Philpott faux pas: Shills, semantics, and a defense of the science writing community

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Just to be clear: these are my thoughts, not the official editorial stance of the Genetic Literacy Project.

We all know that everyone deeply involved in coverage genetic modification who is not wholly against it is an industry shill for Monsanto. But did you know the larger community of science writers and journalists—the people whose very job it is to be critical, skeptical and objective in their reporting—are also “GMO industry defenders?”

At least that’s the stance taken by Tom Philpott in a recent Mother Jones blog post responding to the terrific, nuanced feature last month by Amy Harmon in the New York Times about how genetic engineering might save Florida’s famous—but endangered—orange crop.

It started with a patently false tweet by Michael Pollan, who casually accused Harmon of “too many industry talking points.”

Pollan’s tweet had stirred up a hornets nest of angry science writers, among them National Geographic blogger Ed Yong, Knight Science Journalism’s Paul Raeburn and author of The Panic Virus Seth Mnookin. As Raeburn put it in his coverage of the Harmon story and its fallout:

Science writers rallied to Harmon’s defense and demanded that Pollan tell us what industry talking points he was talking about. He hasn’t responded. For the record, there is no evidence in Harmon’s story that she parroted industry talking points. End of discussion.

Or, even more concisely: “Oy.”

 

Just as the dust was beginning to settle in the Twitterverse, Philpott started a renewed the ruckus with three little words. Generally opposed to agricultural genetic engineering, his piece is a reflection on Harmon’s that starts with the refreshingly out-of-character title: “In Which I Actually Endorse One Use of GMOs.” By the third paragraph, however, he’s come to Pollan’s defense. Not only does he agree with Pollan’s assessment, but he directly addresses the entirety of Pollan’s critics as “GMO industry defenders.’” When challenged by Kloor and others on Twitter, Philpott pointed out that he did not, in fact, use the word “shill.” This is true. He then told Kloor to “own” the fact that he is a defender of industry.

 

 

But, as I responded on Twitter, he’s a writer and he should know perfectly well what GMO industry defenders implies, particularly for his audience. Even accepting that Philpott is speaking in good faith, doesn’t think “defender” is a bad word, it’s still inaccurate. A mischaracterization. It implies that the goal of all those who asked Pollan for evidence of his claim, or who expressed frustration when he failed to provide it, were motivated by an urge to defend industry and its precious talking points.

In one phrase, he manages to capture everything that—to me as a trained science writer, journalist, skeptic and thoughtful human being capable of nuance—is maddening about the entire genetic modification “debate.”

Related article:  Is monoculture a bad thing? It's time to revise simplistic ideological narrative

I’ve met Ed Yong, read his work extensively, will openly admit to a science-writing man-crush on him. I’ve learned from Seth Mnookin through our mutual connection to MIT’s Science Writing graduate program, who imparted one of the best bits of writing wisdom I’ve ever heard: “You can’t un-scare people.” I’ve been using Raeburn’s writing at the tracker as a reliable source of interesting meta-journalism since I formally started my career as a science communicator—even in the case of Amy Harmon’s feature he manages to offer thoughtful criticism as a counterpoint to its otherwise nigh-universal praise. None of these people were motivated by an urge to defend anything other than good journalism—yet their criticism was washed away by Philpott in one fell swoop.

I’m not saying anything new here, but I’m saying something important:

I don’t care who you are: STOP using “industry defender” or “GMO advocate” or “industry shill” or whatever dismissive catch-all you prefer to describe every single person who is not explicitly against genetic modification. This is not a debate of two sides. The people who Pollan annoyed—and Philpott rightfully pissed off—are doing their jobs as scientists, as science writers, as critics and journalists. Stop diminishing my profession, my work, the work of my colleagues and the efforts of thoughtful people everywhere with gross oversimplifications.

Philpott of all people should know better. Just last month he found himself being called a shill for Monsanto for writing a piece that praised Monsanto’s efforts to help breed a hardier broccoli plant. He didn’t take kindly to it.

 

 

The crowning piece of cognitive dissonance here is that Philpott ultimately comes down in just about the same place as Harmon. Yeah, guys, genetic engineering seems like an important tool for trying to save Florida’s oranges. Why, then, would Philpott seem to make a point of alienating the entire community of scientists and writers interested in the same exact topic as he is, and with whom this could have been a rare point of common ground? This article could have been a chance for the “two sides” to reveal that we’re actually one side committed to the same ideals of reason and nuance, but you did not want to agree with us “industry defenders” … even if, in this case, you did.

Tom, I’m going to wrap things up by letting you in on a secret: the science writing community that you just pissed off actually rather loves an argument. On the whole, we like intellectual and philosophical debates, encourage dissention. Like the scientists we write about and the ideas promulgated by science, we seem to tend toward iconoclasm.  I know I do.

It’s just that we prefer to do all of this with a bit of mutual respect. We like to argue on the basis of facts, not presumed industry influence. Not a single one of us likes being waved away because we don’t fit your narrative.

If you ever hope to be taken seriously by the science writing community on this issue, you owe us an apology.

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