Understanding conspiracy theories and cognitive styles in a post-truth era

Over the past few years, I’ve read, enjoyed, and learned a great deal from the friendly banter that goes back and forth between Stephen Lewandowsky (@STWorg) and Dan Kahan (@cult_cognition) on Twitter. While Kahan often points to politics and ‘tribes’ as triggers for risk perception and behavior, Lewandowsky reframes things in a slightly different way. He suggests that perceptions may be less shaped by political ideology and more by something he calls “cognitive styles.”

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“Cognitive style” is a way of thinking that can often invoke conspiracy theories. Lewandowsky sees the tragic events such as 9-11 or the assassination of Kennedy as random events.  These random events are frightening and highly unpredictable. And humans (the ‘survivalists’ that we are) will create a story to make sense of these kinds of events that appear to defy explanation. These tragic, random events are then readily woven into the conspiracy theory narrative (A good example of this is The Beatles Never Existed; the greatest, weirdest conspiracy theory of all time” — yep, it’s a thing. I kid you not).

There are a couple of key behavioral characteristics of a conspiracy theorist:

  1. If a person believes in one conspiracy theory, he/she is likely to believe in others;
  2. He/she will often believe in conspiracy theories that contradict one another. (i.e. Princess Diana was murdered in a plot contrived by MI6 and Princess Diana’s death was a hoax and she is still alive and well).

The other common element to conspiratorial thinking is that the cognitive style frequently requires the fabrication of a malicious enemy. You probably know where I am going next here.  Big, bad Monsanto. Let’s face it, no story is complete without a “villain.” Without a villain, there can be no victim and, by default, no hero.  According to Lewandowsky, creating a villain gives the storyteller or conspiratorial thinker a “sense of control” and it “makes him/her feel better.”

villain

What does this mean for us as science communicators? Consumer perceptions will be influenced, to some degree, by the stories circulated by the conspiracy theorists. Conspiracy theories (and theorists) are never going to go away.  But continuing to chase fiction-filled ambulances is futile. It’s sort of like playing an ongoing game of whack-a-mole. Instead, we need to:

  1. Think proactively about how and when conspiracies may originate.
  2. Understand the triggers (events or things (i.e. new products and technologies)).
  3. Anticipate how people will potentially respond to them.
  4. Be aggressively positive about the work we do and love.
  5. Frame stories in ways that are authentic to self and, at the same time, meaningful for diverse audiences.
  6. Commit to sustained engagement. We must continue to share stories about how science improves societies and economies.

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References:

Lewandowsky, Stephan, Gilles E. Gignac, Klaus Oberauer. (2013). “The Role of Conspiracist Ideation and Worldviews in Predicting Rejection of Science.” PlosONE. Volume 8, Issue 10. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0075637

Buckley, Thea. (2015). “Why Do Some People Believe in Conspiracy Theories?” Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-do-some-people-believe-in-conspiracy-theories/. July 27th.

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The slippery world of predatory publishing and what it means for scientific integrity

I clearly recall the first time I saw an article that I co-wrote in print in an academic journal. It was exhilarating. While I knew that the ‘real world’ (friends and family) would likely never read it, for me it was a visible, tangible record of my accomplishment and a signal to my peers that this young scholar had “arrived” in the academic world.

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I’ve Been Published! For an academic, research is the daily work and publications coming out of that research are a public record of that research. Only when an article is published can others truly examine the research, critique the results and attempt to replicate it. Replication of research is the one of the main principles of the scientific method.

In a way, peer-reviewed publications are a form of currency and trade in academic circles. How often and what kind of journals you publish in becomes a gauge of your proficiency or ‘brand’ as an academic. It can play a huge role in one’s career advancement.

The quality of a publication is measured through citations and impact. How often an article is cited can be indicative of the substance of the work that one does or serve as evidence of follow-on or related research arguments or observations. The impact factor of a journal, itself, is a proxy for the relative importance of a journal in each field of work. The higher the impact factor, the more scholarly cachet an article published in that journal has (for more info, check out “Peer Review in 3 Minutes“).

The overarching objective for a scholar (say, a social scientist like me) is to impact policy in some meaningful way. In many cases, the work that scientists produce leads to important innovations that serve public good more broadly (think seatbelts, GPS, flu shots, or solar cells). Publishing such works is not only meant to be a record of public dollar investment in important research, it is also an important part of the value chain that brings new innovations to people that need them.

The Problem with Publishing 1.0 While academic journals are a very important part of the knowledge and innovation value chain, many have not (necessarily) been readily accessible for most people. They are often hidden behind user pay-walls. So, even if my dad or my sister wanted to read one of my journal articles, they probably couldn’t access it – even if I gave them a bread crumb trail (a URL, for example).

The promise of “open access” (OA) was hoped to remedy all of that with the assurance of accessibility for everyone. It certainly raised expectations for those of us that valued the whole notion of openness.

The Problem with Publishing 2.0 Yet this promising new world of easy online access and share-ability also cultivated a new and unsavory market for less trustworthy model known as “predatory publishing”. These publishers have questionable business models that spam scientists with emails enticing them to publish in journals that guarantee quick turn around in terms of the peer review process in exchange for a “fee” (see this).  Make no mistake, these publishers are in it for the money. (And with that money, predatory publishers are starting to buy up legitimate journals).

Two things come out of this:

  1. Predatory publishers attract authors with politically-driven agendas who understand the space and take advantage of peer-review shortcomings, and;
  2. They also trick good scholars into submitting good scientific works into spaces that ultimately de-value that work.

Why do I care? Two words: scientific integrity.

social-losses

Back to my story and the first time that I saw one of my articles in print. Through appropriate peer review, my work had earned a place in reputable scholarly space that could be recognized, replicated, and further peer-reviewed. I was proud of that accomplishment. It was a mark of my research abilities and a signal to my peers as to the quality of my work.

