Research is always a mix of good studies, poor studies, results designed to give the people who pay for the study what they want, “spun” results (the process of spin is not limited to politics) and flat-out falsified data. And even the good studies – well designed, double-blinded, ethical researchers – are limited because they tend to operate from the “what’s known” fallacy. Since they don’t know what they don’t know, their results start out skewed.
A good example is research on the health benefits of milk. The assumption is that milk should be pasteurized, so very few people do good, rigorous studies on raw milk. Then they say “milk” is or isn’t beneficial for certain conditions or overall health, when the research is only applicable to pasteurized milk. My personal preference is population-based studies, because they have to be done in the real world instead of the confines of the lab. Also, they usually have enough study participants that bias from a small population sample is lessened. But again, the researchers have to get past the conventional perspectives and their own biases, not to mention the folks who are paying for the study (all too often companies that have a stake in the “right” results).
Just as an example, here’s a recent study on pesticide residues that says “…typical dietary consumer exposure to pesticide residues from conventional fruits and vegetables does not appear to be of health significance…” Disclaimer here: I don’t personally know the researcher and have no idea if he’s ethical. The American Chemical Society, however, which publishes the “Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry” in which the researcher wrote these deathless words, accepted a $2.5 million grant from Dow Company to put on the International Chemistry Olympiad in July 2012. Dow makes Radiant and Delegate insecticides as well as SureStart Herbicide. Call me cynical, but I seriously doubt an organization that accepts that kind of money is going to spit in Dow’s eye by highlighting research that shows organic is better than commercial chemicals, herbicides and pesticides. A quick skim through the articles that have been published in the last few years indicates conventional agriculture practices are pretty much to the forefront. The last article I was able to find on organic vs. conventional was published in 2007 (and supported the concept that organic tomatoes have higher concentrations of flavonoids, especially when sampled over a period of time – organic methods tend to improve the soil slowly, so you really need to do a longitudinal study to see if organic is better).
So what’s a gardener to do? First and foremost, remember that the aim of companies such as Dow and Monsanto is to separate you from your hard-earned money. Snake oil is snake oil, whether it’s dressed up as high-dollar hybridized GMO seeds or the latest and greatest weed killer. If you can’t find good, solid, independent research to back up their product claims, don’t go there. Use things like good management, animal manures, compost and heirloom seeds instead. Remember, the tobacco companies, who also had a huge monetary interest, suppressed and falsified negative tobacco research for decades.
Money talks, and unfortunately, it can make research say what the money wants said.