On Double Standards and the Union of Concerned Scientists

By Keith Kloor | August 22, 2014 9:05 am

Several weeks ago, the Union of Concerned Scientists posted a hard-hitting rebuttal to a famous environmentalist, someone who is normally an ally. Here’s a taste:

A new and misnamed book co-authored by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Thimerosal: Let the Science Speak,  is filled with exactly the kinds of misrepresentations of facts and slippery slope distortions of research that sway people—often those who are most earnest about seeking information—away from the science.

The piece went on to state that research findings cited by Kennedy were “taken out of context” and that, “contrary to what the book would have us believe, children are not being exposed to dangerous levels of ethyl mercury in vaccines.”

The critique did not mince words:

As RFK Jr. should well know from his work on climate change, generating doubt by misrepresenting the science has negative consequences for the public. Because of his stature and good work on so many other issues, he has a special responsibility to get the science right.

Might the same be said for public interest organizations with prominent stature? Should they too be expected not to misrepresent science? Do they have a special responsibility to get the science right?

If so, then the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) might want to take a look in the mirror. For the same criticism they make of Kennedy has been leveled against them–on the issue of GMOs. At the organization’s website, here is one glaring example of what drives many scientists crazy about the way UCS characterizes crop biotechnology:

While the risks of genetic engineering have sometimes been exaggerated or misrepresented, GE crops do have the potential to cause a variety of health problems and environmental impacts. For instance, they may produce new allergens and toxins, spread harmful traits to weeds and non-GE crops, or harm animals that consume them.

In truth, the risks of genetic engineering are grossly exaggerated and misrepresented on a regular basis by influential NGO’s and environmental leaders, such as the individual profiled in this week’s New Yorker by Michael Specter. (Be sure to read his complementary web piece on food labels and GMOs.) Prominent green organizations, in particular, regularly distort the facts on genetic engineering in the same manner that many climate skeptics distort the facts on global warming. This is a head scratcher.

For as Columbia University’s Earth Institute notes at its blog,

there is broad consensus that GMOs are safe. The World Health Organization states that “GM foods currently available on the international market have passed risk assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health.” The American Medical Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science oppose the labeling of GM foods because no scientific evidence of harm has been found. A 2011 University of Nottingham School of Biosciences review of 12 long-term studies and 12 multi-generational studies of GM foods found no evidence of health hazards, and determined that GM plants “can be safely used in food and feed.”

Back to the Union of Concerned Scientists and its assertion that genetically engineered crops “may produce new allergens and toxins…”

In a detailed rebuke published last year at Scientific American, microbiologist Kevin Bonham wrote:

This statement is at best wildly misleading and at worse an all-out fabrication. For an organization dedicated to informing citizens about science, I’m a bit appalled that they got this one so wrong.

Here’s another example. Their former lead scientist on this issue (who recently decamped to the Center for Food Safety) asserted in March:

It’s also worth noting that there’s no real consensus on GMO crop safety.

As I wrote here, it’s also worth noting that he was citing a “fringy, science-denying group (on the issue of GMO safety, anyway).”

It would be nice if a leading, highly trusted scientific group held itself to the same evidence-based standards it holds others. Alas, when it comes to GMOs that is not the case.

Additional Reading:

“Why NGO’s can’t be trusted on GMO’s,” by Marc Gunther (Guardian)

“The truth about GMOs,”  by Pamela Ronald (Boston Review)

“Persistent anti-GMO myths, by Steven Novella (Neurologica)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: agriculture, biotechnology, GMOs, science
  • mem_somerville

    Oh, man, that is hilarious. You don’t usually see such a lack of self-awareness so blatantly.

    But even funnier–I just looked at the book from the same publisher as Kennedy (and a book by Wakefield and Jenny McCarthy)–”The GMO Deception”. It’s a series of essays collected from all the regular fringy folks and contrarians on this topic. And you know who has a chapter?

    35 The Role of GMOs in Sustainable Agriculture Doug Gurian Sherman p. 210

    Teh irony. It burns.

    • Keith Kloor

      I’ve been meaning to check out that book.

      • mem_somerville

        There was a talk at the library in Cambridge and I’m kicking myself for not going, but I had something else already scheduled. But like other books from this publishing house, I refuse to pay for it and I’m in a queue at the library waiting for my turn.

  • Tom

    What’s the criterion for being a “scientist” in UCS? Do they all have PhDs in the natural sciences? Have they all published at least one peer-reviewed science article? They seem so utterly clueless and completely unable to distinguish good science from bad science.