Unfortunately, OA and its promise for accessibility has been blemished with the introduction and rapid growth of predatory publishing industry. Scientific integrity is at risk. As scholars, we need to distinguish the good journals from those ‘other ones’. As consumers, we need to think critically about how science is represented in the media.

science-is-all-around-us

Science is all around us. It is in architecture (in our homes and the buildings we work in), in the mechanics of our cars, and in the technology of cell phones. It is in our medicine and food and in how we produce both. If agenda-driven or poorly peer-reviewed science is making its way into downstream spaces of media and social media there are implications for society. This creates unnecessary barriers for socially and economically valuable innovations through misrepresentation of science and technologies.

When scientific integrity is at risk, so is society. We should all care.

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Sources:

Beall, Jeffrey. (2016). Scholarly Open Access: Available online at: https://scholarlyoa.com/

Giddings, Val. (2013) Peer Review – where you thought it ended? That’s just the beginning! Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. Available online at: https://itif.org/publications/2013/07/12/peer-review-%E2%80%93-where-you-thought-it-ended-that%E2%80%99s-just-beginning

Rennie, D. (2010). “Integrity in Scientific Publishing.” Health Services Research. June. 45(3). Available online at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2875766/

Rennie D., Yank V., Emanuel L. (1997). “When authorship fails. A proposal to make contributors accountable.” The Journal of the American Medical Association. Aug 20;278(7):579-85

Ryan, Camille and John Vicini. (2016). Why You Should Avoid Predatory Journals, Welcome Rigorous Review. Forbes. Available online at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/gmoanswers/2016/06/30/predatory-journals/#410a888a5558

Retraction Watch. Available online at: http://retractionwatch.com/

White, E. (2011). “The Peer Review Process: Benefit or Detriment to Quality Scholarly Journal Publication.” Totem: The University of Western Ontario Journal of Anthropology. Volume 13, Issue 1. Available online at: http://ir.lib.uwo.ca/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1185&context=totem

What happens when a friend asks you this?… #GMOs @AJStein_de

This is what happened when Alexander J. Stein, an economist from the EU with research interests in ag and food security, was asked this:

bullet-Leaf“Do you have any recommendations for reading about the debate on GMOs? I think there is a lot of heat, but too little light in the discussion; I trust you can send me some…”

To which he responded:

bullet-Leaf“Sure, I will look into it, select a few references and post them…”

Alexander Stein provides your one-stop shop for everything GMOs and safety and public perceptions … And if all that isn’t enough, check out these resources that I have compiled (some overlap with AS’s)

As you can tell, GMOs is not a topic that you can throw down in a one-hour google search or by surfing through your social media feed. Thanks AS for Bringing Light into the Discussion about GMOsGreat blog post!

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The Dose Makes the Poison: 2016 edition

This table has received a ton of attention over the years. I appreciate your interest and your requests for pdfs of it. It is, however, tired and outdated and it always lacked the greater story and context around chronic toxicity.

Enter the great work of @MommyPhD and @Thoughtscapism. Together, these smart souls have re-imagined the information on acute and chronic toxicity into colourful, informative tables in high resolution format.  Check out Measures of Toxicity on the Thoughtscapism blog!

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Today is a good day to (re)launch my personal blog – now titled “Camistry” – showcasing its new, snappy design. Thanks to my very talented cousin, Shawn, for his creative input and for “re-imagining” my online look.

I also took the opportunity to update the “Dose Makes the Poison” table. Since I originally posted it exactly two years ago, it has gotten tens of thousands of hits.

Here is that table. The content is the same, but it now comes with a bit of an artistic facelift. 🙂

toxicity table 2017

This table is also available in pdf format (better resolution). Send me a note if you would like me to send you the file via email.

The public-private relationship in research: conflict or opportunity?

Summary:

  • Research objectives need to be linked to markets and society’s needs; that’s innovation
  • Federal funding agencies (like Genome Canada), and their partners, adhere to strict standards in scientific research, ethics, transparency in engaging key stakeholders and in data/knowledge sharing and outreach
  • The private sector can play a vital role as a partner in research, ensuring that innovative solutions to our most pressing problems make it to the people that need them the most

Ah, the halcyon days of public sector research. I loved it. It was a time and place in my career when reading and writing were prioritized tasks; where traveling the world, sharing and exchanging knowledge, speaking at conferences and collaborative publishing were valued currencies of the profession. It was a world where you could pop down the hall, poke your head into a colleague’s office and say, “How about we knock off for a bit, grab a coffee and have a chat about how busy we are?” (‘hat tip’ to @Sh#tAcademicsSay for that last witty bit – I adapted it).

I jest. Rest assured, public sector researchers are some of the hardest working people I know.

Research objectives need to be linked to markets and society’s needs: that’s innovation

Academic research is an honorable career endeavor. There is nothing more gratifying than feeling like you are directing your work for the greater public good. During my “tenure” as a public sector researcher, I got to work with the best-of-the-best; people from public research institutes and universities all over the world. I regularly interacted with farmers, with grower organizations, as well as consumers and other stakeholders representing local, national and international NGOs and governments. And, yes, I connected with individuals from the private sector. But it seems that these public-private partnerships are under attack even though they are governed by high scientific and ethical standards.

Forgive me as I step back into a personal narrative again… My research, for the most part, involved the examination of how networks of scientists are structured, how they perform, and what – in this wonderful world of public sector research – qualifies as innovative performance and valuable outcomes for society. I also dipped my research toe into the sea of literature and research into public-private partnerships. You could say that, collectively, all of this was in my ‘wheelhouse’. Much of my work between 2001 and 2014 was funded through Genome Canada (specifically, through Genome Canada’s GE3LS program).

