“This product helped me grow 5 more bushels per acre last year. You don’t use much of it, and it only costs a few bucks per acre. It’s a can’t-lose deal.”
Have you ever heard a pitch like that? Most people have. Most people can also remember their dads and moms telling them that if it sounds to good to be true, it probably is. Or maybe they put it this way: “If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck!”
How did Mom and Dad come to have this wisdom? Probably the same way you did — by biting on a “too good to pass up” deal once or twice, and later regretting it.
Bob Nielsen, Purdue University Extension corn specialist, believes growers can avoid this pain if they ask more questions and run product claims and suspect “data” through a truth filter before buying products or adopting practices, especially on a large scale. Nielsen has a presentation called “Filter the Kool-Aid Before You Drink It.”
“Wikipedia isn’t always right, but they nailed this one,” he quips. According to Wikipedia, “drinking the Kool-Aid” is a figure of speech in the U.S. that refers to a person or group holding an unquestioned belief, argument or philosophy without critical examination.
Nielsen emphasizes that the key is the last three words: without critical examination. “Critical thinking is important,” he says. “I get a chuckle out of people with this quote attributed to Mark Twain, but there’s a lot of truth to it. ‘It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble — it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so!’”
Apply a filter
The first key is to consider the credibility of the source making claims, Nielsen says. Will they gain something if you trust their recommendations? Are their recommendations based on solid, extensive data or simply logic?
Gary Steinhardt, a fellow Purdue Extension agronomist, adds a favorite saying: “Logic can be a systematic way of going wrong with confidence.”
The second thing to consider is whether the facts are plausible. Is the claim believable?
Third, critique the research and data that support the “facts” yourself. You need more than testimonials to support claims, Nielsen insists.
“Testimonials often don’t include meaningful data by which you can critically evaluate the claim or opinion,” he says. “Some testimonials include no facts at all.”
Critique interpretation of results too, Nielsen adds. People are entitled to opinions, and sometimes they express those opinions, even in well-meaning magazine articles or sound bites.
“You just need to be cautious,” Nielsen advises. “Consider this statement from an interview with a couple of farmers about split application of nitrogen fertilizer: ‘While they didn’t have comparison strips, they believe the split-application approach helped.’”
That came from an online farm magazine, Nielsen says. Without comparison strips, there is no data. Even with comparison strips, it may not be reliable data unless it was repeated more than once, he says.
Here’s one more filter: “Look for independent verification of the claims,” he says. “Has someone, maybe at a university you respect, looked at the product or practice? Did they reach the same conclusions?”