Friday, January 04, 2013

Mark Lynas: Worse Than Tuskegee?

Wow. Mark Lynas, science journalist, has just admitted that he hasn't respected science.

Lynas is author of, among other works, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet. It has gotten a lot of acclaim -- even David Archer recommended it in his U Chicago lectures on climate science -- but now you have to wonder.

Lynas just admitted he was wrong about GMOs -- genetically modified organisms. At a lecture to the Oxford Farming Conference yesterday, he said:
"I want to start with some apologies. For the record, here and upfront, I apologise for having spent several years ripping up GM crops. I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid 1990s, and that I thereby assisted in demonising an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment."
A brave admission, you say? Not so fast, I say. That demonization, by no means limited to Lynas, has done great damage over the years. It has even convinced African governments not to accept GMO imports to feed their starving people -- food that you and I eat every day -- and how much worse, morally, can you get than that?

There has never been scientific proof that GMOs are harmful -- ever. The Pustzai experiment was clearly a crappy one, with bad methodology, and showed nothing.

Between Armad Pustzai and Anthony Wakefield, has any country ever done more scientific damage in a few short years?

Almost a decade ago I went to a conference for science journalists at Cornell, where their biologists tried to explain to us how GMOs were little different from conventional cross-breeding.

Most of us got it, but there were a couple of liberal (excuse me -- "progressive") writers for places like In These Times who insisted on finding faults.

I never wrote much about GMOs -- I queried Wired about writing on the moral failings of NGOs in Africa, and got sent to a conference of anti-GM activists in Kentucky, but my article go watered down to a "Why GM Food Could Start a Trade War" -- my fault as much as theirs.

I didn't write much more about GMOs after that, and instead turned to climate change. But my opinion about GMOs never changed: if you can still stomach this controversy, I would recommend you read Pandora's Picnic Basket by Alan McHughen, which is the best, most scientifically inclusive presentation I've read so far.

Keith Kloor has recently explained it well: there is just no scientific basis for opposing GMOs.

And there never has been. How people like Mark Lynas never saw that, I don't know. Frankly, I think it's because he is more of an activist than a science journalist, and that is dangerous -- and it immediately makes his writing on climate change suspect, too, no matter how much you or I might like it.

In my opinion, the damage done by the likes of Lynas and sympathetic NGOs is an ethical travesty, worse than what the US government did in Tuskegee. African governments have turned down food that you and I eat on a daily basis -- almost all processed food you buy in an U.S. grocery store contains GM ingredients, particularly soy and corn. (About 5 years ago, on a lark, I went to a grocery store manager in Portland and asked him if his store sold any genetically modified ingredients. No, he said. I knew he was clearly wrong, but was just testing.)

A quick little apology isn't going to cut it here. Lynas ought to be drummed out of the profession of science journalism.


William Connolley said...

I think you're being too hard on Lynas. He's produced a pretty fulsome apology (I've never been quite sure why anyone takes him seriously, and maybe this is just more self-pub, but that's another matter).

Drumming people out for admitting their errors seems mistaken. Better to go for the ones who refuse to admit errors.

Dano said...

I'm with William.

What we need is either to have science students take a year of media relations, or to have people that can write try and understand science.

Seems to me that journalists are going to get it wrong every so often. If science is going to have a voice and we aren't going to train our scientists to be media-savvy, I think maybe the journalists need some help to make fewer mistakes, don't you agree?



bahamamamma said...

I agree with William Connolley (Stoat). Maybe I am losing it. Soon I will be agreeing with Grant Foster (Tamino).....Nah!

Mark Lynas and his six degrees were laughable. No amount of tweaking can restore his credibility after that.

Thank you for mentioning David Archer my favourite "Climate Scientist". I pray for this guy: "Dear Lord, bless David Archer and all his predictions".

David says that if we burn 5,000 Giga-tonnes of carbon the next glacial (Ice Age) will be postponed by as much as 500,000 years:

I have taken David at his word by buying a SUV for my #6 son rather than a Toyota "Leaf". I am proud to tell you that my other five sons already own gas guzzlers.

I also pray that my sons will become as rich as Al Gore so they can own four homes each and a Gulfstream jet.

quicksilver said...

The Pustzai experiment was clearly a crappy one, with bad methodology, and showed nothing.

Can you point me to one and just one study that shows GMO food is safe to eat in the long term.

Much is talked of 90 day studies - you can stay alive for 90 days but even here I cant find one to download.

And Pustzai got the sack two days after his TV interview and just one day after his boss congratulated him on a good programme.

One day later the same boss says pack your bags and go NOW after 35 years you are finshed.

For the UK and all the protection laws for workers this amounts to BIG PRESSURE that comes not from top UK politicians but from the top in USA and their decades long commitment to GMO come hell or pustzai water.

James Moore said...

The simple point is that Mr Lynas, like many of his corporate peers, is giving his judgement based on the Monsanto hand-book "How to make speeches in support of GM foods." The fact is that they bear no relation to the reality as thousands of US farmers would tell him if he bothered to ask them. Why Big Ag and the Government Leaves Public Out of the Big GMO Food Debate!