Several years ago, the Boston Review published a forum called, “The Truth About GMOs.” Nine viewpoints were represented. All the authors, a number of them scientists and scholars, had different perspectives. Some were enthusiastic biotech supporters, others staunch opponents. Several had staked out a middle ground, acknowledging the technology’s benefits and risks. The truth about GMOs, it turned out, meant different things to different people.
To complicate matters, the science of agricultural biotechnology is a proxy battleground for many people with political or cultural objections to GMOs, much in the way climate science is a proxy for those who associate it with implied political and economic changes they view as a threat to their way of life. For example, activists and advocacy groups vehemently opposed to GMOs continue to emphasize food safety concerns that have no evidentiary basis. Nevertheless, enough doubt and fear has been sown among a subset of consumers that numerous countries require GMO foods to be labeled and a campaign to do so in the U.S. has gained momentum in recent years. Meanwhile, the issue of food security in a warming world has fueled anew the controversial potential of GMO technology.
Which brings me to a workshop held this week at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington D.C. Its focus is on how to communicate about GMOs to the public. Thursday’s speakers were excellent, with many of them drawing on the findings of social science to show the tricky communication terrain that has to be navigated for charged issues like vaccines, climate change, and yes, GMOs. To get a sense of the take-home points, scroll through the Twitter hashtag #NASInterface. If you want to watch Friday’s panels, go here for the streaming video.
A few nuggets jumped out at me as I was listening intermittently to Thursday’s talks. Dan Kahan, near the end of his fascinating presentation, said that “people misinform themselves.” What did he mean by this? Well, people have go-to sources for issues they don’t have time (or the inclination) to research. Your go-to source on a contentious issue–such as climate change or GMOs–is likely to share your values. That affinity is what makes the source trustworthy to you. But that doesn’t mean your trusted source is necessarily going to provide you with correct information.
By the way, this is why I often focus on well known information brokers who influence the GMO debate. Groups like Greenpeace and thought leaders such as Michael Pollan, Vandana Shiva, and Bill Nye have enormous clout in their respective spheres. Greenpeace is a major player on the environmental stage. Pollan has the ear of foodies, Shiva is the patron saint of socially-conscious greens, and Nye is the geeky science hero that takes on creationists. Does it muddy the science communication environment for GMOs if a big environmental group and beloved thought leaders traffic in inaccurate information? Given their reach, I think so.
Dominique Brossard, in her Thursday talk, said that “messages and frames from the media can have an important role” in science debates. This is certainly true, though some people tend to overestimate the media’s importance, especially when an issue like climate change is “wicked” and laden with political and cultural meaning.
But to Brossard’s point, consider one popular frame that I looked into closely: The GMO/Indian farmer suicide tale. In my piece from last year, I laid out Vandana Shiva’s role as the primary architect of this false narrative. There were others who played supporting roles, but she is the one who stayed on message with it for years. She is a prime example of an influencer creating and shaping a popular media frame that has undoubtedly polluted the GMO discourse.
Finally, some thoughts about one thing Tamar Haspel said in her NAS talk. Haspel, as I have previously noted, writes a terrific, thoughtful food column for the Washington Post. Yesterday, Haspel suggested in her presentation that perhaps the “biggest thing” anyone could do in the GMO debate is reach out to someone who sits on the opposite side of the issue: Read More
In 2000, Salon asked, “Is your cell phone killing you?”
Last year, editors there must have decided the verdict was in when they published this embarrassing piece entitled, “Your cellphone is killing you: What people don’t want you to know about electromagnetic fields.” Rather than waste my time explaining the egregious flaws in that article, I’ll just point you to this website page of the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health:
Although there have been some concerns that radiofrequency energy from cell phones held closely to the head may affect the brain and other tissues, to date there is no evidence from studies of cells, animals, or humans that radiofrequency energy can cause cancer.
Today, Salon continues its fine tradition of scaremongering with a short piece that carries this headline: “Uh oh: Wi-Fi exposure may be worse for kids than we thought.” In the sub-head, we get a newsy teaser: “New research indicates that our current exposure limits may be out of date.”
Let’s go to that new research, which by the way, is published in a new open access journal called the Journal of Microscopy and Ultrastructure (otherwise known as the Journal of the Saudi Society of Microscopes). The good news: There’s no publication fee! The bad news is that the paper is rife with dodgy, unqualified correlations and claims. You only need to read the abstract to get a sense of its bias. My favorite line: Read More
With climate change commanding the news spotlight, dominating environmental discourse, you don’t hear much anymore about biodiversity or endangered species, two interconnected issues which, until the last decade or so, had been a focus of many environmental campaigners and widespread media coverage.
A case in point: In recent years, the conservation community has been at war with itself, engaged in a heated debate over how to preserve nature and biodiversity in the 21st century. The acrimonious dialogue reached a boiling point in 2014, prompting a remarkable commentary in the journal Nature, signed by more than 200 environmental scientists. Here are the passages that I figured would jump out at reporters: Read More
The murderous terrorist attack on a French satirical newspaper, which left 12 people dead, has shocked and outraged the world. Islamic extremists targeted Charlie Hebdo, the Paris-based paper, for its cartoons lampooning Islam. But it’s worth noting–as many have–that the paper poked fun at politicians, celebrities, and all the major religions.This caption explains the cover above. Vice has a good story about the paper’s anti-religion and anti-establishment history. After I heard the news of yesterday’s massacre, which killed ten of the paper’s staffers, including its top editor (and two police officers), the New York Daily News opinion editor captured how I felt. Read More
Environmental journalism, by and large, reflects not just news of the day (and an underlying theme) but also the zeitgeist. For example, when I made ecology my beat in the late 1990s, stories about the biodiversity crisis were prevalent in mainstream media and in environmental magazines–one of which I worked at through most of the 2000s.
