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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News From Around The Blogosphere 3.11.11

March 12, 2011

"That's no moon."

1. Look up in the sky! It’s a bird! No, it’s a plane! No, it’s Supermoon! – If you’re Bill O’Reilly, I know what you’re thinking. Supermoon comes in,earthquake comes out. Never a miscommunication. You can’t explain that. But no, Bill, the coming Supermoon is not in any way responsible for the Japanese earthquake. Nor was Godzilla…probably.

2. Oregon House ends ‘Faith Healing’ exemption – Oregon had a law on the books that gave religious parents carte blanche in the event that they killed their sick children by choosing to treat them with prayer in lieu of getting them proper medical care. But now House Bill 2721, “eliminates reliance on spiritual treatment as defense to certain crimes in which victim is under 18 years of age.”

3. Pro-Choice student suspended by public Catholic School

Some students at St. Patrick High School in Ontario, Canada recently participated in the Pro-Life Day of Silent Solidarity. They wore red tape with the word “LIFE” written on it and “didn’t talk for the day to display their belief in the injustice of abortion.”

Sophomore Alexandria Szeglet wasn’t a fan of that message, though, so she decided to do something about it.

She got some green tape and wrote the word “CHOICE” on it.

And then she passed along the green tape to several other students so they could join her in silent protest.

So the school told her to take off her green tape or go home. So she did…go home, that is. But she was not alone. The media was contacted and told up to 35 students were given 2-day suspensions, not to mention a 100 more who were sent home for the day. I’m tellin’ ya, these kids today and they’re principles…and their self-respect…and their rap music…

4. Smartphones that detect cancer in under an hour – We’re finally arrived at a point where our phones are smarter than our doctors. Very soon we’ll be able to integrate a microNMR device that accurately detects cancer cells to a smartphone:

Though just a prototype, this device enables a clinician to extract small amounts of cells from a mass inside of a patient, analyze the sample on the spot, acquire the results in an hour, and pass the results to other clinicians and into medical records rapidly. How much does the device cost to make? $200.

This is much more efficient than modern biopsy analysis, which only has an 84 percent accuracy rate, can take three to four days to produce results, and runs the risk of the tissue degrading during transport to an external testing site.

5. And in honor of Pi Day coming up, the sound of Pi:

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News From Around The Blogosphere 8.11.10

August 11, 2010

1. ARF is the reason we can’t regrow limbs

A protein called ARF, which acts as a fail-safe mechanism to protect against cancer, also prevents regeneration in mammals, a study published Aug. 6 in Cell Stem Cell suggests. ARF backs up Rb, an important anticancer protein, by limiting the ability of mature cells to divide and replicate. But researchers in California have discovered that blocking ARF and Rb allowed mature muscle cells taken from mice to proliferate, something the cells normally cannot do.The discovery is an important step in learning why mammals, including people, can’t regrow or replace lost limbs and organs the way animals such as salamanders and zebrafish can. Such work may one day lead to new treatments for injuries.

2. Pastor Michael Dowd thanks New Atheists – In a recent sermon, Dowd, who wrote Thank God for Evolution, thanked outspoken atheists for challenging the beliefs of Christians and pushing them to take a critical eye to their own beliefs. You can read the full sermon here (PDF).

3. 25% of Spaniards are without religious affiliation – That’s at least what a new study suggests. And in the U.S., it’s believed that 25% of Millennials are also without religious affiliation, so it seems the U.S. isn’t the only nation showing a rise in godlessness.

"Fuckin' bullshit! I had to wait 8 years for that shit!"

4. A robot to detect and express emotions

A team of programmers at Hertfordshire University have created Nao, a robot that detects and expresses emotions and is capable of forming bonds with people.

Dr Michio Kaku is a leading physicist and futurologist.

24th century technology

21st century technology

4. How Star Trek art directors designed the iPad 23 years ago?

“The initial motivation for that was in fact cost,” Okuda explained. “Doing it purely as a graphic was considerably less expensive than buying electronic components. But very quickly we began to realize—as we figured out how these things would work and how someone would operate them, people would come to me and say, ‘What happens if I need to do this?’ Perhaps it was some action I hadn’t thought of, and we didn’t have a specific control for that. And I realized the proper answer to that was, ‘It’s in the software.’ All the things we needed could be software-definable.”

5. Andrew Morton writes worst book of 21st century – Awhile back, I probably wrote a blurb or two about Andrew Morton’s unauthorized biography of Tom Cruise, a book I’d never actually read but felt inclined to support due to its focus on his $cientology life. That was perhaps premature as Morton has just come out with a new biography on Angelina Jolie that is apparently so atrocious in its content and constant citing of unnamed sources that it led one critic to dub it the worst book of the century, so far. Ouch.

