Two years ago, a bill to label foods that contained genetically engineered ingredients was introduced into Congress by a Democratic representative from Oregon and a Democratic senator from California. It didn’t go anywhere, and we haven’t heard much about it, though since then proposed mandatory GMO labeling laws in some states have been in the news. As Nathanael Johnson wrote in Grist last year, these initiatives draw media interest, which often helps to educate consumers that are mostly clueless about GMOs:
When veteran health and environmental reporters dig into the GMO debate, they start showing people what all the most trustworthy scientific and medical institutions have found: This technology is no riskier than other cherished new technologies we constantly introduce into our lives.
Such responsible journalism was nowhere to be seen in a seven minute MSNBC segment that aired last month: Read More
I’m racing to meet a deadline, but this story in the New York Times is so dismaying I had to take a few minutes to call attention to it. The headline alone is a red flag: “Could Wearable Computers Be as Harmful as Cigarettes?”
It gets worse:
We have long suspected that cellphones, which give off low levels of radiation, could lead to brain tumors, cancer, disturbed blood rhythms and other health problems, if held too close to the body for extended periods.
Who is “we”? The reporter, Nick Bilton (who covers technology), goes on to mention numerous studies, some which are ambiguous, but one that
concluded that talking on a mobile or cordless phone for extended periods could triple the risk of a certain kind of brain cancer.
The thrust of the discussion in the piece gives the impression that
heavy frequent cell phone users are at risk of developing brain tumors. That would be mistaken, as the National Cancer Institute says on its website. Another expert source apparently missed by Bilton is the Mayo Clinic, which says: Read More
In 2013, a psychology professor reviewing Malcolm Gladwell’s latest best-selling book was critical of the author’s modus operandi:
He excels at telling just-so stories and cherry-picking science to back them.
That charge had been percolating for a while, but people were suddenly paying more attention to it, including science journalists. After the WSJ review triggered a larger debate on Gladwell, longtime science journalist Paul Raeburn weighed in at MIT’s Science Tracker (recently shuttered), a journalism watchdog site that had monitored how science was covered in the media. Raeburn picked up on the mounting criticisms of Gladwell to make some important points, such as this one:
It’s the power of narrative that makes it so dangerous: Seductive storytelling robs us of our critical skills.
I’ve periodically discussed in this space how seductive qualities have helped certain climate change narratives take hold. For example, I’ve tracked how nearly every major severe weather event has in the media become linked to or associated with climate change. That narrative gave rise to a meme called “the new normal.”
The severe weather disaster = climate change is a seductive storyline for those who want to increase attention to the very real threats posed by global warming. Whether the media has conveniently embraced that framing is a question I’ll leave for others to debate.
Another similar example of a seductive narrative for those concerned about a warming planet is the “climate wars” story, which I’ve also tracked. Here is a recent unwitting demonstration from one climate change writer on how that storyline has solidified (my emphasis):
For the last couple years, Middle East experts have pointed to the ongoing civil war in Syria as a prime example of how climate change can contribute to violent conflict. The country’s worst drought on record arrived just as widespread outrage with President Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorial regime was reaching critical mass; as crops failed, an estimated 1.5 million people were driven off rural farms and into cities. While grievances with the Assad regime are many, from economic stagnation to violent crackdowns on protesters, the impacts of the drought were likely the final straw.
The narrative in Syria fit perfectly with what many top military leaders, including at the Pentagon, were beginning to project: In parts of the world where tensions are already high, the impacts of natural disasters and competition for resources are increasingly likely to ignite violence.
Yes, and when a study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) linked climate change to the civil war now tearing apart Syria, many in mainstream media (and in climate messaging circles) jumped all over it. The narrative fit perfectly. Global warming had “hastened,” “fueled,” or “helped trigger” the Syrian conflict, and even, according to one prominent climate communicator, “spawned” the rise of ISIS or ISIL, the group of savage Islamic militants that have taken control of and terrorized parts of Iraq.
