When I was interviewing Robert Kennedy Jr. for my recent Washington Post magazine profile, there was one charge leveled against him that he deeply resented. “I am not anti-science,” he insisted on numerous occasions, and my suggestion a year ago that he was anti-science perturbed him more than anything.
After all, Kennedy, like many greens, embraces what science says about climate change and other pressing environmental issues. So how could he be anti-science?
Similarly, GMO opponents hold views that are often broadly characterized as “anti-science.” For example, here’s how a tweet described Jon Entine’s presentation this week to a National Academy of Science (NAS) committee on crop biotechnology.
— Genetic Literacy (@GeneticLiteracy) September 18, 2014
The tweet by Entine’s organization (Genetic Literacy Program) was referring to the numerous GMO critics who don’t accept overwhelming evidence showing genetically modified foods to be safe, and who were invited to share these views with the NAS committee at a public meeting.
But is it fair to label anti-GMO activists–and their claims–as anti-science? Like Kennedy, many of them, if not all, also hew to the scientific consensus on climate change. But if they dismiss the same scientific consensus on crop biotechnology does that automatically make them anti-science? [In fairness, nowhere in Entine's NAS presentation--which is excellent--does he use the term "anti-science."]
Entine, in his remarks to the NAS committee, acknowledges that
many of those who maintain that GMOs are potentially harmful, while sincere for the most part, are engaging not in science but in politics.
The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) is embarking on a comprehensive study of genetically engineered (GE) crops. It will examine the historic development of agricultural biotechnology, assess the “purported” benefits and negatives of GE crops, review food and environmental safety issues, and explore where the technology may be headed.
What is prompting such a deep dive into a thorny thicket? This:
Consumers in the United States and abroad get conflicting information about GE crops. Proponents tout the benefits while opponents emphasize the risks. There is a need for an independent, objective study that examines what has been learned about GE crops, assesses whether initial concerns and promises were realized since their introduction, and investigates new concerns and recent claims.
It so happens that the first public meeting for this study will be held today and tomorrow. More on this in a minute.
First, let’s review essential findings on crop biotechnology and related food safety concerns from the past decade. Read More
As regular readers know, I have done my share of kvetching about GMO media coverage. It’s easy to poke a stick at the stuff you take issue with, especially if you’re on the lookout for it. This is a form of selection bias that I need to be mindful of.
It’s not that I haven’t paused to admire examples of sterling journalism on GMO-related issues. I’ve praised Amy Harmon and Nathanael Johnson for their excellent work in the New York Times and Grist, respectively. But overall, the repeat offenders and flawed coverage (such as this latest from Reuters) seize my attention.
So I need to do a better job of spotlighting the standout work of those who are raising the bar on a consistent basis. That brings me to Tamar Haspel, whose monthly column on food and agriculture for the Washington Post is a must-read. Her most recent piece is on the comparative merits of small and large scale (industrial sized) farms. Like all of Haspel’s columns, this one is engaging, well reported, thoughtful, and nuanced. That’s no small feat.
Here’s how it starts: Read More
In 2002, the global GMO discourse chagrined anthropologist Glenn Davis Stone:
Western audiences have been bombarded with deceptive rhetoric, spin, and soundbite science portraying the wonders—or horrors—of the new technology.
He blamed both the biotech industry and anti-GMO activists for exploiting food security concerns to advance their own agendas. The article, published in the journal Current Anthropology, is a snapshot of a formative time, when dueling narratives pushed by industry and GMO opponents had taken shape. Stone’s objective was laudable:
My focus here is on the core problem of the feeding of the growing populations in the developing world. This decomposes into two issues: the potential for biotechnology to reduce hunger by boosting food output and the need to take a discriminating view of genetically modified crops (e.g., distinguishing those from the corporate and those from the public sector) rather than treating genetic modification as a monolithic project. I examine the dominant industry and green positions on these two issues, using case material from India.
