From ‘I smell a rat’ to ‘when pigs fly’, bad science makes its rounds

pigs flyFrom ‘I smell a rat‘ to ‘when pigs fly’, bad science has been making the rounds of late. The multi-authored article A long-term toxicology study on pigs fed a combined genetically modified (GM) soy and GM maize diet” reports that pigs fed a diet of only genetically modified grain show a markedly higher incidence of stomach inflammation than pigs that ate conventional feed.

This paper is fresh off the press and ready for ravenous consumption by anti-GMO enthusiasts. However, it seems that – post-publication – the paper and its evidence fail the independent peer-review process on many fronts:

The Evidence: David Tribe reviews the paper here: He says, “It’s what some call a fishing expedition in search of a finding, and a known pitfall of animal feeding trials on whole foods…” Tribe points out (among other things) that some of the study’s observations might be attributed to compositional differences in the variety of soybeans or corn fed to the pigs “..there is relatively little information in the paper about nutritional formulation, methods used for producing the pig diets, storage time for the grain and which particular varieties of grain were used in the diets.”

Update – June 14th – – – Anastasia Bodnar expands upon this further in her post in Biofortified Lack of care when choosing grains invalidates pig feeding study: “The authors aimed to do a real world study, with pig feed that can be found in real life. It intuitively seems right to just go get some grain from some farms. After all, that is what pigs eat, right? Unfortunately, it’s just not that simple…To hone in on any differences that may be caused by the GM traits, they would have to use feed with one or more GM traits and feed that doesn’t have the GM traits but that is otherwise as similar as possible. If the feeds aren’t very similar, then we can’t know if any differences in the animals is due to the GM traits or due to something else.”

Update June 14th – – – Dr. Robert Friendship (via Terry Daynard) – swine expert from the University of Guelph – points to methodological problems with “visual scoring” and assessment of ‘inflammation’: “…it was incorrect for the researchers to conclude that one group had more stomach inflammation than the other group because the researchers did not examine stomach inflammation. They did a visual scoring of the colour of the lining of the stomach of pigs at the abattoir and misinterpreted redness to indicate evidence of inflammation. It does not. They would have had to take a tissue sample and prepare histological slides and examine these samples for evidence of inflammatory response such as white blood cell infiltration and other changes to determine if there was inflammation.”

Andrew Kniss clearly demonstrates the failings of the statistical analysis, poking holes in the study’s evidence. He states, “If I were to have analyzed these data, using the statistical techniques that I was taught were appropriate for the type of data, I would have concluded there was no statistical difference in stomach inflammation between the pigs fed the two different diets. To analyze these data the way the authors did makes it seem like they’re trying to find a difference, where none really exist.”

Another matter worth mentioning: in the experiment, half of the pigs died of pneumonia. [update: 50% of the pigs did NOT die but, rather, were ‘sick’ with pneumonia – my error] This is an indication of bad stewardship. In events such as this, it is only appropriate to throw away the results – maybe a ‘do-over’ (next time using a better methodological approach (and take better care of the pigs)).

Credibility: This was the first time I had ever heard of The Journal of Organic Systems. As Mark Lynas observes (in GMO pigs study: more junk science), “The journal does not appear in PubMed, suggesting it is not taken very seriously in the scientific community.” In the world of science, publishing a good, sound piece of science in a good journal is an indicator of quality and credibility. I mean, think about it… if this study was a ground-breaking piece of ‘all that,’ wouldn’t it have been published by Nature or Science? At the very least, the paper would have been picked up by a journal within the study’s subject area.

Bias: You only need glance at the acknowledgement list at the end of the paper to see that it is a ‘who’s who’ of the anti-GMO world.  This kind of makes the statement “The authors declare that there are no conflicts of interest” pretty much ‘moot.’  One author – Howard Vlieger – is the President of Verity Farms, Iowa, an organization that markets itself as non-GM.  Judy Carman (lead author) is widely known as a long-time anti-biotech campaigner. She even has a website called ‘GMOJudyCarman‘ (launched in late May – timely, no?)

