New Yorker’s portrayal of an anti-GMO activist: A study in avoiding the false balance trap

In the latest New Yorker, Michael Specter gives a textbook lesson in how to write about someone who is misguided in some science-related arena without succumbing to the perils of false-balance. The story, Seeds of Doubt, is a good counter example to a major feature that ran recently in the Dallas Morning News. That story, Dallas researchers out to scientifically prove biblical version of creation, has already been criticized for false balance, naïve reporting and for allowing creationists to make unchallenged claims. My Tracker colleague Paul Raeburn discussed that piece here. Another criticism appeared here in io9.

The negative fallout from the creationist profile should not discourage anyone from profiling subjects who spout nonsense, illogic, or pseudoscience. There is a right way to profile people who are wrong. Specter’s enlightening piece illustrates how it can be done as he focuses on popular anti-GMO activist Vandana Shiva.

In the opening of the story, readers learn why they should care about her. She’s powerful, she’s charismatic…. “She has been called the Gandhi of grain and compared to Mother Teresa. If she personally accepted all the awards, degrees, and honors offered to her, she would have time for little else.” Young people think she’s magical.

Specter is fair to her. He’s never snarky or snide. He gives her plenty of opportunity to explain herself and to answer challenges. But ultimately, she can’t stand up against logic and evidence. See how he follows up this quote from Shiva:

“If you look at the graph of the growth of G.M.O.s, the growth of application of glyphosate and autism, it’s literally a one-to-one correspondence. And you could make that graph for kidney failure, you could make that graph for diabetes, you could make that graph even for Alzheimer’s.”

A lesser story might fall back on an attempt to “balance” such a quote with one from a scientist who disagrees, thus alerting readers to a controversy. But the above is not a controversial statement. It’s a false one and Specter shows why:

Hundreds of millions of people, in twenty-eight countries, eat transgenic products every day, and if any of Shiva’s assertions were true the implications would be catastrophic. But no relationship between glyphosate and the diseases that Shiva mentioned has been discovered. Her claims were based on a single research paper, released last year, in a journal called Entropy, which charges scientists to publish their findings. The paper contains no new research. Shiva had committed a common, but dangerous, fallacy: confusing a correlation with causation. (It turns out, for example, that the growth in sales of organic produce in the past decade matches the rise of autism, almost exactly. For that matter, so does the rise in sales of high-definition televisions, as well as the number of Americans who commute to work every day by bicycle.)

Specter points out blind spots among Shiva’s followers. She’s promoted as a leading physicist, though he finds she’s published no papers. She claims GMOs are “killing” farmers in India. He goes to India to talk to farmers and gets a very different picture.

What makes these two stories so different? Both profile people who make arguments based on misstatements or misunderstandings of science. Both give the subjects plenty of ink, and both include opposing views. The key difference is in the depth of the reporting. In the creationist piece, readers don’t learn much about the influence of creationists in determining the content of textbooks or otherwise steering science education. And the author repeats his creationist subject’s claims about galaxies, genetic mutations and dinosaur bones without any challenge.

Specter shows where his anti-GMO source is wrong and why it matters. Science writer John Horgan writes in his blog that Specter “dismantles” Shiva. Specter’s story also includes a rich history and background that appears to be built on extensive research. There’s history and background in the creationist piece too, but it’s shallower, with fewer specific references and many small inaccuracies, a few of which are flagged in Paul Raeburn’s post.

Scientists often get upset when we reporters talk to creationists, pseudoscientists, UFO nuts, climate change deniers or various conspiracy theorists. The scientists have a point, since more often than not the resulting story gives a free ride to the flakes and their falsehoods. But that doesn’t have to be the case. Characters promoting irrational beliefs are part of our reality and a story may not be complete without them. Shiva is a major figure in the drama swirling around transgenic organisms. She belongs in Specter’s story. If a writer does enough digging, approaches the subject critically and writes carefully, the truth will emerge. -Faye Flam


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    The real problem with GMOs is that the patents on life forms sucked from the Commons are controlled by corporations that place short term profits above the well being of life on earth. The control of GMOs by unfeeling monopoly capitalist entities like Monsanto–which could care less about feeding anything but its obese bank account–is what people instinctively rebel against. The activists are mostly (morally) correct, but not always for the best of scientific reasons, in my opinion.