So, what does a public-private partnerships, under the auspices of Genome Canada, look like? Genome Canada is a not-for-profit organization that funds and supports genomics and genomic-based applied research and technologies in Canada. It is an agency with the goal to “catalyze the creation of economic and social benefits for Canada”. And, yes, this means ensuring that the public sector connects and/or partners with appropriate stakeholders, including the private sector.

In the context of agricultural research, the relationship between the public sector and the private sector is an important one. Why? Well, think about it. If you want to ensure that high-quality and relevant agricultural research is conducted in our academic institutions, research objectives need to be linked to market and societal needs. You won’t see any universities doing back-door deals to sell seeds. And I certainly don’t want my tax dollar going towards those kinds of activities in post-secondary institutions.

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Federal funding agencies have a vested interest in ensuring that the best research is conducted so that we can all benefit. They want the private sector to be part of the research and development process. What this means for society is that the research is being used to address real-world problems and has impact for people more broadly.  We call that innovation.

“If innovation is the fuel for the regions to reinvent their economies, higher education is a critical source of that fuel.” Mark Drabenstott (2005) (cited in: Bruininks 2005)

Stakeholder engagement and funding

Partnership structures vary from case to case.  It all depends upon research context and which organizations are involved. The Genome Canada funding model, in particular, requires that a portion of the requested funding for eligible costs for any given project be obtained through co-funding from other sources (matching initiatives are not uncommon in public funding models). In fact, Genome Canada will not release funds to a project until there is a firm commitment for co-funding for eligible costs of the project.

“…Genome Canada funds will not be released to a project until there is a firm commitment for at least 75% of the co-funding for eligible costs of the project and a well-developed and feasible plan for securing the remaining 25% of co-funding.”

Sources include (but are not limited to): companies, industry consortia, trust funds, foundations, charities, government agencies/departments. Funds from the private sector to universities often come in the form of ‘unrestricted grants’ wherein funds are freely given with no strings attached.

And there’s no subterfuge here. The identity of partnering organizations, funding sources and the affiliated collaborative arrangements are all public knowledge.

Yeah, but what about ethics?

Good question. Here’s the deal. All Genome Canada-funded projects need to have appropriate ethics approval. Universities are bound by tri-council agreements and cannot allow any research to carry on that does not have formal approval. And this kind of ethics approval does not happen overnight. It is controlled by the universities involved in the research. The real challenge here is that not all institutions are built the same; they have different processes and guidelines around ethics.  So, sometimes it takes a LONG time for these multi-actor projects to move forward, no matter who is involved. It is important to reiterate that Genome Canada funding will NOT flow until the collective ethics approval is in place. Period.

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Simply stated, there are lots of boxes to tick off when setting up collaborative research projects.

Leadership and Accountability

Projects are monitored closely both scientifically (in terms of meeting milestones) and financially (to ensure that funds are being spent on eligible costs).  Continued monitoring also includes ongoing assessments that the project is being carried out to the highest ethical standards. Responsibility and leadership of Genome Canada funded projects always fall under the intellectual direction of a publicly-funded, faculty person. That leader ensures that:

  • Funded projects, and affiliated researchers, share what they learn with a broader audience. This is known as “scientific outreach
  • Data and resources are shared with the wider scientific community as soon as possible
  • Results are published. Publications are viewed as an important output of Genome Canada Funded research projects: “…free online access to these publications is paramount…[and] as soon as possible…”

While Genome Canada ‘sports’ its own kind of partnering/funding model, it appears to operate in a similar manner to agencies in the U.S. See this series of blog posts (here, here, and here) by weed scientist Andrew Kniss from the University of Wyoming.

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Public-private partnerships in research are a GOOD thing!

A few years ago, I conducted a study on how university researchers connect with other stakeholders in the agriculture systems. As part of this work, I traveled to Australia and interviewed a number of people in government, academia and the private sector.  One of the most compelling statements came from the Chief Economist for the Department of Food and Agriculture in Western Australia.

“The likelihood for increased public funding in agriculture is close to zero…so the future of agriculture – whether agriculture likes it or not – is going to be more about strategic partnerships.”

Along with farmers, grower groups and other stakeholders, funding agencies and universities play important roles  in facilitating the collaborative development and transfer of knowledge for the public good.

“As a public-sector research scientist, it was expected and a requirement of my position … that I collaborate with and solicit the engagement of those working in my field of expertise…to ensure the public benefits from the best and most complete understanding of research and emerging commercial developments of any technology.” – Dr. Bruce Chassy (2015), Academics Review

To be competitive as a country and to continue to provide for people here in Canada and around the world, cultivating and maintaining relationships across the entire agricultural value chain is the right thing to do. During my entire tenure as a public sector researcher, I was never once “sanctioned” by private sector partners (or other stakeholders) in any way. No one tried to delay, postpone, or otherwise influence the publication of study results. Genome Canada would not support this kind of censorship. It would no way serve the public good.

In a time of declining investment in public sector education and research, if we want good quality and relevant research to reach the end-user (farmers and society more broadly) we need to have the right experts involved that are backed with sufficient funding dollars.  Independent academic experts need resources to be able to lead and carry out high quality scientific research. And they also need to be supported (in different ways) by organizations that are in a position to ensure that research and technological outcomes reach the people and societies that can benefit most from them.

PostScript: Genome Canada is now investing in the GAPP program which aims to foster a more productive interface between Academia and Users.  Check it out, especially if you are a fan of cheese and salmon like I am! J

Update (related articles):

Savage, Steve. (2015). “An Important Public-Private Partnership is Under Attack.” Forbes. August 31.

Lipton, Eric. (2015) “Food Industry Enlisted Academics in G.M.O. Lobbying War, Emails Show.” New York Times. September 5.

(2015) “Biotech researchers concerned FOIA requests could chill public outreach.” Genetic Expert News Service. September 8.

Johnson, Nathanael. (2015). “Are Scientists that Collaborate with Industry Tainted?“.  The GRIST. September 9.

