Scott Jurek is a badass distance runner, but he’s also one silver-tongued persuader. The ultramarathoner’s Eat and Run lays out such a compelling case for a plant-based diet that this old-school marathoner suddenly found himself devouring baked tofu in lieu of his post-run steak n’ eggs. Countless others had suggested I work in a salad from time to time. Why would I ignore years of advice from my doctor but take dietary cues from a self-described Minnesota redneck?
Well, I guess Mr. Jurek just spoke my language. He begins his story as a “serious carnivore,” who grew up yanking walleye from Lake Mille Lacs. A skinny kid, he learned to run and ski cross-country, faring pretty well against the ”cake eaters” on Duluth’s east side. He was introduced to “‘hippie food” by coaches and a college girlfriend, discovering that he felt stronger and performed better when he ate “plant-based” food (his diet is clearly vegan, but the “plant-based” label seems to come with less baggage). Oh, and I almost forgot: he regularly runs distances of 100 miles or more faster than anybody on the planet. His recipes are thus interwoven with ripping yarns from some of the world’s toughest races.
Scott Jurek’s crossover success as a food writer might offer a few lessons for social scientists aiming to get people thinking in new ways. As academics, we’re often presenting our research in hopes of changing the hearts and minds (and votes) of politicians, publics, or policy makers. But we forget that it takes a lot to actually change somebody’s mind. In my career, it only seems to happen when folks (a) agree that my evidence is really powerful; and (b) somehow identify with me as a credible expert who knows and appreciates their own worldview. Mr. Jurek nailed me on both counts, overcoming my prejudices with evidence and answering my knee-jerk objections in precisely my own language.
Before I give public talks, I ask what sorts of evidence might change my mind about issues on which I’ve developed firm opinions (e.g., gun control, progressive taxation, public education). That’s a pretty high bar for most of us, right? I certainly wouldn’t be talked off my opinion by some dork from the university half-assedly opining on his “reading of the literature.” To get my attention (let alone change my mind), I’d want a supertight smoking-gun study along with some sort of richly textured first-hand testimony from people I trusted. So when I’m testifying, I never expect folks to accept my ideas uncritically. I might have real authority and legitimacy on the subject of crime, for example, but so too does the state legislator who served ten years as a district attorney. I’m not going to talk her off her position unless I’ve got something really convincing to say — and I can say it in ways that resonate with her own experiences.
Scott Jurek and his editors understand all this implicitly. While it is certainly easier to preach to the converted, overcoming disbelievers can be a rich and satisfying experience. Sort of like that post-race lentil-mushroom burger …
photo by Pete Aylward