“89% of scientists…”

On issues like GMOs and climate change, reference is often made to the ‘scientific consensus’ on these issues. This reference is most often made in response to someone who might be denying that climate change is real, or asserting that GMOs have adverse health effects.

Fairly recently, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) members participated in a Pew research study that gauged their perception of certain political issues and on the state of science education in the United States. This study gets quoted a lot in the media, and in this article in particular that I’d like to talk about.

The author of the article cites in the first line that 89% of scientists believe that GMOs are safe. I am a scientist, and I believe that GMOs are safe, so I would count myself among that 89%.
Here’s the thing, though: I am a chemist. I am completely unqualified to talk about GMOs at all. I know enough about them to know that I barely know how they work. There are as many kinds of scientist as there are kinds of science, and expertise usually doesn’t translate from one discipline to another. Some of those 89% are experts in the field, but I would wager that most are not.

In light of that, what do you think about references to that kind of study? What function do you think polling all scientists is fulfilling? Is it worthwhile to get more specific? How can a journalist paint a more accurate picture of the state of the debate?

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5 Responses to ““89% of scientists…””

  1. I think these studies can be useful, but I think a key chunk of information was missing from the article and/or the study: what field were all these scientists in?

    If the 11% that think GMO’s are unsafe were geneticists, then we might have a problem. If the 11% were, say, seismologists, I think the study would be more reputable (although there might be an interesting story in there about why seismologists think GMO’s are unsafe…).

    Anyway, in a class I took on climate change policy we encountered this same problem. Since policy decisions have to be made with a degree of uncertainty, using scientific consensus is very important to policy makers. The statistic we used in that class was around 90% of scientists agree that climate change is anthropogenic. But we addressed the breakdown I talked about above. The 10% that disagreed with it were non-atmospheric scientists whose views were more political than scientific.

    I’d be curious to see if there is any similar data for the GMO study.

  2. Two things stood out to me about this article:

    First, the article more or less was a summary of the AAAS study. It included several graphics and charts from the study. While the study, AAAS, and the Pew Center (which conducted the study with AAAS) are quoted heavily, the only responding quote is five words from a different study. While this article makes the study easier to consume by the public, it doesn’t give any context for the GMO debate.

    In addition, this article wasn’t written by a journalist; yet, it is represented as journalism on Huffington Post. Jon Entine is not unbiased. He is heavily involved in efforts to encourage public acceptance of GMOs through the Genetic Literacy Project and his book Let Them Eat Precaution: How Politics is Undermining the Genetic Revolution. Entine cannot present multiple perspectives on the GMO issue because he is personally invested in one particular perspective.

    Mostly anyone can write for the Huffington Post. They have an approval system for users, but it falls short of the copyediting and fact-checking that traditional media organizations are compelled to employ in order to maintain impartiality and accuracy. Huffington Post allows more people to broadcast their perspectives and masquerade as news.

  3. The Buzzword is Scientist:

    Science has become quite the powerful force in modern society that has been a fuel to the sweeping changes implemented in a modern developed country like America and words like scientists are buzzwords. Science is based in fact and leaves less room for opinion. This piece uses this same characteristic of science and claims that GMO’s are safe based on the pure force of science and scientific study. Buzzwords are distracting to pieces and pump into a piece political stance.

    I personally am heavily against GMO’s and am a scientist of sorts as I study neuroscience but it is the aspects of me that are not specialized in science that have convinced me to be against it. I work on an organic farm, try to eat organically and have extensively researched the arguments against GMO’s and pesticide use. The article is distracting the reader with the presentation of so many statistics that it lacks an unbiased narrative. There is no consideration of disclosing why such a large percent of the public are against GMO’s and pesticide use. So many articles are like this and it makes me frustrated that it becomes harder and harder to find articles that are unbiased. Instead all one needs to know is a little background on the site publishing the post and incentives of writing such a piece can begin to be understood. It seems that news is more of a battlefield of political opinions and trying to gain supporters through flashy buzzy tactics than it is about informing an audience.

  4. I honestly didn’t like this article for many of the reasons all the previous commenters stated: it seems to be out for clicks, the word “scientist” is ambiguous and misleading, and it’s more of a summary of the AAAS study than a conversation about the current state of things. While one study can contribute to our understanding of the world, it shouldn’t be the be-all-end-all conclusion about the world.
    What’s more, the article is begging desperately for a thesaurus. The overall inundation of words like “science,” “scientists,” or “scientific” is further evidence that this article was not carefully composed with the intention of fostering conversation and arriving at a truth – it seems more that it was composed with the goal of pursuing the author’s own motivations.

  5. I would agree with the above comments that the piece is more or less summarizing a research article. All this article is really doing is shinning a brighter light on a single research article. As far as I could tell they did not reference any other research or data. This means that the reader is not getting a full picture on the controversial issue of GMOs.
    Another problem I saw with the article was the citation of extremely long portions of the research paper. To my knowledge, given it is very limited, this is generally a no-no in journalism. I would also agree that it is a problem that the types of scientists polled aren’t given, but this very well could be a problem with the actual research. If this is true this should reinforce the fact that when you are talking about a controversial issue you should give a more well rounded picture. This could be done by stating problems with the research paper and by citing more than a single scientific paper.

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