The Atlantic Serves Up Alarmism & Jumbled 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.”

Category: GMOs, Journalism, science

Crackpot Science

There’s no question about it: science reigns supreme today. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that we collectively take empirical evidence more seriously than we used to. What it means is that science has become increasingly debased, just another partisan tool that an increasing number of people take no more seriously than advertising claims about who has the best pizza. Scientists have their version of science and everyone else has theirs. And that version is decidedly not the same as the “elitist” version practiced by the guys in white lab coats.

Kevin Drum, from a post titled, “The debasement of science.”

Category: science

Who You Calling Anti-Science?

Here’s the charge, from Chris Mooney:

Political conservatives in the U.S. today have overwhelming problems with science. They reject, in large numbers, mainstream and accepted knowledge on fundamental things about humans and the planet–evolution, global warming, to name a few. I also recently posted about how systematically conservatives undermine science with respect to reproductive health.

And this is still just the tip of the iceberg.

Ken Green says WTF?

Before firing off his own rebuttal at AEI, Green counterpunched in the comments section (which I don’t see any way to link to) of Mooney’s blog. Green’s rejoinder, to my mind, has merit and is concisely and cogently made in this particular comment:

Chris’ argument is that the right is more anti-science than the left. I agree that many on the right reject science regarding evolution, and (somewhat) on climate change, both of which are bad. I’ve written about that at AEI. However, I think that the left is FAR more prone to present things as being “scientific” that are mostly pseudo-scientific nonsense, and they are very half-hearted about retracting them when they’ve propagated and caused harm.

Thus, if I were adding up the ledger, I’d score two “anti-science” points to the right for evolution and climate change, but about 20 “anti-science” points to the left for exaggerating the dangers of pesticides, herbicides, chemicals in general, radiation, conventional agriculture, plastics, paper, artificial sweeteners, vaccines, GM organisms, aquaculture, etc.

This is a valid counter-argument. Green is essentially saying that the anti-science manifestation on the Left (masked as pseudo-science) is different than that on the Right (which is outright rejection of established science). And that the Left has more anti-science strikes against it than the Right.

What Green fails to address is that an anti-evolution pose and climate change rejectionism have become closely associated with the GOP, because of the influence of religious conservatives and the Tea Party. There are no similarly high profile anti-science stances associated with Democrat leaders or policymakers. For example, President Obama, as Mooney pointed out, is pro-nuclear. Here’s another: The Obama administration has made regulatory decisions on GMO foods that have upset the lefty, anti-GMO types at Grist and Mother Jones. And so on.

So when looked at this way, there is no equivalence in anti-science attitudes between establishment Republicans and Democrats-as reflected in the kinds of science-related issues that are now fixtures in the political landscape. It’s pretty clear which party is getting the anti-science reputation and why.

It’s also understandable that Green and other science-respecting conservatives don’t like this label, but their beef should be more with the direction the Republican party has chosen.

Category: politics, science

Take a Pastor to Work Day

We have an annual event in the U.S. that I think is kind of hokey but also well-meaning.

After reading this dispatch from the recent Ecological Society of America conference, I thought maybe the idea could be broadened a bit, into something that allowed a local pastor to tag along with an ecologist or climate scientist for a day.

Category: climate science, ecology, religion, science

Some Beach Reading

Via Dan Vergano at USA Today:

Summer is the season for comic book heroes: Green Lantern, Captain America and of course, the late physicist Richard Feynman.

Feynman doesn’t have a movie out for August, but this month brings the debut of the graphic novel Feynman by writer Jim Ottaviani and illustrator Leland Myrick. In classic comic book form, they chronicle the mind-blowing adventures of the Nobel-Prize winning physicist,adventurer and scientific icon.

Here’s a teaser.

Category: Feynman, science

When Fearmongering is Harmful

Question: What do earthquakes in Washington D.C. have to do with brain cancer and cell phones?

You can find the answer in this excellent interview with a scientist at BoingBoing.

Meanwhile, over at Stoat’s thread on this cell phone/brain cancer issue, here’s a great observation that has not yet been made in any of the discussions, so far as I can tell:

I am bemused at the WHO’s capitulation to the fearmongers on this. There is extremely strong evidence from numerous studies that the risk of cancer from cell phone use is either zero or at worst some number so close to zero that creating widespread anxiety about it engenders a larger risk.

And incidentally due to the WHO’s stupidity we have no prospect of stopping wasting research resources on this non-risk, which might then be used to better advantage. The opportunity cost of worrying about the wrong things.

