Big Sugar and the FDA: a Glimpse of Self-organization at the Edge of Disorganization

Ok, let’s try another exercise in putting a complexity theory of power through its paces. (Or, to put it in terms of the broader purpose of this blog, let’s view one more power conflict through a complexity lens to see if it can cast light on how to bridge the two cultures divide between the physical and social sciences.)

Some fodder for this purpose can be found in a May 22, 2016 New York Times article by Sabrina Tavernese entitled “F.D.A. Finishes Food Labels for How We Eat Now”. It reports on new rules issued by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that food producers must follow when labeling their products with nutritional information. When the FDA announced the proposals in 2014, “… consumer advocates worried that many of the major elements would not survive lobbying by the powerful food industry.” The stiffest opposition came from the D.C.-based Sugar Association over a new line requiring disclosure of the amount of added sugars contained in a product, information that helps consumers identify how much sugar above and beyond the naturally occurring sugars has been added to a product. Public health advocates pressed for the new line as one way to help combat an obesity epidemic affecting more than one-third of adults in the United States that has, in turn, “caused rates of diabetes to soar and has increased risks for cancer, heart disease and stroke”. NYU public health professor Marion Nestle, calling the FDA ruling “a huge win”, echoed the feelings of many health advocates. The Sugar Association, on the other contrary, stated “We are concerned that the ruling sets a dangerous precedent that is not grounded in science, and could actually deter us from our shared goal of a healthier America”. Food producers must include the new labels on their products by July 2018 (New York Times, May 22, 2016: A3).

As the sugar industry’s key lobby group in Washington, the Sugar Association represents what many health advocates refer to as “Big Sugar”, intentionally alluding to “Big Tobacco”. Like the tobacco industry, Big Sugar has a long history of obfuscating the growing body of scientific evidence linking products high in sugar with a host of illnesses. For an excellent job documenting this history, check out “Big Sugar’s Sweet Little Lies”, a Mother Jones investigative piece by Gary Taubes and Cristin Kearns Couzens (http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2012/10/sugar-industry-lies-campaign).

The tug of war over the added sugars line is just one of the components of the conflict over the new nutritional labels but it shall be the exclusive focus here because it maps particularly well to the complexity/power model I wish to demo. In terms of that model, the key actors in the conflict – Big Sugar, public health advocates (including, in this instance, the FDA) and the sugar consuming public — constitute a complex political system, or a system whose analysis can call upon assorted concepts in the complexity theory toolset like self-organization and disorganization or entropy, openness and closure etc. Because these concepts originate in pre-biotic physical science, their application to something as mundane as K Street politics is a good way to test their relevance to human affairs and ultimately to the challenge of bridging the two cultures divide between the physical and social sciences.

Applied to this conflict, the general picture that emerges is a struggle between opening, self-organizing forces and closing, disorganizing forces. Health advocates are trying to pry open a relatively closed system and to make available potentially empowering information, information that, by helping consumers make healthier choices, advances consumer autonomy and self-organizing capacities. Big Sugar, on the other hand, by trying to keep the public in the dark, favors a consuming public that is disempowered and disorganized in terms of its ability both to understand potential consequences of its purchasing decisions and to make informed decisions.

One of the essential dynamics of a closed system is its entropic movement toward the probable or the predictable, toward equilibrium.   For marketing purposes (i.e., for the purpose of exerting power over consumer purchases), Big Sugar needs a sufficiently passive and predictable consuming public, a public that is amenable and receptive to mass media advertising campaigns for sugar products. The last thing sugar marketers wish to have to deal with when mounting such campaigns is a consuming public questioning whether a certain amount of sugar consumption is healthy or not and making purchasing decisions on those grounds.

The goal of health advocates in pushing for the added sugars line, however, is precisely to stir things up, to get the public to start asking questions about its sugar-related purchases. They seek to break consumer population’s mold of passivity, to move consumers away from an equilibrium-oriented passivity toward a creative nonequilibrium, to advance active, questioning, autonomous consumer behavior.