Senapathy, Kavin. (2015). “Misuse of FOIA: Bullying a mother, scientist, nutrition and lactation expert.” Biology Fortified. September 10.

Kroll, David. (2015) “What the New York Times Missed on Folta and Monsanto’s Cultivations of Academic Scientists.” September 10.

Van Eenennaam, Alison. (2015). “I’ve been FOIA ed.” Genetic Literacy Project. September 11.

Parrott, Wayne. (2015). “Time to end transparency double-standard targeting biotech scientists.” Generic Literacy Project. September 15.

Select References:

Bruininks, Robert H. (2005). Regional Economies in Transition: The Role of the Land Grant University in Economic Development. Paper presented for discussion to the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges (NASULGC). Available online at: http://www3.crk.umn.edu/planning/nca/documents/Criterion3/45LandGrantUniversitiesandRegionalEconomies.pdf.

Chassy, Bruce. (2015).”The USRTK FOIA: 40-plus years of public science, research and teaching under assault”. Available online at Academics Review at: http://academicsreview.org/2015/09/the-usrtk-foia-campaign-against-academics-40-plus-years-of-public-science-research-and-teaching-under-assault/

GeneticsExperts.org (2015). “Freedom of information requests reveal how scientists interact with seed, chemical and organic companies”. Available online at: http://geneticexperts.org/freedom-of-information-requests-reveal-how-scientists-interact-with-seed-chemical-and-organic-companies/

Genome Canada. (2014). Guidelines for Funding Research Projects. Available online at: http://www.genomecanada.ca/medias/pdf/en/guidelines-funding-research-projects-june-2014.pdf. June.

Kastner et al. (2015). The Future Postponed: Why Declining Investment in Basic Research Threatens the U.S. Innovation Deficit. Report/Cases studies by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Available online at: http://dc.mit.edu/sites/default/files/innovation_deficit/Future%20Postponed.pdf. April.

Kniss, Andrew. (2015). Three part series starting with “On Transparency, Intimidation, and being called a Shill.” Blog posts in Weed Control Freaks. August.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Karen Dewar (Genome Canada) and Kari Doersken (Genome Prairie) for their insights and editorial suggestions on this blog post.

Fast ‘Information’ Nation? The social costs of our highly connected world

We have an information banquet at our finger tips.  It’s a feast for the eyes and the ears; a smorgasbord of colour, content and a constant (sometimes annoying) presence in our lives.  Information has become the new flavourful, colourful commodity that dominates our lives and it’s shared on a fast-moving and highly-connected supply chain.

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Some statistical ‘appetizers’* for you:

  • Facebook has 1.4 billion monthly active users  and records almost 400,000 “likes” per minute
  • Twitter and Instagram each have almost 300 million monthly active users
  • Instagrammers share 70 million photos and videos everyday
  • There are an estimated 350,000 tweets posted per minute
  • YouTube reaches more U.S. adults (ages 18-34) than cable networks
  • Every second two new members join LinkedIn

Yes, the information drive-thru is open 24/7, folks! Anyone can post anything on the Internet, with virtually no accountability. Headlines, blog titles, and tweets can be highly provocative.  It is really difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff; determine who the experts and the non-experts are and discern between good and bad information.  The Internet has radically blurred the line between fact and myth.

“Orange” You Frustrated by This One?

While our new ‘meme’ culture  has cultivated a new generation of idea-generators, it has also sowed seeds for ‘online vandalism’. In February of this year, a photograph of sliced oranges with what appeared to be red veining and discoloration circulated on Facebook. According to the originator of the post, the oranges were imported from Libya and had been injected with the blood of an HIV positive person.

Grossly misleading ‘myths’, like this one, are the “virtual B and Es” (break and enters) that can lead to broader damage.  I volunteered with AIDS Saskatoon for years and worked with men, women and children and their families that were afflicted with or affected by this terrible disease. HIV/AIDS cannot be transmitted in the manner described in this bit of misleading information.  The virus cannot survive very long outside the human body. You cannot even get infected from consuming food handled by an HIV-infected person.  This ‘myth’ is an example how nefarious information can generate some serious social costs.  People that suffer with HIV/AIDS already deal with social stigmas. Myths like these only serve to perpetuate those stigmas.

The Snowball Effect

So, maybe you and I are not buying into the kind of information that the ‘online vandals’ propagate. Maybe we aren’t even sharing it.  But others do.  There are huge implications of this. When a story hits social media, the effect is much like a snowball rolling down a hill… it gains volume and momentum.

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Based on his studies of societies, cultures, and the cognitive capacity of the human brain, scholar Robin Dunbar determined that there was an optimal number of people that one person could effectively manage or carry on meaningful relationships with within his/her social circle (1992). That number – Dunbar’s Number – is “150” (check out this interview with Dunbar on one of my favorite podcasts Social Science Bites).

With the increased carrying capacity of social media platforms, however, other research suggests that Dunbar’s number is much higher now.  According to Barry Wellman (2012), a social network analyst with the University of Toronto, our effective reach as individuals is now in the neighbourhood of 600 people or more. Those additional links may not be as qualitatively strong as our ‘face-to-face’ connections but advances in communication technology do allow us to track people, activities and to share information in ways unlike ever before. While many stories can quite easily get swallowed up and die a quick death amidst the mass of information, others can become almost pathogenic.  ‘Shareability’ is a function of just how provocative, inflammatory or even ‘sticky’ that information is (check out the cockroach/cherry effect outlined here). The reality is that, as human beings, we are hard wired to believe the worst and buy into what the ‘online vandals’ share.

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‘Calories In, Calories Out’ or ‘Binge and Purge’?

