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First Amendment: Scientists on libel threat against Forbes, GLP by NaturalNews’ Mike Adams

| May 23, 2014

In early April, GLP director Jon Entine published a critical “Inside Story” of self-proclaimed “Health Ranger” Mike Adams in GLP’s Biotech Gallery and simultaneously on Forbes.com. If you haven’t heard of Adams, he is the man behind a controversial but mega-popular website NaturalNews.com, where he blogs regularly, runs an online store selling supplements, multivitamins and ‘superfoods,’ to name a few items, and promotes ‘natural’ cures that many scientists believe are bogus or even dangerous.

Adams site is the cyberspace version of the water cooler gathering spot for crackpot conspiracy theorists of the far left and right. His byline: “never trust official stories”.

Adam’s latest crusade: the world’s governments are covering up the fact that the doomed Malaysian Airlines jetliner was pirated safely to a desert hideaway by Iranian hijackers, and is now being retrofitted into a stealth nuclear bomb.

In recent months, Adams has featured a story on his site that claimed that high-dose Vitamin C injections have been shown to “annihilate cancer” (doctors warn high doses of vitamin C can be dangerous); that measles and mumps are making a comeback because vaccines are “designed to fail” (he’s an anti-vaccine campaigner); and that fluoridated water causes mental disorders. Adams has promoted such causes as AIDS denialism, 9/11 truther conspiracies, Barack Obama citizenship ‘birther’ claims and is believer in ‘dangerous’ chemtrails and the ‘danger’ of vaccines.

But his most heated attacks—and the ones that generate the most traffic and business on his websites and what have made him an oft-cited hero of anti-GMOers—are directed at conventional agriculture, crop biotechnology in particular.

In a recent screaming but typical headline, Adams claimed that research at his Natural News Forensic Food Labs—another of his bizarre websites—has turned up unequivocal evidence that corporations are intentionally engineering “life-destroying toxins” into our food supply, with genetically modified corn as one of the chief ‘weapons against humanity.’ His recommendation: buy the natural products that he sells and rid the world of GMOs.

Entine’s criticism was actually mild compared to what scientists and journalists have written about him. For example, David Gorski, a surgical oncologist at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute in Michigan, blogged at Science Based Medicine in 2010:

His [Adams’] website is a one-stop shop, a repository if you will, of virtually every quackery known to humankind, all slathered with a heaping, helping of unrelenting hostility to science-based medicine and science in general. 

Phil Plait, author of well-received Bad Astronomy blog at Discover, wrote in 2010:

Mike Adams, who goes by the nom de guerre Health Ranger, can politely be described as an antiscience propagandist. If there’s no evidence for it, he’ll believe it: naturopathy, antivax, alt-med fluffery, you name it.

Brian Dunning, author of five books on science skepticism and editor of award-winning Skeptoid site, named NaturalNews.com number one on his list of “Top 10 Worst Anti-Science Websites” in 2011:

When Natural News began, it was basically the blog and sales portal of anti-pharmaceutical activist Mike Adams. His basic premise has always been the Big Pharma conspiracy, the idea that the medical industry secretly wants to keep everyone sick, and conspires with the food industry to make people unhealthy, all driven by a massive plot of greed to sell poisonous medicines. Adams appears to have become a protégé of Alex Jones, for he now writes on Natural News at least as many police state conspiracy articles as he does anti-science based medicine articles. They carry ads for each other on their sites as well. … Natural News’ misleading title — I see very little on the site that I would think to classify as “natural news” — and pretense of being a health resource has helped it to become an often cited and heavily read site. For its frighteningly large influence, and abysmal quality of information, it earns the #1 spot on this list.

Adams responded by contacting both Forbes and Entine, claiming that Entine had made factual errors and libelous statements. Fearing a lawsuit, Forbes complied—an unusual and controversial step considering journalists and publications are granted significant protection under the First Amendment—and asked Entine to supply more background information on his original article as they pondered what to do.

Entine prepared a 29-page summary brief for Forbes with documentation of Adams’ history of promoting quack conspiracy theories and crank cures but did not take down the versions of the investigative report from the GLP website. The article and a companion piece—a factual backgrounder on Adams and his company—remain on the site.

Entine had been quiet about these events until Discover science blogger Keith Kloor broke the news on May 16. His story included bizarre quotes from Adam’s threat letters to Entine:

As you are now well aware, you are about to be named in a personal lawsuit which will cite the extensive body of your defamation and cyber bullying efforts, all of which have been archived and time stamped for court evidence. You can count on this lawsuit requiring considerable resources of your time and money for the foreseeable future.

