What’s “better” mean?

This post at Reason magazine’s “Hit & Run” blog is interesting not because of the post itself — it’s a summary of a story in an Australian popular-science magazine that purports to debunk the usefulness of organic food with a handful of cherry-picked studies — but for the extraordinarily long discussion thread that follows.

There’s a fair bit of trolling and nonsense, especially as you go deeper and deeper in, but what fascinates me is how many people are arguing entirely at cross-purposes to each other.

What does it mean to assert that organic food is “better” (or “no better”) than conventionally produced food? We could be talking about nearly anything:

  • Flavour
  • Nutritional value
  • Agricultural yield
  • Harmful chemicals, or the lack thereof
  • Environmental impact of the means of production
  • Economic impact, to the extent that “organic” often is used to mean “local” and/or “small-scale,” at least in part

and probably three or four other things that I’m not thinking of. It’s practically impossible to have any hope of defending the proposition that organic farming and food are “better” against attacks from all those directions at once.

This is not fair, but it is the way politics and economics work — if you want to change people’s behaviour, you have to make an ironclad case. It doesn’t have to be sweeping, winning on all fronts, but that which you assert, you’d better be able to prove.

Plenty of the people posting at the Reason blog appear not to be interested in evidence, just in having a nasty argument. Can’t do anything about them. But remember that they’re out there, and if you’re arguing to convince laypeople, you have to be able to overcome their every rhetorical and logical trick. If you can’t — if you are, in fact, making an ideological rather than a rational case for organic food, or environmentally conscious choices of any kind — you deserve to lose.

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One response to “What’s “better” mean?

  1. I agree with you. I think that some people just want to get fired up about something and so they jump to to conclusions without doing any of the research or being at all specific. Good post.

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