How to Use Critical Thinking Skills Without A Science Background

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“Monsanto Fails Farmers Again – Tell USDA to Ban GMO Seeds”

“DNA from GMOs can pass directly into humans, study confirms”

“GMOs are bad. They’re banned in 60+ countries”

 

How To Critically Think GMOs Without A Science Background

GMO Corn

There isn’t a day that I don’t see headlines such as these in my social media newsfeed. One particular article, “Why I Changed My Stance on Eating Organic Food,” came across my newsfeed and I noticed the author was a dietician. When I think of dietitians, I think of integrity so I was interested to hear what the author had to say about why she changed her stance on eating organic food. When I finished reading the article, there were a number of “red flags” and knew I needed to do some “critical thinking” research on some of her statements. But how do I use critical thinking skills about GMOs without a science background?

Even though I am a farmer, I will admit my science background is not very strong. How does one know what is true and what is merely propaganda? I will show you, step-by-step, on how I used critical thinking skills to examine how valid her claims were. 

Statement #1:

“I became a spokesperson for CLIF Bar in Canada, and as their products are at least 70 percent organic, I became better educated about organic farming, seeds, and crops, and their impact on the environment, and on us as the consumer.” 

RED FLAG moment. Okay, the first thing that comes to mind is if she is a spokesperson, do you think she is getting paid? Probably . . . You think there might be a little bias? I will let you answer that on your own.

Statement #2:

“Corn is used as a pesticide.”

I am still a little confused by this phrase. Corn is not used as a pesticide, but rather, is a grain used for livestock feed, ethanol and human food. It seems to me she is misconstruing the facts and is probably referring to BT (bacillus thuringiensis) corn. I will try to keep this explanation about BT corn as simple as possible–BT is a natural bacteria commonly found in soils and is NOT toxic to humans. In fact, I probably have breathed in BT numerous times just by standing outside of my house because we have soil nearby. BT produces a protein that when ingested by certain larva-type insects (such as corn borer, which is very destructive to corn plants) causes death in those insects. BT targets specific insects, not all insects. In fact, organic famers can use BT as a pesticide for their organic crops. Injected BT is also used in some organic plants. BT corn is genetically engineered by isolating a specific gene that produces the protein (the protein that causes death in insects) and that one gene is placed into the corn plant. This results in a GMO (genetically modified organism)–One gene out of tens of thousands of genes. When the insects start to eat the corn plant, they will ingest the BT protein and die. Only at the time the protein is in the gut of a larva is it considered a pesticide. It has absolutely no effect on humans. In addition, Bt has helped drop organophosphates (which are very bad) by 50%. This is a fact that was conveniently not talked about. 

Statement #3:

“Systemic pesticides have been in the news lately because they’re being implicated in the deaths of millions of bees, and when bees die, 75% of the crops we eat don’t get pollinated, which is deadly to the plants and to the ecosystem.”

Yes, we need to find out what is happening to our bee population. Many think neonics (an insecticide applied to seeds) are suspect in bee death and yet there is research to refute those claims. Neonics has nothing to do with genetically engineered plants although it seems she insinuates it in her article. For a balanced view on the neonics/bees issue, read Save The Bees, But Not With An All-Out Pesticide Ban. The bottom line is we need to keep researching the cause of colony disorder and do what is necessary to protect the bees.

Statement #4:

“It has been found that at least 90% of these pesticides don’t even go into the crops; they go into the environment: the soil, the water, and the animals who eat the coated seeds, crawl in the contaminated ground, and swim in the contaminated water.”

There are many questions that arise from this statement. There is no reference to the source of the 90% statement. What specific pesticides is she talking about? Remember the EPA monitors and would not allow soil or waters to be contaminated to a level that is harmful to humans or animals. On a positive note, this is where GE technology shines because it allows farmers to use less pesticides. Good for humans, animals and the environment.

Statement #5:

“If GMO plants are safe, why are they banned in Europe?”

