Corrections Not Necessary in Botched Atlantic Story?

Posted by: Keith Kloor  :  Category: Journalism

If the writer of a magazine story admits to significant errors in his piece, shouldn’t the publication then acknowledge this with an editor’s note, providing corrections?

I ask because there are new developments to the story about that botched article in The Atlantic, which, as I wrote here,

used this study as a springboard to raise concerns about GMO foods.

Before I delve into the new twists, here’s the backstory from Christie Wilcox at her Scientific American blog:

Recently, food columnist Ari Levaux wrote what can only be described as a completely unscientific article in The Atlantic claiming that microRNAs (miRNAs) are a “very real danger of GMOs.” I won’t go point by point through the horrendous inaccuracies in his piece, as Emily Willingham has more than hacked them to bits.

In the comments thread of Wilcox’s post, LeVaux defends himself while also admitting:

I acknowledge there were some significant scientific errors in my Atlantic piece, and my argument could have been stronger. With a lot of help from great thinkers, some of whom didn’t agree with me, my rewrite posted yesterday on Alternet.

Interestingly, the rewrite at Alternet does not mention that it’s been adapted from an error-riddled article at The Atlantic. Okay, maybe the Alternet editors don’t want to mention the part about the author’s original inaccuracies, but I’m surprised there is no acknowledgment of the piece being adapted from something LeVaux published earlier in the week at The Atlantic.

Meanwhile, if you revisit the original piece at The Atlantic, you’ll notice this below the subhead:

Update 1/12: AlterNet has posted Ari LeVaux’s expanded and updated version of this column.

That’s it! No acknowledgment that the Atlantic article contains “significant scientific errors,” as the author himself admits. The magazine’s editors, in whatever language they deem appropriate, should acknowledge in their update what the author himself acknowledges. The Atlantic story will have a long shelf life online and new readers coming to it in the future should be made aware of its errors.

Besides, isn’t this all part of the normal journalistic process when major mistakes are found in a newspaper or magazine story?

UPDATE: Several hours after publishing my post, The Atlantic did exactly what I suggested they should do: acknowledge the errors in the article. Here is the revised editors note:

Update 1/12: Thanks to science and biology bloggers, Christie Wilcox and Emily Willingham at the Scientific American blog network and The Biology Files, respectively, we’ve learned of the scientific errors made in Ari LeVaux’s most recent Flash in the Pan column, which is syndicated by a number of newspapers and magazine websites. This column has been expanded and updated, with LeVaux discussing specific changes in the comments. We regret the errors.

38 Responses to “Corrections Not Necessary in Botched Atlantic Story?”

  1. Christopher Mims Says:

    Man, that is just dumb. Why doesn’t the Atlantic want the revised version?

    Speaking as someone who has been caught in this kind of cross-fire before, this is obviously the product of “web speed” editing / writing, where you have to be doubly sure you know your subject area, because you’re lucky to get a copy edit, much less a fact-check.

  2. Ari LeVaux Says:

    In all fairness to the Atlantic, that was quite big of them to post that link - and thanks for pointing it out to me. 
     
    I don’t expect those editors to be perusing the blogs, and probably haven’t seen my acknowledgment of the errors in that piece.
    I never notified the Atlantic that I was rewriting the piece for Alternet. They noticed, and put up the link.
     
    I have not discussed this piece with the editors since I raised my objections to the headline.
     
    You seem to assume that the editors at the Atlantic knew that I had acknowledged errors in that piece, and are bashing the
    editors for not sharing this information, when in fact we have no reason to believe they were aware of this information. 
     
    Didn’t your professor warn you about making assumptions?

  3. Keith Kloor Says:

    Ari,

    I’m incredulous that you didn’t inform the editors of the article’s errors as soon as you learned about them. I’m equally incredulous that you never notified them that you rewrote the piece for Alternet.

  4. Ari LeVaux Says:

    I gave up when they wouldn’t change the headline.

  5. Ari LeVaux Says:

    As Christopher Mims pointed out, the world of web publishing is dramatically different from, say, scientific journal publication.
     
