Monday, September 08, 2014

Organic Food Controversy in the New Yorker -- Science Writing at its Worst

Mr. Specter is a staff writer for the New Yorker.  He tends to write about agriculture and genetic engineering, but on closer inspection his writing provides a dangerous combination of blind faith in science and a misunderstanding of what science is.

His bio of Vandana Shiva uses a source to give voice to the conclusion that Shiva is “a fraud…blinded by her ideology and her political beliefs."  She responded alleging Specter's article made “fraudulent assertions" and consisted largely of "deliberate attempts to skew reality.”  The New Yorker's editor, David Remnick, defended Specter's article against her list of complaints, item-by-item.

But both Shiva and Specter make ideological arguments.  They both use convenient scientific anecdotes to support their "ideology and ...political beliefs".  However, Specter works as a "journalist," and therefore implicitly claims at least some objectivity, whereas Shiva is a self-described advocate for her cause, and is at least honest about her agenda.

Specter criticizes Shiva for being unscientific, but how scientific is Specter?  Does he cite scholarly papers?  No.  Does he weigh the pros and cons of conflicting theories?  No.  Instead, he interviews a couple scientists who happen to already agree with his perspective.

Do you ever wish that complicated issues could be quickly and easily resolved by an impartial and all-knowing 3rd party?  Specter has found just such an infallible arbiter, but, unfortunately for the rest of us, it a biased version of science.

Apparently, Specter thinks science is a set of facts that should not be questioned.  But science is just the inverse: a way of questioning that is based on facts (ie empirical evidence).  Specter is totally amazed that anyone could doubt “science”.  Even worse, he thinks he knows what “science” is!

(I've already pointed out the impossibility of some of the scientific assertions Specter has made in a previous blog post.)

I wrote this post because I noticed a pattern, or agenda, behind Specter's use of science.  He wrote an entire book defending science, entitled  "Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives."  Specter's book claims to defend science and rationality from the assaults of organic food advocates, but he couldn't quite bring himself to evaluate the research that didn't support his conclusion. It's surprising how little actual scientific research he manages to cite; Tom Philpott had this to say about Denialism for

"Two major assumptions underlie [Specter's work]: organic agriculture delivers frightfully low yields, and GMO agriculture delivers reassuringly high yields. He doesn’t deliver data to back up either of those claims. Here are two studies, both of which came out in time for consideration in Denialism, that Specter really should have grappled with: 1) a 2009 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists showing that after decades of research, transgenic seeds have yet to deliver yield increases; and 2) a 2005 study in Bioscience (summary here) showing that yields of organically grown corn and soy match those of their conventional counterparts–with dramatically lower energy inputs."

For me, the real issue is a scientific question: can GMO crops sustainably out-produce other alternatives, particularly the organic small landholder polyculture that Shiva champions?  Shiva claims that local, diverse agricultural systems can produce more and healthier food per acre than green revolution mass monocultures, especially in the long run.  Unfortunately, while Specter's article questions some of Shiva's claims, it does little to fill this crucial knowledge gap.


david llewellyn foster said...

A breath of fresh air, excellent critique Conor. I think most of the comments posted about this contentious issue completely miss the point. I spoke to Vandana a few years ago at Schumacher College and have also had the pleasure of meeting Dr Mae-Wan Ho. Vandana's evaluation of the corporate-capitalist pseudo-science agenda is peerless in my view. Monsanto is terrified of her, so it is no surprise that they will try to move heaven and earth in order to discredit her. I dare say you are aware of what is happening in Ukraine and the involvement of Monsanto in the appropriation of rich farmlands and the introduction of GM there. It is monstrous and villainous "state-of-the-art" fascism on an imperial scale. Are you familiar with the Campaign for Real Farming?
So ~ very well said and well written!
David Llewellyn Foster (Hartland, North Devon)

The Nusz said...

so Shiva's pretending-correlation-is-causation isn't worth noting or picking apart? (or at least acknowledging that doing so was a single thing Specter got right?)