Critical Reading for Non-Historians

My Honors College students have challenged me to add some non-history examples to this website. I think this is a fair request. I enjoy working with students who don’t plan to major in history, and those who do major in history could benefit from seeing how the analytic techniques they are taught can be applied to a range of questions and materials. So I have decided to start collecting examples of good writing and analysis by non-historians. One caveat is that most of the scholarly books I read are works of history, so many of these examples will have to come from non-scholarly sources.

Here’s the first.

In September 2012, the Annals of Internal Medicine published a meta-study finding that “published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.” [Patricia Schirmer, Christopher Stave, Ingram Olkin, and Dena M. Bravata, “Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives? A Systematic Review,” Annals of Internal Medicine 157 (2012):348-366.]

Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, responded:

I’m not sure it’s a big deal. The media’s playing it as if there were something new here, but this is not new research, it’s a meta-study [a review of previously conducted research], and I’ve seen the exact same data analyzed in a very different direction. A lot of it depends on how you manage your assumptions and statistical method.

I think we’re kind of erecting a straw man and then knocking it down, the straw man being that the whole point of organic food is that it’s more nutritious. The whole point of organic food is that it’s more environmentally sustainable. That’s the stronger and easier case to make.

It’s true the body of research around nutrition is really equivocal, and we need to do more studies on that. But the success of organic doesn’t stand or fall on that question. This study disputes how significant the differences in antioxidant and nutrient levels are between organic and conventional food. But that’s not central to the discussion of why organic is important, which has a lot more to do with how the soil is managed and the exposure to pesticides, not just in the eater’s diet but to the farmworker.

I would put this in category II.C of “Examples of Critical Reading“: the source makes surprising choices about what to emphasize. Pollan think the study’s authors made the surprising, and mistaken, choice to emphasize nutrition rather than environmental sustainability and exposure to pesticides.

He’s also commenting on how the media reported the study. The media reported the story as something new (III.B.2), but Pollan sees it as something old (III.B.1).


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