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Commentary: When to Rely on Science, and When to Ignore it

 

There are times and situations when science should guide our actions, attitudes, decisions, and public policy. Then there are times and situations when scientific facts really don’t matter. The challenge is knowing when science matters and when it doesn’t. Currently, there are two major issues on which most of the public has an opinion. In one of the issues, science should play a central role; in the other, it is irrelevant.

The wearing of face masks during the pandemic crisis is an issue that calls for sound science, thus scientific facts should guide personal and public policy decisions. Unfortunately, emotions and political alliances have become the basis for many people’s opinions and personal decisions on this issue. This is resulting in a plethora of contradictory regulations both within and between communities depending on whether the decision makers are acting on science or emotion.

Another area where scientific fact and emotional feelings collide is in the area of food choices. Those who produce food tend to view consumer decisions as being fact-based. We go to great pains to explain the science behind food production. Food labels today are crammed with details on what is contained in the food, how it is produced, and why it is a good thing to eat. The problem is that’s not what most consumers are thinking about when they are making the split second decision on what food items to buy.

Last week Burger King announced it was adding “low methane” beef to its menu. This was based on a study that showed feeding lemongrass to cows lowered the amount of methane the animals produced. Lower methane levels will help reduce greenhouse gases and improve the environment. Cattlemen and the beef industry criticized the move saying it was junk science and was another misrepresentation of the environmental impact of livestock production. They trotted out the science showing livestock only account for 3% of the worlds greenhouse gases, hardly a major threat.

Damian Mason, author of Food Fear, says the Burger King move may actually be a good thing for the beef industry, “Many consumers are being indoctrinated, especially the Gen Z and millennial crowd, into feeling guilty that what they eat is harming the environment. Burger King has given these guilt-ridden consumers a reason to buy a cheeseburger.” Mason admits the science behind the impact of cattle flatulence is flimsy at best but for consumers the science is not the issue, “The story here is Burger King uses cattle that are on a low methane diet and that is good. It is a little bit of rainbows and unicorns and silly science, but consumers buy on feelings and this makes them feel good.”

Socially responsible marketing is a new trend in the marketplace that is proving to be very effective with younger consumers. For example, there is a sock company that gives away a pair of socks to a homeless person for every pair you buy. You can buy their socks and feel good about your choice. This trend is moving into the food industry, and the Burger King move is part of that.

Scientific facts are important, but so are feelings and perceptions. The critical factor is knowing when to rely on which when making decisions. Making a decision about your health and the health of others requires accurate scientific facts. Telling the story of agriculture and food production requires an awareness of the emotions and perceptions consumers have.