6. Freedom from Religion Foundation puts up 20 billboards in Florida -And for once, I actually like them all.

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The Fightin’ Hitchens

August 5, 2010
Christopher Hitchens speaking at The Amazing M...
Image via Wikipedia

Several weeks ago, one of the most important intellectuals and prolific authors of our time announced that he had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer. That man was Christopher Hitchens, journalist and author of such books as “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” and “The Missionary Position,” a demystification and condemnation of Mother Teresa written by the man who the Vatican actually recruited to take on the title of devil’s advocate when the Catholic Church was deciding whether or not to declare her a saint.

Since Hitchens’ grave announcement, he’s written about it in the pages of Vanity Fair and many, including PZ Myers, have written about his courage in facing the very serious possibility that he may not live much longer.

But now Hitchens has appeared on television for the first time since the news of his cancer in an interview with Anderson Cooper and he’s as articulate and strong as ever:

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What they died for

July 27, 2010

Over the last few days, there have been a number of news stories that have gotten my attention that seem to be connected. Now I’m not going to tell you what the connection is. I’ll let you see if you can figure it out.

1. Baby drowns in baptism – Don’t get this confused with this story from two years ago about a man believed to have drown in baptism or this story from last year about a dozen people drowning in baptism.

2. Oregon faith-healing parents trying to get their kid back while facing criminal charges for first-degree criminal mistreatment after not seeking medical treatment for their 7-month-old daughter who developed a LARGE growth over her left eye. The father was previously married to another woman but she died of breast cancer four years ago after not seeking or receiving any medical treatment for the condition. I guess fool him once, shame on him; fool him twice, even greater shame on him for not learning a god-damned thing!

3. Utah overturns Warren Jeffs convictions and orders a new trial – Allegedly the reason is that the jury instructions were erroneous. Just think, he might get to rape more kids just yet! Praise Joseph Smith!

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News From Around The Blogosphere 7.17.10

July 18, 2010
Illustration of internal parts of a cochlear i...
Image via Wikipedia

1. Cochlear implant brings sound to deaf baby – Stem cells are curing the blind and now technology is solving deafness. Once again, science delivers the good. Click the link to see a video of this 8-month-old baby hearing sound for the first time.

2. Huff Po writer insists homeopathy works…even though she doesn’t know how – Well, I know how. It’s called the placebo effect. Rachel Roberts’ article basically amounts to a lot of anecdotes and appeals to the “I was a skeptic until I tried…” fallacy. There’s also a lot of unstated major premises like the one found at the end of this paragraph:

I admit I ruined that dinner party. I interrogated her about every detail of her diagnosis, previous treatment, time scales, the lot. I thought it through logically – she was intelligent, she wasn’t lying, she had no previous inclination towards alternative medicine, and her reluctance would have diminished any placebo effect.

Why would her reluctance diminish the placebo effect? And when people start just making up random assertions, I find that Dr. Cox has the only appropriate answer.

3. Researchers make cancer more mortal

Washington State University researchers have discovered a way to help cancer cells age and die, creating a promising avenue for slowing and even stopping the growth of tumors.

“Hopefully, we can make cancer cells die like normal cells,” says Weihang Chai, an assistant professor in the WSU School of Molecular Biosciences and WWAMI medical education program in Spokane. “Basically, you make the cancer cell go from immortal to mortal.”

4. Argentina passes gay marriage – Argentina’s senate voted 33-27 for gay marriage, making it the first country in South America to legalize same-sex marriage.

5. Antidepressants in the water make shrimp suicidal – This is a tragic story given that it has serious consequences for the ecosystem but I can’t help but find the concept of shrimp suicide funny. Is it just me?

6. $cientology goes to war with Anderson Cooper – After Cooper’s investigation into the Church’s physical abuse allegations recently, this was to be expected. Fortunately, the cult isn’t as powerful as it used to be and, like so many of their other retaliation attempts, will almost certainly blow up in their faces. Nothing can stop The Anderson Cooper!

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Woman’s death linked to homeopathy

June 9, 2010

I often hear people ask what’s the harm in homeopathy? After all, if there’s really nothing in it, then it’s not inherently harmful. But while that’s true, it can lead people away from real medicine. This may be what happened to Penelope Dingle, who died of bowel cancer in 2005. An investigation turned up that she was being treated by a homeopath when she developed symptoms.

Counsel assisting the coroner told the court her condition was not diagnosed until two years later at which point her homeopath told Mrs Dingle her cancer could be cured with alternative therapies.

Mrs Dingle then refused treatment from doctors who told her she had a reasonable chance of recovery if she underwent chemotherapy and an operation.

If this is true, then I think it is quite fair to say that Penelope Dingle was killed by homeopathy.