    And science bloggers are not immune. This one was so breathlessly criticizing me that he said the miRNA is composed of amino acids:
    http://tiny.cc/1c61l
    Does this mean his whole argument is invalid? Should he post an apology?
     
    And don’t forget, the editors at the Atlantic consider the piece a great success from all the reads, comments, shares, and blogs like this
    that the article has spawned.
     
    So while I may feel remiss as the writer for any errors I commit, the editors couldn’t be happier about the fact that the piece was shared
    11K times on Facebook.
     
     

  6. Steve E Says:

    Keith,

    this is significant for another reason as well. If the Atlantic article goes uncorrected it can and most likely will be cited as a source by other authors. Witness the discussion that has been occurring about how wikipedia tells the story of Soon & Baliunas 03 and the actions of journal editor Chris de Freitas.

    Wikipedia claims that de Freitas ignored the recommendation of 4 reviewers not to publish the article based on an incorrect quotation from the Guardian’s Fred Pearce. Fred Pearce has since said that he had gotten the facts wrong in the article, but wikipedia refused to change their article because the Guardian hadn’t seen fit to publish a correction. (Perhaps they weren’t informed, just as Ari LeVaux has not informed the Atlantic editors.)

    James Padgett has a good summary of this at WUWT here: http://wattsupwiththat.com/2012/01/10/the-wonderful-world-of-wikipedia/ .

    Apparently the journalistic process today isn’t the same one I was taught in J-school in the early 80s.

    Cheers 

  7. Emily Willingham Says:

    “the editors couldn’t be happier about the fact that the piece was shared 11K times on Facebook.”
    And for anyone with an interest in scientific literacy and accuracy, that is the worst outcome of all. I, for one, would like to know who these editors are who take such delight in the misinforming of 11000 of their readers and who do not publish errata when doing so is clearly indicated. There’s no getting this horse back in the barn, obviously, but the original post should contain a statement of errata.

    As for your question about the breathless critique, no, it doesn’t invalidate his argument to confuse one monomer for another, as this particular error doesn’t weaken the cornerstone of his argument, but he also should post an erratum.

  8. jeffn Says:

    And I’m incredulous that you expected standards to get in the way of a  good ol’-fashioned corporation bashing.
    Despite the weasel wording, the version on Alternet is still a scare story designed to make people “believe” that GM food is unsafe. At this point, you are a “denier. ” Besides, none of this changes the basic science that we are what we eat.
     

  9. Vinny Burgoo Says:

    The Atlantic corrects some quotes.
    Dorothy Parker: ‘I don’t care what is written about me so long as it isn’t expanded and updated.’
    Goethe: ‘If youth is a fault, it is one that is soon expanded and updated.’
    Abraham Lincoln: ‘Be sure you put your feet in the expanded and updated place, then stand firm.’
    Marie Windsor (who she?): ‘I thought my nose was too prominent so I had this expanded and updated via plastic surgery in 1959.’
    Winston Churchill: ‘A lie gets halfway around the world before the expansion and update has a chance to get its pants on.’

  10. Ari LeVaux Says:

    I want to point out that I made a big assumption saying that “the editors couldn’t be happier about 11K reads.”
     
    In fact I shouldn’t speak for them at all. Please take as a general comment on the current state of internet journalism. 
     
    The reality, I’m sure, is much more complex. I imagine they have certain criteria that need to be met in order to qualify for a correction,
    and perhaps this standard has not been met.
     
    Frankly, I’m not convinced it merits a correction either. None of the errors in question destroyed my argument, which became stronger when I restated it
    in the Alternet piece:
     
                “A good place to start would be the testing of introduced DNA for other effects — miRNA-mediated or otherwise — beyond the
                 specific proteins they code for. But the status quo, according to Monsanto’s web page, is,

              ‘There is no need to test the safety of DNA introduced into GM crops. DNA (and resulting RNA)
               is present in almost all foods. DNA is non-toxic and the presence of DNA, in and of itself, presents no hazard.’

                Given what we know, that stance is arrogant. Time will tell if it’s reckless.”
     
