Back in 2007, Michael Pollan wrote an article for New York Times Magazine in which he summed up his take on food in seven words: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” He had much more to say, but as often happens, the soundbite is what stuck in most people’s minds (certainly mine). Somehow I think he’s probably fine with this.
The advice is pithier than it appears. By “eat food,” he means eat real, whole foods, not “foodlike substances” or “nutrients.” As he says, “Don’t eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” By “not too much,” he means don’t get suckered by the food industry and their lobbyists into thinking you can low-fat-low-carb your way into health without ever reducing portion size. And by “mostly plants,” he means … well, that one’s pretty straightforward. In a time rife with conflicting testimony about what’s healthy and private interests actively trying to misinform, it’s a useful slogan.
It occurs to me that this advice applies more broadly than just food. It’s also useful for a much more general question about which misinformation and confusion abounds: what should I believe about anything? So here’s my epistemology version of Pollan’s slogan: Believe things. Not too hard. Mostly experts. If you want to stop reading here, I’m fine with that. But I’m going to unpack it anyway.
Think of your beliefs like food for your brain. It gathers them from the world, extracts what it needs from them, and then either discards (forgetting) or stores them for later use. And as with food, the health of your mental life depends heavily on what you put in. Also as with food, what comes out is often more … foul than what went in.
Believe things. This means don’t shy away from taking positions on things or having opinions on controversial topics. This is natural and nothing to be ashamed of. It’s okay to think someone else is wrong, and even to say so, provided you’ve thought about how to do so well. It also means trusting your basic sources of information — your senses, your memory, your reason, even testimony — until you have good reason not to.
An important aspect of Pollan’s advice is to eat food — things that came from nature fully formed. Is there an analogue here? I think so. Believe things also implies that there are some items offered for belief that fail to qualify as things. For example, it’s possible to get so lost in the weeds of a dispute, so many steps removed from the evidence of one’s senses, that the positions one is inclined to take cease to be about “things” in the usual sense. I recall in my heady undergraduate days following a theological rabbit hole until I found myself immersed in disputes about “supralapsarianism,” and having a moment of reflection where I wondered to myself: Does this even mean anything? It seems to me now that such beliefs are akin to the “nutritionism” technobabble pushed on American consumers that Pollan warns against: it sounds real and good for you, but it’s really just empty calories and distinctions with no practical difference.
Not too hard. The primary recommendation here is to avoid dogmatism. Needing something to be true is not, on balance, a good reason to think that it is true, since our needs are subjective and rarely track reality. It’s better to hold your beliefs fallibilistically, remaining open to changing them.
Unlike Pollan’s food advice, the guidance here is primarily about how to believe things rather than how many beliefs to have. However, believing fewer things might be a good rule of thumb anyway, in the sense that one should try to believe only that for which one has undefeated evidence (i.e., evidence that is not overcome by other evidence). We need not go as far as some philosophers have in making our ontology as sparse as possible, but in general it’s probably best to avoid crowding your beliefs with faeries, star signs, demons, and the like. If a thing or its effects can’t possibly be publicly observed, withholding judgment about it is usually wise.
Mostly experts. While there are benefits to training yourself to investigate and process evidence effectively on your own, the sheer amount of work this would require in order to justify even a small number of beliefs would quickly overwhelm you. Growing your own food is a noble goal, but too much for most people. Fortunately, it’s also unnecessary. For those trying to eat healthy, there are farmers’ markets. For those trying to believe well, there are experts. In both cases, going to the source is better, on average, than getting things secondhand, even if it costs more. As Pollan says, “Pay more, eat less.”
The same is true of belief. Justified beliefs cost more in terms of effort, but fewer justified beliefs is better than lots of unjustified ones. The information you get from experts will also be noticeably different from the information you get from the big-box information retailers. It will probably require more chewing, and it will often be less immediately satisfying. But you’ll grow accustomed to it, and it will be better for you in the long run.
The flip side of this part of the slogan is that you should consume non-expert information in moderation. It’s fine two or three times a week, but it shouldn’t be a big part of your diet. And be suspicious of anyone trying to sell you cheap information in expert packaging. Healthy food doesn’t need to advertise; everyone knows where to find it if they want to.
Relationships matter. There’s one more aspect of Pollan’s advice worth mentioning: his emphasis on ecology. We are omnivores, driven to variety, participating in a complex web of relationships with other organisms. The healthier the various dimensions of our environment, the healthier we are likely to be. “‘Health’ is,” he says, “the byproduct of being involved in these sorts of relationships in a food chain.” As in food, so in beliefs: health is a matter of wholistic relationships, a symbiosis of multiple, colliding perspectives working together towards mutual understanding. What would happen, to paraphrase Pollan, if we were to start thinking about knowledge as less of a thing and more of a relationship?