The Case for Really Reliable Research

Did you know that the divorce rate in Maine has a 99.2% correlation with the amount of margarine consumed in the state, and that the revenue generated by arcade games has a 98.5% correlation with the amount of computer science doctorates awarded in the US?

correlation between margarine and divorce in Maine
Data sources: National Vital Statistics Reports and U.S. Department of Agriculture

Correlation does not equal causation. Margarine doesn’t cause divorce in Maine, and arcade revenue has very little to do with computer science degrees in the US. These are all examples of why researchers shouldn’t use correlation to determine causation.

Research

When I was in high school, my English teacher assigned our class an argumentative research paper. These were usually our biggest assignments of the year. We had to take a stance on a topic and defend it with sources.

The first step to a research paper is the actual research. So, the school library directed me to a few databases they said would lead me to “reliable sources” for any topic. Naturally, I wanted to write about agriculture.

When I logged on to the database, I was appalled to find that the top result in all of my searches was not from a “reliable source” but from PETA, a known animal activist group with the goal of destroying all animal agriculture. How could this be the case? How could this false and biased information be on a database referred to as “reputable” and “reliable”?

Unreliable Resources

Although I found reliable resources for my paper, I dug through several pages of unreliable sources and biased research before I found anything I could use.

Sure, my teacher had discussed how to avoid websites with childish graphics, excess ads and poor design because they were likely unreliable. However, my classmates and I received no information about how to find reliable research as opposed to biased research.

Qualities of Reputable Academic Research

Here are some things to look for that demonstrate high quality, unbiased research:

  1. A clear statement about the methods used to test what is being studied
  2. A clear list of questions the researcher wants to answer
  3. A definition of the subject being studied. Does the definition match what is accepted in general society?
  4. A list of the processes including controls or instruments (like tests or surveys) used to study the subject
  5. The study should be easy to replicate. Research is replicated too demonstrate that the results are more than just outliers.

Additionally, these are some general characteristics of biased, unreliable research:

  1. Research looks for something that is not there
  2. Plagiarism
  3. Falsifying data or misrepresenting data to prove a point (i.e. claiming correlation equals causation)

Research needs to be reliable

If someone told you that Nicolas Cage movies caused people to drown by falling into their pools, you’d tell that person that they were crazy. But when it comes to the food we eat, correlation is often accepted as causation, when in fact, claiming that correlation equals causation in any case, is just as ridiculous as the correlations in this blog post.

correlation between Nicolas Cage movies and Pool Drownings
Data sources: Centers for Disease Control & Prevention and Internet Movie Database

Why is it so hard to find reliable research for Ag?

We live in the information age. Most people can become partially educated on any subject through a quick Google search and 10-12 minutes of scrolling. Unfortunately, it can be very difficult to get accurate information about agriculture on the internet.

This may seem strange, but think of it this way: less than two percent of the population in the US are directly involved with agriculture, and less than one percent are involved with animal agriculture. That’s less than 3,272,000 people who are responsible for feeding 100% of the population. That’s the equivalent of Los Angeles being responsible for producing food for our country and the world. So, it makes sense that it can be difficult to get accurate information out there, especially while most of that small percentage of people are busy producing food 365 days a year.

So, next time you see a statistic or a claim, look into how the research was done before you make conclusions based on numbers. And if you have specific questions about agriculture, consider asking a farmer before you start Googling!

All posts are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of the Animal Ag Alliance.

Technology is changing how we care for livestock

You don’t have to look very hard to notice all the ways advances in technology continue to revolutionize our lives. Although still following tradition in many ways, animal agriculture has also embraced this revolution. Farmers and ranchers have been able to improve animal health, welfare, reproduction, record keeping and so much more.

Drone flying over field.

New products are being developed and tested every day, it seems. The goal is to continue to enhance the efficiency of modern farms and ranches while also improving animal care. Recently, I attended a talk by Dr. Andrew Huff, a professor at Michigan State University in the Veterinary Medical Center. He discussed the future impact of technology on animal agriculture – and it sure is an exciting one! We look forward to being able to take even better care of our animals using these new advances. 

Thermal Imaging 

Although thermal imaging is not a new technology, we are just realizing its application in animal agriculture. We can potentially use thermal imaging to determine aggressiveness, heats and infections in animals as those conditions are associated with elevated temperatures. 

Object Classification 

Photo credit: Cargill.