So, how do we cut through this smorgasbord of mass information and decide what to include on our ‘plate’? It’s not easy, but there are some basic principles that we can apply. Robert Harris (2015) provides a great “CARS” check list (credibility, accuracy, reliability and support) for evaluating internet sources. I summarize Harris’ points below and add a few of my own for context and clarity:

  • “C” Credibility:
    • What are the author’s credentials? Is there contact information? What is the author’s position and affiliation? Is it an ‘anonymous’ author? (lack of transparency is often a bad sign)
    • Is there bad grammar or are there misspelled words?
    • If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Similarly, if it is all doom, gloom and bad news, it’s likely misrepresenting the facts, too.
    • Are there claims of “secret” or “unique” information?
  • “A” Accuracy:
    • Is the information up-to-date, factual, detailed, exact, and comprehensive? Are there dates?
    • Are there vague, sweeping or over-generalized statements? These can be misleading.
  • “R” Reliability:
    • Does the piece feel fair, objective and moderate?
    • Beware of buzzwords/phrases like “cure” or “irrefutable” or “scientists have proven”
    • Check spelling of “endorsing” institutions on the article. Often, originators of inflammatory pieces or memes will intentionally misspell names of institutions (for example “John Hopkins” vs  “Johns Hopkins” (the latter is correct)).
  • “S” Support:
    • Does the article cite credible sources? Continuous self-citation is not a good sign. The hallmark of a good resource is that it cites a variety of (reliable/credible) sources.
    • Is the site bookended with ads/items for sale? Are the authors identifying a “problem” and trying to provide you with the $20 solution? This is indicative of another agenda.

Monitoring Your Information Diet

We live in a first world where we (most of us) don’t have to worry about where our next meal is coming from.  We live in a world where status updates have become the new form of social currency. This is not all bad news, of course. We are exposed to more diverse groups of people, cultures and ethnicities, as a result. Our conversations and our understanding of ourselves and each other will undoubtedly grow and evolve with access to new information. We can even work more efficiently (when our Facebook profiles aren’t open, that is (*wink, wink*)).

But we have only so much space in our grey matter and we are presented with a ‘bountiful diet’ of mass information every day.  Ensuring that we access and share high quality, accurate information is important. Not only for our personal (mental) health and the health of our families, but for the health and wellness of our communities as well.

It’s up to us – as consumers – to monitor our information diets. We need to think critically about what is shared and what we share on the Internet.

 “The central work of life is interpretation.” – Proverb

[This blog post is a summarization of a presentation I was invited to give to a group of dietitians, food writers, media personalities, educators and chefs at Canola Connect Camp on May 1, 2015. The event was hosted by the Manitoba Canola Growers Association (May 1 and 2, 2015) and I was grateful for the opportunity to engage with such a diverse group of food-saavy individuals!]

*descriptive statistics sourced from JeffBullas.com

Other good ‘myth-busting’ sources and tip-sites:

 

Key references:

Dunbar, R.I.M. (1992). “Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates.” Journal of Human Evolution. Volume 22, Issue 6, June. Pps: 469-493.

Harris, Robert (2015). Evaluating Internet Research Sources.  Virtual Salt. (previous versions dated: 2013, 2010, 2007)

Konnikova, Maria (2014). The Limits of FriendshipThe New Yorker. October 7.

Wellman, Barry (2012). “Is Dunbar’s Number Up?” Commentary. The British Journal of Psychology. 103(2):174-6

The Closer You Get… the fear and disgust response

As humans, we all experience a range of emotions: Anger, joy, sadness, surprise, fear and disgust. Fear and disgust are dominant emotional drivers. And you can thank your ancestors for that. Research suggests that we have evolved an “ingrained cognitive response” to things that we perceive as threatening (like spiders and snakes) so that we may survive as a human species.

A personal anecdote

I was involved in a serious car accident in 1986. It was what is referred to as a ‘miss and run’. There were devastating losses (I won’t get into the tragic details). It’s been almost thirty years [update: 32 years ago as of 2018] and while some things were quickly lost in the haze of shock or eventually blurred by time, certain images still lucidly dance across my mind.

Like The Closer You Get…it’s the title track from Alabama’s 7th studio album of the same name. It was playing on cassette in the truck stereo.  In the immediate aftermath of the crash, those beloved classic harmonies were like nails on a chalkboard to me. “Can you please turn the music off?” I asked. An attending RCMP officer obliged, reaching past me through the passenger window to switch off the stereo.

The fear that we felt before and after impact was palpable. Actually, fear became a regular, unwelcome guest in my life. It took several months (dare I say, years) before I could travel down that stretch of highway without experiencing anxiety.  Similarly, it was a long time before I could listen to that Alabama song without my stomach turning inside out.  For me, Highway #7 and that ill-fated song had become synonymous with pain, loss and suffering.

The twin responses of fear and disgust are often intertwined

Feardrivers fall along a continuum. There are immediate and tangible fears; ones that come with real risks. For example, you are caught in a natural disaster like an earthquake or in a flood, or you are at risk of drowning because you overturned your canoe and you don’t have a lifejacket on, or you are skidding on black ice into oncoming traffic on a very busy highway. There are other fears, though, that we experience; those are often perceived as less-than-rational. Things like the fear of needles, of spiders and snakes (see above), of heights or even the fears of leaving your own home. Some fears can be socially debilitating.

Disgustis slightly different but still related. It is the very human response to something we may view as unpleasant or vile in our environment. The ‘contamination-avoidance’ mechanism that kicks in to help us make decisions about something. I had a good friend that loved the name Paris but, in disgust, refused to name her baby daughter that because of what she viewed as Paris Hilton’s highly public, immoral foibles. She couldn’t separate the name Paris from the actions of the celebrity persona.  That’s anecdotal, but the human response phenomenon has been studied by scholars too.  For example, psychologist Paul Rozin conducted a study that included 50 respondents where he discovered, among other things, that people will outwardly and immediately reject delicious, tasty brownies if they are presented in the shape of something unpalatable, like dog feces (imagine that).

