Raw deal

It's farmers' market season, so it's time for a food-related post.  Slate ran an article by a professor of science journalism on the possible ill effects of consuming raw milk.  To be more precise, Slate ran an attack on weak man arguments in favor of drinking raw milk, complete with weak man digs against other pro-organic positions.  This, I think, is especially egregious, not only of Slate but of the author, who as a professor of journalism really seriously ought to know better than to engage in such behavior.  Here's a representative graph:

And it's in this incarnation—the one that draws a cultlike following—that the raw-milk ideal becomes dangerous. They're not alone, of course; pure-food advocates in general tend to cast a romanticized glow over their favored products. We hear that old-fashioned organic produce contains more nutrients than that grown by modern agriculture, despite the fact that most research suggests that, basically, a carrot is a carrot and one spinach leaf is pretty much another (and all lose nutrients as they sit on a shelf). We hear that we should return to old-fashioned farming methods, advice that ignores the key fact that such techniques are so inefficient that they can't sustain the world's current population. There's an element of wishful thinking to many food mythologies, but—unlike the haloed status of raw milk—most don't lead directly to risky behavior or public health concerns or physicians complaining that increased consumption of "nature's perfect food" has led to a recent doubling in the number of milk-borne disease outbreaks.

I'm going to presume that the readers of Slate are not going to be all that familiar with debates about raw milk and biodynamic farming methods.  It think it's also safe to assume that the likely reader of this piece doesn't have a stake in the argument–they're not a partisan looking for confirmation of their vision of the dialectical opposition.  This fact makes the weak manning here all the more egregious.  People know, or ought to know, where a partisan agenda is being advanced.  You're a fool (and sadly many are) if you think you're going to get an honest picture of liberals from the Rush Limbaugh show.  In this case, however, one might be excused for having one's guard down.  

Now of course, it's certainly true that some advocates of raw milk are nuts (the author has picked them)–they make nutty claims without basis in any kind of evidence for the magical properties of raw milk.  Some of these nuts even dismiss the very obvious dangers of raw milk consumption with the most ridiculous of sophistries.

Nonetheless, many people drink raw milk (and in general advocate for various organic farming methods).  Some of these people have compelling arguments.  Many of them have arguments that pass the initial test of plausibility.  But you'd never get that idea from this piece.

7 thoughts on “Raw deal”

  1. I also find the conflating of the organic movement with raw milk drinkers to be disturbing.  I lived next door to a dairy farm, and enjoyed fresh milk now and then, however i am not an organic food eater or supporter (Though I'm not opposed to it either, people can eat what they want to.)  Is there a particular non sequitur term used to describe a straw man by association?

  2. There are plenty of arguments for drinking raw milk.  I don't know if they're ultimately good ones, though I'm pretty certain they're not all awful ones, as the author suggests.  Besides, there are lots of foods the eating of which imply ridiculous dangers–I'd venture to guess more people are sickened by conventional produce than by anything else (see Spinach and e coli, etc.).  The author of this piece, by the way, does nothing to contextualize the dangers she associates with drinking raw milk.  Considering the thesis of the article, that would seem to me to be important. 

  3. Huh?  I'm criticizing the Slate article not your response John Casey.  I think you misread my post.

  4. I just came across this blog while prepping a lecture on logical fallacies for a critical thinking class, and just wanted to say that you're doing great work here! I'm always looking for examples of bad logic from media and politics, and you're collecting a lot of good ones.
    One thing – I haven't perused the site extensively yet, but I don't see much analysis of more liberal sources. Granted this may be because liberal writers make fewer logical mistakes than conservative ones, but at least for my own selfish pedagogical purposes, it'd be great if I could find examples of bad logic from both sides.
    Keep up the good and very necessary work.

  5. Good observation Adam Smith.  See the section called "our bias" for an explanation.  In short, it's not that the (main newspaper) liberal guys argue better, they don't argue at all (in general).  But again, see the page. 

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