     
    So, if my argument was intact - as many have acknowledged - though peppered with factual errors great and small, how would a correction even be worded?
     
    More to the point, critics of this story are welcome to contact the Atlantic and request a correction.  
     
    Ari

  11. Keith Kloor Says:

    Emily (7) beat me to the punch.  

    Ari (5),

    You’re confusing me. In @2, you say: I have not discussed this piece with the editors since I raised my objections to the headline.”

    Then, in #5, you write:

    “the editors at the Atlantic consider the piece a great success from all the reads, comments, shares, and blogs like this that the article has spawned…So while I may feel remiss as the writer forany errors I commit, the editors couldn’t be happier about the fact that the piece was shared 11K times on Facebook.

    So how do you know this if you haven’t communicated with them since raising your objections to the headline (presumably before the piece went live or very shortly after)?  

  12. Keith Kloor Says:

    Ari (10)

    Looks like our comments crossed in cyberspace. So feel free to dismiss my question. But you seem to want to have it six different ways when you say this in #11:

    “Frankly, I’m not convinced it merits a correction either.None of the errors in question destroyed my argument, which became stronger when I restated it in the Alternet piece.”

    As of now, I’m convinced that you are doing some serious rationalizing and shooting from the hip. If I were you, I’d sure hope you were right when you say (#2) that you don’t expect your Atlantic editors to be “perusing the blogs.” 

  13. Mary Says:

    And science bloggers are not immune. This one was so breathlessly criticizing me that he said the miRNA is composed of amino acids:
    David Ropeik is a science blogger?  #FAILagain
    This whole strange conflama goes on without one smidge of indication by Ari that he’s aware that national science bodies are looking at these foods all the time, and have written about the assessments of them, such as this:
    http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=10977&page=R1
    It’s charming to be unencumbered by facts and context I suppose, and I’m sure it’s charming people who also don’t rely on that sort of thing. But it’s not right.

  14. Ari LeVaux Says:

    Keith,
    Last night the Atlantic tweeted this:
    heAtlanticHLTH TheAtlantic/Health
     

    Follow late-Wednesday night: @TheAtlanticHLTH writer @AriLeVaux and his Flash in the Pan column.

    17 hours ago Favorite Retweet Reply
     

    TheAtlanticHLTH TheAtlantic/Health
     

    Our biggest story of the week: The very real dangers of genetically modified foods: bit.ly/yVLE8a by @arilevaux

    17 hours ago Favorite Retweet Reply

    This morning I did, motivated by these tweets, request a number of how many reads it got. I wasn’t given a number.

    I have had another conversation with the editors since the miRNA thing, and that is about an article on Brussels sprouts
    posting in the next few days that I hope you all will read and comment on and tweet vigorously and share with your Facebook friends.

    Furthermore, I rescind all of my previous comments about how happy the Atlantic editors are about the numbers. That’s
    their business and I was speaking out of my ass by way of agreeing with Christopher Mims about the state of internet publishing.

  15. Ari LeVaux Says:

    Has anyone been by the Atlantic lately? There’s a correction.
     

  16. Keith Kloor Says:

    I just saw that. Funny how it appeared two hours after my latest post went up. I tell ya, I get no respect.

  17. BBD Says:

    Mary @ 13 has it right, Ari.
     
    You will, I trust, hesitate before writing any more nonsense on the subject? There’s enough bollocks out there to go around.

  18. Ari LeVaux Says:

    Keith,
    Well, they obviously saw the Scientific American blog because it’s mentioned in the correction.
    That links here. So it’s fair to assume that you’re the hero here.
    Ari

  19. Keith Kloor Says:

    Ari,

    Jeez, the last thing I am is a “hero.” As far as I’m concerned, Emily did the heavy lifting on your piece.

    Also, these criticisms have been making the rounds for days, including at prominent places like this one. I just find it odd that a few hours after I questioned why no corrections have been made they make one-without acknowledging this post. But hey, could be all a coincidence.

