A couple weeks ago, Maureen Ogle, who is perhaps best known (or at least the reason I knew of her) for a great book she wrote a few years ago on the history of beer) , asked if I'd be willing to do a little Q&A with her. The impetus for the request is Maureen's newest book entitled In Meat We Trust: An Unexpected History of Carnivore America, which will be released in a few months. I've read a couple chapters of an advance copy, and so far have really enjoyed it - but more on that later.
Maureen's questions were challenging and insightful, and I'm happy to participate (I believe her goal is to have a dozen or so more Q&As with food folks with various perspectives). Here is my response to one of her questions. Read the rest here.
Q.: Here’s what I find most interesting about your work in general:
On Monday, Wednesday, Friday, you’re a brainy economist who’s making good arguments about how people make important decisions about important things (or, as an economist might put it: you study human agency and its role in how capitalism works).
And on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, you’re a blunt, no-holds-barred pitbull, attacking lefties, the food elites, food fascists, nanny staters, and the like.
As a scholar (of sorts) myself, I’m fascinated by that balancing act. How do you pull that off? As a scholar, you’re bound to the facts of your subject (and in this context, “scholar” can be used more or less interchangeably with “scientist”), whether you personally agree with those results. But as Jayson Lusk sitting around the proverbial political kitchen table, you’re opinionated as hell and those opinions permeate your every fiber — and they’re sometimes at odds with scholarship.
A.: So I’m schizophrenic?
I’m can imagine how it might seem that way, but here is how I see it. In a lot of my writing for public audiences, I am defending the state of knowledge as established by the scientific literature. When I write about organics, local food, biotechnology, or the effects of farm policy or fat taxes, I’m not just spouting an opinion; rather I’m conveying what the best science (at least my interpretation of it) has to say on these subjects.
Sometimes I do that in a provocative style that will garner attention, but that shouldn’t be taken to mean that there is no substance. I stand by the arguments I make and I back them up with research.
That being said, there are two parts to science. There is the positive – the “what is.” And, there is the normative – “what does this mean?”; “given these results, what should be done?”
These two are not nearly as distinct as many non-academics presume. In many fields of science — public health research immediately comes to mind — it is common for the normative to be woven in with the positive, either in the topics the authors choose to study or in the way the analysis is conducted or results interpreted.
This state of affairs can sometimes lead to trouble, as witnessed by controversy surrounding the response of a prominent nutritionist to a research study showing that over-weight and slightly obese people live longer than normal weight (see here for the details).
So, I spend a lot of my time on positive issues: “nothing but the facts ma’am”. Sometimes I wish the world were different than the facts reveal, but my job as a scientist is to report them.
I think the key to being a good scholar and scientist is to be open minded and be willing to change your opinion when presented with sufficient evidence and facts regardless of one’s initial position. Otherwise, one winds up being an ideologue.
But that doesn’t mean scientists can’t draw normative judgments or exercise their right as citizens to engage in civil society. Most of my writings for popular audiences tend to be normative in nature (and thus open to dispute and subject to which values one finds important), but they are intimately informed by scientific evidence.