I discussed the largely uncritical press coverage of the PNAS study in this post. It’s worth mentioning that most of the media stories did a good job emphasizing the multi-causal nature of the Syrian conflict. The study itself laid out the socio-political factors responsible for the country’s uprising. And the press coverage reflected this nuanced aspect of the study. But the authors of the study also fingered climate change-fueled drought as a “catalytic” trigger. Only a few reporters bothered to closely examine the merits of that claim.
In a follow-up post, I reviewed what a number of experts in the multi-disciplinary environmental security field were saying about the study. I also solicited responses from several of them. In short, they did not think highly of the study. Since then, additional reactions have filtered out, including this essay by Halvard Buhaug, Research Director and Research Professor at the Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO), who noted: Read More
In the Guardian, Mark Lynas writes about the “need to recapture the climate debate from the political extremes.” Good luck with that! I’m afraid this proverbial horse has left the barn.
Of course, you should still read the piece, because it’s a necessary reminder of the real dynamics that shape the public discourse on climate change. As I lamented in 2013, the climate debate is overly simplistic, “often framed by those who dismiss the legitimate concerns of a warming planet and those who play up those concerns.”
I’ve been caught in the crosshairs of these rival forces since I began this blog in 2009.
Here’s how Lynas starts off his piece:
Climate change is real, caused almost entirely by humans, and presents a potentially existential threat to human civilisation. Solving climate change does not mean rolling back capitalism, suspending the free market or stopping economic growth.
With those two rather innocuous statements, I have just alienated most people on either side of the climate debate.
Lynas goes on to politely chastise the Guardian for its role in perpetuating the narrow parameters of the climate debate, something I alluded to in this recent post. He then succinctly captures how we got to where we are: Read More
There is nothing you can say about Mike Adams that is more revealing than what appears at his website, Natural News. For example, today’s bolded headline:
US Navy sailors “disappeared” – Fukushima radiation cover-up
Among the day’s “most read” articles:
Companies begin planting microchips under employees’ skin
Yes, this would be the same Mike Adams that Dr. Oz featured on his show last year. This would be the same Mike Adams who compared Monsanto and its “collaborators” in the media to Nazis. In case you didn’t get the message, he added, in that same article: Read More
In 2009, the New York Times launched “a new, crack environmental reporting unit that will pull in eight specialized reporters from the Science, National, Metro, Foreign, and Business desks in a bid for richer, more prominent coverage,” as the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) detailed. It seemed like a smart, innovative approach: Environmental issues have become increasingly complex, with crosscutting scientific, economic, and political angles. Climate change, seen by many as the story of the century, is the poster child for this complexity.
So efforts “to push the story forward, to give it greater energy and focus,” as a NYT memo described at the time, were largely applauded by journalism watchers. Alas, the experiment didn’t pan out to the Times‘ liking; in 2013 the paper’s management abandoned the environment “pod.” The Times, of course, is still actively covering environmental stories, particularly climate change. Whether it is doing so with the kind of dedication and imperative it had declared in 2009 remains an open question. After the decision was made by the Times in 2013 to dismantle the special environment team, I agreed with Margaret Sullivan, the NYT Public editor, who wrote that “symbolically, this is bad news.” It signaled that environmental coverage was deemed not important enough to warrant greater resources and sustained focus.
Meanwhile, the Guardian, a leading newspaper in Britain, has in recent years signaled the opposite: It routinely features environmental stories on its digital homepage and has expansive online commentary and analysis from numerous green-oriented writers. (Compare that with the Times, which shuttered its lone environment blog months after dismantling the beat’s special unit.) And now, Alan Rusbridger, the Guardian’s much admired outgoing editor-in-chief, has announced that between now and this summer, when he steps down, the paper will prominently feature on its home page articles on the “climate threat.” In reflecting on his 20-year tenure as the paper’s editor, he wondered about missed opportunities: Read More
The Carbon Brief, a UK website created in 2011, is a destination for many seeking non-partisan information and analysis on climate change related news and research. I like the neutral tone of the articles and the comprehensive perspective it offers on controversial issues, such as the state of the science on polar bears and, in a similar vein, the growing body of research explaining the “hiatus,” a term commonly used to describe a slowdown in the rate of the earth’s surface warming.
