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What the new study on organic food tells us...about the difficulty of making informed judgments about risk.
A study in the news last week perfectly captures why it’s getting harder and harder to figure out what’s risky. Maybe you heard about it…findings that suggest potential health benefits of organic food; Higher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of pesticide residues in organically grown crops: a systematic literature review and meta-analyses
The study illustrates three reasons why it’s getting harder to make informed judgments about risk.
1. More and more, scientists are acting as advocates as they do their research and write up their findings, selectively asking the just the right questions, applying just the right methods, and emphasizing just the right information to support their opinions rather than provide us with an honest dispassionate assessment of the evidence.
The paper shows a clear bias toward organic food in many ways. The authors repeatedly emphasize the potentially healthy advantages of organic crops. But if you read it closely, down on page 7 you will discover that the higher concentrations of antioxidants are found mostly in fruits, not vegetables, which, last I checked, were “crops” too. If you want to know which celery or cucumber or kale might be healthier, that‘s kind of a big detail to bury, don’t you think?
The paper claims that its advanced methods in reviewing 343 other studies provide a more accurate answer than other meta analyses of this question, most of which found no health benefits for organic v. conventional crops. But you have to read the paper closely to discover that its finding about the ‘lower incidence of pesticide residues’ on organic crops, one of the central findings the paper emphasizes, is based on only 11 of those 343 papers, 3% of the research they reviewed. Hardly the kind of robust evidence the paper claims it provides.
The paper emphasizes alarms about pesticide residues being more common on conventional than organic crops, but buries the fact that the actual levels of pesticides found on crops – the actual doses which we are consuming - are almost always “considered by regulators not to pose risk to consumers or the environment, as they are significantly lower than concentrations for which negative health or environmental impacts can be detected.” That critical fact is pretty important for anybody trying to figure out what risks their food might pose. But it diminishes a pro-organic spin, and it’s buried on page 12.
The authors even admit that despite general evidence that antioxidants may be good for us, “there is still a lack of knowledge about the potential human health impacts of increasing antioxidant/(poly)phenolic intake levels and switching to organic food consumption”. Science doesn’t know how much of the antioxidants in what we eat become ‘bioavailable’ to our system, what levels are optimal, even whether there might be levels of antioxidants that are dangerously high. That qualifier also takes some of the shine off the suggestion that organic food might be healthier, but it's pretty important, don’t you think? It’s buried on page 11.
2. Risk assessment is also getting harder these days because our brain uses a subconscious instinct-over-intellect risk perception system that relies on feelings more than facts, only the issues we face are more and more complex and need more careful analysis, not less. But even as we need more information, the modern news media shorten and simplify as never before, making mistakes and leaving out a lot of what we need to put things in perspective.
Consider the way many news media outlets reported the study;
--- Bloomberg/Businessweek said Organic Veggies Are Better for You: New Research Sides With Foodies That’s wrong. Remember what the study itself said, that the differences were mostly found in fruits but NOT ‘veggies’?
--- The Los Angeles Times reported that Organic foods are more nutritious, according to a review of 343 studies. Another oversimplified headline that's wrong. The story itself makes the same mistake, reporting that the study found that organic foods are ‘more healthful’. Nope.
--- And then there were the many versions like the one on Big Think, New Study finds Nutritional Benefit to Eating Organic Food, just two paragraphs (with a link to a Nature article with more) that also incorrectly overstates the health claim. That kind of short simplification is what a lot of the online news media now offer, eager to attract our clicks by not offending our short attention spans. So that’s all that most people, who with our lazy brains rarely click to find out more, end up knowing.
To be sure there was solid risk reporting too, from journalists I recommend you rely on for thoughtful coverage of risk stories;
-- Brad Plumer at Vox Is Organic food healthier? Many scientists are still skeptical
-- Nat Johnson, food writer at Grist, wrote Is organic food healthier? a new analysis adds...a question
-- Kenneth Chang at the New York Times wrote Study of Organic Crops Finds Fewer Pesticides and More Antioxidants
Chang, Plumer, and Johnson all made clear that this study does NOT say organic food is healthier for you…though it seems to. Chang challenged the senior author of the study about this, and Professor Carol Leifert backed off the suggestion that his paper clearly and repeatedly makes, that organic food is potentially healthier;
“We are not making health claims based on this study, because we can’t,” Leifert said. The study, which was based on the findings of other research projects, lacked enough evidence “to say organic food is definitely healthier for you, and it doesn’t tell you anything about how much of a health impact switching to organic food could have.” (Read the study itself and you sure get that impression.)
3. And it’s getting harder to intelligently assess risk when in an internet and social media age which provides unprecedented opportunity for anybody to reach the whole world with facts so obviously distorted and spun by advocacy that we ought to ignore them, except the nature of human cognition being what it is, the internet feeds our lazy brain’s preference for AFFIRMATION more than information.
