Four lessons in brilliant PR from the new Pope

July 29, 2013

If ever you wanted to learn how to be a master at public relations, there’s no better individual to learn from than Pope Francis. This guy is such a good salesman, he could sell mink coats to PETA. 

So far, he’s managed to distract the press from the child sex abuse crisis that dogged Joseph Ratzinger throughout his entire administration. But that’s not all.

He’s also taught us all four simple, yet brilliant, tricks to capture the imaginations of an insanely naive and credulous media to avoid addressing embarrassing realities of the Catholic Church:

1. Get a photo-op where you’re seen washing women’s feet as a symbolic gesture that the press will fawn all over you as a feminist despite your having done nothing to change your church’s insanely misogynistic policies that don’t even allow women to become priests, let alone be considered for the position of pope. 

2. Make big speeches about fighting poverty so the press will fawn all over you for caring about the poor despite the fact that, while being possibly the one person on the planet with the power to single-handedly end global poverty tomorrow, you give less to charity than Mitt Romney.

3. Say atheists can get into heaven despite their evil, despicable nature so the press will fawn all over you for being so open-minded without noticing you’re actually insulting atheists and ignoring the fact that they don’t believe in heaven to begin with.

4. And finally, Pope Francis’ latest PR move:  saying it’s not your place to judge gay people despite their evil, despicable nature so the press will fawn all over you for being so open-minded without noticing you’re a bigoted asshole who’s actually insulting gay people and despite your having done nothing to change your church’s insanely homophobic policies and political views.

How effective was this last tactic? He’s got the press declaring him a friend to gay people just three weeks after condemning gay marriage. Now that takes serious balls. 


On the shaming of Miss USA pageant queens, and ‘The Hunger Games’

June 17, 2013

Have you heard? At the Miss USA  Pageant, both Miss Utah, Marissa Powell, and Miss Alabama, Mary Margaret McCord, gave ignorant or incoherent answers to questions related to current events? Everyone’s talking about it (See: here, herehere, here, here, here, here, etc, etc). And two of those linked pieces come from Joe Coscarelli of New York Magazine, who decided to write short pieces ridiculing each.

Some of these articles, if not the actual video clips (which I’ve decided to not help circulate here directly, though they are embedded on some of the above links), have been circulating like crazy on my Facebook wall. Ha ha! Isn’t it funny how dumb these stupid know-nothings are? I must share their ignorance across the internet at once!

I, however, have a different reaction to this. I feel like picking on a pageant queen is not only a waste of energy but also just playing into the Hunger-Games-like system the establishment has created. It’s not Miss Utah or Miss Alabama”s fault women are systematically underpaid or that the NSA is spying on American citizens without a warrant; it’s the fault of government and corporations. Miss Utah and Miss Alabama are just the latest child sacrifices from Districts whatever seemingly used by those in power to distract us from real enemies like the big banks or our completely ineffectual Congress.

And no, I don’t mean there’s necessarily a deliberate literal conspiracy happening here. But every time the news wastes our time on mind-numbing celebrity sensationalism, that’s less time they’re talking about prosecuting the Wall Street bankers who profited off of destroying the American economy or the blatant unconstitionality of the NSA surveillance practices, or the unequal pay for women in this country. And isn’t it funny how a woman has managed to become the target of scorn in the name of a feminist issue like equal pay for women? Funny how that works out, huh.

Now to be fair, even I’ve fallen into this trap before. Several years ago, I’m pretty sure I wrote an article on this very blog skewering then Miss California, Carrie Prejean (why do I still remember her name? Argh!). And I might have also mocked 2007′s Miss Teen USA Miss South Carolina over her now infamously incoherent answer. So I’m not going to pretend I’m innocent here in this public shaming by–let’s face it–mostly over-educated liberals, of beauty pageant contestants who are asked these sorts of serious political questions for no other reason than to make a shallow, despicable contest over nothing other than which barely legal girl a bunch of random swarmy yahoos happens to think is prettier seem less despicable.

