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‘Food for Thought’ in addressing confirmation bias

Article cover photo
Washington Post columnist Tamar Haspel visited several farms, including Iowa Soybean Association member David Ausberger's, during her stay in Iowa. She later presented a "Food for thought" dialogue at Drake University. (Photo: Joseph Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association)

By Lindsey Foss, ISA public relations manager

“Let’s talk about the elephant in the room,” prompted journalist Tamar Haspel to a group of 70 students, farmers and consumers in a presentation at Drake University last week.

Haspel, a food columnist for the Washington Post and oyster farmer near Cape Cod, arrived in the state September 24 as a guest of the Iowa Food & Family Project’s (Iowa FFP) “Food for Thought” program. For three days, Haspel immersed herself in Iowa agriculture by visiting farms, conversing with ag and environmental leaders and keynoting a “Food for Thought” dialogue at Drake University. The goal: to connect well-respected, urban-dwelling reporters with Iowa farm families to engage in dialogue about modern agriculture and today’s food system.

Six farm tours and 500 miles later, Haspel hosted the “Food for Thought” dialogue at Drake to share her takeaways from meeting with Iowa farmers and general perspectives about the growing divide between consumers and the ag community.

So, what was the “elephant” in question?

Your own.

“When a controversial issue comes up, your elephant knows exactly what to think — before you even have time to think it,” she said. “The rider’s job is to justify; a rider’s instinct is to protect the elephant’s view.”

In other words, the “elephant” represents the emotional, irrational side of our human psyche, while its “rider” is analytical and controlled in nature, seeking sources of information that share our values and confirm our views, while ignoring contradictory claims.

This scenario is better known as “confirmation bias,” and is the root of many arguments, including those about modern agriculture, Haspel explained. For example, when people are confronted by information they don’t support, one’s knee-jerk reaction is to find ways to dismiss them, alleging the source isn’t credible or uninformed. Sometimes, facts that contradict opinions actually strengthen them.

As author of her Post column “Unearthed” and a contributor to National Geographic, Discover and Cooking Light, Haspel sometimes finds herself entrenched in competing arguments regarding a host of subjects ranging from biotechnology and pesticide use to antibiotics, food policy and government regulations. In doing so, she hears arguments on all sides – some productive, some not.

“When was the last time you changed your mind on an issue?” Haspel asked. “Maybe five to 10 percent of people will say they changed their minds. But I’m here to tell you that minds can change, if you’re open to it. In fact, I’m in the ‘mind-changing business.’”

The shift in mindset, however, does not come overnight, especially as it relates to politically driven, polarizing issues. While there’s no easy way to combat confirmation bias, Haspel offered the following suggestions:

  • Accepting that confirmation bias is real (elephant wrangling begins at home).
  • Vetting your sources.
  • Managing media sources to ensure that you’re receiving different viewpoints.
  • Acknowledging that truth often resides on both sides of an issue.
  • Acknowledging the validity of a point made by someone whose opinion you may not agree with.
  • Finding the smartest person who disagrees with you; and listen.

“It’s often hard to talk to people who disagree with us, but if you can start with finding what’s right, you can find some common ground.”

Greg Rinehart, a grain and vegetable farmer from Boone, invited Haspel to learn more about his farm during her stay in Iowa. He said farmers must take on the challenge to listen to varied views on controversial issues to come to a resolution.

“Each individual has biases that are difficult to change. We must realize kindness is essential in achieving progress in resolving these difficult agricultural issues,” Rinehart said. “The time spent with Tamar was friendly and enjoyable. We found we had more in common than we had differences. The discussions with Tamar were valuable in helping us to improve our understanding of the challenges as we continue in the discussions that will hopefully bring some resolutions.”

For media inquiries, permission to republish articles or to request high-res photos, please contact Katie James, ISA Public Relations Manager at © 2020 Iowa Soybean Association. All rights reserved.