being eaten or otherwise exploited by humans has benefited such species of animals. The domesticated species we eat (cows, pigs, chickens, etc.) would most likely become extinct if we ceased to eat them. After all, the reason that their numbers are much greater than their wild cousins is because they have benefited from the protection that humans have given them. At some point in evolutionary history, these animals showed signs of being amenable to living alongside humans, adapted to doing so, and as a result they have experienced an explosive growth in numbers.

“[D]omestication took place when a handful of especially opportunistic species discovered, through Darwinian trial and error, that they were more likely to survive and prosper in an alliance with humans than on their own. Humans provided the animals with food and protection in exchange for which the animals provided the humans their milk, eggs, and – yes – their flesh.” (Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, p. 320) This language is somewhat misleading in that it implies that both sides were equal and conscious partners to this deal and that the animals voluntarily submitted. In fact, it is humans who unilaterally set the terms.

But as a result of this ‘bargain’, it is undoubtedly true that many of the animals we don’t eat like wolves, lions, and tigers are in danger of extinction, while dogs, cows, chickens, and pigs have flourished, at least in numbers. If we all became vegans and released domesticated animals into the wild, the numbers of these domesticated species would dramatically decrease and may even perish entirely within just a few generations.

The problem here is how to decide between what is good (at least numerically) for (say) the species of chicken (which favors domestication and the consequent meat eating) and what is good for an individual chicken (which clearly has an interest in not being eaten). The issue is further complicated by the question of whether the individual chicken has an interest in being born at all, if the price for that opportunity is to be killed and eaten later.

Answering such questions involve difficult, even impossible, metaphysical calculations. Is it better to have not lived at all or to have lived a good life even if that means being eventually killed to be eaten by others? Does the life of a single chicken that lives a long life result in more or less net happiness and suffering than two (or more) chickens whose lives are cut short? And so on.

Next: How do we weigh the benefits of a good life against a quick and painless but early death?

POST SCRIPT: This Modern World

Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow on stupidity in politics.

Changing the political calendar

(The series on the ethics of food will continue next week.)

If you are at all like me, you are probably already sick of the presidential election and simply want to get it over with. We are currently in that part of the political season where nothing of significance is happening and yet there is a lot of time to fill, so we have a relentless focus on trivialities and an endless obsession with polls, trying to make sense of their ups and downs in relation to news events.

Take for example the absurd fuss over tire pressure:

Then we have the nonsense about celebrities, triggered by this ad from the McCain camp suggesting that Obama was a frivolous airhead:

The only noteworthy thing to emerge from this latter non-issue is the Paris Hilton counter-ad poking fun at McCain. It cannot be a good sign for McCain that she is a better speaker than him.

While I enjoy silliness as much as the next person, these things indicate to me that the campaign has already gone on too long and the candidates have far too much time on their hands. It is time to change the American political calendar.

Here is my plan, for what it is worth, based on the belief that voters can be divided into two groups: those who decide early and those who decide at the last minute.

The early deciders are either those who follow politics closely and already have all the information they need to make a decision, or those who make their decision based on party affiliation, specific single-issues, or candidate characteristics that are known early. There is very little that could happen between now and the election to make these early deciders change their minds, though their level of enthusiasm for their candidate could wax and wane. For example, almost all the people I talk to have already decided, like me, who they are going to vote for and it is hard to see them switch.

The voters who decide at the last minute are either those who don’t care much about politics but have a vague sense of civic duty that they must vote and will go with their ‘gut’ when it comes time to pull the lever, or are simply chronic procrastinators who will wait until the last minute to find out what the candidates are all about. For such people, it does not matter whether they have another hour, week, month, or year to make their decision. They will do so at the last minute, whenever that minute is.

My theory about why the polls fluctuate during this time is not because people are changing their minds as a result of any news event (speculating about this is purely a game that keeps the pundits employed) but that this second group of voters gives more or less random answers to the question of who they are likely to vote for, coupled with sampling biases.