Other interesting bits? In an April 2008 interview, Dr. Carman stated that her work received funding from Jeffrey Smith and the Institute for Responsible Technology. Jon Fagan, listed in the acknowledgements, is the head of Genetic-ID. Genetic-ID is the company that conducted the DNA analysis for the study confirming that the GM corn used contained a combination of NK603, MON863 and MON810 genes (page 40). Genetic-ID is based in Fairfield, Iowa and has satellites the world over. Genetic-ID is a GMO testing company and part of a convoluted network of actors with vested anti-GM interests, weird politics and Vedic-scienc-y stuff, and a long list of celebrities (see here).

It would seem that Carman et al have taken some pages from Seralini’s ‘playbook’ – but there are no ‘silver linings’ here.  This is just another exercise to “prove” that GMOs are dangerous rather than to objectively investigate them. Given the conflict of interests of the authors and affiliates involved, what other conclusion could they come to? The science, however, doesn’t pass the sniff-test. It’s a case of faulty methodology and poorly interpreted data magically making it through the peer review process.  Throw in some colorful (scary) pictures of pig uteri for good measure, add to that a bit of bias and credibility issues and you have the makings for some really ‘shoddy science’.

– – –

  • Check out Fourat Janabi’s post @Fouratj: “Pigs, GMOs and Bullshit Fourat provides a point by point critique of the Carman et al article – Easy-to-consume with none of the BS. :O)
  • Then there is this post from Julee @sleuth4health who quips, “At this point, anybody who’s ever judged a High School Science Fair has got to be thinking “F.”” 
  • Catalyzing Illinois writes Something Smells and its not the Pigs“We are not dealing with “disinterested and objective science” here.”
  • Contrary to Popular Belief: Latest anti-GMO study: more bullshit

“No More Food Fights” is a call to action!

No More Food Fights: Growing a productive food and farm conversation by Michele Payn-Knoper

No-More-Food-Fights-Cover-Food-680x1024

Agriculture and food production practices are often misunderstood by the public and maligned in the media.  These days, misinformation regarding farming practice and food quality and safety can circulate like wildfire, fuelled by the tools like Facebook and Twitter. 

“No More Food Fights” is a unique book that navigates the ‘fever swamp’ of propaganda by providing readers with realistic insights into how food makes it to our plate.  Its author, Michele Payn-Knoper, is a professional speaker, farmer, and self-professed foodie. She challenges us to abandon the ‘food fights’ in favor of balanced conversations that are approached with “curiosity, candor and civility.”

knoper quote

Payn-Knoper encourages us to celebrate our choices and to strive to engage in productive dialogue on the science behind agriculture, about what really happens on the farm, consumer perceptions of farming and food and everything in between.

What makes “No More Food Fights” really unique is its design.  Payn-Knoper organizes content around the five senses (touch, sight, sound, smell, taste) along with one more – common sense.  One side is aimed at the consumer perspective (chefs, healthcare professionals, foodies, dieticians, etc) while the ‘flip’ side reveals the perspectives of farmers, ranchers and agri-business.

“No More Food Fights” covers the gamut from biotechnology to grain and livestock production practices to animal welfare to stewardship to fertilizers, pests and protecting the environment – all in an effort to highlight the high quality of North America’s food and feed.  It is an approachable book with insights from a variety of people and professionals who have firsthand experience including farmers, dieticians, food processors, physicians, food safety experts, veterinarians, consumers and scientists.

“No More Food Fights” is a call to action.  It is a call to action for all of us no matter where we sit on the value chain – producer, processor or consumer. We need to approach our dialogues around farming and food with civility.  No negativity, no grandstanding – just good conversation!

Infecting through misinformation…a new kind of communication pathogen?

August 21, 2011

Yesterday morning, Michael Olson (host of Food Chain Radio) interviewed Dr. Don Huber.  If you are not familiar with who Dr.Huber is, I will give you a little background.

