Mark Bittman, the popular food writer for the New York Times, has written a column that is almost beyond parody for its unintentional irony. The only way to fully appreciate his lack of self-awareness is to stop and marvel at numerous passages. Let’s start at the top:
Things are bad enough in the food world that we don’t need to resort to hyperbole to be worried or even alarmed.
This is some chutzpah. Here’s Bittman from September 15, 2012:
It’s not an exaggeration to say that almost everyone wants to see the labeling of genetically engineered materials contained in their food products.
Almost everyone? Same column:
G.M.O.’s, to date, have neither become a panacea — far from it — nor created Frankenfoods, though by most estimates the evidence is far more damning than it is supportive.
This is completely untrue. If Bittman had wanted to be factual he would have referred NYT readers to credible sources on the state of the science on biotech crops and foods, such as here or here. Instead, he links to a website called the Organic Authority and a post that explains why
GMOs are bad for your body, bad for the community, bad for farmers and bad for the environment.
This is what is known as laundering untruths. Read More
Guest post by Ramez Naam.
Keith Kloor has graciously given me the opportunity to guest post here again. So let me cut to the chase:
I support GMOs. And we should label them. We should label them because that is the very best thing we can do for public acceptance of agricultural biotech. And we should label them because there’s absolutely nothing to hide.
Let me explain. First, so you don’t mistake me for a GMO-basher, let me introduce myself. I’m a computer scientist by training. I’m also the author of three books, all of which endorse the use of biotechnology to improve the human condition.
In the most recent of these, The Infinite Resource, I talk about the power of innovation to save the world. In between chapters on climate change and fresh water depletion, solar power and desalination, I make a forceful argument that genetically engineered crops and animals can help us grow more food, with better nutrition, and less impact on the planet.
I believe that. In the last two weeks I’ve written about the scientific consensus that GMOs are safe and the many reasons that advocates of organic food should love GMOs. And recently I went on MSNBC to make that case on national television.
In short, I believe in science, and I believe that science tells us that our currently approved GMOs are safe for humans and good for the planet, and that next generation GMOs will be even better.
So why label them?
The short answer is this: by fighting labeling, we’re feeding energy to the opponents of GMOs. We’re inducing more fear and paranoia of the technology, rather than less. We’re persuading those who might otherwise have no opinion on GMOs that there must be something to hide, otherwise, why would we fight so hard to avoid labeling? Read More
If you follow public debate on genetically modified foods, you know that Monsanto is routinely portrayed as the devil’s spawn. The multinational agricultural company is the arch-villain in the GMO wars. In liberal and environmental media stories, Monsanto is the baddie that poisons the earth with impunity and monopolizes the global seed market. Indeed, as Michael Shermer wrote several months ago in Scientific American:
Try having a conversation with a liberal progressive about GMOs—genetically modified organisms—in which the words “Monsanto” and “profit” are not dropped like syllogistic bombs.
All this leads the conservative National Review Online to ask:
Whence the Left’s hate for Monsanto?
Well, it owes to a mishmash of anti-corporatist ideology, natural fallacy (GMOs are not natural!) and precautionary principle extremism. But here’s the odd thing. If you read through the reader responses to the NRO article, you’ll see lots of GMO-fearing conservatives who also hate Monsanto. What’s that about? Read More
In recent years, people have become increasingly concerned about unwanted substances lurking in their furniture and food. These are industrial chemicals we are exposed to every day and that have been found to accumulate in our bodies, “endangering our health in ways we have yet to understand,” CNN asserted in 2007.
In 2010, a New York Times article tried to make sense of the “avalanche of data” that has yet to yield any clear answers on what adverse effects (if any) these chemicals are having on our health. That hasn’t prevented some in the media from highlighting (and omitting) information that confirms their worst suspicions. Read More
When a social cause gains momentum and becomes symbolically important, partisans inevitably hijack it for their own ends. They do this by trying to define and control the meaning of the cause and how it should be perceived. We’re seeing this play out now with the Keystone XL pipeline, which has become a touchstone for environmentalists and climate activists.
An opinion piece by John Abraham in today’s Guardian is what I would consider a textbook case for how not to communicate about a cause that you care deeply about. Abraham, an outspoken voice in the climate arena, argues that President Obama’s climate change legacy hinges on the White House’s decision on the controversial pipeline. That’s absurd. For one thing, the President already has an impressive string of accomplishments on the climate and energy front.
Secondly, it really does the climate movement no good to frame the Keystone battle in such simplistic, over-the-top terms. Doing so overstates the importance of a single pipeline, a rhetorical tactic that green friendlies have been pointing out for some time.
Then there is this passage from Abraham, which is as poisonous to his cause as it is rich in irony (my emphasis): Read More
What happens when the ideological agenda of crunchy granola food activists intersects with the religious agenda of anti-abortion activists? You get this (recycled, bizarro) nonsense from a Seattle-based organic food advocacy website:
Biotech companies have been using aborted human fetal cells for testing the effectiveness of different flavoring agent in their products. Last year the news came out that a biotech company in CA called Senomyx has been using aborted human fetal cells in foods and beverages.
