Beware the sound bite

I have a long history of blogging at conferences. I do it because it lets me focus on the talks, prevents me from doing side-tasks like checking email, and generally gives me better understanding of what’s being said than I’d get as a passive audience member. Over the years, it’s turned into a habit and a job. I get invited to excellent conferences because organizers know I’m going to blog them, and sometimes am invited explicitly with the understanding that I’m blogging the conference.

This past weekend at Pop!Tech, I got to try something new – co-blogging. My wife, the lovely Velveteen Rabbi, is also a compulsive conference blogger, and since we’re trying to maximize our time together in these last, few child-free weeks, she and I decided to split my invitation to Pop!Tech and blog together, along with Michelle Riggen-Ransom who covered the first days of the conference. (Never one for moderation, Rachel went directly from Pop!Tech to the J-Street conference, which she’s also blogging. I just went home and went to bed. Wait, which one of us is eight months pregnant?)

What this meant was that Rachel and I traded off speakers, usually using the downtime to finish notes from the previous session. But it also meant that I could tweet while Rachel was blogging a speaker, not trying to summarize the talks, but amplifying key phrases. (Jen Brea and I did this together at an academic event at Berkman, and it worked nicely.) It was going pretty smoothly until Michael Pollan got on stage.

I like Pollan. I liked “The Botany of Desire” a good deal, and I’ve got sympathies for his point of view on food production. Rachel and I have belonged to a CSA for almost two decades, we can and pickle and freeze and eat local meat… We’re more or less on his side, but I haven’t really felt compelled to read or listen to him lately, as I’m not planning on making any major changes to my cooking and eating behaviors.

Listening to him present at Pop!Tech, I was mostly impressed by his command of the sound bite. He’s an excellent writer, and many of the points he’s making fit neatly into 140 characters or less:

– Eat from the edge of the supermarket, which is quickly restocked, not from the middle, the “foods” that never spoil
– Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
– One dollar buys you 1200 calories of snack food or 200 of fresh produce
– If America went meatless one day a week, it would have the environmental impact of taking 20 million cars off the road

These are catchy ideas, easily expressed in a tweet. They don’t always stand up to scrutiny – if you’re trying to maximize calories per dollar, for example, you could buy rice or bread. But they’re catchy ways to think about a subject and as I tweeted them, I could watch readers race to retweet them. And then there was this one: #poptech Michael Pollan “A vegan in a Hummer has a lighter carbon footprint than a beef eater in a Prius.”

A slam dunk of a soundbite. A phrase you can’t resist retweeting. And people did – more than a hundred times in the hours after I posted it. Too bad it’s not actually true.

Adam Pasick fact-checked Pollan’s statement and discovered that, pithy as it is, you’d have to be eating a whole lot of beef for the statement to be accurate. His numbers come from a 2005 paper that finds that the carbon impact of a meat versus vegan diet is about 2 tons of CO2 equivalent a year… while the difference between a Prius and a Suburban (comparable to a Hummer) is 4.76 tons, given average driving habits. To Pollan’s credit, he’s now asked Pop!Tech not to release the video of his talk with the inaccurate statement in there to try to prevent the meme from spreading further.

Good luck. A phrase like that is likely to spread independent of its truth value. It’s unexpected – who knew beef produced so much methane? – and yet believable. And it references factors that you, as an individual, can control in your life. I conducted research a couple years back on what sort of articles in the New York Times are most likely to be blogged. My conclusion: technology articles, articles on terror and “news you can use” articles, like “red wine is good for you” health pieces. The vegan in a Hummer meme fits that category – you can pass it on so that your vegan friends feel better, or so your beef eaters can feel guilty – it’s news they can use.

I guess I was surprised to see Pollan caught in a statement that’s so polished and amplifiable, but inaccurate. His talk was extremely polished and carefully prepared, including his visual about 26oz of petroleum used to make a double cheeseburger – illustrated with chocolate syrup poured out of a thermos. Many of his examples are ones from his books, like Joe Salatin, who tells us that he farms grass, not meat, in an illustration of what a sustainable meat farm might look like. Is this the first time Pollan used the vegan in a Hummer line, or just the first time someone fact-checked him?

I don’t attribute any bad intent to Pollan, but the experience is causing me to think about the lines I use again and again in my talks, whether I still believe them, whether they’re still true. And whether they’re the sort of ear candy that makes people want to keep on retweeting and repeating them…

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5 Responses to Beware the sound bite

  1. Rachel says:

    How completely fascinating!

    Co-blogging Pop!Tech with you was a ton of fun. We should do it again some year if the conference ever decides to offer complimentary babysitting to its livebloggers. ;-)

  2. Kristen says:

    I am in your debt (and Rachel’s debt) for such a wonderful job blogging.

    And, we’ll work on the babysitting thing. I think that loge box has found its PopTech purpose.

  3. tony lovell says:

    Too many people think of climate change in terms of sources and sinks, and neglect to remember that carbon moves in a cycle. All ruminants produce methane as a by product of their digestion of plant material. Ruminant methane is produced by bacteria in the animals rumen, animals that include bison, wildebeest, camels, llamas, giraffes, and all 90+ species of antelope.

    Once we recognise that ruminants have been on the planet for over 10 million years, it becomes apparent that Nature must have evolved some way to deal with this methane by now. And in the serendipity that we so often find in Nature, there are bacteria in the soil that oxidise this methane.

    Recent research here in Australia has shown that for some of our soils each hectare (2.5 acres) can oxidise more methane in a single day than a cow emits in a whole year! http://www.abc.net.au/rural/sa/content/2 009/08/s2651525.htm

    Please do not hold the animals responsible for the way we humans manage them. Well managed animals grazing in a way that mimics natural function can and must play a strong and positive role in reversing desertification, restoring soil carbon, and addressing climate change. Take a look at http://www.soilcarbon.com.au for more.

  4. tom leverett says:

    had no idea you were married to the velveteen rabbi….congratulations on your upcoming parenthood & good luck!

  5. Jessica says:

    Perhaps we can at least say that a vegan in a hummer has a smaller KARMIC footprint than a meat eater (using any mode of transportation)…? :)
    I can never tell whose “guy” is really doing the fact-checking either. In this instance, is it
    Die-hard meat-eater fact-checker?
    Beef industry fact-checker?
    versus
    Vegan fact-checker?
    Animal rights activist fact-checker?
    All in all, I’m a big fan of Pollan’s ideas (but I’m still glad people are trying to keep him honest). I think his authority on the subject comes from his knowledge, his research, and his honesty.

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