From the Annals of the Science Wars: A Cautionary Tale

By Keith Kloor | February 7, 2014 9:24 am

You’re a scientist who publishes research that suggests a certain product is harmful to the environment and public health. The company that makes the product disputes your findings and wages a campaign to sully your professional reputation.

How do you respond?

If you’re Tyrone Hayes, the Berkley biologist whose studies point to harmful impacts of a widely used herbicide (atrazine), you give as good as you get. And then some. And maybe you push back too hard and in lewd, weird ways, which makes you seem unhinged, prompting the company (Syngenta) to redouble its efforts to discredit you.

The mutual antagonism contributes to a dynamic that feeds on itself. Syngenta, feeling besieged and victimized, sees enemies everywhere and behaves like a Nixonian paranoid.

By now, the decade-long war between Hayes and Syngenta is well known to those in the environmental and science communities who have been following its increasingly bizarre twists and turns. Mother Jones in 2012 published an excellent piece on the saga. Last year, Environmental Health News unearthed court documents from a class-action lawsuit against Syngenta that reveals the company’s unsavory tactics against Hayes and other critics.

The latest attempt to shed some light on Hayes and his bitter feud with Syngenta (and their obsession with him) comes in this week’s New Yorker. Rachel Aviv has stitched together a pretty subtle chronicle of the affair. But you wouldn’t know that from reaction to the piece. Most commentators have focused on Syngenta’s bad behavior, pointing to revelations from those court documents as vindication of Hayes. But as Aviv makes clear in her story, Hayes’ findings remain highly contested (as do nearly all the studies on atrazine) and have yet to persuade the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to more stringently regulate the herbicide. (A third government review is underway.)

People are likely to come to the New Yorker piece with predisposed views. It has fodder for all sides. If you are inclined to always suspect corporate malfeasance and manipulation of science, then the New Yorker story will reinforce that suspicion. If you are put off by Hayes’ blustery conduct and his activism, you are likely to doubt his science; support for this view can also be found in Aviv’s piece. Read More

Will Sidelining Science Help Advance the Climate Debate?

By Keith Kloor | February 4, 2014 3:17 pm

From the Department of Counterintuitive Thinking:

The debate about climate change needs to become more political, and less scientific.

That is from climate researcher Mike Hulme, in a provocative essay at The Conversation. The above quote makes more sense when you read the sentence that follows:

Articulating radically different policy options in response to the risks posed by climate change is a good way of reinvigorating democratic politics.

I’m all for this, but you can only have a robust debate about potential solutions if enough people feel strongly that there is a globally significant threat worth discussing and acting on. But the nature of the climate problem–its complexity and timescale–make it hard for us to wrap our minds around. For a recent explanation on why that is, read this piece by Bryan Walsh in Time, headlined: Read More

Why Do Greens Reject the Science on GMOs?

By Keith Kloor | February 3, 2014 1:54 pm

Last month, I got a chuckle out of this silver lining from a New Republic article:

The liberals who rant about genetically modified food may be pushing a point of view that is objectively as crazy as believing carbon emissions are not causing global warming; but liberals are still more likely (and willing) to get their news from places that tell them the truth.

Others, such as the The Economist, have lately noted the hypocrisy of greens, in particular those who stand up for climate science but also aim to destroy a field of agricultural science. I realize that green-friendly progressives chafe when folks like me point out the similarities between climate skeptics and GMO skeptics. But there is no denying the commonalities, as British environmentalist Mark Lynas writes in the current issue of Cosmos magazine: Read More

Stop Legitimizing the Loony Anti-GMO Voices

By Keith Kloor | January 30, 2014 4:56 pm

A hypothetical:

You are a journalist who has written a great deal about the anti-vaccine movement and you have been asked to participate in a panel on the safety of childhood vaccines. This panel was organized by professional medical and health journalists.

Also on this hypothetical panel would be a prominent scientist, such as Paul Offit, who has authored numerous books rebutting myths and misinformation about vaccines (and more recently, alternative medicine practices). The third panelist would be a persistent anti-vaccine activist, perhaps someone from the group Age of Autism.

I’m guessing that Paul Offit and the science journalist (say, Seth Mnookin) would not want this panel to be derailed or hijacked by an anti-vaccine activist spouting loads of misinformation.

For this reason, maybe they would decline to participate in such a forum. I’m only speculating.

I raise this hypothetical because I just turned down an opportunity to participate in an upcoming panel on GMOs. The organizer initially asked if I would moderate a panel that included scientists and advocates “pro- and con-GMO.” I expressed interest after hearing that the objective was “to foster a lively and factual discussion on GMO’s with a well-rounded panel.”