A pro-life watchdog group called Children of God for Life (CGL) has been calling the marketing scheme of the biotech companies deceptive and use of aborted human fetal cells unethical and immoral. Debi Vinnedge, the director of CGL in an interview mentions that why the biotech doesn’t come out clean and tell the public that they are using human embryonic kidney cells (HEK-293) taken from aborted babies to produce human taste receptors?
I don’t have the time or patience to deconstruct this latest bit of scare-mongering propaganda circulating on the fringes of the biotech-averse food movement. Fortunately, Matthew Herper at Forbes dove earnestly into the loopy story a year ago, when it was getting traction. Read More
One of the big reasons why evidence-based arguments so often fail to persuade is that people turn to their own trusted sources for information. For example, I know that Vandana Shiva is peddling a load of horseshit about Indian farmers committing suicide en masse supposedly because of Monsanto and GMOs. (There’s a part of me that thinks she even knows this.) But many in media and environmental advocacy circles like her and trust her, so they don’t question her agenda-driven distortion of the actual facts. This drives me insane, but that’s a different story.
Another illustration of our biased information-gleaning process is on vivid display at the blog of Tom Chivers, a journalist with the Telegraph, a British newspaper. In a post today, Chivers describes how, on the matter of homeopathy, the expert judgement of the UK’s Chief Medical Officer (who calls it “rubbish”) is ignored by the government’s National Health Service, which endorses homeopathic treatments.
Now, there’s a comment in the Chivers post that shows why that consensus scientific opinion is dismissed by people who believe in homeopathy (and other unproven alternative medicines).
Mmm – whose view to trust about homeopathy? Someone who has used homeopathy for years e.g. Myself, my animals, the Queen Mother, the Queen, Mahatma Gandhi, Yehudi Menuhin – the list goes on and on – or the Chief Medical Officer of England or Tom Chivers (both of whom I had not heard of until today). Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it I say…..
Amazingly, you’re going with “not the Chief Medical Officer of England”, which strikes me as a bold stance to take.
But is it really that amazing and bold? Let’s turn to Steven Novella at his Science-based Medicine blog:
While attending a lecture by a naturopath at my institution I had the opportunity to ask the following question: given the extreme scientific implausibility of homeopathy, and the overall negative clinical evidence, why do you continue to prescribe homeopathic remedies? The answer, as much as my question, exposed a core difference between scientific and sectarian health care providers. She said, “Because I have seen it work in my practice.”
There it is. She and many other practitioners of dubious modalities are compelled by anecdotal experience while I am not.
An anecdote is a story – in the context of medicine it often relates to an individual’s experience with their disease or symptoms and their efforts to treat it. People generally find anecdotes highly compelling, while scientists are deeply suspicious of anecdotes. We are fond of saying that the plural of anecdote is anecdotes, not data. Why is this?
Humans are social storytelling animals – we instinctively learn by the experience of others. My friend ate that plant with the bright red berries and then became very ill – lesson: don’t eat from that plant. This is a type of heuristic, a mental shortcut that humans evolved in order to make quick and mostly accurate judgments about their environment. From an evolutionary point of view it is probably statistically advantageous just to avoid the plant with the red berries rather than conduct blinded experiments to see if it really was the plant that made your friend sick.
Further, the most compelling stories are our own. When we believe we have experienced something directly, it is difficult to impossible to convince us otherwise. It’s just the way humans are hardwired.
I encourage you to read the whole post, which is very informative. This suggestion comes near the end:
Understanding the nature and role of anecdotes is vital to bridging the gap between the proponents of science-based medicine and believers in dubious or sectarian health practices (as well as the public at large).
UPDATE: On a somewhat related note, read this fascinating article in Harvard magazine, titled “The Placebo Phenomenon.”
[A homeopathic pharmacy in Britain. Source/Guardian.]
It’s really not fashionable to call out liberals for their own problematic relationship with science on certain issues. (Trust me on that one.) It’s much safer to just blast away at conservatives, who do provide bountiful material on evolution and sex, among other well-known topics, as Michael Shermer reminds us at Scientific American.
But kudos to him for some straight talk here: Read More
If I call you anti-science, which discourse might that be related to? The one on climate change, evolution, biotechnology, or vaccines? Because the term is flung around so freely, who can tell. That was the point I tried making with this recent post.
More importantly, is slagging you as anti-science a constructive way to have a conversation? In fact, it’s likely a conversation stopper.
Such is the case with any term that has become politically loaded. Like “denier.” I was reminded of this yet again via Andrew Revkin and a twitter exchange he had with some folks who cling to the “denier” usage in the climate debate. For a one-stop shop summation of the back-and-forth, along with some excellent commentary, read this post by Dan Kahan at his Cultural Cognition site.