Credibility

So I found this over at Dave Ex Machina, and I was totally with it. After all, the myth of the “liberal media” has been repeatedly killed and walks only due to the machinations of Necronomicon-wielding Corporate Neo-Cons*. Today’s media is controlled by corporate interests and the misguided notions that “objectivity” means “balancing two points of view even when they clearly aren’t equal perspectives,” and that the best media is one that doesn’t make waves. It comes as no surprise that there have been many censored (read: ‘not explored by the mainstream media’ as opposed to ‘suppressed outright’) stories in the past few years; I’ve read about several of the ones mentioned on this site already. They really had me with them, contemplating buying the book, right up until they got to the Genetically Modified Food article.

See, now this is where my dual interests in science and journalism become really handy. When a headline says “Dangers of Genetically Modified Food Confirmed,” that sets off alarm bells. First, it’s a loaded statement–“confirmed” suggests that the dangers were expected or feared and have now been proven. It inherently assumes that the GM food was dangerous, and that they have only now found the evidence for it.
And that’s where my scientific background comes in. When you start with an assumption and find evidence for it, you’re not conducting science. I’m not disputing necessarily the objectivity of the scientists involved here, but the authors of the article clearly began with an agenda and worked from that.

The first thing to notice is the list of sources on the “GM Foods” article–two (relatively reliable) newspapers and the “Organic Consumers Association website.” Gee, I wonder if they have an agenda, perhaps one that would significantly benefit from scaring people about GM foods. Notice what’s missing from those sources: scientific journals. Hell, even scientific magazines are missing. Newspapers, like anyone else in the mainstream media, are out to make a buck, and not much sells better than some sensationalistic fearmongering. A quick EBSCO search for “Genetically Modified,” “Food,” and “Danger” turned up several articles which said the same. Here are some samples:

From “GM Debate: Dispelling myths” in Heredity magazine, from the Nature Publishing Group, 2004
“As a scientist, I saw the anti-GM ‘scientists’ as my principal adversaries, who sought to use their scientific credentials to incite fear in the hearts of the scientifically ignorant with a series of wild statements about the dangers of GM. Yet when challenged, they were unable to supply any peer-reviewed research as evidence to support them.”
“I heard an anti-GM scientist say that GM foods cause cancer, that the herbicide ’round-up’ used both generally and on the herbicide-tolerant GM crops in the recent farm-scale evaluations, causes neurodegenerative diseases, yet no evidence was presented to support these claims. In any case, GM is a process and not a product, so no generic statement is possible on the safety of GM food unless we accept the flawed and controversial data that Pusztai presented in the Lancet some years ago, that the process ws [sic] mysteriously able to make food harmful.”
“Unsubstantiated claims by the fearmongering GM scientists highlight a central problem in a high technology society of specialists: few, if any, of these anti-GM scientists are currently, or have ever been, actively engaged in experimental research relevant to GM.”
–Conrad Lichtenstein

Or this, from New Perspectives Quarterly:

“Even though the promises are considerable, a scientifically unwarranted view has arisen, especially among environmental groups, that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are inherently dangerous.”
–Paul Boyer

