Given proper reinforcement, our brains play devious tricks on personal reality.

This phenomenon is easy to test: Next time you’re with your spouse, tell her she looks pale. Then point out an apparent lethargy in her actions, and follow that whopper up with a dutiful examination of “a light sweat” near her temples. Ask questions: Is your heart rate up? Do you have a fever? Do you feel queasy? Maintain genuine concern for a short period of time, and your perfectly healthy wife will be in the bathroom checking pupil dilation while browsing Web MD before retiring to bed early with the flu. (Keep flowers handy for the debriefing after your experiment.)

Kathryn Schulz’s premise for her book “Being Wrong” is that, as human beings, we’re all incorrect about nearly everything most of the time. One major category of wrongness is our psychological reaction to external stimuli; if we’re told something frequently enough, our brains will make it true. That’s why we can make healthy people feel sick with words: their brains create a physical match for each imaginary “symptom” put forth.

Such power of persuasiveness is (relatively) harmless when we’re trying it out on friends. It’s a whole different animal when diffused across large populations.

Marketers are cashing in.

Today hype plays into the tide of consumerism. The new strategy is to choose a crisis, intensify symptoms by flooding media outlets with opaque statistics, associate the crisis with a popular product, propose a technological ‘solution’ that will replace the now-tainted original offering, and collect funding by the truckload. In one fell swoop, millions of people are affected by now-vivid “symptoms” of the catastrophe, and everyone starts looking for a cure, which adds to the hype, which adds to the crisis, which adds to the funding. What a neat system.

If you’re thinking this strategy sounds familiar, you’re right. Silicon Valley startups for years have used hype and subsequent inertia to accumulate unreasonable amounts of money for businesses that never once had a plan for actually being in business.

Now the hypesters have turned their focus on food.

Consider beanless coffee. Atomo Molecular Coffee is lab engineered to mimic a real cup of Joe without the slightest relationship to the coffee family tree (or bush, in this example). Founders Andy Kleitsch and Jarrett Stopforth are promising their current murky methods for synthesizing the drink will become “totally transparent” after they’ve collected enough money to start selling. It doesn’t matter how it’s made, though, because backers are focused only on Atomo’s proposition that, because we’re facing impending doom, humanity needs a solution to destructive coffee plantations. Voila, another fake food is eagerly anticipated on the marketplace.

I can’t help but note as an illustrative aside that Atomo Coffee features popular “plant-based ingredients” in its concoction. They’re worried about cultivated plants having a negative effect on the environment, and the solution is to substitute them with…cultivated plants. Hmm. Who funds this brilliance? I digress.

From an objective point of view, a spouse retiring to bed after being told she’s sick is stupid. There is no evidence to back up the persuasion, yet consequent reactions affect the outcome of her evening, which may have been spent more productively. Such is precisely the case with food in the hands of Silicon Valley: they’re saturating our lives with symptoms and our reactions are stupid, detracting from what could otherwise be more thoughtful use of our creativity and energy.

The mantra of the Valley is “Move fast and break things.” In other words, stay out ahead of logic so you can make mistakes without being caught. Is that a mentality worthy of providing your sustenance?

Fake beef. Fake milk. Fake coffee. For all of the brilliance demonstrated by human beings, I’m continually astounded that we can be so easily convinced to consume products that are not real. The same deceit takes place in animal feed: additives called palatants cause animals to consume large quantities of food they would otherwise reject. Tech-food startups are the feed company, and their customers are the feedlot stock waiting to be fed.

Improving humanity’s interactions with the environment requires an initiative to work with nature instead of fighting against it. We increasingly aggravate the natural order of things when we try to eliminate nature from the equation; I fail to see the logic in improving the environment by stanchly removing it from the discussion. We’ll never improve coffee production without a living, growing coffee plant. We’ll never improve beef production in the absence of a cow (and the same goes for milk, leather, etc.).

The future will not be redeemed by overnight startup success stories; rather, it heals day by day based upon the decisions you and I make to improve the moment within our locale. Turn off the TV, mute the news, and take personal responsibility for what is proximate, measurable and achievable.

If everyone did it, the world would change.

Recommended for you