Critic of Pseudoscience = Defender of Industry?

By Keith Kloor | August 7, 2013 1:32 pm

If you follow the public debate on genetically modified foods, you know it’s become unhinged from reality. This is because green groups and influential voices in the food movement have allowed the fringe to hijack the conversation. Now that those furies have been let loose, it’s going to be that much harder to have a civil dialogue about GMOs.

Kevin Folta, one scientist who often engages with biotech opponents, is finding this out.  Now, owing to the ideological and emotional nature of the debate, I’m not surprised at its increasingly shrill tenor or the deepening fault lines that separate the pro and anti-GMO sides. The charged dynamics have come to resemble those of the climate debate.

But I am disappointed that some intelligent people seem unwilling to recognize this and even obfuscate matters more with inaccurate characterizations of the GMO debate. For example, in a recent piece for the Guardian, Alice Bell wrote (my emphasis):

It’s also a lot easier for the GM lobby to play a game of “you are wrong on science” rather than acknowledging that the bulk of the critique against them is economic and political.

This really irks me because it’s patently false. Indeed, as Kevin Bonham puts it in his blog:

It’s simply not true that the bulk of objections to GMO are economic and political, and this is a huge problem. There *are* very reasonable political and economic arguments about the problems with modern agriculture, like industrial farming, monoculture and sustainability. But anti-GMO activists rail against “frankenfoods” as the boogyman for everything that ails agriculture, when most of these problems are not unique to genetically modified crops.

If my experience with people on the internet, family members, friends and acquaintances that oppose or are skeptical of GMOs is at all representative, the main objection is a vague feeling that GMO is unnatural, and therefore unsafe. For those that rise to the level of activism, economics and politics are almost never brought up, except as a last resort after I’ve addressed their other concerns.

I have had the same experience and I believe that anyone paying attention to the debate will see that he’s pretty much captured the representative anti-GMO sentiments. (To be fair to Alice Bell, she somewhat walked back that “bulk of the critique” statement in the comments section of her piece.) I think it’s pretty difficult to have a constructive dialogue so long as the bulk of the anti-GMO argument is dominated by two words: Frankenfood and Monsanto.

I also think it’s hard to engage with biotech skeptics in the media when they make sleazy accusations. For example, numerous highly regarded science journalists (and scientists) took issue with how Michael Pollan characterized Amy Harmon’s recent GMO orange story in the New York Times. (Pollan couldn’t be bothered to engage with the criticism.)  Tom Philpott, at his Mother Jones perch, came to Pollan’s defense this way:

The “2 many industry talking pts” bit earned him [Pollan] an outpouring of bile from GMO industry defenders (see here and here, as well as responses to Pollans’s tweet).

That first link will take you to my related post, which is an appreciation of Harmon’s story and a round-up of responses to Pollan’s criticism of it. I’m not sure how this makes me (or all those reputable science journalists that took Pollan to task) “industry defenders.”  But essentially calling someone an industry shill (oh wait, I mean “industry defender“) is a reflexive and commonly used tactic in GMO debates, which Philpott knows from firsthand experience.

On Twitter, Philpott tells me that “defender doesn’t equal shill. You defend the industry. Own it.”  I would ask Philpott or anyone to point to an instance where I’m specifically defending the biotech industry. My response to him:

Think about his logic, which extended elsewhere prompts a question like this: Is someone who rebuts anti-vaccine propaganda a defender of the pharmaceutical industry?

MORE ABOUT: biotechnology, GMOs, science
  • mem_somerville

    I chuckled at the cagey way he responded with “if someone called me an organic defender, would I take offense?…”

    I notice he didn’t say “organic industry” defender.

    But the whole piece was a really amusing attempt to find flaws in the GMO orange case. And he ended up unable to do so. It was fun to watch.

    • http://twitter.com/r343l Rachael Ludwick

      I found that interesting too. It’s subtle and I don’t think he really even intended it that way or realized how it read. But it’s the point so many of us have been making: we’re not blanket saying all uses of GE are perfect, great or always the best option but that for many farmers it’s a good part of the toolbox. Defending that doesn’t make you defending the “industry” anymore than defending organic (because you think there are good parts, as I do) should mean you are defending inadequacies in it. But I imagine most “organic defenders” would bristle at the notion that they support low yields (for grains at least) or higher labor costs, etc.

  • Buddy199

    The usual propaganda tactic of the Left: don’t offer a thoughtful counter arguement, just throw an ad hominem inflammatory word bomb to intimidate your opponent.

