Before you believe it

Because our vulnerability to misinformation is growing every day, the easy-to-use SMELL test needs to become like an app that we turn on every time we connect to the web, listen to a radio, or even talk to each other

If our food looks bad, tastes bad, or smells bad, we won’t eat it. So why don’t we treat information the same way? After all, we are told information is power. Information has value. Information is essential to modern society.

So if information “smells” bad, shouldn’t we be wary of consuming it as well?

Dr. John McManus believes so, and he has developed the SMELL test for determining the validity of news and information. “The SMELL test is designed to help anyone discern reliable information in any medium,” McManus says. “So I think it would be helpful for farmers as well.”

McManus earned a master’s degree in journalism at the University of Michigan and a PhD in communications at Stanford. He has worked as a journalist, researcher, consultant, journalism educator, and media critic, and he is also an author and book publisher.

In his latest book Don’t Be Fooled: A Citizen’s Guide to News and Information in the Digital Age, McManus wrote, “I felt the need to share what I’ve learned to help others critically evaluate the enormous variety of what now passes for news as well as other information passed along as factual.”

The SMELL test is based on five categories, i.e. Source, Motive, Evidence, Logic, and Left Out.

Assessing these five criteria will allow you to evaluate any information for credibility.

Source” simply refers to where the information is coming from. Is it an accredited institution or organization? Is it from a recognized news outlet? Is it from a published writer or author? Or is it the work of a blogger? Is there a byline with the writer’s full name, or simply a pseudonym? Can you even confirm the identity of the writer?

Motive” is extremely important. Why is the information being presented? Is it simply to inform? Or is the motive of the presenter to persuade you to do something, such as to persuade you to purchase or sell? Or is the information intended simply to entertain.

Evidence” refers to factual support within the information itself. How is the information verified? Is there peer-reviewed support for the information in the article? Is the information referenced? In short, how does the presenter back up their facts?

Logical” means asking yourself whether the information makes sense. Does the evidence actually support the conclusions presented in the information?

That leaves “Left out” which can be the toughest test of a presentation. Is the information complete? What is the presenter not telling you? Is only one side of an issue presented or supported? Are omissions merely an oversight, or is it an attempt by the presenter to influence you?

These questions can and should be asked each and every time you receive new information, whether you read, hear or view it. It does not matter whether you encounter the information online, in mass media, in print, or even by word of mouth.

McManus’s easy-to-read book expands on each of these five criteria and illustrates them with examples of recent news events and how they were presented to the public. It should be required reading before anyone posts or re-posts anything online.

The SMELL test is needed more than ever.

In September I wrote of a world-wide movement to ban glyphosate based largely on misinformation. In subsequent articles, I tried to inform readers about how to address the glut of misinformation that is behind the push not only for a glyphosate ban, but for the banning of GMOs and many other modern farming practices.

I also reported on what some of the major agricultural organizations that claim to be the voice of farmers are doing to refute misinformation about our industry. I was disappointed in how little attention farmers and their organizations were and still are paying to the misinformation which is attacking us every day.

Opposition to glyphosate continues to grow. Since I wrote the September article on the push to ban glyphosate, the Italian ministry of health has instituted sweeping new restrictions on the use of glyphosate. I have confirmed through our consular office that under the terms of a decree with the extremely long name “Revocation of marketing authorizations and changing conditions the use of plant protection products containing the active substance glyphosate in implementation of Implementing Regulation (EU) 2016/1313 of the Commission of 1 August 2016,” the Ministry announced that as of August 22, 2016, glyphosate could no longer be used:

  • in areas frequented by the public or by vulnerable groups in such areas as: parks, gardens, sports grounds and recreational areas, playgrounds and green areas within school buildings, playgrounds for children and adjacent areas to health facilities;
  • for pre-harvest use for the sole purpose of optimizing the harvest or threshing;
  • for the purpose of protection of groundwater, for non-agricultural use in areas where soils contain a higher percentage of sand than 80 per cent; vulnerable areas and buffer zones as defined by the decree.