And then I learned that Jeffrey Smith was one of the invited panelists. Read More

Does Destruction of Research Foster Science Communication?

By Keith Kloor | January 29, 2014 1:29 am

The upcoming Australian Science Communicators conference is featuring a talk by the CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific. Here’s the abstract (my emphasis):

Greenpeace is a science-based campaigning organization whose purpose is to stand up for the environment. We detect and understand the environmental problems we face through science, and depend on science and technology to provide solutions to environmental threats. Greenpeace is thus in the (not-for-profit) business of communicating science. In his presentation, CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific, David Ritter, will outline Greenpeace’s approach to science communication, drawing out some of the tensions and overlap between public science and public campaigning.

This is the same science-based organization that made headlines several years ago for destroying government sponsored wheat crops, which as Nature reported, “was part of research into developing genetically modified crop plants with enhanced nutritional value.”

This is the same science-based organization that has a section on agricultural biotechnology that starts off this way: Read More

California Must Reckon With Its Long History of Drought

By Keith Kloor | January 27, 2014 12:29 pm

In recent days and weeks, we’ve been seeing similar-sounding headlines out of California, such as this:

Sacramento breaks 130-year old for low rainfall

And this:

LA is on track to set dry-weather record

Indeed, as my fellow Discover blogger Tom Yulsman noted last month:

We’ll have to wait a couple of weeks for the official year-end precipitation numbers, but there is no question that 2013 will rank as the driest year in the state since recording-keeping began in 1894.

Now that this has come to pass, California weather watchers will be focused on what happens over the next several months, writes the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR):

Most of the state’s rainfall comes in the winter—roughly a third of the water used in California is drawn from the Sierra Nevada’s vast snowpack—so it’s the fall-through-spring totals that make or break things in the dry heat of summer.

Meanwhile, California Governor Jerry Brown has recently declared a “drought state of emergency.” During a press conference he said:

We’re facing perhaps the worst drought that California has ever seen since records began being kept about a hundred years ago.

It’s unfortunate that much of the discussion of this drought–reinforced by Governor Brown–is framed around such a short-term perspective. As UCLA geographer Glen MacDonald writes in this 2007 paper: Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: California, drought, environment, select

Why GMOs Matter

By Keith Kloor | January 24, 2014 4:10 pm

Several weeks ago, Nathanael Johnson at Grist reflected on what he had learned after spending half a year dissecting all the major claims and counter-claims that dominated the GMO debate. It was a very thoughtful post with a jarring headline:

What I learned from six months of GMO research: None of it matters

Many smart people nodded along, which blew my mind, but also made me realize just how narrowly this discussion has been framed. (More on that in in a minute.)

In his piece–as he did in his six-month series–Johnson waxed Solomonic about the pros and cons of crop biotechnology, ultimately concluding:

The most astonishing thing about the vicious public brawl over GMOs is that the stakes are so low.

This struck me as astonishing, especially coming from someone who had just spent six months deeply immersed in biotech research and application. My own foray into this world has led me to the opposite conclusion. (The same goes for Amy Harmon.) As I was doodling with a response to Johnson’s “none of it matters” hand wave, several notable rebuttals poured forth. The first was from University of Wyoming’s Andrew Kniss, who made this excellent point:

While activist groups, scientists, and journalists yell past each other in this debate, the people who are actually using and benefiting from the technology are largely ignored. So too are the potential beneficiaries of the future.

Next followed Berkley’s Michael Eisen, who felt that Johnson let GMO opponents off the hook:

What is most disturbing about the GMO debate – and why it matters – is that the anti-GMO movement at almost every turn rejects empiricism as a means of understanding the world and making decisions about it.

This matters because the anti-GMO movement shapes the public discourse. It is their ideology, worldview and claims that set the terms of the debate. The scientists merely play defense, batting back a torrent of misinformation and never-ending urban myths (terminators! Indian farmer suicides!), much in the way that climate scientists are forever rebutting cherry-picked stats and pseudoscience from climate skeptics. What’s truly disconcerting about the GMO debate is that influential thought leaders and public figures have legitimized the anti-empirical voices instead of disavowing them. (This mostly doesn’t happen in public dialogues involving climate change or vaccine safety–where the evidence-defiant fringe are marginalized).

Such mainstreaming–how it plays out– is illustrated in my recent piece in Issues in Science and Technology, which is about how a popular  GMO myth has been credulously accepted, amplified, and disseminated. To a much larger degree, the endorsement and propagation of misleading information and outright falsehoods by influential thought leaders is the elephant in the room that Johnson, Grist and many progressives dance around. They need to own it, not ignore it, because there are consequences when influentials play footsies with the fringe, just as there are consequences when popular talk show hosts give a forum to anecdotal anti-vaccine arguments and phony experts falsely claiming health dangers from GMOs.

