The internet is a powerful place. It’s full of information. And while we know a lot of it is crap, we don’t exercise a lot of skepticism.
I’m going to start by singling out someone I like very much, Mark Bittman, the author of one of my favorite cookbooks who’s well-known as The Minimalist at the New York Times. Lately, Bittman’s writing has been less about food and more about food issues. And eventually when you write about food issues you’re going to run into science. And this is where I start to get skeptical. You don’t have to have a PhD to write about science. (I don’t, I freely acknowledge my measly bachelor’s in Biochemistry is not adequate science training.) But if you don’t, you have to make sure you cover your bases, do your research, and have science on your side.
In Bittman’s recent article about the GMO-labeling controversy he exhibited the kind of shockingly lazy writing that would bother me whether or not it involved science. Like this opening salvo:
It’s not an exaggeration to say that almost everyone wants to see the labeling of genetically engineered materials contained in their food products.
Really? It’s not an exaggeration? Says who? Later in the article he cites a poll that shows 91% approve. Who ran the poll? An organization advocating pro-labeling. They mention it in one of their articles, but give no information on their methodology.
Whether or not to label GMO’s is partly a political issue, regardless of where you stand on GMO’s themselves. But since there’s definite science in this issue as well, it would sure be nice to see more of it. I haven’t seen much of any. Which takes us back to Bittman. He says, “by most estimates the evidence [for GMO's] is far more damning than it is supportive.” Oh, interesting. He has some evidence. Let’s just click that link, shall we?
It goes to a pro-organic website. This concerns me. I have nothing against organic (though it’s got its own share of science problems) but the pro-organic folks are overwhelmingly anti-GMO so I’m going in expecting bias. As for their article, entitled 8 Reasons GMOs are bad for you, there are no citations. Oh, excuse me, at the bottom of the article they give 4 websites as “sources.” One link doesn’t work, two are to other healthy/organic lifestyle sites, and one is to an article from 2004 which itself offers no citations. (That last work is by a science writer, to be fair, with undergraduate work in Zoology.)
Here’s the thing: when you want to know the actual science, you have to turn to science. There are outliers in the scientific community, and only the rest of that community can tell you that. Otherwise you can easily find yourself refusing vaccines because the internet told you to.
What should you look for when researching science online?
The Source: Magazines, health & lifestyle websites, issue blogs, even newspapers: none of these are sources you should automatically trust. The “science” writing there is built around consumerism instead of science. My favorites are sites that aren’t issue-specific but that cover science generally. And science magazines are an exception to that earlier rule. Discover and Scientific American have excellent science writing and science blogs. There are always exceptions when it comes to sources (I really enjoyed this NYTimes article on GMO’s that I found during my research, which is littered with sources and straight talk) so also consider the other factors.
The Sources: Good science writing has sources. Lots of them. There should be lots of links (and not to sub-ideal sources like those I just mentioned). If it’s a blog, the person should have their own bio available. They should also be forthright about their own opinions or agenda. A science background is preferable.
The Single-Study Story: Whenever a new study comes out that has a sensational finding, it tends to get a lot of writing. The thing is, the study’s findings may not be very concrete. Often these single-study stories are just starting a whole new branch of research. Try and find out where the study came from (if the story doesn’t include this information, find one that does) and see if you can find the actual paper somewhere. Even if it’s just the abstract, it should give you a better idea. And then do some googling and see what reputable science writers are saying on the subject.
And one last thing: As a lawyer I learned that you should always understand the other side. An article that doesn’t acknowledge that there could be any merit to an opposing view has a problem. There is almost always a complex variety of issues that can lead to reasonable differences of opinion. If someone doesn’t admit that, they’re not looking at the issue clearly.
So I did some googling on GMO’s. It really is that simple. I came away feeling rather duped by Mr. Bittman.
One of the best articles I found was from Scientific American. Written by a professor at UC Davis who has a PhD and a celebrated bio. All good things. She starts with a brief explanation of what genetic engineering is and how its different from genetic modification techniques we’ve used for centuries. She also shows which bodies have found that there’s enough evidence of safety for these products to be on the market.
It’s worth noting that the hubbub around GMO’s doesn’t seem to relate to those crops modified through traditional techniques. And yet both have the same potential to create something new with unexpected changes. They go through testing before they’re released to the public. She also notes that the only problems found thus far have been in crops created through traditional methods.
So why are GMO’s created? What are they supposed to do? One example is corn that requires less insecticide. GOOD, yes? These crops have some naturally occurring Bt toxins. Why “toxin?” Because it kills particular caterpillars and beetles. Before the naturally-occurring Bt toxins, we sprayed it on crops. It’s been consumed by people for decades. There’s a lot of information on it. They’re used by organic farmers. You’re getting this stuff in your food, whether or not it has a GMO label. But with the GMO? No spraying, none of the negative environmental effects of spraying (for example, non-pest insects and worms and such were found in much larger numbers), saved cost to farmers, AND even the non-GMO crops planted nearby benefited by having less pests.
What do I love the MOST about this article? At the end there are many, many, many cites. But she also leaves citations throughout the article so I know exactly where her information is coming from and I can check it out.
If you want to really get down to the science, you can find articles in peer-reviewed journals. This year a review was written in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology that examined 24 long-term studies of GMO diets and found no ill effects. You probably didn’t hear about it. Reviews are papers that put together a whole bunch of studies to help figure out the state of scientific knowledge in a particular area. They’re not flashy. They rarely make news.
But you’ll hear about single studies that show crazy outcomes, like causing tumors. Just make sure you stay tuned. Because you may find out that the study author has a book coming out this week. Or has other scientists questioning their methods or results.
Unfortunately, when it comes to science, you can’t read an article confirming something and then stop. You have to continue to read and research and look.
I’m not saying I’m an authority on the safety of GMO’s. But from my research, it seems that right now the science shows them to be safe and that the regulations in place are sufficient.
But that could change. New varieties could be introduced, new studies could be released. You can’t just rest on your laurels.
As for GMO labeling, I don’t have a strong opinion. But I do think we should be more concerned about the science than we are about the label. After all, you may know that the “organic” label doesn’t mean something is pesticide-free. And that a “low fat” label doesn’t mean it isn’t high in sugar. Are you anti-HFCS? It’s not any worse for you than the same amount of sugar. (Personally I oppose HFCS not for health reasons but its effects on the farming industry.)
In our fast-information culture, it isn’t easy to get the best information. But it’s worth it.
Last time Jess talked science, she talked about Autism research. Who knows what she’ll talk about next time as this whole series is kind of spur-of-the-moment.