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Are Organic Shoppers Jerks? What Science Writers Aren't Telling You

Does eating organic food turn you into a judgmental jerk? A new study claims it does. Published in Social Psychological & Personality Science, the study found that participants who viewed organic foods volunteered less time to help the needy and passed harsher moral judgements. The study concludes that organic shoppers feel more self-righteous, and are therefore less helpful and more likely to judge others. Since this line of thinking confirms everything we already know about who buys organic and why, the general consensus in outlets from NBC to Jezebel is that this study’s validity is as rock solid as the second law of thermodynamics. But there’s something the writers for these outlets don’t want you to find out.

The big secret is they don’t know what they’re talking about. Every pixel that’s been written on this comes from the article’s abstract or a couple interviews its author did, but exactly nobody writing about the study (including yours truly) has read it. And why haven’t they read it? Because a subscription to Social Psychological and Personality Science costs $840 a year for an institution and $378 for an individual. Even one day of access to the article is $25. I’m a lowly blogger with no research budget and no leverage to get a free copy of the article sent my way, so that’s my excuse. What’s the Atlantic‘s?

But I’m going to set aside the fact that an article you haven’t read published in a journal that’s not one of the top 50 in its field probably isn’t the best source for a blog post or article, because even the little bit we do know about the study should have our Spidey sense tingling.

According to media accounts of the study, researchers divided the participants into three groups and exposed them to images of organic foods, comfort foods, or neutral foods like oatmeal. They were then read vignettes about people breaking moral codes, such as cousins having sex or a lawyer who prowls an ER to convince patients to sue for their injuries. The group exposed to organic foods passed harsher judgments. According to a Today interview with the study’s author, “There’s something about being exposed to organic food that made them feel better about themselves, and that made them kind of jerks a little bit, I guess.”

I’m not a professional ethicist or theologian, but I’m not sure how we just got from A to B. If we accept the study’s results, then people who look at organic food are more judgmental of wrongdoing. Does that mean they’re jerks? I guess so, if you’re an ambulance-chasing attorney. But I don’t think you can definitively state that having a lower opinion of people who commit moral transgressions makes you a jerk. I think it would be easy to argue the reverse. A researcher with the same data and different biases could argue that viewing comfort food makes you morally lax. And both researchers would be wrong because those types of judgements are outside the bounds of the research.

Of course, the other portion of the study, where people who had looked at organic foods volunteered less time to help the needy, isn’t so ambiguous. Everyone but the most dogmatic Ayn Rand devotees agrees that helping the needy is a good thing. So maybe organic shoppers really aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. It’s certainly suggestive, but at the same time it doesn’t refer to any real world behavior. I’ve bought my fair share of organic food and I’ve bought my fair share of 7-11 nachos, and I’ve never sat around looking at pictures of either. In fact, the one-time experience of looking at pictures of food in a laboratory is a lot different from the everyday experience of buying and preparing food. Of course no study can mimic the real world and the point of an experiment is to isolate factors to judge their significance. But that means that an experiment’s conclusions are necessarily limited and we can only draw larger inferences from a larger body of work. But that hasn’t stopped media outlets, encouraged by the study’s author, from making all kinds of unwarranted claims about the jerky jerks who buy their stupid organic food.

It’s fun to rip on snobs, I get that. My favorite kind of snob to rip on is music snobs. Some people prefer to rip on food snobs. As a food blogger, that hits a nerve, but in the end I’m into what I’m into, and if people want to judge me for thinking organic produce is better than conventional, more power to them. But reporters, whether they’re part of the new media or the old, have a responsibility to get the facts as right as they can. And gleefully jumping on a study without reading it or looking at it critically because it confirms the biases they already have is an abdication of their responsibilities. And it sucks.

Image: Arnaud 25

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