Be careful what you write, especially if you uncover evidence of science distortion that upsets activists.
Several weeks after Election Day, as the final ballot count wound down, it was reported that Hillary Clinton’s lead in the popular vote had surpassed 2 million. On November 27, President-elect Donald Trump declared on Twitter: “I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” Neither Trump nor his advisers offered any evidence to support his claim; reporters traced its origins to a website known for its promotion of feverish conspiracy theories.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump said many patently false things that were described as such by journalists. (An arbitrary sampler: “Obama founded ISIS”; “Of course there is large-scale voter fraud happening on and before election day.”) It didn’t erode his standing in the polls, much less the enthusiasm of his base. He often repeated falsehoods after they were proven to be demonstrably false. Normally, there would be consequences for a major presidential candidate who behaved this way.
But as Politico’s Susan Glasser recently noted in an essay for the Brookings Institution: “Even fact-checking perhaps the most untruthful candidate of our lifetime didn’t work; the more news outlets did it, the less facts resonated.”
To my perplexed colleagues in the political journalism community: Welcome to the world of science journalism, where with respect to some topics, the more you report facts, the less they seem to matter. Anyone who’s been on the front lines of the climate wars, feel free to nod along. The same goes for you scientists and science communicators who have gotten entangled in the genetically modified organism (GMO) thicket or who have chased anti-vaccine activists down a rabbit hole.
Donald Trump’s improbable march to the White House shocked many, but the tactics that made it possible undoubtedly looked familiar to those of us who have navigated the topsy-turvy landscape of contested science. For Trump’s success was predicated on techniques that are used by advocates across the ideological spectrum to dispute or at least muddy established truths in science. I’ve reported on such cases for Issues in Science & Technology and other publications, which I’ll discuss momentarily.
First, it’s important to understand that Trump’s winning strategy centered on demonizing his opponent and delegitimizing his critics, such as those pesky, fact-checking journalists. This required an overarching narrative—of a corrupt, entrenched political establishment, which Hillary Clinton embodies. That narrative already had an existing foundation (from the 1990s) for Trump’s team to build on, using new informational architecture from allies such as Steve Bannon, the former chairman of Breitbart Media, who produced anti-Clinton books and documentaries. Bannon later became Trump’s campaign manager and has since been named the president-elect’s chief strategist and senior counselor.
Outside events (WikiLeaks disclosures, FBI announcements) had a “truthy” feel that bolstered the corrupt theme of the narrative frame. (Remember those “lock her up” chants at the Trump rallies?) The comedian Stephen Colbert famously coined the term “truthiness” in 2006, as “something that seems like truth—the truth we want to exist.” Since then, the rise of social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, has supplied us with a steady diet of news and information from sources that tend to reflect our own biases.
With the ascension of Trump in 2016, have we graduated from truthiness to what some political observers are now calling the post-truth era? Post-truth is defined by Oxford Dictionary as a state in which “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion.” But this doesn’t do justice to the bending of reality by Trump en route to the White House. You can’t do that simply with appeals to emotion; you need, as his triumph suggests, a made-for-media narrative, with villains, accomplices, and heroes.
You need to do what has already been proven to work in warping public perceptions and discussion of certain fields of science.
Several years ago, I received a call at home from a famous environmentalist. After introducing himself, Robert Kennedy Jr. cut right to the chase: “I’m trying to figure out if you’re a shill for Big Pharma.”
Kennedy has carved out an admirable, decades-long career as an environmental lawyer and ecological advocate. Although we had never previously met or spoken, he knew I worked as an editor at Audubon magazine in the 2000s. That he wondered if I turned into an industry stooge astounded me, but I knew what prompted him to make that leap.
Kennedy had recently given a fiery keynote speech at a conference organized by two well-known anti-vaccine groups. Like the attendees, Kennedy erroneously believed that early childhood vaccines were responsible for the increased number of children diagnosed with autism (which he has often characterized as a “neurological holocaust”) and that evidence for this had been concealed by the US government, in cahoots with the pharmaceutical industry. Even prominent members of the scientific community were complicit, he asserted in his talk. He referred to specific individuals—such as a pediatric researcher who was a vocal vaccine advocate—as the equivalent of Nazi concentration camp guards and said: “They should be in jail, and the key should be thrown away.”