So why must we have this Sargasso Sea of dead time between when the nominees have been decided and the election held? What purpose is served by this other than requiring an enormous amount of money to raised and spent by the candidates on advertising, traveling around the country and the world, and for the media to follow them?

Here’s a much better calendar. The date of the election is fixed in the US constitution to be early November and cannot be changed. [Update: Jim Eastman has pointed out in the comments that this is incorrect, that the date is set by statute.] Similarly the idea of having primaries is a good one in that it gives the public at least some semblance of participation in the choice in the nominee, even if just barely, so it should be retained.

So why not schedule the primaries in the months of July, August, September, have the party conventions at the end of September or beginning of October, and then run an intensive presidential campaign for just three to four weeks (like other countries do) before the elections at the beginning of November?

All that this would require is for the two parties to agree to this primary and convention schedule. Since both would benefit equally by not wasting so much time, there seems to be no reason why it could not happen.

Of course, individual candidates could still start as early as they want to to lay the groundwork to run for office but at least we would not have to pay any attention until June or so and thus not be subjected to an interminably drawn out election schedule. Also, candidates and voters would be most involved in the summer months, allowing more students to be involved in the process without taking time off from school, and we would be spared the dreary spectacle of people trudging around in the snows of Iowa and New Hampshire in the dead of winter.

POST SCRIPT: On not watching the Olympics

It seems like just yesterday that I was not watching the 2004 Olympics (wherever it was held) and now it is already time to ignore the current one, whose opening ceremonies are today.

I long ago got sick of the coverage, with its relentless commercials, the almost exclusive coverage of only the events that US athletes were taking part in, the jingoism, grandstanding, and flag-waving on display by athletes of all countries, the cheating, and the sappy biographical stories of athletes I had never heard of before and would never hear of again.

Promising that marquee events are ‘Just ahead’ when the announcers had no plans on showing it for at least an hour (to be filled with commercials), had to be one of the most annoying parts of the coverage.

Here are some suggestions to improve the Olympics and its coverage.

  1. Only play the Olympic anthem at all medal ceremonies, not the national anthem of the gold medal winner’s country. If the Olympics don’t have an anthem, use the theme from Monty Python’s Flying Circus. It is short and bouncy and sounds anthem-like with all those tubas.
  2. Any athlete who indulges in excessive boasting or ‘I’m number 1’ finger-pointing or taunting of other athletes or in ostentatious flag waving victory laps after winning an event gets hit with a rubber chicken.
  3. Eliminate all events where the results are determined by judges scoring on ‘artistic merit’ or aesthetics. This means that gymnastics, synchronized swimming, and diving must go.
  4. Get rid of all the horse events. It seems like the horses are doing all the work at an event meant to showcase human athletic achievement. If horse events are to be included, then why not NASCAR?
  5. Get rid of beach volleyball. How did this casual summer pastime come to be in the Olympics? What next – a ‘dog catching a Frisbee’ event?

Thank you. End of rant.

The ethics of food-7: Increasing the rights of animals

(For other posts in this series, see here.)

In addition to the morality of treating all animals humanely, the arguments of the animal rights philosophers and activists that animals should have more legal rights are slowly gaining ground. It is clear that over time, humans are slowly expanding our circle of consideration to be more inclusive of other species.

For example, Spain’s parliament on June 25, 2008 gave rights to Great Apes, the family of animals that includes chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and humans.

Spain’s parliament voiced its support on Wednesday for the rights of great apes to life and freedom in what will apparently be the first time any national legislature has called for such rights for non-humans.

Parliament’s environmental committee approved resolutions urging Spain to comply with the Great Apes Project, devised by scientists and philosophers who say our closest genetic relatives deserve rights hitherto limited to humans.
. . .
Keeping apes for circuses, television commercials or filming will also be forbidden and breaking the new laws will become an offence under Spain’s penal code.

