Friday, 5 August 2016

Logical thinking

Organic food causes autism.

Actually it doesn’t, but if you not a skeptic then you might think that it does. That’s because there’s a startlingly close relationship between the consumption of organic food and the number of cases of autism that are diagnosed. The lines on the graph that shows the number of cases of children receiving special education support in the USA and the sales of organic food products between 1997 and 2009 are identical. For the nerds amongst us it’s a correlation coefficient of 0.9971 with a p-value of 0.0001. It’s a scientist’s dream to find a relationship between two things as close as that.

Source: Genetic Literacy Project

But do you really think it’s true? Do you really think that organically produced food causes learning difficulties among American children? No, it doesn’t. Something else behind the scenes is affecting both of these things.

There’s actually no evidence that levels of autism are increasing. What’s actually increasing is simply the diagnosis of autism. Doctors are now better educated and notice it more readily. They now have a diagnosis that they are willing to use instead of just calling a child “retarded” or “slow”.

Autism has had its share of controversy. The internet is full of shameful, dangerous lies that suggest that autism is caused by things as varied as genetically modified food and vaccines. These are nothing more than lies.

At the same time a growing middle class around the world believe that so-called organic food has something to offer them. They’ve been led to believe that food produced without the use of “artificial” fertilizers and pesticides is somehow better for them than food produced conventionally. In fact, there is absolutely no evidence for this. Simply none. There is absolutely no evidence that the truly minute traces of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers used in modern agriculture that might be found on the food we eat are hazardous to us.

The proponents of “organic” production will argue that the chemicals are dangerous and that’s certainly true. But only if you consume them in very large amounts. Yes, the workers in the factories who produce the chemicals are required to wear safety gear but that’s because they’re dealing with tons of them, not almost invisibly small quantities.

What the organic movement often fail to mention is that their preferred fertilizer, manure, is a much more dangerous product. The biggest danger to consumers from food is E. coli, the bacteria found in cattle poo. That’s what’s most likely to harm you, not modern pesticides. One study showed that consumers were five times more likely to encounter E. coli from organic food than conventional food.

In fact, there are only two things that organic food does guarantee you. The first is price. The last time I checked, the “organically” produced pasta at my local store was three times more expensive than the conventional type. I’d rather have three packets than one thanks.

The other difference is the environmental impact of organic food production. Some studies have suggested that organic food production is only half as productive as conventional farming. Organic production per hectare is enormously lower than conventional agriculture. A world facing massive population growth needs to be increasing productivity, not lowering it. Growing organic food is a massive step backwards.

Back to the point. Although there’s a lot of nonsense spoken about both organic food and autism, there is simply no direct connection between the two things. Neither of them causes the other. Both are in fact a sign of the growth in information over the last few decades. Frankly I blame the internet.
But I can understand why people fall for connections like this. The see two things happening at the same time and they assume they’re connected.

A good example is cancer. The number of people dying of cancer around the world is increasing. But is that caused by any of the other things that are increasing at the same time? Cellphones or cellphone towers? Genetically modified foods? The internet?

No, the growing levels of cancer are caused by people living longer. In the 21st century we now live longer (on average) than ever before. In the past we were much more likely to die from communicable diseases, warfare and poverty. Even with HIV, we’re now lucky enough to be living long enough to die from the diseases of old age like cancer. The irony is that the growing levels of cancer are a sign of success, not failure.

This is really all about a logical fallacy, that correlation implies causality, that because two things are related, one must be causing the other. However, more often than not there’s a third factor such as easier access to information, greater public education or better health.

Here’s a challenge for you. Can you explain why people with very large feet have much higher levels of income than people with very small feet? Do large feet really make you richer?

I think that critical thinking, skepticism and a basic understanding of logic should be taught in schools so that when our children emerge from their education they are already equipped with the skills to tell truth from fiction, to identify deceptions and to protect themselves. Otherwise we’ll still have people falling for scams, believing the lies told to them by the bogus pastors taking their money and handing over their money to people offering them remarkable profits.

Is that what we want?

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