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We’ve been misinformed

Put this eight-page debunking handbook on the top of your reading list, and let’s stop making consumer misinformation worse

The good news is that farmers are finally recognizing the damage that misinformation is doing to our industry, and we are responding to it.

The bad news is that the way we respond may actually be increasing consumer opposition rather than alleviating it. We’ve been misinformed about fighting misinformation.

Agriculture is not the only industry to be threatened by misinformation. It is merely the latest, so it is important to look at how misinformation has affected others and how they have responded.

A good case study is the controversy about vaccinations and autism. The claim that vaccinations cause autism was first made about 18 years ago based on a single study of just 12 children in the U.K. Further clinical studies refuted the correlation, the medical journal that published the original study retracted it, and the doctor involved in the study lost his licence to practise medicine.

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Yet today an estimated one-third of U.S. parents believe that vaccines are linked to autism, which is why measles, once nearly eradicated, have returned.

In this case, the response to misinformation has been totally ineffective.

There are a number of reasons why people cling to misinformation and why they do not want to give up their opinions, even when those opinions are scientifically discredited.

First, no one likes being wrong, so people will seek out information (i.e. misinformation) which proves they have been right all along. This is “confirmation bias.”

Also, it is often easier to get misinformation that reinforces your beliefs than it is to search out the truth about an issue or practice. This is particularly true if the misinformation is delivered by social media you subscribe to or by a public figure such as an actor or politician, and it is especially easy to fall for individuals who portray themselves as informed outsiders who are willing to challenge the corrupted establishment or corporate system, which they claim is only interested in profits, not the consumer.

It adds up to this. Confirmation bias can rarely be overturned with facts, data or evidence. People will simply discount all the evidence that disproves the misinformation they are using as the basis of their world view, and they will embrace any “information” they have found or heard that supports their world view and beliefs.

Research has actually studied the conundrum that this produces. Our efforts to use verified facts, research and data to set the record straight can actually cause people to deepen their belief in the misinformation that we are trying to attack.

This is known as the “backfire effect.”

Then it gets worse. Once the misinformation is firmly entrenched, we tend to look at and treat those holding such beliefs as idiots or a radical fringe, and this polarization further divides and encourages those who believe in the misinformation to spread their misbeliefs, thereby greatly reducing the chances of correcting the misinformation in the future.

Another trap we fall into when attempting to refute misinformation is by repeating that misinformation when we try to refute it. Every time misinformation is repeated, there is the possibility you are introducing that misinformation to people unaware of the misinformation in the first place.

Research has found if a falsehood is repeated just three times, up to 40 per cent of people will remember it and believe it to be true.

Possibly the step which most people ignore in fighting misinformation is to provide any alternative to the misinformation.

The Debunking Handbook

bookcover-debunking-handbookDr. Stephan Lewandowsky, University of Bristol, U.K., says providing a narrative is a critical step. “It is not enough to debunk the myths, you need to provide an alternative that will fill the gap if misinformation is to be accepted as untrue. Explain the false information and the agenda of those pushing it. The most effective way to reduce the effect of misinformation is to provide an alternative explanation for the events covered by the misinformation.”

According to Lewandowsky, the other critical step is: “beware of a person’s world view. For example, understand that those opposed to GMOs have natural, environmental, and purity goals. You cannot attack these values. Instead you have to deal with the science behind GMO.”

In the case of GMOs, given the resulting increased use of glyphosate, and now the development of glyphosate-resistant weeds, Lewandowsky suggests farmers acknowledge that GMO crops have resulted in excessive use of glyphosate which has resulted in development of glyphosate resistance. He says a GMO supporter who begins a conversation with someone opposed to GMO by conceding this point will improve trustworthiness of the GMO proponent and make the person opposed to GMO more willing to reconsider their GMO position.

When asked who are the best to address misinformation about GMOs, Lewandowsky replied: “Those who people trust. Not Monsanto! Instead it should be independent university scientists who are not funded by corporate interests. It should be farmers who use GMO technology.”

Lewandowsky says farmers who address a misinformation issue like GMO should focus on discrediting misinformation with friends and family first. He recommends talking to those who are on the fence about an issue like GMOs rather than those firmly opposed to the technology. “There is very little to be gained by trying to change the position of hardcore believers in misinformation.”