    “her positions often seem more like those of an end-of-days mystic than like those of a scientist.”

    Yes — focusing on “dismantling” Shiva, rather than the real, immense issue, is a disservice to the highly impactful work she and other activists are doing.

    Have you talked to any cosmologists lately? Physics has a lot in common with mysticism these days. :-)

    You do know plant breed patents have existed since 1930, right? And that even all heirloom breeds were at one time patented, right? Patents expire, however, and most of them have expired by now, though some have not. Similarly, the patents on GM breeds will expire as well. The point of patents is for the developers and producers of the breeds to recoup the millions of dollars spent in the breed’s development. On average, the development and commercialization of a GM breed costs over $100 million.

    If you really wanted to reduce the concentration of GM crop breeds in the hands of a few large companies, then the best method would be to support startups and universities and NGOs that are developing biotech crops as well.

    The actions of anti-GMO activists, however, have only resulted in making the market just toxic enough so that startups can’t form and universities and NGOs can’t get their developed breeds to market, meaning the only players are said large companies.

    If anything, anti-GMO activists have helped with the concentration and control of biotech crops in a few large companies than any effect they’ve had on said market at all.

    Echoing Michael Balter here. As a frequent writer on science and medical issues, the Tracker has been a valued source of ideas and an even more valued teacher, through example, of how science writing is done well and not so well. I wasluckyenough to attend the MIT Food Boot Camp, which was excellent, but in terms of which Knight program informs and trains journalists the most and best each year, the Tracker is the one. I wish the KSJ program would rethink its priorities.

    I’m not sure why the concept of spurious correlations is hard to understand but seeing some of the most egregious examples can help jumpstart the conversation and explanation. Tyler Vigen’s site has some of the very best. :-) at . Meanwhile, you might still avoid any cheese labeled “Bleu Cheese of Death.”

    At least with autism there is a correlation unlike the farmer suicide-bt cotton myth.

    Especially since the highest concentration of the suicides were in regions that didn’t even grow BT cotton anyways.

    Can you forward that article? I’d like to read that. Does it have location maps too showing where the Bt Cotton was and wasn’t grown and where the suicides occurred? Thanks.

    Here’s the article. It has a map of India showing which regions grow BT and what the suicide rates are where and a lot of other good data and info as well.

    Thanks. Just read the article and looked at the raw data. I think the author pretty much says it accurately in the beginning when he mentions that there really isn’t sufficient data to conclusively determine an answer to the proposed question from the perspective of data because such data isn’t really there. What I mean is that looking at the raw data files, the data for non-farmer suicides comes only from the year 2001. That’s all. Farmer suicide data comes only from the years 2001-2003, and 2010. Then behind all of that, I didn’t see any data (as I believe the author mentioned) that actually showed where and when and how much Bt cotton is grown in any given region. The graph in that article (with all the orange and percentages) just shows the overall percentage of cotton grown in each state as a percentage of the overall cotton grown throughout those 9 states.

    So in the end, I’d say that the article was at least written without bias, it seemed to me, and pretty much left the question unanswered, which was really all that could be concluded from the overwhelmingly limited data there is.

    One statement at the beginning of the article that was a little troubling was, “It is, sadly, true that thousands of Indian farmers commit suicide each year – but then there are many millions of farmers.” :-/ I’m sure he didn’t mean it to come out sounding that way, but it kind of did. Oops.

    Wait. You’re saying that those people aren’t really dead?

    In which we see once again the value of the Tracker, how much it will be missed–and again express frustration that the justification for its demise continues to be so murky…

    Thank you for your supportive comments. I’m happy to discuss this situation with any concerned parties, but you’ll have to contact me.

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