    • Joseph Jarosak

      Same as the anti-science Right with climate change denial and anti-evolution. Its a simplistic attack for the, well simplistic.

      • Buddy199

        The Left specializes in ad hominem attack. If you’re for fiscal responsibility and smaller government you’re…a racist. If you question the catastrophic claims of AGW proponents you’re…an anti-science “denier”, the moral equivalent of someone who believes the Holocaust never happened. The War on Women, Anti-Immigrant, Racist, blah, blah, blah. The daily fare on MSNBC and the like. This is just an example of anti-GMO leftists using the same tired tactics in a new venue.

        • Joseph Jarosak

          “The Left specializes in ad hominem attack.” And the Right doesn’t?!

          My point was there are anti-science kooks on both sides. The big difference is that the Left doesn’t let them run their party.

          • Steve Crook

            Both left and right use “the science” as a political weapon. Both are anti-science when they feel it plays well with their target audience.

            It’s been said before I know, but there’s rarely such thing as evidence based policy making, it’s mostly policy based evidence making.

          • Buddy199

            Politicians “evolve” in their thinking. Meaning, they have whatever opinion 51% of their voting base has, and change their life long core convictions as soon as that magic number is reached.

          • Steve Crook

            Democracy is a free market, and a politicians are buying our vote by offering policies they think we’ll want.

            The only way we’ll be sure to get politicians who have the ‘courage’ to follow their convictions and do what’s right regardless of the cost is by freeing them from the constraints of democracy.

            I’m sure Obama or other US presidents would have followed a different policy paths had they been handed power for life.

            Churchill that said Democracy may not be that good, but it’s better than the alternatives we’ve tried.

            So we just have to live with it, like we have to live with the excesses of a free press. Until some smart person comes up with a better alternative. I can only hope that, just as they work it all out, they’re not killed as part of the demolition work to make way for a hyperspace bypass..

          • Matt B

            “Policy-Based Evidence Making”…..that’s good!

          • Buddy199

            The extreme Greens, of which the anti-GMO crowd are definitely a part, are a major, influential constituency of the Democrat party. The anti-science, anti-GMO campaign, if successful, will have a serious impact on the world’s food supply and pricing, that’s their goal.

          • rebeccagavin

            The Greens are not a major, nor influential constituency of the Democratic party. They are a 3rd party and most of their members refuse to vote for Democrats.

  • http://www.inexactchange.org/ Adam Merberg

    In the literal sense, Philpott is arguably right, but from a more practical point of view, this is just the old “shill” argument’s slightly more sophisticated cousin.

    I say it’s slightly more sophisticated because there’s arguably some truth to it, depending on exactly what constitutes a defense of industry. If correcting inaccurate claims about an industry’s products or methods amounts to defending that industry then plenty of people (including me) are defenders of industry. You don’t have to get money from an industry to say something nice about it.

    But really, it makes me sad that we’re even having this discussion about what makes somebody a “defender of industry.” We should care less about whether people sometimes says things that reflect positively on an industry than whether they’re saying things that are accurate and with enough context to avoid misleading. And for Pollan’s tweet, similarly, we should care more about whether claims are true and have adequate context than whether industry sometimes makes the same claims.

    Of course there can be discussion about how much context a particular claim deserves. I found Philpott’s list of “unchallenged industry talking points” pretty underwhelming, but I won’t get into that here. What’s more relevant here is the use of phrases like “industry talking points” or “defenders of industry” are attempts to shift away from discussing whether claims are actually true. Instead, the reader is left to conclude that people are wrong because they agree with the big bad industry. And that does the debate a real disservice.

    • mem_somerville

      Alice Bell did the same thing with the phrase “GMO lobby” knowing full well that her audience takes that to mean industry too.

      But plenty of the discussants were public scientists defending the idea of the GMO orange and the method of production and not the industry. I’d want this solution for backyard gardeners too.

      We have offered Philpott a field guide for Scientist publicus. We think he hasn’t seen enough of them.

  • TeamAristotle

    “Benbrook said the annual increase in the herbicides required to deal with tougher-to-control weeds on cropland planted to genetically modified crops has grown from 1.5 million pounds in 1999 to about 90 million pounds in 2011.

    Similarly, the introduction of “Bt” corn and cotton crops engineered to be toxic to certain insects is triggering the rise of insects resistant
    to the crop toxin, according to Benbrook.