A closed system, a system intolerant of questioning, typically possesses an ideology that guides its intolerance. The Sugar Association’s “mission of educating health professionals, media, government officials and the public about sugar’s goodness” (https://www.sugar.org/about-us/) offers the seeds of such an ideology. Closure to uncertainty about the “sugar’s goodness” breeds an absolutely certain, not-to-be-questioned doctrine of Sugar Goodness. Such a doctrine would certainly help explain how public disclosure of added sugars becomes “a dangerous precedent that is not grounded in science”. In the complexity approach adopted here, any system closed to questioning or the recognition of uncertainty fails to incorporate one of the great reality breakthroughs of 20th century science – namely, uncertainty can never be eliminated; it can only be reduced. To believe blindly in Sugar Goodness is to be on a collision course with reality, specifically with realities exposed by medical science linking sugar consumption to a host of illnesses.

To look at the interactions of actors in this ‘added sugars’ conflict is to look at a tiny slice of a complex dynamic political system. My claims that the sugar lobby is, vis a vis the sugar consuming public, a disorganizing, passivity-inducing force and public health advocates are a self-organizing, activity-inducing force only apply to this narrow snapshot, the tug of war over inclusion or inclusion of this particular bit of information on food labels. I suspect, however, from bits and pieces I have glimpsed while looking into this topic, that the conflict depicted here is part of a larger pattern in which Big Sugar is indeed a disorganizing force and that health advocates whose work in the trenches has given them a good deal of expertise on this matter would be fully capable of making the broader case. I’ll gladly engage in dialogue with anyone who would like to look further into or undertake this type of analysis.

Sweeping Pain and Economic Suicides

On April 22, the New York Times published an article entitled “Sweeping Pain as Suicides Hit a 30-year High”.  According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the number of suicides in the United States rose from 29,199 in 1999 to 42,773 in 2014.  The issue that jumped out at me was the increase in suicides motivated by economic distress among middle-aged adults.   Katherine Hempstead, one of the researchers in the study, said in a PBS News Hour interview that

“We did look to see [if] we could associate any type of circumstances associated with this rising rate of suicide amongst the middle aged.  And, sure enough, we did see an increasing reference to things like job problems, personal finances and foreclosures, bankruptcies, things that really accelerated during the time of the recession. But we see that those trends are kind of persisting even when a lot of people feel like the economy’s recovered quite a bit — but maybe those improvements aren’t being felt by everybody. And the middle-aged are particularly vulnerable to those kinds of pressures because they’re breadwinners, they have dependents, their own retirement might not be secure, they might have children to put through college so they can be particularly affected by those kinds of economic problems.”

While Googling, I came across an article with the same theme entitled “Economic suicides in the Great Recession in Europe and North America”. (Reeves et al., 2014, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24925987. The authors, three psychiatrists, start by acknowledging Durkheim’s classic 1897 finding that economic crises aggravate a “suicidal tendency”.   By extension to the latest crisis, they note that “There has been a substantial rise in ‘economic suicides’ in the Great Recessions afflicting Europe and North America. We estimate that the Great Recession is associated with at least 10,000 additional economic suicides between 2008 and 2010…Job loss, debt and foreclosure increase risks of suicidal thinking.”

Can a complexity theory of power (CTP) cast any light on this tragic phenomenon?  If so, where is the power?  How can the seemingly impersonal, anonymous forces of international and national economies “exercise power”?

A theme I have long wanted to (but have yet to) incorporate into a complexity theory of power is Galtung’s notion of “structural violence”, described in Wikipedia as “a form of violence wherein some social structure or social institution may harm people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs.”  This complements the CTP notion of power exercised by one party over another with disorganizing (harmful) consequences for the party subjected to power.  But who then is responsible?  The “economy”?

The key word in addressing this question is “avoidable” and it plays a central role in both Galtung’s discussion and the psychiatrists’ study.  For Galtung, violence is structural, if, for example, “people are starving when this is objectively avoidable”.  And the psychiatrists write that “A critical question for policy and psychiatric practice is whether these suicide rises are inevitable (emphasis added). Marked cross-national variations in suicides in the recession offer one clue that they are potentially avoidable (emphasis added).”  Lead researcher Aaron Reeves told the BBC that countries successful in breaking the link between economic downturns and suicide “invest in schemes that help people return to work, such as training, advice and even subsidized wages…” (Huffington Post).  The authors conclude that “some [European] societies have successfully de-coupled economic shocks from adverse mental health outcomes” and this inspires “hope that it will be possible to eliminate the association of economic shocks with a rise in suicidality.”