This is a common question in regards to Europe’s position on GMO plants. The author has claimed that Europe has banned them and what do they know that we don’t? The fact is many European countries have not banned them, but rather, have not approved them. Big difference. GMO corn is imported and used in livestock all over Europe. Recently, reports are circulating that Europe is having second thoughts about GE technology and may be allowing farmers to grow them soon.

Dietician promoting pseudoscience. 

This is not a statement in the article, but rather an observation from me. The author is clearly not using her critical analysis of research and it reads more as an advertisement.  And it makes me feel very uncomfortable.The dietetics regulatory body forbids promoting anything that is not science-based. In fact, recently there has been some controversy in the field of dietetics because of large corporations wanting to sponsor dietetic conferences. Some claim the sponsorships may affect their integrity. 

Yes, it is a shame that it takes this much effort to read through and decipher with a critical eye an article that should be an honest and educational read. But, unfortunately, this is a downfall of the Internet. Let’s just say, just because you read it on the Internet, does not make it true! Do your own research!

How can you improve your critical thinking skills?

Understand and challenge your biases and assumptions – it’s healthy. 

Biases: When I look at an issue, the first thing I note is where the source originated. Personally, I tend to trust sources from academia and science. And even if it looks like the source is authoritative, I will still investigate to make sure they are a legitimate and credible source. I also ask myself – Is there anything this source has to gain by publishing this information? What is their bias? What is my bias? Do multiple sources say the same thing? Multiple sources add credibility. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, no matter how stupid they may sound. These are just a few of the simple steps I went through as I analyzed this article.

Assumptions: All of us make a lot of assumptions about almost everything. It’s how our brain processes certain pieces of information, and how we get along in everyday life. You could say they are the foundation of our critical framework. But what if those assumptions turned out to be wrong, or at least not entirely truthful? Then the whole foundation needs to be rebuilt, from the bottom up.

Ask, listen, think . . . 

Ask, ask and ask some more. Listen. No, really listen. And then think about it. 

At that point, make a decision. But always remember that you can change your mind as more information is made available. It’s a continuous process.

But most important:
Challenge yourself. Sharpen your critical thinking skills by practicing them often.

 

Links:

Is Critical Thinking and Holding Civil Food Conversations Too Much to Ask For?

BT Corn, What it is and how it works by University of Kentucky

BT Corn: Health and the Environment by Colorado State University

There is no BT in your Blood by biofortified.org

Testing pollen of single and stacked insect-resistant Bt-maize on in vitro reared honey bee larvae by PubMed.

Bacillus Thuringiensis by Cornell University

BT Toxins found in the Afterbirth of Pregnant Women by GMO Answers

GMOS Causes Leukemia? Think Again by biofortified.org

If you have questions, who do you ask? Below are sites and sources I highly recommend:

CommonGround, FoodDialogues, GMO Answers, Biofortified.org, GMO Skepti-forum, WeedControlFreaks, BestFoodFacts.org, GeneticLiteracyProject.org, SafeFruitsandVeggies or follow these individuals on Twitter: @gmopundit, @kevinfolta


 Keep the conversation going by checking out my Facebook, Twitter, InstagramEmail Subscription

 

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26 Comments on How to Use Critical Thinking Skills Without A Science Background

  1. avatar
    July 10, 2014

    Wanda – I can across this on my Twitter feed this morning and had a chance to read it. What a well done blog. I am a science communicator for a biotech company and you did an awesome job of explaining how to break down articles that you read – no matter what the topic. Really nice work!!

    • avatar
      July 10, 2014

      Thank you Aimee! I find it’s really challenging to understand these technical issues.

  2. avatar
    PB from MN says:
    July 10, 2014

    Excellent information in this post. Too many people are not willing to find out if there is credible science behind claims.

