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Scientific Politicians

lincoln"As politics has gotten more scientific, the campaigns have gotten worse," writes David Brooks in The New York Times (11/4/14). David attributes this to a "data-driven style of politics" that’s "built on a philosophy you might call Impersonalism. This is the belief that what matters in politics is the reaction of populations and not the idiosyncratic judgment, moral character or creativity of individuals. Data-driven politics assumes … that the electorate is not best seen as a group of free-thinking citizens but as a collection of demographic slices."

Data-driven politics "puts the spotlight on the reactions of voting blocs and takes the spotlight off the individual qualities of the candidates. It puts the spotlight on messaging and takes the spotlight off product: actual policies. It puts the spotlight on slight differences across the socio-economic spectrum and takes the spotlight off the power of events to reframe the whole mood and landscape. This analytic method encourages candidates across the country to embrace the same tested, cookie-cutter messages." They "sacrifice their own souls."

This contradicts the very nature of politics, inherently "a personal enterprise. Voters are looking for quality of leadership, character, vision and solidarity that defies quantification. They "don’t always know what they want, but they look to leaders to jump ahead of the current moment and provide visions they haven’t thought of." Trust is built "not through a few targeted messages but by fully embodying a moment and a people. They often don’t pander to existing identities but arouse different identities."

Cathy’s Chicken

chick-fil-aThe late Truett Cathy got his start making sandwiches from chicken rejected by Delta Airlines, reports Kim Severson in a New York Times obituary (9/8/14). The only thing wrong with the chicken was that the pieces "were either too large or too small for the airline’s food trays." So, Cathy "began experimenting, frying breaded chicken in a cast-iron pan with a lid, the way his mother used to," and making a simple sandwich of it, on a "soft, white buttered bun with nothing more than a couple of pickles for garnish."

He named his creation "so that a nation just falling in love with fast-food hamburgers might better understand his product: Chick-fil-A was meant to suggest a chicken steak. As malls came to the south, Cathy opened a Chick-fil-A at the Greenbriar Mall in Atlanta. It was a pioneering effort to put fast food in shopping centers." In so doing, he became "one of a handful of Southern entrepreneurs who in one lifetime took small, hometown companies to a global level." As of 2013, "Chick-fil-A had more than 1,800 restaurants."

If Cathy is famous for something other than his chicken sandwiches, it is his Christian faith, and the extent to which it guided his business practices — "he was at once a hero and a symbol of intolerance. Many admired him for closing his outlets on Sundays and speaking out against same-sex marriage. Others vilified the chain as a symbol of hate." The company has since stopped "funding most of the groups that were at the center of the storm," but continues to provide "for scholarships, camps and foster care." Truett Cathy was 93.

Mira Winery

aquiaior-miraJim Dyke is marketing bottles of wine like candidates for political office, reports Jennifer Steinhauer in The New York Times (8/27/14). Clearly, we haven’t come very far from the days when it was roughly the other way around. (image). Jim is a former Republican Party spokesman who maintains a consulting practice that included a winery. This led to a connection with Gustavo Gonzalez, "then the head red-winemaker at Robert Mondavi, and the two thought about building a winery."

The challenge wasn’t so much creating "a portfolio of distinguished wines," but rather making sure people knew about it. "Just because you have a fantastic candidate doesn’t mean you can win," says Jim, using a likely metaphor. "My misunderstanding was I believed the quality of the product alone would take care of itself and that there really wasn’t much to do but have people taste it," says Jim. "The reality is that distributors are already carrying products that are already well known."

To overcome this, Jim went to his inside-the-beltway connections, placing his wine at popular eateries like the Capital Grille. But his ultimate play was a stunt based on a report that wine ages differently when stored under the waves — something about the consistent, cold temperatures and gentle rocking. Supposedly this breaks down "tannins more quickly," producing a kinder, gentler wine. Whether that’s for real is a question, but it has gotten Jim’s wine — called Mira — some name recognition, and case shipments are headed up.