Cami's Quadrants of Fear and Disgust

Cami’s Quadrants of Fear and Disgust

Fear and disgust are not only experientially-based, they can be triggered and spread via the power of the Internet and social media.  For example, James McWilliams outlines how the rhetoric of disgust can undermine our  food choices.  In a recent interview by Roberto Ferdman in the Washington Post, Alan Levinovitz, James Madison University Prof and author of The Gluten Lie, is quoted as saying: “…[S]preading fear, before we actually know the truth, endangers society…” We have to take care to tread carefully through those provocative headlines, stories and blogs.

Our emotional responses shape our opinions and beliefs.  Our opinions and beliefs are reinforced through our personal networks  and once stuff gets stuck in our psyche, it’s pretty hard to displace it. Paul Rozin et al (1986) refer to the laws of contagion and similarity, where 1) contagion is qualified as “once in contact, always in contact”), and; 2) similarity holds that “the image equals the object”.  There’s an enduring ‘stickiness’ to images and ideas that are synonymous with our emotional responses. That’s why the word Frankenfood (and the associated images) has been so pervasive in how we view GM foods. And why people object more to GM food than to GMOs developed for other applications (such as insulin in the treatment of diabetes) (Blancke et al 2015).

kahneman1

The closer you get…

There are physical and moral dimensions of disgust. On that fateful day in 1986 (and many days after), I experienced both. That Alabama song elicited a strong physical response in me – a stomach-churning, heart-palpating reaction. It was a benign, harmless song but one that I associated with a negative experience in my life.

My contempt for the ‘phantom driver’ (Mr. ‘miss and hit’ Guy), on the other hand, existed more on the moral plane. (Please note, my ill-will towards this faceless and nameless individual eventually faded over the years — forgiveness and passage of time are beautiful things, no?)

My fears, at the time, were very present, very real (to me) and also very debilitating. It took a great deal of healing and time before those emotional responses no longer overwhelmed or defined me. Fear and disgust are provoked when we perceive a threat from something.  Each emotion can lead us down a different response path.  While fear primes us to run (‘flight’), disgust readies us to evade something that repulses us. Distinguishing real risk from manufactured or perceived risk requires critical thought. We need to give some time and thought to rationally consider what the real risks of a given situation are. In the end, it’s all about quality of life.

If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

– Marcus Aurelius –

Select References:

Blancke, Steffan, Frank Van Breusegem, Geert De Jaeger, Johan Braeckman, and Marc Van Montagu (2015/in press). “Fatal attraction: the intuitive appeal of GMO opposition.” Trends in Plant Science.

Levinovitz, Alan. (2015 forthcoming). The Gluten Lie.

New, Joshua J. and Tamsin C. German. (2015). “Spiders at the cocktail party: an ancestral threat that surmounts inattentional blindness.” Evolution and Human Behavior. Volume 36, Issue 3. Pps: 165-173.

Rozin, P., Haidt, J., & McCauley, C. R. (2008). “Disgust: The body and soul emotion in the 21st century.” In D. McKay & O. Olatunji (eds.), Disgust and its disorders. Washington DC: American Psychological Association. Pps: 9-29.

Rozin, Paul, Linda Millman, and Carol Nemeroff. (1986). “Operation of the Laws of Sympathetic Magic in Disgust and Other Domains.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Volume 50, No. 4. Pps: 703-712.

Self-doubt and the fine art of solution aversion: my story

I am a self-professed ‘late bloomer’; in the academic sense, anyway.

In the early nineties, I was a single parent trying make ends meet. I worked 2+ part-time jobs to keep my daughter and son fed, clothed, healthy and happy.  My story isn’t much different than many out there. I leaned on the ‘system’ for a while (yes, had to). As an extension of that, I attended an administrative bookkeeping course sponsored through the provincial government’s social assistance program. I even took advantage of a provincial milk program offered for low income families. Believe me, an extra two gallons of milk a week makes a big difference when you have growing kids. I even made the odd trip or two to the local food bank to stock up when the cupboards echoed their food-thin song (usually around the holidays).

Times were tough. But always there was this niggling little voice at the back of my mind saying: “Cami, if you want to get ahead you really need to go back to school. You need to get a degree.”

I knew that getting an education would help me and my family out. So, every year, from 1993 onwards, I filled out an application to the University of Saskatchewan. Every year.  The sad part is that every year that envelope would sit on my dining room table – unmailed.

just not going letter

Change is hard.  Sure, we are pretty good at identifying problems (and we are great at complaining about them). But how good are we at acknowledging and acting on potential solutions?

A colleague of mine shared an interesting article with me a few weeks ago: Solution aversion: On the relation between ideology and motivated disbelief. The solution aversion model – introduced by Duke University scholars Troy Campbell and Aaron Kay – is tested as an explanation for why people are so often divided over (in particular) evidence. The study suggests that “certain solutions associated with problems are more threatening to individuals who hold a strong ideology that is incompatible with or even challenged by the solution…” Thus, people will deny the existence of a problem (a user-friendly overview of the study can be found here)


denysolutions

The human is my favourite mammal. 🙂  As problems present themselves, we humans are more likely to ignore solutions and move onto information or into spaces where our core beliefs are validated. Humans are also social animals. We like to seek protection within the ‘herd’; we are conformists. So we are highly influenced by the networks of individuals that surround us (see Dan Kahan’s take on this here). In Psychology Today, David Ropeik talks about perceptions of risk and the human response to the ‘feeling of losing control‘ (a scary pre-cursor to solution aversion):

“The more threatened we feel as individuals, the more we look to our tribe [or network] to provide a sense of power and control.”  

