Don’t Let Mark Bittman Cook Your Brain with Bad Science

By Keith Kloor | May 17, 2013 1:29 pm

Mark Bittman, the popular food writer for the New York Times, has written a column that is almost beyond parody for its unintentional irony. The only way to fully appreciate his lack of self-awareness is to stop and marvel at numerous passages. Let’s start at the top:

Things are bad enough in the food world that we don’t need to resort to hyperbole to be worried or even alarmed.

This is some chutzpah. Here’s Bittman from September 15, 2012:

It’s not an exaggeration to say that almost everyone wants to see the labeling of genetically engineered materials contained in their food products.

Almost everyone? Same column:

G.M.O.’s, to date, have neither become a panacea — far from it — nor created Frankenfoods, though by most estimates the evidence is far more damning than it is supportive.

This is completely untrue. If Bittman had wanted to be factual he would have referred NYT readers to credible sources on the state of the science on biotech crops and foods, such as here or here. Instead, he links to a website called the Organic Authority and a post that explains why

GMOs are bad for your body, bad for the community, bad for farmers and bad for the environment.

This is what is known as laundering untruths. 

A bit further down in his current column chock full of unintentional ironies, Bittman muses,”to whom should we be listening? Who speaks with authority?” Please. Bittman knows well that his perch at the NYT is influential and that foodies revere and trust him. Still, he pushes the theme and says that on whom we should be listening to,

When it comes to big issues, the answer is “actual experts,” and it’s almost always “not ourselves.”

Amazingly, he goes on to discuss Dan Kahneman’s widely acclaimed 2011 book, “Thinking Fast and Slow,” which is about how our decisions and behavior are influenced by “cognitive biases.” Yet Bittman gives no indication that he is aware of how utterly biased he is on the issue of genetically modified foods, and how this leads him to scaremonger and communicate false information.

This next passage, which betrays his convoluted thinking, is classic:

In matters where you’ve become a true expert, you should trust your intuition. Otherwise, it pays to literally stop and think. When I read a news story like this one, which claims that G.M.O.s are linked to leukemia, I might be scared out of my wits — Americans can’t avoid genetically modified food without a huge effort, and even then there are no guarantees. So are we doomed to years of chemo? Perhaps not: If I sit down and do my homework all I can really say with intelligence is that it’s premature to conclude that ingesting food with genetically engineered ingredients is safe.

I happen to have an expert bullshit detector, so my intuition tells me that Bittman here is either being idiotic or utterly disingenuous. Because if he was intelligent and/or did his homework, he would know that he’s as likely to develop leukemia from GMOs as he is from overhead power lines. Secondly, that’s not a news story he cites, but a blog post written by the “founder” of a “natural medicine database.” If you can find an actual news story written  about this latest dubious study on GMOs in a pay-to-play journal, let me know. That Bittman is laundering such a slanted piece of propaganda (that also cites a widely discredited study) under the false banner of news should tell you everything you need to know about his expert sources.

Finally, it’s worth pointing out again that Bittman started off his column by saying, “we don’t need to resort to hyperbole to be worried or even alarmed.”

It’s a shame he doesn’t take his own advice, for near the end, he writes (my emphasis):

As I wrote a few weeks ago, barely a day goes by that someone doesn’t say to me, “There’s nothing I can safely eat.” Many of us are afraid of our food and of the way it’s produced, and to some extent that fear is well founded.

To a great extent, Bittman is irresponsibly spreading that fear (which is not well founded), particularly with respect to genetically modified foods. He also is, as one media biotech watchdog recently put it, “a scourge on science.”

 

  • dogctor

    I think Mark Bittman is spot on. It is important both to find credible experts to trust as it is to use traditional principles of independent scientific inquiry, logic and intuition. On this subject, where the discourse is polluted by lies, it certainly isn’t easy.

    He is also correct to dismiss the study on leukemia, because there is no evidence to tie leukemia to GMOs. and the link posted is shady.
    There is indirect preliminary evidence however, that GMOs could be associated with multiple myeloma, which should be followed up- because multiple myeloma is a horrifically painful and terminal disease. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1257614/

    • JonFrum

      You forgot the Jews. The Jews are always in there somewhere.

      • dogctor

        Nah, as an anti-intellectual bigot and a Jew, I leave the Jews out of it.

  • JonFrum

    I’ve never heard of the guy, but if I was asked what major newspaper he wrote for, I would have guessed the New York Times. This may be the influence of the Internet – I don’t know. But Bittman serves his employer well by telling the customers what they want to hear. When you’re writing for the foodie crowd, you’re not going to get page views for long if you keep telling them that they’re anti-intellectual bigots.

