You're standing in the produce section at the grocery store holding two bananas — one organic, the other just a regular old banana — and you're trying to decide which one to get.
Now, you've had regular old bananas before. You like them. They taste just fine. However, you've heard some tantalizing things about organic foods before.
You've heard they taste better, smell better and are far more nutritious than just a regular old banana. Of course, organic foods are twice as expensive as a typical ones, but a $2 organic banana must, by virtue of the higher price, be better, right?
Okay, this is not a column about organic foods (Hint: don't waste your money). Actually, it's a column about decision-making. We make decisions all the time. Several a day, in fact. Making decisions requires thinking, something else humans do, constantly, every day.
Thinking about thinking got me to thinking about the scientific method, something I hadn't really thought about since around Gr. 6, which is, I seem to recall, when I learned it in school. I remember it being quite dry and very specific to science class, and the object was to use the method to create an experiment (like which freezes faster, milk or water?)
The thing is though, the method can be applied anywhere. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the scientific method is one of the greatest human achievements of all time. In a simple package, it gives a person the tools to think independently, to make decisions informed by reason, to avoid jumping to conclusions, to avoid bias and prejudice.
Unfortunately, the method is taught only in science class where it remains, lonely and dejected and unloved, when really there is not a single subject in school, or in life for that matter, to which the scientific method cannot be applied.
We make so many decisions based on what "they" say, without ever really considering who "they" are. When we do this, we are letting someone else — someone we can't even punch when they turn out to be wrong — do our thinking for us.
Take my grocery store question, for example. Advertisements tells us organic foods are better for us. Stories in the media tout the benefits of them. Celebrities swear by them.
We see the word "pesticide" and we think "poison", and poisons are bad. We see the word "chemical" we think "unnatural", which is the opposite of natural and therefore is bad. When we see the word "organic" we think "natural", and natural is good. These conclusions are based on nothing but prejudice and bias, not evidence.
What's more, those conclusions tell us nothing about organic foods nor help us answer the real question: are they better for you?
Bring on the scientific method, which, appropriately and simply, always starts with a question.
To help us find the answer, we have to know what is an "organic" food. The Government of Canada definition of what a food producer has to do to certify their product organic is pretty easy to find. Hit the internet.
Okay, we now know what "organic" means, but we don't know if organic foods are more nutritious than conventionally grown foods. For this type of stuff, I generally hit PubMed, a free service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine that is a big online library of about 20 million studies from scientific journals around the world.
There, we find a couple of hundred studies comparing organic and conventional foods. And those studies tell us some pretty interesting things. There is some suggestion that organic farming can improve the content of some nutrients in some foods, but the majority of current evidence is that there is no real nutritional difference between the two.
Studies of taste and texture have shown that people generally cannot tell the difference between organics and conventionals.
Further studies will likely bring to light new information, but as of right now we have some answers based on the most current knowledge, and now we can make an informed decision.
That's why the scientific method is so awesome. The person on the street (or in the grocery store) doesn't have to create an experiment to prove an hypothesis; leave that to the guys in the lab.
Where it is useful is in helping us organize our thoughts, focus our attention and get to the root of the matter. It isn't should I buy organic food; it's why should I buy organic food.
We all carry around beliefs and opinions that could be looked at critically.
Are hospital emergency rooms busier during a full moon? Does sugar make children hyper? Do cell phones affect hospital equipment and airplane electronics?
Try out your critical thinking skills. Put them into practice. Your brain, and possibly your pocket book, will thank you.
But don't take my word for it. Be skeptical. Look it up for yourself.