In the latest New Yorker, Michael Specter gives a textbook lesson in how to write about someone who is misguided in some science-related arena without succumbing to the perils of false-balance. The story, Seeds of Doubt, is a good counter example to a major feature that ran recently in the Dallas Morning News. That story, Dallas researchers out to scientifically prove biblical version of creation, has already been criticized for false balance, naïve reporting and for allowing creationists to make unchallenged claims. My Tracker colleague Paul Raeburn discussed that piece here. Another criticism appeared here in io9.
The negative fallout from the creationist profile should not discourage anyone from profiling subjects who spout nonsense, illogic, or pseudoscience. There is a right way to profile people who are wrong. Specter’s enlightening piece illustrates how it can be done as he focuses on popular anti-GMO activist Vandana Shiva.
In the opening of the story, readers learn why they should care about her. She’s powerful, she’s charismatic…. “She has been called the Gandhi of grain and compared to Mother Teresa. If she personally accepted all the awards, degrees, and honors offered to her, she would have time for little else.” Young people think she’s magical.
Specter is fair to her. He’s never snarky or snide. He gives her plenty of opportunity to explain herself and to answer challenges. But ultimately, she can’t stand up against logic and evidence. See how he follows up this quote from Shiva:
“If you look at the graph of the growth of G.M.O.s, the growth of application of glyphosate and autism, it’s literally a one-to-one correspondence. And you could make that graph for kidney failure, you could make that graph for diabetes, you could make that graph even for Alzheimer’s.”
A lesser story might fall back on an attempt to “balance” such a quote with one from a scientist who disagrees, thus alerting readers to a controversy. But the above is not a controversial statement. It’s a false one and Specter shows why:
Hundreds of millions of people, in twenty-eight countries, eat transgenic products every day, and if any of Shiva’s assertions were true the implications would be catastrophic. But no relationship between glyphosate and the diseases that Shiva mentioned has been discovered. Her claims were based on a single research paper, released last year, in a journal called Entropy, which charges scientists to publish their findings. The paper contains no new research. Shiva had committed a common, but dangerous, fallacy: confusing a correlation with causation. (It turns out, for example, that the growth in sales of organic produce in the past decade matches the rise of autism, almost exactly. For that matter, so does the rise in sales of high-definition televisions, as well as the number of Americans who commute to work every day by bicycle.)
Specter points out blind spots among Shiva’s followers. She’s promoted as a leading physicist, though he finds she’s published no papers. She claims GMOs are “killing” farmers in India. He goes to India to talk to farmers and gets a very different picture.
What makes these two stories so different? Both profile people who make arguments based on misstatements or misunderstandings of science. Both give the subjects plenty of ink, and both include opposing views. The key difference is in the depth of the reporting. In the creationist piece, readers don’t learn much about the influence of creationists in determining the content of textbooks or otherwise steering science education. And the author repeats his creationist subject’s claims about galaxies, genetic mutations and dinosaur bones without any challenge.
Specter shows where his anti-GMO source is wrong and why it matters. Science writer John Horgan writes in his blog that Specter “dismantles” Shiva. Specter’s story also includes a rich history and background that appears to be built on extensive research. There’s history and background in the creationist piece too, but it’s shallower, with fewer specific references and many small inaccuracies, a few of which are flagged in Paul Raeburn’s post.
Scientists often get upset when we reporters talk to creationists, pseudoscientists, UFO nuts, climate change deniers or various conspiracy theorists. The scientists have a point, since more often than not the resulting story gives a free ride to the flakes and their falsehoods. But that doesn’t have to be the case. Characters promoting irrational beliefs are part of our reality and a story may not be complete without them. Shiva is a major figure in the drama swirling around transgenic organisms. She belongs in Specter’s story. If a writer does enough digging, approaches the subject critically and writes carefully, the truth will emerge. -Faye Flam fayeflamwriter.com