Keeping an estimated 315 apes in Spanish zoos will not be illegal, but supporters of the bill say conditions will need to improve drastically in 70 percent of establishments to comply with the new law.

Philosophers Peter Singer and Paola Cavalieri founded the Great Ape Project in 1993, arguing that “non-human hominids” like chimpanzees, gorillas, orang-utans and bonobos should enjoy the right to life, freedom and not to be tortured.

Of course, the idea that we extend our protections to just those that are close to us on the evolutionary tree can still be criticized as just an extended form of speciesism.

Broader protections have been extended to vertebrates in Britain due to legislation passed in 1986.

In Britain, such considerations have already led to legislation that restricts the use of animals in education. Scientific procedures that cause ‘adverse effects’ such as pain and stress to living vertebrates are regulated by the 1986 Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act, and are allowed only at undergraduate level and above. The act specifically prohibits such procedures in primary and secondary schools. The restrictions extend to fetuses, including hen’s eggs, from halfway through gestation or incubation, and larval forms such as tadpoles from the time they become capable of feeding independently

To reduce or refrain from eating meat is not asking a lot from people. Restricting the use of animals in research is much more problematic because the cost/benefit balance swings much more to the benefits side.

It is true that in the past we have been too cavalier in the way that animals have been used, sometimes allowing animal experimentation merely to develop commercial products such as cosmetics and perfumes, or simply to give students dissection experience that may not have been necessary or could be obtained other ways. While those kinds of abuses are now becoming less common, the question of where to draw the line is not easy.

While few are arguing for a total ban on animal experimentation, there is an increasing awareness that for such experiments to be allowed, a strong case must be made that the benefits are considerable and important and cannot be obtained in any other way.

[I]t is not necessary to insist that all animal experiments stop immediately. All we need to say is that experiments serving no direct and urgent purpose should stop immediately, and in the remaining fields of research, we should, whenever possible, seek to replace experiments that involve animals with alternative methods that do not. (p. 48) . . . [W]henever experimenters claim that their experiments are important enough to justify the use of animals, we should ask them whether they would be prepared to use a brain-damaged human being at a mental level similar to that of the animals they are planning to use. (p. 52) . . . Since a speciesist bias, like a racist bias, is unjustifiable, an experiment cannot be justifiable unless the experiment is so important that the use of a brain-damaged human would also be justifiable. (From his book Animal Liberation (1975), excerpted in Writings on an Ethical Life by Peter Singer (2000), p. 53.)

Singer argues that the pursuit of knowledge, however beneficial we might claim it to be, is not an unfettered right.

[T]he ethical question of the justifiability of animal experimentation cannot be settled by pointing to its benefits for us, no matter how persuasive the evidence in favor of such benefits may be. The ethical principle of equal consideration of interests will rule out some means of obtaining knowledge. There is nothing sacred about the right to pursue knowledge. We already accept many restrictions on scientific enterprise. We do not believe that scientists have a general right to perform painful or lethal experiments on human beings without their consent, although there are many cases in which such experiments would advance knowledge far more rapidly than any other method. Now we need to broaden the scope of this existing restriction on scientific research. (From his book Animal Liberation (1975), excerpted in Writings on an Ethical Life by Peter Singer (2000), p. 56.)

Singer is saying that such experiments are not allowable unless they are crucial enough that we would be as willing to do the experiment on a severely brain damaged human (who also has no friends and relatives) instead of a chimpanzee.

This is quite a high bar and it is on this point that Singer is likely to lose people, even those who otherwise support his views about the way we should treat animals. While we do allow human experimentation currently in the form of clinical trials and other forms of experimental treatment, it is only after the case has been made that there is only a small risk of harm. As far as I am aware, the standard is lower for experimentation on animals.

Finding a common standard that would meet the needs of scientific researchers and animal rights activists is likely to be the biggest obstacle.

