Why think?

“… This whole thing is just a symptom of a larger problem: There’s a growing anti-intellectual strain in this country, and it may be the beginning of the end of our informed democracy,” Neil DeGrasse Tyson on the Nightly Show, January 26, 2016.

We’re talking – my husband and I – about carbohydrates the other day as I make a piece of toast. It’s one of my favorite topics lately, ever since my spouse was guilted (by me) into signing up for a Fattest Loser competition at our local rec center. It’s a combination class and competition. The competition part was what really made me want him to join, not because he’s competitive but because he’d somehow let the other attendees down if he didn’t lose (they’re on teams). It’s his reports of what happens in the class that get me.

Carbohydrates keep working their way into our conversations because until he started this class, I had no idea how hated carbs were. Day 1 he learned that he should fast for three days to shock his body into losing weight. Crazy since I thought all you had to do was eat fewer calories than you burned off if you wanted to lose weight but I guess that’s why I’m not the teacher. Day 2, the message was “you have to give up carbs. Forever.”

I love carbs. I eat old person baby food (a.k.a. oatmeal) 3+ times per week because it tastes amazing when it’s loaded with butter and brown sugar and walnuts and because it doesn’t require thought or effort for chewing. I think pasta – not that nasty cardboard-y whole wheat stuff – is amazing and versatile and one of the best fast dinners you can put together. I make all our own bread with wild harvested yeast from a starter that’ll turn 10 this year. My kids find pastries and desserts they want to try and put the recipes in front of me because they know I’m a sucker and I’ll make anything that seems like a challenge.

I know I’m not alone. Besides it’s impossible to give up carbohydrates unless you eat nothing but straight fat and straight protein. While I’d adore an all-butter diet, it’s not really something you can live on. Eventually you’re going to eat a carb. And then what?

So the thought that someone would be dumb enough to tell a classroom full of diet-challenged students – people she’s trying to motivate into making long-term lifestyle changes – that they could never eat carbs again really gets to me. Because it’s not that simple, it’s not the truth, it’s doing nothing to educate them. And one day someone is going to do just a tiny bit of research and find out exactly how wrong she is.

Which brings me to the conversation with my spouse, which we have as I’m waiting for my toast to pop. “Did she tell people all carbs or just simple carbs?” I ask.

“All,” he says.

“Did she explain that carbohydrates like pasta and oatmeal in moderation and with other foods would be okay? That you don’t really give them up but you may want to limit them somewhat or focus on adding more fiber into the diet?”

“No,” he says.

“Did she go into any detail about how the body breaks down food, why she’s hell bent on people shunning all carbs at breakfast, even though you and I both know that’s ludicrous?”

“No,” he says. I ask why not. His response: “People wouldn’t understand. They don’t want to know.”

It’s shit like this that gets me because I’m positive that if people did know and didn’t just take messages they hear for granted and dug into a subject a little more deeply, they’d get it. They’d understand that it’s okay to have a bowl of grape nuts but mix them with fruit and they’d work to avoid too many processed foods and sugars. They’d understand that it’s because your body burns off the carbohydrates you take in as food first before it gets around to burning off the fat sitting on your thighs. And they’d understand more about why she’s saying “no carbs” and how wrong that oversimplification really is.

“People don’t want to know all of that. They just want to hear something easy,” he says. I’m appalled. I know he gets it – he’s a scientist and understands how the body metabolizes food, even if he doesn’t bother to feed his body the right stuff, which is how he landed in this Fattest Loser experiment anyway. But everyone wants to learn, right?

I’m even more appalled when he says that marketers are the problem. I’m a marketer. And I’m appalled because in some sense he’s right.

The first thing you learn as a marketing writer is to focus on the benefits, not the features. Because consumers don’t want to know what, they want to know why – or so we’re told. So if you have a notebook with a yellow cover that makes people smile, it’s not the yellow that you focus on – you focus on the fact that the notebook makes you happy. I’d never really thought about why we do that in marketing before but listening to what my spouse says, I realize that as sellers, we don’t think people want to be bogged down with details because that would require people to think, to weigh options and to come to the conclusion of what’s right for them on their own. We really need to cut to the chase and tell consumers what’s right for them BECAUSE WE KNOW SO MUCH BETTER THAN THEY DO. A cheery notebook. That’s what they need. Yellow? Who cares.

I bring up the Neil DeGrasse Tyson quote when I realize I’m part of the problem. “So really,” I say,”I’m the reason people believe Rush Limbaugh and Fox News rather than looking at the facts for themselves. I’ve been contributing to the problem I complain about repeatedly for 25+ years. Because I’ve been force-feeding them the details about how things will make them feel rather than letting them figure this out on their own.”

“Nah,” he says. “Most people just don’t want to think about the details regardless of what you say.”

“Does that mean they wouldn’t even think about issues if no one told them how to think? Be happy for no reason except that they weren’t burdened with knowing the truth about anything beyond their line of site?”

“Yeah,” he says. “It’d be like Provo.”

That makes me very sad. Because Provo, Utah, while beautiful, is one of the most fucked up places ever. Where people live in their own world that doesn’t extend beyond church and family and church again. If you smile, you’re happy. Blissfully ignorant.

My toasts pops just then and my son walks into the room, obviously called by the toaster.

“That for me?” he asks.

“No,” I tell him. “Besides, carbohydrates will make your penis fall off.” It’s a test. I want to see if he’s a thinker.

“No, that’s gluten. And it doesn’t make your penis fall off. It’ll shoot off from your body like a rocket.”

I had no idea.

“I learned that from Southpark,” he says.

K, I can buy that. It’s about as reasonable as Fox News or giving up carbohydrates for life. Thankfully, though, I don’t have a penis.

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