At the time, as Stone noted:
The specter of the industralization of farming, privatization of germplasm, and eventual depeasantization in developing countries has proved a mighty stimulus to a range of green writers and activists.
Such concerns fueled the anti-GMO movement and, as Stone observed,
helped make an international star of Vandana Shiva, whose voluminous writings depict genetic modification as threatening an idyllic traditional agrarian culture that is ecologically stable, seed-saving, biodiverse, noncommercial, and female-oriented.
Shiva would go on to be an instrumental figure in the global anti-GMO movement over the next decade. She was (and remains) the forceful purveyor of one of the biggest GMO myths: That the “failure” of genetically modified cotton has driven more than a quarter million Indian farmers to suicide. As I wrote last year in my deconstruction of this myth, “no one has done more to promote the narrative of Monsanto’s ‘seeds of suicide’ than Vandana Shiva.” I extensively chronicled the role Shiva played in perpetuating the GMO-Indian farmer suicide narrative, which a mostly credulous media bought into.
In his 2002 journal article, Stone discusses Shiva’s worldview and GMO rhetoric as reflective of the “characteristic green position.” He writes:
The greens’ demonization of genetically modified crops has effects that are contradictory to their values. Promoting blanket disapproval of such crops helps drive public-sector genetic modification into the arms of industry. Genetic modification is expensive, and most public projects are in a constant struggle for funding. Industry provides some funds and access to genetic materials; greens provide no funding and obstruct philanthropic investment (ABC News Online 2001).
If you read the full article, you’ll see it’s clear that Stone holds the Shivas of the world responsible for inflaming the GMO discourse and for having a misguided approach to biotechnology. (As I mentioned, he also found industry just as culpable for justifying its interests with grand claims.)
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: Read More
UPDATE: On the same day (August 20) that Kennedy taped a segment on the Dr. Oz show, he was interviewed on Good Day New York (a Fox affiliate), and the Leonard Lopate radio show. Lopate was very skeptical of Kennedy’s claims and challenged him with good questions.
I was at the Baltimore aquarium with my wife and kids a few weeks ago when Robert Kennedy Jr. called me on my cell phone to vent about the media’s deep reluctance to take his newly published book seriously. At the time, even the Huffington Post was giving him the back of the hand. This was a familiar story, one I had recently chronicled. But what struck me about Kennedy’s call was the timing: He was getting married the next day to Cheryl Hines. I told him to forget about Thimerosal for a day and focus on his wedding.
I mention this anecdote to illustrate Kennedy’s persistence. Call him a zealot, call him anti-science, call him what you will, but he is pressing on with his lonely campaign to rid all vaccines of Thimerosal, a mercury-based vaccine preservative long discontinued in U.S. pediatric vaccines but still used in a few flu vaccines. He has many friends in politics and media, but as I noted in my Washington Post magazine piece, he’s been repeatedly spurned on the thimerosal issue. He did recently get some airtime at CNN and today, he is taping a segment on the Dr. Oz show.
Joining Kennedy on the show will be Mark Hyman, a medical doctor (he operates The UltraWellness center) and best-selling author who has embraced the thimerosal issue with nearly as much gusto as Kennedy. Earlier in the year, Hyman’s health advisory role with the Clintons’s was written about in the New York Times. Hyman collaborated closely with Kennedy on his just-published Thimerosal book.
I’ll be curious to hear Dr. Oz’s interview with Kennedy and Hyman. Meanwhile, if you’d like to learn what Hyman thinks about Kennedy’s critics and the science and health authorities that have pronounced Thimerosal to be a safe vaccine ingredient, below is the recent email exchange between us. Read More
It’s not easy writing about Vandana Shiva. The Indian environmentalist is adored in green and progressive circles. Her exalted status has apparently disinclined many of my colleagues in the media from taking a closer look at what she stands for and what she often says on the global lecture circuit and to admiring journalists.
In 2012, science writer John Horgan published a book called The End of War. Its premise is that we have it in ourselves to tame our violent impulses, at least enough to stop waging large-scale, collective war. At first blush, this notion seems as quixotic and naive as a famous John Lennon and Yoko Ono song.