  20. jeffn Says:

    When I last looked, the “story” has a link at the bottom to another science and “health” story from The Atlantic- did you know that smoking pot improves your lung function? It’s true! Well at least they aren’t corporate smokes! http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/01/study-of-the-day-occasional-marijuana-use-wont-hurt-lungs/251202/.
    10,000 laid-off reporters in the world and these are the folks paid to publish. But it’s all okay, he thinks, because writing what people want to hear rather than what’s true is more popular as recorded by Facebook hits. Oh brave new world
     

  21. Tom Fuller Says:

    Moral of the story: Speed kills.

  22. Keith Kloor Says:

    That is only one moral of this story. There are others of equal if not more importance.

  23. Ari LeVaux Says:

    Speed Kills!

  24. Laurie Says:

    For a moral, I like the admonishment by Ari at @2, “Don’t make assumptions”.
    Followed up by Ari’s big assumption @5 about editors at Atlantic.
    And then his admission @10 that he shouldn’t make assumptions regarding the editors at Atlantic.
    Now that shows progress.  Applying his own advice to his own actions.
     

  25. EdG Says:

    The power of blogosphere peer review strikes again.

    Congratulations Keith! You are a valuable part of that. This later discussion over who should get credit for being the ‘hero’ here is almost beside the point, as who knows who read what first.  Except to say that Emily, as initial investigator, was the heroic catalyst. But if what she wrote wasn’t spread around so quickly and broadly it may have all been for nought.

    Now, let’s hope that all writers at the Atlantic, and elsewhere, learn from this. Why not just strive to be as accurate as humanly possible from the start?

    I KNOW that I’m not supposed to mention AGW all the time but this episode sure reminds me of how that all unfolded… you know, all those bloggers that didn’t matter, but did, and do. 

  26. EdG Says:

    Ari LeVaux

    Congrats to you too, for taking it in stride with apparent good humor and having the courage to come here and comment.

    Lot of people won’t do that.

    Everybody makes mistakes but not everybody learns from them.

  27. Nullius in Verba Says:

    Congratulations to Ari and The Atlantic - they seem a whole lot more willing to acknowledge errors and publish corrections than some other fields of endeavor. Whatever else you might say about the article, willingness to correct is an important scientific principle.
     
    While I, like many of the commentators, didn’t agree with the article, and am pleased to see an effort made to correct it, I am a bit bemused at the fuss sometimes made over such cases, as if it was something unusual. Science journalism publishes thousands of articles like this. Bloggers and others criticise thousands of articles like this. And some of the people criticising errors on one topic support articles equally full of errors on another. It’s part of our universal human fallibility.

  28. Keith Kloor Says:

    NiV (27)

    There are always going to be certain cases that jump out and this was one of them. No doubt one could spend every day singling out articles that get some aspect of science wrong.

    But instead of making a broad brush statement, how about citing/linking to some recent examples in prestige publications that are “completely unscientific” as Christie Wilcox said in her post? 

  29. Karl Haro von Mogel Says:

    “I have not discussed this piece with the editors since I raised my objections to the headline.”
    There appears to have been more communication going on than just an objection to the headline. The tagline said for the first couple days that the piece was online:

    New research shows that when we eat we’re consuming more than just vitamins and proteins. Our bodies are absorbing information, or DNA.
    However, as Emily Willingham deftly pointed out, that was incorrect, and that the topic was micro RNA, not DNA. Sometime between the 9th and the 10th, someone at the Atlantic edited this to read:
     
    New research shows that when we eat we’re consuming more than just vitamins and proteins. Our bodies are absorbing information, or microRNA.
    This happened long before the edited version was put online on Alternet, and thus the Atlantic’s correction. So it appears that there was an attempt at a minor correction, perhaps at the request of Ari Levaux. There’s no specific evidence of this, but we have seen a lot of backtracking from Ari on this column, while strangely a huge expression of pride at how far-flung his manglings of the science have gone. I can’t quite understand how someone can be proud that a badly researched column was so widely read.