However, Lewandowsky says it is very important to expose those hardcore believers and the reasons they have for promoting misinformation. Are they promoting misinformation for personal financial gain, for the fame, or perhaps for political reasons?

Lewandowsky has written The Debunking Handbook, an eight-page guide to why people believe misinformation and how best to debunk misinformation. He opens with:

“Debunking myths is problematic. Unless great care is taken, any effort to debunk misinformation can inadvertently reinforce the very myths one seeks to correct. To avoid these “backfire effects,” an effective debunking requires three major elements.

First, the refutation must focus on core facts rather than the myth to avoid the misinformation becoming more familiar. Second, any mention of a myth should be preceded by explicit warnings to notify the reader that the upcoming information is false. Finally, the refutation should include an alternative explanation that accounts for important qualities in the original misinformation.”

The Debunking Handbook should be read by everyone interested in challenging the misinformation that plagues the agricultural industry. It can be found online here as a downloadable pdf.

What works on your farm

Dr. Jason Lusk is a food and agricultural economist at Oklahoma State University, and he researches what we eat and why we eat it.

Lusk is concerned about the disparity between the beliefs of farmers and researchers versus the general public. He believes the problem is that two trends have emerged at the same time. First, North Americans have become less trusting of institutions. Second, there is a much greater diversity of information available to consumers, so people seek out what they want to hear rather than facts.

Lusk says there used to be a shared assumption that the experts have all the knowledge, so if the experts simply presented consumers with the information, then everything would come out right. But today, he says, that is not nearly as effective.

Instead, Lusk applauds farmers who actually engage consumers in conversations on a one-to-one basis about food safety and environmental concerns over modern farming practices.

Lusk urges farmers to listen to the concerns of consumers and respond by explaining how you actually address those concerns on your farm. For example, if in a conversation a consumer says, “I am concerned about… ” the farmer’s response should be, “I am concerned about that too, and this is how we handle that on our farm… ”

This response can apply to any issue from environmental concerns, to GMOs, to antibiotic resistance, to pesticide use.

Lusk says while science is important, it is not always persuasive. Responding to consumer concerns by quoting the latest scientific journal to justify a farming practice likely will not work. Instead, farmers should tell their own story and focus on why you do what you do.

Getting it right

A useful summary of the strategies that can be used on your farm can be found in a 2012 news release from the University of Michigan entitled “New study analyzes why people are resistant to correcting misinformation, offers solutions”:

  • Focus on the facts you want to highlight, rather than the myths.
  • Make sure that the information you want people to take away is simple and brief.
  • Consider your audience and the beliefs they are likely to hold.
  • Strengthen your message through repetition.
  • Provide people with a narrative that replaces the gap left by false information.

Colorado State University has also published a fact sheet entitled Nutrition Misinformation: How to Identify Fraud and Misleading Claims. It lists the top 10 red flags for misleading claims in nutrition.

  1. Recommendations that promise a quick fix.
  2. Dire warnings of danger from a single product or regimen.
  3. Claims that sound too good to be true.
  4. Simplistic conclusions drawn from a complex study.
  5. Recommendations based on a single study.
  6. Dramatic statements that are refuted by reputable scientific organizations.
  7. Lists of “good” and “bad” foods.
  8. “Spinning” information from another product to match the producer’s claims.
  9. Stating that research is “currently underway,” indicating that there is no current research.
  10. Non-science-based testimonials supporting the product, often from celebrities or highly satisfied customers.

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Gerald Pilger's recent articles


  • Tegaan

    This article starts out with misinformation, therefore not worth reading any farther.

    • Keith Duhaime

      Up to your same old nonsense.

      • Tegaan

        Wow, I hadn’t heard from you in so I long I thought you were dead. So nice to hear from you. Hope you are having a wonderful day!

  • klausammann

    Teegan, just because you do not like any of the opinions, you have not the right to accuse Gerald Pilger of spreading misinformation without giving any reason why. Please explain why you really oppose the text by facts. You are a perfect example of a strongly opinionated person who does not even care about arguments, this is called ideology.