--- OneGreenPlanet.org – guess where they’re coming from – reported,with an exclamation point, New Study Confirms Organic Food is More Nutritious!, noting (with an exclamation point) that the study offers the "most compelling and comprehensive evidence that organic crops are more nutritious than their conventional counterparts." (PLeasing news to fans of organic food, but wrong.)
--- Agroprofessional.com – guess where they’re coming from – reported Study claiming organic food more nutritious 'deeply flawed', noting that the research was"...an organic industry funded study” supported by a foundation that favors organic farming. Ad hominem attacks are a common tactic of advocates who, when they don’t like inconvenient evidence they can't attack directly, try to undermine the message by questioning the motives and trustworthiness of the messenger.
These hurdles to informed risk assessment are making the world a riskier place. Getting risk wrong –worrying too much or too little, creates a Risk Perception Gap between our feelings and the facts, and those misperceptions can lead to all sorts of dangerous choices and behaviors all by themselves.
This organic food study reveals a far more important insight than the level of antioxidants in your organic apples and oranges.
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
With just a few strategical tweaks, the Nazis could have won one of World War II's most decisive battles.
- The Battle of Britain is widely recognized as one of the most significant battles that occurred during World War II. It marked the first major victory of the Allied forces and shifted the tide of the war.
- Historians, however, have long debated the deciding factor in the British victory and German defeat.
- A new mathematical model took into account numerous alternative tactics that the German's could have made and found that just two tweaks stood between them and victory over Britain.
Two strategic blunders<p>Now, historians and mathematicians from York St. John University have collaborated to produce <a href="http://www-users.york.ac.uk/~nm15/bootstrapBoB%20AAMS.docx" target="_blank">a statistical model (docx download)</a> capable of calculating what the likely outcomes of the Battle of Britain would have been had the circumstances been different. </p><p>Would the German war effort have fared better had they not bombed Britain at all? What if Hitler had begun his bombing campaign earlier, even by just a few weeks? What if they had focused their targets on RAF airfields for the entire course of the battle? Using a statistical technique called weighted bootstrapping, the researchers studied these and other alternatives.</p><p>"The weighted bootstrap technique allowed us to model alternative campaigns in which the Luftwaffe prolongs or contracts the different phases of the battle and varies its targets," said co-author Dr. Jaime Wood in a <a href="https://www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/2020/research/mathematicians-battle-britain-what-if-scenarios/" target="_blank">statement</a>. Based on the different strategic decisions that the German forces could have made, the researchers' model enabled them to predict the likelihood that the events of a given day of fighting would or would not occur.</p><p>"The Luftwaffe would only have been able to make the necessary bases in France available to launch an air attack on Britain in June at the earliest, so our alternative campaign brings forward the air campaign by three weeks," continued Wood. "We tested the impact of this and the other counterfactuals by varying the probabilities with which we choose individual days."</p><p>Ultimately, two strategic tweaks shifted the odds significantly towards the Germans' favor. Had the German forces started their campaign earlier in the year and had they consistently targeted RAF airfields, an Allied victory would have been extremely unlikely.</p><p>Say the odds of a British victory in the real-world Battle of Britain stood at 50-50 (there's no real way of knowing what the actual odds are, so we'll just have to select an arbitrary figure). If this were the case, changing the start date of the campaign and focusing only on airfields would have reduced British chances at victory to just 10 percent. Even if a British victory stood at 98 percent, these changes would have cut them down to just 34 percent.</p>
A tool for understanding history<p>This technique, said co-author Niall Mackay, "demonstrates just how finely-balanced the outcomes of some of the biggest moments of history were. Even when we use the actual days' events of the battle, make a small change of timing or emphasis to the arrangement of those days and things might have turned out very differently."</p><p>The researchers also claimed that their technique could be applied to other uncertain historical events. "Weighted bootstrapping can provide a natural and intuitive tool for historians to investigate unrealized possibilities, informing historical controversies and debates," said Mackay.</p><p>Using this technique, researchers can evaluate other what-ifs and gain insight into how differently influential events could have turned out if only the slightest things had changed. For now, at least, we can all be thankful that Hitler underestimated Britain's grit.</p>
We’ve mapped a million previously undiscovered galaxies beyond the Milky Way. Take the virtual tour here.
See the most detailed survey of the southern sky ever carried out using radio waves.
Astronomers have mapped about a million previously undiscovered galaxies beyond the Milky Way, in the most detailed survey of the southern sky ever carried out using radio waves.
A new study shows our planet is much closer to the supermassive black hole at the galaxy's center than previously estimated.
Credit: NAOJ<p><em>Arrows on this map show position and velocity data for the 224 objects utilized to model the Milky Way Galaxy. The solid black lines point to the positions of the spiral arms of the Galaxy. Colors reflect groups of objects that are part of the same arm, while the background is a simulation image.</em></p>
Apple sold its first iPod in 2001, and six years later it introduced the iPhone, which ushered in a new era of personal technology.