Dr. Don Huber is Professor Emeritus from Purdue University. He is (was) a soil pathologist by training and appears to have had a fairly unremarkable career affiliated with a remarkable department at a world reknowned university (a quick search of ISI Web of Knowledge this morning netted Dr. Don M. Huber only a couple of dozen peer-reviewed co-authored articles published between the 1960s and 2010 most, of which, had relatively low citation rates) [UPDATE: ISI WoK is probably not the best source for searching scientific publications, hence low numbers of reported pubs by Huber. A quick search of PubMed returned a larger number of articles]. Earlier this year, Dr. Huber scripted a letter to Secretary Vilsack warning him (and the USDA) of a pathogen that appeared to have profound implications for animal fertility and plant mortality. He linked this pathogen to a synthetic herbicide.

In theory, sounding this kind of alarm should be a good thing. However, Dr. Huber has absolutely NO peer-reviewed science backing his allegations of the connection between the so-called pathogen and synthetic herbicide. This is where the danger lies. I have followed this story for quite some time so I listened intently to Olson’s interview and Huber’s responses.

The most telling part of the interview was what Huber DIDN’T say.  When asked about who pays/backs him, he responded by reviewing his history of research (academic life at Purdue). When asked about the scientific processes that purportedly support his allegations, Huber reverts back to why he sent Vilsack the letter in the first place. He never responds to Olson’s questions directly. In fact, he subverts them. Also, there are no references to peer-reviewed research/science to support Huber’s claims. This link that Huber alleges exists between this ‘pathogen’ and synthetic herbicides is extremely weak and based primarily on conjecture.  Again, this is dangerous.

Why is this dangerous? Science is a process or method that has been established over the past few centuries. Science brings to bear with it certain key protocols.  One of these is the ‘peer review’ process that demands science be replicable and reviewed by a body of peers prior to publication. Peer-review is a ‘checks and balances’ system that is intended to bring good science and its ‘value-add’ to society in a responsible manner with accountability measures built in (search “peer review” on my blog). If these science-based protocols are ignored or poorly executed, then non-peer reviewed science – even “bad” science – can make it into mainstream spaces. Circulating unchecked, through the use of technology and social media tools, ‘bad’ science can become a social ‘pathogen’ in and of itself; infecting through misinformation.

In light of the Huber interview, I took it upon myself to do a bit more sleuthing. The thing that was nagging at me was: Who is behind Huber’s efforts here? I mean, there must be some kind of (other) agenda pushing him along? Right?

My investigation lead me to this. One potential backer is likely to be the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance. They sport Huber’s cv on their site. This organization is closely aligned with the Weston A. Price Foundation and several other organizations that are “anti-GMO” in terms of their mandates/philosophies. Another key collaborator for Huber appears to be Jeffrey Smith (anti-GMO advocate, author of “Seeds of Deception” and part-time yogic-flyer). Huber’s allegations were formally endorsed and circulated by Jeffrey Smith as early as January this year, long before Huber’s letter ever made it into Vilsack’s hands (see: http://pollyheilmealey.wordpress.com/2011/01/18/monsanto-is-at-it-again-jeffrey-smith-used-by-permission/). According to this aforementioned posting (and others), it would appear that Jeffrey and Don (Huber) are on a first name basis. In his blog post on the Institute for Responsible Technology, it appears that Smith also had access to Huber’s photos: http://www.responsibletechnology.org/blog/664. This suggests that a very close relationship has and is being cultivated between Smith and Huber.

Here’s my two cents on all this.  Assuming that Huber is funded through an NGO or the like, I think that they should re-think him as their poster-boy.  Based upon what I heard in this morning’s interview, Huber lacks the PR saavy to carry out the ‘sell’ of bad science or ‘allegations without evidence’. Also, if a funding agent is trying to leverage reputational value out of Huber in his role/career as a scientist, they should re-think their strategy. One comment on the Food Chain Radio Show’s forum was:

“I’ve spoken with people in Huber’s previous department and they are really quite embarrassed about this individual. He does not provide data or anything you would normally use to validate claims. He hasn’t really worked in the lab for years. No one is quite sure of his agenda, but he has no credibility in scientific or ag circles.”