But I guess I realized what my real problem is with this after a Facebook friend suggested, “I think you’re reading too much into having a few cheap laughs at the expense of someone who deserves it.” Watching mostly over-educated liberals shame these girls is one thing. but I don’t think the news media should be using their power and influence to have cheap laughs at a 23-year old girl who merely aspires to win a beauty contest.

The reason this is such a cheap and lazy story for news outlets is it feeds off the audience’s own smug sense of self-satisfaction. Everyone gets to congratulate themselves for knowing more about at least one thing than she does. What an accomplishment! Good comedy makes targets of the powerful. I guess where I disagree with my friend is I just fail to see in what way these girls deserve it.


Media fingers wrong ‘Man of Steel’ character in Jesus analogy

June 15, 2013

Unless you’ve been living on Krypton lately, you’re probably aware that the latest Superman film, “Man of Steel,” has hit theaters. And over the last few days, it seems like every entertainment reporter has jumped on the “Superman is an allegory for Jesus” band wagon while seemingly convinced they’ve uncovered some brand new interpretation to the world’s first superhero (Also see: here and here among others).

Their argument goes something like this. Superman sacrifices himself for humanity at the age of 33. Jesus sacrifices himself for humanity at the age of 33. Superman has god-like powers. Jesus has god-like powers. And there certainly are several other not so subtle visual cues sprinkled throughout the film. So I guess it’s case closed, right? If only these reporters had more hands on which to pat themselves on the back in a way that could properly express the level of their self-satisfaction!

Unfortunately, like a poor marksman, they missed their target. They fingered the wrong Jesus! (Writer’s note: that last sentence was not intended to sound as dirty as it did.). Let’s take a closer look at both these fictional characters and see if they really do have as much in common as I keep hearing.

1. Mission – Superman’s mission in “Man of Steel” (here on out referred to as MOS) is to protect the Earth and the human race from total destruction. According to the Bible, Jesus’ mission is to end the world.

According to Genesis 6, god already tried to exterminate humanity once before with a flood. The Bible clearly explains that The Second Coming of Christ will bring about a final solution commonly referred to as the “End of Days” or “Final Judgment,” where both the still living…and obviously the resurrected dead, will face God’s judgment. Even self-proclaimed Christians will be judged (Matthew 7:21-232 Corinthians 5:10). Those righteous will be granted eternal life while the wicked will…also be granted eternal life, only they’ll be tortured during all that eternity (Matthew 5:29-3025:31-46Mark 9:43-48). So really, since everyone’s getting an eternal life regardless of their behavior, the righteous get nothing…except freedom from senseless torture. Cause god so loved the world…yada, yada, yada. According to the apostle Paul:

We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. (NIV, 2 Corinthians 5:6-10)

So part of Jesus’ mission is to make everyone submit to him…you know, kneel before God. But mostly it’s to end the world. Not exactly the same thing Superman’s after.

2. Response to adversity – Though Superman is willing to kill if absolutely necessary to protect humanity, he really kinda doesn’t wanna. In fact, it’s a pretty big deal with him. Not only does Superman avoid killing whenever possible, there are numerous examples in MOS where Superman restrains himself from so much as throwing a single punch even when individuals flagrantly harass him and those around him. Even when harassers taunt him to fight back while pushing him seemingly almost to his breaking point. Superman doesn’t even throw a punch. And it of course would be so easy for him to do so. He wouldn’t even have to ball his fist. A simple flick of his finger could sever a man’s head from his body. And yet, even at his angriest, Superman chooses not to fight back.