    • Keith Duhaime

      Don’t pay attention to Teegan. She or he is some kind of crock who claims they have 2 science degrees, but probably couldn’t get past basic biochemistry or explain when one would use an f-test instead of a student t. My bet is his/her ‘degrees’ are probably in ‘holistic nutrition’ from a diploma mill like the Canadian School of Natural Nutrition or some similar quackery.

      • Tegaan

        And as usual you would be wrong

        • Keith Duhaime

          And if you were right about anything, 1. you wouldn’t be hiding behind a pseudonym and 2. you would be putting forward facts backed by evidence instead of ‘opinions’ as people with real science degrees do.

          • Tegaan

            1. I am not hiding this is the name I use on forums where there are , let’s say, “your” type of people. You are so hateful and need to be right, how do I know you won’t, well who knows what? 2. I am not writing a scientific paper I am commenting on a forum. Opinions are for forums. You state yours enough! For example all the things you say about me are OPINIONS not facts! Practise what you preach! And have a sunny day, I know it’s hard where your head is!

          • Keith Duhaime

            Don’t like the tone, tough! Trash like you have to be dealt with. Your ‘opinions’ whether they be behind pseudonyms like Tegaan or flaunting diploma mill credentials like RHN hurt real people like Ezekiel Stephan in the ultimate way, or people like Neal Carter in their efforts to introduce technologies (‘arctic apple’) to help mitigate food wastage, top of the news this morning, or technologies like smart meters to help mitigate greenhouse gas production and bring fairness to electrical billing after 75 years. And you have zero excuse if you grew up in Canada where the rest of us paid taxes for your high school sciences and maths, never mind your two ‘science degrees’.

          • Tegaan

            Again I find you highly amusing. You get so angry because maybe deep down you know things aren’t really the way they are presented and you can’t be wrong so you fight and fight. I feel sad for the people around you, I hope they can get help and then get you some too! Good luck to you.

    • Tegaan

      The information he gave about the autism study was false. And I am not saying vaccines cause autism, however what was stated was false.

      • Gerald Pilger

        I confirmed the information I presented on the Autism study with numerous sources. Following is the link to the British Medical Journal “The Lancet” with the actual Retraction of the Autism study. There is also a Wikipedia link confirming what I stated. And a link to the Public site with the same information. Many major media sources reported on the discredited study and I will also share links from the Globe and Mail and CNN.

        • Tegaan

          In the study it does not state that the vaccine causes autism, it states it should be studies more as there seems to be a correlation . Just because mainstream media says it does not mean it is true. Edina is just as biased as everyone else.

          • Keith Duhaime

            ‘mainstream media’- the cry of the conspiracy theorist. Might I remind you the science is settled on vaccines, GMOs, and global warming. And yes, there is a small (very small) probability that indeed there might be a link between vaccines and autism or glyphosate and cancer or smart meters and cancer or whatever. There’s also something called formal risk analysis and looking at stochastic dominance, the status quo and full cost vs. benefits. But hey, who am I to spout my ‘opinions’ off to someone with ‘two science’ degrees. Oh wait, the courts have already rendered their opinion in the Ezekiel Stephan death. Likewise against the idiots at Citizens for Safe Technology and their ‘class action suit’, and the CFIA has cleared Aquabounty Salmon and more cultivars from Neal Carter’s company to be marketed in Canada, and Justin Trudeau committed us to a new climate change agreement in Paris at the beginning of the year. Have a good day nutbar!

          • Tegaan

            Ummm…you seem to be the one rambling on. It’s funny you think you are so superior, yet you resort to spouting lies and calling names! I find you sad but highly amusing!

          • Keith Duhaime

            “you resort to spouting lies and calling names! ”

            1. Prove that I have lied even once.

            2. Hide behind a psudonym and we can call you whatever we want.

          • Tegaan

            I don’t need to prove anything, especially to you. You are sounding very childish.

  • David Dockendorff

    There are lots of examples of misinformation. Perhaps you picked a poor example in choosing GMOs as an example. To debunk misinformation you have to understand the facts first. GMOs, although approved by governments, have not been subjected to rigorous scientific safety testing. No independent testing, no peer review, just Monsanto’s word for it’s safety.
    The use of GMOs, especially glyphosate resistance, promotes mon-culture agriculture. This form of agriculture is bad on so many levels it’s not worth discussion – it’s soil mining and it’s responsible, to a large extent, for the greenhouse gasses, phosphate pollution, soil erosion that’s giving agriculture a bad reputation.
    Managing misinformation is not difficult. First understand the concerns and be prepared to admit that we, as farmers, need to be more open to the idea that we don’t have all the answers and that we’re on a journey with our customers to a better way of doing things. The experiment of the past 80 years of industrial ag may not be where we need to be tomorrow.

