When Logical Fallacies Strike on Social Media

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Managing our social media accounts, I engage with many of our followers in discussions about nutrition and agriculture. While most of the time we are in agreement, sometimes we aren’t. That’s perfectly OK, and oftentimes I am able to engage with them and have a very productive conversation.

But then there are the few times when any sort of discussion isn’t possible. These people often use logical fallacies, or an error in reasoning that renders an argument invalid, to support their claims.

While most days I wouldn’t pay much attention to this, June 30th is #SocialMediaDay, and I decided to share with you all the most common logical fallacies I see on social media.

Anecdotal Evidence on Grains

For as long as I can remember, I was always told whole grains were good for me. My mother gave them to when I was kid, and I continued to eat them into adulthood. And as such, I assumed that whole grains can’t be debated. Well, thanks to the gluten-free and grain-free movements, there’s been increased conversations and arguments surrounding their health benefits.

Whenever I post about whole grains, there’s always someone who cites his or her personal story about how eliminating whole grains has benefited them. While I don’t doubt that they may have seen improvements in their health, applying a personal story to question the impact on a global population is extremely flawed. After all, I do fine with whole grains in my diet. I eat oatmeal for breakfast, I might have egg salad on whole grain toast, and sometimes I enjoy cranberry whole grain muffins. I’ve been gluten-free at various points in my life (including last week, testing the gluten-free diet for a future post), but I don’t experience any resounding changes in my health or mood when avoiding gluten. Literally … nothing happens.

Of course, this is a personal anecdote, but if we just throw science out the window, my story should be strong enough to debunk the stories of “a better life after gluten,” right?

Without the scientific method, we just don’t have any way to test these questions. No hypothesis, no controls, no confounding variables, nothing. But thankfully, with science, we know that whole grains are healthy. Of course, if you feel they make you sluggish or have increased your weight, just take them out of your diet. But we don’t need to make it common practice to use anecdotal stories over credible science.

The False Attribution of Pesticides

We get it, not all of us are farmers or agricultural scientists. So, some people don’t understand the point of pesticides or erroneously think that organic equals no pesticides.

But come on! Responding to our posts with “I disagree” or “This can’t be true” isn’t really a valid disagreement. In fact, it’s just a statement of incredulousness that doesn’t really explain what you don’t like about our post. Do you dislike our grammar or syntax? Or maybe the picture? If you tell us what you don’t like about them, we may be able to better help you understand their purpose, appropriately assess risks vs. benefits, or how they’re applied to crops.

Pesticides bring another flawed critique when discussing them, specifically using irrelevant, unqualified, unidentified, biased or fabricated sources to support the argument. While there are many examples of this, including citing the likes of Food Babe, Dr. Oz, and Mercola, sometimes people don’t realize the source they cite actually disagrees with their argument.

When we talk about pesticides, we often hear that people are using information from the International Agency for Research on Cancer, more commonly known as IARC. IARC determines if something is a cancer hazard, which is the potential to cause cancer, and does not assess the risk, or the probability of causing cancer. As you probably can imagine, this distinction is important and often missed. Whenever we talk about pesticides, especially glyphosate, a common misinterpretation looks something like this: “IARC says that glyphosate causes cancer, and we should avoid it.” Well, if you read their Q&A on Glyphosate, they don’t exactly say that:

The IARC Monographs evaluation is a hazard classification. It indicates the strength of evidence that glyphosate can cause cancer. The probability of developing a cancer will depend on factors such as the type and extent of exposure and the strength of the effect of the agent.

Of course, you’re going to try and get me with the “but our diet contains high levels of glyphosate” argument. Well, if you read through IARC Monographs Volume 112: evaluation of five organophosphate insecticides and herbicides, like I just did, you would know that this is not correct. IARC’s review of glyphosate explicitly said that the general population’s exposure to it (and other pesticides) is “generally low”; the review was mostly related to its occupational use.

Oversimplified Sugars

When it comes to sugars, mainstream media can’t stop demonizing them, and this trickles down to general fear of sugars among the broader population, which is often expressed via social media.

We frequently hear and see a version of misinformed statements regarding sugars, such as: “They are the crux of all things bad with the American diet—sugars cause obesity, diabetes, cancer, and more.” But is this sugar sentiment valid? Our 4 Things You May Be Wondering about Sugars caused some debate from people who believe that sugars alone cause chronic disease—a belief that runs counter to the volumes of published literature on the subject, by the way. Comment after comment, many mentioned unidentified studies (see our previous example, false attribution) that “proved” sugars in and of themselves cause weight gain, among other adverse health effects.

The truth is that sugars have not been proven (by real science, anyway) to be a single cause of poor health. Diets that have been associated with poor health contain a variety of foods, nutrients and other components that health professionals recommend limiting. A healthy (and long-term!) diet includes moderation, balance, and variety, and it does not call for the elimination of a single food, food group or nutrient.

When it comes to social media, it’s easy to disagree without a second thought. But try to hear what we’re saying, and if after that we have a disagreement, let’s talk about it.

We actually love discussions that bring up great counterpoints, especially when we’re able to engage with our followers. This way, we all learn together.