Especially troubling for Canadian growers is that Coldiretti, Italy’s largest farmer organization, immediately called for a ban on imported wheat from countries where glyphosate is used as a pre-harvest treatment.

In announcing the move, Coldiretti president Roberto Moncalvo said, “Italy is at the cutting edge in Europe and in the world with respect to policies regarding food security and environmental safety, but we will not be able to defend our citizens if we don’t block imports from countries that continue to use glyphosate pre-harvest.”

Moncalvo is now pushing the Italian government to regulate wheat used for pasta coming from the U.S. and Canada because of the use of glyphosate pre-harvest. This would have an impact on durum exports from Canada.

And so the misinformation continues to spread. For instance, on November 15, 2016, the Food Babe made a number of unsubstantiated claims based on a report published by Food Democracy Now about the toxicity of glyphosate. She went on to imply that Monsanto and the FDA have conspired to conceal glyphosate residues in food.

Her assertions attracted the attention of Snopes, an organization which investigates urban legends and misinformation. Based on investigation, Snopes labelled these Food Babe’s claims as false.

Last year, Snopes also rejected the article entitled “Half of All Children Will Be Autistic by 2025, Warns Senior Research Scientist at MIT” posted on the website “Alliance for Natural Health.”

The article stated: “One in two children will be autistic by 2025 due to the use of glyphosate (Roundup) on food crops.”

Snopes rated the claims made in the article as unproven and concluded: “Whether educated or not, guesswork is only the start of research in epidemiology, and no published research exists to prove (or even suggest) a link between glyphosate and autism. No evidence was presented in the article to provide context for why glyphosate (or GMOs) would be any more likely to account for the presumed increase than other environmental factors, and it appeared the only visible connection between the two was their inclusion on a graph presented at a conference of an indeterminate nature.”

Yet for every claim, article, or post that is discredited by an organization like Snopes, there are many more which are not fact checked and are accepted as fact by consumers.

Complicating the issue even more is the growing number of fake news sites. The Internet is providing a good living to talented fake news writers who profit from ads and visits to their sites. National Public Radio, the American media syndicator for about 900 public radio stations, tracked down and interviewed one very successful fake news entrepreneur. One of their questions in particular deserves our close attention: “What can be done about fake news?” The answer given by the fake news writer was: “Some of this has to fall on the readers themselves. The consumers of content have to be better at identifying this stuff. We have a whole nation of media-illiterate people. Really, there needs to be something done.”

The entire interview is extremely eye-opening and for anyone wanting an insight into the fake news world, the NPR story and interview it can be accessed online. (“We Tracked Down a Fake-News Creator in the Suburbs. Here’s What We Learned” by Laura Sydell. It aired November 23, 2016, and it can be found on npr.org.)

We only have to look at the recent U.S. presidential election to see how persuasive and acceptable misinformation has become. Politifact has won a Pulitzer Prize for its fact checking of American politics. It fact checked 334 statements made by the Trump campaign through the autumn and found 233 were mostly false (63), false (113) or outright Pants-on-Fire lies (57).

In his book, McManus wrote: “Information can be unreliable for three reasons: because it is deliberately biased, unintentionally biased, or simply inaccurate. While it is easy to point the finger at activists twisting the truth to persuade people, fake news writers and satire programs whose stories are sometimes accepted by a gullible public as fact rather than fiction, or even politicians stretching the truth, farmers are not without guilt. Online agricultural forums are full of misinformation re-posted by farmers without fact checking.”

McManus concludes: “We need to learn how to spot unreliable information ourselves and warn others.”

We act on what we believe to be true, but what we believe may not be reality. Unless we begin to critically question information, use tools like the SMELL test, and fact check the misinformation, the problem will continue to get worse, and so will the damage to the agricultural industry.

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