(image credit: cropped from markus spiske)
Two months ago I started the What We Should Really Be Eating? series. In this series I relied on science to research food: from pesticides to GMOs to detox diets to organic vs. conventional, I pulled up my sleeves and one by one started researching each subject.
This was no easy feat: The average length of each article was more than 2000 words and each one took me a minimum of 2 days of research (aka 15+ hours).
I ended up learning a lot, not just about what we should really be eating, but about people too. Honestly, I didn’t expect what would happen.
So let’s get started…
11 Things I Didn’t Expect From 2 Months of Researching Food
1. I had no idea there was so much misinformation around. And I didn’t know that these misconceptions were also affecting me.
I was biased in favor of “natural.” I bought “organic,” religiously. I was checking labels and avoiding anything with the word “artificial” in it. I thought I was doing the right thing. I thought that natural = better. I thought that organic had indeed more to offer and was safer than conventional produce and dairy products.
The more I dug into the actual science, the more I found out that it was all hype and my “pro-natural” bias was unfounded. I realized I was looking into “non-natural” products the way people addressed IVF babies when In Vitro Fertilization was still new. They looked down on them because they were not conceived the “natural” way.
And don’t get me started on detoxing. I was actually sure that “detox diets” actually help the body detox. If not, then why would they be so popular? Well, I was in for a surprise. The detox diet industry is completely unfounded!
2. People will believe what they want to believe – often no matter what!
Even though I was biased, I was only mildly biased. I was not passionately biased in favor of “natural,” “organic,” etc, and dare I say, I didn’t even have an opinion on GMOs. And this is what allowed me to do research without having the need to confirm my beliefs. Because that’s exactly what happens when your belief becomes strong enough that gets you into the “fanatic” category.
Say you believe that red-heads cause bad luck. If you’re really passionate about it, no matter how many studies you encounter that show there’s no evidence that red-heads cause bad luck, you’ll keep insisting on this one time a red-head crossed the street right in front of you, and how you found a parking ticket on your car right after.
Plus, red-heads have been known for a while for their “qualities.” You’ll talk about how their hair was thought to be “a mark of a beastly sexual desire and moral degeneration” in the Middle Ages. Even as recently as 2013 “a fourteen-year-old boy had his right arm broken and his head stamped on by three men who attacked him just because he had red hair.” Visit wikipedia for more harassment cases against red-heads. (I thought this example would be completely fictional until I realized that it’s not!! Go figure.)
You’ll feel justified in knowing it’s not only you who are scared of red-heads. After all, if they were all so safe for the rest of us, why would they have acquired such a bad rep? There’s no smoke without fire.
But what about the scientific evidence you just saw? You’ll rationalize it: hey, even if there’s 0.0001% chance that red-heads do indeed cause bad luck, then why take the risk? Hence, you don’t make friends with red-heads and you avoid them whenever you see one on the street.
You also don’t talk to your red-haired colleagues and tell your kids to avoid any kids with red hair!
This may sound ridiculous, but it is actually happening with food. In many cases, ideology trumps evidence.
GMOs are the most prominent example. Even though there’s scientific consensus on their safety, and they have been studied for decades, mild opponents will ask for more studies while strong opponents will ask for them to be banned. Just look at the comments below my GMO article.
Let’s conduct more studies that redheads don’t indeed cause bad luck! Or better yet, let’s get rid of the red-heads, or isolate them in an island so they can’t contaminate the rest of us!
3. Our critical thinking skills are (in many cases) pathetic.
If GMOs had nothing to hide, why would they oppose labeling?
We’re quick to judge but not thorough in reviewing our judgements. This is fine as it saves us time – we’re actually wired to think fast and making snap judgements (Nobel winner Daniel Kahneman wrote about this in his best-selling book Thinking Fast and Slow). But since we also have the ability to review our judgements, we have no excuse to cling to these premature judgements.
I honestly didn’t expect how bad our critical thinking skills are. Plausible arguments win the race when critical thinking is not present.
