The Atlantic Serves Up Alarmism & Jumbled Science

Posted by: Keith Kloor  :  Category: GMOs, Journalism, science

I’m making a decree: Food columnists should no longer be writing about anything other than recipes and restaurants. When they stray from their area of expertise, what results is too often ugly and harmful to the public interest.

For example, I’ve previously pointed out where some food writers go badly off the tracks. The latest example is this piece by Ari LeVaux published online by The Atlantic, titled:

The Very Real Danger of Genetically Modified Foods

That scare-mongering headline alone is inexcusable. (Atlantic editors, why?) But then what follows, as Emily Willingham amply shows in her blog, The Biology Files, “is a remarkably confusing article.” She thoroughly deconstructs the muddled mess that Levaux makes of this recent study. In fact, LeVaux makes such a car wreck of his article that you have to wonder how it happened (no fact-checking by The Atlantic for online pieces, I’m guessing), and why they would let a food columnist make mincemeat of science this way.

Willingham and LeVaux had an interesting exchange at The Atlantic site (in the comment thread of his article), where he dismissed her critique as “nitpicking” and she responded by saying:

Your presentation of the science leaves not only a lot of room for “nitpicking” but also about an office building’s worth of room for correction. If you are aware of your lack of knowledge, it would have been a good idea to have run your information by someone with greater insight and experience so that you could have avoided embarrassing yourself in this way.
I’d say The Atlantic should feel equally embarrassed, and might want to consider applying some of the print magazine’s quality control standards to its online content.
UPDATE: On Twitter,  LeVaux thanks Willingham and says he’s “re-writing the piece with corrections.”
UPDATE: Charlie Petit, writing at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, says The Atlantic story “has the smell of inflammatory nonsense.”

22 Responses to “The Atlantic Serves Up Alarmism & Jumbled Science”

  1. Mary Says:

    Oh, please-
    Food columnists should no longer be writing about anything other than recipes and restaurants.
    From your fingers to editor’s ears….

  2. jeffn Says:

    One of the nice things about media bias is the way it inadvertently backfires on the left. Anti- GMO activists getcalled out because they babble about Republicans being anti-science. Likewise, green activists would be happily stuck in their cocoon of anti- nuke nonsense if some fool hadn’t gone and convinced every newspaper editor to run with the story that coal was destroying Earth. At that point, serious people actually examined the issue and the proposed “green solution” and determined the greens either never really meant it or were simply insane.
    I say its good for the Atlantic to publish this stuff. Sunlight is the best infectant.

  3. charlie Says:

    Spend some more time at the Atlantic.
    They are about two grades above business insider.  Really, anyone who pays morey to Derek Thompson or Megan McArdle is advertising low-brow.

  4. jeffn Says:

    Er, that’s disinfectant. No fun typing on a phone.

  5. Keith Kloor Says:


    Huh? “Anti-GMO activists get called out because they babble about Republicans being anti-science”? You really think that? You think that’s what motivated Mark Lynas to call out anti-GMO activists, and what’s motivating me to be critical of this Atlantic article?

    I don’t understand why people feel so compelled to read into everything. 

  6. BBD Says:

    I wonder how long it’s going to take to undo the appalling damage done by decades of anti-science fearmongering by the pseudo-environmentalists? First nuclear, now GM.

  7. kdk33 Says:

    It’s like I always say:  only eat what you kill.

  8. jeffn Says:

    I don’t think it’s why you call them out necessarily. But i think it is a useful reality check on the claim that Republicans are antiscience. I do also believe this is why these nuts get any attention outside of their little cocoons.
    It works like this- I, Joe Lefty, propose the theory that republicans- conservatives are the ones who are anti-science and this is a problem!
    Jane Objective never has paid anyto anti-science cranks so decides to check the theory because, afterall, there it is on page one of the ny times. Jane discovers that not only is the theory partisan wishful thinking, but that the left is clearly batshit nuts.

  9. jeffn Says:

    In other words, it is bias that gives these stories placement they wouldn’t get from thoughtful people- “hey it’s a greenpeace press release- why check it” And the publicity causes normal people to take a look and be appalled.

  10. EdG Says:

    Great to see a fluff-fear piece get properly dissected, by a blogger as usual.

    Remember when bloggers ‘didn’t matter’? Now it seems that that is all that matters, with the print or TV media being the ‘proposed’ story which then needs to be verified - or is it peer reviewed? - by the many voices of the blogosphere.

    And with so much self-serving fearmongering propaganda out there passing for ‘news’ these days, this is a vital function.

  11. Keith Kloor Says:

    I just updated the post with this:

    On Twitter,  Levaux thanks Willingham and says he’s “re-writing the piece with corrections.” 

  12. Mary Says:

    You know, this kind of crap isn’t trivial to the researchers either. I don’t know if y’all remember during the Gulf spill-there was this rumor of a methane ball explosion or something, and it could destroy the world. It was loosely based on some actual research, fictionally enhanced to absurd levels and bloggy-amplified everywhere.
    I had a friend who knew the researcher. He was getting walloped with goofy emails and calls, and it was totally disrupting the work in his lab to put out the stupidity-hair-flames.

  13. Matt B Says:

    @ 12 Mary,

    How about the Large Hadron Collider creating black holes that would suck up the earth?

  14. laursaurus Says:

    All I have to say as that I’m forever grateful for what science has done for the tomato. Before GM, store bought tomatoes were green, tasteless, dritty textured, bland compared with the sweet, delicious, tasty home grown, sun-ripped deliciousness tomato grown in your back yard.
    While still nothing tops the superior taste of tomato sun ripened homegrown tomato, we can now have something that comes pretty darn close.

  15. Marlowe Johnson Says:

    the corollary of which is:

    “if god wanted us to be vegetarians why did he make it so easy to hunt cows?”  

  16. milanovic Says:

    I very much doubt that has anything to do with GM. As far as I know, all tomatoes are still grown without GM, at least in Europe. GM is used for large-scale crops such as corn and soy, but hardly for vegetables like tomatoes.

  17. andrew adams Says:

    The biggest promoter of scaremongering about GM foods (or “Frankenstein foods” as it calls them) in the UK is the (very right wing) Daily Mail

  18. andrew adams Says:

    I would also add ISTM that (again I’m talking from a UK perspective) resistance to GM on the left is not so much to do with the science but more related to the political and social implications.

  19. hunter Says:

    You are posting some important thoghts regarding how bad reporting and lazy editing / qa/qc is damaging public discourse. I am impressed that the writerin quesiton is even willing to try an dclean up the bad article.
     Most tell their critics to stuff it, in no uncertain terms. Perhaps a new chapter is being opened? But I am an optimist.
     the only danger of GMO’s is that we will permit extremists to talk us out of using them, with a resulting increase in suffering and cost.

  20. jeffn Says:

    #19 “resistance to GM on the left is not so much to do with the science but more related to the political and social implications.”
    Ok. Just think about that one for a few minutes. Some of us think the same thing is happening with AGW.

  21. andrew adams Says:


    It occurred to me that the same applies to AGW as soon as I wrote it. The difference is that in the case of AGW it’s the right whose concerns are mainly political, and they are less open about it.

  22. hunter Says:

    Odd how in the US GMO fear and AGW are generally the same people.
    as to your inference of some secretive political agenda behind the skeptics, one needs to only read a tiny bit of what believers write to see a consistent political pattern in their associations and prescription for the problems they claim CO2 is causing.

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