In closing, I think that Michael Olson handled the interview with Huber very well (I admit it, I was skeptical at first).  He obviously prepared ahead of time and asked good, relevant, relatively non-sensationalized questions. Adding to that, I think that the call-in speakers on the show brought to light the problems with the lack of ‘science’ or science-based protocols in this über-(dare I say “Huber”)mess. This, combined with Huber’s clear lack of charisma (J.Smith is way better at this (note: this is not an endorsement)) and his inability to communicate science in ‘lay’ terms (forget all the inaccuracies), will ensure that this ‘science-communication pathogen’ will not infect the public and its perceptions.

Hopefully.

For more excellent ‘sleuthiness’ on the science of the whole ‘Huber’ deal, check out Anastasia Bodnar’s posting on the Biofortified site: “Extraordinary claims…require extraordinary evidence.” http://www.biofortified.org/2011/02/extraordinary-claims/

Note: thanks to my colleagues for their input/insights on this entry.

Responses to Huber’s allegations: http://www.monsanto.com/newsviews/Pages/huber-pathogen-roundup-ready-crops.aspx

– – –

POSTSCRIPT #1: September 10, 2011

Postscript to this… see blog entry on “cred” and Huber by S.D. Savage on his blog Applied Mythology (August 21, 2011 http://appliedmythology.blogspot.com/2011/08/some-thoughts-about-cred-and-don-huber.html) were he states:

“…because he [Huber] is saying that something terrible is happening that can be blamed on Monsanto and GMO technology, he has automatic credibility with certain constituencies….I wish I had a good term for this particular class of cred that comes from telling a particular audience what it wants to believe about some entity that it has elevated to an evil status of mythic proportions.  The best term I could find applies to the audience more than to the speaker: Credulous: ready to believe, especially on slight or uncertain evidence.”

POST SCRIPT #2: January 1, 2012

And yet another postscript… A study just came out in the December issue of the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health by Williams et a:

According to the authors, “the available literature shows no solid evidence linking glyphosate exposure to adverse developmental or reproductive effects at environmentally realistic exposure concentrations.”

Link to article: http://www.ask-force.org/web/HerbizideTol/Williams-DeSesso-Developmental-Glyphosate-2011.pdf

Huber’s letter to Secretary Vilsack, February 2011

Dear Secretary Vilsack:

A team of senior plant and animal scientists have recently brought to my attention the discovery of an electron microscopic pathogen that appears to significantly impact the health of plants, animals, and probably human beings. Based on a review of the data, it is widespread, very serious, and is in much higher concentrations in Roundup Ready (RR) soybeans and corn—suggesting a link with the RR gene or more likely the presence of Roundup. This organism appears NEW to science!

This is highly sensitive information that could result in a collapse of US soy and corn export markets and significant disruption of domestic food and feed supplies. On the other hand, this new organism may already be responsible for significant harm (see below). My colleagues and I are therefore moving our investigation forward with speed and discretion, and seek assistance from the USDA and other entities to identify the pathogen’s source, prevalence, implications, and remedies.

We are informing the USDA of our findings at this early stage, specifically due to your pending decision regarding approval of RR alfalfa. Naturally, if either the RR gene or Roundup itself is a promoter or co-factor of this pathogen, then such approval could be a calamity. Based on the current evidence, the only reasonable action at this time would be to delay deregulation at least until sufficient data has exonerated the RR system, if it does.

For the past 40 years, I have been a scientist in the professional and military agencies that evaluate and prepare for natural and manmade biological threats, including germ warfare and disease outbreaks. Based on this experience, I believe the threat we are facing from this pathogen is unique and of a high risk status. In layman’s terms, it should be treated as an emergency.

A diverse set of researchers working on this problem have contributed various pieces of the puzzle, which together presents the following disturbing scenario:

Unique Physical Properties
This previously unknown organism is only visible under an electron microscope (36,000X), with an approximate size range equal to a medium size virus. It is able to reproduce and appears to be a micro-fungal-like organism. If so, it would be the first such micro-fungus ever identified. There is strong evidence that this infectious agent promotes diseases of both plants and mammals, which is very rare.

Pathogen Location and Concentration
It is found in high concentrations in Roundup Ready soybean meal and corn, distillers meal, fermentation feed products, pig stomach contents, and pig and cattle placentas.

