Nov 20 2012

Some Feedback on Organic Farming

Anyone who has been blogging for a while and covers even remotely controversial topics is likely to get hostile comments and e-mail. I recently received the following comment on a prior blog entry about organic farming:

It suits well that this shill would say some ubsurd shit like conventional pesticide and herbicide drenched food isnt bad for you! lol why dont you drink some round up to show us it isnt harmful! you fucking lame http://www.cornucopia.org/2012/09/stanfords-spin-on-organics-allegedly-tainted-by-biotechnology-funding/

Its too late people are losing conventional foods like its a hot potato! So its only a matter of time before your out of business because the corporations that pay you will be out of business.

But theirs alot of things I want to say to a scum like you but I will keep my mouth shut. I hope you sleep well at night you sellout and enemy to humanity!

geeksquad100

There are some common themes in the comment and the linked article that are worth exploring. First, the tone of the comment is hostile and juvenile. I don’t mind the judicious use of profanity, but it’s clear when people are relying on profanity as a cheap way to lend emotional weight to their words because they cannot do so with their ideas or prose. This, unfortunately, has become common in the social space of the internet. Psychologists are beginning to look at the phenomenon sometimes referred to as “internet balls” – the lack of usual social cues and pressures allows for the shedding of normal polite behavior. People commenting anonymously into a virtual space are free to say things they would never have said in person.

I often respond to hostile e-mail, and I make a point to respond in a polite and professional manner (for one thing, it really puts the hostile e-mailer off their game). One such e-mailer responded that they thought they were sending their e-mail into the ether and it did not occur to them that there was an actual person at the other end of their e-mail. Perhaps they thought the e-mail would be read by a cyborg or AI.

Tone aside, one major theme of the comment is that I must be receiving money from corporations to spread my propaganda. This is an obvious ad hominem logical fallacy that also happens to be factually incorrect. As a general rule it’s a bad idea to tie your point or position to a factual claim that you do not know to be true. This makes your position vulnerable to factual challenge. My life is a fairly open book – I’m a full time academic and educator who is active in the skeptical movement and I have no corporate ties. Neurologicablog is run by a non-profit educational organization, the NESS, which I run, and is funded entirely by donations and memberships. We receive no corporate funding.

There is a tendency, however, to make self-serving assumptions about people with whom you disagree – their motivations or their reasoning. This is partly due to what psychologists call the “fundamental attribution error,” which is the tendency to interpret the actions of others on internal factors while we generously interpret our own actions based upon external factors. So one’s own opinions are fact-driven, while the opinions of others are driven by their dubious motivations and numerous intellectual failings.

Rather, I would advocate being charitable to the opinions and arguments of others. If you disagree with someone, that is an excellent opportunity to explore the logic and facts on both sides. If your position is solid then it can stand up to even the best arguments on the other side.  I also find it helpful to first search for common ground, and then proceed from there. Geeksquad100 and I both want the same thing – a safe, healthful, and abundant food supply. We obviously disagree on how to achieve that goal. It would be productive to explore the facts and logic that each of us rely upon to arrive at our divergent conclusions. Geeksquad100, however, has squandered that opportunity in order to rant incoherently and actually harm the credibility of their position.

The commenter also offers the unserious challenge that I should “drink some round up to show us it isnt harmful!” This echoes similar statements from other ideological groups. In response to homeopathic overdose demonstrations, for example, some homeopaths have challenged skeptics to take a large dose of pharmaceuticals to show how safe they are. This, of course, is completely missing the point (which is not to demonstrate that homeopathic potions are unsafe, just that they are ineffective). The commenter here is committing a massive straw man fallacy – nothing I wrote can be reasonably construed an implying that Roundup, an herbicide, is safe for humans to drink.

It also misses another point that Geeksquad100 misses too – that toxicity is all about dose. Everything is toxic in high enough dose, and harmless at low enough dose. The question is not, are pesticides and herbicides toxic, but are they toxic to humans in the doses that people are likely to be exposed to consuming conventionally farmed produce? My reading of the consensus of the scientific literature is that the answer is no, but it’s a good idea to thoroughly wash fruits and vegetables to minimize exposure and make sure it is below safety limits.

I acknowledge that organic farming reduces exposure to conventional pesticides. However, there is no evidence that this reduction has any net health impact on consumers. Once you are below safety limits, further reduction is not likely to have any measurable benefit. I also think that organic proponents (and regulations) assume without justification that organic pesticides are safe because they are “natural.” This, of course, is nothing but the naturalistic fallacy (the cornerstone of the organic movement). I would prefer that all pesticides, regardless of their source, are held to the same standard of evidence for safety.

The commenter also commits another logical fallacy with their “appeal to the future,” which is a variation on the appeal to authority. The argument is that they are correct because they will be vindicated in the future – in this case the commenter argues that conventional agriculture corporations will be out of business. This is hardly a solid prediction. Further, most organic farming in this country is actually owned by conventional agribusiness. There are nice profits to be made in the markup that organic produce enjoys.

This is similar to the false dichotomy between “Big Pharma” and the supplement industry – increasingly, these are one and the same thing. Proponents, however, and the corporations themselves, like to portray the public image of the small mom-and-pop business vs the huge sinister corporations. The reality is quite different.

The primary point to the article linked to by the commenter is that the recent Stanford review article which found no health benefits to organic produce over conventional produce is that the authors of the article are compromised by conflicts of interest. The article claims:

“So we were not one bit surprised to find that the agribusiness giant Cargill, the world’s largest agricultural business enterprise, and foundations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which have deep ties to agricultural chemical and biotechnology corporations like Monsanto, have donated millions to Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute, where some of the scientists who published this study are affiliates and fellows.”

This is becoming a common strategy of various ideological groups when they desire to dismiss the results of studies they don’t like. First I have to say that I agree that genuine and potential conflicts of interest are a real problem with some published research and I favor complete transparency. I agree with the policy of most journals that authors have to disclose any potential such conflicts of interest, including any money they receive from industry. This is all necessary to maintain the legitimacy of the published literature.

However, critics sometimes search for any tenuous connection to industry as a form of witch-hunt to dismiss legitimate science. One common strategy is to argue that because the institution at which a researcher works receives funding from industry, that creates a conflict of interest for the researcher – even if they or their lab are not funded by that corporation. Most academic institutions are going to have some corporate funding, especially if you include every researcher at the institution. The article even included the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as a corporate connection – so any researcher at any institution that ever receives money from a foundation with corporate donations is now tainted by conflicts of interest. I defy you to find a researcher without such an indirect connection to corporate money. This strategy conveniently allows the ideologue to dismiss any published study they don’t like.

Conclusion

The question about the relative risks and benefit of organic vs conventional farming is an interesting one, but it will not be resolved with spin and propaganda. We will not make progress by assuming that those with whom we disagree are evil and beyond contempt.

My personal position, the one I was expressing in the article where Geeksquad100 left their comment, is that “organic vs conventional” is a false dichotomy. We should use the best evidence-based practices, whatever they may be, rather than defend an ideology. Defending an ideology leads to comments like the one left by Geeksquad100.

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