Will Saletan has an exhaustively researched and cogently argued piece at Slate on the dishonesty of the anti-biotechnology activists and the harm they have caused. He lays out, for all to see, the naked truth about their efforts. It has nothing to do with the truth. They only care about pushing their agenda, even if it comes at the cost of human lives. As Saletan writes, “[t]hey want more studies. They’ll always want more studies. They call themselves skeptics. But when you cling to an unsubstantiated belief, even after two decades of research and experience, that’s not skepticism. It’s dogma.”
Saletan describes the tactics employed by activists to hoodwink the public and politicians. Fear-mongering, misinformation, and information-overload are particular effective. Fear-mongering is the easiest one: they can simply say, “We don’t for sure that this thing is safe.” And because science is hard and usually involves reading long, boring blocks of text, few people will bother to dig deeper. Those who do will find plenty of intentional misinformation or manipulation of research. As Saletan points out in this passage:
Schubert systematically distorted the evidence…Schubert said the study found that “smokers who supplemented their diet with beta-carotene had an increased risk of lung cancer.” He neglected to mention that the daily beta carotene dose administered in the study was the equivalent of roughly 10 to 20 bowls of Golden Rice. He also failed to quote the rest of the paper, which emphasized that in general, beta carotene was actually associated with a lower risk of lung cancer.
One feature of their methods Saletan left out is the role played by the media. Anti-biotech activists rely on journalists to create an echo-chamber for their baseless claims. In this digital age it’s all about them clicks. And putting up a headline like “Study Finds Golden Rice Causes Cancer!” will get a lot more attention than a title like “Study shows smokers who supplement diet with beta carotene at increased risk for lung cancer, but for everyone else beta carotene has benefits.” For one thing, it is way too long (fire that headline writer), but it is simply not as shocking and therefore less likely to motivate someone to read it. So, most journalists just republish whatever was written in a study’s press release; few have the time to slog through entire research papers.
And this is what activists count on. They count on individuals and media outlets being too limited in time and interest to actually verify their claims. Sometimes this gets them into trouble, like when a clever journalist published a bunk paper on how chocolate can help people lose weight and then wrote a piece about reporters being gullible. But most of the time, nobody is the wiser and the misinformation gets filed away in the back of peoples’ minds, slowly building a basis for them to “instinctually” share the activists’ bogus claims.
This is why it is good that we have writers like Will Saletan to do the digging most journalists are too busy to do. Unlike our lawmakers and anti-biotech activists, this article takes a clear-eyed look at the unintended consequences of holding back biotechnology. For example, because of their constant whining about the slim chance that golden rice may have any harm on human health, it has remained unavailable to consumers, leading to an estimated 125,000 to 250,000 preventable child fatalities a year. Furthermore, the anti-biotech movement has prevented the development of new biotech-based insecticides and herbicides, resulting in farmers relying on those that are available, exacerbating the problem of chemical-resistant weeds and increased use of herbicides.
The tide seems to be turning within the media and this Slate article is the latest in a rising tide of skepticism toward the anti-biotech movement. Where once the mainstream media would be reflexively anti-biotechnology, in the last few years there has been a shift. Outlets including NPR and Forbes have published articles about how biotech fear is all in your mind and how research on biotechnology has ended the debate.