Anyone familiar with sensationalist media coverage of science knows that many stories need to be taken with a big dose of skepticism. Thus, people increasingly shake their heads at screaming headlines on the latest autism/red wine/exercise/gay parenting/climate change study.
When it comes to GMOs (genetically modified organisms), however, plenty of people are also prepared, it seems, to believe the worst.
Consider, for instance, what happened on Twitter this weekend after a CBS affiliate in Texas ran a story with this headline:
Genetically modified grass linked to cattle deaths
According to the online report:
Preliminary tests revealed the Tifton 85 grass, which has been here for years, had suddenly started producing cyanide gas, poisoning the cattle.
The story turned out to be incorrect, and a number of folks were pretty quick to point that out. But not quick enough to head off the insta-reaction on Twitter, where the faulty story shot around like a pinball. Let’s look at a few examples.
On hearing the news, @Rivenhomewood tweeted:
This is totally terrifying. Waiting for some more info from scientific sources.
She didn’t wait long before retweeting this from @unhealthytruth:
The grass is a genetically-modified form of Bermuda known as Tifton 85 which has been growing here for 15 years, feeding Abel’s 18 head of Corriente cattle. Corriente are used for team roping because of their small size and horns.
Incidentally, that one from @unhealthytruth was good for 77 retweets. (She also didn’t bother tweeting a correction, which, as we’ll see in a moment, @Rivenhomewood and others did.) But here’s how it works, because via the @Rivenhomewood follower chain, the story gets picked up by respected science journalist Steve Silberman, who asks:
For that, he later gets rapped by biologist David Tribe in a blog post titled, “GM grass linked to Texas cattle deaths by fact-free reporting.”
Tribe is referring to the botched CBS story, but clearly he’s also irked at Silberman for giving it juice, even if it was in the form of a question.
I happened to come across the story in my Twitter feed from University of Minnesota earth scientist Jon Foley, another highly reputable source in the science sphere, who, upon receiving the news (from where?) tweeted:
Whoa! How? “GM grass linked to Texas cattle deaths; Tests show genetically-modified grass began producing cyanide gas http://cbsn.ws/LIh8CL “
Now, to Foley’s credit, he retweeted the stream of corrections that was soon sent to him by various people, and he also said this:
Turns out CBS News story about “GM Grass Killing Cows” has a major flaw: it’s NOT a GMO. It’s a traditionally bred grass.
So good for him, and others, such as Silberman and @rivenhomewood, each who also made sure to alert their followers to the big error in the story. (For more information on the flawed piece, see here.)
But I can’t help wondering why the story didn’t seem to register on Foley’s (and Silberman’s) finely tuned BS radar, which ordinarily detects hyped/flawed science coverage. True, they didn’t swallow the story whole but they also appeared quick on the trigger to tweet it.
Why was that? Is it because they were inclined to believe it? Or am I being unfair to them by reading into their motivation? [Please see UPDATES below for gracious responses from Foley and Silberman.]
I don’t know. But it does raise an issue discussed on Poynter last year in an article titled, “Should journalists confirm information before passing it along on Twitter?” (Foley, of course, is not a journalist, but he is a trusted information broker.)
For me, seeing trusted information brokers on science tweet the incorrect CBS story raises an issue that was implied by my recent post on Marion Nestle’s acceptance of a deeply flawed report on GMOs.
Anyway, the more I pay attention to how smart, educated people discuss GMOs, the more it becomes apparent that much of this discussion is shaped not by science, but by cultural worldviews. Here’s a particularly depressing example recently demonstrated on Bill Maher’s HBO show.
UPDATE: On Twitter, Steve Silberman responds:
UPDATE: Jon Foley has a similar response:
I’m really stunned that CBS (not a small time operation) made such a blunder! I “trusted” they did homework.
Foley adds: “I think we all need to be very careful with these things. Lesson to be learned here.”