Research Hangups

Amid the rise of Big Data is a decline in reliable research, reports David Leonhardt in The New York Times (8/26/14). "The declining response rate to surveys of almost all kinds is among the biggest problems in the social sciences," David writes. "It’s complicating our ability to understand how people live and what they believe." This is evident in the Labor Department’s jobs report, which some believe has "become less accurate over the last two decades, in part because of this rise in non-response."

The response rate of the jobs report (about 89%) is actually relatively high compared to, say, political surveys (9%). Both are down, however — in the 1980s the jobs report response rate was 96 percent, and in 1997 "the response rate to a typical telephone poll was a healthy 36 percent, according to Pew." Another issue is "rotation-group bias," which occurs when the "government surveys people for four consecutive months, gives them eight months off and then surveys them for four more months."

The problem is that, over time, "the kinds of answers that people give — or the kinds of people who respond — change." The result is "people who aren’t working are less likely to report being available to work and having looked for a job in the previous four weeks, which is the definition of unemployment." Other limiting factors are the rise of caller ID, the decline of landline telephones and falling trust in the government. In general, it appears that changes in American telephone habits will require using new technologies and methods to collect information.

Fox News

nate-silver-foxFoxes are "more wily and flexible learners" than hedgehogs because of their childhoods, reports Alison Gopnik in The Wall Street Journal (8/20/14). The difference between the two animals — whose traits are often ascribed to people — was defined by the Greek poet Archilochus, who said: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." (Archilochus apparently knew one thing but didn’t know how to make it rhyme.) The concept was later popularized by Isaiah Berlin, an Oxford philosopher.

Berlin ultimately decided his observation was oversimplified, but recently, psychologist Philip Tetlock "studied expert political predictions and found that foxy, flexible, pluralistic experts were much more accurate than experts with one big hedgehog idea … In tribute to this finding, the statistics whiz Nate Silver chose a fox as the logo for his website." Biologist David MacDonald, meanwhile, suggests the fox-hedgehog difference is, well, biological: "Hedgehogs develop their spines — that one big thing — almost as soon as they are born."

This makes them independent within six weeks, compared to fox cubs, who "are dependent for six months." Where hedgehog dads take off after mating, fox dads "help bring food to the babies." Not only that, they bring still-alive prey "and the babies play at hunting them." They "practice and develop the flexible hunting skills and wily intelligence that serve them so well later on." So, where hedgehogs quickly adapt to one environment, a combination of parental protection and play teaches them to "cope with a changing world."

Pat Oliphant

pat oliphant"Too many people don’t know what the [heck] a cartoon is about," says cartoonist Pat Oliphant in a Wall Street Journal piece by Ann Landi (3/18/14). "You’re not doing your job if you’re not [ticking] people off," he explains. With that in mind, one of Pat’s recent cartoons depicts New Jersey Governor Chris Christie "as the outsize emperor Nero, with one arm resting on the George Washington Bridge and the background filled with shady-looking mob types." (image) "Chris Christie just came up out of nowhere," says Pat. "He was a real gift."

Then there’s Pat’s cartoon of "Hillary Clinton as a bosomy feline with a wineglass full of cream next to her cushion," (image) and his depiction of Barack Obama "as an Easter Island statue." (image) "I found him very enigmatic and stone-faced," Pat says. "You just couldn’t penetrate him." About his oeuvre, Pat says: "Politics is very boring … The people are all the same now. They’re all bastards now, but it’s what’s kept me going for so many years." Now 78, Pat has been at his craft for 60 years, having won "virtually every award in his field, including a Pulitzer Prize."

Pat doesn’t see much future in his craft, though: "It’s a dying art because nobody knows what to do with it anymore," he says. "Stirring up the animal was always the fun part, and now you’ve got timorous publishers and editors who shy away from controversy because it affects the bottom line." But he continues to sharpen his edge, drawing three cartoons a week, such as a relatively recent "sketch of Anthony Weiner, flashing the goods to a mob screaming in horror, titled, ‘Some Minor Distractions’." (image) His cartoons and other work currently are on display at Gerald Peters Gallery in New York.