(Note: One of the commenters to the previous post (Cindy) actually does some of this kind of medical research and her thoughts on this topic carry the weight of actual knowledge.)


The ethics of food-6: Against speciesism

(For other posts in this series, see here.)

Peter Singer opens his 1975 book Animal Liberation with this statement:

This book, Animal Liberation, is about the tyranny of human over nonhuman animals. This tyranny has caused and today is still causing an amount of pain and suffering that can only be compared with that which has resulted from the centuries of tyranny by white human over black humans. The struggle against this tyranny is a struggle as important as any of the moral and social issues that have been fought over in recent years. (From his book Animal Liberation (1975), excerpted in Writings on an Ethical Life by Peter Singer (2000), p. 21)

Equating the present treatment of animals with the horrors of slavery is strong stuff. It is important to realize that by doing so he is not in any way minimizing the horror of slavery. In fact, one thing that shines through in Singer’s writings is his deep abhorrence of all kinds of exploitation. On the contrary, he is trying to make us view our treatment of animals with the same horror that we rightly view slavery. His rhetoric is being used to shock us into a realization of how barbaric is our present-day treatment of animals.

Is it possible that future generations will look back in horror at our current treatment of animals and wonder how we could have been so blind to the barbarity of our actions, the way that we now look back at slave owners?

[C]ould it be . . . we will someday come to regard speciesism as an evil comparable to that of racism? Is it possible that history will someday judge us as harshly as it judges the Germans who went about their lives in the shadow of Treblinka? The South African novelist J. M. Coetzee posed precisely that question in a lecture at Princeton not long ago; he answered it in the affirmative. If the animal rightists are right, then “a crime of stupendous proportions” (in Coetzee’s words) is going on all around us every day, just beneath our notice. (Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, p. 309)

The problem in a nutshell is this: A bedrock assumption is that we as humans should extend our full consideration to other humans. We think it is wrong to exploit them for our own ends, and would condemn the killing and eating of other humans. Even if someone had ceased to be of any value at all to society, we would consider it wrong to devalue that person’s life.

So what gives us the right to devalue the lives of members of other species?

It is important to realize that Singer is not an absolutist. He does not condemn all killing and eating of animals. Even if we do not give the interests of animals the same full consideration we give to the interests of humans, Singer argues that at the very least, what should drive our decision making is the desire to eliminate, or at least reduce, pain and suffering. And one of the things that we should target is the present day industrial farming model that treats animals unbelievably cruelly. This is a clearly avoidable evil that even meat eaters could and should embrace.

Only the tiniest fraction of the tens of billions of farm animals slaughtered for food each year – the figure for the United States alone is nine billion – were treated during their lives in ways that respected their interests. Questions about the wrongness of killing in itself are not relevant to the moral issue of eating meat or eggs from factory-farmed animals, as most people in developed countries do. . . . In the light of these facts, the issue to focus on is not whether there are some circumstances in which it could be right to eat meat, but on what we can do to avoid contributing to this immense amount of animal suffering. (From his book Animal Liberation (1975), excerpted in Writings on an Ethical Life by Peter Singer (2000), p. 70)

Whatever one’s views on eating meat, I think most people would agree that animals should be treated as kindly and humanely as possible. We rightly react with horror to stories in which animals have been treated badly and look upon with disgust the perpetrators of such acts.

This may be why it is that many of the darker aspects of our industrial food production system involving animals are kept away from public view. Michael Pollan found that he could not get to see the places where beef cattle are slaughtered or where layer chickens are kept. In fact, he argues that one of the best ways to improve the conditions of animals in the food chain might be to legislate complete transparency in all aspects of the production line, to the extent of requiring the walls of the facilities be made of glass, open to the public, and easily visible to anyone who wants to see exactly how their meat and eggs get to their supermarkets. This is not an absurd idea. Pollan reports that one company (Lorentz Meats in Cannon Falls, Minnesota) “is so confident of their treatment of animals that they have walled their abattoir in glass.” (p. 333)

Pollan also describes his experience on Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm where people are welcome to visit and see how the animals live and how they die. Pollan himself took part in the process where he personally killed chickens, watched by members of the local community who had come to buy chicken. While there is no doubt that such an experience might turn someone off meat eating forever, Pollan reports that having lived on the farm and having seen how well the animals were treated in life and how humanely they were killed, the experience did not turn him off meat as he had expected it to.

