“You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts,” said the late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
The editors of The Atlantic should hang this line in their newsroom. If they had paid more attention to its wisdom, they might have saved their magazine from an embarrassment last week.
On January 9, The Atlantic’s website published an article whose headline won’t win any awards for subtlety: “The Very Real Danger of Genetically Modified Foods,” by Ari LeVaux.
It sounded like a press release from Greenpeace, or one of the other radical groups that crusade against agricultural technology with ideological fervor. The content wasn’t much better. It showed what can happen when people who don’t know much about science try to write about it.
The Atlantic should know better. It’s one of the great magazines in the history of American journalism. It was founded more than a century and a half ago by the country’s intellectual leaders–figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It made its name publishing authors like Mark Twain. The Atlantic has earned a well-deserved reputation for excellence.
But it will squander this legacy if it continues to publish trash as it did last week.
LeVaux is a newspaper columnist who, according to his personal website, writes restaurant reviews for the Albuquerque Weekly Alibi, a publication that describes itself as an “alternative newsweekly.” How this makes him an authority on genetics and food is unclear. In his article for The Atlantic, however, LeVaux claimed to have discovered a troubling connection between genetically modified food and human health. He tossed around terms chosen for maximum fright value, such as “metabolic disorders” and “cancer, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes.”
LeVaux based his allegations on a paper by a team of Chinese scientists and published in Cell Research. It concerned microRNA, which are tiny sequences of RNA.
There was just one problem: The paper in Cell Research said absolutely nothing about GM food. The connection between microRNA and the health of the billions of people who eat GM food daily was entirely hypothetical.
Yet ordinary readers of LeVaux’s article wouldn’t have known this. The Atlantic is a general-interest magazine, not a peer-reviewed journal for scientific experts. Its readers most likely never have heard of microRNA or, if they have, possess only a sketchy understanding of what it is and what it does.
Before long, LeVaux’s provocative claims were tweeting around the world. It was the most emailed article on The Atlantic’s website.
This is a case study in how misinformation is born–and how it can spread, like a virus.
Almost immediately, however, scientists fought back with the antidote of truth. On the website of Scientific American–another highly respected magazine–Christie Wilcox published a compelling rebuttal titled “The Very Real Scaremongering of Ari LeVaux.” And on a blog called The Biology Files, Emily Willingham presented her own devastating response.
Discover magazine summed up the controversy on its website: “For anyone familiar with the paper [LaVaux] referred to, or with molecular biology in general, the article was full of conflation and sloppy logic.
By the end of the week, LeVaux was backpedaling. On his personal website, he admitted to “many unfortunate errors” in his original article. He wrote a revised version for AlterNet, a left-wing website, with a new headline: “How Genetically Modified Foods Could Affect Our Health in Unexpected Ways.” Even this toned-down headline was a gross and misleading overstatement, but at least it appeared in a venue that doesn’t carry The Atlantic’s prestigious stamp of approval.
Genetically modified food is perfectly safe and nobody has ever shown otherwise. Farmers have planted more than three billion acres of GM crops. If this food was harmful, we’d have clear evidence by now.
It doesn’t surprise me that LeVaux would attack GM food with such desperate and ignorant passion. The world is full of people who refuse to understand the promise of agricultural biotechnology. They’ll never learn.
But The Atlantic? I expect better from this important and influential magazine.
Bill Horan grows corn, soybeans and other grains with his brother on a family farm based in North Central Iowa. Bill volunteers as a board member for Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org)