Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Cherry-Picking Science

Random ramblings from The Conscious Shopper

First off, thanks to everyone who has voted for my family's video to win a Nissan Leaf. If you haven't voted yet, here's your chance. I promise you, that video is worth clicking over to see.


Arduous had an interesting post about "science denialists" the other day that reminded me about something I was thinking about many months ago when I wrote a post about cloth diapers. I noted in the post that life cycle analyses indicate that cloth and disposable diapers are equally bad for the planet. Someone commented to the effect of "How can you possibly think cloth and disposables are equal? Cloth is obviously much better than disposables and those studies are biased."

When I read that comment, I thought to myself, "I just linked to a reputable source showing you the life cycle analyses, and still you don't believe it? Don't you trust science?"

But truthfully, I myself don't always trust science, and I easily fall prey to non-scientific theories:
  • I am currently doing an elimination diet with my oldest to find out what he might be allergic to mainly because I read that allergies might be the cause of extreme behavior issues. His doctor supports this idea.
  • About the time I had my youngest, I read some things that in combination with my autistic brother-in-law made me decide to slow my son's vaccination schedule way way down. (Not the now debunked theory about mercury and vaccinations, but a theory that children with a genetic immunodeficiency disorder might be more susceptible to extreme reactions to vaccinations - high fevers and such - which in turn might cause autism.) His doctor did not support this idea.
  • I've called my husband a dozen annoying times from the grocery store to ask, "Should we buy whole milk or skim? Is wheat good for us or bad? Who do I believe - the whole foods advocates or the FDA?" I've settled on whole milk for yogurt, whole milk cheese, and skim for drinking. Wheat is still up in the air.
I'm not a science denier, but more of a science skeptic. In my experience, science has been wrong about a lot of things, so why should I automatically believe or disbelieve something just because a scientist says it's so? And I don't think I'm alone with this attitude in the green world - especially in the green blogging world where you can find hundreds of posts about natural remedies, healthy eating theories, and possibly (though not proven) harmful chemicals.

And yet...I've seen time and time again where a green blogger will post on one day about the health benefits of drinking whole milk even though the FDA says we should drink skim, or wax poetic about the environmental benefits of using cloth diapers even though scientific studies have shown that cloth and disposables are equally bad for the planet, or insist that pesticides are bad for our health even though scientists claim that the trace amounts of pesticides left on fruits and vegetables are not harmful. And then on the next day, they'll write something like, "How can someone not believe in climate change? Don't they trust the climate scientists?"

Are we hypocrites? Can we have it both ways? Can we say on the one hand that people shouldn't trust the nutritionists or the doctors or the government and on the other hand criticize people who are skeptical of climate science? Can we lean heavily on science to support one theory while outright denying other commonly accepted scientific conclusions? Are we cherry-picking science?

Or maybe there's a divide among environmentalists? Those who want to protect the environment because of science versus those who love the natural world despite science?

I hope it doesn't sound like I'm trying to point fingers or criticize anyone here. I'm certainly guilty of all of these accusations, and these are just some random thoughts that I've been thinking about for awhile now. I'm just wondering if others have ever noticed this before.

Do you have any thoughts on the subject?

*image by whologwhy


Krista said...

There's science and there's science. FDA might think that skim milk is good for you and bases that on science and then there's Weston A Price Foundtation ( who say that whole milk is good and base that on science.
It would be so much easier if there would be one science and that's the truth, but...

Also I recommend you read Gut and Psychology Syndrome by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride. You may or may not agree with it, but I found it enlightening.

Michelle said...

You have presented a lot of good questions and a valid point about cherry picking with science. Since there is so much discrepancy in information presented by the FDA and other scientists/organizations, I think it's important to decide for yourself what is best. We really are forced to make that decision otherwise we could never choose what to eat.

I personally agree with the Weston A. Price association, but that is because their fundamental beliefs make a lot of sense to me. Eating foods in their whole, natural state is what people would have done years ago. If I'm not physically capable of processing a food a certain way (with heat, pressure, etc.), I'm not sure I should eat it.