  3. avatar
    Leah McGrath says:
    July 10, 2014

    I Wanda – thanks for writing this. Glad you noticed some of the same questions I had about this post which seems to be many of the same old anti-gmo myths without much science to support it. Unfortunate to give organics this type of health halo when in fact organic farmers do use pesticides and some of those pesticides can be harmful to bees.
    The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, of which I am a member, has very clear guidelines about ethics. Many dietitians. like me, are also a part of “RDs 4 Disclosure”. While “Dietitians for Professional Integrity” may sound like an admirable goal or group; many dietitians who don’t subscribe to their methods and narrow focus that vilifies Big Ag/Big Food and numerous companies and organizations like Produce For Better Health. Many of us support the work of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and still operate day in and day out with integrity to communicate science based nutrition messages.

    • avatar
      July 10, 2014

      Leah, Thank you so much for your input. I put a lot of value in what you say and appreciate your knowledge and expertise.

  4. avatar
    David says:
    July 10, 2014

    Thank you for writing this article. Unfortunately, in the nutrition profession much misinformation gets passed around to other professionals and clients without critical thought. This is just one of many examples. While I do love my profession and my colleagues it is a constant battle to ensure critical thinking and good science-based evidence is used for all subject we are expected to be experts in.

    Also, I don’t know if you visited the DFPI website. While their overall goals are admirable the tactics and ideology have a lot to be desired. Unfortunately, their views on GMOs are pretty much in line with the dietitian that wrote the article you critique, that is to say little ideology-based rather than science-based. To get a sense of their views check out their proposed sponsorship rubric they want the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to follow (http://bit.ly/1oywsaN).

    • avatar
      July 10, 2014

      Thanks David. I appreciate your feedback. I had another dietician tell me the same thing. I apologize for that. I think of integrity and trustworthiness when I think of dietitians and I was a little concerned the profession was getting derailed and influenced by other companies and/or industries. Please do what you can to keep this profession professional.

      • avatar
        David says:
        July 11, 2014

        I totally understand the concern of integrity and trustworthiness in relation to influence by companies and/or industry. Like I’m sure many dietitian do, I do take a critical eye at each organization that provides nutrition information and compare the overall information the present to what is currently known to determine trustworthiness. For example, while groups like the International Food Information Council and Produce for Better Health may be industry funded the information I have read on their websites appears to be in line with the best available science therefore I find them reliable and trustworthy. But like with many things I have to look at each organization individually rather than assume reliability. Also, don’t apologize for referencing DFPI. I have done much worse. 😉

  5. avatar
    Philippe Ballet says:
    July 10, 2014

    Wanda, i work in the industry and I thought your blog was one of the best piece written onthe subject. Congratulations. I think it is key that people using GMOs, ie the gorowers, speak about the benefits of the technology and engage with society. It is a lot more power than if the message comes directly from a biotech company.

  6. avatar
    Tara Petersen says:
    July 11, 2014

    Great article on the power of thinking critically about all things science. I am a registered dietitian myself and find it disheartening that a fellow dietitian would write an informative article based in her own bias rather than adequately researched and cited science. In our profession, we are taught to use only evidence-based, proven facts when educating the public, not scare tactics and loosely based statistics.

  7. avatar
    Angela Jones says:
    July 11, 2014

    Great post Wanda! So many people take what they see online at face value, often because understanding the science is very hard or time consuming. We need more people out there working to teach people (of all professions) how to be critical of any information they come across. I know how much time it takes to write a blog post like this, so thanks for doing it!

  8. avatar
    Ben Edge @edgeben on Twitter says:
    August 31, 2018

    I question their very first statement. It is not absolutely clear, but it sounds as if they agreed to become a spokesperson, and THEN decided to ‘educate’ themselves about the issues. It seems that the proper sequence should be to educate one’s self first, then decide whether to endorse a product, before the bias of monetary gain is introduced.

    The other statement that irks me is the claim that 75% of our food is dependent on bees. The great majority of our staple food crops do not require pollination by bees; crops such as wheat, corn, rice, and soybeans are all self pollinated and do not require bee pollination. This would be more of an issue with some of our fruit and vegetable crops, but not all.

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