Here’s how a Carbon Brief article on one recently published study begins:
This month will see the civil war in Syria reach an inauspicious fourth birthday. Since the uprising in 2011, over 220,000 people have been killed and almost half the Syrian population have fled their homes.
Evidence suggests the conflict was triggered by a complex mix of social, political, economic and environmental factors. But new research finds that human-caused climate change could also have had an influence.
The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests a severe drought that began in 2006 was a catalyst for the conflict, and that climate change has made such droughts in the region more than twice as likely.
In my previous post, I discussed how this new study was broadly covered in the media. I felt that many of the news articles did not critically examine the paper, much less inform readers of the contentious climate/conflict research field it is situated in. The Carbon Brief article, however does a nice job contextualizing the study, while also providing a flavor of the field’s conflicting views.
Likewise, the UK Climate & Migration Coalition says the new paper adds to a body of contradictory research:
There is currently a raging academic debate about whether a hotter planet will lead to more armed conflict. (We’ve explored this debate in previous blog posts). A number of research papers have found a powerful connection between various climate impacts and armed conflict. Other papers have found a much weaker connection – or no connection at all. Some even found a decrease in violence. Making global generalisations is difficult. However it is a useful exercise to establish whether, in general, climate change will lead to more armed conflict.
How “useful” is the paper? We’ll return to that question in a minute. First, I want to point to an article on the study that did feature a critical take and a window into the complexities of the climate/conflict scholarship. Mark Zastrow, reporting in Nature: Read More
This week a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) received widespread media coverage. The paper’s takeaway was tweeted by all those reporting on it.
— Eric Holthaus (@EricHolthaus) March 2, 2015
— Andrew Freedman (@afreedma) March 2, 2015
Climate change helped spark Syrian war: http://t.co/D6kATKrA24
— National Geographic (@NatGeo) March 3, 2015
Climate Change Helped Fuel The Syrian Conflict, New Paper Finds http://t.co/kh683Wvbrh
— Kate Sheppard (@kate_sheppard) March 2, 2015
That’s just a small sampling, but you get the picture. Now before we go any further, it’s important to note that this asserted climate change component to the Syrian civil war made the rounds in 2013, argued most strongly by a Washington D.C .-based think tank. It got more play last year after Showtime’s Emmy Award-winning documentary on climate change did a segment on the Mideast, featuring a famous globe-trotting New York Times columnist.
focusing on external factors like drought and climate change in the context of the Syrian uprising is counterproductive as it diverts attention from more fundamental political and economic motives behind the protests and shifts responsibility away from the Syrian government.
A decade ago, Bill Nye, aka The Science Guy, did a segment on GMOs for his TV show. His approach surprised some who saw it years later. “It was weightily anti-GMO, something I wouldn’t have expected from Bill Nye,” one writer has noted.
You can watch it yourself and decide. Others have rendered their judgement: Greenpeace, which campaigns against genetically modified crops (when it is not ripping them up), has given the Nye GMO episode a thumbs up. Rodale, a well known organization also opposed to agricultural biotechnology, heartily endorsed the segment, as well. “Bill Nye knows the truth about GMOs,” Rodale crowed.
Nye has recently published a new book that contains a short chapter on GMOs. I have read the chapter and can tell you that it closely reflects what he said on his TV show in 2005, which can be summed up as: Some people are understandably scared about a new technology that could be harmful to the environment.