In my 2013 post on the Discover magazine site, I criticized these scurrilous comments and noted that Kennedy had been down this road before. In the mid-2000s, he caused a huge stir when he first made the argument for a nefarious cover-up of vaccine harm by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in a controversial, widely publicized Rolling Stone magazine article. The sweeping allegation was thoroughly discredited after being scrutinized by leading science journalists. But Kennedy’s belief hardened over the years, and his rhetoric became inflammatory. I wrote at Discover: “Because of his celebrity status and standing in liberal and environmental circles, it is arguable that Kennedy has done as much as anyone to spread unwarranted fear and crazy conspiracy theories about vaccines.”
This prompted his angry phone call to me and his suspicion that I was on Big Pharma’s payroll. After disabusing him of this notion, Kennedy spent the next hour telling me about the “explosive” book he was soon to publish that would show a connection between vaccines and neurodevelopment disorders. He also mentioned that he had upcoming meetings with congressional leaders and top federal agency officials to press his case.
These curious developments, a by-product of his zealotry, convinced me to tell the story of Kennedy’s fixation. My profile of him appeared in the Washington Post magazine in 2014. It illustrated that he was at odds with established science, that his meetings in Washington amounted to nothing, that he had alienated lifelong allies in the public health sphere, and perhaps most astoundingly, that he wouldn’t quit his crusade.
The story elicited sharply divergent responses. Those who reacted strongest fell into two very different camps. One side shook its collective head in disgust: They saw Kennedy as a good guy gone bonkers, someone who had “taken a disreputable plunge into the world of anti-science with his new and inexplicable crusade,” as Time’s Jeffrey Kluger wrote. The other side, particularly those who expressed their distrust of government institutions and the medical establishment, lauded Kennedy as a brave “hero.”
Same story, two opposite take-aways. How could that be?
Ideally, journalists and scholars are fearless when it comes to examining assumptions and embedded narratives that influence public policy and scientific debate.
When I researched the sources that fed Kennedy’s obsession, I discovered an alternate universe of “facts” and “science” that had been constructed over the past 10-15 years: a cottage industry of books, documentaries, obscure journal papers, and websites that reinforced Kennedy’s belief in a vaccine-induced “neurological holocaust” that the CDC is covering up. Kennedy was upset after my piece came out because it didn’t delve into the “science” that he shared with me. (Conversely, there were some in the science community who felt I was too easy on him.)
During the time I reported this story, I met with many intelligent people who appear to sincerely believe that the federal government is hiding the truth about vaccines and autism. (It’s not.) I doubt they would have become so certain without an overarching good guys/bad guys narrative: Big Pharma is the villain; CDC is the accomplice; Kennedy is the brave truth-teller.
In this world, Andrew Wakefield, the British doctor and author of a fraudulent study that set off a wave of panic about the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine in 1998, is a rock star. He is lionized by people who, according to surveys, make up one-third of American parents who (mistakenly) believe there is a link between autism and vaccines. Never mind that Wakefield’s medical license was revoked and that he’s been thoroughly discredited by mainstream science. That’s more proof of the conspiracy!
Just as Trump’s most ardent supporters live in a media bubble with its own set of truths, so too do passionate fans of Kennedy and Wakefield. Both of these bubbles foster disdain for establishment figures and institutions. Objective facts cannot penetrate these enclosed worlds. As Brian Stelter, CNN’s senior media correspondent, recently said: “A big part of the country has opted out of journalism and opted in to an alternate reality.”
It bears mentioning that Wakefield and fellow anti-vaccine activists met privately with Trump for about an hour several months before Election Day. Trump has previously stated his belief in a connection between vaccines and autism. According to Science magazine, which reported the meeting, Wakefield gave Trump a copy of a recent documentary film he directed. It’s called Vaxxed: From Cover-up to Catastrophe.
