I’d like you to read two statements. Here’s the first:
The scientific evidence is clear: global climate change caused by human activities is occurring now, and it is a growing threat to society. Accumulating data from across the globe reveal a wide array of effects: rapidly melting glaciers, destabilization of major ice sheets, increases in extreme weather, rising sea level, shifts in species ranges, and more. The pace of change and the evidence of harm have increased markedly over the last five years. The time to control greenhouse gase emissions is now.
That is from the 2006 resolution on climate change from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
Here’s the second:
There are several current efforts to require labeling of foods containing products derived from genetically modified crop plants, commonly known as GM crops or GMOs. These efforts are not driven by evidence that GM foods are actually dangerous. Indeed, the science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe…There are occasional claims that feeding GM foods to animals causes aberrations ranging from digestive disorders, to sterility, tumors and premature death. Although such claims are often sensationalized and receive a great deal of media attention, none have stood up to rigorous scientific scrutiny.
That is from an October 20, 2012 statement from the same organization (AAAS).
The anti-GMO efforts described above are driven by those who would consider themselves liberals or progressives. Many of them seem to be food and environmental advocates. Their views are sympathetically echoed in progressive media outlets, which often carry reports that play up dubious research attesting to the public health dangers posed by GM crops. Influential thought leaders much admired by progressives also seem to disregard or be suspicious of the consensus science cited by AAAS in its full statement.
It is my assumption that this aforementioned group in the progressive camp would agree with the 2006 statement on climate change by AAAS, but disagree with its recent statement on genetically modified foods. Is this intellectually inconsistent on their part? I think so and made the case several weeks ago in a Slate article titled, “GMO opponents are the climate skeptics of the left.”
The similarities between this [GMO] issue and the anti-vaccination movement (where de-bunked studies are touted as fact and a personal “right to choose” or “gut feeling” takes priority over what has been shown to be true) are striking, which makes me wonder if once again we are seeing a public reaction to “science.”
That depends which science. Progressives have no problem with the science that shows global warming is real. The science many of them deny is the one that shows no health or dietary problems associated with GM foods.
Why is one science accepted and the other rejected?
Like every parent, I want my two young boys to be resilient to life’s vicissitudes, everything from the slings and arrows on the school playground to the randomness of illnesses and tragedies. I want them to develop the capacity to bounce back from sudden shocks and hard knocks. So along with a father’s love and nurturing comes the harder challenge of resilience building, which I and every parent learns, is something a child must develop for himself. Still, when situations arise, you have to know when to step in and when to lay back. It’s tricky. I find it to be my greatest challenge as a parent.
As a society, we face a similar challenge, but on a greater scale. In a recent article, David Biello wrote:
Some 5 billion people are projected to live in urban areas by 2030. These cities of the future””most of them cities of today, like New York””will have to cope with climate change, sea level rise, increasing demand for electricity and the logistics of 5 billion peoples’ sewage, among other things.
The piece asks: “Can cities be resilient and sustainable at the same time?”
To me, the answer seems evident. The more resilience built into a city’s infrastructure and its business, governmental and civic sectors, the more sustainable a city is. That said, Biello’s piece explores some of the tensions between the different aims of “sustainability” and “resilience.” They can even work at cross purposes, as he points out here:
Some of the most obvious ways to become more resilient are not sustainable. For example, if you are concerned about reliable electricity, you can increase the resilience of your local grid by buying a diesel generator, or two, or more. In effect, that’s what the Googles, Facebooks, and Twitters of the world do. But extra diesel generators are certainly not an efficient, or particularly sustainable, way to create electricity. It’s not ideal for the environment to be burning all that extra diesel, with attendant air pollution and the like.
Perhaps the resilience/sustainability dilemma is best addressed by exploring how their respective goals can be aligned. That was, I think, the purpose of a constructive panel discussion last night on the the ways cities can be made more resilient. A nice overview of the themes and main points to emerge can be found at Tori Bosch’s post at Slate. If I had more time, I’d provide some of my own impressions. But I suspect this is a topic that will be discussed frequently in the years to come, so there will be plenty more opportunities.
Meanwhile, here’s hoping the city I live in (New York) and my children develop the resilience to cope with whatever the future holds.