So the pro GMO-labeling argument I mentioned above sounds like it makes sense. It’s definitely plausible. If you hear it for the first time, you might be inclined to instantly nod your head and agree.
But if you use your critical thinking skills and spend a bit more time you may actually find holes in this argument. After all, scientists have found GMOs to be as safe as non-GMO food. So why would we need to label a production method?
I’m not going to get into the “right to know” bogus argument in this article. This was just mentioned as food for thought.
4. I was personally attacked.
It’s one thing seeing it happen to others, and totally another to have it happen to you. I’ve been called a Monsanto shill, a dairy farming shill, and a Big Agriculture shill.
And just so you know, I didn’t even know the meaning of the word “shill.” I had to google it.
Such attacks are known as “ad hominem.” Ad hominem usually happens when the “other side” has no way to counteract your arguments. So they resort to ad hominem attacks to undermine your personality or integrity.
I was asked whether I was getting paid. I was called a liar. Heck, I even created a “shill logic” album on my Facebook page to showcase some of those gems. Feel free to indulge.
5. Natural = better is our default way of thinking, and we rarely if ever stop to examine whether it’s true.
Of course we don’t examine if it’s true – we don’t even recognize we are biased!
I earlier talked about how I was also biased in favor of “natural.” Cancer is natural. Tsunamis and earthquakes are natural. Carcinogen UV rays are natural.
Nature is not all roses and rainbows. Natural = better is just another belief that seems plausible.
I talked about Appeal to Nature here. Again: would you consider an IVF baby as less of a baby because it was not conceived the “natural” way?
6. (Some) people who liked me stopped liking me.
This was actually really sad for me. People who used to be fans unsubscribed and sent me rude e-mails full of disappointment. It’s really sad to see people who used to be supportive turn against you just because they don’t like “this new direction” (or in other words, they disagreed with science!).
7. But I made new friends!
This was one of the best perks from my decision to research food, and yes, totally unexpected! I stumbled across a community of other people who also support science and were very supportive of my efforts! I’m really, really excited and happy to have found them. Let me pay my dues:
Mommy, PhD – This is Alison Bernstein now part of the Fitness Reloaded Experts team (learn how to join here). You may remember her from writing on sunscreen, pesticides, and toxins for Fitness Reloaded. You’ll be seeing more of her. She’s studying Parkinson disease while raising her family of two kids.
The Credible Hulk. Let’s just say CH has a new fan – me! In his page you’ll find lots of science material. If there’s an even slightly nerdy streak in you, make sure you click like. If you’re like me, you’ll also be impressed by CH’s patience when discussing with totally irrational, or dare I say, stupid, people.
Biology Babe: BB is honest, brutally honest. She has quickly gathered a passionate community of people who want to get educated while at the same time enjoying some casual conversation, humor, and a bit of swearing. Like!
We love GMOs and Vaccines: Martin and Stephan are awesome! I studied their page to learn how to respond to ad hominem attacks and plainly stupid arguments without becoming uncivil. I love GMOs and vaccines too.
Kavin Senapathy: I believe Kavin was the first person I discovered when I was first getting started. She calls herself a science defender and that’s exactly who she is. She’s very knowledgable about GMOs so make sure you ask her if you have any questions.
The Skeptical Beard: Bobby addresses a variety of subjects without getting too technical. You don’t have to have a beard to like the page.
And more: Modern Science Mama, I hate Woo and Pseudoscience, March against Myths about Modification, Scientific Blogging, Charles Payet (dentist), It’s MomSense, Food Hunk, The Questionist, The Imaginarium, Do you even science, bro?, A Science Enthusiast, The Skeptical OB, Banned by GMO Free USA, Stop the Anti-Science Movement, Insufferable Intolerance Blog.
Also, special props to Thinking Nutrition for providing accurate nutrition information (haven’t connected with him yet, but I have to recommend his work.)
This list is not exclusive. There are more people out there giving science-backed advice. But that should be enough to get you started. Like them all, you’ll be glad you did!
