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Stanford Organic Food Study Backlash Redo: Another Selective Critical Look

Posted Oct 04 2012 9:41am
This is rich. Mark Bittman debunking the Stanford organics  study from last month or as he called it in the title of his piece  That Flawed Stanford Study.  You remember the study - the one showing organic fruits and veggies provided no more nutrients or minerals than traditionally-grown ones (i.e. with pesticides).  I followed my original post with a second one  given the slap down it got from organic enthusiasts around the Internet who quite correctly objected to the fact most people don't eat organic for more vitamins but to refrain from ingesting potential toxins.

Here's the good news. Bittman, the cookbook auteur (yes I own several) hammered away at that findings like a man on a mission. He sounded a lot like me. His column could have been something I'd write after getting all worked up over some study catching lots of attention. 

He labored to show how the study is limited (i.e. the narrow definition of nutritious)
He bashed the media for reporting on a "counter intuitive" finding.
He faulted dramatic headlines for suggesting pesticide-ridden foods are just as healthy as organic ones.
He objected to the regular appearance of suspect studies in the news.

Bittman also sought out an expert or two to help him spot a supposed flaw in the analyses that might have made a significant difference in one nutrient appear insignificant. The nutrient in question, however, really wouldn't sway the overall results much because none of the other numerous nutrients differed significantly. From a methodological/statistical perspective it also could be argued the one significant difference among many insignificant ones could be not a real significant difference but the result of a fishing expedition.  Gee, let's put the pole in one more time and see what we got. Oh a live one!

While I applaud a detailed, critical review of empirical evidence and its subsequent treatment in the media, I'm amused it's coming from the same man who just this summer argued going dairy-free cured his chronic heartburn - while citing zero empirical evidence save a survey of family and friends, clearly only a representative sample of his family and friends. Not exactly rigorous.  As some of you might recall from my post about it Bittman went cold turkey on dairy on the advice from his doctor, the co-founder of the defunct Defeat Autism Now organization who has also more than dabbled in suspicious claims about curing autism via diet. The only other professional Bittman sought out to bolster his argument was a spokesperson affiliated with a vegan organization. Not exactly an objective source. He might as well have called his auntie. 

Yet now we pan to Bittman's hard-hitting attack on "that flawed" Stanford study...putting it in time out along with other "suspect conclusions derived from suspect studies." So now unlike his earlier lax attitude towards data gathering and finessing Bittman now convieniently has a problem with suspicious conclusions. 

Convenient.

Also Bittman clearly disputes not only the findings of the study but its very existence as if it's not important at all to establish whether organic foods have more nutrients.  He suggests it's not valuable data even if the analyses are correct.  I say it is still a valid topic to research especially in light of the cost of organics in addition to some evidence pesticide residue varies across types of produce.

Imagine if the study had found significant benefits for organics - you'd be reading about it for years to come in articles - would commentators then see it as a valuable study?

Anyhow, the Stanford meta-analytic study is part of a broader effort to study organic versus traditional food - it's the kind of basic work that used to get much less media coverage in the past because it's really not a study of great importance. I won't penalize Bittman for not considering the value of small, basic projects. To my knowledge he has no research background. 

But I can fault him and other journalists and news organizations for their selective critical coverage of empirical research. Bittman isn't kicking up a fuss because he's galled by routine methodological errors or the exaggeration of study results in the media. No, he truly believe organic food is much healthier for a variety of reasons and he wants readers to entirely dismiss the Stanford researchers who've provided some evidence to the contrary.

If this selective and often faulty reporting on empirical evidence sounds familiar to New York Times subscribers, it should.  Bittman's fellow New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof often cherry picks evidence in his campaign to raise awareness about not only pesticides but a variety of toxins. I pick on Kristof a lot, sorry Nicole, but I like his column and respect him so just wish he'd get it together to make a more cogent examination of all the facts. I like Bittman too, like his column for the most part.

It's not only journalists affiliated with the NY Times who routinely botch the evidence when writing outside their expertise. Just recently  Consumer Reports  really mucked it up writing about pregnancy-related health matters and did so with a not-so-hidden midwives rule, natural-childbirth-is best bias.

   
If only the media and especially well-regarded persons with a large following or some recognized expertise would use the same critical lens when looking at all evidence including studies that confirm their existing beliefs and not just the ones that conflict with their agendas, worldviews, life experiences or diets...then I might actually have time to cook a nutritious dinner and remember which plastics I can throw in the recycling bin.
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