Penn Names

There’s not much Mark Penn‘s Microsoft colleagues won’t say about him as long as they can say it anonymously. As reported by Nick Wingfield in The New York Times (3/4/14), Microsoft’s newly appointed chief strategy officer — perhaps best known as the Clinton family’s pollster — has both supporters and detractors. "Some see him as a thoughtful adviser who rubs hidebound colleagues the wrong way by presenting them with useful data … that runs counter to their intuition. Others say he massages his data … to bolster his own preconceived ideas."

"I wouldn’t say they’re cooked numbers, but they’ve certainly been spiced," says one nameless critic. Another said Penn was "not a warm and fuzzy guy." Several others reported that he said "don’t trust your gut" at a Microsoft meeting where "he made it clear his approach would be heavily reliant on data." The real flashpoint, according to still more icognito employees, was "his willingness to use negative advertising" to go after Google, via the Scroogled campaign, which skewered Google’s privacy policies.

Clearly, these Microsoft employees jealously guard their own privacy, but many thought the Scroogled campaign was both "tacky" and ineffective. Penn, however, points to research that it successfully raised doubts about Google. Most important, he has the support of apparently the one executive at Microsoft willing to go on record about him, its new CEO, Satya Nadella, who says Penn’s data-driven approach will be applied not only to advertising, but also "new product ideas" as well as "overall areas of strategic investment."

Airbnb’s Bummer

Brian Chesky says occupancy tax laws need to catch up with the "sharing economy," reports Andy Kessler in The Wall Street Journal (1/18/14). "There were laws created for businesses, and there were laws for people," Brian says. "What the sharing economy did was create a third category: people as businesses." This matters to Brian, the co-founder of Airbnb, "a web service that lets travelers book couches, beds, rooms, houses, boats and even castles on a nightly basis." Its business model is based on the idea that anyone can rent their residence.

It matters because, in New York State, the law bars "private citizens from renting an entire apartment for less than 30 days." The law, passed in 2010, was intended "to crack down on slumlords who run illegal hotels in apartments," not necessarily an online venture that "could do to hotels what Amazon has done to bricks-and-mortar bookstores." By year’s end Airbnb says it will have booked more overnight stays than the Hilton and InterContinental hotel chains." Naturally, this has caught the hospitality industry’s attention, along with the scrutiny of New York’s Attorney General.

Brian says this focus on "protecting New York’s 14.75% occupancy and sales tax" has it all wrong, "that rather than taking away income from the city," Airbnb "bring a significant amount of business by encouraging visits by tourists who might not be willing or able to afford the city’s daunting hotel rates." He says the goal is not to avoid the tax: "We want to streamline the process for hosts to pay occupancy taxes … (but) you have to change the laws first, adding: "Don’t kill something wonderful before knowing what it is." Airbnb currently is valued at $2.5 billion, and lists 500,000 properties in "more than 190 countries."

Generation Cuomos

podiumIf his father’s speaking style was "roses," then Andrew Cuomo‘s is "nuts and bolts," reports Erica Orden in The Wall Street Journal (1/8/14). Depending on your political persuasion, he might be more nuts than bolts. However, as Andrew explains, the difference is between speeches that are about politics and those that are about policy. "I’m doing government speeches," he says. The objective is "to strike a nonpartisan tone – a departure from his father’s often heated rhetoric and evocative imagery." (video) The reason, he says, is that the rhetorical flourishes are "very costly from a governmental point of view."

Andrew writes his own speeches, first "seeking ideas and advice from policy advisers and other staffers to create an outline" and then writing "a draft longhand. He revises it as many as 10 times … before winnowing it down to a handful of ‘trigger’ words or phrases that he transfers to a notecard." He neither practices his speeches nor uses a teleprompter. "You don’t need more than four, five, six words or phrases," he says, explaining that "he uses the notes ‘like an accordion’ to prompt him to expand on specific topics."