In my current feature story on the divide in the conservation community, I have a historical section on the roots of environmental conservation. There, I talk about a progression in ecology–evolving primary concerns over a 100-year period, from wilderness preservation and endangered species to biodiversity and ecosystem services.
Of course, ecology is a huge field with many sub-disciplines. What I’m referring to are issues that were picked up in the media and frequently covered, which helped them gain traction as popular causes. This does not happen in a vacuum. Influential thought leaders and vocal scientists play an instrumental role.
For instance, if you want to understand how biodiversity became a huge story in the 1980s and 1990s, read “The Idea of Biodiversity,” by David Takacs. This 1996 book is also mentioned in a recent paper published in the journal Ethics, Policy, and the Environment. The authors argue:
We suggest that biodiversity is only the most recent in a long line of scientific “proxies” promoted to the public as a basis for conservation values. Such proxies gain widespread popularity due to their veneer of empirical objectivity, which encourages the public and policy makers to believe that decisions made on the their basis are value-neutral and free from any ideological commitments.
Be sure to read the whole paper, for the authors do not aim to de-legitimize the concept of biodiversity. Indeed, towards the end, they write: Read More
In a brilliant essay (PDF), the American geographer D. W. Meinig writes: “Any landscape is composed not only of what lies before our eyes but what lies within our heads.”
Meinig’s piece is in a classic 1979 book of essays called, “The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes.” This collection features scholars whose work touches on the human/environment relationship. The academic field is known as Human Geography.
When I write about ecological matters, I have to understand the science of ecology. But the people who advance ecology (and ecological issues) have a worldview, a philosophy that informs how they think about nature. It is in this context that science and culture are commingled.
In recent years, I have watched a contentious debate unfold between highly respected, influential ecologists. Read More
In 2014, as in years past, I used this space to offer observations on a wide range of stories and subjects. I critiqued faux journalism that went viral, called attention to the creepy antics of an alternative health advocate, discussed the Science Guy’s blind spot on GMOs, revisited a few touchy archaeological issues, and discovered perhaps the most insufferable egomaniac on Twitter.
I continued to track the winding Anthropocene narrative and kept current with familiar and tenuous climate change storylines. I also marveled at the durable popularity of an influential environmental speaker.
Last summer I was at a party where the guests included a bunch of successful heart surgeons. I spoke at length with one of them (I’ll refer to him as Dr. X) who has known and sometimes worked with Dr. Oz at New York-Presbyterian hospital in Manhattan. Dr. X is in his 40s. He told me Oz had been a mentor to him.
I mentioned Oz’s popular TV show and how Oz, an accomplished, highly respected surgeon, had become increasingly known (and criticized) for promoting unscientific ideas and unproven health remedies. Dr. X nodded his head in lament. He agreed with Oz’s critics but he said that on balance, he thought Oz was a force for good because he got many people to care about their health.
It’s an interesting calculation. The next time I see Dr. X I might ask him if he still believes that Oz is a net plus, given this recent finding. Read More
The Vani Hari success story is remarkable. Here’s a synopsis from a recently syndicated article published in the Chicago Tribune:
Less than four years ago, Hari didn’t even have a Twitter or Facebook account. She was afraid of social media, worried a slip of the thumb could jeopardize her consulting contracts implementing technology and strategy at Bank of America and other financial institutions. Now, photos on Hari’s website and blog flaunt her perfectly applied cosmetics, shiny black hair and petite frame. She has appeared on The Dr. Oz Show, Good Morning America and Inside Edition.
Hari’s appeal stems in part from her use of Web video. One opens with her doing a back-bend in a low-cut exercise top. She greets the viewer, saying how much she loves yoga and how hungry it makes her. Then she bites off a corner of her yoga mat. “Umm,” she says. “Wake up people. Take a look at the ingredients in Subway’s nine-grain bread. Did you know that one of them is the same ingredients found in yoga mats?
In case you’re not making the connection, Hari is famously known as the Food Babe, a nickname her husband gave her when she switched careers and morphed virtually overnight into a crusading food activist. Today, she is a force to be reckoned with, someone who has spearheaded several successful campaigns against major food companies. The ridiculous yoga mat chemical scare was her breakout moment.
In September, Bloomberg Businessweek took note of her meteoric rise:
Food Babe, the nom de blog for Vani Hari, a 35-year-old banking consultant turned food activist, has built an online audience by calling out companies from Starbucks (SBUX) to Chick-fil-A for using ingredients she deems harmful. She belongs to an emerging tribe of Web activists who use attention-grabbing—some say outlandish—methods to pressure companies to change their ways.
If you missed the recent Intelligence Squared debate on GMOs, it’s worth watching. Or if you prefer, read the transcript. Like Nathanael Johnson, I was initially dubious about the event, then pleasantly surprised at how it turned out.
I was also a kinda surprised to see Bill Nye (The Science Guy) piggyback on it:
They’re debating genetically modified food- what the GMF? @IQ2US My opinion is in my new book: Undeniable, The Science of Creation
— Bill Nye (@TheScienceGuy) December 3, 2014
His opinion, alas, is not very Science Guy-like, as we learned several weeks ago. Some of you might recall the open letter from Kevin Folta, a University of Florida plant scientist, inviting Nye to participate in “a forum at a major university for a civil, evidence-based debate on the benefits and risks of agricultural biotechnology.”
The Science Guy never responded.