For an example of how fast information can be distorted as it is transmitted through the web, check out my previous documentation about how a paper on a GM trait not being in danger of escaping into wild populations was twisted into“Another failure of genetic engineering” in only a week.
Refuting every post across the web that makes false claims about agriculture, genetics, or plant biology would be, firstly impossible, and secondly, incredibly tedious. Once a piece of misinformation escapes into the wild it is far harder to call back than the horrible trans-genes of anti-GMO activists nightmares. A false idea will spread far faster among those who want to believe than it can be refuted (at length and in detail) by those who know better.
But this morning (or afternoon, or evening, or dead of night), I came across a wonderful example of what I believe has the potential to be an entirely new false fact that could float around the web, and obscure corners of the public consciousness for years to come (or be forgotten in a week, it’s hard to pick which facts will escape and thrive in the wild until they actually have.)
Consider this article posted on Greenpeace’s website, provokatively titled “US court ruling on GMO rice affirms danger of Bayer crops”.
As a person (for the purposes of this example) already convinced of the dangers of GMOs, I see this headline and think: “A-ha! I always knew those evil genetically modified crops were a disaster waiting to happen!” And I click through to read about the details.
The article I find covers a number of subjects:
- Bayer recently lost a court case in the US, two Missouri farmers were awarded two million dollars (total, not each), because the discovery of a variety of genetically modified rice developed by Bayer in the food supply has reduced foreign demand for US rice, driving down the price of rice for US farmers*. Lower prices = smaller profits (or bigger losses), and so the farmers sued Bayer and a jury found that Bayer was at fault.
- In the Philippines (and presumably a bunch of other countries) Bayer has filed to get their variety of rice approved for human consumption. Once it’s approved, imports of rice from the US can resume, without any special testing. Increased exports of rice bring up prices back up for US rice farmers.
- Greenpeace opposes the approval of Bayer’s rice in the Philippines.
- Feel free to point out in the comments section any other points from the article that I skipped over
Notice anything missing from the story … like any mention of a US court ruling that the rice was dangerous as stated in the headline? I did, but I was reading the article looking for it, because I don’t think Bayer’s crops ARE dangerous and wanted to see what reasoning a judge (or judges) had used to reach the opposite conclusion. And it wasn’t in there.
If I’d already been convinced GMOs weren’t safe I very much doubt I would have noticed the article didn’t actually address the issue raised in the title. Instead I would have read an article about the evils of GMOs, and the concept, put forward by the title (that even the american judicial system agreed with me) might have stuck in my head. In future conversations with like-minded people I’d repeat it as fact, and they, also excited to hear that the courts were on their sides would repeat it to their friends, with details, if any were included, mutating with every retelling**, evolving and spreading faster than any DNA sequence ever could.
Depending on how many people read the original story, how talkative they are, and if the (false) fact sounds interesting enough to pass on, in a day or two anywhere from hundreds to hundreds of thousands of people could hear from someone they trust that courts have ruled that GMOs are dangerous. It could become one of the myths (like the idea that modern corn in sterile as a result of genetic engineering, when terminator technology has NEVER been used commercially) that people like me must spend time and effort refuting over and over and over again.
An article with such a big, yet not immediately obvious, disconnect between what the title claims and what the story says is either the result of incompetence or intentional dishonesty, and either way it’s an great example of why I don’t take Greenpeace seriously anymore. Intelligent people can disagree and learn from discussion why they disagree. On the other hand, productive discussion is NOT possible with people who substitute tricks and misinformation for real data and logic.
*This was a case about whether Bayer should be liable for the harm caused by reduced prices for rice. No one was arguing the rice truly wasn’t safe for human consumption.
**If you have ever played the game of telephone as a child, where a message is whispered from one child to the second who whispers it to a third and so on, you know how quickly ideas can be misunderstood and distorted as they’re repeated from one person to another.