Yesterday, Amy Goodman of Democracy Now devoted her program to a discussion on California’s Proposition 37, a voter initiative that, if passed on November 6, would mandate the labeling of many foods in the state’s grocery stores (restaurants are exempted) if they contained genetically modified ingredients. One of the guests on the program was Michael Pollan, the best-selling author and a journalism professor at UC Berkley. At one point in his interview with Goodman, Pollan lauded Michelle Obama for “elevating the conversation” on food issues. (The First Lady has adopted healthy eating as her main cause.)
The debate on genetically modified foods (and the CA labeling initiative) is screaming out to be elevated by someone with prominence. Here’s what Pollan, who is in favor of labeling GM foods, said to Goodman on this issue:
Consumers would probably avoid genetically modified food if they were given a choice. Why would they do that? It’s perfectly rational to avoid genetically modified food so far. It offers the consumer nothing. To the consumer, all it offers is some uncertainty–the doubts [on safety] that have been raised by certain studies about it.
Pollan is no dummy. He knows that such studies are rubbish (I wonder which ones he’s referring to) and that there is no scientific evidence to support claims that GMO foods are potentially unsafe to eat. But he reinforces the fears that are fanned by anti-GMO campaigners.
In the next breath, he says this:
It [genetically modified crops] is also a type of agriculture that some consumers want to avoid: giant monocultures under a steady rain of herbicides, which is what most GM crops are. So faced with that risk/benefit analysis–some undetermined possible risk vs no benefit whatsoever, what is the smart thing to do? The smart thing to do is just to avoid it until we know more about it.
It’s incredible to me that someone so smart can make this argument with a straight face. As University of Wyoming agronomist Andrew Kniss tweeted today,
Monoculture adoption is due to the increased efficiency, not due to any one technology.
Kniss also said this in a follow-up tweet:
Monoculture & GMO are often associated, but not cause-effect.
So Pollan, given an opportunity to elevate the debate on GM foods, instead plays the “uncertainty” card and repeats the “monoculture” trope. What a shame.
Is there any hope for a sensible public conversation on GMOs?
Every energy source comes with its own set of problems that give rise to a passionate opposition. In the United States today, we see it with shale gas and the anti-fracking movement. In Britain, Australia and other countries where wind farms have proliferated across rural landscapes, we see fierce anti-wind campaigns gaining strength.
Like gas fracking, there are numerous vexing issues (of a different nature) associated with wind turbines. But campaigners against fracking and wind power have something in common: They both exploit and distort science to advance their agendas. Of course, someone like James Delingpole, being the buffoonish demagogue he is, would be the last to recognize this. So it’s amusing that what he criticizes enviros for is exactly what he’s guilty of himself. The energy writer Robert Bryce is not a court jester like Delingpole, but he is guilty of selective citation in this recent one-sided column that suggests there are serious health effects from wind turbine noise.
Still, the assortment of maladies that have been attributed to wind farms is pretty fascinating. I explore the phenomena of “wind turbine syndrome” over at Discover. Is it real or just a lot of hot air? Have a read and let me know what you think at Discover or here.
Earlier this year, you might recall a pair of essays I wrote challenging green dogma. They were published at Discover’s website. The first was called “The Limits to Environmentalism” and the second, “Is Environmentalism anti-science?” This is a theme I’ve explored at Collide-a-Scape which, as one conservative reader has noticed, “provokes less than friendly responses from the environmentally correct.”
More recently, I’ve focused on how the GMO issue is covered in liberal media precincts and discussed by foodies and greens. That has been a lonely, thankless task. I know Chris Mooney thinks liberals are more open to new information than conservatives. That has not been my experience.
Anyway, Fred Pearce has now picked up on some of the same arguments I’ve been making in an essay titled, “Why Are Environmentalists Taking Anti-Science Positions?” He writes that enviros
have been making claims that simply do not stand up. We are accused of being anti-science “” and not without reason. A few, even close friends, have begun to compare this casual contempt for science with the tactics of climate contrarians.
That should hurt.
Oh, I think it has. The response to my Slate piece suggests that it hit a nerve.