Somehow, for reasons he could not quite explain, the fact that the animals had led a good life and had what seemed like a quick and painless death made the situation acceptable to him.

POST SCRIPT: Now, this is the ‘on’ switch . . .

John McCain apparently does not know how to use a computer, even to surf the net or get email. This has caused some snickering but Jackie and Dunlap have some advice for him on how to deal with this issue.

The anthrax case-2: The scandalous behavior of ABC News

(The series on the ethics of food will continue later.)

The way the anthrax scare was used to panic the public in the wake of 9/11 and create a rush to war was one of the many low points in recent media history.

The way they did that was by presenting totally false information that the anthrax contained traces of materials that could only come from Iraq, charges that were widely disseminated by, among others, the notorious neoconservative Laurie Mylroie, one of the major cheerleaders for invading Iraq.

Who is this Mylroie? Peter Bergen wrote a profile of her in the Washington Monthly in December 2003:

In what amounts to the discovery of a unified field theory of terrorism, Mylroie believes that Saddam was not only behind the ’93 Trade Center attack, but also every antiAmerican terrorist incident of the past decade, from the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania to the leveling of the federal building in Oklahoma City to September 11 itself. She is, in short, a crackpot, which would not be significant if she were merely advising say, Lyndon LaRouche. But her neocon friends who went on to run the war in Iraq believed her theories, bringing her on as a consultant at the Pentagon, and they seem to continue to entertain her eccentric belief that Saddam is the fount of the entire shadow war against America.

Glenn Greenwald describes the disgraceful role played by the media, especially ABC News, in using this false information to shift the focus away from a domestic criminal probe of the anthrax attacks to one that excited public terror and drove the mad rush to war with Iraq.

During the last week of October, 2001, ABC News, led by Brian Ross, continuously trumpeted the claim as their top news story that government tests conducted on the anthrax – tests conducted at Ft. Detrick — revealed that the anthrax sent to Daschele contained the chemical additive known as bentonite. ABC News, including Peter Jennings, repeatedly claimed that the presence of bentonite in the anthrax was compelling evidence that Iraq was responsible for the attacks, since — as ABC variously claimed — bentonite “is a trademark of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s biological weapons program” and “only one country, Iraq, has used bentonite to produce biological weapons.”

ABC News’ claim — which they said came at first from “three well-placed but separate sources,” followed by “four well-placed and separate sources” — was completely false from the beginning. There never was any bentonite detected in the anthrax (a fact ABC News acknowledged for the first time in 2007 only as a result of my badgering them about this issue). It’s critical to note that it isn’t the case that preliminary tests really did detect bentonite and then subsequent tests found there was none. No tests ever found or even suggested the presence of bentonite. The claim was just concocted from the start. It just never happened.

We are now told that right from the beginning, the FBI was convinced that the anthrax came from the Fort Detrick facility. So who was lying then?

Greenwald continues:

Surely the question of who generated those false Iraq-anthrax reports is one of the most significant and explosive stories of the last decade. The motive to fabricate reports of bentonite and a link to Saddam is glaring. Those fabrications played some significant role — I’d argue a very major role — in propagandizing the American public to perceive of Saddam as a threat, and further, propagandized the public to believe that our country was sufficiently threatened by foreign elements that a whole series of radical policies that the neoconservatives both within and outside of the Bush administration wanted to pursue — including an attack an Iraq and a whole array of assaults on our basic constitutional framework — were justified and even necessary in order to survive.

