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[SANET-MG] public relations pollution of science
Until recently the foundation of science was full and truthful
reporting. It was considered wrong to select some data and ignore
disagreeable data to support a theory. The article below is an example
of how slimy public relation has displaced full and truthful reporting.
The author of the article clearly selected data ignoring the wealth of
peer reviewed publications contradicting the "facts" from news media
that publish corporate public relations as "news". Academe seems to have
turned their backs on full and truthful reporting as was illustrated in
peer review committee at Berkeley. The faculty member being reviewed
had found that transgenes from maize polluted native stocks in a country
where transgenic corn had not been approved. An outspoken reviewer was
supported financially by corporation selling transgenic maize but the
reviewer refused to step down from the reviewer acknowledge the
conflict of interest.The reviewer was held up by the university as a
stellar teacher and his web site urged students to ignore facts in
pursuing their careers in science. So the author of the article below
and the teacher from Berkeley signal the death of full and truthful
reporting in science for years to come.
Volume 18 | Issue 19 | 6 | Oct. 11, 2004 the scientist
The Organic Food Placebo
By Richard Gallagher
Last month my parents threw a party to mark their 50th wedding
anniversary. After dinner, dad gave a speech recalling their honeymoon,
for which they traveled from Scotland to Port Bou, a village on the
France-Spain border squeezed between the Mediterranean Sea and the
Pyrenees. While he was discretely sketchy about certain aspects of the
adventure, he vividly described meals as though he'd just eaten them.
Food rationing was just ending in the Britain of 1954. After years of
compulsory restriction, people were free again to indulge in meat,
butter, sugar, eggs, and white bread. This probably helps explain why
his memories of those dinners were so clear.
But the availability of food and contemplation of its pleasures have
always been important for one reason or another. These days, for the
relatively affluent--which includes many readers of The Scientist but,
sadly, not the majority of our fellow human beings--food obsession is
reflected in the polarized attitudes towards organic foodstuffs.
I find myself at the same pole as Dick Taverne. A peer in the British
House of Lords, Taverne has enjoyed a long career in politics, the law,
business, and lobbying, so he's no stranger to a good lunch. He
characterizes the organic food movement as a massive con trick: "...the
craze for organic food is built on myth. It starts with a scientific
howler, has rules with neither rhyme nor reason. None of the claims made
for it have ever been substantiated, and if it grows it will damage the
The "scientific howler" in question is that "natural" chemicals are good
and synthetic chemicals bad.
Are organic foods safer? No. While foods can be unsafe for any number of
reasons, normal farming procedures are perfectly safe. The head of the
UK Food Standards Agency has written: "A single cup of coffee contains
natural carcinogens equal to at least a year's worth of carcinogenic
synthetic pesticides in the diet."
Well how about taste? No again. Blind tests show no difference in taste
between organic and inorganic foods. Given all this, how has the organic
movement become so successful? Why have so many been taken in?
We now have our answer: the placebo effect writ large.
In retrospect, the clues have been around for a while. Consider this
consumer's quote from CNN Student News, a TV program for classrooms:
"You feel healthy shopping [for organic foods]. You are rewarding
yourself both mentally and physically by eating healthy foods. It's
worth the cost in the long run."2
The anecdotes were borne out by a recent supermarket-commissioned poll,
which revealed that, yes, simply making the choice to buy organic food
can induce a sense of well-being. According to the BBC, "One
nutritionist says people feel [that] organic food can even boost
emotional and mental health, increasing their sense of well-being and
optimism when they choose the food they think is healthier."3
While Taverne, others, and myself at least have our explanations for
what appears to be silliness on the grandest scale, the discovery that
the benefit of organic food is a figment of consumers' imagination
doesn't seem to have broken the charm.
Should we tell them?
Richard Gallagher, Editor
1. D. Taverne, "You have to be green to swallow the organic food,"
Foreign Dispatches, available online at
2. M. McManus, "Organic foods get a boost," CNN Student News, available
online at cnnstudentnews.cnn.com/2002/fyi/news/04/15/organic.foods
3. "Buying organic 'gives you boost,'" BBC News, available online at
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