Pearce’s essay may sting even more, given where it’s published and his standing in the environmental journalism community. More importantly, Pearce joins a brigade of prominent, refreshing voices, such as Andy Revkin, Mark Lynas, Stewart Brand, and Emma Marris, who also are challenging entrenched, dogmatic positions in the green movement.
We may soon be at a tipping point, where greens are forced to honestly reexamine some of the dominant worldviews that have shaped environmentalism over the past 40 years. That will be painful for them, but such a reappraisal is long overdue.
When it comes to media coverage of climate change, we still see occasional charges of “false balance,” despite the problem having been pretty much eradicated, as AP reporter Seth Borenstein pointed out during a panel discussion in 2011. That said, a legitimate example did occur last month when PBS inexplicably turned to Anthony Watts as a critic of climate science. Bad as that choice was, the lame, softball interview with Watts was even more galling.
But again, this sort of egregious thing is pretty rare nowadays. Complaints of “false balance” have mostly given way to complaints of less journalistic coverage of climate change. I don’t think that will be as true for this past year, since a connection between severe weather and global warming has been the subject of many media stories–both in newspapers and on television.
Still, when dicey coverage of climate science occurs somewhere in mainstream media, we can pretty much bank on liberal watchdogs such as Media Matters, to be all over it. Plug “climate change” into the site’s main search engine, and you’ll get 1171 results. And while Media Matters pays special attention to conservative media, the organization is not shy about spanking CNN or PBS on any given day for real or perceived flaws in their climate reporting.
This got me thinking. As regular readers know, I’ve been writing more frequently about issues related to genetically modified crops, my Slate piece being a recent example. The theme I hit on there was the double standard liberals had for the science on global warming and the science on GMOs.
I’m waiting to be proven wrong on this, but nobody from any liberal outlet has met the challenge. (This supposed rebuttal by Tom Philpott at Mother Jones is pretty weak tea.) Meanwhile, there are plenty of instances in the media and popular talk shows where the science on GM crops is, at best, misrepresented, or at worst, freakishly distorted.
Knowing this, I was curious to see if Media Matters ever called out any of these examples. I plugged in “GMOs” and “genetically modified crops” separately into all their search boxes. Nothing. It appears that no media coverage of the GM food issue has ever caught the attention of Media Matters. Pretty amazing, when you consider how controversial the topic is, especially this year with the labeling initiative in California.
But if Media Matters was ever interested in seeing how “false balance” played out with respect to GMOs, it could watch episodes of the Dr. Oz show, including the one this past week called, “GM Foods: Are they dangerous to your health?” One of the featured guests on the show making this case (he’s been on before) is Jeffrey Smith, whose book, Seeds of Deception, links GMOs
to toxins, allergies, infertility, infant mortality, immune dysfunction, stunted growth, and death.
Smith, who identifies himself as a “leading consumer advocate,” has previously been given a platform at Huffington Post to spout all manner of anti-GMO crockery. Still, no matter how crazy and detached from reality his claims are, Dr. Oz finds him credible enough, it seems. (For more background on Smith, see this post and the comment thread.) That leads me to something Philpott wrote in his recent critique of my Slate piece:
Sure, there are wackos who campaign against GMOs, but not all GMO critique is wacko.
If Smith doesn’t qualify as a wacko, I don’t know what would. Yet he is one of the stars of the anti-GMO movement. Smith is no fringe outlier; he’s a busy speaker on the anti-GMO circuit–when he’s not appearing on popular, nationally televised talk shows. Try to find anyone in the liberal media who is calling out Smith for his irresponsible, baseless assertions, or Dr. Oz for anointing Smith as the representative voice of the anti-GMO movement.
Like I said, liberals are attentive watchdogs when it comes to flawed coverage of climate change. But with crazy talk on GMOs, they are MIA.
The debate over climate change is well known for excesses on all sides. Those who claim that the issue is a hoax actually have a lot in common with those who see climate change in every weather extreme. The logic behind such tactics is apparently that a sufficiently scared public will support the political program of those doing the scaring.
This is from a new Denver Post opinion piece by Roger Pielke Jr.