Last October, Nye went on reddit and was confronted with this history. An admiring fan told Nye that he was “disheartened” by how GMOs were presented in that 2005 episode. The person went on to rue all the “hate, fear, and ignorance” that biotech scientists had to contend with. Nine years had passed since the GMO episode aired, the commenter said to Nye,
so I want to ask, in light of the wealth of evidence demonstrating the safety and utility of agricultural genetic engineering, could you clarify your current stance on the subject, and have you changed the views you expressed then?
I stand by my assertions that although you can know what happens to any individual species that you modify, you cannot be certain what will happen to the ecosystem.
Also, we have a strange situation where we have malnourished fat people. It’s not that we need more food. It’s that we need to manage our food system better.
So when corporations seek government funding for genetic modification of food sources, I stroke my chin.
A succession of stories in recent weeks involving scientists and open records requests have anguished many who cherish two ideals: academic freedom and transparency.
I imagine that journalists have also been grappling with a tension between those two ideals. (I know I have.) More on that in a minute. First a recap.
Two weeks ago, I reported in Science magazine that an anti-GMO group had filed a flurry of freedom of information requests, “asking administrators to turn over any correspondence between a dozen academic researchers and a handful of agricultural companies, trade groups, and PR firms.”
Several days after that story appeared, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released a report detailing how open records requests “are increasingly being used to harass and intimidate scientists and other academic researchers, or to disrupt and delay their work.” The timing of the UCS report was coincidental and had been prepared well before my story was published. Nonetheless, biotech researchers, particularly those requested to turn over their emails to an anti-GMO group, felt that the UCS report had reflected their plight. And Gretchen Goldman, a lead analyst in the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS, seemed to agree:
These requests to the genetic engineering researchers, just like other overly broad open records requests that seek excessive access to scientists’ inboxes, are inappropriate.
So was this a case where the principles of transparency were being (mis)used in a way that threatened academic freedom?
Before you answer, consider: Earlier this week, the New York Times reported that Wei-Hock Soon (informally known as Willie), a scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, had received industry funding explicitly for published work and congressional testimony that was critical of mainstream climate science. (Soon has long been a popular figure in climate skeptic circles.) The environmental group Greenpeace used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain documents that revealed the extent and terms of Soon’s corporate funding. As the Times reports:
The documents show that Dr. Soon, in correspondence with his corporate funders, described many of his scientific papers as “deliverables” that he completed in exchange for their money. He used the same term to describe testimony he prepared for Congress.
After the Times story appeared, Aaron Huertas, communications officer for UCS, wrote a blog post headlined, “Willie Soon’s Failure to Disclose Industry Funding for Contrarian Climate Research is Another Reason to Support Transparency.”
Someone else had the same sentiment.
— Gary Ruskin (@garyruskin) February 22, 2015
Ruskin is executive director of U.S. Right to Know, the anti-GMO group that recently sent freedom of information requests to four universities that employ agricultural researchers working in biotechnology. Ruskin suspects there is an unholy nexus between companies like Monsanto and some academic scientists. Thus his interest in any email correspondence between academic scientists and industry. Might such communication reveal unethical relationships similar to that just disclosed between climate contrarian Willie Soon and the energy industry? I’ve talked with many of the agricultural researchers targeted by Ruskin and they say that they have nothing to hide. One of them, Kevin Folta, a biologist at the University of Florida, Gainsville, has spoken out forcefully against what he believes is
nothing more than a hunt for words to smear a few visible public teachers and researchers that engage public dialog in animal and plant biotechnology. The effects are larger, scientists feel a violation of privacy, intimidation, and are less likely to reach out to lay audiences, which is what we should be doing most.
Does it matter if Ruskin’s actions spring from an ideological bias (anti-GMO), as Folta and his colleagues contend? Do intentions even matter? After all, Greenpeace is hardly a neutral bystander. Is anyone in the media or climate science questioning its FOIA motivations? Or does it matter only what the environmental group uncovered with its document request?
If you want to drill down into the vexing issues surrounding this debate, I highly recommend as a starting point Anna Clark’s recent Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) piece. Here’s the thrust of it: Read More