Monsanto the maleficent
During my career as a journalist, I have been fascinated by the staying power of certain false narratives. In 2014, I explored for this publication the origins and sustained nurturing of one such narrative about the hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers who have been driven to suicide by Monsanto and GMOs.
It’s not true, which was easy enough to ascertain after some research, but what shocked me was how the story became embedded in the media and unquestionably accepted by many smart people as true. I wanted to unravel that.
Just to be clear: The plight of small-scale farmers in India is real; many live on the barest of margins, without access to irrigation, at the mercy of an increasingly unstable climate, and do not have access to institutional credit and crop insurance. Because of a complex mix of sociopolitical reasons, too many of these farmers end up with crushing debts that lead them to suicide. That is a tragic and real occurrence.
And yes, in the early 2000s, India’s government permitted Monsanto to introduce GMO cotton seeds into the country, which many farmers eagerly embraced. But the “agrarian crisis” in India, as it’s been called, predated the introduction of GMO cotton. And the precarious conditions for small farmers did not change much in the 2000s; what changed was the greater attention agrarian-related suicides (which, by the way, occur at a lower rate than nonfarmer Indians) suddenly received.
Although India has deeply rooted, long-standing social and gender inequity issues that derive from its caste society, and although systemic violence and sexual attacks against women are also a long-standing societal problem in India, global activists latched onto Indian farmer suicides as a cause in the mid-2000s. This drew media coverage and interest from university think tanks.
It was around this time that Monsanto and its GMO cotton seeds were pegged as the main culprits for Indian farmer suicides. As I reported in my story for Issues in Science & Technology, no one has done more to cement and perpetuate this narrative than Vandana Shiva, the famous globe-trotting environmentalist. She and her organization published reports calling Monsanto’s product “seeds of suicide.” Shiva amplified the Monsanto-Indian farmer suicide connection in op-eds, media interviews, and public talks. Her exalted standing in the green world and among influential thought leaders helped legitimize the narrative.
But for it to really take hold, there had to be an existing, well-established frame.
That would be the made-for media villain: Monsanto, or as its detractors like to refer to the biotechnology company, Monsatan. That meme, in which Monsanto became tagged on the Internet as “the most evil” company in the world, because it was hell-bent on taking over the world’s food supply and jamming “frankenfoods” down our throats, was already firmly established when Shiva decided to build on it with the Indian farmer suicide story.
I’ve got a shelf of books that vilify Monsanto for its corruption of agriculture. I’ve seen documentaries on this. Everybody hates Monsanto, right?
Never mind that this image is cartoonish. What matters is that it sounds truthy. So yeah, the demonization of the company had been happening well before Shiva made it culpable for 300,000 Indian farmer suicides. Many were already primed to believe it. Of course it was true! Paul Ehrlich mentioned it, and Bill Moyers nodded along gravely when Shiva told him about it.
Then there was that affecting 2012 documentary called Bitter Seeds, which Shiva helped engineer and Michael Pollan praised. It made the rounds at film festivals. You watch that—or the various YouTube clips featuring tearful, wailing Indian families that lost a relative to suicide because of GMOs—and tell me that Monsanto isn’t evil.
It’s all about the narrative and how forcefully you build it: “Corrupt Hillary” is a “criminal”; a pediatric researcher who pushes back on anti-vaccine scare-mongering is the equivalent of a Nazi concentration camp guard; the scientists at Monsanto have created murderous “seeds of suicide.”
These story lines are real for the people who believe them because they have been reinforced repetitively with new information—books, articles, films, talks, radio segments—from trusted, like-minded sources.
Ideally, journalists and scholars are fearless when it comes to examining assumptions and embedded narratives that influence public policy and scientific debate. But in the real world, where group identity matters and reputations have to be guarded against political attacks, some have calculated that certain narratives are best left alone.
Alan Levinovitz, a professor of religious studies at James Madison University, was someone who never questioned the “Monsanto is evil” narrative until he was accused of being a shill for the company after some of his writing had been deemed by anti-GMO critics as too positive about biotechnology. In a 2015 essay, he writes, tongue firmly in cheek:
Like most people, I knew how Monsanto really was, despite not having thought too hard about it…I knew Monsanto sues farmers into oblivion, caused a rash of suicides in India, suppresses negative media coverage, and pays politicians and scientists to lie on its behalf.