ABC News already knows the answers to these questions. They know who concocted the false bentonite story and who passed it on to them with the specific intent of having them broadcast those false claims to the world, in order to link Saddam to the anthrax attacks and — as importantly — to conceal the real culprit(s) (apparently within the U.S. government) who were behind the attacks. And yet, unbelievably, they are keeping the story to themselves, refusing to disclose who did all of this. They’re allegedly a news organization, in possession of one of the most significant news stories of the last decade, and they are concealing it from the public, even years later.

They’re not protecting “sources.” The people who fed them the bentonite story aren’t “sources.” They’re fabricators and liars who purposely used ABC News to disseminate to the American public an extremely consequential and damaging falsehood. But by protecting the wrongdoers, ABC News has made itself complicit in this fraud perpetrated on the public, rather than a news organization uncovering such frauds. That is why this is one of the most extreme journalistic scandals that exists, and it deserves a lot more debate and attention than it has received thus far.

The willingness of the media to accept at face value the claims of the government is the real problem. On NPR yesterday, Renee Montagne, the host of Morning Edition, said things like the FBI is due to release this week some the evidence it has “amassed” against Ivins, giving the impression that the FBI actually has huge amounts of such evidence. She said that the evidence seems “compelling” and referred to the “genetic fingerprints” of the anthrax (based on apparently ‘new science ‘developed by the FBI) that somehow pointed to Ivins’ lab, and a psychologist’s description of him as a “threat”. It is important to realize that she had no idea if any of these statement were true. She just passed them on as fact because the government had told her, and thus they become part of the official story.

It is a very dangerous thing when the news media and the government collude to disseminate false information. ABC News has a lot of explaining to do. It should start by revealing who were these four “well placed” people who were spreading the dangerously false information that helped drive the country to war with Iraq.

Justin Raimondo has been tracking the anthrax story from the very beginning and his most recent analysis is well worth reading.

Glenn Greenwald has a follow-up posting that asks some very important questions.

POST SCRIPT: The perfect country and western song

Listen to the last verse, which puts it over the top.

The anthrax case-1: The collusion of the FBI and the media

(The series on the ethics of food will continue later this week.)

The death of Bruce E. Ivins, an anthrax researcher at Fort Detrick, Md has suddenly thrust the ignored anthrax story back into the news.

The fact that Ivins apparently killed himself just when he was about to be indicted by the FBI is being taken as a tacit admission of his guilt. I am not convinced that the case has been made. After all, the FBI previously relentlessly hounded another scientist Steven J. Hatfill with leaks to the media for the same case, so that he lost his job and could not get others. Hatfill fought back and sued the government and they were forced to settle with him in June for $5.8 million. It seems strange that the attention shifted to Ivins just after the collapse of their case against Hatfill.

The FBI and the media (especially NBC, CNN, and the Atlanta Journal Constitution) also hounded another innocent person Richard Jewell for the Olympic bombing, again based on FBI and Justice Department leaks. Eventually NBC and CNN were forced to settle with him.

A similar situation occurred with Los Alamos nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee where a series of FBI leaks passed through the New York Times and Washington Post destroyed his career. He also sued and eventually the government and the media were forced to pay him $1.8 million.

When the government sets its mind to it, it can use its powers to torment people indefinitely to try and break them. As Alexander Cockburn says in the similar persecution of Sami al-Arian, a professor of computer engineering at the University of South Florida.

There are few prospects in the justice system so grimly awful as when the feds decide never to let go. Rebuffed in their persecutions of some target by juries, or by contrary judges, they shift ground, betray solemn agreements, dream up new stratagems to exhaust their victims, drive them into bankruptcy, despair and even suicide. They have all the money and all the time in the world.

This is why the deep politicization of the US Justice Department by the Bush Administration, placing partisan political hacks in positions that should be staffed by career professionals, is so disturbing. Unlike most other government agencies, the Justice Department has the power to target individuals and make their lives hell even if they are completely innocent of any wrongdoing.