As Andrew describes it, the flow might go something like this: "Let me explain to you why this budget is a good budget. We need a tax cut. Let me communicate to you why this is the appropriate tax cut. Let me explain to you property taxes as opposed to personal-income taxes." He says this is painful because he’s more comfortable with emotion – so, he always tries to connect with his audience on some emotional level first. (video) After a speech, he checks with friends, family and others in the audience to find out "why there was a murmur in the room or why attendees failed to stand or clap."

American Corporatism

Encroaching "corporatism" may be impeding America’s "entrepreneurial culture," suggests Robert J. Shiller in The New York Times (8/18/13). Robert, a Yale economics professor, cites a new book called Mass Flourishing by Columbia economics professor Edmund S. Phelps. Corporatism is a "political philosophy in which economic activity is controlled by large interest groups or the government." The concern is that once corporatism "takes hold in a society … people don’t adequately appreciate the contributions and the travails of individuals who create and innovate."

Whether America is becoming corporatist is open to debate, but Robert thinks President Obama’s drive for government-created "innovation institutes" points in that direction. The institutes, the president has said, would get "businesses, universities, communities all to work together to develop centers of high-tech industries all throughout the United States." He cited a "public-private partnership that he helped start in Youngstown, Ohio," to develop 3-D printers, as a model (link). The problem with this, says Robert, is that "successful companies aren’t usually started this way."

According to a McKinsey study, "from 10,000 business ideas, 1,000 firms are founded, 100 receive venture capital, 20 go on to raise capital in an initial public offering, and two become market leaders." Based on this, "it is easy to doubt … that the odds are favorable for a Youngstown 3-D printer center." On the other hand, Robert likes Obama’s "new crowd-funding initiative," that is "all about finding and mobilizing people who really understand specific, hard-to-prove ideas for important investments." Ultimately, however, he thinks the "system’s success depends on subtle cultural factors," not direct government involvement.

The New Republic

new republicChris Hughes is a 29-year-old entrepreneur who hopes to make profits from a 98-year-old magazine, reports Christine Haughney in The New York Times (1/28/13). “We’re holding onto the heritage of the magazine while trying to make it more responsive to what people are interested in and how they read in 2013,” says Chris, a Facebook co-founder who purchased The New Republic last year. His plans involve a mix of features and media platforms both new and old.

From an editorial standpoint, the magazine now combines re-runs of classic articles from the past, such as “Edmund Wilson’s dispatch from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inauguration," and lighter fare from the pop-culture present, including “topics like electronica and the HBO series ‘Girls’.” A revamped web site and new app meanwhile offer “audio versions of articles and the ability to let users read pieces on multiple devices, continuing on one at the spot where they left off at the other.”

Both subscriptions and newsstand sales are up under Chris’s watch, however Time magazine’s Fareed Zakaria, a former New Republic intern, questions the venture’s moneymaking potential. “My impression is the goal here is not to make money, but to make an impact politically, culturally, intellectually,” he says. Chris admits that magazine margins aren’t as big as they used to be, but insists his plan will fly because people will still pay for content. “It’s going to take us a couple years, but profitability is our goal,” he says.

Negative Abe

Much of Abraham Lincoln’s literary genius was in his “acute understanding of the power of negation in language,” reports Douglas L. Wilson in The Wall Street Journal (1/17/13). In part, this was because “dogged opposition was his lot in the major political struggles of his life,” specifically his opposition to “the expansion of slavery and the destruction of the Union, a resistance which gave his negative constructions a moral focus.” For example, as he once wrote: “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.”

He also made good rhetorical use of “the antithesis,” in his 1858 US Senate campaign against Stephen A. Douglas, when he proclaimed: “With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed.” Lincoln often used negation “to emphasize restraint — what is not to be claimed or not to be done.” Of his presidential oath, he wrote: “I could not take the office without taking the oath. Nor was it my view that I might take an oath to get power, and break the oath in using that power.”