But there was one story I didn’t believe, because I knew it wasn’t true: Monsanto hadn’t paid me. So I did what any academic or journalist would do, and started learning more about the company that supposedly had me on its payroll.
Levinovitz talked to scientists at Monsanto and soon a “complicated picture” emerged of a large multinational “that employed a wide variety of people, some of whom cared mainly about making money, and others who cared mainly about doing good science.”
He liked the idea of humanizing a reviled company—and perhaps a field of science—that had been thoroughly demonized. “But then I realized I would never write that story,” Levinovitz recalls in his essay. “It wasn’t worth it. Why risk associating myself, even in passing, with Satan? Other journalists have told me they feel the same way.” He then mentions Nathanael Johnson, who writes about food and agriculture for Grist, who agreed and said to him: “I’m not proud of the chilling effect it has on me.”
No journalist likes the viper pit that inevitably awaits him or her when wading into contested sciences. Based on what I’ve experienced in the past couple of years, I now wonder if I should have had the good sense to avoid certain stories myself.
The anti-GMO gang
In 2012, I wrote a piece for Slate that begins this way: “I used to think that nothing rivaled the misinformation spewed by climate change skeptics and spinmeisters. Then I started paying attention to how anti-GMO campaigners have distorted the science on genetically modified foods. You might be surprised at how successful they’ve been and who has helped them pull it off.”
At the time, agricultural biotechnology was barely on my radar. I spent much of the 2000s cocooned as a senior editor of a leading environmental publication, editing and writing stories about wildlife, conservation biology, climate change, and the sins of the fossil fuel industry. I’m proud of my work at Audubon magazine during this period of my career. I’m not someone who woke up one day and questioned his career choices or identity as an environmental journalist. I didn’t have an ideological or political conversion that led me to conclude, as the headline of my Slate piece put it, “GMO Opponents Are the Climate Skeptics of the Left.”
That said, after I became a freelancer in 2009, I sought to carve out a niche for myself, exploring the nuances of environmental and climate issues that were underreported or, in some cases, virtually ignored.
One topic that struck me as inadequately covered by my peers was the GMO debate, which, after flaring up in the 1990s and early 2000s, had simmered for the remainder of the decade. Then, after the food movement emerged in the late 2000s, activists began a campaign to label genetically modified foods. This put the science of agricultural biotechnology back in the public eye. I took notice.
I was fortunate in that I came to the issue with few preconceptions or strong feelings. I hadn’t previously paid much attention to the GMO debate. So I first set out to understand the science of agricultural biotechnology.
It was a complicated, industry-driven science, I quickly learned, which no doubt predisposed many to be suspicious of it. (This is understandable, given the long, well-documented history of disinformation and character assassination perpetrated by the chemical, lead, tobacco, and fossil fuel industries, to cite the most infamous examples.)
But I also discovered that the fears of “frankenfoods” that animated early opposition to GMOs never materialized. Prestigious science institutions had by the late 2000s looked closely at the accumulated body of independent research and found crop biotechnology to be safe. There were still thorny questions on some of the environmental trade-offs with respect to particular crops—whether GMOs reduced or exacerbated pesticide use, for example. But overall, there was a scientific consensus that the science was being put to productive use by farmers without harm to society or wildlife.
To my surprise, the same environmental groups and public interest watchdogs that accepted the scientific consensus on global warming disagreed. They rejected the scientific consensus on GMOs. What shocked me further was how they even used the same “merchants of doubt” tactics that the fossil fuel, tobacco, and chemical industries perfected to muddy public debate. For example, there is a small network of “no consensus” scientists and self-proclaimed experts in the anti-GMO sphere that mirrors the one created by climate denialists.
(In recent years, they have produced dubious scientific papers and hefty books with titles such as The GMO Deception and Altered Genes, Twisted Truth: How the Venture to Genetically Engineer Our Food has Subverted Science, Corrupted Government, and Systematically Deceived the Public. The most enduring anti-GMO, anti-vaccine, and climate denialist narratives are powered by a similar conspiracy theme.)