    • Tom Scharf

      I don’t expect anybody to take WUWT too seriously, but this is pretty funny:

      Friday Funny – The newest member of the Union of Concerned Scientists
      http://wattsupwiththat.com/2011/10/07/friday-funny-the-newest-member-of-the-union-of-concerned-scientists/

      • First Officer

        At least Kenji comes to the table with no a priori conclusions about GMOs !

      • Tom

        Priceless.

      • brec

        I’m no fan of UCS, but this is unfair. Membership means only financial support, and is distinct from the professional staff of “experts” (their term) which produces “independent scientific analysis.”

  • Tom Scharf

    Hypocrisy alive and well from activist NGO’s? Well knock me over with a feather.

    I think one of the most disappointing things I learned when I was young is that you can create an organization and call it anything you want and make any representation you feel like about it. Some of the most extreme point of views come from organizations named very innocently.

    • Buddy199

      Republic of Cuba

      People’s Republic of China

      People’s Liberation Army

      German Democratic Republic

      And not to be outdone, the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea

    • DavidAppell

      “Some of the most extreme point of views come from organizations named very innocently.”

      The Heartland Institute.

      Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine

      American Legislative Exchange Council

      Institute for Energy Research

      • Buddy199

        Extreme?

        • DavidAppell
          • Buddy199

            The Cuckoo Tree bears plenty of nuts from both its left and right branches. But for my money nothing beats the wolves in sheep’s clothing bald faced Orwellian insanity that Socialist states have trademarked themselves with, both for scale and pure brass.

          • DavidAppell

            Rankings by Human Developement Index:

            1.Norway 0.944
            2. Australia 0.933
            3. Switzerland 0.917
            4. Netherlands 0.915
            5. United States 0.914

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_Human_Development_Index#Complete_list_of_countries

          • Buddy199

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FORtwA2lsjM

            5. United States 0.914
            6. Germany 0.911
            7. New Zealand 0.910
            8. Canada 0.902
            10. Denmark 0.900
            12. Sweden 0.898
            14. United Kingdom
            20. France 0.884
            24. Finland 0.879
            29. Greece 0.819
            44. Cube 0.815
            91. China 0.719

          • Matthew Slyfield

            What, Russia doesn’t even make the list?

          • DavidAppell

            US 5th, to 4 countries you probably consider “socialist.” How do you explain that?

          • JH

            David Appell thumping Norway and Australia as great countries. Both countries generate much of their national wealth from FF industries.

            Priceless, David. Thanks.

  • Viva La Evolucion

    just as crops from traditional plant breeding have the potential to produce allergens and toxins, so too do GMO crops. So, i don’t see what the big deal is about the statement. I’m sure you would agree that a biotech company could create a GMO crop that is highly toxic and/or allergenic if that was their goal, so there is potential, which is all that they said…get over it.

    • RobertWager

      Funny how the organic food lobby is not calling for “traditional breeding” processes like ionizing radiation mutagenesis on food packages. oh yeah it would be on their products as well. Now it is clear why only some breeding methods are right to know issues.

      • Viva La Evolucion

        the “traditional” plant breeding method of exposing plants to radiation is quite effective at creating new traits…such as “Clearfield Beyond” herbicide tolerant wheat was made in this fashion. Nevertheless, I’m not a fan of herbicide tolerant crops be them bred traditionally or through GMO, as I believe weeds are a problem that can be solved without need to drench crops in herbicide on regular basis. Yes, I would say both GMO and radiation breeding have some small risk of producing unforeseen allergens, toxins or unforeseen environmental problems, so it is funny that one method gets scrutinized more than the other. I guess it could be possible that the traditional radiation-created Clearfield Wheat is the culprit for so many non-celiac gluten sensitivities, or could just be a fad :-)

  • jhertzli

    UCS is trusted? I thought vaccines were safe but if UCS is for them …

  • JH

    Hmmm…well, having read a few other UCS screeds over the years, I guess I’d mostly classify them as a liberal lobby group with little scientific heft.

    Overall, I guess I’d have to say that position statements from even the most august scientific organizations aren’t vested with the trust they were 50 years ago, because all of them are, to varying degrees, lobby groups.

  • David Skurnick

    The Union of Concerned Scientists is a far-left organization that has been wrong on almost every issue, from my conservative POV. I congratulate them for getting it right on thimerosal.

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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, and an 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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