Jesus, not so much. According to the Bible, eating shrimp warrants the death penalty (Leviticus 11:10). Lot’s wife is transformed into salt for committing the crime of turning her head (Genesis 19:6). God floods the Earth simply because humans and angels started sleeping together (Genesis 6:1-6). God says disobedient children should be stoned to death (Deut. 21:18-21). God thinks all ten of The Ten Commandments are punishable by death. Hell, god sends down bears to murder 42 kids whose only crime was making fun of a bald man (2 Kings 2:23-24). One would have a hard time thinking up an offense god wouldn’t think warranted death. And then of course the fun doesn’t end with death. God also thinks that all sinners should then be tortured for eternity. Eat shrimp; eternal torture. Own any possessions at all; eternal torture. Hardly very Superman-like, if you ask me.

3. Sacrifice – In MOS, Superman willingly surrenders to his adversary, Zod, knowing full well it could likely lead to his own death. Superman so loved the world that he was willing to sacrifice his one and only life to protect them. If Superman believed in any kind of afterlife, there’s no indication in the film.  This is it for him. Superman literally puts everything on the line. So that we can live and the Earth will be safe. Jesus on the other hand, does not dramatically come out of hiding to turn himself in to his adversaries. He is arrested, tried, convicted, and executed against his will (well, except for his whole being part of the very god that made it all happen in the first place). Then Jesus sacrifices his mortality in order to return to being master of the universe. Talk about your first world problems. Am I right? Hold your horses, Mel Gibson. I know. I know. it was a really painful weekend. Tell that to all the Filipinos who actually willingly go out of their way to be crucified every Easter without the reward of becoming the most powerful god in all the Biblical pantheon at the end. Some sacrifice! Hey Jesus, next time let me take your place. I’ll happily trade my mortality to become a living god for the price of one shitty weekend.

4. Writers’ lack of subtlety – Not much rhymes with Superman. Buperman. Duperman. Blooperman. But you know what rhymes with God? I’ll give you a hint. Like Jesus, he too wants to end the world. Like Jesus, he too believes in killing his adversaries. Like Jesus, he too was tried, convicted, and sentenced to what was expected to be a certain death for the actions he took trying to save his people.

zod


Libertarians don’t understand the ‘game of thrones’

May 26, 2013

One of my Facebook friends posted the following image on their wall:

libertarian

This prompted a commenter to call libertarianism “pure selfishness,” and well, you’ve been on the internet. You know where these things go. Both parties found common ground and readers were witness to a pleasant rational and academic discourse on topic of governance.

Just kidding.

That didn’t happen. No. Instead, the original poster replied: “how is it selfish to want people to be free?” This led to the objector calling libertarianism “selfishness distilled,” which in turn led to the libertarian declaring ” its about choice over force,” which I can only conclude must be true because it rhymes. And as we all know, all slogans that rhyme… are true all of the time.

Well since it seems like forever that I’ve ranted about some of the many ways I think Libertarianism is bullshit, and since it’s been forever since I’ve even written anything here (and my sincere apologies to my readers for that), without further ado, here’s yet another attempt by me to distill some of my thoughts on this nauseating topic…

All these utopian pipe dreams are just a shell game. You can say getting government out of our lives is freedom but historically, it’s never worked out that way for the vast majority of the populous Ultimately, you can’t have a functioning society without establishing certain ground rules, aka compromises on one’s freedom. Otherwise, what you have fails to even be a society in any meaningful sense. That means someone or ones are going to have to step up to take some form of leadership role to make up those rules. And then those rules are meaningless unless someone enforces them. These are the basic building blocks of any social contract.

Government at its absolute idealized best serves to ensure fairness between parties under its governance. Government at its absolute worst is fascism. Now what you get when you have government at its most inept is functionally identical to a hard Libertarian state, where the vast majority–and certainly anyone with the great misfortune to be born into a marginalized outgroup–are at the complete mercy of whoever wields the most might, be it through wealth, arms, influence, whatever. And so, while this utopian vision with its grand pronouncements of “freedom” sounds lovely, in actual practice, they’re no less naive as the utopian promises of hard Communists who also built an ideology around getting powerful forces off their backs. I always find it funny that the very tyrants Communists found too oppressive are seen as liberators by Libertarians, and vice versa.