I think it also helps to look at the reasons for why historically, for example, milk is processed the way it is. Pasteurized, homogenized, reduced fat- it doesn't always correlate back to true health benefits for us. If it's benefiting a company, I am most wary of using that product. Hope this helps a little!

Green Bean said...

Honestly, I think there are so many studies commissioned by certain agencies these days and there is a general distrust of "the government" on all sides. Sadly, that leaves us in the current climate change conundrum. I'm assuming studies sponsored by particular companies and industries are not as prevalent in other countries as Europe, China and Canada and, well gosh everywhere, all have significantly higher percentages of their population who believe in climate change.

When it comes to health care, we too did no or slow vaccines and I did a lot of diets with one of my children. Even I don't know what helped and what didn't but I guess I just did what made sense and, with so much skewed science these days, I think we all just need to trust our guts.

Daisy said...

My advice, as a green blogger, gardener, and science teacher, is this: do the research. Include in your research the background of the group publicizing the research. Do they have something to sell? A point to make? Reputation means everything in terms of reliable science research.

De in D.C. said...

So much of science these days is sponsored by an interested party. That which is not often doesn't have the funding to take a holistic approach to the subject, but rather the scientists need to focus on a particular aspect.

I think of vaccines. Mercy was thought to cause problems in some patients. Mercury was removed, but problems still persist. Mercy was generally replaced with aluminum as a preservative, which is thought to have it's own host of problems. Factor in the compounded vaccines, and it's hard to get a holistic study on vaccines in general. So while I trust science and think there is a lot of really good research being done, I do cherry pick a bit since I know that a single report outlining some finding could not have possibly taken into account every scenario.

SustainaMom said...

*clap, clap, clap* That is my standing ovation. Science is wonderful and frustrating. And the Internet makes it so easy to find a "source" to support any point of view should you wish...

As for the theories, I think it is interesting to see what we as moms start trying when we can't figure out bad-behavior triggers. I'd be very interested to see what you learn from the elimination diet.

Betsy (Eco-novice) said...

I would like to respectfully disagree with our portrayal of cloth and disposables being equally bad for the environment. I've seen these studies too and actually did a case study on it while a public policy student. I think they might be equally bad if you use a diaper service or do 3 extra rinses and use bleach everytime. I use a front loader with eco-friendly detergent, usually do no extra rinses, use cold or warm water, sometimes line dry, bought my diapers used, will use them for several children and then pass them along to someone else. I sincerely doubt I am having a greater impact on the environment than someone tossing 6-12 disposable diapers a day. Plus, disposables use fossil fuels and scary chemicals, a non-renewable source. There, that's my cloth diaper rant.

I am a skeptic in general, although I do value scientific research more than lots of things. I too know that science has often been wrong, but it's one of the best tools we've got. As for the FDA, I'd hardly call nutrition a "science." Also do slow vacs -- I think there are still a lot of unknowns there.

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

@Krista - Yes, I should read that book. That's exactly the theory that led me to try the elimination diet with my son. He's off wheat, dairy, soy, eggs, and oats right now because those are common allergens, but I'd be interested to see if those are the same things recommended in the book.

@Michelle - A lot of the Weston A. Price theories make sense to me too, which is why I struggle with it. On the other hand, it seems like a lot of what they say are pure theories and have not been scientifically tested, which makes me skeptical. But I haven't ruled any of it out!

@Green Bean - Excellent point about using other countries as a guide.

@Daisy - Good advice!

@De in DC - Yes, that's the problem with so many scientific studies.

@Sustainamom - We're at the point now where we're ready to start reintroducing foods. I'll let you know how it goes.

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

@Betsy - As a cloth user, I spent a lot of years arguing in favor of cloth also, but <a href=">here's the article from Umbra at Grist</a> that finally convinced me. The study from the British Environment Agency that she cites, and which I read through as best I could, really does take into an amazing amount of factors. She also points out there are some factors that could push cloth ahead - possibly the factors you mention, but there are also factors that could push disposables ahead. But I especially agree with her point that there are so many bigger issues - both environmentally and parentally - to worry about that it's not worth the effort to keep arguing about something that most studies say are equal. On this one, I'm trusting science.

