Food for thought
By DARCY DOUGHERTY MAULSBY
Des Moines – When was the last time you changed your mind? Not about something fairly inconsequential, like what to eat for supper tonight, but about a pivotal issue where you took a stand but later changed your mind?
Probably not lately. Maybe never.
“Still, many people go into conversations about food and agriculture with the expectations of changing others’ minds,” said Tamar Haspel, a Washington Post columnist who accepted the Iowa Food and Family Project’s invitation to tour Iowa farms in late September and learn more about Midwest agriculture. “We need to stop talking past each other.”
A big part of this involves understanding more about how humans make decisions. Scottish philosopher and historian David Hume figured it out more than 200 years ago, Haspel noted, when he stated that reason is merely the “slave to the passions.”
“Why are we so bad at evaluating evidence?” asked Haspel, who is a Cape Cod oyster farmer and award-winning journalist who covers food supply issues, including biotech, pesticides, antibiotics, organics, nutrition and food policy.
Blame the confirmation bias, the human tendency to search for, interpret, favor and recall information that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs.
“Think about where the presets are on your car or truck radio,” said Haspel, who spoke at Drake University to approximately 50 people on Sept. 27 during a public forum hosted by the Iowa Food and Family Project. “Think of the news sources you turn to and the people you follow on social media. All of us tend to live in our silo surrounded by people who think like us.”
How does all this play out with food and agriculture? Consider the facts. Farmers are mostly rural (no surprise) and Republican, based on campaign contributions reported to the Federal Election Commission. Activists and journalist are almost the exact opposite in these areas, Haspel said.
“This means farmers, activists and journalists are coming at food and agriculture issues with two completely different sets of values,” Haspel added.
6 steps for more effective conversations
This also means facts alone often aren’t persuasive. “So how do we communicate about food and farming? There are no good answers,” Haspel acknowledged.
Still, she offered six small steps to take to foster better communication, especially regarding food and agriculture topics:
1. Be persuaded that dynamics like the confirmation bias are real. While people often feel like they are rational human beings, everyone is susceptible to less-than-rational thinking. It’s time to re-evaluate the nature of certainty. “Are you right about everything?” Haspel asked the audience, who chuckled at the question. “So what aren’t you right about? It’s very difficult for us to spot where we go wrong, yet it’s easy to spot where others go wrong.” Two key questions keep Haspel awake at night as she strives to address her confirmation biases. “What do I get wrong? What am I not seeing? When you ask these questions, you go out into the world a little more circumspect,” she said.
2. Reconsider bias. Not only does everyone have biases, but bias is a necessary part of the human condition, Haspel said. “Expecting people to be objective is unfair.”
3. Drop “anti-science” from your vocabulary. “There’s science to say anything,” Haspel said. “When this plays out in the GMO debate, saying, ‘You’re anti-science’ translates as ‘you’re an idiot and I’m not.'”
4. Vet your sources. Assess the credibility of news sources, and seek various points of view. “I try to make sure my Twitter feed has lots of people I don’t agree with, along with people I agree with,” Haspel said.
5. Acknowledge truth on both sides. During her tour of Iowa farms, Haspel observed how many farmers feel beleaguered and lead with their defense. She also understands where this mindset comes from, as some audience members at Drake quizzed her about whether large-scale farming changes farmers’ motivations and turns agriculture into a profit-driven operation only. Other audience members questioned farmers’ commitment to protecting water quality and stressed the need for more regulation. “I talked with Iowa farmers who are definitely stewards of the land,” Haspel said. “But are there farmers who aren’t doing it right? Yes, there’s a minority for whom these criticisms apply. Since there is justice in some of the criticism, maybe that can help us find some common ground.”
6. Find intelligent people who disagree with you, and listen. “It’s so easy for us to talk to people who agree with us,” Haspel said. “I try to find the smartest person I know who doesn’t agree with me, and I listen carefully.”
Opening minds, acknowledging truth
Gretta Irwin, executive director of the Iowa Turkey Federation, attended Haspel’s presentation and valued her tips for addressing controversial issues.
“Tamar opened our minds by helping us understand how we form opinions. She also provided great examples of how we need to be open to thinking about questions, acknowledging truths on both sides, admitting where improvements can be made and learning more about the perspective of the opposing view,” Irwin said.
When questioned about modern agriculture, Haspel did a great job presenting both perspectives of the issue, Irwin added.
“She clearly showed there’s no simple solution to issues facing agriculture.”
That’s why Haspel encourages people to visit farms, have face-to-face conversations with farmers, try to see the benefits of all kinds of agriculture and find common ground, when possible.
“If we can do nothing else, we can be kind,” Haspel said. “The common commitment to feeding people can also get us past the rhetoric.”
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