Tuesday, April 5, 2011

It's not rocket science

Last week I had an interesting exchange with a reader regarding the use of antibiotics in food animals. While we don’t agree on how antibiotics should be used, my reader and I do agree that understanding basic science is extremely important when it comes to assessing reports on this (or nearly any) topic addressed in the media in general.

Let me point out here that there's nothing wrong with, and everything right with, divergent informed opinions. My reader is an extremely bright person and one whose opinion I value a great deal. Objective debate is one of the best learning tools ever developed.

The reader pointed me to an article posted in a blog at Discover Magazine’s Web site. The article – about gene transfer among E. coli bacteria – was interesting, though at a slight tangent to our discussion of antibiotic use in food animals. The name of the blog, however, caught my attention and forced my thinking in a new and promising direction. A tiny “ah-ha” moment in the life of a curious person.

The biggest problem in the debate, which seeks to answer whether the use of antibiotics in food animals causes the development of antibiotic resistant bacterial strains that threaten human health, has nothing to do with food animals, antibiotics, or bacteria. The problem is getting thoughtful people on the same page so far as understanding the basic science of the debate. The major media and many science writers have fallen short in this.

I'm going to make Katie Couric stand as the typical media journalist here. I’ve taken Couric to task before. It’s not fair to appoint her the  representative of her profession, but life isn’t fair, and my points are valid.

The approach Couric chose to take in reporting on the debate was to take sides, assign blame, and sensationalize. These things are forbidden by the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics. To do this she cherry-picked data from several studies, reporting only those data that supported her side of the argument and ignoring data from the same studies which did not support her side.

In essence, her special report stated that U.S. farmers are knowingly putting the health of food consumers in jeopardy by pumping their livestock full of antibiotics. This practice, she argued, causes the development of antibiotic resistant bacterial strains which are directly passed to humans who consume animal food products. She sensationalized the story by announcing that “…drug resistant infections have sky-rocketed over the past two decades, killing an estimated 70,000 Americans last year alone.” U.S. farmers, she said, are knowingly, though indirectly, causing these deaths in their zeal to increase profits.

Branding, vaccinating, and treating calves for parasites during fall weaning on the EJE Ranch near Kimball, Neb.
In thinking about why many major media reporters, and even some scientists, seem to be willing to hide or alter information, I had long ago drawn the conclusion that they were willing to cast aside professional ethics for what was in their mind (or in their collective narrative) the “greater good,” and that they were aided in this by an unknowing and unfortunately scientifically illiterate public.

If so many media types are bent on duping the public, thought I, then my own professional responsibility must be to educate the public. Nice theory, but wrong. I had fallen neatly into the same trap that snapped up Couric and so many of her peers.

Reading the blog post suggested by my reader, or rather, reading the name of the blog, snapped my thinking onto a new avenue. The name of the blog? Not Exactly Rocket Science.

In thinking about the name of the blog, I thought about how true it is as a statement of the fundamental character of science. Not even rocket science is rocket science, at least not by the definition of the very popular phrase. You know the one, where one person chides another who is struggling with a seemingly simple problem. “C’mon Joe, it’s not rocket science.”

But as I said, neither is rocket science. In fact, while rocket science is complex, it is simply the application (for the most part) of Newtonian physics, the basics of which have been known for centuries and which nearly all of us are introduced to in elementary school as the laws of motion.

As I thought about this, I realized it was simply wrong to accuse the U.S. population in general of being scientifically illiterate.

If you’re able to read this, and most of you are, then you’ve almost certainly been introduced to the basics of scientific methodology. And those basics are pretty straightforward. You think about a problem and you wonder “why?” In thinking about it, you come up with a possible explanation, or hypothesis. You think about it some more and come up with a way to test your hypothesis in an experiment. The results of your experiment tell you whether the hypothesis was right or wrong, and if it was wrong, you often get a feel for how far off you were and an idea of how to refine your hypothesis into a theory.

The scientific method seems to be fundamental to the way we all learn and grow in knowledge. From the earliest age, we observe and explore our environment, trying and learning new things, finding what works and what doesn’t work.

In doing science, however, we have to add rigorous honesty and objectivity to the mix. These things are the foundation of science, and when honesty and objectivity are lacking, the resulting product is a sham, little better than astrology or tarot card reading.

In one sense, it’s a bit unfair to expect lay people to apply rigor to the process of understanding the stories they view, listen to or read. But as I’ve said, the world isn’t fair. If the individual wants to better understand the world, the individual must do the work of thinking honestly and objectively.
Grandkids feed bottle-calf Haji on the EJE Ranch.

Journalists, on the other hand, have a code of ethics to fall back on. Manipulating data is ethically wrong, and I hold journalists who do so in contempt. There are some few signs pointing toward a slow, halting return to ethical standards in journalism. This should be strongly encouraged.

I'll write more on the use of antibiotics in food animals. It's an important topic for food producers and consumers alike. From a rancher's perspective, antibiotics provide an important tool for keeping livestock healthy so that they can become safe and nutritious food. From the consumer's perspective, objective information about food production is at a premium, particularly when so many are fed by so few, and only a small fraction of consumers have any experience with agriculture. I hope you’ll follow and enjoy the series, but most of all I hope you’ll read it with a skeptical eye, checking my data and hypotheses and calling me to task where I stray from the path of objectivity.


  1. Nice post! The science teachers will love you for it. :-)

  2. Huh. Looks like my last comment on the previous blog post disappeared. Was going to add on, but I'll post here instead. Check out the most recent issue of Consumer Reports. In the editorial section, the mag is on the one hand promoting a system for reporting rates of hospital-acquired infections and on the other stating that Europe's laws regarding antibiotic use in farm animals is "safer" than in the U.S.