8. It’s not all controversial: Scientific consensus actually exists!
When you’re exposed to a debate for a long time, you start thinking there’s no consensus and that the issue is divided. That’s what actually held me back for years. I didn’t ever talk about food because I found the issue confusing and had the attitude that “if the experts can’t agree, then how would I find the answers?”
By doing making this effort to research food, I realized that we consider a variety of actually settled topics as controversial. The science has come to a conclusion, it’s just that there are opposition forces so loud that give the perception that there is no real scientific conclusion and it’s all up in the air.
I can say the Earth is flat. I can be so loud and persistent I may make you doubt that the earth is indeed round. But that doesn’t mean I’m right. Nor does it mean that the matter is not already settled.
Are there still controversial issues out there? Yes, of course. But many topics that are often viewed as controversial (hint: GMOs) are actually not.
9. The health and fitness industry is full of misinformation, and many people realize this fact.
A science-based health and fitness page? Love!
Soon after I started this series, I started getting congratulations along these lines.
I didn’t expect to get congratulations just because I’m in the health and fitness space. But then I started thinking about it.
The health and fitness industry is renowned for making unbacked, and sometimes even dangerous, claims. Was it a surprise that people were congratulating me?
I guess not, but since I hadn’t made the connection before I was really surprised for getting the applause. An awesome perk I must say!
10. I had no idea how underrepresented farmers felt
Completely and totally unexpected: farmers came to support my research!
At first it happened with the Organic Milk vs Regular Milk article. The article quickly gained more than 1000 shares and 200+ comments. Several farmers left comments thanking me for dispelling the organic hype.
Then I received more thanks for my GMO support and for writing about cattle welfare.
I saw it clearly: farmers feel attacked. They feel they are not heard. They are tired of being attacked by people who have never even talked to a farmer but get their information “from the internet.”
From GMOs to pesticides to claims that Monsanto blackmails farmers to buy their seeds, who is at a better position to answer your questions if not farmers? Here’s who to follow:
Nurse Loves Farmer: I discovered Sara early on after the SciBabe recommended her. In her site she talks about parenting and farming. She often clears up GMO and pesticides myths.
The Farm Babe: More about GMOs and just every day farm life. Plus, Michelle’s commentary. Check her out!
Dairy Carrie: I cannot even start explaining how much I’ve learned about dairy from Dairy Carrie. The types of cow breeds, birth stories, cows “in heat,” just click “like,” you won’t be disappointed.
The Farmer’s Wifee: I’ve been following Krista for a while. Her love for cows just radiates. It’s everywhere. Like to feel the love!
Ask the Farmers: Farmers got fed up for being underrepresented and decided to end the misinformation. That’s how Ask The Farmers was born. Got questions about how your food was produced? Ask!
The Farmer’s Daughter: Amanda, she’s an attorney. And a farmer’s daughter too. Like to join #teamAg and fight misinformation with her.
The Foodie Farmer: If you’re a farmer who likes food, the choice here is obvious!
Again, the list is not exclusive. So many awesome farmers out there!
11. People think themselves as “informed” while misunderstanding what science really is.
I noticed this again and again, esp. in the GMO article. People misunderstand their (mis)information as actual science and hence thinking they’re right.
When I’d ask for their scientific sources, they’d provide links to Youtube or some site on the web.
But these are not scientific sources, even if they talk about science.
For example, if I were to ask for a source, and you responded with a link from Fitness Reloaded, I’d ask again. Fitness Reloaded might talk about science, but it’s not a scientific journal. When asked for sources, don’t submit links to sites that talk about science, give links to the actual studies directly.
Okay so that was a big one. The second big misunderstanding is about study validity. Not all studies are created equal: sample size, methodology, journal published, peer-reviewed or not, double blind or not, repeatable or not, all those things make a difference in the credibility of a study.
Okay, I talked about my unexpected findings from my food research.
Now, let’s turn this back to you. What have you learned from the What We Should Really Be Eating? series? Was there anything you didn’t expect?
Oh, and if you haven’t yet liked the Fitness Reloaded page on Facebook, then please do it now!