Citizen, Fact Check Thyself

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There is a petition on Change.org currently circulating calling for a ban on the use of growth hormones in poultry production in the state of Michigan. The petitioner makes a very convincing, heartfelt pitch for why we should stop using growth hormones when raising broiler chickens:

Growth hormones often cause chicken to grow at such an unnatural pace of growth that the chicken can no longer hold its own weight and their legs break and they become immobilized. … Growth hormones can often cause premature development of puberty, types of cancer, and myocardial infarction. The only person that comes out winning of this situation is the animal factories and farms making profit out of the chickens misery and our unhealthy lifestyle. The US is one of the only developed nation to not ban these hormones. Growth hormones should not be allowed in Michigan, this hazard should be removed or more properly supervised.

At this writing, nearly 9000 people have signed the petition and the comment section is filled with righteous denunciations of the use of growth hormones and vows to only buy chicken labeled “hormone free”.

There is just one little problem with this appeal.

GROWTH HORMONES ARE ALREADY BANNED FOR USE IN U.S. POULTRY PRODUCTION.

True fact. You can look it up. Hormone use in poultry production has been banned in the United States since the 1950s.

It’s a common misconception. Broiler chickens have been bred to grow much faster than they used to. There are health issues for the birds related to that. In that context, it’s easy to understand why someone would be under the impression that the birds were receiving artificial growth hormones (instead of producing more “naturally”). It’s easy to understand someone basing their purchasing habits on this misconception. It’s easy to understand someone passing this bit of misinformation along at a dinner party. Or in a Facebook meme.

What’s harder to understand is how someone could get so worked up about that they would take the time to create a petition without asking the most basic question somebody should ask before they put out a strong opinion in public and ask other people to act on it.

***** UPDATE (October 21, 2016 – 9:00 am PST) : Due to the comments from members of Food and Farm Discussion Lab, the author did admit their mistake and amend the petition to another goal. Why you are allowed to completely change the topic of a petition after thousands of people have signed it is beyond me, but I’m glad she was open to evidence when it was finally presented to her. *****

What is that question?

You might think that question is something along the lines of “What is the current law in the state of Michigan regarding hormone use in poultry production?” or “I wonder where I could find some sources to footnote my pitch in order to make it more persuasive and authoritative.”

Those are good questions, but they are too specific. The most basic question is much more universally applicable. That questions is:

” DO I HAVE ANY FRICKING IDEA WHAT I’M ACTUALLY TALKING ABOUT AND HOW DO I KNOW WHAT I THINK I KNOW? “

Obviously it would be nice if people ran everything we say through this sort of filter. We don’t. That’s OK, it’s not that big a deal. We’ve been talking out of our asses since the day after we started talking. If we had to fact check ourselves every time we opened our mouths, we’d have very little to talk about. But, we do do it. And it is unfortunate.

I think I first become aware of this in the 1990’s when I was a union organizer in the South. I lived in Atlanta and worked in mostly out in rural communities around the region during the week. Some weekends I’d make it home and might even end up at a dinner party. Inevitably, somebody would ask me what I did for a living and when I would tell them. They’d say, “Ah unions, I think they were necessary at one time, but it seems like they’ve outlasted their usefulness.” And then they’d start holding forth on what they thought they knew about unions, industrial relations, and the labor movement.

Now I was somebody who was fairly widely read on these issues, I’d read stacks of books on labor history; and on recent and current events I’d read every book, every magazine and every newspaper article I could get my hands on. Plus, I worked in the field. I knew people in other unions and I worked with people who had been union organizers for decades. So, in addition to my own experiences, I had picked up tons through osmosis and careful study. Labor was already on the ropes at that point and I was well aware of the good, the bad and the ugly. I knew what was wrong and what mistakes had been made, inside and out. Believe me.

Aside from the sheer rudeness of insulting my chosen vocation, it became clear to me within a minute or two, that they were just spouting received wisdom and a half understood anecdote or two from an uncle or one of their dad’s friends. It was doubly rude, because when I asked them what they did for a living, I’d ask follow up questions about what they did instead of holding forth about what I thought about what they did for a living.

I could tell that they didn’t really know what they were talking about. I’d sit there and just want to challenge them to start writing down everything they knew about unions that they really, really knew to be true. They’d lucky be able to squeeze out paragraph or two.

But that challenge that I wanted to issue them, as my blood boiled, stuck with me. And I started to issue it to myself. What do I really know about such and such topic that I’ve got strong opinions about? How many paragraphs could I get past a fact check?

