When the definitive history of the GMO debate is written, Jeffrey Smith is going to figure prominently in the section on pseudoscience. He is the equivalent of an anti-vaccine leader, someone who is quite successful in spreading fear and false information. (As David Gorski at the Science-based Medicine blog has noted, the anti-vaccine and anti-GMO movements are two birds of the same feather.) The Academics Review blog writes of Smith:
His self-published books Seeds of Deception and Genetic Roulette have built for him an online profile that has made Smith one of the most widely quoted opponents of biotech ag —despite his evident lack of scientific credentials or other formal training on the subject.
This passage from Smith’s Wikipedia bio seems a fair representation of him:
A variety of American organic food companies see Smith “as a champion for their interests”, and Smith’s supporters describe him as “arguably the world’s foremost expert on the topic of genetically modified foods”. Michael Specter, writing in The New Yorker, reported that Smith was presented as a “scientist” on The Dr. Oz Show although he lacks any scientific experience or relevant qualifications. Bruce Chassy, a molecular biologist and food scientist, wrote to the show arguing that Smith’s “only professional experience prior to taking up his crusade against biotechnology is as a ballroom-dance teacher, yogic flying instructor, and political candidate for the Maharishi cult’s natural-law party.” The director of the Organic Consumers Association says Smith is “respected as a public educator on GMOs” while “supporters of biotechnology” have described him as “misinformed and misleading” and as “an activist with no scientific or medical background” who is known for his “near-hysterical criticism of biotech foods.”
As Jon Entine wrote at Forbes, what galls scientists the most is that Smith has been presented as a GMO expert to millions of TV viewers. Liberals and environmentalists who put a premium on science should be equally galled that Smith is treated as a credible source.
There are a couple of ways to interpret the story about a revoked ordinance in San Francisco that, as Reuters reports,
would have been the first in the United States to require [cell phone] retailers to warn consumers about potentially dangerous radiation levels.
Before it was reversed it was known as–get ready for it–the “right to know” ordinance. Sound familiar?
Here’s some reaction from a disappointed SF resident:
“This is just a terrible blow to public health,” Ellen Marks, an advocate for the measure, said outside the [city] supervisors’ chambers. She said her husband suffers from a brain tumor on the same side of his head to which he most often held his mobile phone.
Now, we could interpret this news as a victory for Big Cell Phone, since they fought against the proposal to warn consumers about the potential lethality of cell phones. Big Cell Phone doesn’t want you to know about a virtually non-existent risk to your health. Imagine that!
But wait a minute, about midway through the Reuters story, this line appears: Read More
If your concern is climate change, and you believe that slowing or preventing it is your fundamental priority, then nuclear power should be high up on the list for energy-production.
He was responding to a reader who castigated liberals for their dogmatic stance on nuclear power, fracking and genetically modified crops.
The exchange reminded me of Chris Mooney’s recent argument that conservatives are way more hostile to science than liberals. Mooney, being the author of a book called The Republican War on Science, is not exactly an impartial observer of this debate. Nor has his argument gone unchallenged. 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
In recent years, we’ve seen episodic waves of hysteria over reports of brain tumors and other cancers allegedly caused by cell phones and WiFi. If I had to trace this legacy of electromagnetic fear back in time, I would credit a 1979 study in the American Journal of Epidemiology and a series of articles in the New Yorker (under the “Annals of Radiation” subheading) by Paul Brodeur in the 1980s and early 1990s. In one piece, Brodeur reported on
a link between childhood-cancer & magnetic fields from power lines.
In another, he discussed “the epidemiological & experimental data” that linked video-display terminals to birth defects.”
Brodeur wrote two related books. The first was published in 1989 and titled, Currents of Death: Power Lines, Computer Terminals, and the Attempt to Cover up their Threat to Your Health. The next one came out several years later and was called, The Great Power line Cover-Up: How the Utilities and Government Are Trying to Hide the Cancer Hazard Posed by Electromagnetic Fields.
In his 1993 Businessweek review, John Carey wrote of The Great Power Line Cover-Up:
A little knowledge of this controversy, or even a close perusal of the book, turns up enough inconsistencies, dubious interpretations, and selective reporting to cast immense doubt on the whole argument–and to reveal Brodeur as more zealot than journalist.
A long-time writer for the New Yorker (late 1950s to mid-1990s), Brodeur is also the author of a 1978 book called, The Zapping of America: Microwaves, Their Deadly Risk, and Cover-up. What was zapping us? In an interview with People magazine at the time, Brodeur asserted:
Radars of all types, FM radio and TV transmitters, millions of CB radios and, of course, microwave ovens.
Those fears appear to have ebbed (though I still occasionally meet someone who refuses to microwave food). But the power lines are causing cancer meme has persisted, fed by periodic media reports and crusading public health professionals, such as David Carpenter, Director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the State University of New York at Albany, who links “magnetic field exposure” to brain tumors Leukemia, and neurodegenerative diseases. A 1995 PBS Frontline investigation of the issue features parents convinced that high voltage power lines had sickened their children. Brodeur and Carpenter were interviewed in the segment and each talked up the medical hazards of “magnetic fields.”
For an excellent dissection of the great power line and cell phone scare, read this New Republic piece by Ezekiel Emanuel, a bioethicist at the American National Institutes of Health. In the last three decades, over a hundred studies conducted in many countries have looked at the association between magnetic fields and cancer, and the evidence is not there, he said. “Multiple organizations, including the World Health Organization, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and the European Union’s Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks, all cast doubt on the links, suggesting further research,” Emanuel wrote.