Linked with Outbreaks of Plant Disease
The organism is prolific in plants infected with two pervasive diseases that are driving down yields and farmer income—sudden death syndrome (SDS) in soy, and Goss’ wilt in corn. The pathogen is also found in the fungal causative agent of SDS (Fusarium solani fsp glycines).

Implicated in Animal Reproductive Failure
Laboratory tests have confirmed the presence of this organism in a wide variety of livestock that have experienced spontaneous abortions and infertility. Preliminary results from ongoing research have also been able to reproduce abortions in a clinical setting.

The pathogen may explain the escalating frequency of infertility and spontaneous abortions over the past few years in US cattle, dairy, swine, and horse operations. These include recent reports of infertility rates in dairy heifers of over 20%, and spontaneous abortions in cattle as high as 45%.

For example, 450 of 1,000 pregnant heifers fed wheatlage experienced spontaneous abortions. Over the same period, another 1,000 heifers from the same herd that were raised on hay had no abortions. High concentrations of the pathogen were confirmed on the wheatlage, which likely had been under weed management using glyphosate.

Recommendations
In summary, because of the high titer of this new animal pathogen in Round Ready crops,[sic] and its association with plant and animal diseases that are reaching epidemic proportions, we request USDA’s participation in a multi-agency investigation, and an immediate moratorium on the deregulation of RR crops until the causal/predisposing relationship with glyphosate and/or RR plants can be ruled out as a threat to crop and animal production and human health.

It is urgent to examine whether the side-effects of glyphosate use may have facilitated the growth of this pathogen, or allowed it to cause greater harm to weakened plant and animal hosts. It is well-documented that glyphosate promotes soil pathogens and is already implicated with the increase of more than 40 plant diseases; it dismantles plant defenses by chelating vital nutrients; and it reduces the bioavailability of nutrients in feed, which in turn can cause animal disorders. To properly evaluate these factors, we request access to the relevant USDA data.

I have studied plant pathogens for more than 50 years. We are now seeing an unprecedented trend of increasing plant and animal diseases and disorders. This pathogen may be instrumental to understanding and solving this problem. It deserves immediate attention with significant resources to avoid a general collapse of our critical agricultural infrastructure.

Sincerely,

COL (Ret.) Don M. Huber
Emeritus Professor, Purdue University
APS Coordinator, USDA National Plant Disease Recovery System (NPDRS)

Source: http://www.thepeoplesvoice.org/TPV3/Voices.php/2011/02/20/scientists-warn-of-link-between-dangerou

Attachment 2. Letter from a Veterinarian

Hello, my name is ___________. I am a veterinarian in Michigan.

I am working with a sow herd that has had elevated death loss for  over two years and very poor reproductive performance for the last  6-8 months. I have done extensive diagnostics (primarily at Iowa  State) and can find nothing infectious that is routinely found to explain the problem.

I suspect there is a toxin involved; I have done extensive testing on  liver, feed, and water but can find no evidence of those compounds  either. We have had a few individuals mention that the use of GMO  crops could be contributing to these problems.

The producer recently saw your article to the secretary of agriculture and forwarded it to me. We are very intrigued by the organism you mention. Could you tell me if any laboratory is looking for this agent? How do we go about finding it? We are at the end of our rope and cannot figure this out.  Any help you can give us would be greatly appreciated.

Attachment 3. Letter from 26 University Entomologists to EPA

Public Submission: EPA-HQ-OPP-2008-0836-0043.  Docket   EPA-HQ-OPP-2008-0836 
 Docket Title   Evaluation of the Resistance Risks from Using a Seed Mix Refuge with Pioneer’s Optimum AcreMax 1 Corn Rootworm-Protected Corn   
Document  EPA-HQ-OPP-2008-0836-0001; Public Submission EPA-HQ-OPP-2008-0836-0043     
 Public Submission Title    Anonymous public comment     Receipt Date  02/09/2009    
Doc. Legacy ID  EPA-HQ-OPP-2008-0836-0032(0900006480849377) Track No.    8084de39    

General Comment   
 Comment:  The following statement has been submitted by 26 leading corn insect scientists  working at public research institutions located in 16 corn producing states.  All of the scientists have been active participants of the Regional Research Project NCCC-46 “Development, Optimization, and Delivery of Management Strategies for Rootworms and Other Below-ground Insect Pests of Maize” and/or related projects with corn insect pests.  The statement may be applicable to all EPA decisions on PIPs, not just for the current SAP.  It should not be interpreted that the actions and opinions of these 26 scientists represent those of the entire group 
of scientists participating in NCCC-46.  The names of the scientists have been withheld from the public docket because virtually all of us require cooperation from industry at some level to conduct our research.