Ever since, I’ve always been cautious about getting out of my depth and spouting off on things I only think I know something about. That’s something I hope I bring to my writing, but to an even higher level. I can’t say that I’ve never passed along factoids in conversation that I assumed to be true because they sounded true, but if I put something in writing, I know to a near certainty that it will pass muster with a fact checker. And I have to say that I think it’s sad that in saying this it probably sounds like I’m bragging, but it shouldn’t be a boast to say that I try to make sure that I know what I’m talking about when I put something in writing.

I don’t know anything about the person who put up this petition other than that they lack that self-awareness. At the risk of being unfair to them, I bring it up because I think it’s indicative of something in the current climate. On issues related to food and farming there is a disconcerting sense of license to hold strong opinions based on weak knowledge. When it comes to food and farming people feel oddly entitled to hold forth, and even to issue clarion calls for reform based on little or bad information. Blatant misconceptions seem to more easily gain traction in the discussions and debates about food, agriculture, the food system as a whole than in other areas of public interest. I don’t know if it’s sampling error, because these are the waters I swim in, but I can’t think of another set of issues – nutrition and food production – where people are more likely to spout off without knowing what the hell they are talking about.

To some extent it makes sense. We all eat. Food is the consumer good we have the most intimate relationship with. We put it into our bodies at least three times a day (at least those of us who are fortunate enough to have that minimum level of access). It’s something we are all so familiar with it’s easy to feel like an expert. In addition, there are lots of confident voices in places like the New York Times * telling us tales about the food system characterized more by truthiness than solid evidence and analysis. It’s easy to find someone tell you things that feel true. Truthiness abounds when it comes to food and farming.

But please, Stephen Colbert coined the term Truthiness over decade ago, in his premiere episode on October 17, 2005. We’ve all had plenty of time to internalize the concept and become wary of falling for things because they feel true. The discussions and debates around food are creaking under the weight of piles of truthiness and bullshit. And yet, we get impassioned pleas to outlaw things that are already against the law.

So I make this plea:
Please, before your type, fact check yourself. Or Food and Farm Discussion Lab will do it for you.

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* Here’s Michael Pollan on the lack of editorial oversight he received from the New York Times allowing him to tell “just-so” stories to a national audience:

The media has really been on our side for the most part. I know this from writing for the New York Times where I’ve written about a lot of other topics, but when I wrote about food I never had to give equal time to the other side. I could say whatever I thought and offer my own conclusions. Say you should buy grass feed beef and organic is better, and these editors in New York didn’t realize there is anyone who disagrees with that point of view. So I felt like I got a free ride for a long time.

So here you have someone who DID fact check himself, but he told what he knew were slanted stories anyways, because he knew he could count on not being fact checked by the New York Times editors or the New York Times readership. As Donald Trump might tweet: SAD!

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  • FosterBoondoggle

    Great essay. I noticed a variant of this phenomenon when I used to subscribe to the British magazine The Economist, whose house style on their often non-bylined articles (I don’t know if this is still their common practice) was a sort of magisterial omniscience. At the beginning, I enjoyed reading it because the tone gave me the sense that they really knew what they were talking about, and the writing style was more adult than that of, say, Time or Newsweek (which I think were targeting a 7th grade reading level). But over time, I saw articles where I happened to know something about the topic — inevitably, it would turn out that the writer was spouting all sorts of nonsense in that definitively knowing voice. Once that happened a few times, it was worse than if I just thought the were writing from a perspective of lay knowledge. The knowing tone became grating, I started to actively mistrust their writers and shortly (around the time of their cheerleading for Bush in 2000) dropped the subscription.

    I don’t think there’s much that can be “fixed” here. It seems to happen all over the place. And we’re all more exposed to it than ever because of social media.

  • Ray E.

    Reminded me of this blog post by a specialist in tropical ants …

    >>As a corollary, if you are attempting to elicit certain kinds of responses from people, then you need to appeal to their biases and emotions at least as much as their rationality. This goes a long way towards having healthy interactions with students. And colleagues. And reviewers. And everybody else in your professional and private life.

    Perhaps embracing this fact can help us understand ourselves a little better too. Don’t decide whether that is true based on your emotions! If so many other people make most of their decisions principally using bias and emotion, why should we be any different? Well, we’re special, because we’re scientists? Maybe just a little bit. Or maybe not.<<

    https://smallpondscience.com/2015/06/22/people-are-irrational/