  30. Karl Haro von Mogel Says:

    While checking for new comments, it appears that according to Ari Levaux himself, he did push for this DNA -> Micro RNA correction:
    http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/science-sushi/2012/01/12/the-very-real-scaremongering-of-ari-levaux/
    Perhaps both corrections were pushed for in the same communication?

  31. Ari LeVaux Says:

    Karl,
     
    I asked the editors at least five times to change the headline. In those emails I also pointed out the subhed was
    wrong.
     
    Does that explain your little mystery?
     
     

  32. Ari LeVaux Says:

    By the way, since the corrections went up I’ve had plenty of contact with the Atlantic eds regarding this matter. I feel like I should
    point that out in case I go on to comment in the matter in a way that implies I knew more than I said I did. You freaks.
     

  33. Ari LeVaux Says:

    “I can’t quite understand how someone can be proud that a badly researched column was so widely read.”
    Karl, in the above sentence you seem to have confused my intentions with the editors.
    I did suggest that the editors would be happy with that amount of reads. I then clearly admitted that it was speculation.
     
    Beyond that, I’d like to see your evidence for how proud I am that “a badly researched column was so widely read.”
     
     

  34. Nullius in Verba Says:

    #28,
    ” No doubt one could spend every day singling out articles that get some aspect of science wrong.”
    No doubt. But some people I think could doubt based on the way people often talk about these incidents.
     
    The anti-GMO campaign has been running for years, most of their articles contain some references to science, most of them are wrong - either obviously or more subtlely. You only had to glance as far as the title of this one to know the rest of the script.
     
    But lots of people read them, and find the scientific language persuasive, or worldview-confirming. Lots of magazines and newspapers run them, because lots of people read them, and like them. They can’t tell, and don’t care anyway.
     
    There is a very long list of such ‘health-scare’ campaigns. Genetic modification, radiactivity, pesticides, food additives, plastics, power lines, mobile phone masts, mobile phones, nanotechnology, asbestos, vaccines, climate change, acid rain, overpopulation, terrorism, passive smoking, fracking, on and on without end. Warnings of imminent danger seem to appeal to something deep in the human psyche. And the media is there to sell us what we want.
     
    That some newspaper published an article based on a scare campaign is not news. Sure, pick it as an illustrative example to make the general point if you like, but it’s not an event. The story is surely the fact that here in the 21st century in the most technologically developed nations, most people still can’t tell the difference.
     
    I should say in all fairness that you’ve done plenty to raise the more general issue in the past. I did, for example, like your recent article on the plethora of weather-is-climate stories, and the one on attempts to link weather disasters to climate change. But it comes and goes. I’m not trying to be especially critical of anybody for doing it. I just felt like pointing it out again.

  35. EdG Says:

    #32. Ari LeVaux

    “By the way, since the corrections went up I’ve had plenty of contact with the Atlantic eds regarding this matter. I feel like I should
    point that out in case I go on to comment in the matter in a way that implies I knew more than I said I did. You freaks.”

    Oh. So you’ve been conspiring with the editors on this massive coverup! The Koch brothers have been awfully silent on this so I knew there was something going on…

    I suspect that Big Colonic, in cahoots with the coffee traffickers, are also deeply involved in this.

  36. Ari LeVaux Says:

    #35. EdG:
    Actually, it’s an established fact that Monsanto created the vaccine that’s poisoning kids.
    That’s going to be my next article.

  37. EdG Says:

    #36. Ari - No surprise. Monsanto ranks as one of the least ‘nice’ corporations in the world. Ask the farmers. And they now have a huge proportion of the global food supply by the short hairs. Not good.

    Many shocking articles to be written about them, so go for it. 

  38. Nullius in Verba Says:

    “Many shocking articles to be written about them, so go for it.”
    Do you mean like the one linking Monsanto, Chemtrails, unmanned CIA drones, Agent Orange, the doomsday seed vault, Bill Gates, aluminium, genetically engineered mosquitoes, the BP oil spill, toxic aspartame, vaccines, fluoride in drinking water, the Nazis, executive orders about biochem warfare experiments on humans, and… Donald Rumsfeld?
    A truly shocking article… :-)

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