Today the good people at Center for Science in the Public Interest offer us Chinese Food (Part Deux). If you pay close attention to news or else live in the food wars of postmodern nutrition, you’ll recall Part Une from 1993 when CSPI captured headlines with its first expose on Chinese food. If you missed that headline: FAT!!! The CSPI message caused quite a stir back then in 1993 when we were still naïve about the dangers of food and thought that eating was a risk-free activity. Now, thanks to the good folks at CSPI and their brothers and sisters, we know that food is bad for you in virtually all forms and that if you eat, you will surely die. Unless you subscribe to the Nutrition Action Newsletter (now only $10 a year) in which case you will still surely die, just more slowly.
Part Deux rediscovers what CSPI discovered with Part Une in 1993: FAT!!! However, like the good persuasion agents they aspire to be, they know you can’t simply say the same thing over and over again, so they pushed their crime scene investigation tactics harder to discover: SALT!!! And, what’s even trickier about those Chinese food folks is that they hide that FAT and SALT in the VEGETABLES, thus hitting the Trifecta of Perfect Sin in postmodern nutrition. Vegans around the world are reeling. FAT and SALT in their beloved Chinese VEGETABLES?!? Add a zest of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy, bake in the oven of Global Warming, and you’ve got the Perfect Storm. Why do you even get out of bed?
CSPI ain’t what it used to be and it’s curious to ask why. When they first made the scene in the early 1990s, they could dominate the mediascape like the Rolling Stones, Apple Computer, or Nike. And this was way back in the day before cell phones, Internet, and cable TV. Right? Just 3 TV channels and the elite print media that you could count on fingers. Today any fool can capture somebody’s attention through YouTube, but 15 years ago you had to be Mick Jagger to jump on the top of the heap. And CSPI did it with its fabulous PR tricks on restaurant food. And movie theater popcorn. And Italian food – remember the heart attack on a plate, fettucini Alfredo? Boy, those were the days. And, weren’t those guys at CSPI all that? And now . . . nothing but second acts and all the postmodern hipsters still quote Fitzgerald from the 1920s on that: There are no second acts in American life.
First, realize that we are talking persuasion here. Yeah, there’s all that eat and you will surely die scripture, but the text is meaningless without persuasion because if you declare truth in the woods and there’s no one there to hear it . . . the spotted owls will not nest. Stated more directly and sincerely – CSPI cannot do good without persuasion despite its good intentions, good science, and good donors.
Second, realize that we are talking about a group that once could dominate the media agenda in a most charming fashion. CSPI invented postmodern nutrition advocacy. In the 1990s you couldn’t swing a handful of overcooked pasta without hitting a CSPI warning piped directly through the mainstream media and now they are just another fish swimming in the sea. If CSPI really is a center for science and if science is irrresistible, then food science is a killer persuasion app. Just do some flashy PR to generate Reception in the Standard Model, and the rest is the science of falling off a log as persuasion gravity pulls everyone to the ground once the CSPI PR has gotten you on the top of the ladder. Without them, we’re all pining away for the day of their mentor, Ralph Nader, and unsafe at any speed headlines and spotlights, although after that little incident in 2000 maybe it’s best to leave Mr. Nader out of the picture.
Third, realize that the science of nutrition in no way supports or even needs the PR politics of postmodern nutrition. The Western World has known since Genesis that if you eat, you will surely die, and, as a Big Message, science really doesn’t have much to add to that except technical terminology, bar charts, and an insatiable demand for public funding. Seriously, name the new, Holy Cow! I Had No Idea, contributions of nutrition research beyond the standard Leave It To Beaver advice from mom about eating? Stated another way, if postmodern nutrition did not exist, how would the world be worse?
All together then, realize that groups like CSPI are exemplars par excellence of applied persuasion and can be understood, analyzed, and evaluated from that light. Let us begin.
Let’s start with a weaker argument: Consider the title of their Part Deux effort on Chinese food: “Wok Carefully.”
How clever. When doing research on Chinese food, let’s mock Chinese pronunciation of English words with an ironic title. Why don’t they work in images of bound feet, top knots, and opium dens? CSPI has always tried to lead the PC curve and here they are defaming a nationality, a racial and ethnic group, and an ancient tradition of cooking. Can you imagine the PR folks at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association coming out with something like, “Wok Carefully?” Okay, since CSPI has good PC credentials, this one will slide under the radar, but it is still bad persuasion to mock nationalities and peoples and even if no one in the chattering classes (except, gulp, me) is pointing this out, believe me, it is still having a negative psychological effect. And worse still, it is a bomb waiting to explode. Think about some anti-CSPI zealot showing up at an event with someone dressed like a Hollywood stereotyped coolie carrying a sign, “Wok Carefully.”
Now, consider a stronger argument: The political environment of the early 1990s. CSPI scored its greatest successes with a Democratic Congress and White House. Please keep your shirt on and think about this. As one of the Rules state, “Great persuaders don’t need rich uncles, kindness from strangers, or third party vote splitters.” CSPI was supposed to be a great persuader in part because they had both science and great skill. If you’ve got these qualities it doesn’t matter who’s President or who controls Congress. You’ve got the Truth, baby, and the Moves to present it. And in 1993, CSPI looked like it had the Truth and the Moves. Except, that as the political winds changed, so did the impact of CSPI. This is not possible if you are a Great Persuader especially when armed with the Truth of postmodern nutrition science.
Finally, consider the “science” in all of this. No one argues about the science of gravity and its implications when standing on the top of a tall, rickety ladder. If you doubt gravity, please jump at your pleasure to prove your pudding. Right now, a lot of people are claiming they understand “gravity” (e.g. nutrition science, human-caused global climate change, diets that save everyone’s life, and we can’t forget: HRT for menopausal women), but when they jump off the ladder no one falls, because there is no gravity and there is no science . . . just advocacy and sincere persuasion efforts.
I’ll leave you with a homework lesson. You’ll need to collect data on this and analyze it. There’ll be a lotta math and maybe some science, too.
The hypothesis you’ll test: CSPI helped create the obesity epidemic in America.
Look at the population statistics on American weight status. Before CSPI hit the big time in the early 1990s Americans were maintaining a largely healthy weight status (typically measured with BMI which you can read all about). After CSPI finds the media spotlight and vaults into Congressional hearings and markups, then American waistlines expand dramatically. Think about that. Before CSPI’s media magic, BMIs are good. After CSPI, America gets real fat. I’m hypothesizing perhaps for the First Time in Modern History that an advocacy organization made things worse for its advocacy and that life would have been better (leaner and gentler) without the advocacy. Advocacy that both invents problems and offers failed solutions to problems that would have never occurred without the advocacy! Sounds like AARP, doesn’t it?
If you eat, you will surely die.