The U.S. National Academies of Science has found
no conclusive and consistent evidence shows that exposures to residential electric and magnetic fields produce cancer, adverse neurobehavioral effects, or reproductive and developmental effects.
Of course, none of this prevents a certain element of society from exploiting the issue for monetary gain. And the true believers, led by Carpenter, have just released a massively deceptive report (actually an update) that the Science-Based Medicine blog has methodically dismantled.
Oddly, science journalists appear to have shied away from probing this long-running saga. Read More
In recent years, there has been an outbreak of media stories on early childhood disease outbreaks. The press has reported a spike in cases of measles, mumps, and whooping cough in communities from Seattle to Vermont. In many of the stories, a cause-and-effect relationship to lower childhood vaccination rates has been explicit. (Some journalists, however, have been careful not to follow the herd.) An obvious culprit is the anti-vaccination movement.
But in a provocative post at his Cultural Cognition blog, Dan Kahan asks:
What is the evidence that an “anti-vaccination movement” is “causing” epidemics of childhood diseases in US?
He’s not seeing any, and wonders: Read More
A good way to capture someone’s attention is to start off by saying, “I have a few things to get off my chest…”
This is how science writer John Horgan begins his latest post at Scientific American. It works. I was leaning close to my laptop by the end of the first sentence, eager to lap up whatever Horgan was about reveal. And man does he have a goody from the memory vault. (More on that in a minute.) Read More
That’s not really a fair question, because they’re both vital. But if I was the administrator at a university and a foundation offered me funding to establish a program curriculum for one or the other–which would result in a mandatory class for all in-coming freshmen–I would choose news literacy. I’ll explain why in a minute.
First, let me say outright that I am a champion of science education. I want my two sons to not only be scientifically literate, I want them to enjoy science. They are now in kindergarten and third grade, respectively, but since their pre-school days, both of them have taken after-school science classes and have attended science camp during the summers. The person who runs the after-school classes and summer camp is an elementary school science teacher in my neighborhood. His name is Carmelo Piazza. He is a rock star. I know what a formative influence he is from my own experience as a parent of two children who have been learning science from him for several years.
I also know that Piazza has a lasting influence on students. Some months ago, I was in my local Starbucks, working on an article. Two college students were sitting next to me. Piazza walked in and one of them recognized him. She jumped up with a big smile and introduced herself (“Do you remember me, I was in your science class…”). Piazza said he did, they chitchatted, then he got his coffee and left. After Piazza walked out the door, his old student turned to her friend and said, “Best science teacher ever.”
So I get how important science is and how important it is to have really good science teachers. Some of our biggest public debates involve science (such as climate change and genetic engineering). An informed citizenry can only help raise the level of public understanding on these subjects. That said, we are coming to learn that our knowledge of some politically charged issues (like climate change and genetic engineering) is filtered through our worldviews and predispositions. This complicates the discourse and makes facts less relevant that we would like. Read More
Anyone who believes that science, above all, should inform our debates on medical, health and environmental issues, will find much to agree with in The Geek Manifesto, a recently published book by Mark Henderson, one of Britain’s leading science communicators. As science writer David Dobbs writes in his foreward to the U.S. edition, The Geek Manifesto
articulates with bracing clarity how science’s central principle – that evidence should trump authority, and reason trump rumor – can help improve the clumsy, cranking machinery that produces law, policy and other frameworks of public life.
At the same time, though, not every fan of science may agree with Henderson’s prescriptive for a more muscular science role in the political process, or with his assessments of some of the obstacles to science-based policies. Nanotechnology researcher Richard Jones has offered his critical take (to which Henderson has responded), and so has University of Colorado’s Roger Pielke, Jr.
In the following Q & A (conducted via email), Henderson engages with the criticisms of his book, and also offers his thoughts on the furor recently stirred up by a provocative speech on biotechnology by a well-known UK environmental writer. Read More
Journalists today are pretty mindful about the terms they use to describe a group of people, especially when referencing ethnicity or religion. In mainstream media, outright slurs are forbidden (though not everyone abides) and anything that smells pejorative is called out.
Euphemisms are another matter, as the tortured debate over torture (I mean “enhanced interrogation”) attests.
The same goes for loaded terms commonly seen in science and technology stories. Take the use of “frankenfish,” for example. Last week, after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) moved one step closer to approving genetically engineered salmon, many outlets, from the Daily Mail to the Associated Press, used the moniker in their headlines, and nearly all that reported on the news mentioned “frankenfish” somewhere in their stories.
In his discussion of the coverage that followed the FDA’s announcement, science journalist Paul Raeburn notes (with disapproval) the ubiquity of the “frankenfish” term. Though he praises one Los Angeles Times story by Rosie Mestel for its reporting, he also chides:
My only concern with Mestel’s story is her use of the loaded and irrelevant term “Frankenfish” to describe the genetically engineered salmon. She doesn’t use it herself; she says that’s what opponents of genetically modified foods call it. But she shouldn’t let them say it. It is meaningless. Frankenfish were not assembled from body parts and brought back to life with a bolt of lightning. The intent of the term is to make the fish sound frightening, which they might or might not be–but calling them Frankenfish does not advance the debate.
He’s right. I also share Raeburn’s discomfit with the lazy and sensationalistic way editors and reporters have come to rely on “frankenfish” as shorthand to convey multiple meanings in the debate.
Still, it’s a tricky conundrum for reporters when some terms become part of a discourse’s parlance. Read More