Ultimately, neither utopian fantasy solves the fundamental problem of power dynamics. In arguably every social interaction, one party has more power than another party. On a macro-scale we just call that government. And whether that government is made up of elected officials, military conquerors, robber barons, or just charismatic people with social influence, it all, by any other name, still functions in the role of government.

Interaction with others simply necessitates rules and compromises…compromises on one’s freedom. But hey, you can always break away from society and go it alone. Then you’ll really be free, right? Nope. Nothing interferes with one’s wants more than the constant demands on one’s time that is securing, maintaining, and protecting their necessities and resources.

Sorry, but there simply is no end to the game of thrones. I for one would prefer a society that functioned more like John Rawls’ “veil of ignorance” where the rules are designed in such a way that one would deem them fair prior to any knowledge of what one’s own social position in said society would be. Of course that’s just a thought experiment, but it still sounds like a far more rational way of at least approaching these issues of governance than the extreme polar ideologies of Communism and Libertarianism, who think the solution is trading one form of oppressor with another.


Why I disagree with my liberal peers on Bloomberg’s proposed ‘soda ban’

March 11, 2013

Today, a judge struck down NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed limits on surgary drinks. And as a liberal progressive with mostly liberal progressive friends, most of my peers seems overjoyed by this news. But I’m not.

I’ll admit, when news of the bill first emerged, my initial knee-jerk reaction seemed to be the same as everyone else, that the proposed law was ridiculous. But then my opinion gradually shifted to the point that I’m now more in favor of it than not. Paradoxically, it probably didn’t help that Big Soda’s political ads running at movie theaters couldn’t have been more ridiculous and misleading if they were hosted by Troy McClure. And since the smallest beverage size offered at most movie theaters these days is 32 ounces, it’s hard to see any conflict of interest among theater owners’ opposition to the bill. Unfortunately, I don’t think it took corporate geniuses to spin this as a attack on consumer freedoms after the press was quick to inaccurately label the proposal a “soda ban.” The very first conclusion we all jumped to was the wild notion that Big Government was taking away our soda. And that’s certainly the angle of today’s nauseating headline in the joke that is the NY Daily News:  “Bloomberg’s soda ban fizzles, New Yorkers win.”

But that’s not what’s going on here at all. On the contrary, it’s not the consumers who are the targets of this bill but the corporations. They’re the ones being infringed upon. Now normally, it’s the liberals in modern society who crusade against corporate power, sometimes even to the point where that clouds their judgment. For instance, two popular pseudo-scientific positions, anti-vaccinationism and anti-GMOs, are held disproportionately by liberals railing against the corporations at the center of these issues. But here we have a case where corporations like McDonalds (sorry they’re always the stand-in representative for all fast food), have successfully diverted attention away from their role in America’s public health problems and managed to make the Left-Wing sound like the gun-obsessed Right that’s also been heavily in the news lately. Just like the gun-totting Republican stereotype proclaiming that they won’t let Big Government take away their guns when nobody is really coming for their guns, now I see my liberal peers proclaiming nobody’s taking away their freedom to drink sugary drinks when nobody is coming for their sugary drinks. That’s not what the bill is trying to do at all.

Now let me be clear here. The appropriateness of any given public health initiative is always debatable no matter how scientifically sound its premise. And sensible people can reasonably disagree on such public policy decisions without being driven by ideology or corporate money. Now I used to flirt with libertarianism myself in college but it didn’t take. I’ve since become a strong opponent to libertarian ideology while still maintaining that there are some cases where the more libertarian approach may be called for. But when it comes to public health policies firmly rooted in real science, I tend more socialist. For instance, I support strong vaccine policies and water fluoridation programs. So if a reasonable amount of scientific evidence backed the notion that reducing sugary drinks has a statistically significant positive health effect, I’d have no problem at least entertaining the idea of government playing a role in reducing that health threat, provided I felt the measures didn’t go too far.

