How to Use Critical Thinking Skills without a Science Background

Guest Blog By: Wanda Patsche

Click here to access the original blog post.


There isn’t a day that I don’t see headlines such as these in my social media newsfeed. One particular article, “Why I Changed My Stance on Eating Organic Food,” came across my newsfeed and I noticed the author was a dietician. When I think of dietitians, I think of integrity so I was interested to hear what the author had to say about why she changed her stance on eating organic food. When I finished reading the article, there were a number of “red flags” and knew I needed to do some “critical thinking” research on some of her statements. But how do I use critical thinking skills about GMOs (genetically modified organisms) without a science background?
Even though I am a farmer, I will admit my science background is not very strong. How does one know what is true and what is merely propaganda? I will show you, step-by-step, how I used critical thinking skills to examine how valid her claims were. 

Statement #1:

“I became a spokesperson for CLIF Bar in Canada, and as their products are at least 70 percent organic, I became better educated about organic farming, seeds, and crops, and their impact on the environment, and on us as the consumer.” 
RED FLAG moment. Okay, the first thing that comes to mind is if she is a spokesperson, do you think she is getting paid? Probably . . . You think there might be a little bias? I will let you answer that on your own.
Statement #2:
“Corn is used as a pesticide.”
I am still a little confused by this phrase. Corn is not used as a pesticide, but rather, is a grain used for livestock feed, ethanol, and human food. It seems to me she is misconstruing the facts and is probably referring to BT (Bacillus thuringiensis) corn. I will try to keep this explanation about BT corn as simple as possible–BT is a natural bacteria commonly found in soils and is NOT toxic to humans. In fact, I probably have breathed in BT numerous times just by standing outside of my house because we have soil nearby. BT produces a protein that when ingested by certain larva-type insects (such as corn borer, which is very destructive to corn plants) causes death in those insects. BT targets specific insects, not all insects. In fact, organic famers can use BT as a pesticide for their organic crops. Injected BT is also used in some organic plants. BT corn is genetically engineered by isolating a specific gene that produces the protein (the protein that causes death in insects), and that one gene is placed into the corn plant. This results in a GMO–one gene out of tens of thousands of genes. When the insects start to eat the corn plant, they will ingest the BT protein and die. Only at the time the protein is in the gut of a larva is it considered a pesticide. It has absolutely no effect on humans. In addition, Bt has helped drop organophosphates (which are very bad) by 50%. This is a fact that was conveniently not talked about. 
Statement #3:
“Systemic pesticides have been in the news lately because they’re being implicated in the deaths of millions of bees, and when bees die, 75% of the crops we eat don’t get pollinated, which is deadly to the plants and to the ecosystem.”
Yes, we need to find out what is happening to our bee population. Many think neonics (an insecticide applied to seeds) are suspect in bee death and yet there is research to refute those claims. Neonics have nothing to do with genetically engineered plants, although it seems she insinuates it in her article. For a balanced view on the neonics/bees issue, read Save The Bees, But Not With An All-Out Pesticide Ban. The bottom line is we need to keep researching the cause of colony disorder and do what is necessary to protect the bees.
Statement #4:
“It has been found that at least 90% of these pesticides don’t even go into the crops; they go into the environment: the soil, the water, and the animals who eat the coated seeds, crawl in the contaminated ground, and swim in the contaminated water.”
There are many questions that arise from this statement. There is no reference to the source of the 90% statement. What specific pesticides is she talking about? Remember the EPA monitors and would not allow soil or waters to be contaminated to a level that is harmful to humans or animals. On a positive note, this is where GE technology shines because it allows farmers to use less pesticides. Good for humans, animals, and the environment.
Statement #5:
“If GMO plants are safe, why are they banned in Europe?”

This is a common question in regards to Europe’s position on GMO plants. The author has claimed that Europe has banned them and what do they know that we don’t? The fact is many European countries have not banned them, but rather have not approved them. Big difference. GMO corn is imported and used in livestock all over Europe. Recently, reports are circulating that Europe is having second thoughts about GE (genetic engineering) technology and may be allowing farmers to grow them soon.
This is not a statement in the article, but rather an observation from me. The author is clearly not using her critical analysis of research and it reads more as an advertisement.  And it makes me feel very uncomfortable.The dietetics regulatory body forbids promoting anything that is not science-based. In fact, recently there has been some controversy in the field of dietetics because of large corporations wanting to sponsor dietetic conferences. Some claim the sponsorships may affect their integrity. 
Yes, it is a shame that it takes this much effort to read through and decipher with a critical eye an article that should be an honest and educational read. But, unfortunately, this is a downfall of the Internet. Let’s just say, just because you read it on the Internet does not make it true! Do your own research!


Understand and challenge your biases and assumptions–it’s healthy. 
Biases: When I look at an issue, the first thing I note is where the source originated. Personally, I tend to trust sources from academia and science. And even if it looks like the source is authoritative, I will still investigate to make sure they are a legitimate and credible source. I also ask myself–Is there anything this source has to gain by publishing this information? What is their bias? What is my bias? Do multiple sources say the same thing? Multiple sources add credibility. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, no matter how stupid they may sound. These are just a few of the simple steps I went through as I analyzed this article.
Assumptions: All of us make a lot of assumptions about almost everything. It’s how our brain processes certain pieces of information, and how we get along in everyday life. You could say they are the foundation of our critical framework. But what if those assumptions turned out to be wrong, or at least not entirely truthful? Then the whole foundation needs to be rebuilt, from the bottom up.

Ask, ask and ask some more. Listen. No, really listen. And then think about it. 
At that point, make a decision. But always remember that you can change your mind as more information is made available. It’s a continuous process. 
Challenge yourself. Sharpen your critical thinking skills by practicing them often.

Help Support CAST

Your donation to CAST helps support the CAST mission of communicating science to meet the challenge of producing enough food, fiber and fuel for a growing population. Every gift, no matter the size, is appreciated.