Bad Logic

So far I’ve done my best to call attention to what I think are some of the major logical fallacies that underlie Omnivore’s Dilemma, and by extension Food Inc.. There was Pollan’s cobbled together “agrobusiness” nemesis, an amalgam of everybody from Exxon and Monsanto on down to small family farmers, all of whom think and act with a single mind. Assigning motive where it doesn’t necessarily exist is known as a straw man argument (I’m an old philosophy student from way back). After that there was the false cause, where Pollan blamed the existence of processed foods (and indeed much of the clutter of modern life) on corn. That was follow by the hasty generalization, whereby he charged corn with consuming petroleum when pretty much everything humans make, grow or use consumes petroleum.

Perhaps my favorite of the book, though, is this next one. One might call it a fallacy of omission or suppression of evidence. It goes like this:

It takes more than a calorie of fossil fuel to produce a calorie of food; before the advent of chemical fertilizer [farmers] produced more than two calories of food for every calorie of energy invested.

This one is really a whopper, masterpiece of misdirection. How so? Because what Pollan conveniently leaves out of his calculus is the fact that 80 years ago horses and other beasts of burden — not machines — did most of the heavy work around a farm (especially a small farm). So of course we invested less petroleum in farming, there were almost no petroleum-burning machines! But that doesn’t mean it took any less total energy to raise an ear of corn, in fact it probably took more, since low-yield subsistence farming is so much less efficient.

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