Today, there was a great piece over at Think Progress that touches on the relevant science and facts surrounding this issue:

Restaurants’ portion sizes are more than four times larger now than they were in the 1950s — and that culture of excess is making its wayinto Americans’ homes, too, where meals are also getting bigger. Soft drinks sizes specifically have seen one of the largest increases, ballooning by over 50 percent since the mid-1970s. And research suggests that larger portion sizes do lead people to consume more than they would have otherwise, since we tend to estimate calories with our eyes rather than our stomachs.

The average American child consumes about 270 calories from soft drinks each day, which adds up to U.S. children drinking about 7 trillion calories from soda each year. That’s a huge problem in the larger context of childhood obesity rates, which have tripled since 1980. But there’s evidence that innovative public health measures can pay off. After all, states with aggressive nutrition policies, which include limits on sugary drinks and fried foods in public schools cafeterias, have experienced decreases in their childhood obesity rates.

The impact of sugary drinks on the ongoing obesity epidemic, and how best to encourage Americans to make healthier choices, is one that health advocates continue to grapple with, and there’s general consensus that proposals like Bloomberg’s are worth a shot.

Now I remember years ago when NYC implemented a policy to reduce smoking by banning people from smoking indoors in public spaces. Back then, even though I’d never smoking a cigarette in my life and had no love for the tobacco industry, I passionately opposed that policy decision. In the years since, however, the statistically significant drop in lung cancer deaths in New York City made that position more and more untenable. The reward proved to far outweigh the infringement on civil liberty, in my opinion. If I’m honest, perhaps my feeling I’d been wrong about that decision has influenced my position on the sugary drink restriction bill by making me reconsider my initial negative gut reaction to the idea.

Regardless of one’s opinion on the ethics of the matter, Bloomberg’s proposal seems at least born out of a drive to improve public health. And for any public official to put the people first is admirable…and rare these days. The message the mayor wants to send people is that too much soda is not good for you. He does this by slightly inconveniencing consumers who wish to drink more. I suspect that if this bill does come to pass, it’ll have an overall statistical effect on people’s waistline. But we’d have to see when we get the hard data. I concede that it’s entirely possible it will fail miserably. But I think it’s a worthwhile experiment.

It’s also worth noting that this is hardly breaking the mold; we regulate lots of substances and the legal system attempts to determine in each case what a fair penalty is. The only difference here is that sugary drinks are generally viewed by our society as benign despite the science showing the contrary, and so people quickly jump to a knee-jerk argument from personal incredulity. Again, the proposed law does not target the consumer, but the corporations.

Now paradoxically, the very reason the judge today ruled against the law is largely the reason I like this particular proposal in the first place. His complaint was that it left open too many loopholes, and thus was unenforceable. After all, hasn’t everyone already patted themselves on the back for being genius enough to conspire to buy two cups? But that’s the whole point! Yes, you can buy two 16-ounce drinks to buck the system, you sly devil you. Hell, you could buy 20 cups of soda if that’s your personal idea of freedom, or whatever. The press has done a horrible disservice to the public by labeling this a “ban.” It’s nothing of the kind. You can buy all the diabetes juice you please. That’s the beauty of the bill and exactly why comparisons to alcohol prohibition completely fail.

Any individual CAN get around the bill easily if they were so inclined. The beauty of the bill is that it’s built on decades of psychology research that predict that given the choice, the vast majority people simply WON’T ultimately choose to buy more than one cup and WON’T bother to make another stop somewhere else, because most people will likely choose the path of least resistance. And it gets even better than that. Not only will people on average likely choose to not make an extra effort and just accept whatever size is offered, but its using the corporation’s own stigmatization strategy against them. Decades ago, McDonalds realized that many customers would finish their small fries, and despite still looking hungry, would not go up to buy another order of fries. They eventually discovered that people didn’t go up to order more fries because it was embarrassing to be seen ordering even more food. That’s why they introduced larger sizes; it’s more discreet. The Bloomberg plan does the same thing in reverse. Sure, everyone says they’ll just order multiple cups –and most importantly of course, the law doesn’t stop anyone from doing so– but who really wants to be the guy sitting at McDonalds seen with two cups in front of them? I suspect the ordering multiple drinks strategy will be more common among those taking their food to go. But then again, if you’re taking it out, why even bother buying insanely overpriced soda at the fast food restaurant?

