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Look, I hate rich people just as much as the next filthy liberal hippie. That’s why I was so excited to read a news headline proclaiming that they’re just as stupid as I thought: “Wealthy Americans know less than they think they do about food and nutrition.” I wanted to just nod along with that and move on but you know me, I can’t do that. I have to ruin everything, even things I like. Especially things I like. So I kept reading.
The headline and article are based on a poll produced by Michigan State University. The Food Literacy and Engagement Poll is designed to gauge the public’s understanding of what we choose to eat, and this year they specifically questioned people about whether they purchase genetically modified foods or “foods with chemicals.”
This is where it gets sticky — they (apparently) literally asked people if they avoid foods with chemicals. I tried to find the exact wording but after combing the web I’m unable to find the actual data — only other articles written by the author, Sheril Kirshenbaum, someone who is probably well known to skeptics in the audience because she has collaborated frequently with Chris Mooney on books and articles about scientific literacy.
Kirshenbaum’s article points to a page on MSU’s site about the poll, but it only includes a few questions and it was published in August of 2017. I can’t actually find the research behind it in any online journals, which makes me wonder if it’s ever been reviewed and if this is the same data set that Kirshenbaum used back in 2017 to write several articles for the same outlets now reporting on this news. It’s…a little sketchy, because in polls, language matters, a lot. Seemingly minor edits to your questions can get drastically different results, like asking someone if they “believe” in evolution, or asking if they accept the scientific evidence that species have changed over time.
If you asked me if I avoid purchasing foods with chemicals, I would have to have a good long think about that. I know that chemicals are in everything. I know that water is a chemical. But I also know that in casual discourse, “chemicals” can refer to dangerous substances. I also know that researchers are often interested in knowing whether there’s a particular chemical consumers want to avoid. What are they asking here? I wouldn’t know that in this case, they are asking a “gotcha” question to show that people are idiots who don’t know what chemicals are. Why not just ask them to define chemicals, or to list what things they avoid when buying food? The only purpose of this question is to make people look stupid. And it worked! Congrats. 73% of affluent people said yes, they avoid chemicals, compared to 65% of poor people. Is that difference statistically significant enough to say that affluent people are dumber than poor people? We don’t know, because we don’t know how many people are in each group.
The same goes for the question about avoiding GMOs, which are proven to be safe for people to eat. Despite that, Kirshenbaum says that 43% of affluent people avoid them compared to 26% of poor people. That’s a bigger gap, but is it significant? And even if it is, do we know that poor people are not avoiding GMOs because they believe GMOs are safe, or are they eating conventional foods because the non-GMO “organic” products cost so much more and are generally more available at high-end shops? Kirshenbaum doesn’t say if she even asked.
She says that about 50% of the affluents thought they knew more than average about food, compared to about 30% of poor people. Are they wrong? She admits that more rich people were familiar with terms like BPAs and GMOs, and if the only other info we have to go on is that fewer poor people avoid GMOs and about the same number of poor people avoid chemicals, it kind of seems like rich people do know a little more.
Speaking of the differences between the two groups, I’d also like to point out that Kirshenbaum decided that the affluent group was any household that earned more than $50,000 per year. That’s not even for individuals: it’s households, so one or two-income families. It obviously depends on where you live, but I’ve lived in Boston, Seattle, London, Buffalo, and San Francisco and in most of those places, a family making $50,000 would still qualify for public assistance and low-income housing. Other researchers who study such things qualify “affluent” as a household making at least double that, $100,000/year. So why did Kirshenbaum choose to draw the line at $50,000? Was that line established before the data was collected? If so, why was it not mentioned in the articles about this data that came out last year? And if the line was chosen after the data was collected, then there’s a chance that the line went at $50,000 because that’s what was needed to achieve any statistical significance. But we don’t know, because there is no open data.
I don’t doubt Kirshenbaum’s conclusions, that the public is fairly ignorant about food safety. But this study doesn’t do anything to convince me that rich people are worse than anyone else. Unless the rich person is Gwyneth Paltrow. Obviously.