    • Gerald Pilger

      This comment really compliments my article on misinformation. David repeats a common myth that there has been no rigorous scientific safety testing, no independent testing, and no peer review of GMOs. Yet in 2012 Alessandro Nicolia et al of the University of Perugia, Italy, reviewed 1,783 peer reviewed, scientific studies of GE crops; 770 which looked at the health impacts on humans or animals.

      He then goes on to repeat the myths that GMOs cause soil erosion, are responsible for greenhouse gasses, etc. Before accepting David’s claims on these points I urge readers to check out, Risks and Benefits of Glyphosate Resistant Crops by Stephen O Duke and Antonio L. Cerdeira. It is a balanced review of the impact GMOs have. Note the referenced scientific studies at the end of the article.
      It is because of claims like David makes that I wrote the article.

      • Keith Duhaime

        Bang on the money on soil erosion. Zero-tillage as promoted by the good Dr. Guy Lafond, etc. has been a boon to preserving one of our most valuable natural assets and the biggest enabler of that has been herbicide tolerant crops, primarily from one company, Monsanto, whether the anti-GMO idiots like it or not. I think what is especially also promising is he recent work out of WSU on soybeans and nitrogen fixation.

      • David Dockendorff

        Gerald, again it is unfortunate that you chose GMOs for your example. The GMO science is much more political than scientific. You reference the Alessandro Nicolia et al review of 1783 peer reviewed studies. Of those 1783 publications only three publications cite animal trials to determine toxicity:
        de Vendômois JS, Roullier F,Cellier D, Séralini G-E. (2009). A comparison of the effects of three GM corn varieties on mammalian health. Int J Biol Sci, 5, 706–6

        Séralini G-E, Cellier D,Vendomois JS. (2007). New analysis of a rat feeding study with a genetically modified maize reveals signs of hepatorenal toxicity. Arch Environ Contam Toxicol, 52,596–602

        Séralini G-E, Clair E, Mesnage R,et al. (2012). Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize. Food Chem Toxicol, 50, 4221–31

        All three studies document disturbing results. In all three cases the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) discounted the results. These were peer reviewed studies. In the case of Seralini (2012) the EFSA discounted the study since it did not conform to the protocols for cancer research. However, it did conform to the protocols for toxicology studies and it made no cancer related claims.
        It is worth reading the response to the retraction of the Seralini (2012) publication.

        Regarding your second comment: I made no claim that GMOs cause soil erosion. However the agriculture practice of growing mon-cultures does contribute to soil degradation and the use of GMO crops perpetuates this form of agriculture. Some improvement in soil erosion is achieved with the use of No-till and minimum till practices but loss of soil biology, soil organic carbon, and hydrological infiltration remain problematic. The solutions lie in the use of crop rotation, the use of multi-species cover crops, and the cycling of nutrients using livestock (esp Ruminants).

        Of great concern is the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) footprint of agriculture worldwide. At present agriculture is responsible for close to 30 percent of human caused GHG emissions. This is twice that of the transportation industry. The up side is that this need not be the case. The adoption of conservation agriculture can reduce the GHG footprint and ultimately sequester carbon. It may well be possible for agriculture to have a net positive effect and reduce atmospheric CO2
        May I recommend: The role of ruminants in reducing agriculture’s carbon footprint in North America W.R. Teague, S. Apfelbaum, R. Lal, U.P. Kreuter, J. Rowntree, C.A. Davies, R. Conser, M. Rasmussen, J. Hatfield, T. Wang, F. Wang, and P. Byck

        • Keith Duhaime

          Seralini? You’re really out to lunch. Go tka a course in basic research methodology and statistical methods before you make any more comments.

          • David Dockendorff

            It is unfortunate that you were not asked to review the paper. Those that were, found issues with the EFSA’s criticisms of the paper and the publisher’s reasons for the retraction. I provided a link to the rebuttal. Perhaps you should read it.


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