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Bug #38125 closed:unresolved

Factually wrong use of DDE pesticide data comparing organic vs conventional kale

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This bug appeared in a news report published by Mother Jones on Dec 12, 2012 by Tom Philpott. View the original news report.
Bug Type:  Faulty Statistics or Math

In a piece about the benefits of organic food, a graph is given comparing the residues of the pesticide DDE on organic and conventionally grown kale. Unfortunately, the underlying source (http://whatsonmyfood.org/level.jsp?food=GK&pesticide=910#f1) has no data for organic kale (that is, none was tested) and thus the value for it is 0 (this is very clearly given in notes on the source linked by the author). However, the use of the graph is such that the reader would think that organic kale has no residues of DDE which is not supported by the (non-existent) data. The source of the data is the USDA's Pesticide Data Program and they simply have not tested organic kale produce for DDE.

Further, DDE is a breakdown product of DDT which has not been widely used in the United States since the 1970s so any residues on produce would be a result of pre-existing soil contamination, not use by the farmer. Not only is the data on residues misused, the implication of the story is that a consumer can avoid exposure to DDE by choosing organic, but given the problem is pre-existing contamination and that there is little to no testing of DDE residues on organic produce, DDE is just a poor choice to show differences between organic and conventional produce.

More information on this bug available in the comments.


Rachael Ludwick has contacted Mother Jones

Bug History

Jan 27, 2013 2:39 pm Open Rachael Ludwick
Feb 05, 2013 8:28 pm Open: Under Discussion JT Cassidy
Apr 16, 2013 9:01 am Closed: Unresolved admin

Discussion Leave a comment


There seems to be another tiny error in this article that I think may have been noted by another reader in the comments section.

The NYT column by Mark Bittman that Philpott cites refers to “a statement by the American Association of Pediatrics” with a hypertext link to the organization’s website. If you click the link it takes you to the organization’s website with the name "American Academy of Pediatrics" (not “Association”) plastered across the top. I guess nobody bothers to check the little details anymore.

Feb 05, 2013 8:27 pm

On September 19, 2011 Mother Jones published an article (“Breitbart Silent About Big Error on His Big Government Site”) taking the Breitbart Big Government website to task for ignoring claims that one of its stories on climate change was full of holes. The article describes how New York Times writer, Andrew Revkin, filed a MediaBugs report citing the error. The story mentions that “MediaBugs then alerted Breitbart to the mistake using Big Government's online feedback form, and also sought a response from him multiple times on Twitter." Then it drives home the point that in not responding the site’s owner had "ignored the mistake.”

I did exactly the same with this MediaBugs report. After tweeting the author, sending “backtalk” emails to the editor at Mother Jones, etc. I feel as if my concerns about Mother Jones’ possible faulty use of statistics as cited in the report above have been totally “ignored.” I’m not absolutely certain that Mother Jones made the errors claimed in this unanswered MediaBugs report. I just wish the journal would practice what it preaches and respond to it. In ignoring the report, Mother Jones simply follows in the foot steps of the Breitbart site and loses any higher ethical ground to stand on that it perhaps once had. In closing I would like to borrow the final line from the Mother Jones article on Big Government and say, “On this one, we're still waiting.” Well this one and a couple of others too.

Feb 14, 2013 11:44 pm