Tuesday, February 22, 2011

On Truthiness and Safe – how safe is safe?

On Truthiness and Safe – how safe is safe if safe isn't really safe? (Draft document undergoing revision)

If someone told you that the food supply is safe; but that there are up to 13 million cases of foodborne disease and 500 deaths annually, you would be right to question the individual's integrity. Yet the food (un)safety community has been communicating in that manner for years. While the duplicitous use of safe may not occur as blatantly as in my sentence above it is nonetheless easy to find examples as I will show below.

Having experienced negative impact on personal wellness as a direct result of the duplicitous use of the word safe, I have long wondered just what speakers mean or just how safe is safe. As is often my custom when I start a new article, I googled: How safe is Safe? The search yielded one useful article entitled; Food: How Safe is Safe? (Schafer, 1998). The conclusions of this reference are not very helpful and read in part: “Deciding whether food is safe or hazardous is difficult. ... Food can never be proven entirely safe.... Maintaining a safe food supply is a goal of the majority of food producers, ...” After reading this I decided that I would entitle my paper: On Truthiness and Safe – how safe is safe if safe isn't really safe?

What are they thinking?

Paraphrasing one of the expressions a former colleague of mine used frequently when I was still working in the food (un)safety field: ‘What is the last thing that goes through the mind of a fly hitting the windshield of a speeding car’ might lead to the following question: What goes through the mind of an official public health spokesthingy, scientist or health department politician just before they proclaim that the food supply is safe when they know that at least some members of their audience know that they know that that just is not so.

Here are some examples:

There’s a good reason why the foods we eat in Canada are safe (Government of Canada, 2000);
For us, food is abundant, healthy, and, and above all, safe (Ottawa Citizen, 2011);
... you don’t think about the regulations that make your food safe.. ((Metro, 2011);
Hon. Gerry Ritz (Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food): Mr. Speaker, I can assure the House and all Canadians that our chicken is safe. CFIA regularly tests meat and poultry entering the food supply for antibiotics. The compliance rate for chicken is 100%. The last time I checked, that is pretty good (Ballantyne, 2011)(As I understand it the issue was superbugs in chicken, not antibiotic residues - superbugs can survive on chicken even after antibiotics have gone to acceptable levels after withdrawal);
"Chief White said Ottawa is absolutely a safe city"(The Ottawa Citizen, 2011).
My favourite example is as follows: "When scientists or regulators say that food is safe, many people assume the risk of there being a problem is therefore zero, when in fact in scientific terms zero is not achievable (Wildeman, 2006)."

Surely the issue is the abuse of the term 'safe' by scientists and regulators rather than misunderstanding by people. Bullshit remains bullshit even if produced by scientists and regulators(For references on the academic literature on bullshit see APPENDIX)! In this connection I like the comment made by the Project Manager at the Centre for Workplace Ethics at Health Canada (Lecours, Pierre, 2006) entitled - Communications and ethics: How to scheme virtuously: "Otherwise they will be reduced to a role of 'loud speaker' and may create more damage than good while drifting through ethical dilemmas with 'petit eichmannism' as the sole defense."

But how can we know what they know or should know? One way is to search the literature to see what their organizations have published in organizational or even peer-reviewed papers. As an example, if one googles the search string 'foodborne disease in Canada', the following web page from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency will likely pop up at the top:

“Common Causes of Foodborne Illness

Campylobacter jejuni
Clostridium botulinum
Clostridium perfringens
Cyclospora cayetanensis
E. coli 0157:H7 (Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome)
Listeria monocytogenes
Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning
Red Tide, PSP and Safe Shellfish Harvesting
Symptoms can start soon after eating contaminated food, but they can hit up to a month or more later. For some people, especially young children, the elderly, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems, foodborne illness can be very dangerous.
Public health experts estimate that there are 11 to 13 million cases of foodborne illness in Canada every year.”

Clearly, this quotation indicates that any description of the food supply as ‘safe’ is borne from passion for truthiness, defined as ‘truth’ that a person claims to know intuitively from the gut without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination or facts – wishing things to be the way one wants them to be. The above quotation presents a copious cornucopia of choices for suffering foodborne disease.

What is their definition for ‘safe’?
According to my dictionary safe means out of danger, not presenting or involving any danger or risk. Other dictionaries note attributes of safe as: secure from liability to harm, injury, danger or risk as in a safe place; free from hurt, injury, danger or risk as in to arrive safe and sound. None of the definitions appear to make provision for the occurrence of collateral damage under the umbrella of safe.

One has to wonder, what good is safe food if it makes consumers sick and even kills some of them when the current official number of foodborne cases annually is set at 11 to 13 million with and estimated 500 deaths annually in Canada.

If that is success what would failure look like?

We can’t even claim that the risk of foodborne disease has gone down during the past 40 years as the official number of foodborne cases in Canada was estimated to be 400,000 in 1974 when the population was about 23 million. Currently the population is just below 35 million and foodborne cases are estimated as high as 13 million and up to 500 deaths annually. Clearly foodborne cases have increased much more rapidly then population.

The bottom line is that the food supply has not been safe in the past, is not safe now and most likely won't be safe in the future - there is no room for collateral damage or road kill because safe, like sterilty, pregnancy and virginity are absolutes and cannot or should not be qualified. To mislead people into believing that a situation (like the food supply) is safe when it is not true prevents people making informed decisions.