Statement:
“Technology/stewardship agreements required for the purchase of genetically modified seed explicitly prohibit research.  These agreements inhibit public  scientists from pursuing their mandated role on behalf of the public good unless  the research is approved by industry.  As a result of restricted access, no truly  independent research can be legally conducted on many critical questions  regarding the technology, its performance, its management implications, IRM, and  its interactions with insect biology.  Consequently, data flowing to an EPA Scientific Advisory Panel from the public sector is unduly limited.”

 

Social media strategy is a must for science advocates

Launching a social media strategy to advocate for science: is GE3LS* missing the boat?

January 20, 2011

Lackes, et al., (2009), finds that few scientists use social media tools, significantly lagging the adoption rates for both business and personal use. Scientific research is essentially a communication-driven process where many of its contributors, stakeholders and consumers are part of what we might refer to as “Generation F” (the ‘Facebook’ generation). The widespread adoption of social media tools to communicate and share information has significantly changed the science-based research landscape. It’s not enough to merely sit in our labs, closed off from the world. Being memorable, as an organization or entity, is crucial in this Web 2.0 world where we are bombarded daily by millions of sound bytes.  Further complicating the matter for science and science advocates is the fact that NGOs, INGOs and other interest groups have been very proficient in taking up Internet-based communication tools to reach entirely new audiences.  As a result they are able to quickly build coalitions and mobilize the public around specific issues of interest at relatively low marginal costs (Ryan 2010).

For example, we conducted a poll at the annual VALGEN meetings in Banff in January 2010. Of the 28 scientists in the room, only 58.3% stated that they used social media tools and only 36.9% of THOSE used social media for professional purposes (professional networking, recruitment, sharing/accessing knowledge).

This lag in the adoption of social media strategies represents significant costs to both scientific and social science research agendas. For society, scientific progress far outpaces our capacity as stakeholders to adopt or understand scientific or technological developments. Thus, communication – through the integration of optimal social media strategies – becomes the currency for bridging connections between the spheres of science, technology and society.

Is GE3LS missing an opportunity here?  Do we need to formally incorporate social media strategies into our research agendas to support and advocate for science?

                                              

Lackes, R., M. Siepermann and E. Frank. (2009). “Social networks as an approach to the enhancement of collaboration among scientists.” International Journal of Web-based Communities. Volume 5, Number 4.  Pps 577-592. 

Ryan, C. D. (2010).  “Framing, Exploring and Understanding Online Anti-Technology Advocacy Networks.” Working paper. Available online at: http://doccami.posterous.com/online-anti-technology-advocacy-networks-netw. Accessed on: January 17, 2011.

 

*GE3LS is the acronym that stands for genomics and its related ethical, economic, environmental, legal and social aspects. GE3LS research complements genomics research by addressing questions that lie at the interface between science and society. 

http://www.genomecanada.ca/en/ge3ls/

 

 

GMO regulations detrimental to crop development and research #research #GMO #GE #crop #agnerds #agnet #agchat

Strauss_etal_gmo_regs_and_biof

Check out page 729+ – article by Strauss et al on the implications of regulations on biofuel crops/development (grasses and woody plants) in US entitled “Far reaching Deleterious Impacts of Regulations on Research & Environmental Studies of Recombinant DNA-modeified Perennial Biofuel Crops in the US”
BioScience
October 2010, Volume 60 No. 9
http://www.cof.orst.edu/coops/tbgrc/publications/Strauss_2010_BioScience.pdf

“…the current legal and regulatory situation places severe constraints on both the ability to develop GE crops at all, and then on the performance of adequate environmental studies to inform regulatory and other social decisions about their use…”  (p. 738).