All the main criticisms that Roger makes in the column have much merit, and yet he and I don’t seem to agree on the meaning of this statement (which I’ve bolded) by him:
But there is one group that should be very concerned about the spreading of rampant misinformation: the scientific community. It is, of course, thrilling to appear in the media and get caught up in highly politicized debates. But leading scientists and scientific organizations that contribute to a campaign of misinformation “” even in pursuit of a worthy goal like responding effectively to climate change “” may find that the credibility of science itself is put at risk by supporting scientifically unsupportable claims in pursuit of a political agenda.
So what is he saying here?
A blogger at Daily Kos rewinds back to the 1988 vice presidential debate and discovers that a question about global warming was posed to Dan Quayle about the the “Greenhouse Effect”:
I guess that’s what they called it back then, before Global Warming and Climate Change became popular…There was no, do you think it is real, or anything like that. I mean the question was asked in a matter of fact way as if it was accepted fact. Even more to my surprise, Quayle answered that a Bush/Quayle administration would work hard to combat the problem. I couldn’t believe my ears!! Have we really regressed that far, that 24 years later we don’t even accept the science now when the situation is much worse…let alone that fact that back then even Republicans said they would address the problem…
People have short memories. In January of 2008, here’s what John McCain said when he was vying to be the Republican Presidential candidate:
I will clean up the planet. I will make global warming a priority.
While on the campaign stump later that year, after he had pretty much locked up the Republican nomination, the LA Times reported:
Referring to melting glaciers in the Arctic Ocean and the vanishing habitats of polar bears and walruses, the Arizona senator and presumptive Republican nominee for president said it was time to stop quibbling over the causes of global warming. He pledged to “deal with the central facts of rising temperatures, rising waters and all the endless troubles that global warming will bring.”
And as the New York Times noted one month before the 2008 Presidential election, when it came to climate change, there was little daylight between the Democratic and Republican candidates:
Both candidates say that human-caused climate change is real and urgent, and that they would sharply diverge from President Bush’s course by proposing legislation requiring sharp cuts in greenhouse gas emissions by midcentury.
So the question isn’t what happened between 1988 and 2012, as some are suggesting, but what happened since 2008?
Well, for starters, there’s the obvious: The economy was in a free fall when Obama got elected, so that changed the political dynamic. But the politics of global warming also became more one-sided, with the rise of the Tea Party as a dominant force in the Republican party. As the National Journal reported in 2011,
challenging climate science has become, in some circles, as much of a conservative litmus test as opposing taxes.
But if the latest trend on public attitudes holds firm, that litmus test for Republicans may not be viable much longer. This is not to say that partisanship and trench warfare on climate change are going to recede like the world’s ice sheets. But in a few years, we may look back at the 2008-2012 period (in terms of climate politics) as an anomaly, owing largely to a confluence of circumstances stemming from the global financial meltdown and the rightward shift of the GOP.
If the economy continues to rebound and severe weather continues to be associated with global warming, I bet the politics of climate change will soon return to what they were in 2008, when both major parties in the U.S. agreed that reducing greenhouse gases was an imperative.
At Slate, I have a short post that begins:
The debate over genetically modified foods operates between two gradients: carnivalesque and politicized pseudoscience.
I have some fun poking a stick at Bill Maher. I guess that makes me the David to his Goliath. Oh well. Enjoy.
We seem to be having a run of splashy, peer-reviewed GMO (genetically modified organism) studies that are of questionable merit.
Several weeks ago, a team of French researchers published results that linked cancerous tumors in rats to the GM corn they were fed. But many scientists cast doubt on the study’s legitimacy almost immediately, and other odd circumstances surrounding it raised some big red flags for science journalists. I covered the particulars of all this in my recent Slate piece.
This week another study on genetically modified crops is generating big news, thanks to a widely propagated Reuters article headlined: “Pesticide use ramping up as GMO crop technology backfires.” This is big news because biotech crops are believed to reduce the amount of pesticide used in agriculture. But a just-released study claims the opposite is happening due to the rise of certain herbicide resistant weeds.
As I noted on Twitter, the reporting in the Reuters story is rather thin. The only scientist quoted is the lone author of the study, Charles Benbrook of Washington State University.
Nor did the Reuters reporter appear to vet the study with any outside experts. So the resulting article reads more like a press release. And in fact, one of Benbrook’s quotes is straight from the actual university press release:
Resistant weeds have become a major problem for many farmers reliant on GE crops, and are now driving up the volume of herbicide needed each year by about 25 percent.