That's not to say that I don't think cloth diapers are better in plenty of other ways. They're a ton cheaper, especially when using them with multiple kids, and they are so darn cute. I loved my cloth diapers!

Betsy (Eco-novice) said...

I'm not convinced. I took a look at the assumptions in the LCA for cloth diapers (p. 54-55 and they are assuming purchase of new diapers (mine are ALL used, since I bought used and/or used with another child), soaking (which I didn't do), probably bleached conventional cotton (my diapers are unbleached, mostly conventional), some vinyl covers (which I don't use), I use cooler temperatures and fewer rinses, I definitely don't iron my diapers (!!!), I don't use fabric softener and I wash every 4 days, not every 2 (LCA assumption).

Maybe the average cloth diaper user is having a similar impact to a typical disposable diaper user (in the UK), but as a cloth diaper user, I have MUCH MORE CONTROL over all these variables that impact the environment, and, with very little effort, I am seriously deviating from their assumptions about the "average" cloth diaper user. As a disposable diaper user, you can't do much more than switch brands. You can't change the manufacturing process, extraction of oil process, shipping process, or anything else.

But even if the carbon footprint is "equal", I have no idea how they can claim that human toxicity is equal. Most disposables don't even disclose their ingredients. Well, looking at the LCA (p. 101, for example) it looks like they are talking about human toxicity in terms of chemicals released into the air/water (probably due to manufacture, shipping, washing, disposable, etc.), and not with respect to a bunch of chemicals sitting against your child's genitals, which was a major motivator for me to switch to cloth.

And, yes, cloth is cheaper, esp. as the price of oil goes up. Probably what we should all be doing is potty training earlier, which is what we are trying to do at my house (and which, again, cloth facilitates since kids can feel when they pee). My daughter has been pooping in the potty almost all the time since about age 1, which definitely makes the washing routine more eco-friendly.

I also want to add that I have waffled a lot about milk myself too. Currently we are drinking non-homogenized organic whole milk in glass bottles, but I'm thinking of switching to 2% after recently reading an article about dioxin:

I knew that toxins are stored in fat. This article just brought it to the front of my mind again. Honestly, it often feels like there's either not enough or too much information to make a good decision.

As my sister just realized she is gluten-intolerant (and feels amazingly better now that she's stopped eating it), I've become a little wary of wheat too. I'm currently trying to broaden our grain horizons.

And now I think I have used up my comment word quota.

Heather said...

As well as considering whether the science is likely to be biased by its funders, it's also important to consider what the science actually says. This is often not what the journalists reporting it say that it says.

For example, that report on a LCA of different kinds of nappies is an analysis of the environmental impacts of different kinds of nappies as they are currently used by the British public.  It's not looking at whether you can have a smaller environmental impact by using cloth rather than disposables: it's examining whether cloth as currently used in Britain has a smaller environmental impact than disposables as currently used in Britain.  Their surveys found that 80% of British cloth nappy users pre-soak the nappies in some kind of whitener before washing, 50% use a fabric softener and 10% iron them (!!!!), so this is the scenario they did their LCA on.  They didn't look at a 'best case scenario' of cloth nappy use such as Betsy's, so they don't really have anything to say about her situation.

The same with FDA food guidelines. The scientists who put them together are describing what sort of diet would cause the best health outcomes for the whole population if everyone adopted it.  Their brief does not include special situations such as your child who happens to have celiac disease or gut and psychology syndrome, nor considerations outside of the direct health impact on the individual eating the diet such as ethical farming practises or climate change.  Their reccomendations never claim to describe your ideal diet, and should not be treated as if they did.

And the same with climate change.  The climate scientists say (amongst other things) that the planet is warming.  The fact that your local area has been unusually cold recently is irrelevant: the scientists never said anything about your area, just the planet as a whole.


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