Can statistics save the world?

The editorial piece published in spring of 2017 by George C. Wang for CNN.com, utilizes many different peer-reviewed studies and reports to make his case for how adopting a vegan diet can “save the planet”. Wang extensively cites a 2006 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations to illustrate the deleterious effects of livestock production on the environment and human health. Wang proposes that reducing the amount of animal products eaten can help to mitigate many environmental problems including increased greenhouse gas emissions and habitat fragmentation, and cites many studies to support this claim. Although this is an editorial piece and not a news article, its argument is supported entirely by scientific findings and lacks interviews/personal anecdotes.

An article written by Wes Enzinna in 2010 for Mother Jones utilizes personal anecdotes from a future livestock farmer about the uncertain future of beef production to capture the effort to combat the spread of plant-based diets. Enzinna uses complementary descriptors for Carrin Flores (a beef production advocate), before delving into the controversy surrounding the meat industry. The article focuses mainly on individuals and their efforts to hinder or help the crusade against meat. There are a variety of statistics offered, but they illustrate only how humans may be economically affected by changes in dietary patterns as well as the magnitude of both pro-beef and anti-meat efforts.

Did being able to empathize with a future beef producer give you a different take on efforts to reduce meat production? Why, or why not? Did you find the piece by Wang persuasive, even though it was so fact-driven? Would you have taken the same approach when writing an editorial with the same purpose? If not, how would you strengthen your argument?

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6 Responses to “Can statistics save the world?”

  1. I thought that Wang’s piece was especially persuasive because it was so fact-driven, not despite this. Though he clearly was not an objective reporter on the subject, the statistics and easily-accessible studies he provided through links supported his opinion by showing that he did not come to this conclusion out of nowhere – scientific evidence is what formed his opinion. I also liked how his article did not feel like it was pushing his point of view on you, but rather presenting the facts and explaining why and how these have formed his opinion in a way that seems logical and sensical.

    To me, Wes Enzinna’s article did not read as entirely objective. It focused on the human impact a reduction in beef consumption would have for beef producers, but did not give equal representation to the environmental side of the argument, only briefly mentioning that there is debate and that the environment is an issue but then overriding that by concluding with Flores’ anecdote. It seemed like the article hoped to portray beef producers in the best light instead of fairly and equally portray both sides of the debate.

  2. I think both articles did a good job of remaining unbiased for their respective audiences.

    Obviously, Wang’s opinion piece was well construed with many different supporting facts from studies. It talked a lot about the impact and how our individual choices matter, but it didn’t have a personal anecdote. I really think that did weaken its potency. Sure we all can understand the facts at least theoretically, but will do something to change our behavior?

    On the other hand, Enzinna’s piece did a good job of showing the big “food fight” between the Michael Pollan gang and the big- agriculture lobby and business interests. Yet, it also personalized Carrin Flores and made both her and her struggle human. I think that’s key in journalism– making things graspable…. She also did a good job talking about how the Pollan camp wasn’t being accepted at different colleges due to varying reasons. Hopefully, as environmentalists, we can learn to humanize the other side so they too can understand why it’s so critical to change our behavior.

    At the end of the day, I really don’t think facts mean anything if people aren’t able to apply them to their own daily life. A fact will then be meaningless. So despite Wang’s beautifully written piece, it still didn’t fully resonate with me. I hope we can all learn to make our environmental journalism a bit more personal in the future.

  3. Roxane:
    I’m pleased that you selected not only an editorial but also a more straightforward news piece to critique. The video that accompanied the editorial provided an interesting additional perspective, which in some ways was even more captivating than the editorial itself. As you pointed out, an editorial has a different purpose than a news article. It’s an opinion piece with a strong point of view intended to advance a particular argument. The studies cited support that argument. So it’s hard to objectively critique that kind of story as you would a news piece. Since we’re not focusing in this class on how to write editorials, the Mother Jones article is much more appropriate for this blog. I thought that was a fascinating, well executed article that provided a great angle on the food debate I hadn’t been aware of previously. I particularly appreciated the descriptive lede. That’s exactly the type of engaging intro we are looking for in your news feature.

  4. To me, if you’re going to write a convincing piece related to science, you need to back up your argument with facts. Therefore, I was much more convinced by the CNN piece than I was by the Mother Jones piece, although that one did invoke more emotion out of me. I acknowledge that I may be biased, because I really like statistics and therefore I am more engaged by articles that include them. To me, numbers provide a sense of reality to people, and are far more powerful at describing the scale of something than vague words such as ‘many’ or ‘a lot’ are. Also, I’m always curious about how factual the numbers and statistics are, so I liked that the numbers in the CNN article linked to the sources that they were from; this made me feel more confident in the quality of the reporting.

    I agree with Shayan that both pieces did do a good job of remaining unbiased. While the viewpoint of the piece was clear, the arguments were presented in a manner that was informative, but didn’t work to slander the other side’s opinion; on that note, however, neither provided much explanation for the other side’s opinion, so if the reader wanted to know more, they’d have to do their own independent research.

  5. Generally, I think that presenting statistics is a great way to give a reader a better understanding of the topic at hand. However, I don’t think that Enzinna’s article led itself to a top that needed statistical evidence. Enzinna used a quote where a farmer acknowledged that the environmental concerns were convincing. That quote gave me the vibe that the fight over environmental concerns is almost irrelevant as there are many facts (as presented in the CNN article) that prove the environmental impact. To me, the main purpose of the article was to highlight the controversy of the production of meat and how it will impact future careers in beef farming. Overall, I think Enzinna was trying to create a new focus on the debate and was successful in utilizing an empathetic approach.

  6. Although I thought it was an interesting perspective to use the future beef industry leaders as a way to delve into the issue from a different angle, I did not find it convincing. I don’t know if it was purposeful or not, but the quotes and the surrounding context of the quotes almost cast her in an ignorant light. My ultimate take-away from the story was that the woman and other potential cattle farmers are scared of losing their jobs, but not the environmental impact. To make it more empathetic, asking her ways they are trying to change their farming methods or practices might make it seem more progressive and less traditional. Also casting PETA and other vegetarian/vegan organizations as “enemies” was definitely not the right move to gain sympathy for these farmers. I liked the fact-driven article more because it allows the reader to make their own assumption about the meat industry and how it relates to their own lifestyle. The facts were kind of thrown in your face, but I think it effectively served its purpose of raising awareness about the new studies conducted.

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