Thoughts on Promoting Organic Food: Faulty Science
Posted on April 30, 2013
This is part two in a three-part series running this week. See Part One.
Yesterday I wrote about some of the problems when pro-organic communities accidentally or purposefully breed body negativity through the images that are shared on their social media pages.
Today I’d like to suggest another type of image for those of us who love organic food to avoid sharing: faulty or false science.
It’s so easy to fall into the trap of sharing things on Facebook that seem to really back up something you believe in without really checking out the story. Spiders are scary, right? So you post a picture of a scary spider that’s being shared without looking to see that the picture accompanying the scary spider is totally made up. You’re skeptical of Facebook’s ever-changing privacy settings, so you copy and paste a message to your friends about ensuring that your content stays private, even though the warning is a big hoax. You know that Monsanto is evil, so you share an image that talks about how, “Monsanto has released their first direct-to-consumer product, a genetically-modified (GM) sweet corn containing Bt toxin, designed to protect the plant by rupturing the stomach of any insect that feeds on it. Monsanto claims the toxin will break down before the corn makes it to your dinner table, but rats fed with the GM corn showed organ failure, and the toxin has been detected in the bodies of pregnant women.” But it turns out that that’s not necessarily true.
In February, Cracked did a pretty good write-up of how to recognize false or faulty news stories on the internet.
I don’t think that people who love organic food are any more or less likely to post/share false or faulty science articles. A lot of us get really irritated when we see these images, especially because they so rarely have any citations connected.
I see a lot of things that are supposed to cause cancer, irritability, gastro-intestinal distress, etc.—and yet I so rarely see any of those claims attached to any real research. It could be because scientists have to fight the “correlation does not equal causation” fight so frequently that few legitimate science writers are willing to make explicit claims linking food items to various diseases or conditions. It could also be because we are unique individuals with our own bodies, and what makes one of us sick might not have an effect on anyone else.
See: gluten. People with a gluten allergy or sensitivity should definitely avoid it, but there is no need for someone who isn’t allergic/sensitive to gluten to go without it, unless it’s out of solidarity for a loved one. Chalupa is allergic to cats, but that doesn’t mean he posts images on Facebook about how cats are a major allergen and everyone should strive for a cat-free world. (If he tried to promote a cat-free world, we’d have some serious issues in our marriage.)
This isn’t to say that every science-related image is crap. Or untrue. It’s just that sharing a bunch of stuff because it seems to back up your point of view doesn’t do a lot of good when it turns out that the science is more complicated than the image implies. And isn’t it always that way?
My suggestion is this: instead of sharing images that allude to un-cited studies that may or may not have been debunked by now (cough, cough, Andrew Wakefield, cough, cough), let’s post links to real studies and discuss them. Often, the science doesn’t match up with what we’re told by internet images.
- Pro-organic groups discuss the risk factors of artificial sweeteners, but this study found that artificial sweeteners serve an antimicrobial purpose, to the extent that they can likely reduce a person’s risk of gum disease. From the abstract: “By altering the source like intense sweetener we can combat caries as well as with its antimicrobial properties against periodontopathic bacteria, we can reduce prevalence of periodontal diseases.” A take-away question: how do we manage the conflicting positive and negative effects of certain consumables?
- The benefits and risks of caffeine are debated frequently in food-loving communities. Interestingly, this study found that caffeine behaves as a bronchodilator for patients with asthma, improving lung function for hours. A take-away question: If something that is problematic for me is helpful for you, should I be campaigning against that thing?
- Natural food-loving folks aren’t the only ones to give into the “sugar causes hyperactivity” myth, but it’s definitely taken root in the organic community. There may be a lot of reasons to avoid giving kids too much sugar, but hyperactivity is not one of them. This meta-analysis of previous studies found that there is no link between sugar intake and hyperactivity in children. A take-away question: why do we give in to weak, unfounded reasons to do or not do something, rather than stick to the evidence that is strong and factual?
- That famous “oldest burger in the world” image that gets passed around from time to time? The one about how McDonald’s burgers don’t break down? It’s an easy one to get sucked into sharing because the idea of a mostly perfect looking 12-year-old burger is pretty appalling. The problem is that any burger would do the same thing under the same circumstances. This experiment, which used the scientific method and not just “here, let’s leave a burger out in the open air and see what happens,” found that: “the burger doesn’t rot because it’s small size and relatively large surface area help it to lose moisture very fast. Without moisture, there’s no mold or bacterial growth. Of course, that the meat is pretty much sterile to begin with due to the high cooking temperature helps things along as well. It’s not really surprising. Humans have known about this phenomenon for thousands of years. After all, how do you think beef jerky is made?” A take-away question: how often are we swayed by images instead of facts? What happens when we don’t approach topics critically and instead just take any interpretation that accompanies a given idea?
One of the most important reasons to avoid sharing images that are un-cited or linked to research of poor reputation is not that you’ll get a bad reputation for posting false stuff. It’s that it can contribute to a culture of chemophobia, a fear of all chemicals. Chemicals are all around us—helping and harming us– and we shouldn’t run away from things just because they have long, scary names or because some people have a negative reaction to them or because there’s a cultural narrative against them.
I want to do better than that.
If I believe something, I want it to be because the research that supports it is trustworthy, not just a confirmation of what I already tend to believe.
Tomorrow I will address the pro-organic imagery that bothers me the most: the idea that people would stop being sick if they just ate more organic food instead of taking all of those doctor-prescribed medications.