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Monday, May 28,2012

Another tricky sociological question of cause and effect

By Dennis Powell

It is possibly the toughest and trickiest problem in all of human thought: determining whether two things that seem related to each other necessarily means that one causes the other, that if one thing happens the other thing will, too, or that they are merely coincidental.

For instance, various mosses are found in places where mushrooms also grow, and those places tend to be moist and shady. Armed with that statement and nothing more, what can we know? Do mosses cause mushrooms? Do they cause moisture? Do they together absorb sunlight such that there is shade?

In the modern world thought has largely been replaced by loudness – hence the "occupy" movement, which might well look to occupy the space between its collective ears. But for thinking persons, the question of causation, learning what can be learned but assuming nothing more, must always lurk close by.

What brings this to mind is last week's revelation of the findings of a study that concluded that people who eat organic foods tend to be jerks.

I did not make that up. It is a real scientific study and it was published in the journal Social Psychological & Personality Science. "Wholesome Foods and Wholesome Morals? Organic Foods Reduce Prosocial Behavior and Harshen Moral Judgments" is the title of the study. You can look it up.

Basically, it concluded that those who cling to organic foods tend to be arrogant snots who think they're better than everyone else, something which observation may have already suggested. Ah, but the question then arises: does consumption of organic food actually transform someone into a holier-than-thou creepoid or is there some other explanation?

Modern organic farming was popularized by Jerome Irving Rodale, who grew up in the era of Kellogg and others who had ideas about health and nutrition (though most of them were as nutty as the granola that is their chief legacy). Rodale came to publish a magazine entitled Organic Gardening and Farming. He was also a friend of my grandfather, Corl E. Leach, who was to goat milk as Rodale was to organic food and who owned a magazine called Dairy Goat Journal. Those on the sand bars of the nutritional mainstream tend to huddle around the same campfire.

Mr. Rodale was interviewed on the "Dick Cavett Show" (children, ask your parents) on the night of June 8, 1971. He was 72 years old. He announced that he would "live to be 100, unless I'm run down by some sugar-crazed taxi driver," whereupon without benefit of taxi driver he keeled over stone dead, right there on the show.

The thing is, organic farming has been around as long as farming itself has. Initially, a very long time ago, there was no alternative. Then various fertilizers were invented, as were various pesticides. These tended to be expensive for farms of any great size. Meanwhile, leaves and stalks, bedding from barns and stables, and the residue of farm animals having eaten were all readily available and were free. Composting of these things and their reintroduction into the soil was not just good, it was economically sound. Therefore, it was widely done.

And the farm families -- the ones I knew, anyway -- were the salt of the earth, not a jerk among them. They ate the things they produced, too, so eating organically grown food does not necessarily turn one into a judgmental monster. Hmmm. An organic fly in the causational ointment. Then again, they didn't care one way or the other whether their food was organic and would have been delighted if someone had given them fertilizer and pesticide enough for the whole farm. They mostly didn't grind their own flour and made do with the store-bought bleached stuff, without whining and even without knowing they were supposed to whine.

Having given all this a week's long and careful consideration, I have settled upon the obvious: the relation between sanctimonious schmucks and organic food may be correlational but it's not causal. Jerklike tendencies are manifested in ways other than the consumption of organic food – ways such as making a fuss over whether food is organic or not. But again, this is not an absolute, even as other items that suggest postgraduate urban jerkitude are not absolutes. Surely there are those who purchase clothing from L.L. Bean and actually go outside while wearing it. There may well be vegetarians who simply do not like meat. Somewhere in the world there is probably a Republican who drives a Volvo.

So just about all we can conclude from the study is that when things become statements or, worse, movements, they tend to bring out the snottiness in us. "I eat only organic food grown locally and wear Birkenstocks and hate the 1 percent" is all one need to say – people will be able to fill in the blanks, the chief of which is usually the unspoken "therefore, I'm better than you." This is what lawyers call a preponderance of evidence. But there are those who do most of those things for perfectly sound reasons rather than to make a statement (the exception being the 1 percent thing, which is prima facie evidence of jerkdom).

No, I think we can conclude that eating organic food does not make one a jerk. But it can certainly be a symptom.

Editor's note: Dennis E. Powell was an award-winning reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio and becoming a full-time crackpot. His column appears on Mondays. You can reach him at


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