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 It is not for publication in any way or on your website, but I thought you were asking for a serious reply.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.