Recalls are not proof that the food (un)safety system is working to provide a safe
food supply. They are rather clear evidence that the system is operating in failure mode on a continuous basis. Perhaps we are focusing too much on science and politics when it comes to food(un)safety and we should rather be discussing the legal, ethical, moral and economic appropriatness of describing the food supply as safe?

Above all this document is a plea to every public spokesthingy not to be a shit (Gilgun, 2008) and tell their fellow citizens that something is 'safe' when they know that is simply not true, no matter how small the risk.

Schafer, William. 1998 - Reviewed 2008. Food: How Safe is Safe? University of Minnesota - http://www.extension.umn.edu/distribution/nutrition/DJ5524.html (accessed Feb. 19, 2011)

Government of Canada. 2000. Food Safety and You. Her Majesty In Right Of Canada, Cat. No. A62-52/2000, ISBN 0-662-64805-6.

Ottawa Citizen, 2011, National Capital Region’s Top Employers, Agency employees know they make a difference, page 6.

Metro, 2011, Public Health celebrates the century mark, Metro, Jan. 6, 2011, page 05.

Ballantyne, Robert. 2011. Reaction to “Superbugs in the Supermarket.” http://www.cbc.ca/marketplace/blog/2011/02/reaction-to-superbugs-in-the-supermarket.html (accessed Feb. 19, 2011).

Wildeman, Alan, 2006 - Mad Cow Disease in Canada: Where do we go from here, Optimum online, vol. 36(2), June 2006 - note list of participants and para. 5, page 5.

Lecours, Pierre; Gilles Paquet, 2006 - Communications and ethics: How to scheme virtuously, Optimum online, vol. 36, issue 2, June 2006.

The Ottawa Citizen - A frugal police service, March 12, 2011, B6.

Gilgun, Jane, 2008 - On Being a Shit; Unkind Deeds and Cover-Ups in Everyday Life, www.lulu.com

This information is being produced as a public good. It is the opinion of the author based on extensive experience and study of published literature and is considered a valid interpretation of that literature; however, readers are encouraged to study the references and additional literature to form their own opinion. This information may be referenced, used or quoted with or without giving credit to the author. It may be distributed, copied or stored by any means. Readers and users are responsible for any outcomes from any use of this information.


Truthiness, Scientification and Bullshit in Communication - From Public Health to Politics.
Presented by G.W. (Bill) Riedel, Ottawa – Tel/Fax: 613-828-5756
Writers need to "develop a built-in bullshit detector." (Hemingway) and so do readers!
Canadian academic and author Laura Penny opens her book – ‘Your Call is Important to Us, the Truth about BULLSHIT’ (There are at least 10 books in Ottawa public libraries with the word bullshit in the title, most of them written by academics) by quoting Lilly Tomlin: “No matter how cynical you become, it is never enough to keep up.” She then delivers her own judgement by starting the book with the observation: “We live in an era of unprecedented bullshit production” thereby joining other authors who have made similar claims. For example:
Neil Postman - 1969 - “every day in almost every way people are exposed to more bullshit than it is healthy for them to endure….” He further notes that “the best things schools can do for kids is to help them learn how to distinguish useful talk from bullshit.”
Harry Frankfurt - 2005 - begins his book ‘On Bullshit’ with “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.”
In spite of this there are few attempts to examine the human propensity to bullshit, especially as it exists in public health and politics. This presentation will survey much of the academic literature on the subject.
Perhaps the most important question to be examined will deal with potential legal consequences for bullshitters - Andrew Aberdein deals with the question in, Raising the tone: Definition, Bullshit, and the Definition of Bullshit, Chapter 10, page 152 of Gary L. Hardcastle and George A. Reisch, 2006, Bullshit and Philosophy – guaranteed to get perfect results every time, Open Court, Chicago. Aberdein observes: “In British and American common law, a civil claim for negligence arises when the defendant has a duty of care to the plaintiff which he neglects to exercise, thereby harming the plaintiff. Here the deceptive bullshitter has a duty to tell the truth; neglecting this duty harms his audience if they come to believe his false statements…. The associated culpability can range from inadvertence to wilful blindness”.
If you are not concerned about culpability perhaps finding out what BBB, ABB and BBSN stand for might be sufficiently of interest to attend this presentation. The end of leadership in the age of mba?
Increase the efficiency of your organization by declaring:
Berkun, Scott - #53 - How to detect bullshit - http://www.scottberkun.com/essays/53-how-to-detect-bullshit/, August 9, 2006(accessed Nov. 23, 2010). (The first rule is to expect bullshit).
“Postman's core message, which I would summarize as, Citizens living in a democracy, if they hope to keep that democracy, need to learn how to tell the difference between facts and bullshit." (www.democraticunderground.com)

“Don’t be a shit (as defined by Jane Gilgun, 2008 - On Being a Shit; Unkind Deeds and Cover-Ups in Everyday Life, www.lulu.com) and tell your fellow citizens that the food supply is safe when you know that it is not safe and you are laughing all the way to the bank because the food supply is not safe and don’t ever forget that you are a consumer.” Bill Riedel, 2011