March, 1999

Fruits of Thought

Science As A Weapon

If you want to understand what is going on with the produce industry, pesticides and the media, you could do worse than look at the media coverage of a recent study finding that, well, as The Boston Globe put it: “Study says working mothers don’t cause children harm.”

Similar headlines blared from newspapers across the country. So, does this mean women across the country need no longer wrestle with issues regarding the benefits of working vs. the benefits of staying at home? Hardly. The mothers included in this study were a most unrepresentative sample of women. The women were well below average in intelligence, twice as likely to be single mothers, family income was less than half of the national figures and the mothers were twice as likely to belong to a minority group.

In fact, buried in the recesses of the research project, one finds an admission by the study’s authors: “…results may not be generalizable to older, higher socioeconomic status parents.”

If this study’s findings are accurate, it holds implications that are intriguing. It points to the idea that in lower socioeconomic groups, the children gain as much from a parent working as they lose from a reduction in parental contact. This is not really shocking; in a poor, uneducated family, the money a job brings in may be very valuable to a child. In addition, the example set by someone going to work every day, as opposed to sitting home on welfare, may be crucial, and, indeed, care providers – be they relatives or day care centers – may offer advantages that parents cannot.

This, of course, has nothing at all to do with what the outcome will be on the children of a married, middle-class woman who goes out to work for luxuries, not necessities, and leaves her children with people less educated than herself during the workday.

These are hazy areas. Our knowledge is very limited, yet how this study was seized on and promoted as a kind of blessing on the heads of working mothers in instructive.

It teaches us that, today, science is not some neutral arbiter to which all reasonable parties in a dispute are prepared to appeal. It teaches us that science is commonly perceived as a weapon to be enlisted in battle.

In this case, it was to make the politically correct case that moms can go to work without being concerned about the impact on the children.

On another day, it was pesticide exposure. So much has been written about this subject that, in a sense, there is little left to say. When Consumers Union came out in mid-February with a press conference and article claiming that consumers were being exposed to harmful amounts of pesticides, or when the Environmental Working Group said basically the same thing a week later, the obvious response delivered by produce groups was that there is no evidence that these pesticide levels are, in fact, unhealthy.

Even more, what evidence we have indicates that the more produce one consumes the better for one’s health – this is with the conventional produce we have shipping every day. So this, in effect, nets out any negatives which might exist from pesticides.

More broadly, of course, analyzing risk only makes sense in a comparative way. In this case, for example, what are the alternatives to experiencing pesticide exposure? The Environmental Working Group ran full-page ads in The New York Times stating its preference: Organic produce.

Yet no matter how egregious the problem of pesticide contamination may be, no one can urge an alternative without carefully determining the problems with alternative methods. There have been, to my knowledge, no studies done on the comparative safety of conventional vs. organically grown produce. So these groups are urging adoption of something, not on the basis of careful study – because the study hasn’t been done – but, instead, on the basis of ideology.

The truth is that organic produce is controversial. The Hudson Institute’s Dennis Avery is outspoken on the risk levels of organic food, particularly in areas such as E.coli contamination. Many experts have expressed concern about the difficulty of composting manure in such a way that E.coli 0157:H7 is absolutely killed off.

In addition, there are always unintended consequences. In other words, there are risks to flying, for example, but if, in the name of safety, we require parents to purchase a seat for every child as opposed to sitting on a parent’s lap, we have to understand that one of the implication of that policy is to increase the likelihood that more parents will choose to drive and not fly. So, while the safety statistics on airlines may improve as a result of this policy choice, the total death and injury rate for children may increase since auto accidents are far more common than plane accidents.

Equally, if we push people away from pesticides and conventionally grown produce, it is very likely that since organic produce is generally more expensive, consumers will choose to buy less produce all together. Since food consumption is unlikely to go down, we may be confronted with a situation whereby we, in the name of promoting children’s health, wind up with parents putting fewer apples and more Ring Dings in lunch boxes. And no, there are no plans to do a comparative study on the health benefits of apples vs. Ring Dings. But that may, in fact, be the issue.  pb