Apples to Oranges: Why Reading the Study is Different from Listening to the Media

The intent of science is to further understanding of the world around us. While much of it takes place at a level above what the average person would be able to immediately understand (think the BEC from last week), certain things are seen as relevant immediately. Medical breakthroughs, technological innovations-  obviously practical things that touch everyday life in an obvious way are of distinct interest to the layperson, as the change the breakthrough can have on their life is immediately seen.

What, then, occurs when a scientific study presents something the public (or a subsection thereof) doesn’t want to hear? For approximately 8,000 people, the answer is start up a petition or two demanding the retraction of it.

On September 4th a group of scientists at Stanford University published a metastudy that looked at the nutritional content of organic foods versus those grown as treated with standard pesticides; the study did not seek to place one type of food over the other, nor did it seek to negate the positive aspects of organic food or blot out the negative ones of pesticide-treated food. It merely analyzed their comparative nutritional content and concluded that there was no significant difference in this regard.

This was not received well.

 These petitions call into question the validity of the study, claiming that one of the authors has a bias due to a precedent of working in favor of tobacco companies and implying they suspect confirmation bias at play in the study itself. In essence, this is not a negative thing; it is always a sound idea to critically approach scientific studies to examine for errors that the authors themselves may not catch, and this critical nature is indicative of a scientifically literate public: they seek the facts and the evidence, not some glossed-over version. However, the petitioners fall victim to the same practices they suspect in the authors of the study: their own confirmation bias makes them incapable of accepting a challenge to their firmly-held beliefs, and the knee-jerk reaction presented by the petitions (which went live after the study was published and run through the media) demonstrates that the creators of the petitions did not thoroughly examine the study they are attempting to challenge itself but are reacting to a version of it carefully worded to garner attention.

In reality, the study confirms many of the principles of organic food that the petitioners value, specifically the undeniable fact that organic food is exposed to fewer chemicals than the alternative. It does not, however, comment on this in a positive or negative light: it is merely stated as fact. This absence of praise has been interpreted by the petitioners as a dismissal of significance, when really the absence is due to the fact that that simply was irrelevant to the question the study sought to answer. While the study itself is not free to read, all of this essential information- the intent of the study, its findings, and its distinct lack of condemnation or praise of either type of food –can be found in the free to access abstract.

The intent was significant, as a 2010 Nielsen study found 76% of consumers who purchased organic foods did so because they believed the food to be healthier. As organic food is on average 25% more expensive than conventionally grown food, knowing definitively whether or not it actually is healthier is significant, particularly in difficult economic times. Now, for people who purchase organic out of different motivations, such as environmental concerns, a desire to support local businesses, or out of concern regarding chemical contaminants, this study makes no difference: it does not contradict their views in any way, shape, or form. In fact, it supports them, as it does indeed find organic food less exposed to chemicals, and explicitly states in the publicly-available abstract “Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.”

No contact information could be found for either petition starter; I could not find a way to begin a discourse with them, thus I could not better glean their intent. However, from the comments and the statement of intent, it becomes clear that the petitioners find that their way of life, or the way of life most beneficial to them in their experience, seems threatened by the study; there is a high degree of distrust of ‘big business’ and of the government itself. They denounce the study as potentially encouraging families to risk their health by consuming “GMOs [genetically modified organisms], mercury and aspartame” and, ironically, warn that letting the study stand posed a risk to the legitimacy of science itself… all while they can’t even get their own facts straight, for they interpret the study as declaring “organic food is the same as conventional”, which it in no way does.

Their beliefs come across as significantly less scientific based on this; rather than opposing the study on well-founded doubts regarding its scientific validity, it becomes apparent that the average signatory on the petition does so because they don’t like what the result is telling them and assume that for that reason it is a lie backed by some malicious agenda. They are reacting to the media coverage of the study, not the findings of the study itself. They are looking for ways to undermine the work from the outside rather than analyzing the study for the science it has done and looking for a flaw in those practices.

This presents an alarming reality that citizens find it is their right to reject facts based on a personal bias, and rather than choosing to personally ignore the facts they feel it is their duty to enforce their believes upon others. It is fantastic when citizens exercise scientific literacy by critically approaching information as it is presented to them, examining it for validity, but when the grounds for rejection boil down to a personal bias, things become much more of a concern. Personal disagreement is no justification to reject facts, or at the very least to reject the right of the public to be exposed to them by calling for their retraction.

 

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