Strauss etal outline some ways to address the current constraints/problems:

1. focus regulatory requirements on defined risks.
2. use scientific criteria for design of categories for a low-level presence (LLP) system
3. create an early stage LLP management system
4. clarify the role of NEPA and the CBD

According to Strauss etal, “…the regulatory thicket is deep and thorny…”  Resolving issues will require reworking of laws (in US and internationally) or “…a fundamental court precedent that stops the penalization of the GE process” and “enshrining into law the ‘product not process’ principle” (p. 739).

“Solving these problems will require new ways of thinking and strong scientific and political leadership to move us toward a regulatory system that enables, rather than arbitrarily blocks, the use of GE as a tool to accelerate and diversify the breeding of … biofuelcrops.”  (p.739). 

An article from Physorg.com outlines the report by Strauss and colleagues http://www.physorg.com/news205157589.html:

Article excerpt:  “The current environment poses enormous legal risks that can and have cost some companies millions of dollars in civil lawsuits, the scientists said, sometimes for damages that were more of perception and market issues, than of safety or environmental impact.”

Exploring effective science journalism: update

“A science journalist should be capable of, at a minimum, reading a scientific paper and being able to venture a decent opinion.” Martin Robbins

Check out this article by Martin Robbins of The Guardian. Last week Robbins posted a spoof of science journalism that to his complete surprise went viral on the web!
In this article (link below), Robbins follows up by outlining how writers use ‘scare quotes’ to distance themselves from from the words they write and “absolve themselves of any responsibility for [those words]”. He suggests that these tactics are “deeply ingrained” at the BBC.  He also explains that reporters/journalists struggle with operational and bureaucratic constraints that just perpetuate these problems: formatting and word limits, pressures to write in order to optimize page views to raise advertising revenues, pressures to make science “accessible to all”.  The latter leads to unnecessary and ineffectual “dumbing down” of scientific information. 

I get really choked by enthusiastic critics that fail to offer up solutions. Robbins does due diligence here and provides us with some well-articulated ways in which to improve science journalism:

1. Stop racing the pack.
2. Challenge and analyze.
3. Experiment with rule-breaking.
4. Nuture Talent
5. Write for the web.

See more at:  http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/the-lay-scientist/2010/sep/28/science-journalism-spoof?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter

And another great quote….

“If you are not actually providing any analysis, if you’re not effectively ‘taking a side’, then you are just a messenger, a middleman, a megaphone with ears. If that’s your idea of journalism, then my RSS reader is a journalist.” Ed Yong (check out his blog entry: ‘should science take sides?’ http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/2010/09/23/should-science-journalists-take-sides/)

Related to this, in a Twitter in October 2010 Michael Specter refers to another article by Ed Yong: Should Science Journalists Take Sides?

The short answer is: “Hell, yes!”

The desire to be ‘objective’ or ‘neutral’ in science journalism is problematic in that journalists become detached from the proceedings that they report on. They don’t take sides and the problem is that reality doesn’t work like that and a commitment to the view from nowhere has many problems:

1.  It is a disservice to journalism

2.  It reflects laziness

3. It signals a poor understanding of one’s audience

4. naiveté – true objectivity does not exist

5. forces ethical breaches

6. finally, it is a failure in understanding the nature of science: “Science journalism is a fundamentally different beast to, say, political reporting. Here, there is an objective truth. “

“…this is about taking sides with truth. It’s about being knowledgeable enough to make a decent stab at uncovering the truth and presenting the outcomes of that quest to one’s readers, even if that outcome lies firmly on one side of a “debate”. It’s about doing the actual job of a journalist, by analysing, critiquing, placing into context and so on, as opposed to merely reporting. It’s about acknowledging one’s own biases and making them plain to see for a reader.In the end, this is about transparency and truth, concepts that are far more important than neutrality or objectivity. After all, the word for people who are neutral about truth is ‘liars’. It shouldn’t be ‘journalists’.”

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/2010/09/23/should-science-journalists-take-sides/