In response to journalist William Saletan’s recent attack on her, Claire Robinson of GMWatch.com, in the first of a two-part series, outlines her lessons on critical thinking and arguments against the former.
1. If you’re charged with sins of omission, don’t omit to answer the charge
One of Saletan’s articles blamed the critics of Golden Rice for the blindness and death of millions of malnourished children. Robinson points out, however, that Saletan fails to clarify the real reasons Golden Rice remains unavailable for consumption: The rice has failed field trials, it hasn’t been safely tested, and it hasn’t even been shown to help the malnourished.
And how does Saletan answer the charge that he concealed these reasons from his readers? He deals with it by omitting any mention of it at all in his response and instead turns to accuse critics of having been corrupted by a “political agenda.”
2. Don’t rely on authority
Saletan claims that he doesn’t believe in relying on authority and instead looks at “the evidence, not the assurances,” since this is “what debunks the arguments against these GMOs.”
Yet, Saletan contradicts himself by relying on “vague appeals to authorities that have issued statements saying GM foods are as safe as non-GM foods. These in turn lack reliable data on which such conclusions could reasonably be based. Given that human studies on the effects of eating GMOs are non-existent… claims of GMO safety are at best baseless and at worst lies.”
3. Don’t misrepresent authority
Saletan claims that Robinson drowns out evidence, “citing bogus ‘science-related organizations’ such as the American Academy of Environmental Medicine” (AAEM), which he says is “a quack group dressed up as an association of scholarly referees.”
In response, Robinson mentioned that she has relied on “124 science- or health-related organisations that had expressed doubts about the safety of GMOs and/or asked for mandatory labeling,” of which AAEM is just one.
4. Don’t defend the indefensible
Saletan attacks Robinson for criticizing his defense of glyphosate as “relatively benign.” According to her, “he backs up this defence by saying there are even more toxic herbicides out there. But that’s equivalent to claiming that arsenic is ‘relatively benign’ because it’s less toxic than mercury.”
The World Health Organization’s cancer agency, the IARC, has determined glyphosate to be a probable human carcinogen. Saletan, on the other hand, quoted one “expert” who said, “the evidence cited here [IARC classification] appears a bit thin.” What he failed to consider, and tell his readers, however, is that that comment was made at the time when IARC only had a summary judgment and had yet to publish its 92-page monograph of evidence.
5. Keep up with new information
Saletan quotes pesticide expert Chuck Benbrook as saying that “the dramatic increase in glyphosate use has likely not markedly increased human health risks.” This comment, however, was made years before some of the most damning evidence on glyphosate was published.
Had Saletan done his own research, he would have discovered that The New England Journal of Medicine just published an “article co-authored by Benbrook in which he says that the IARC classification has helped ‘dramatically’ change ‘the GMO landscape.’ He argues that the strong glyphosate link to cancer in combination with the massive increase in use of glyphosate that GM crops are encouraging could mean ‘GM foods and the herbicides applied to them may pose hazards to human health that were not examined in previous assessments.'”
6. Read the studies
“In contrast with Saletan’s uninformed views on GMO safety, a recent peer-reviewed article, ‘An illusory consensus behind GMO health assessment’, by Prof Sheldon Krimsky of Tufts University, examined animal feeding studies with GMOs and reviews of such studies. He found 26 studies that found adverse effects or health uncertainties from GMOs (there are many more, but Krimsky doesn’t claim his list is exhaustive) and eight reviews that were ‘mixed in their assessment of the health effects of GMOs.'”
In the second part of the series, Robinson endeavors to explain how Saletan misunderstood and misrepresented scientific definitions to claim that GMOs are safe