Anti-GMO activist accuses The New Yorker of ‘grave fallacies that affect people’s lives.’

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A profile of the anti-GMO activist Vandana Shiva in The New Yorker in August by Michael Specter has drawn a blistering, 5,000-word rebuttal from Shiva, who accuses Specter of “character assassination,” a “tool used by those who cannot successfully defend their message.”

The New Yorker’s editor, David Remnick, shot back in turn with a rebuttal in which he concedes a few minor errors but otherwise completely dismisses Shiva’s criticism. It begins:

This is in reply to the letter you sent and subsequently posted on the Internet earlier this week. It is not for publication in any way or on your website, but I thought you were asking for a serious reply. So here it is: I should say that since you have said that the entire scientific establishment has been bought and paid for by Monsanto, I fear it will be difficult to converse meaningfully about your accusation that the story contained “fraudulent assertions and deliberate attempts to skew reality.” But maybe I am wrong; I’ll try.

Remnick then went on to give a point-by-point reply to Shiva’s objections.

Shiva charges that Specter’s profile “contains many lies and inaccuracies that range from the mundane (we never met in a café but in the lobby of my hotel where I had just arrived from India to attend a High Level Round Table for the post 2015 SDGs of the UN) to grave fallacies that affect people’s lives.” Perhaps, she continues, “the article was intended as a means to strengthen the biotechnology industry’s push to ‘engage consumers.’”

Faye Flam thought quite the opposite. In a late-August post on Specter’s piece, she wrote that it is “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.” She noted that when Shiva claimed an association between autism, GMOs, and the herbicide glyphosate, Specter did not simply ask a scientist for balancing comment. He reported that the association was meaningless:

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.

Specter reports, as he should, that Shiva is hugely influential, “a hero for anti-GMO activists everywhere.” He writes that she believes Monsanto has conspired with the World Bank, the U.S. government and others to impose “food totalitarianism” on the world. He tells us that she transfixed listeners at a meeting in Florence. But everywhere that he reports her views, he follows with conflicting statistics. He also acknowledges, at one point, that “those statistics have not deterred Shiva.”

Remnick’s concessions were trivial. “I regret that we suggested you were in Greece when you were not,” and “nobody disputes that you received a master’s degree in physics and I’m sorry we didn’t note that in the piece. Nonetheless, Mr. Specter ‘twisted’ neither your words nor your intentions when writing about your work history.”

It was gratifying to read this defense of a reporter by his editor. The days of arrogant editors or writers saying only that they “stand by the story” are long gone, and they should be. I don’t know how many people will read Remnick’s rebuttal, but it’s good to have it on the record. The non-profit Genetic Literacy Project, which published the rebuttal, noted that Remnick described it as a private communication, but it says that The New Yorker “decided to release it after Dr. Shiva published her criticism.”

The New Yorker is far from alone in criticizing Shiva’s claims and distortions. Mischa Popoff, a political columnist at The Heartland Institute, noted in a recent column that Shiva has embraced the baseless claim that “GMOs are causing a mass genocide” in India, a claim that Specter also addresses in his piece.

And Keith Kloor, author of the Collide-a-Scape blog at Discover, has repeatedly challenged the claims of the anti-GMO activists, including in this post published in August.

Specter’s piece is a fair and accurate report on an activist whom we should be watching. However improbable her claims might seem, many thousands of people believe her. Somebody needs to tell them that much of what she says is wrong. That’s what Specter did. And that’s what Remnick endorsed.

-Paul Raeburn

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24 comments / Join the Discussion

    I think, at this point, with the anti-gmo resistance against lifesavers, such as goldenrice, the anti-gmo’ers are killing more people than the anti – vaccine movement.

    The antiGMO nuts are almost as irritating as those who continue to claim, faced with overwhelming facts to the contrary, that autism is linked to vaccines.

    I read that piece. The facts indicate that Shiva gravitates toward the hyperbolic, to put it mildly. Yet, I did find Spector a little too willing to toe the industry line.

    What points in the “industry line” did Specter toe? Did he toe emotional or judgmental points that are unsupported by evidence? I didn’t see that.

    In general, he seems to equate lack of evidence with the assumption that the topic has been well-studied. Which it hasn’t.

    I’m not anti-GMO. But this is not a slam-dunk. It’s a complex issue. And, I think we should have learned our lessons about condoning blanket experiments without first investigating the risks.

    A small example I’m studying now: The likely premature mass-supplementation of folate into cereals and breads, in order to counter neural-tube defects such as spina bifida. When we didn’t know—and didn’t even ask about, apparently: the risks of excess folate on people with normal levels. Much less the MTHFR mutations, which would mean some people wouldn’t be able to absorb the folate anyway—perhaps the ones who are being targeted with the mass supplementation.

    There is hardly a lack of evidence. The safety of GMOs has been studied for close to 40 years now in a huge number of well done experiments. It is from those studies that there emerges a lack of evidence of harm to the health of humans or other animals.

    Boyce, with all due respect, that is a rather naive view.

    Unless I was unclear in what I mean by “lack of evidence.” I mean lack of evidence of problems with GMO. Not lack of evidence that there are benefits.

    Journalists are supposed to be watchdogs. That means they should be reporting legitimate scientific concerns (and there are some), along with the known benefits. To accept the industry view without question is troubling.

    What emerges from scientific inquiry is what investigators set out to study. That can present very circumscribed findings.

    I think I’ve heard that watchdog thing. Would you please give us the reference to one of the research publications that shows there is a health problem? I’d like to read the primary publication.

