The Young Turks get the science wrong on GM food

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: …

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

5 Responses to The Young Turks get the science wrong on GM food

  1. Neurovore says:

    I wish that the Young Turks would get a credited panel of science experts on their show, as Stephanie Miller looks and acts too much like somebody from the set of the Real World who got lost on the way home. Their science reporting is deplorable, as you can see with previous stories they did on “radioactive tuna” and the story about meat being extinct by 2023. Their shoddy reporting is especially bad when it comes to topics like nuclear energy as they have no idea how it works and yet they jump on the hyperbolic bandwagon like everybody else.I like their coverage of political news as well as social issues, but they do not check their facts on science stories. I think that they should have somebody like Brian Dunning or Ben Goldacre as a guest speaker on their show to help them learn how to critically examine their news stories. Help the Young Turks improve.

    • mjr256 says:

      I think more often than not, they do a fine job on science. They’re certainly much better than most news outlets in covering climate change stories or evolution stories. And more recently, they’ve had Cara Santa Maria guest host on the show numerous times, and she’s a very well-informed skeptic when it comes to scientific issues. And certainly, TYT is much better than most other news outlets when it comes to self-correction. But here we have a case where it’s so easy to fall into that popular narratives of the Frankenstein scientists playing god or of the evil corporation doing sinister things to make more money. And I’m certainly not going to suggest the executives at Monsanto are benevolent; I’m sure they cut corners like every other corporation. But just because they’re practically a monopoly and just because GMO food is perfectly “natural”, it doesn’t mean it’s any less safe than non-GMO foods. But unfortunately, you have ideologues who believe this without question promoting this propaganda, and Ana seems to have fallen for it.

  2. I think the problem, from a PR point of view, is that no one has set down a clear definition of what “genetically modified” is and is not. It has the connotations of lab scientists splicing genes with tiny scissors and whatnot then shoving genes into the cells of edible food. A lot of genetic “modification” is simple cross-breeding that is done in a way that is very, very specific. But, perhaps because of pop culture or the nuclear age or something, people think that the genes in those plants will integrate with the genes in their bodies and give them cancer or worse.

    I have a feeling that this was the case with the hosts. They didn’t have a firm grip on what GMO is and isn’t.

  3. James Bacon says:

    GMO is not cross breeding. That is called Hybridizing. Genetically modifying is splicing and adding different genes. Monsanto isn’t out farming and cross breeding or hybridizing foods. They are in a lab splicing and adding or taking away genes of a particular organism. It is actually pretty clear cut as to what the definition is. Look at the horrible history of monsanto and tell me if you trust any of the Monsanto funded science. The last thing I’m going to do is eat a tomato with fish DNA. I’ll play it safe and eat what mother nature has provided us for the last few million years. It’s sad to see TYT get this so wrong. 😦

  4. Well, it absolutely is cross-breeded by definition. Hybridization is merely the traditional and far less precise method we’ve used in the past whereas transgenics optimize the process by leaving far less of the final product up to chance by working with crossing only the gene with the desired trait over into the different species. Whether cross-breeding the same way our ancient ancestors did or doing so in a lab makes little difference beyond the lab method being optimally efficient. I just don’t share your superstitions about what happens in a lab.

    And it’s not about trusting “Monsanto funded science” as the vast majority of research on the topic is independently funded at universities and research labs around the world. If it was merely Monsanto that did all the research, I’d agree independent research was needed. But that’s not the case. It’s like I often say: If Martin Scorsese says his movie is really good, you have good reason to not just take him at his word; but if everyone says Martin Scorsese’s movie is good, maybe it’s worth your time to check it out. Put another way, this isn’t a matter of Monsanto alone telling us 2+2=4; every mathematician in the world shares that conclusion and Monsanto happens to also agree. I don’t trust Monsanto; I trust the scientific process with its rigorous vetting protocols to separate the wheat from the chaff.

    Lastly, biologically, there’s no meaningful distinction between “tomato DNA” and “fish DNA.” Those are human constructs. It’s all just DNA. Animal/plant cross-breeded even occurs in nature. 5-8% of the human genome is endogenous retrovirus. And the idea that you’re “playing it safe” by eating “what mother nature has provided for us” is patently ridiculous. First of all, agriculture and hybridization are NOT what mother nature provided; it’s just another example of artificial human tampering to turn otherwise mostly inedible plant product into nutrition for us. The mere fact that you’ve never known a life without this form of human meddling doesn’t make it any more natural than the methods you oppose. The fact is, the universe didn’t develop fruits and vegetables for our benefit and often what is found in nature is poisonous, diseased, lacking in nutrition, fairly tasteless, and quick to rot. The history of human civilization and agriculture is a history of fighting against mother nature by figuring out ways to alter plants to benefit us. If we had left it up to mother nature, the Hawaiian papaya would have been extinct due to disease. And, as we speak, central African nations whose diets consist mostly of bananas are losing much of their banana crops to Xanthomonas wilt while currently banned GM alternatives that are immune from this disease await government orders to end the ban to save this staple crop of the region. And of course those same banana-diet peoples are also dying of Vitamin A Deficiency, a problem that doesn’t exist in first world nations. But GM, again, holds the solution, Bananas just like the ones native to the region except with a single added gene that packs the banana full of beta carotene, which converts to Vitamin A when eaten. This simple replacement would save between 250K and 500K children from going blind each year and half of that number from dying each year. But yeah, sure, let’s “play it safe” with the diseased bananas and the Vitamin A Deficiency…because ignorance!

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