So what’s my final takeaway here? Big Government isn’t taking your soda any more than its taking your guns. Bloomberg’s proposal infringes on corporations, not consumers, who would be just as free to consume sugary drinks as they’ve always been in whatever quantity they please. If psychology research proves accurate, merely adding a slight inconvenience to consumers who choose to drink above 16 ounces will drive many to just accept the smaller sizes given, and in turn, consume fewer calories from soft drinks and less sugar, which would have a statistically significant effect on public health in the long run. And regardless of whether the science is sound, most people will probably reject this policy and similar policies in the future for ill-conceived, illogical, and ideological grounds before finding an actual good argument to oppose it (and I certainly think there are some good reasons). Oh yeah, and patrons can always order larger sizes of diet beverages.


Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’ as Rorschach Test.

February 19, 2013

Several months ago, I wrote about the strange phenomenon of obsessive viewers of the film “The Shining” discovering alleged hidden messages in the film. In that article, I briefly mentioned a documentary that came out last year titled “Room 237″ that chronicled several of the stranger theories out there about the “true” meaning behind Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece. Well I’ve finally caught up with that documentary and found it to be a fascinating film.

I doubt the filmmaker believes any of the interpretations presented in the “Room 237″ but I greatly enjoyed listening to the cast of kooks who maintain them. Most of the interpretations presented in this film, with only a few exceptions, are totally bonkers. But that’s what’s great about this film. It uses “The Shining” to demonstrate the psychological phenomenon of pareidolia, which is when a vague and random stimulus (often an image or sound) is perceived as significant. We see the same grasping of tenuous connections among tinfoil-hat conspiracy theorists. This is an exploration of Kubrick’s “The Shining” as Rorschach Test.

The “theorists” presented here commit a host of logical fallacies and assumptions that range from the slightly plausible to the utterly impossible. And while the latter often made me want to shout at the screen, they also proved the most fun such as the interpretation that the film was Kubrick’s confession for working with NASA to fake the moon landing. There are so many levels to why this is ridiculous, not least of which because the Apollo 11 undeniably did land on the moon and all the claims moon landing deniers have presented to prove otherwise have been thoroughly debunked. But putting that obvious fact aside, the “researcher” putting forth this notion in the film just plain makes things up like when he wildly speculates that the reason Kubrick changed the room number from 217 in the novel to 237 was because 237 MUST HAVE BEEN the number of the studio where they filmed the fake moon landing? Um, citation needed?

At another point in the film, a researcher makes a huge deal out of a simple continuity error in which Jack’s typewriter is gray in some scenes but eggshell color in others. The “researcher” claims this must be deliberate on Kubrick’s part because Kubrick controls absolutely every aspect of every frame of his films when the far simpler explanation is Kubrick and his crew were not superhuman and they shot those scenes at different times, using whatever typewriter happened to be available…like any other filmmaker would. This example further illustrates how naive the interpreters are to the filmmaking process. As a filmmaker myself, I have at least some experience. But one doesn’t have to be a filmmaker to realize that constantly adding to a film’s budget with absurd things like demanding a production assistant run out to buy TWO typewriters of different colors when only one was required is the kind of stuff that wouldn’t go unnoticed.

Then there’s the claim that Kubrick designed the film to be viewed  backwards and forwards simultaneously, one direction superimposed over the other, which is just flat-out impossible. In fact, I dare anyone to try, especially when limited by the  linear editing machines of the time. And with all the minute details these self-proclaimed “researchers” noticed, one minor detail they “overlooked” (no pun intended) was that Ray Lovejoy edited the film, NOT Kubrick. So Lovejoy would have to be in on all these editing tricks Kubrick supposedly wanted in the film too, right?