His most famous use of negation, ironically, was in the affirmative, in the Gettysburg Address: “We can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground.” And: “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” And most of all, “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” In his last great speech, the Second Inaugural, Lincoln powerfully expressed a positive through a negative in four famous words: “With malice toward none.”

Inaugural Trinkets

teddy roosevelt“In the collector community, the inaugural is a stepchild,” says Joe Levine of the Presidential Coin & Antique Company, in a Wall Street Journal piece by Ellen Gamerman (1/19/13). It’s not hard to see why, when a pair of “commemorative socks, emblazoned with a ’44’ in honor of the 44th president,” is among the souvenirs available as President Obama takes the oath of office for a second time. Other items include “ribbed tank tops for dogs,” along with a variety of “documents, medals, posters and more quirky souvenirs.”

That’s not to say that certain inauguration day artifacts — “like a letter from George Washington thanking Congress for its congratulations on his inauguration” — don’t command big bucks. Sotheby’s sold the letter for $362,500 in 2001. A “silvered brass shoe buckle” believed to commemorate Washington’s second inauguration sold for $6,573, and “a medal bearing Teddy Roosevelt’s profile from 1905 designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, is often valued at more than $20,000.”

In some cases, items “presented as instant heirlooms may not hold up in value,” such as “a limited-edition American eagle sculpture” marking Ronald Reagan’s first inauguration. Originally sold for $1,200, they can be had today for as little as $350. Programs, invitations and even inaugural tickets that seem like they ought to have value, typically do not. Perhaps the most valuable inaugural artifact of all time is an “autographed manuscript” from Lincoln’s second inauguration. It sold for $1.3 million in 1992, and contains the four famous words: “With malice toward none.”

Reputation.com

Michael Fertik is collecting your personal data so he can help you keep it from marketers, reports Natasha Singer in The New York Times (12/9/12). Michael is founder of Reputation.com, which, since 2006, has attracted some $67 million in venture capital to create a “data vault” that enables consumers to control which marketers get what information about them. The basic service, priced at $99 a year, can also remove personal details “from databases maintained by various information resellers” and install software “that blocks web tracking by 200 data brokers, advertising networks and ad trading platforms.”

Michael describes himself as “Jewish, lefty, pinko” and says he created Reputation.com because “something was wrong … when you go into a bank and an insurer that you may get offered different rates than the next person, but you have no idea when you go on the internet that your options, the offers you get or whether you get a coupon, have been defined 20 steps before you get to a site.” With Reputation.com, consumers agree “to store their data in the vault and share some of it with selected companies in exchange or benefits like cash, coupons or status upgrades.”

Reputation.com has already “amassed files on millions of Americans” and has “several hundred thousand paying customers.” It is not yet making a profit. David Vladeck of the FTC is not a fan of the concept. “Having to pay a fee in order to engage in a retrospective effort to claw back personal information doesn’t seem to us to be the right way to go about this,” he says. Both Congress and the White House, meanwhile, are looking into regulating data-mining activities. Reputation.com also must convince marketers that its “vault has more valuable information and consumer insights than an ordinary data broker.” But Michael believes he’s on the right track because, as he says, “it’s your data.”

The Optimizer

It may have been information and technology as much as gender and ethnicity that told the tale of the 2012 election, reports Jim Rutenberg in The New York Times (11/13/12). It appears that the Obama campaign may have outmatched the “galvanized and incredibly well-financed” Romney camp with database-driven media buys and targeted messaging. While Republicans were still battling it out in the primaries, Democrats compiled “so much information about the electorate that it knew far more about which sorts of voters were going to turn out — and where — than the Romney campaign and public pollsters.”

The result was a system known as “the Optimizer,” that developed “ratings based on the political leanings of categories of people the Obama team was interested in reaching, allowing the campaign to buy its advertising on political terms as opposed to traditional television industry terms.” The data were drawn from the campaign’s own email list, as well as “Facebook and millions of door-to-door discussions conducted by volunteers in swing states.” The system ranked voters based on their likelihood of voting for Obama, and then used Nielsen and cable-box data “to figure out what sorts of programs likely and undecided voters were liable to watch, and when.”

