I found this post on the NYT Health blog “Well”, by Tara Parker-Pope (when did the NYT switch to a blogging model? am I just oblivious?) Anyway, the post was mildly intriguing. But then I started reading the comments, and man, they just pissed me off.
The gist of the post is that some nutritional scientists demonstrated that, calorie for calorie, junk food is substantally more affordable than healthy food, especially fresh produce. This supports the premise that the obesity epidemic in this country – which disproportionately affects the poor – is at least partially due to the fact that the poor can’t afford to eat as well as the rest of us. (Other possible reasons include lack of education about nutrition, lack of time to prepare food from scratch, lack of access to quality grocery stores. . . need I go on?)
The annoying thing is that at least half of the comments are by people crying foul and calling the study junk science, because they, personally, are able to eat healthfully and affordably by doing such things as. . . .making large batches of lentil stew! Uh, yeah. The fact that you enjoy living on lentil stew means that junk food is really more expensive than it appeared to the researchers! Or something!
This is an example of a fallacy that simply must have a formal name, though I don’t know what it is: disbelief in the results of scientific research because the implications conflict with personal experience.
First, the validity of the science is independent of its political or social implications. Secondly, your personal experience, while no doubt extremely important to you, don’t mean diddly when addressing populations in bulk (no pun intended).
To balance the anecdote about living healthfully on the cheap by making bohemian lentil stew, I have a story about how my mom (a working single mother) used to serve instant (generic) gravy on (generic) Wonderbread when our money ran out. It wasn’t because she didn’t value health – this is the woman who didn’t let me eat sweetened cereal until I was 12 – but because she knew white bread was an extremely economical source of calories in a pinch. Why didn’t she make organic lentil stew by buying in bulk from Whole Foods? I know this is hard to believe, but we didn’t own a car, and there was only one supermarket in our town – hardly a Whole Foods. (Before you even start. . . no, there were no buses!) Given our impoverished state, did we eat at McDonalds? Rarely – because it was too expensive!
What is your immediate, knee-jerk reaction to that paragraph? Disbelief? Then I bet you’ve never lived in the middle of the country.
Believe it or not, there were and are large swaths of America without Whole Foods, public transportation, internet, cell phone service, Target, bagels, sushi, or farmer’s markets. Yet in my time living on the coasts, first left, then right, I have consistently run across something I call the Coastal Fallacy. This is a bizarre set of blinkers which compels people to deny the possibility of American lifestyles outside their realm of experience. They simply can’t imagine towns like the one where I grew up, because there aren’t any towns like that near them. It drives me absolutely crazy – except at cocktail parties, when I can make good use of the shock value in remarks like “my entire family has lived (or does live) in mobile homes,” or “I never met a Jewish person until college.” If you expect to understand this country as a whole, you need to accept that some parts of it are very different than what you’re used to, and that your personal experience does not define the opportunities available to others.
Tragically, most of the comments on the NYT post show minimal understanding of nutrition, science, or how the poorer half lives. And the commenters who give a location all seem to be, ahem, living on the coasts. But I was impressed by this comment, from msd:
One thing the posters here haven’t commented on is the feeling of psychological deprivation that comes with long-term poverty and how that contributes to poor food choices. It’s easy to live on rice and beans if you’re a grad student or a middle-class person going through a rough financial time. It’s another thing if someone feels they are part of a permanent underclass. It’s no wonder chronically poor people console themselves with of sweet and starchy mass-produced food. It’s the only way they can experience abundance.