Bill Nye Explains Why he is a GMO Skeptic

By Keith Kloor | November 6, 2014 4:54 am

Bill Nye, stalwart defender of evolution and climate science, has a new book out called, Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation. Nye, for those unfamiliar with him, is a popular science communicator. He also relishes verbal debate. In recent years, he’s become known for taking on creationists and climate skeptics.

Nye’s reputation as a soldier of science has led some to wonder where he stands on GMOs. Specifically, folks are curious if he’s changed his position since 2005, when his television show featured an episode that has since been criticized for mischaracterizing the science of biotechnology in a way that reinforces unwarranted fears, as one observer writes. Others have been more forgiving of that segment:

Most of the questions and fears he raises are the questions and fears of 2005 and, to a disappointing extent, the same fears we need to address today.

So now it’s nearly a a decade later and GMOs are still saddled with a fear factor that activists have worked hard to promote, much to the dismay of the plant science community. Where is Nye in this battle between scientists and those that frequently contest (and muddy) the science of agricultural biotechnology? Read More

Republican Takeover of Senate Will Spotlight Climate Denial

By Keith Kloor | November 5, 2014 7:59 am

Now that the Republicans control Congress for the next two years, what’s in store for U.S. climate politics? Well, Keystone is the first order of business, and then probably a whole lot of bombast and theater, which many will find unappetizing:

Not good for science and sane politics, perhaps, but if you’re a Democrat who cares about climate change and you are already looking ahead to 2016, there’s a silver lining: You have the face of climate denialism in a top leadership spot, quoted often in the media, representing the Republican brand in Congress.

And this is not your garden variety climate skepticism that nitpicks the science. We’re talking all-in global conspiracy belief, infamously expressed, as The Hill recently noted: Read More

No Love in Boulder for Colorado’s GMO Labeling Proposition

By Keith Kloor | November 4, 2014 11:18 am

The following is a guest post from Paul McDivitt, a second-year master’s student studying journalism and mass communication research at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Follow him on twitter @paulmcdivitt.

UPDATE: The GMO labeling initiative in Colorado was soundly rejected. (Breakdown of Boulder vote is at bottom of post.)

Today, Colorado voters will decide if the state should require genetically modified foods to be labeled as such. The ballot measure is called Proposition 105. A Suffolk University poll showed that 49.2 percent in Colorado oppose the proposition, 29.8 percent support it, and 21 percent are undecided. The Democratic Party of Denver endorsed it.

Weeks ago, when I received a voter guide in the mail from the Boulder County Democratic Party, I was surprised to see that it did not take a stand on Proposition 105.

After all, Boulder is known as a liberal bastion. It established itself as a hippie paradise in the ‘60s, and remains a choice destination for free spirits and vagabonds alike, home to countless yoga studios, marijuana dispensaries, and a sprawling farmers’ market. Just the kind of place you would expect to support GMO labeling, right? Read More

Why is Nassim Taleb So Venomous on Twitter?

By Keith Kloor | November 1, 2014 10:48 am

Watching Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan and other books, engage on twitter, is like being ringside at a verbal boxing match with the intellectual equivalent of Clubber Lang, the snarling, contemptuous boxer played by Mr. T in Rocky 3. In the movie, Clubber Lang was so mean and nasty the performance was almost a parody.

When you see Taleb go ballistic on Twitter, as he often does, you wonder similarly if the guy is truly an angry asshole of the highest order, or if it’s just some performance schtick by an egghead scholar trying to liven up his day. Then again, he can’t seem to help himself: The guy did get into it one time with a parody Twitter account. As one observer noted:

Taleb has a propensity for being quite combative on Twitter, on topics ranging from bonds to GMOs, and Taleb will fight with just about anybody.

Yeah, you could say that again. Some people, such as the economist Noah Smith, make allowances for Taleb’s bad behavior: Read More

Taking Credit for GMO Failures

By Keith Kloor | October 31, 2014 11:46 am

Earlier this year, the earth scientist Jon Foley wrote an article that laid out why he was skeptical about agricultural biotechnology. Among other things, he said “that GMOs have frequently failed to live up to their potential” because of the way they have been deployed:

GMOs have done little to enhance the world’s food security. Mainly, that’s because GMO crops primarily in use today are feed corn (mostly for animal feed and ethanol), soybeans (mostly for animal feed), cotton and canola. But these aren’t crops that feed the world’s poor, or provide better nutrition to all. GMO efforts may have started off with good intentions to improve food security, but they ended up in crops that were better at improving profits. While the technology itself might “work,” it has so far been applied to the wrong parts of the food system to truly make a dent in global food security.

This struck me as a shortsighted, wholly incomplete view of GMOs, which I and others, such as Ramez Naam, commented on at the time. I thought of Foley’s essay and his main argument while attending a recent conference called, Techno-Utopianism & the Fate of the Earth: Why Technology Will Not Save the World.  One of the panels–The Quest for a “New Nature”–featured Andrew Kimbrell, the founder and executive director of the Center for Food Safety, which for years has spearheaded opposition to biotechnology. Read More


Banging the Drum on Science When It Fits Your Tune

By Keith Kloor | October 28, 2014 2:16 pm

In her last big superlative GMO story, New York Times reporter Amy Harmon wrote:

Scientists, who have come to rely on liberals in political battles over stem-cell research, climate change and the teaching of evolution, have been dismayed to find themselves at odds with their traditional allies on this issue. Some compare the hostility to G.M.O.s to the rejection of climate-change science, except with liberal opponents instead of conservative ones.