    Insecticide use did drop substantially – 28 percent from 1996 to 2011 – but is now on the rise, he said.”

    http://huff.to/QAhDzm

    “GMOs Causing Massive Pesticide Pollution”

    http://huff.to/6k4QGH

    Your not addressing any of the pesticide or herbicide issues is “unhinged from reality”, Keith Kloor,

    Two seconds of google finds you lots of hard science. You’re not practicing good science or journalism.

    Maybe there is a link between pseudoscience and defenders of gmo industry after all.

    • http://twitter.com/r343l Rachael Ludwick

      Except Benbrook’s methods for calculating pesticide use have been widely criticized. See for example a weed scientist’s take on his last study. Benbrook has a position, it’s arguable and he’s not outright wrong but it’s by no means the consensus view of agricultural scientists. The question of the impact of GE crops on pesticide use is much more complicated than does or does not increase use (or pest resistance). It’s localized, depends on the crop, use patterns, etc.

      • Justin Couron

        Don’t forget that Benbrook completely overlooks the fact that Bt replaced many far far more toxic pesticides from being used.

  • Hhotelconsult

    So important for skeptics – those moments where the holier than thou “open minded” types are so close minded they don’t even understand they are spreading lies or bad science and misinformation because of emotional opinion. The GMO conversation is simply out of control, and totally hijacked….

    so when sanguine, sensible, skeptical questions are asked, all of a sudden you are a corporate shill?

    The chilling effect of the “we want free speech except when we disagree” liberal method of debate is silly… and frustrating.

    The fact we cannot have *ONE* *SINGLE* national conversation that isn’t destroyed by hyperbole and unethical tactics is just nauseating.

    Someone needs to disrupt national discourse…. make it logical, data driven, non emotive. Religious belief and personal opinion should have nothing to do with managing a populace.

    • Buddy199

      It’s easier to throw verbal fire bombs than to construct a logical counter-argument let alone, God forbid, seriously listen to another opinion and change yours.

      • Hhotelconsult

        Carl Sagan’s quest to instill critical thought into the young was prescient. Even nowadays, in politics, the old timers complain that no one even has lunch together anymore, let alone listens politely to arguments. There’s this deafening clamor for bite sizes and hollow opinions from talking heads.

        The real problem is that it is eminently easier to live in a world of confirmation bias and selective perception than ever before… why should you listen to someone else’s idiot argument if your world view is the right one? [add sarcasm]

  • john lord

    The leftist anti GMO movement are engaged in a desperate rear guard action to prevent GMO use reaching a certain critical mass in the world. Once this tipping point is reached it will be unstoppable.( Then the left can move on to fight the next of its never ending battles.)

    • Charles Rader

      We of the left are very understandably concerned with the abuse of corporate power. Unfortunately this makes us easy targets for propaganda about GMO agriculture because it is dominated by large corporations. But the propaganda is not conducive to logic. Just because some corporations abuse power does not mean that everything done by corporations is evil, and corporations almost certainly do not seek out evil and prefer it over actually useful products.

      I’m someone on the left who resents this propaganda.

      • Kevin Bonham

        Amen, brother!

        I find it incredibly disheartening to have discussions with people that ostensibly share my liberal values but can’t separate the corporation from the technology that the corporation uses.

        • jh

          Sorry to say I’ve abandoned the left altogether. The right is full of uneducated idiots. The left is full of educated idiots. I can’t say I see a significant difference except that, being more educated, the left doesn’t have ignorance as an excuse.

          • Kevin Bonham

            Unfortunately, categorical dismissal isn’t going to help either. I’ll agree that appealing to the activist base on either side probably won’t be productive, but I don’t really know what will.

  • Anthony_A

    Critic of Pseudoscience = Defender of Industry?

    Well, yes, if you’re at all rational. Industry – the production of goods and services that people want – proceeds through the use of correct science and technology. Pseudoscience results in failed production or dangerous products. So by criticizing pseudoscience, you are defending the people who make things that other people want.

  • Matt B

    This blog seems more and more like a journal of the intelligentsia’s downward spiral………….KK I am glad you are doing this…..

    • jh

      Ah, indeed, too much education has a tendency to separate one from reality.

  • Physics Police

    I feel pride, and know my argument is airtight when all I get is the chiding, “Do you work for Monsanto?” It’s a badge of honor.

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Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, a senior editor at Cosmos magazine, and adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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