In most public policy debates everyone favors “science” until science begins to favor one side over the other. When that occurs, science suddenly isn't so hallowed and name-calling soon takes over.
Rare, however, is the instance when an apparent winner in a science faceoff uses so much name-calling during a victory lap that the intended loser turns the table.
But that's exactly what played out last month in The New York Times. It was a lesson on how poor results can come from good science and how good food can be made to look bad.
The spat began Sept. 4 when Stanford University's Center for Health Policy published a paper in the Annals of Internal Medicine that, according to the Times, “concluded that fruits and vegetables labeled organic were, on average, no more nutritious than their conventional counterparts, which tend to be far less expensive.”
The Stanford study – actually a “meta-analysis,” not new research but a statistical compilation of 237 previous studies – went on to note that organic food was not “less likely to be contaminated by dangerous bacteria” nor were than any “obvious health advantages to organic meats.”
Those two points made the lead of every print and broadcast story on the report. What didn't make the news, though, is a key shortcoming of meta-analyses; in this case, using widely varying data from 237 separate papers to arrive at one conclusion.
Facts like that didn't bother Times columnist Roger Cohen, whose Sept. 6 piece on the Stanford work, titled, “The Organic Fable,” labeled all organic food as a “fad.” He went to say organic food is “premium branding rather than science.”
While “organiacs,” the name Cohen gave organic supporters, went after him with forks and knives, medical doctors, nutritionists and ag economists – the latter two were not on the Stanford panel that compiled the meta-analysis – also responded.
One was Chuck Benbrook, research professor at Washington State University's Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources. After reading the Stanford paper, Benbrook labeled it either “a very shallow, questionable analysis” or a “naive, sloppy job … cleverly or intentionally designed to raise questions where none existed” about organic production and food.
Cohen responded to the criticisms by Benbrook and others with another column Sept. 27 that, to his credit, listed “several good points made by my critics.”
Soon, however, he returned to taking pot-shots at the “organic bourgeoisie, with their babies in reusable cotton diapers … inveighing against genetically modified food.”
Wow, now that's clever name-calling. What it isn't, however, is science.