    Yes, of course you’ve heard “that watchdog thing.” But where is it now?

    Boyce, you seem to be fixated on the idea that if there were possible harm, there would surely be a published paper on it. I’m sorry, but THAT is naive.

    And, I have never made that claim (that any published research has shown a health problem), so please, let’s keep our facts straight.

    In case you missed it, here is what i wrote, right above your response:

    “What emerges from scientific inquiry is what investigators set out to study. That can present very circumscribed findings.”

    What facts did I not get straight? I simply asked you a question.

    Many studies of health effects are carried out over many years, and no evidence of harm emerges. And your conclusion is what? That they didn’t look hard enough?

    No, you did not “simply ask a question.” You didn’t even provide me the courtesy of reading what I’d written.

    And yes, my conclusion is as I said before: scientists find what they look for.

    For example, my understanding is that industry has been very circumspect on releasing specific information related to the proteins and polypeptides released due to these gene insertions. This could have long-range effects, especially regarding immunogenecity.

    These trans species proteins/polypeptides produced within the food are atypical to the food typically made from that species.

    Again, maybe even with good, high-powered studies looking into potential adverse health effects, it might be decided that the overall gain from certain GMOs is worth it. But it still is important to know what we are reckoning with.

    “Journalists are supposed to be watchdogs.” True, but you cannot assume a priori which side should be watched. In this case the dog was barking at a global celebrity.

    Yes, as I’ve said, we need to hold these “celebrities” up to scrutiny. But to do that by giving the Monsanto CEO an unscrutinized bully pulpit?

    And, seriously, you cannot assume a priori which side should be watched? I think you can assume “both” sides, assuming there only two. But that’s an even bigger mistake: these issues are complex, not black-white.

    I just scanned the article again. I see no questioning of Monsanto’s Grant’s statements. Actually, it’s “puffier” than I remembered. And there were no other legitimate dissenting experts quoted? (“Ranger Mike” at “Natural News” hardly counts.)

    The scientist behind one of the first GMO crops (FlavrSaver), Belinda Martineau, dissented in this segment of KQED’s radio show, Forum.
    http://www.kqed.org/a/forum/R201209271000

    From Dr. Marineau’s blog:

    Feynman said that scientists should not “only tell what’s true
    but…make clear all the information that is required for somebody else
    who is intelligent to make up their mind” about how to use a technology.
    He also said that technology “carries with it no instructions on how
    to use it, whether to use it for good or for evil” and that how to
    control technology “is something not so scientific and is not something
    that the scientist knows so much about.”

    Belinda thinks that scientists could be doing a better job of making
    “clear the entire situation” about the science supporting agricultural
    biotechnology and she hopes to help rectify that situation with this
    blog. She also plans to take off her scientist’s hat and participate in
    discussions about how best to use and control the powerful technology of genetic engineering.

    http://biotechsalon.com/about/

    I’m really glad to have seen at least an attempt to hold activists to accountability. It’s very hard to do, and many writers in this arena seem to give them a lot more credibility and ink than they would on another topic with similarly wild claims (say, vaccines).

    Specter’s article was not a discussion of the science of GMOs, glyphosate or Monsanto itself. Those topics have been well treated in other reliable publications. It was about Vandana Shiva, a widely watched activist who has been spreading misinformation and unfounded alarm. It is hardly “malicious” or “knee-jerk,” as earlier commenters assert, to do so.

    It is a classic journalistic tradition to debunk unfounded and irresponsible public figures. And I am pleased that two of the Trackers, Faye Flam and now Paul Raeburn, have chosen to offer kudos to Specter and The New Yorker.

    Yes, I agree. Such grandstanding needs to be checked with facts. I think it could have been done without arguing for the allegedly indisputable benefits of GMO across the board.

    GIve the world a break, Paul. You quote a political columnist for the climate change denying, Monsanto-lobbying The Heartland Institute as an authority on GMOs? The MSM’s knee-jerk defense of Monsanto’s use of science to harm world agriculture is repulsive. There were many ways that the New Yorker article could have been written. It did not need to be a hit piece. Clearly, however, it was not even fact-checked!

    Of course it was fact-checked. And it was in no way a hit piece — unless you’re a person who just can’t stand to have his pre-conceived point of view challenged. Thank goodness Michael Specter exposed Vandana Shiva. The rest of the MSM has been afraid to take her on and the “progressive” media is totally in bed with the anti-GMO folks, so they are not challenging anything.

    “However improbable her claims might seem, many thousands of people believe her. Somebody needs to tell them that much of what she says is wrong.”

    I wonder what the value in the original piece, and subsequent reply, are. An article saying someone is promoting wrong information seems purely malicious when it does not also address the issue at hand? GMOs may not be causing genocides, but Monsanto and their tremendous global destructive impact is nothing to sneeze at. The articles do come across as supporting this kind of corporate control simply because they do not address it, or acknowledge the heart of the work that Shiva does and its legitimacy.

    cites please

    Snippet, and this is just Monsanto v. organic farmers: http://blog.whyhunger.org/2012/02/organic-farmers-take-monsanto-to-court/

    And here is some about their presence in Haiti: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/beverly-bell/haitian-farmers-commit-to_b_578807.html

    Big ag is no joke. Farmers are really struggling — It’s a sad irony that those who grow our food are some of the most likely to be low-wage workers.

    Organic Farmers v. Monsanto. You should check the court records and not a blog. They were unable to prove Monsanto was suing farmers without just cause. The irony of the Haiti situation was that they burned non-GMO seed. It was conventionally produced hybrid seeds that they were giving away to the Haitian people. You need better cites.

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