Harmon generously linked to a post of mine, which pointed out that liberals “are attentive watchdogs when it comes to flawed coverage of climate change. But with crazy talk on GMOs, they are MIA.” I was referring specifically to progressives in media who monitor real (and sometimes perceived) journalistic shortcomings in coverage of climate change. I am gratified that my own occasional attempts to “police frightful coverage” of GMOs, as CJR put it, have been noted by some of my peers.

Many who inhabit the progressive sphere have yet to come to terms with the tolerance for dodgy science and misinformation on GMOs that is disseminated by thought leaders and public interest champions. For example, what would you say if a much respected, highly credentialed public intellectual wrote a blurb for a book entitled, “The Climate Deception,” a collection of climate skeptic essays? Well, Marion Nestle recently did the equivalent of that with GMOs. This is the sort of thing I highlighted in my Slate piece a few years ago.

Look, there will always be high profile figures who accept a well-established scientific judgement in one field but reject it in another. Such hypocrisy will not go unnoticed and may undermine one’s credibility. In the case of GMOs, Fred Pearce in New Scientist argues that Greenpeace has sullied its name by using the same tactics as those it fights against in the climate change arena:

Climate sceptics are undoubtedly dodgy data dealers. They argue, for instance, that the world has cooled since 1998. They don’t point out that 1998 was an exceptionally hot El Niño year, nor do they admit the extent of atmospheric warming in the 1990s and earlier. They deny that the temperature trend remains upwards. And they ignore continued warming in the oceans.

But Greenpeace cherry-picks data in just the same way in its campaign against GM.

This kind of behavior is environmentalism’s cross to bear.

A similar scientific inconsistency dogs the American heartland, according to Don Carr, a chronicler of rural life:  Read More

The Rich Allure of a Peasant Champion

By Keith Kloor | October 23, 2014 3:29 pm

ABC Carpet & Home, for the uninitiated, is a sumptuous home furnishings mecca with a chic interior and socially conscious ethic. The flagship store in Manhattan’s Flatiron district feels like a plush museum owned by a billionaire with a New Age affectation. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: biotechnology, GMOs, science, Vandana Shiva

When Political Sensitivities and Science Collide with Religion

By Keith Kloor | October 22, 2014 4:13 pm

grand canyon

A decade ago, controversy erupted after it was revealed that a creationist book was being sold in six bookstores at the Grand Canyon National Park. It was a biblical explanation of the Grand Canyon. As Cornelia Dean reported in the New York Times,

the book says God created the heavens and the earth in six days, 6,000 years ago, and that the canyon formed in a flood God caused in order to wipe out “the wickedness of man.” The geology of the canyon proves it, the books’ contributors say.

That’s complete bunk, as Dean went on to lay out in the next paragraph. Nonetheless, the creationist text was made available to park visitors because it offered what the person in charge of the bookstores called a “divergent viewpoint.”  That rankled geologists. The story remained in the news for years, in part due to one environmental group that wanted to make political hay of it. (The group wrongly traced the decision to keep the book in the bookstore to the Bush Administration, an assertion that many accepted at face value, perhaps because it fit a certain narrative.) In any case, amidst all the uproar there wasn’t much discussion of the Native American creationist myths that were also on sale at the Grand Canyon National Park bookstores.

For some reason, science advocates who chafe at a biblical story of the Grand Canyon aren’t much bothered  by American Indian creation tales that are remarkably similar, if you look closely.

Why the double standard? Perhaps it’s because we view the Native American relationship to the Grand Canyon in more cultural or anthropological terms, as Arizona State University explains: Read More


On Economic Growth, the Environment and Climate Change

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

In the early 1970s, leading environmental scientists and writers argued that curtailing economic growth was necessary to save  human civilization from eco-collapse.  The material needs of society were exhausting the planet’s resources. The worrying trends were laid out in a hugely influential 1972 report and best-selling book entitled, “The Limits to Growth.” Its authors concluded (page 183):

Deliberately limiting growth would be difficult, but not impossible. The way to proceed is clear, and the necessary steps, although they are new ones for human society, are well within human capabilities.

I would contend that “Limits to Growth” is among the most influential contemporary environmental tracts, perhaps second to Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.” Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: climate change, environmentalism

The Media and Conventional Wisdom

By Keith Kloor | October 11, 2014 1:26 pm

The Nation has published an excellent article on the U.S. government’s vendetta against James Risen, a New York Times investigative journalist. The campaign is part of a larger effort by the Obama Administrations to punish government whistleblowers and “intimidate other investigative reporters,” as Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg told The Nation.

This week Risen gave a talk at Colby College in Maine that cautioned against groupthink in the media. He cited the early days of  the abolitionist movement in the 1830s, before it had become “a significant political force,” during a time when slavery was still a “bedrock political assumption of the United States.” This period, when abolition writers were outside the mainstream, should be studied, Risen said, for

what it’s really like to challenge the cement-like certainty of the conventional wisdom of the day, especially when it is constantly being reinforced by a mainstream press.

He went on to say: Read More


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