As debunkers of the infamous The Bible Code have demonstrated, one can find seemingly profound connections in just about any text of a certain length. In films, I suppose the equivalent would be the weirder a film gets in its choices, the more people can find an unintended wacky interpretation. I’d love to see someone apply the same rigor to investigating Tommy Wiseau’s “The Room.” I’m sure someone could then come away from that film believing Wiseau caused 9/11 or killed Paul McCartney, or whatever. Of course, the reason that might not happen is because what people really latched onto here is the larger than life mythology surrounding Stanley Kubrick himself. Because Kubrick was known to be a bit obsessive and a perfectionist, the underlying and totally baseless assumptions these interpreters make is Kubrick (1) was an unparalleled genius, (2) had superhuman abilities to control every aspect of both the production and every frame of the final product, and (3) had the fanatical desire to bury important hidden messages in his films so deep that there’d be no reason to believe anyone would ever find them. So when you begin with the assumption that Kubrick is totally infallible, then every continuity error becomes a clue to unlocking his true, hidden message. That’s where these theorists go wrong; they fail to recognize Kubrick was every bit as flawed and human as the rest of us.


The Young Turks get the science wrong on GM food

September 27, 2012

I’m a huge fan of the internet news show The Young Turks (and to only a slightly lesser extent their sister show on the Current network). They release daily clips of their show on YouTube. I make it a point to check most of those clips out on a regular basis, and I’ll go as far as to say The Young Turks is usually among the best sources of news out there today.

All the more reason for me to be disappointed at a recent piece they did on genetically modified (GM) food and the company Monsanto, an agricultural company and major producer of GM food:

Monsanto is a popular target of conspiracy theorists superstitious of GM food and to be fair, like any corporation, there’s an excellent chance they cut corners and misbehave every chance they get to save money.

Now when a recently published study on the effects of genetically modified corn on rats arrived at seemingly frightening conclusions along with scary images of tumorous rats, many news outlets jumped on the story. But The Young Turks went further than simply reporting the story. Co-host Ana Kasparian went on to claim that there is still insufficient evidence that GM foods are even safe. And while mentioning that Monsanto was debating the merits of the study, she failed to mention other critics who don’t work for Monsanto and poisoned the well with a statement about how Monsanto is quick to come down “against anyone who says anything negative about them.” Of course that’s the case with any corporation at all times and it neither validates nor invalidates the specific study being reported on. Kasparian goes on to show a clip from a documentary titled “The World According to Monsanto,” which talks about how Monsanto gets around heavy FDA oversight.

Is Monsanto dirty? Almost certainly. Just like pretty much every corporation. The problem here is that The Young Turks are letting their own cognitive biases influence their judgment in this case instead of performing their usual due diligence. When it comes to issues of corporations using their money to influence politicians, there’s no better source than The Young Turks. And when the oil industry funds bogus “tobacco studies” suggesting that anthrogenic global warming isn’t legitimate science, they’re very good at knocking that down. But when you have a story like this one that only superficially plays into that narrative and where the independent science largely reinforces the point of view that conveniently favors the corporation, The Young Turks seem to fall into the trap of assuming Monsanto’s defense is just another corporation shamelessly defending itself with bogus research despite the fact that the science is on their side.

Now The Young Turks also played a clip from the days of the Reagan administration when then Vice-President George H.W. Bush visited a Monsanto factory and can actually be heard saying essentially that he intends to ensure the government looks the other way with Monsanto, saying, “We’re in the ‘dereg’ business.” There’s no getting around how bad that looks both for Monsanto and the Republican Party. HOWEVER, to be fair, within the context of that quote, there’s nothing about fixing the system so unsafe products make it to market. Rather, Bush seems to be responding to a concern over getting past bureaucratic red tape to simply get some authorization sooner. I’m not saying Monsanto isn’t dirty, but the actual promise there was not nearly as serious as looking the other way on safety policies. And for the record, George H.W. Bush hasn’t been Vice-President in a very, very, very long time. The damming clip we’re being presented with is about 25 years old. It can’t reasonably be used to discredit the Monsanto of today.