Media buys included late-night shows like Jimmies Fallon and Kimmel, as well as ESPN “and, most surprisingly, TV Land, a basic cable network devoted to re-runs of old programs.” According to Jim Margolis, an advertising strategist, TV Land was a fit with “lower-information voters” who “may not be as political, and may not be deciding until later.” Traditionally, campaigns segment purely by demographics, “advertising most heavily in news and pre-prime-time game shows, where the most reliable voters can generally be found.” The “Optimizer” was explicitly designed to make a marginal difference in a close election, exactly how the 2012 campaign turned out.

 

The Consortium

ballot boxAn unpaid team of academic advisers may have given the Obama campaign a psychological advantage, reports Benedict Carey in The New York Times (11/13/12). Known as the “consortium of behavioral scientists,” the informal group of six psychologists “provided ideas on how to counter false rumors,” and “suggested how to characterize the Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, in advertisements. It also delivered research-based advice on how to mobilize voters.” According to team-member Craig Fox of UCLA, the consortium focused on “little things that can make a difference.”

For example, research by team-member Susan T. Fiske of Princeton found “that when deciding on a candidate, people generally focus on two elements: competence and warmth.” Since polls found Romney “was recognized as a competent businessman” opposition ads portrayed him “as distant.” Meanwhile, when “countering rumors, psychologists have found that” it’s best “not to deny the charge … but to affirm a competing notion.” This is because “denial works only in the short-term; but in the long-term people only remember the association.” Accordingly, the Obama campaign affirmed the president is a Christian to blunt any “Muslim” association.

The consortium also advised “motivational techniques” to prompt Obama supporters to vote. These included reminding voters that they had voted in the past, because “people want to be congruent with what they have committed to in the past, especially if that commitment is public,” says consortium member Robert Cialdini of Arizona State. Voters were also asked to sign cards pledging they would vote, urged to make plans to vote, and told their neighbors they were voting – all of which are believed to increase the likelihood that they will indeed follow through and vote.

Galluped

gallup piechartThe Gallup Poll is most famous for its presidential election surveys, but that’s not where it makes its money, reports Ira Boudway in Bloomberg Businessweek (11/12/12). You may have noticed that Gallup’s tracking poll received much publicity during this year’s election by incorrectly predicting a comfortable Romney win while many other surveys showed a close race, or a slight Obama advantage. In a way this was ironic, because the late George Gallup, a onetime Young & Rubicam market researcher, made his name with a 1936 poll correctly predicting victory for FDR over Alf Landon.

Gallup further burnished his image by publicly attacking a rival poll published by the Literary Digest for “skewed samples of right-leaning magazine subscribers, car owners, and phone customers.” Sure enough, not only did Landon lose, he lost in one of the largest electoral landslides in history. Gallup then translated his resulting overnight fame into a lucrative business that has little to do with politics — in fact, the firm turns down political clients. It actually loses money on its political surveys, which “cost the company about $10 million a year.”

Instead, Gallup, Inc. pulls down “high nine figures in revenue” in research and consulting “for about 200 clients, many of them Fortune 500 companies.” Its specialty is collecting data to “give clients advice about getting the most out of employees and serving customers better.” George Gallup died almost 30 years ago, and in 1988, SRI acquired the firm for an estimated $45 million, even though it was losing money. The reason: Fewer telephone hang-ups thanks to the Gallup brand name, and therefore better data. “That Gallup Poll brand gives us a little cachet,” says CEO Jim Clifton. “Sort of a Tiffany’s thing, rather than a Walmart.”

Positive Linking

Better understanding of the “network effects” of linked individuals could “achieve better outcomes for society,” according to Positive Linking by Paul Ormerod (The Economist, 10/13/12). The key is getting a grip on how “links to other people influence a person’s decisions.” Networked people “mostly opt to follow the crowd,” although enough of them “decide to go their own way often enough to make network effects extremely hard to predict.”