Both Professors discuss the basic facts of Genetic Modification: individual genes are carefully modified in plants under controlled conditions. In many cases, genes have been transplanted from bacterial or viral sources into the target plant to have the desired effect. This process occurs in nature without human interference, the human control simply removes the random trial-and-error aspect. Dr. Lichtenstein shares a story regarding the transplantation of a virally-derived gene to make plants more resistant to viral attacks; when his team worked on their tobacco test plants, they discovered that “similar ‘transgenes’ were already present…on two different tobacco chromosomes…as well as related species, suggesting an ancient illegitimate viral DNA recombination event 25 million years ago.”
What the GM scientists are doing is a combination of natural processes and agricultural processes. As cultivators have done for centuries, these scientists are performing artificial selection–selecting which traits they want propagated, and which they want suppressed. For centuries, farmers and scientists have used increasingly accurate methods of interbreeding and cross-breeding and cross-pollenation to accomplish their desired changes. The GM process is an extension of this, only more targeted, and operating much more quickly. The natural process is that of random mutation and recombination, which occurs on geological timescales without direction. On a very limited scale, scientists have harnessed this natural process, honed it, and directed it at plants.
Both scientists also mention that GM-produced foods are very highly regluated and are subjected to countless tests before they ever reach the consumer, something that, as Boyer notes, is not quite so true for traditionally-cultivated, crossbred or interbred foods. Boyer describes a variety of mold-resistant potato, produced through classical methods, which causes humans to get sick when it is consumed.
Genetic Modification is not some bizarre stitching-together of random genetic structures to produce “frankenfoods.” You’re not going to eat an ear of corn with pig genes randomly spliced to it. Instead, you might be eating an ear of corn which didn’t require harmful pesticides, since some recombination made it pest-resistant. You might eat a better head of lettuce or a more nutritious tomato produced through directed genetic manipulation, rather than the random gamma-ray-induced manipulation that has been used since the ’60s.

Genetic Modification is an ‘unnatural’ process, but only inasmuch as agriculture is. Agriculture uses artificial selection and controlled breeding to produce desired effects; GM adds artificial variation to the mix as well, placing another natural process under controlled circumstances to produce desired results. The fear over GM foods is irresponsible, illogical, unsubstantiated, and anti-environmental. Including it into this list of “censored stories,” without actual scientific resources, citing extensively the Pusztai study that Lichtenstein called “flawed,” and using only four studies of the countless produced in the last year to support such a claim, casts doubt on the credibility of the whole project.
And note those four studies: all are single studies, with no mention of review or repeated tests. One of the studies (“In November 2005, a private research institute in Australia, CSIRO Plant Industry, put a halt to further development of a GM pea cultivator when it was found to cause an immune response in laboratory mice.”) describes a GM process that was halted by scientists, as an example of the rigorous safety checks and methods in place. The other three all suggest correlation between consumption of specific GM products and disorders in test rodents; none of these studies says anything about human consumption or about GM products in general. As Lichtenstein said, GM is a process not a product; you don’t see those anti-mold potatoes used as an excuse to damn the whole process of classical agriculture. Until these studies are repeated and the results reviewed, they are essentially meaningless: a reason to do more tests and more studies, not a reason to spread terror among the masses. Years of testing, retesting, and common sense have shown no link between the GM process and any problems, and it’ll take more than four separate, unreviewed studies to change that.

So with the “Project Censored” site already on shaky ground with regard to their credibility, they serve up this gem:

Physicist Challenges Official 9-11 Story

And we’re done, folks. That’s it. Once you get the conspiracy nutjob on-board (is it the same one from that Season 3 episode of Penn & Teller’s Bullshit? I seem to remember one of those guys being involved with Brigham Young University) any remaining shreds of credibility go right down the toilet. Honestly, anyone involved at the scene, anyone skilled in demolitions, and anyone with a shred of common sense will tell you that this wasn’t some government plot (and most of them have done so). Do you honestly think that these idiots, who couldn’t keep torture a secret in Abu Ghraib, who couldn’t keep torture a secret in Guantanamo, who couldn’t keep the secret prisons a secret, who couldn’t keep the Downing Street Memo a secret, who couldn’t keep their dealings with Jack Abramoff a secret, who couldn’t keep Valerie Plame’s identity, nor that of her leaker, a secret, could keep the truth behind 9/11 a secret?

Sorry, Project: Censored. You may have had good intentions, but maybe you should put a little more effort into finding out why some of these stories weren’t reported, and into looking at critical sources and dissenting opinions, rather than blaring out your list of “things THEY don’t want you to hear.” Sometimes, THEY don’t want you to hear it because it’s BATSHIT INSANE.

*No, I don’t actually believe that the neo-cons are raising the dead with black magic. I do, however, wish people would realize the insanity of the “liberal media” myth. How many hours of Glenn Beck per day will it take for CNN to be able to shed the “liberal” label? Because it seems like he’s on for upwards of 16 as it is. There’s no “liberal” media, just a “fucking stupid” one.

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