Category: science

Science Needs a Truth Squad

The Washington Post has a regular column called “The Fact Checker,” by Glenn Kessler, a longtime Post reporter. It’s a relatively new feature. Earlier this year, Kessler described the column’s origins and purpose:

My colleague Michael Dobbs started the column during the 2008 [Presidential] campaign and now, in 2011, The Washington Post is reviving it as a permanent feature.

We will not be bound by the antics of the presidential campaign season, but will focus on any statements by political figures and government officials-in the United States and abroad-that cry out for fact-checking. It’s a big world out there, and so we will rely on readers to ask questions and point out statements that need to be checked. Over time, we hope to build this page into a more interactive feature than the blog it has been.

The purpose of this website, and an accompanying column in the Post, is to “truth squad” the statements of political figures regarding issues of great importance, be they national, international or local. As the 2012 presidential election approaches, we will increasingly focus on statements made in the heat of the presidential contest. But we will not be limited to political charges or countercharges. We will seek to explain difficult issues, provide missing context and provide analysis and explanation of various “code words” used by politicians, diplomats and others to obscure or shade the truth.

All this makes total sense, of course. And it’s a great public service. But why only for politics? Science is also a battlefield, with claims, counterclaims and all manner of misstatements that cry out for fact checking. Climate science, a subject that is often hotly debated in the public arena, would obviously be a recurring topic in any such Truth Squad column. So would nuclear power, biotechnology, evolution, and many medical and health-related issues that are often in the news.

If it’s important to gauge the accuracy of what politicians say about the budget deficit, foreign policy, Medicare, etc., it’s equally important to gauge the accuracy of what newsmakers say about climate change, stem cell research, vaccines, evolution, and so on.

The big newspapers, such as The New York Times, Washington Post and USA Today, have eminently qualified science reporters that could be charged with a column that fact checks questionable scientific statements made by government officials, politicians, and even widely read pundits.

Science is just as important to society as politics. And just as is the case with political and policy related issues, the public often has trouble separating out fact from fiction on many scientific claims and statements.

Science, like politics, needs a Truth Squad.

Category: science, science journalism

Why Scientists Can’t Tell Their Stories

Randy Olson, in response to this post, offers an unstinting and thought-provoking commentary on science communication. Olson is a marine biologist turned filmmaker. One of his movies is called Flock of Dodos, which might best characterize his view of  the science community-with respect to their overall communication skills. 

Although critical of scientists, Olson also offers some constructive suggestions below. Have a read and let’s discuss.


Interesting discussion here.  Lots of good points.  I like Tom Fuller’s plea for simplicity — which is exactly what’s needed for broad communication.  And by the way, all of my essays, comments and my book are directed at trying to reach the general public, not the hard core aficionado crowd you get on serious climate blogs — it’s two different modes of communication. I also love Jonathan Gilligan’s Dirty Harry idea — as a simple PSA it would be better than the vast majority of the dull offerings of the NGOs in their efforts — the sort of Russian Roulette we’re playing with the planet, which is another variation on the loading the dice metaphor that is often used.

As for Michael Tobis, I don’t think you quite get my comment about scientists being “mumblers.”  That’s what they are, in essence, when it comes to broad communication.  They are the guy at the party over in the corner mumbling the truth as the loudmouthed fools in the middle blabber on and on about topics they know nothing about but have read of on blogs.  Specifically there is no excuse for me to hear Bill Maher last September say that Climategate revealed scientists “fudging” their data when 5 investigations had already shown nothing of the sort.  The problem occurred because all the science world had managed to do with the 5 investigations was mumble about them (meaning tout them on blogs that few people read).   I wrote about it at the time here. 

The science world has never had a need to engage in large scale public relations, but that’s because the world has never been like it is today.  This is not your father’s science world.  This is not just the world of Twitter, it is also the world of magazine articles written last fall by journalists (Andrew David H. Freedman in the Atlantic, Jonah Lehrer in the New Yorker, you can Google them both) who have nothing against the science world, but are pointing out there are major psychological flaws in the brains of all humans, including scientists, that lead to high levels of false positives and other significant sources of noise.

All of which means the time has come to take a deeper interest in understanding these basic dynamics of storytelling that we are all burdened with.  And that is the key point of my essay on uncertainty.  Your audience is defective to begin with — we are ALL defective.  That’s what the two articles point out.  People don’t respond to “just the facts” in the way you wish they did.  But there are ways to deal with this that do not involve dishonesty or distortion.  One of which is making certain the public is aware of how much certainty you have provided them in the past.