If you want to learn more about how this alternative universe was manufactured, be sure to read Will Saletan’s 2015 deep dive for Slate, which concluded: “The war against genetically modified organisms is full of fearmongering, errors, and fraud.”
This is what my 2012 Slate piece drew attention to when I wrote “that the emotionally charged, politicized discourse on GMOs is mired in the kind of fever swamps that have polluted climate science beyond recognition.”
The responsible parties, I pointed out, were environmental groups, prominent food columnists, and influential progressive writers. At my blog for Discover magazine (discontinued in 2015), I picked up on this theme. I highlighted continuing instances of misrepresentation of the science by green groups and prominent individuals who I thought should have known better. This has not been well received in parts of the progressive sphere (which, I should declare, is my natural habitat).
What do I mean by that? Ask Julia Belluz, a science reporter for Vox who has written hard-hitting pieces on Dr. Oz, alternative medicine, and diet fads; she discusses the blowback she has received in a recent piece entitled, “Why reporting on health and science is a good way to lose friends and alienate people.”
This has certainly been my experience while reporting on GMOs. It’s even worse when the only friends you make after reporting critically on an eco-saint such as Vandana Shiva are the kind of people who work in labs at Monsanto’s headquarters.
My point being: If the journalism you do is perceived to be aiding the most evil company in the world, trust me, you run the risk of losing more than friends. More on that in a minute.
In the meantime, put yourself in the shoes of food activists and greens who oppose GMOs and who truly believe they are on the side of angels. They wake up every day to fight evil. There are no shades of gray in this black-and-white world, which you should view through their lens:
If industry executives and industry-allied scientists—the faces of evil!—are approvingly sharing on social media all my stories and blog posts about how exalted progressive voices are distorting the GMO debate, that probably indicates I’m a friend of Monsanto, right?
If the Columbia Journalism Review publishes a story in 2013 about how I’ve shined a light on slipshod and slanted media coverage of GMOs, I must be carrying water for the biotech industry, right?
In 2015, if I report for a prominent science publication about public-sector scientists receiving Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests from an anti-GMO group—before that group wants the requests to be made public—then I must be industry’s handmaiden, right? If I then follow up with another exclusive about the contents of those FOIA requests—before the anti-GMO group that requested them wants the information to be made public—then I definitely must be working for industry, right?
No, my reporting is not influenced or bought by industry. I learned about the Indian farmer-GMO suicide myth on my own. I never even talked to Monsanto when I was reporting about it for this magazine. When I first wrote about the widespread distortions of crop biotech science for Slate in 2012, I had barely begun to talk to scientists in the field. I could glean the upside-down world that anti-GMO activists created just by comparing it to the world of actual science and respected literature reviews.
Since then, I’ve come to know many public-sector biotech scientists. They trust me to report on them in a fair, unbiased manner. After a number of these scientists were served with FOIA requests from an anti-GMO group in 2015, they let me know about it. I wrote a straightforward story about this news for Science early that February. In private, sideline conversations, I also told the scientists that, on journalistic principle, I was not opposed to the FOIA requests, even though I could understand why they felt aggrieved by them.
Later that year, scientists alerted me to the release of thousands of e-mails to the anti-GMO group that stemmed from its FOIA request of one researcher. I then reported on the contents of these e-mails for Nature, which blindsided the anti-GMO group, as it had already been working with other journalists it felt would reflect their interests and philosophy in articles to come.
What happened next blindsided me.
It started one day in September with the anti-GMO group posting e-mails it received from a FOIA request that mentioned my name and other journalists, such as Tamar Haspel, a food writer for the Washington Post, and Amy Harmon, the two-time Pulitzer-winning reporter for the New York Times, who had recently published several highly acclaimed feature stories on GMO controversies (that upset biotech opponents). The excerpts, followed by commentaries from the group, were called, “A Short Report on Journalists Mentioned in our FOIA Requests.”