Eisen speaks to why the behavior of GMO opponents matters (my emphasis):

The anti-GMO movement is an anti-empirical movement. It relies on the rejection of evidence about the risks and benefits of extant GMOs. And it relies on the rejection of an understanding about molecular biology. And it’s triumph would be a disaster not just because we would miss out on future innovations in agriculture – but because the rejection of GMOs would all but banish the last vestige of empiricism from political life. The world faces so many challenges now, and we can only solve them if we believe that the world can be understood by studying it, that we can think up and generate possible solutions to the challenges we face, and that we can make rational decisions about which ones to use or not to use. The anti-GMO movement rejects each piece of this – it rejects decades of research aimed at understanding molecular biology, it rejects technology as a way to solve problems and more than anything it rejects our ability to make rational assessments of risk and value.

Another noteworthy rebuttal to Johnson was penned by Ramez Naam, who argues that GMOs matter very much for the developing world. Indeed, this is an aspect of the debate that is largely ignored. I was thrilled to see Naam use the example of India’s Bt cotton farmers, which really does illustrate the value of biotechnology for smallholders. (This is something I get into in my Issues in Science and Technology piece.)

So why does cotton engineered with the pest-resistant Bt trait matter in the developing world? After all, people don’t eat cotton! And as smart GMO skeptics like to point out, most biotech crops, like soybean, corn, and cotton, are commodity cash crops. They don’t feed people.

Here’s Naam: Read More

MORE ABOUT: biotechnology, GMOs, science

Europe Submits to Iron Law of Climate Policy

By Keith Kloor | January 23, 2014 2:16 pm

We ofter hear that global warming is the existential issue of our day. And that reducing carbon emissions from fossil fuels will be essential if we are to preserve a livable climate for civilization. People can quibble with the various risk scenarios and which computer models are more accurate and so on, but in the main, I’m not going to argue that standing pat is a wise strategy.

So where does this leave me? Well, I view global warming as an incredibly complex, seemingly intractable global problem that is not going to be solved by 1) shutting down existing low-carbon sources of energy; focusing inordinate attention on a vocal minority of climate skeptics (there’s an opportunity cost to this obsession); and most of all, 3) ignoring economic realities, such as that highlighted in the headline of today’s top New York Times story: Read More

The Demise of Easter Island’s Eco-Collapse Parable

By Keith Kloor | January 21, 2014 2:48 pm

I have often asked myself, What was Jared Diamond thinking when he first learned that everything Easter Island symbolized to him might be wrong? Did the prize-winning, internationally celebrated writer ever look around at the accumulating evidence and think that maybe–just maybe–Easter Island isn’t the best metaphor for ecocide?

By all indications, Diamond has not allowed such doubts to enter his mind. But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Read More

Why Hasn’t the Climate Disaster Frame Resonated?

By Keith Kloor | January 17, 2014 1:04 pm

During election years, opinion polls and surveys often drive national media coverage of political candidates. This is derisively known as horse race journalism. It is a style that has carried over to everyday political coverage. “I worry that politics is covered almost like sports at a relentless who’s winning and who’s losing kind of way, who’s up, who’s down,” New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson said said last year.

The overall tenor of climate change reporting isn’t like that. (I’ll get to its dominant characteristics in a minute.) But every three or four months, there are poll-driven stories and blog posts that have a who’s up/who’s down flavor.

That is because some researchers conduct regular public surveys on climate change-related questions. Anthony Leiserowitz, the Director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, and Ed Maibach, the Director of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication, are two such trackers of public opinion. Their work helpfully chronicles prevailing attitudes on climate change and in the case of Yale’s Six America’s report, has shed important demographic insight.

Their latest survey findings were released this week in a report called, “Climate Change in the American Mind: Americans’ Global Warming Beliefs and Attitudes in November 2013.”

I’m not sure how valuable this narrow snapshot is; nonetheless, here’s what Leiserowitz found (my emphasis):

We report that there has been an increase in the proportion of Americans who believe global warming is not happening (23%, up 7 percentage points since April 2013). The proportion of Americans who say they “don’t know” whether or not global warming is happening has dropped 6 points – from 20% to 14% – since spring of 2013. Finally, a majority of Americans (63%) believe global warming is happening, a number that has been consistent since spring 2013.

Naturally, that sizable uptick in the “global warming is not happening” category was headline bait. But I’m probably not the only one that was surprised to see the percentage of climate dismissives rise, given the jump in media coverage of climate change in 2013, with many of the stories linking warming temperatures to severe weather events and broader energy and security-related concerns.

So why are more people suddenly inclined to think global warming is not happening? Here’s the theory:  Read More


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