Like many Iowans, I get frustrated and, admittedly, angry when I see rumors and speculation on social media about the coronavirus pandemic.
Yet with so much about the virus and its health impacts unknown, it’s easy for misinformation to fill the gaps of our knowledge.
Now that I’m spending more time at home, I’m chugging through a big pandemic stack of books to keep me entertained.
One of these new books, titled “Calling Bullsh*t: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World” by University of Washington science professors Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West, couldn’t have arrived at a better time.
The book details how research studies, statistics and infographics can be manipulated – although often unintentionally – to exaggerate numbers, imply causation or draw false conclusions.
Of course, the book’s title also seems fitting for those of us who live and work in farm country, where we literally have seen our fair share of BS. I grew up on a farm, and I learned at an early age to watch out for cow patties, as my grandpa called them.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of cow patties to step around when it comes to misinformation about agriculture and how our food is grown and raised.
As the book points out, correlation (or what the authors prefer to call association) doesn’t equal causation. Yet people are always trying to link the two, whether to tell a better story or push an agenda.
For example, you may have heard or read that “industrial farming” is primarily to blame for nitrates in Iowa’s waterways. In reality, scientists say Iowa’s rich, black soil releases nitrogen naturally into waterways, and fertilizer applications have little impact.
Research shows that farmers are making progress toward the state’s water quality goals.
Water quality is both an urban and rural issue, and we all need to work together to make improvements. That’s why Iowa farmers, landowners, conservation groups, universities, cities, and state and federal agencies are working together on Iowa’s water quality initiative.
Also in the book, the authors explain how numbers and statistics, when presented out of context, can mislead. Again, I’ve seen how numbers can create confusion about modern farming practices.
For example, activists claim that agriculture is a major contributor to climate change. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that agriculture accounts for 9% of greenhouse gas emissions.
Yet that’s a small fraction compared to transportation, electricity and industry, which account for 80% of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the EPA.
Critics also like to blame methane from cattle production (or “cow farts”) for contributing to climate change.
However, experts say that the methane produced by cattle farms decays in the atmosphere after 10 years. In comparison, carbon dioxide, released by burning fossil fuels, lasts in the air for hundreds of years.
Yes, it’s discouraging for those of us who try to base our decisions on science and facts, knowing that there are so many rumors and speculation floating around.
The best way to fight misinformation about agriculture is to look for trusted sources, such as university scientists and, of course, the farmers who work each and every day to provide our families with safe, nutritious foods.
After all, farmers know how to spot BS better than anyone. For more information about how farmers are adopting conservation practices and taking on the challenge of improving Iowa’s water quality, visit www.conservationcountsiowa.com.
By Teresa Bjork. Teresa is a senior features writer for the Iowa Farm Bureau.
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