But Horgan wants us to seriously give peace a chance. From the book’s preview:
War is not preordained, and furthermore, it should be thought of as a solvable, scientific problem—like curing cancer. But war and cancer differ in at least one crucial way: whereas cancer is a stubborn aspect of nature, war is our creation. It’s our choice whether to unmake it or not.
Before going any further, I should acknowledge that I have not yet read Horgan’s book, which has just been reissued in paperback. At his Scientific American blog, Horgan discusses the new edition and assures us that he understands the gargantuan leap he thinks humankind is capable of making:
Our biggest challenge is making the transition from our world, which is still armed and dangerous, to a world in which war and even the threat of war have vanished. I am not an absolute pacifist. If someone attacks me or a loved one—or even a stranger–I would do my best to stop him. Sometimes violence is morally justified, even necessary, to thwart greater violence.
So the question is, how should we react to lethal group violence when it erupts in the world today?
But is that the right question? I would think that the greater challenge is eliminating the main reasons why one group of people sets out to kill another group. All through history wars have been fought over land, religion, flag, and ethnicity, to cite just a few of the major triggers. A commenter on a related post of Horgan’s expressed this another way:
I think war arises when we want something that others have and we believe we are entitled to have it.
I also think war arises when we believe so strongly about something that we cannot tolerate the existence and thriving of others who don’t agree with us. Our ideas of God have a lot to do with war when we feel threatened by the existence of others with different ideas.
Indeed, let’s look at the seemingly intractable Israeli/Palestinian issue, a conflict between two peoples that once again has erupted in carnage and tragedy. Rather than delve into the origins of this conflict and the complex forces that have locked Israelis and Palestinians into a vicious cycle of violence, I suggest you read the recent long exchange between Andrew Sullivan and Sam Harris. They engage in a spirited but civil and edifying debate on the latest outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza strip. Their discussion is wide-ranging, from the toxic nature of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict to the meaning of genocide. I will admit that throughout their conversation I found myself nodding along in agreement to much of what Harris was saying.
He makes one point at the outset that I found particularly striking: Read More
When evolutionary biologist and atheist superstar Richard Dawkins recently stepped into (yet another) sinkhole of his own making, fellow evolutionary biologist and all-star atheist PZ Myers shook his head sadly. (It was not the first time that Myers had chided Dawkins for “callous indifference.”) Dawkins, true to form, could not recognize the sinkhole he created. That led Myers to shake his head again, sadly.
As Myers wrote about the latest Dawkins sinkhole, “it hurts to see him say obnoxious things on Twitter, like rating different kinds of rape and pedophilia.” Even worse, Dawkins didn’t understand “why that’s objectionable,” Myers noted.
If I was 20 years younger and participated in a certain body art trend, I might have a tattoo inscribed on my forearm that said something like this:
— Josh Meier (@moshjeier) August 12, 2014
As the Skeptics Dictionary notes:
Confirmation bias refers to a type of selective thinking whereby one tends to notice and to look for what confirms one’s beliefs, and to ignore, not look for, or undervalue the relevance of what contradicts one’s beliefs.
This is a very human tendency. Public debates on contentious topics, such as GMOs and climate change, are rife with confirmation bias. I know that everything I write on such topics is viewed by most readers with preconceptions, which include strong opinions already held about the topic itself, or even about me. I’m not really bothered by this, because I don’t see myself as a persuader. I’m not looking to change minds or win you over to any one side of an argument (even when I aim to debunk myths and misinformation). I’m much more interested in chronicling and exploring the contours of a particular scientific dialogue or narrative–how it formed, how it’s maintained, who is shaping it.
If, as a result of this, you come to reexamine some of your own assumptions, well, that’s an added bonus.
So one of the things that’s fascinating to me about confirmation bias is how it manifests itself in media and in those who probably think they are not infected by it.