Cargill Animal Nutrition has partnered with a machine vision company, Cainthus, to develop a software to identify individual animals. Like snowflakes, each individual animal is unique, and the software will recognize individual hide patterns and facial features. The software will collect data on feed and water intake patterns, heat detection and daily behavior trends. Although the initial version will focus on cows, Cargill and Cainthus plan to expand to pigs, chicken and fish.

Pen or Chute-Side Rapid Diagnostics

Rapid diagnostic machines will provide farmers with real-time health information. The goal is to provide results while the animals are still in a handling chute (a narrow stall used by farmers and ranchers to safely restrain animals during exams and treatment). A quick diagnosis will allow for more accurate treatment of the individual animal and a better sense of overall herd health. 

Remote Sensing

When the animal is out in the pasture, remote sensing can be used to check on them. Farmers will soon be able to use radar detection technology to measure respiration and heart rates from a distance. This is similar to the technology used in self-driving cars. We can even mount this technology to a drone and monitor cattle herds in a pasture. 

Movement Sensors 

Cow wearing a collar.

Movement sensors can determine when an animal is acting abnormally, which can occur for any number of reasons. This can help to decrease the amount of time between the onset of illness and treatment. Some of the new models of this technology can take the animal’s temperature and locate the animal within a pen or pasture.  Farmers and ranchers may be able to download an app on their smartphones to have the information in their back pocket. The most common form of these sensors is as a collar or an ear tag.

Although many of these technologies are still in the development and testing stages, I can’t help but get excited about the potential. It is about to become so much easier to provide more individualized care. This will help farmers manage overall animal health and well-being even more closely than they do today with the tools available to them.

Agriculture and science: two peas in a pod

Science was always my favorite subject in grade school and during my undergraduate career.  My favorite class in college was biology and despite the stress level, I found chemistry to be fascinating and I loved the challenge.  Was it always easy? Of course not – it was science, and its level of difficulty was one of the many reasons I ultimately decided to change my major from pre-vet to agricultural communication. I understand that science can be confusing and at times make you want to pull your hair out, but at the same time it is such an important part of life that everyone should have a basic understanding of scientific concepts.

I believe that one reason people are so skeptical and even dismissive of science today is because they don’t understand basic science – and many don’t seem to be willing to take the time to understand something new if it isn’t required of them.

The anti-science movement 

Unfortunately in today’s society there is an entire movement of people that dismiss science, which can have consequences on the society as a whole. A key example of this movement is the parents who refuse to vaccinate their children and cause otherwise healthy children to develop diseases that should have never resurfaced because of the advances in medicine and science.

All the science points to why vaccinations are necessary, yet some parents think they know what’s best and choose not to vaccinate their children. Why?

This movement not only affects public health, but modern agriculture as well.

Science and agriculture

Some people believe that science has no place in agriculture and that growing crops and raising livestock should be as “simple” as it was in the old days. There’s just one problem with this ideology – to say that science has no place in agriculture is like saying chocolate has no place in chocolate milk. It’s absurd.

Science and agriculture are not just related, agriculture is science. Agriculture is defined as the science or occupation of farming. Whether you choose to believe it or not, every decision that is made on a farm is science-based to ensure it is the best decision for the future of the farm, the handling and care of the livestock and the safety of workers.

1559415_10152860328425636_5963556534072063644_o (1)Without science and advancements in agriculture we wouldn’t have the abundant food supply that we have today. Science allows farmers and other agriculturalists to combat drought, insects and disease while also being able to produce enough food for the growing population.

The anti-science movement has been spreading misinformation about modern agriculture practices for some time now because they either don’t take the time to understand the science behind the decision-making process or they don’t trust the science.

What is good science? 

A little skepticism isn’t bad to have, but when everyone thinks they are an expert on something and shares information that may or may not be true, it can be difficult to separate the good science from the bad.

Science is always advancing and subject to challenge from experiments, so a good rule to keep in mind when reviewing scientific studies is to trust but verify.

Here is a list of criteria to help you decide the credibility of science:

  1. Peer reviewed – Make sure the research is evaluated by other professionals and scholars in the same field.
  2. Publication credibility – Make sure the research is published in a scholarly journal.
  3. Double check – Find other sources that share the same findings.
  4. Consensus – One experiment doesn’t make something valid and accepted as the truth. Find other experiments that have come to the same conclusion.

Agriculture and science are two peas in a pod which is why I am planning to pursue a master’s degree in science communication. While kids and college students head back to school in the next few weeks, maybe all of us can take the opportunity to study up on science.