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.
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
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