Archive for August, 2016

Beware the meme


I recently shared a meme on Facebook that made the following claims:

  • GMOs are safe.
  • Most farms are still family farms.
  • There are no antibiotics in your meat.
  • Organic does not mean healthy.
  • We don’t drench crops in toxic chemicals.
  • Farm animals are treated well.
  • Monsanto doesn’t control the food supply.
  • Farmers are not the bad guys.

(Original source:

I originally shared this as a “yah, I agree with most of this stuff” Facebook meme. I hadn’t thought carefully or critically about all of the claims. I know they aligned with my general feelings (biases? prejudices?), and I know they were popular beliefs among my social circle (online and in person).

But those are, of course, very bad reasons for propagating ideas. Fortunately, some of my Facebook friends very quickly called me out on the post. Different people objected to different of the claims, but the general takeaway was clear: I needed to research and back up the claims, or retract them.

So here I go, looking at each of the claims. I have a feeling that I won’t end up agreeing with all of them. But, if I am true to myself, I will end up with a more defensible and (more importanly) more accurate picture of things than what I started with.

Now, I am an expert in exactly one of the claims, and it is the least important from a scientific standpoint. (Spoiler: it’s the last one.) So, when it comes to evaluating them, I will have to rely on other experts. And, because I do not fact-check Facebook memes as a full-time job, I will necessarily be doing this mostly over the Internet. So how will I know that the conclusions I reach aren’t just as biased as my initial pass was? How will I decide which search results to follow and trust, and which to disregard?

Well, I’ll set up some criteria that (to the best of my knowledge) are not biased toward a particular conclusion.

Science is the key. If a claim is supported by scientific evidence, and not refuted by better scientific evidence, then it is a claim worth believing. If it has no scientific support, poor scientific support, or scientific support that is overridden by other evidence, then it is not worth believing. So, the gold standard of evidence will be scientific studies.

But I am not able to comb through the scientific literature of all of the relevant fields. So I will also rely on summary articles, including news articles from sources I believe are relatively unbiased and blog posts from sites whose goal is clearly scientific accuracy. Yes, I know that this introduces the potential for bias on my part. Who do I judge to be scientific and who is being ideological? Well, all I can say is that I’ll do my best, and post this publicly (and on Facebook) so that any errors can be pointed out.

So my last line of defense is the same as that which prompted this deep dive: you folks, my friends and readers. If you see me making a claim that is not backed up by a good source, or citing a source that you think is more biased than I am treating it, call me out. Ultimately, the only way I can get past the biases I don’t even know I have is if people point them out. I will take your feedback as constructively as I can. (Any scientific references you can offer will be appreciated.)

I know I can be long-winded, so I’m going to parse this out as one claim per post. When I’m done, I’ll put an index on this post linking to each of the separate claims.

For those of you on Facebook, you are welcome to comment there as each post comes out. However, the blog is more public, so I’d love as much of the discussion as possible to happen there.

Here goes …