– David Ropeik –

What this means is that solutions to problems that counter our deeply held beliefs will be rejected or ignored in favour of our conveniently-shaped beliefs – no matter how factual, practicable, or moral those solutions are.  Rejecting or avoiding solutions helps us to minimize personal social and psychological dilemmas. In other words, it serves the dominant, primal human instinct to survive.

solution aversion cartoon

Where was I? Oh yes! It was the 1990s and I was busy passing up opportunities to pursue a post-secondary education (AKA, avoiding a potential solution). I steered clear of those opportunities for a long time mostly because of self-doubt and fear. I was afraid of failing. I was afraid that I would have less income (although it was hardly possible at the time). I was afraid of racking up debt. I was afraid I wouldn’t fit in and I felt that I was just too old to go to school (this latter bit makes me laugh now). At the time, I told myself “Things aren’t that bad, the kids are doing just fine!” or “I like the people I work with!”. For the most part, I believed that it was safer to stick with the status quo; to keep my head down and winnow my way through life working at low-paying, unsatisfying jobs. Friends and family did not really encourage the whole “go rogue and be a single-parent-student” thing either. They probably held some of the same beliefs that I did. And, for a long time, I allowed their doubts to reinforce my own fears.

There was a bright light though; an exception. A favorite aunt. Aunt S was one of my biggest fans. She knew me well (all of the faults, insecurities and possibilities). Aunt S applauded me every year that I filled out an application to the University.  With her encouragement, I actually mailed in my application in 1997.

Tragically, that bright light was suddenly snuffed out. Aunt S died later that year. As fate would have it, a letter of acceptance from the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Commerce arrived a few days after her funeral.

It was Aunt S’s words of encouragement and her favorite quote “Do one thing every day that scares you” that prompted me to mail the application form that year. But (sadly) it was her death that was the impetus for me to pull myself up by my bootstraps and get on with things. I made my way through and got not one but, two degrees. I worked hard, I played hard, I learned, I networked AND I looked after my kids. They were fed, healthy and happy and they got to their various activities: dancing, hockey, music lessons and school plays. In fact, we all survived. Beautifully.

mekids

Me and the kids and Rocky (circa ~ 1996)

Even when a solution is staring you right in the face, it can be hard to take the ‘leap’ and grab the opportunity.  It often takes a crisis before you re-evaluate where you are at, who you are and what you believe that you are capable of doing. I lost someone very important to me. This was a definitive point in my life; one where I had to hold the mirror up to my face, face my fears and decide what I really wanted for me and for my children.

The ‘road less travelled’ presents a bumpy ride.  Acting on opportunities and following through with solutions can represent huge investments in time, energy and resources. But the rewards can be huge. Today, my children are happy, active adults working at what they love and contributing to their communities. When my kids tell me how proud they are of me, of what I have accomplished, that is reward enough for me.

References:

  • Campbell, T.H. and Aaron C. Kay. (2014). “Solution Aversion: On the Relation Between Ideology and Motivated Disbelief.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Volume 107, No. 5. 809-824.
  • Kahan, Dan. (2012). “Why we are poles apart on climate change.” Volume 488. August 16.
  • Lewandowsky, Stephan, Ullrich K. H. Ecker, Colleen M. Seifert, Norbert Schwarz and John Cook. “Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing.” Psychological Science in the Public InterestDecember 2012  13 no. 3106-131. Available online at: http://psi.sagepub.com/content/13/3/106.full.pdf+html?ijkey=FNCpLYuivUOHE&keytype=ref&siteid=sppsi

The full farm and food immersion experience at #CanolaConnect!

Canola Connect Camp "swag"

Canola Connect Camp “swag”

I was excited to participate last week in the third annual Canola Connect Camp, hosted by the Manitoba Canola Growers Association. It was a full farm and food immersion experience! Writers, dieticians, chefs, media personnel and other food saavy folks, hailing from Alberta, Ontario and Manitoba, were on board the Canola Connect bus as we made tracks around western Manitoba (the Parkland Region) visiting farms and food production operations. We even got to tour the inside of a (circa 1976) grain elevator in Russell, Manitoba!

Without going into too much detail, we Campers saw much, did much (and, subsequently, ate much) in those three tightly packed, event-filled days. There is no end to how each of us could report on or write about given our vastly different perspectives and our overall enthusiasm for the Camp. For my post-Camp blog entry, however, I am going to shed some light on on-farm strategies and practices.  This is an area of interest for me (for work-related reasons) but also because there is a great deal to know and learn about farming in Canada. So much has changed in agriculture in my lifetime alone. As a farmer, it must be hard to keep up with changes in the technology (learning, investing, etc). As a downstream consumer who may have little to no connection to the farm, it is even more difficult to understand the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of food production especially when there is so much misinformation out there.

DAY ONE: On the very first day of Camp, the Dalgarno family invited us to their farm. In addition to enjoying tasty, catered meal in a neat-as-a-pin shop that would make any man (or woman, for that matter) swoon, we were able to question Andrew and his dad, Bruce, about their operations. Right off, we tackled the ‘elephant in the room’ -> GMOs (genetically modified organisms).

Bruce and Andrew talked a bit about the history of genetically engineered canola and its introduction to the market in the mid 1990s. Prior to that, Bruce said, things were much different. Remember the dust-bowls of the 1980s?

“Farmers would have to cultivate the soil to bury the straw to blacken the ground following the previous season’s cereal crop. After that, a granular, soil-applied herbicide was spread and the ground cultivated a second time to mix the herbicide into the soil. The following spring, before seeding canola, we would have to cultivate a third time to activate the herbicide. After the Canola had been seeded in May, we would then have to use a tank mix of 1 or 2 herbicides to control the remaining weeds during June.”  

These kind of activities took time and represented huge expenses for farmers – diesel fuel, cultivator shovels, wear and tear on equipment and labour. More importantly, the soil took a real beating. As Andrew says:

With repeated cultivation, the soil was more exposed to wind and water erosion because the straw was no longer able to protect the ground.”