Knowing that economically triggered suicide can be avoided by enlightened public policy enables us to place the locus of responsibility for eliminating this association squarely upon every human society, a responsibility that weighs extra-heavily on U.S. society where powerful, increasingly concentrated economic forces guided by a laissez faire cum social Darwinist ideology effectively dismiss such suicides as an unfortunate but inevitable product of “market adjustments”.

Suicide is self-inflicted maximum entropy.  Like all deaths, it is a personal descent toward the ultimate form of disorganized complexity.  The absence of safety nets aimed at preventing economic suicides is an indicator of disorganized complexity at the societal level just as the presence of support networks is an indicator self-organized complexity in the society at large.

Entropy is not a state that suddenly occurs at the moment someone takes his or her life.  The fall into disorganized complexity occurs over time.  It is a process of closure.  This approach to complexity theory differs radically from those systems perspectives that define human beings and human society as open systems by definition.  As Edgar Morin has long argued, human systems have not only opening but closing potential.  Human complexity theory flounders when it fails to recognize this potential.

References

Galtung, Johan. 1969. “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research”, Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 6, No. 3.

Huffington Post, “Great Recession Linked To 10,000 Suicides”,  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/06/13/suicide-recession_n_5491687.html

Reeves, Aaron, Martin McKee and David Stuckler. 2014. “Economic suicides in the Great Recession in Europe and North America”, June, British Journal of Psychiatry.

“Move!” A power conflict at the grocery store

Not long ago, a woman cashier at my local grocery store was scanning and bagging my items.  Close by a man, her co-worker, was sweeping the floor in the area where customers exit.   He whisked his broom across the neighboring exit lane and then directly into the area where the woman who was busy packing my bags was standing.

Suddenly, speaking to her, he proclaimed, “Move!”

Continue reading

Re-enfranchising ex-felons: an evolutionary perspective

So, what in the news can inspire some thought on closing the two-cultures divide between the physical and social sciences?

Saturday’s New York Times (April 23, 1016) reported that Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe “used his executive power on Friday to restore voting rights to more than 200,000 convicted felons”.   In Virginia, where one in five African-Americans is unable to vote due to felony disenfranchisement, this action is of special importance to the African-American community.  But it can also be placed in the more generic context of historical struggles over the right to vote in the U.S.  I hypothesize that expansions or contractions of the franchise since the founding reflect self-organizing or disorganizing dynamics common in processes of growth or decline throughout the course of biological and in some instances even pre-biotic evolution.

First, a quick historical review of American suffrage: Continue reading

What this blog is about

In this blog, I present a power-based interpretation of complexity theory and test it with commentary on power conflicts in the news and in daily life.  More specifically, I’m passing these conflicts through the lenses of what I call a complexity theory of power, a fusion of complexity theory and power theory.  The basic premise of the theory is that 1) power imposed by one party on another fosters “disorganized complexity” and 2) power exercised collaboratively advances “organized complexity” or self-organization.  From complexity theory this draws on Warren Weaver’s distinctions between organized and disorganized complexity in his seminal 1948 essay “Science and Complexity”.  From power theory, this places on a continuum two sometimes conflicting currents, one that tends to view power in terms of domination and another that emphasizes democratic empowerment or democratization.

Continue reading

A Complexity Theory of Power Applied to “Putin’s War on Gays”

Sunday, July 28, 2013

This morning’s New York Times (7-28-2013) has an editorial entitled “Mr. Putin’s War on Gays: Will his crackdown keep people from the Winter Olympics in Sochi next year?”   It recounts these actions taken by Putin:

Earlier this month, he signed a law banning the adoption of Russian-born children to gay couples and to any couple or single parent living in any country where marriage equality exists. Last month, Mr. Putin signed a law allowing the police to arrest tourists and foreigners suspected of being gay or pro-gay and detain them for up to 14 days. He also signed a bill classifying “homosexual” propaganda as pornography with vague wording that could subject anyone arguing for tolerance or educating children about homosexuality to arrest and fines.