Last month I published this editorial in The Solutions Journal.

One of my suggestions/complaints/observations is why in the world isn’t the climate science community taking credit for the amazing amount of benefits they have brought our society through an understanding of El Nino.  Twelve years ago in California the term was a blank slate.  Today it is part of the way of life.  That is a huge amount of certainty climate science has provided.  That certainty builds public trust, but only if the public is made to realize who is responsible for it.

It’s called positive public relations.  Corporations understand this dynamic.  But the science world simply does not.  And I’m now telling you this from down in the trenches.  The public health and medical science worlds have connected with my book and the basic message of “Don’t be such a scientist,” and are reaching out to me now for lots of workshops with doctors, epidemiologists and medical researchers.  They understand this need to be accountable and connect with the general public.

But the climate crowd is still back in this philosophy of, “the truth is plenty scary enough.”  Just spouting the facts no longer works.  There has to be an understanding of how NOISY our society has become, and what needs to be done to deal with it.  It’s not impossible, but it requires an acceptance that the world has changed.  And that’s a hard thing for a lot of the older generation of scientists.  I know.  I’m talking directly to these old guys.  They don’t appreciate my message.  But they are on a sinking ship.  Something needs to be done.

Category: science, science communication

Feral Deniers

A wildlife ecologist seeks to tame them.

Category: science, wildlife

What Is Science, Anyway?

Hi, everyone.  For those of you who don’t know me, I blog about archaeology and related things over at Gambler’s House, and have done some guest blogging here as well.  Keith has asked me to do a guest post on the recent controversy over whether anthropology is a science.  You can read about the details here, but the basic gist is that the American Anthropological Association rewrote one of their mission statement documents to remove any references to anthropology being a science, and a bunch of anthropologists who consider what they do to be science got all upset.  The story then made it into various media outlets, including the New York Times, and these generally framed it as reflecting a longstanding tension between the more scientific and the more humanistic approaches within anthropology.  I think it’s probably true that this framing was a bit misleading in emphasizing the conflict within the discipline, but it is also definitely true that a tension along these lines has existed for quite some time and both sides seem to be agreed that the more humanistic faction has the upper hand now and has been increasingly dominant in recent decades.

My basic response to all this is that regardless of what it may have been at one point, anthropology today is not a science, and the AAA’s rewording reflects the current reality better than the earlier wording did.  (I have no particular opinion on the other major controversy about the rewording, which has to do with whether it focuses too much on public outreach rather than research.)  I think it’s definitely the case that the trend in anthropology has been toward greater focus on sociocultural anthropology at the expense of the more “scientific” subfields of physical anthropology, archaeology, and linguistics, and that concomitant with this shift sociocultural anthropology itself has become more humanistic and less scientific.  Personally I think this is a good thing, and that the other subfields never fit that comfortably in anthropology anyway and would be better off becoming independent disciplines or parts of other disciplines, as is largely the case for linguistics already and has always been the case for archaeology in Europe.  Whether those other disciplines would be scientific or not is a separate issue, but I think the rump anthropology would not be.

I’ve been hesitant to wade too far into this controversy, however, because I don’t feel like I have a firm enough definition of “science” to rigorously defend my conclusion that anthropology is not one.  I’m sure this has been discussed plenty in the philosophy of science literature, but I’m not familiar with that literature.  My argument so far is basically a descriptivist one: I think most people have a sense of what “science” means that does not include (sociocultural) anthropology, therefore anthropology is not a science.  I don’t necessarily consider this a problem, either.  Saying anthropology is not scientific does not mean it isn’t “real” research or worth doing.  There are plenty of serious disciplines that virtually no one thinks of as sciences; history, for example.  I can see why the “scientific” anthropologists want to be considered scientists, because of the prestige associated with science in comparison to most other disciplines (although as Keith has recently noted, science is not without its own problems).  I don’t really see why they care about being considered anthropologists, though.  Anthropology isn’t particularly prestigious as academic disciplines go, at least in my experience.

Anyway, I don’t have much more to say about this at this point, because to say more I would really need to define what I mean by “science” and I’m not yet prepared to do that.  I do still think, however, that however you define “science,” anthropology doesn’t count as one.

Category: anthropologists, Anthropology, science, science journalism