It’s important, then, to understand several different “sorts of network. In a ‘scale free’ network, most people have only a few connections to others, giving potentially massive influence to a minority with a ‘hub’ of a large number of connections. In a ‘weighted’ network, a well-known person or organization carries far more influence than others. In a ‘small world’ network, people typically have a small number of connections” that are directly connected.

Finally, there are “‘random networks’ … that people may not even know exist — the sort of network that can pass around a contagious disease from someone sneezing on a bus,” for instance. The main idea is that understanding the different kinds of networks and how they work enables policymakers to engage in “positive linking.” High unemployment, for example, tends to happen in “communities outside the right networks. A policy of fixing that network failure could make a big difference.”

Parsing Organics

Two studies of the same data resulted in very different conclusions about the value of organic food, reports Kenneth Chang in The New York Times (10/16/12). The first study, “by scientists at Newcastle University in England, appeared in April 2011″ and found that “organic produce … was more nutritious, with more vitamin C, on average, and many more of the plant-defense molecules that in people help shield against cancer and heart disease.” The second study, released last month by “a team from Stanford University,” concluded that “organic meat and produce … is no more nutritious than conventionally grown foods.” Both studies were based on “meta-analysis, a statistical compilation of earlier work by others.”

Meta studies “seek out robust nuggets in studies of disparate designs and quality that offer confounding and often conflicting findings, especially in nutrition and medicine.” Kirsten Brandt, who led the Newcastle study, suggests the Stanford study went awry because its was conducted like a human clinical drug study, and was based on averages. That may be fine in medicine, she says, because “the effects of a medicine should be consistent and variations indicate that a study may not have been conducted well.” However, in nutrition, the differences may be because of variations in “plant species, weather, soil and other conditions,” and not because of “shoddy research.”

Accordingly, the Newcastle study differed from Stanford’s in that it presented each crop year as a separate data point, where Stanford “averaged the multiple years into a single data point.” Even so, the two studies both found “no large difference between organic and conventional produce” when it comes to most vitamins and minerals. Both “found that organic produce contained more … phenols, believed to help prevent cancer and other diseases,” but the Stanford study “questioned whether the phenol increase was real because the magnitude of the increase varied widely among studies.” Meanwhile, some organics advocates say the entire argument is irrelevant because “they buy organic food … to avoid pesticides, for the health of farm workers and environmental considerations,” not nutritional considerations.

Traffic-Light Labels

traffic light labelsMark Bittman proposes a new approach to food labeling that works like a traffic light (The New York Times, 10/14/12). Developed in collaboration with Werner Design Werks, Mark’s packaged-food label would feature a color-coded — red, yellow and green — “bar with a 15-point scale so that almost instantly the consumer could determine whether the product’s overall rating fell between 11 and 15 (green), 6 and 10 (yellow) or 0 and 5 (red).” A separate box would “indicate the presence or absence of GMOs.” (image)

Each product’s score would be based on three factors, rated on a scale of one to five, starting with nutrition: “High sugar, trans fats, the presence of micronutrients and fiber and so on would all be taken into account. Thus soda would rate a zero and frozen broccoli might rate a five. The second is ‘foodness.’ This assesses just how close the product is to real food. White bread made with bleached flour, yeast conditioners and preservatives would get a zero or one … frozen broccoli would rate a four.”

The third rating is “welfare,” which “would include the treatment of workers, animals and the earth.” An industrially-produced chicken, says Mark “would be zero or close to it.” Mark admits that arriving at such calculations is “not simple,” but not impossible. He notes that “traffic-light labeling came close to passing in Britain, and our own Institute of Medicine is proposing something similar.” He also acknowledges that traffic-light labels would be controversial. “It may well be that there are wiser ways to sort through this information and get it across,” writes Mark, adding, “The main point here is: let’s get started.”