    • dogctor

      You know Jon Frum, what’s interesting about most of your comments is they never have any evidence in them, you know–of the scientific kind. They border on conspiratorial guesswork with flourishes of name-calling.

      • Keith Kloor

        Oh man, that is rich, coming from you. BTW, you call those endless gish gallop stream of citations evidence?

        • dogctor

          Hi Keith.

          The citation linked above is relevant for several reasons.

          1. it is evidence that my statement on multiple myeloma is true

          2. Communication between real scientists and pseudo-scientissts is instructive of reproduced tactics by which public health professionals’ words and genuine science is contorted by industrial junk scientists, whether it is Round Up, atrazine, asbestos or tobacco. The tobacco playbook is replayed, which is fine, so long as people are aware it exists, and read it. http://www.prwatch.org/prwissues/2000Q4/truth.html

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/Madeline-Cox/100002395018240 madness

            Except that that research has been subsequently withdrawn.
            http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/23146696/

          • dogctor

            I know… .which is the reason I called it “shady”. I actually didn’t read it all that thoroughly after that.
            Thanks for the link, tho!

      • JonFrum

        My comment, unlike yours, is relevant to the topic of Kloor’s post – the nature of journalism and contentious subjects.

        • dogctor

          If I understand you correctly, foodies who tend to be critics of agricultural GMOs are intellectual bigots, Bittman caters to; while KK caters to the open- minded crowd…. so open minded that they paint thousands of anonymous readers as not only being unthinking, but being prejudiced without cause.
          Do you believe that to be true of all critics of agricultural GMOs, or only New York Times readers and is there a citation you’d like to cite to back up your brilliant assertion?

  • Buddy199

    Do people who eat exclusively non-GMO food live inarguably longer and healthier lives than the rest of us? If not, shaddap.

    • dogctor

      Shaddap?
      Are you six years old, Buddy? Your choice of words and the inane question makes me think you are still living with mommy and daddy. Are you…..?

  • http://twitter.com/mem_somerville mem_somerville

    I thought it was hilarious–like reading an SNL sketch for Mr. Subliminal.

    I’m not qualified to say it causes leukemia. [But here's a link where it says it causes leukemia.]

    • Keith Kloor

      damn, wish I would have thought of that and put a clip in the post.

    • jh

      A most compelling analogy for most of what is written in the general press about environmental issues.

      GMOs: Scientists say there’s no evidence that they cause harm [but they're full of...]

      CLIMATE: Mean sea level rise estimates are 1-2m but they could [and probably will] be as high as….

      COAL TRAINS: At the moment there’s no evidence that shipping coal by rail causes health or ecological hazards near the tracks, but we need more studies [we'll find some evidence, don't worry]

      FRACKING: Exploration companies claim that “fracking” doesn’t harm groundwater [but we know they're evil profit driven earth rapers and they're full of...]

      OMG, on and on….

  • http://twitter.com/sleuth4health Sleuth 4 Health

    Kloor, I’m a fan. Keep up the good work.

  • harrywr2

    “Many of us are afraid…”

    We have no shortage of people who suffer some degree of anxiety based mental illness…for such people…they experience the ‘emotion of fear’ then engage in assigning a cause…..

    It’s extremely difficult for them to differentiate between when the emotion of fear is driven by logical reality or when logical reality is being driven by an emotion.

    Unfortunately…such people for some reason seem to find it important to advise others on how to live their lives.

    IMHO The NY Times food editor is a case of the ‘inmates being in charge of the asylum”…finding food that’s safe to eat is as easy as going to the market…if he struggles with that…he’s got some mental health issues.

    • http://twitter.com/mem_somerville mem_somerville

      Heh. Reminds me of another laugh–Dara O’Briain and fear:

      ….And then if you go, ‘But the numbers are going down’, they go, ‘But the fear of crime is rising.’

      Well, so what?…Zombies are at an all-time low level, but the fear of zombies could be incredibly high. It doesn’t mean we have to have government policies to deal with the fear of zombies….

      http://youtu.be/YMvMb90hem8

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Madeline-Cox/100002395018240 madness

    The leukemia study the author cited was withdrawn. Probably because it was poorly done or contained significant errors.
    Except that that research has been subsequently withdrawn.
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/23146696/

  • Tom

    The comment thread on Bittman’s column reads like something you’d expect to find on Glenn Beck’s blog, not NYT.

    • badnicolez

      Because only dummies read Glenn Beck and all the intellectuals read the NYT, right?

  • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hennick.5 Chris Hennick

    Ugh, and to think I actually cited an NYT science article in a term paper last semester.

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Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, a senior editor at Cosmos magazine, and adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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