The e-mail excerpts don’t include anything we said or did. (If a reporter has a specific beat or writes frequently on contentious topics, you can bet that reporter’s name will surface in e-mails of the people with great interest in those topics.) But the few times our names come up in chitchat among university scientists apparently triggered the anti-GMO group’s suspicion. For example, one of the highlighted e-mails where my name is mentioned comes from an academic scientist and outspoken GMO advocate. His message, which relayed concerns about a rumored hacking of websites, was sent to various science communicators and biotech industry representatives. I was on a long list of cc’d people. The anti-GMO group’s conclusion: “The e-mail implies that Kloor works closely with the agrichemical industry’s prominent advocates.”
Several days later, the liberal-leaning website Alternet published the anti-GMO group’s “short report” verbatim, but tacked on a catchier headline: “3 Journalists Who Are Disturbingly Cozy with the Agrichemical Industry.” Remember, there’s not even any e-mails from us! It’s inference piled on inference, a presumed guilt-by-association based on who mentioned our names.
Shortly after that came out, I received an e-mail from Robert Kennedy Jr., who included me on his response to an anti-vaccine activist who had just informed him that I had been outed as a “shill for industry.” Kennedy’s confirmation bias kicked in: “Makes sense. The first question I ever asked Keith was whether he was shilling for [the pharmaceutical] industry. It just didn’t make sense that the guy who sold himself as a science writer was promoting industry junk science so adamantly.” Within weeks I found myself being described on websites as a “Monsanto prostitute” and “industry sleazebag.”
I wasn’t too bothered by this because on-line flamers usually undermine their own credibility. But then in January 2016, the campaign to tarnish my professional reputation became serious. Greenpeace, which has long been opposed to GMOs (and rejects the scientific consensus that that they are safe), created a page for me on its PolluterWatch website. It’s a cunning mix of factually true autobiographical details, half-truths, and outright fabrications, such as this one: “Kloor has repeatedly decried public records requests, some of which include his communications with GMO interests, by organizations exposing conflicts of interest between corporations and scientists.” There is no evidence for this claim, which is also utterly absurd, given that I have used the FOIA myself to uncover industry misdeeds.
Then, days later, a similar post appeared on SourceWatch, an Internet watchdog site that tracks “corporate front groups, people who ‘front’ corporate campaigns, and PR operations.” Today, those who Google my name for whatever reason are likely to come across these sites. If you are unfamiliar with me or my work, you will be unable to distinguish what’s true and false, which is surely by design. That’s disconcerting in the digital age we live in; people are already plenty confused by fake news and slick political propaganda.
Even more disheartening were responses I received from colleagues in the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ). After I mentioned the PolluterWatch and SourceWatch pages on the organization’s listserv, one SEJ member said, “seems factual to me.” Another sent me a private e-mail: “Keith, please, tell me who pays your salary? How can you continue to pretend that you have not succumbed to the allure of spin that began with the pork industry paying doctors to extol the merits of eating dead pigs? Do you or do you not tout the technologies that have yet to be proven truly safe? DO TELL. It is time for you to come clean.”
After picking up my jaw from the floor, I thought to myself: With colleagues like this, who needs enemies?
On December 6, as I was wrapping up this essay, I received an e-mail from a scientist at a public university who had just that day received another FOIA request from the same anti-GMO group that has over the past year sent many such requests to dozens of his peers throughout the United States and Canada. This one was different from earlier requests that asked for correspondence between the scientists and anyone connected to the biotech industry.
This time, the request was for correspondence covering the past three years between the scientist and three journalists: myself, Tamar Haspel of the Washington Post, and Grist’s Nathanael Johnson. The three of us have written extensively about GMOs, at times correcting misinformation and debunking myths. In doing so, we have challenged certain false narratives about the science of agricultural biotechnology that have persisted. Perhaps the anti-GMO group that now seeks our e-mail correspondence with one scientist suspects that there are smoking guns to be found that will impugn our names and consequently our reporting on GMOs.
Regardless of what is found in the e-mails, I can already imagine the damning headline: “Science Journalists Found Consorting with Scientists.”
Keith Kloor is a freelance journalist and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University and the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.