Regarding the Winter Olympics to be hosted by Russia next year, the editorial also raises the interesting prospect that “Gay athletes and supporters of gay rights could decide not to attend the Games, or nascent calls for a formal Olympic boycott could gather steam.”

This is the type of power conflict that a complexity theory of power can elucidate. Continue reading

A Complexity Theory of Power, Part 2

Thursday, May 30, 2013

[The following is based on part of a presentation I gave last year at the 20th Winter Chaos Conference in Montpelier, VT on March 23, 2012.]

So, after settling back into the U.S. in 1972, I was pursuing the conclusion I had arrived at shortly before ending my three year stay in Brazil, namely that information was the analytical key to understanding the military dictatorship. But, that conclusion now had a new twist. I had become intrigued by the possibility that information defined as negative entropy, the cornerstone of Claude Shannon’s information theory, had a political resonance. Viewed strictly as a tool for electrical engineers, information theory provided no justification for drawing any conclusions about politics. One electrical engineer who had studied with Shannon at MIT confirmed for me what I had read about Shannon, that he entertained no applications of information theory beyond the purely technical realm for which he had designed the theory. Continue reading

A Complexity Theory of Power, Part 1

Sunday, May 19, 2013

[The following is based on a presentation I gave last year at the 20th Winter Chaos Conference in Montpelier, VT on March 23, 2012.   Originally entitled “A Complexity Theory of Politics”, I now find it more appropriate to call it “A Complexity Theory of Power”.]

35 years ago, I made a bold claim when I wrote that “…dictatorship can be described as the politics of the probable or the politics of entropy and democracy as the politics of the improbable or the politics of negative entropy. Because democratic and dictatorial systems are in these terms respectively analogous to open and closed thermodynamic systems, we may begin to speculate about the possible future development of a science of political thermodynamics” (McCullough, 1977).

I spent the better part of the 1970s focused on this prospect. Given that, over three decades later, I still don’t hear people talking quite along these lines, perhaps the wisest course of action is to let these ideas rest in peace. But, in recent times, I have been drawn back into this line of thought as if pulled by some strange attractor. In the process, I have found myself combining perspectives of complexity theory and political power theory. The result is something which extends beyond political systems to broader processes, what I am calling a complexity theory of power. Continue reading

Complexity Revolution

There’s something happening here.

What it is ain’t exactly clear.

from “For What It’s Worth” by Stephen Stills

Link to Portuguese version

I Googled “complexity revolution” a few times over the past few weeks. During that period, the number of hits went from 9,000 some to 12,500. Clearly something is stirring here. Another testimony to this is the fact that my first choice for a Google blogspot domain name –“ComplexityRevolution” — is already taken. So I inserted a hyphen, making the full URL http://www.Complexity-Revolution.blogspot.com. (I have purchased a custom domain, ComplexityRevolution.org, but have been unsuccessful so far in pointing this blog to it.)

Whatever “complexity revolution”means, I am, with this blog, jumping into the dialogue – and the debate. Continue reading

Teilhard and the Information Revolution

Teilhard and the Information Revolution
by Michael McCullough
February 1977
The Teilhard Review: An International Journal of Integrative Studies concerned with the Future of Man
Published by The Teilhard Centre for the Future of Man, London
President: Dr. Joseph Needham
Vice Presidents: Prof. Theodosius Dobzhansky, Prof. Roger Garaudy, Canon David E. Jenkins, Dr. Robert Jungk, Dr. Margaret Meade, Dr. Raimundo Pannikar, Prof. William H. Thorpe


Mr. McCullough is at present studying for a master’s degree at the Center for Latin American Studies, Stanford University.  He is also engaged in writing a book about Brazil where he lived for three years.

Some computer scientists now confirm the technological feasibility of the unified, consciousness-expanding world envisioned by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.  If they’re right, politics in the next millennium could look something like this: All governments of the world today will have given way to full participatory democracy on a global scale. Centers of power like national capitals will disappear. All power will be decentralized. Continue reading