Since Ivins knew that the focus had shifted to him and that he would receive the same trial-and-conviction-in-the-public-eye-by-leaks-to-the-media method favored by the government that had destroyed the lives and careers of so many before him, he may well have decided that he did not have the stomach to deal with it, even if he was innocent. The indications are that he was a nerdy, nervous type, not someone with the kind of determination that Hatfill had for being under constant surveillance.

It is reported that cars with detectives were ostentatiously parked in front of his house, thus letting the whole neighborhood know that they had a suspicious person in their midst. Colleagues and friends were repeatedly questioned about him in ways that suggested that the authorities were trying to alienate them from him . He and his whole family were questioned by the FBI, and his family was told that Ivins was the anthrax murderer.

Over the past two years, many who knew him saw the effects of accumulating pressure as the anthrax investigation veered toward him. “He would tell stories about how he would come home and everything he owned would be in piles,” said a Fort Detrick employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity because workers there had been instructed not to talk with reporters. The employee said his files, lab samples and equipment were frequently seized by authorities.

Within the last few months, Ivins seemed to have gone into a mental tailspin that required psychiatric treatment. He could well have decided that he could not take it anymore. The main charges that he might be dangerous come from his estranged brother who had not spoken to him since 1985, and a social worker who said he had threatened her while she was treating him during his recent illness. His brother clearly hated him, telling NPR that he could not think of a single nice thing about him and that he was glad that he was dead.

But while Ivins seems to have been somewhat unorthodox in his work habits and a little eccentric in his personal behavior, they were not in ways that indicated that he was a cold-blooded killer who would also write letters seeking to lay the blame for the anthrax attacks on Muslims. They seemed to be the kinds of idiosyncracies that one often finds amongst researchers, especially scientists. Take this description:

Ivins could frequently be seen walking around his neighborhood for exercise. He volunteered with the American Red Cross of Frederick County, and he played keyboard and helped clean up after Masses at St. John’s the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church, where a dozen parishioners gathered Friday after morning Mass to pray for him.

The Rev. Richard Murphy called Ivins “a quiet man … always very helpful and pleasant.”

An avid juggler, Ivins gave juggling demonstrations around Frederick in the 1980s.

“One time, he demonstrated his juggling skills by lying on his back in the department and juggling with his hands,” said Byrne, who described Ivins as “eccentric.”

Whenever a colleague would leave the bacteriology division, Ivins would write a song or poem for that person and perform it, accompanying himself on keyboard, Byrne said.

Ivins had several letters to the editor published in The Frederick News-Post over the last decade. He denounced taxpayer funding for assisted suicide, pointed readers to a study that suggested a genetic component for homosexuality and said he had stopped listening to local radio station WFMD because he was offended by the language and racially charged commentary of its hosts.

He also commented on the growing political influence of conservative Christians, and he was willing to criticize his church.

“The Roman Catholic Church should learn from other equally worthy Christian denominations and eagerly welcome female clergy as well as married clergy,” Ivins wrote.

Byrne said Ivins appeared to be at peace and that he expressed no interest in the anthrax mailings, even after some letters were sent to Fort Detrick for analysis.

“There are people who you just know are ticking bombs,” Byrne said. “He was not one of them.”

Maybe Ivins was very good at maintaining a façade of normalcy and is the person behind the anthrax attacks. But we should be careful of maligning a man now incapable of defending himself. Now that he is dead one can expect a barrage of unsubstantiated allegations from the FBI, passed on uncritically by the media, aimed at painting him as some kind of homicidal maniac.

While the guilt of Ivins is by no means clear as yet, the media is undoubtedly guilty of misdirecting the public about the anthrax scare and using it to whip up war hysteria against Iraq. The case against the media will be examined tomorrow.

POST SCRIPT: Teach your children

One of the best songs to emerge from the 1960s, sung by Crosby, Stills, and Nash.