Kasparian also shows some inconsistency when she poisons the well by dismissing all the studies Monsanto presents that show the safety of their GM products as being all deeply flawed while simultaneously bolstering a study that, as it turns out, is itself deeply flawed:

Within 24 hours, the study’s credibility was shredded by scores of scientists. The consensus judgment was swift and damning: The study was riddled with errors—serious, blatantly obvious flaws that should have been caught by peer reviewers. Many critics pointed out that the researchers chose a strain of rodents extremely prone to tumors. Other key aspects of the study, such as its sample size and statistical analysis, have also been highly criticized. One University of Florida scientist suggests the study was “designed to frighten” the public.*

How could Ana Kasparian and Cenk Uygur have been so fooled? Presumably because the study reinforces their biases. That’s not a criticism of them personally though as we are all guilty of doing this from time to time. That’s why Steve Novella encourages people to ratchet up our skepticism when we hear information that reinforces our previously held beliefs.

Now I tried to reach out to both Uygur and Kasparian about this via Twitter. I wrote:

@cenkuygur @AnaKasparian Sorry guys but you got the science wrong in your recent Monsanto piece: http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2012/09/are_gmo_foods_safe_opponents_are_skewing_the_science_to_scare_people_.html …

And I must say I was a bit disappointed at the response I got:

I don’t think Kasparian is accurate in her assessment of the research, but given the limitations of Twitter, I gave one more response:

@AnaKasparian Do u at least agree w/ Slate’s analysis that that specific study isn’t entirely credible? &how further back mustGM rsearch go?

Unfortunately, like a skilled politician, Kasparian dodged both of my direct questions and gave me just a talking point:

I decided to stop there as I didn’t wanted to try and drag her into a lengthy Twitter debate. But while I recognize that at least among non-Republicans, comparisons to climate change deniers can seem like name-calling. In the past, denialists of various stripes have often taken great umbrage with being compared with Holocaust Deniers, due to the stigma attached to that. But I don’t think Keith Kloor, in his Slate article, was out of line with his comparison because he wasn’t necessarily comparing them on a scale of respectability. Rather, the basis of the comparison seems to be that both climate change deniers and the anti-GM crowd distort the science based on their respective political leanings. And based on my, to be fair, limited understanding of the science of genetically modified foods, the study’s lead author, Gilles-Eric Seralini, did just that, and The Young Turks’ position on this issue is less based on the science and more based on their distrust of corporations, a distrust that usually serves them well but which in this particular case has led them to false conclusions. 

Now to be clear, I think Ana Kasparian and the rest of The Young Turks team are excellent journalists. I happily call myself a fan of Kasparian and The Young Turks.  But on this issue, I happen to think she’s dead wrong.

Further reading:

NPR – “Manipulating Science Reporting” – interview with Carl Zimmer about recent study referenced above.

World Health Organization – 20 Questions on Genetically Modified Foods

WebMD – Are Biotech Foods Safe to Eat?

“Food Fight: The Case for Genetically Modified Food” By Brendan Borrell

Skeptoid podcast – “Genetically Modified Organisms: Jeopardy or Jackpot?”

Science Daily – “Spontaneous GMOs in Nature: Researchers Show How a Genetically Modified Plant Can Come About”
Science Daily – “Engineered Plants Make Potential Precursor to Raw Material for Plastics”
The Atlantic – “A Golden Opportunity to Rethink Genetically Modified Foods” by James McWilliams
“Cloned Beef” by Steven Novella
Science Daily – “Genetically Modified Chickens That Don’t Transmit Bird Flu Developed; Breakthrough Could Prevent Future Bird Flu Epidemics”
“GMO plants and herd immunity”
“GMO chickens and herd immunity”
“The Conspiracy Meme” by Ted Goertzel


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