So, how does genetically engineered Canola and its ‘supposed benefits’ fit into this? The introduction of these new varieties twenty years ago represented huge changes for on-farm management. Less herbicide applied less often meant that farmers were able to more easily adopt environmentally-friendly, soil-conservation practices like min or no till.

ge canola is
Herbicides, which are a class of pesticide, often get ‘bad press’ but they are a necessary part of the food production process. Check out what Dr. Steve Savage, plant pathologist, has to say in his blog entry “Pesticides: probably less scary than you think”:

“…[W]ithout pesticides our farms would be far less efficient in terms of resource-use-efficiency (land, water, fuel, fertilizers, labor).  That is why both organic and conventional farmers often need to use pesticides.” – Steve Savage

(You can check out glyphosate’s toxicity level relative to other common household consumables here. It is less toxic than caffeine, baking soda, hydrogen peroxide and even Vitamin D!)

amount of product

DAY TWO: On day two of the Canola Connect Camp, we stopped for a ‘meal in the field’ hosted by Pat and Paul Orsak (‘shout out’ to the Miller family at Silver Creek Bison Ranch for providing the bison for the bison burgers! YUM!)

Paul, his son Owen, and a hired hand (and nephew) Jake were harvesting wheat that day.  Paul took some time from his busy harvesting schedule to talk about his operations. The Orsak family runs a tight rotation of wheat and canola. Why? It’s a business decision.  Farming is a business and in order to keep that business solvent, farmers have to make decisions based upon the marketplace, crop gePAUL ORSAK2netics and the climate.

“We respond to the market and grow what we think will provide the best return.  Some of the crops we used to grow have not provided sufficiently attractive pricing opportunities on a consistent basis to make it worthwhile.  For other crops, disease control became as issue.  Our climate has become wetter since the 1980’s and 90’s and as a result some crops do not do well in our location.”

Paul also pointed out that the genetics of both wheat and canola have improved relative to the other types of crops.  This tips production in their favour.

And how about those GMOs, Paul?

“…GMOs are just another method of plant breeding, something we and nature have been doing for centuries. Genetically engineered or modified crops are simply new and different varieties of existing crops. As knowledge of reproduction and genetics grew, it allowed plant breeders to more rapidly breed new varieties by crossing specific plants to achieve a desired end.  Genetic engineering is simply a more precisely executed extension of that knowledge. The goal is to improve crop genetics and achieve traits that are desirable.” 

[note: there is no genetically engineered wheat on the market]

Itorsak quote 2‘s not only the genetically engineered seeds that have revolutionized farming.  Farm equipment (size, GPS functionality, auto-tracking, etc) allow for greater efficiencies but most importantly – PRECISION – in the placement of seed, fertilizer and pesticides. This all greatly reduces farmers’ input costs and allows for greater sustainability in operations.

It was a fantastic few days connecting with fellow food and farm enthusiasts on the Canola Connect Camp tour! We not only visited the grain farms (above), we also visited a bison operation (this was a first for me), a cattle ranch and a bee farm!

So much to write about and so little time! ;o)

Thanks to the Manitoba Canola Growers Association and the team of Ellen, Jenn, Lori, Simone and Johanne for your roles in making this Camp possible!

Lori Dyck has compiled pictures and tweets into a Storify story of our Canola Connect Camp adventure here! More pictures have been posted by Jenn Dyck here!

Want to get to know that “Farm to Food” connection a bit better? Check out these resources:

The consumer and GMOs: adrift in a sea of misinformation

Last month, I had the opportunity to present to a group of registered dieticians and nutritionists at the Alberta Milk sponsored event, the Nutrition File Seminar.  It was a great opportunity to connect with those that work directly with consumers and have to tackle some of the most difficult questions about how our food is produced every day!

I shared the podium with some really smart folks: Terry Fleck with the Center for Food Integrity, Dr. Steve Savage, Dr. Herman Barkema of the University of Calgary and Shirzad Chunara from Alberta’s Ministry of Agriculture. We were all there to answer those questions that consumers often ask about food and food production.

My topic? GMOs. Link to the presentation is HERE.

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The topic of GMOs is a complex one.  Many of the sites listed on the first 10+ pages of a simple Google search will point to statements like “GMOs have not been proven safe” or “they have not been tested safe for consumption.”  GMOs are often referred to as dangerous, toxic or even as time bombs. Many state that GMOs must be “immediately outlawed or banned.”  All this serves to do is to create unnecessary fear in the minds of the consumer. And it most certainly is not a true representation of the science and how genetic engineering and genetically engineered crops have and can benefit farmers and consumers – and society more broadly.

Every major international science body in the world has reviewed multiple independent studies—in some cases numbering in the hundreds—in coming to the consensus conclusion that GMO crops are as safe or safer than conventional or organic foods.” – Jon Entine, Forbes.

Here is a partial list of those organizations worldwide that Jon refers to:

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B.J. Murphy (@SciTechJunkie) lists some of the statements that those organizations make in support of GMOs here.

I like to quote author and journalist, Michael Specter who says: “We’ve never lived in a time where we needed science so badly.”

Yes. And we have never lived in a time when we are in a position to so readily deploy science in such meaningful ways.  Yet, we are often blocked by a loud but vocal minority of individuals and organizations that have the capacity to influence the public’s opinion on such things.

It’s good to remember that…

“…no single agricultural technology or farming practice will provide sufficient food for 2050…instead we must advocate for and utilize a range of these technologies in order to maximize yields.” Mark Rosegrant, Director, International Food Policy Research Institute (2014). 

Everyone wants a safe and healthy food supply. But people also need to have access to accurate information in order to make informed choices about their food. Want to know more (facts) about genetic engineering, GMOs, regulatory bits and bites and other related stuff? Check out my five part series on GMOs and public perceptions: Part 1, Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5.