This doctor needs a dose of her own medicine. A simple query erupted into a full-blown quandary about how to interpret information. About a fish. Me, the doctor of ‘how to understand scientific stories’ is stumped, or at least needs to do a whole lot of reading to figure out the truth.
Here’s how it began. I found a new type of fish in the grocery store: basa. Anything new in the grocery store gets an immediate ‘buy’ from me. Once I have it in my own kitchen, I wonder what it is and how to cook it. Basa is a white fish, frozen as boneless fillets. I steamed some with some garlic and it was delicious. Then I bought more, still at an almost indecently good price. After 6 months, the prices I see are cheaper by a half than frozen sole, haddock and cod.
While delighting in what good fish cakes, chowder and sauté basa makes, a niggle of doubt crept in, and made me uneasy. How could something so good be so cheap? It defies fundamental laws of economics
So I googled. I don’t remember the results of my first search. Perhaps I was relieved to find no glaring resident evil in either the production or nutritional value of Basa so my eyes glanced off the details. If it’s in all the local grocery stores, it has to be ok, doesn’t it?
Shadows of doubt wouldn’t let my mind settle, so I asked my Facebook friends if they knew anything about this wonder-fish. I have a wonderfully eclectic mix of friends, including ichthyologists, those that hunt their own meat, organic food enthusiasts, and zealous vegans. The responses I got to my Facebook question if the fish was appropriate to eat varied from ‘full of toxins’, ‘poor labour conditions on the farm’, ‘Frankenfish’ to ‘tasty, recently introduced to NA, farmed species of catfish’.
Time to read more carefully. There is disagreement. In the top ten Google hits are an informational page from Wikipedia, and two reputable Canadian food suppliers with recipes and a description of the product. Immediately below a headline suggesting consumption of basa causes death1 is a link to more recipes. There’s a video on where the fish are farmed, a Forbes article about how popular the fish is in India2 and an interesting column from The Times.3 I like this last piece. It’s full of opposing views. Apparently, the Australians love this fish, but Americans do not. Two Canadian authorities are cited with conflicting views. The controversy surrounds how the fish are farmed. They are not genetically modified but recently introduced to NA markets from Vietnam. There is disagreement over whether the river where basa is farmed is clean or polluted (you’d think that would be easy to determine, but from 20,000 km away, it’s hard to tell), what the fish are fed, and if are they given too many antibiotics.
At this point, I’d learned a few things, including where the idea basa is full of toxins or poorly farmed came from. But I hadn’t gotten to the truth yet – should I eat it? Or is that the truth I’m seeking? I started probing because of something I call Ann’s Axiom:
If it seems to good to be true
or like it should be illegal,
it probably is
or will be soon.
Delicious fish. Cheap. The free market should push the price up because basa is a desirable commodity. But it hasn’t. What does the free market know that I don’t? Or do I know something the free market doesn’t? That would satisfy my taste for being ‘in the know’.
Ha, but knowledge doesn’t come cheap – it requires work. And reveals there’s another dimension I must add to my self-help approach on how to understand science. Taking a single story and seeing the truth behind it is a good start. But we have to go further. Finding answers to everyday questions that depend on science is also critical.
Stay tuned as this doctor swallows the cod liver oil of humility to continue the quest to understand basa, and more importantly, how to understand how to understand basa and other things, in the next post*.
* The next post may not have the answer to life, the universe and everything. That’ll take at least two** more posts.
** Multiple by two and add 40 (standard approach to estimating jobs).