Just so we’re clear: A story making this kind of claim should not hinge entirely on the word of the scientist whose study is being reported on. It’s not good journalism. (Alas, this didn’t prevent people that should know better from tweeting and retweeting the story.) I have to think the Reuters reporter knows this and simply rushed the story out to beat the competition. Happens all the time.
In this case, Reuters got a huge jump on everyone, as its story was picked up worldwide and spread throughout the U.S. via high traffic outlets like MSNBC and the Huffington Post. I’m sure Benbrook is ecstatic over the huge amount of uncritical publicity his study has received this week.
Especially since his purported findings are not new. (I’ll get to that in a minute.) Benbrook is also the chief science consultant for the Colorado-based Organic Center, a research-focused organization that aims to raise awareness of “the health and environmental benefits of organic food.” In a 2011 interview he was asked: “The biotech industry claims that genetically engineered (GE) foods decrease pesticide use. Is that true?” He responded:
The Organic Center has done four reports on this question and has found that crops like corn, cotton and soybeans genetically engineered to be resistant to herbicides have actually increased herbicide use by hundreds of millions of pounds over what herbicide use would have been had these crops not been commercialized. So when the biotech industry says that today’s GE crops have reduced and are reducing pesticide use, they’re factually wrong.
In 2009, Anastasia Bodnar, a maize geneticist now at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), critiqued one of these reports at Biofortified, “a group website devoted to providing factual information and fostering discussion about agriculture, especially plant genetics and genetic engineering.” She wrote:
I can’t help but get the feeling that Dr. Benbrook started with a conclusion and found data to fit rather than starting with a general review then finding significant conclusions.
When I asked around in the plant science/biotech community about the new study by Benbrook, I was referred to Bodnar’s detailed 2009 critique. That’s because his study, as Andrew Kniss, a University of Wyoming agronomist puts it,
is an updated version of a report that The Organic Center published in 2009.
In her analysis of that iteration, Bodnar writes:
There are a lot of problems with this report, but I’m particualrly concerned with the way Dr. Benbrook fails, for the most part, to distinguish between different biotech traits, fails to distinguish and between different pesticides, and fails to consider non-biotech traits that could increase pesticide use.
First, all GMOs are not created equal. The two biotech traits currently on the market are herbicide tolerance and insect resistance (Bt). These traits are obviously very different, but most of the report just lumps them together as “GE crops”, even though the report clearly states multiple times that Bt crops have reduced insecticide use.
To my eye, the same lumping and conflation appears to hold true for the study Benbrook published this week. In an email communication, Pamela Ronald, the University of California plant geneticist, agrees and adds,
he [Benbrook] does not take into account that glyphosate has displaced more toxic herbicides, thus there is a net reduction in toxicity.
Glyphosate is the compound used in Monsanto’s Round-up Ready crop, which Benbrook cites as the main culprit for the pesticide uptick. Others have pointed out the same thing as Ronald, that the metric Benbrook uses is disingenuous.
Additionally, Ronald said to me that
the [Benbrook study] conclusions conflict with virtually all peer reviewed studies, including two recent studies in PNAS and Nature which demonstrate reductions in synthetic insecticide use and enhanced biological diversity in GE cotton fields.
Bodnar, after taking a fresh look at Benbrook’s newly minted study, has posted some thoughts, including this:
There are a lot of assertions made by Benbrook that just aren’t supported.
Kniss, in his own examination, has raised some questions about the study’s methodology. He notes that Benbrook “modeled” data for some of the years data on pesticide spraying wasn’t available. Specifically, Kniss found that “70% of his [Benbrook's] estimated increase in herbicide use is based on…extrapolated soybean data, that are not well supported by actual USDA data.”
I made Benbrook aware of this critique by Kniss and he responded at the latter’s website.
I don’t have the technical knowledge to independently assess the scientific merits of Benbrook’s published findings or the statistical critique of it by Kniss. But in the last 24 hours I did communicate with numerous scientists familiar with Benbrook’s work and poked around enough to learn the backstory of the study he published this week.
In sum, I can safely conclude one thing: The widely disseminated Reuters article on Benbrook’s study is a gross disservice to the public.