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Science can be a dirty word

The public doesn’t understand science, and reporters often don’t do a great job covering it. Not that there are good excuses, but here’s how it can happen

Wheat seedling in measuring cylinder, close-up

Science is a dirty word these days. Or perhaps just a word that more and more people don’t understand.

And you should be concerned because that lack of basic scientific knowledge is driving distrust of modern agriculture.

“It’s a big, big issue,” Al Scholz told me. Al is the executive director and registrar of the Saskatchewan Institute of Agrologists. It’s going to be the biggest issue facing agriculture, if it isn’t already, he said.

The pressure is on farmers to produce more food for a growing population. How much more food depends on who you ask, but Al said the bottom line is we have to produce more with the same land — and half the inputs — to be sustainable.

“So how the heck are we going to do that? Well, we’re going to do that through research, through science,” said Al. But if researchers’ hands are tied, we’ll have challenges, Al added.

Part of the problem is media missteps. Al said he doesn’t have any concerns with farm journalists, but he does with urban media. It doesn’t take a lot of digging around to find examples of poor science reporting, whether or not it’s related to agriculture.

I think most journalists want their work to be balanced and factual. But we make mistakes, especially when it comes to science. Here are a few reasons why.

Controversy makes a good story

A few months ago, a local farmer was teasing me about how much reporters like hearing about farmers’ problems. And it’s true. Stories with a problem or controversy are interesting to write and read.

But controversy doesn’t always add up to good science reporting. For example, if all my sources agree on the science, does it make sense to then dig up someone who disagrees, but has no real background on the issue?

Excluding certain sources from a story opens a reporter up to accusations of bias. But always seeking out contrarians and giving them equal weight is not necessarily balanced reporting. And sometimes journalists need to ask sources how they know what they say they know. That single question would take care of many of these problems.

We love anecdotes

A well-chosen anecdote can frame the story and pull readers in. And sometimes all we have are anecdotes because the research hasn’t been done yet. Many farmers make very astute observations about what’s going on in the field and I’m reluctant to dismiss those observations.

But drawing sweeping conclusions from anecdotes puts us on thin ice, especially if those few anecdotes contradict valid research. Correlation doesn’t equal causation — in other words, just because two events seem to be connected, it doesn’t mean one caused the other. It could be sheer coincidence. This is one of the main fallacies with the anti-vaccination movement.

And even if we are sure one event caused another, we don’t always know that first event will cause the same reaction in every situation.

Let me give you a real-life example. A few years ago, my mom fainted at a potluck. Her blood pressure plummeted. Her lips turned blue. We had to call the ambulance. The doctors ran some tests but couldn’t pinpoint a cause.

A week or so later, we were at another potluck. She had one bite of salad and started to feel ill. A Benadryl eased her symptoms.

What was she eating when she had both these reactions? Quinoa.

(Who kept bringing the quinoa salad to these potlucks, you ask? Me.)

The allergy specialist couldn’t test for quinoa, but he agreed with her observations. And as quinoa is now mixed into crackers and bread, she’s been able to replicate the results at least once more.

It’s safe to conclude my mother has a severe quinoa allergy. Does this mean people should be wary about eating quinoa? Unless you’re my mom, the answer is no. It’s a rare, oddball allergy.

Strange anecdotes are interesting to read about. But we should be wary of so-called experts who rely solely on anecdotes to convince of us of widespread problems.

Sometimes junk science looks like the read deal

A few years ago John Heard, fertility specialist with Manitoba Agriculture, set out to prove how easily data can be manipulated. He set up a statistically valid research project, applying a “growth enhancer” to canola in place of nitrogen. At 11 of the 20 plots, the growth enhancer bumped biomass yield significantly.

What was in this growth enhancer, you ask? Diluted maple syrup.

But don’t throw out your nitrogen and load up on maple syrup yet. Heard had cherry-picked the results, grouping the positive yields together. At eight sites, the treated plots yielded less than the checks. Plus, he measured biomass yield, not grain yield.

Heard also treated spring wheat plots with maple syrup. Other plots received nitrogen. Those results looked promising, too, unless you looked at the check. Then you would see the untreated wheat did just as well. The previous year’s soybean crop had left plenty of residual nitrogen in the soil.

Heard showed us how easily data can be manipulated. Sadly, this happens in the real world, with dire consequences. You know that whole debate about whether vaccinations cause autism? That was launched by a medical researcher who cherry-picked his results to show a link where none existed. The study was published by The Lancet, a peer-reviewed medical journal, in 1998.

I could add many more reasons why we get it wrong. We work under deadlines, and with the Internet, many journalists have tighter deadlines than 20 years ago. Despite our best efforts, we sometimes give in to our own biases. We generally have word counts that limit how much detail and nuance we can add to a story.

But I’m cautiously optimistic that science reporting is improving. The Toronto Star faced plenty of criticism recently for running a hatchet job on a vaccine that prevents cervical cancer in women. And, as I write this, The Fifth Estate is promoting an upcoming story that promises to take a critical look at the anti-wheat food trend.

If we keep at it, science will cease being a bad word. Perhaps it will get the respect it actually deserves.

About the author

Field Editor

Lisa Guenther

Lisa Guenther is field editor for Grainews based at Livelong, Sask. You can follow her on Twitter @LtoG.



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