You are no doubt also aware that I have many friends in law enforcement and that we are simultaneously pursuing an effort to have you arrested and charged with cyber bullying crimes. I honestly cannot say for sure whether such an effort will be successful, but it is one of the areas we are actively pursuing against you.

Kloor also contacted Adams for his side of the story. He asked Adams if he had ever sued or threatened other scientists or journalists, as Adams has been the subject of numerous prior scathing critiques (here, here, here and here). Kloor posted in full Adams’ email response, a reply suggesting that Adams is begging for friends and “some respect” for his ‘pioneering’ research as a ‘scientist.’ It’s sad and laughable; Adams is a supplement huckster and well-known conspiracy theorist. Some excerpts from Adams’ email to Kloor:

You may be surprised to find out I’m not the person described by the likes of Mr. Entine whose articles can only come from a deep-rooted hatred rather than anything resembling legitimate journalism. Much of the information written about me by Mr. Entine and others is blatantly fictional, distorted or wildly exaggerated. None of it offers a fair representation of my true beliefs and positions on issues concerning science, medicine and the environment. …

What I find especially fascinating about the attacks on me by Entine and others is that after I was accused of being “anti-science” a couple of years ago, I took it upon myself to become well-versed in a particular branch of scientific study. I read academic textbooks, hired high-level analytical chemists and built a university-level laboratory where I’m personally running the ICP-MS instrumentation. This food contamination research has already achieved some extraordinary results in the interests of the public good and environmental protection as well. Scientific papers stemming from this research are in process right now and I hope to have some published this year. …

By default, I prefer to engage with people in a polite manner to discuss not only differences in views but even possible collaboration on projects such as article debates or quoting each other in our stories. I’m still looking for a rational, polite, science-based person who could offer me quotes for a number of stories on GMOs, vaccines, global warming, etc., but so far I cannot seem to find a reliable person who isn’t engaged in closed-minded hate speech (which itself is a disturbing realization). If you have suggestions on such a person who might be a reliable source to offer opposing views on such matters, I’m open to learning more about them. Possibly YOU might be interested in such a collaboration? I would be open to exploring the idea of offering you quotes for your stories and simultaneously publishing quotes from you or others you might recommend in our stories. …

Honestly, I think I deserve a little credit from the scientific community on this. Why is no one from Slate saying, “Great job with the lab!” and encouraging me to apply the same scrutiny to other issues? It is baffling to me that the “science” community often seems more interested in badgering opponents than furthering the cause of science itself. The way to win allies, in other words, is to identify those people moving in the direction of solid science and encourage them, not harass them.

Later that same day, with the story finally out in the open, Entine posted his version of what was unfolding here on the GLP:

Adams is certainly threatening to sue me and Forbes magazine for an article I posted to the Forbes site on April 3 that mostly replicated an “Inside Story” and a separate detailed fact summary profile of Adams that had appeared on the Genetic Literacy Project website a few days before. …

Kloor highlights a lot of the background on Adams’s dicey reputation and the messy details on the suit threats, so no need to go into them here. What’s not mentioned is that the threat letters came via a well-known Washington law firm, Emord & Associates, which specializes in representing the loosey-goosey supplements, “natural products” and alternative medicine industries. Alternative products and medicine purveyors now sell upwards of $30 billion of often useless and sometimes dangerous goods every year in the US alone—products that remain largely unregulated and unlabeled despite their drug-like impact on health—in part because of lobbying by Emord and similar firms. They target the biotech industry (Emord is the law firm providing legal advice to the backers of the Vermont GMO labeling law, claiming its Constitutionality will be upheld in court) and conventional agriculture to present the alternative health movement as whiter than snow. My report, Kloor’s story and hundreds more by the country’s top journalists paint a more realistic picture.

Over the next few days, numerous other well-respected science bloggers and writers also weighed in on the events. David Gorski, writing in his Respectful Insolence blog, addressed Adams’ email response to Kloor, in particular his plea for “a little credit from the scientific community”:

My first thought was: Why did Forbes.com back down and take Entine’s post down when it was Mike Adams threatening to sue Entine but didn’t do the same thing when Andrew Wakefield threatened to sue Emily Willingham, which also happened within the last month and a half? There seems to be a bit of an inconsistency there. Why the cowardice with respect to Entine and the admirable standing by Willingham? … Seeing what’s happened repeatedly to Emily Willingham and now what’s happening to Jon Entine, maybe that’s a good thing, because as Entine has noted, I’ve been way more harshly critical of Mike Adams.

In fact, at the risk of bragging, I can’t resist pointing out that I’ve been way more harshly critical of Mike Adams consistently over a much longer period of time (at least since 2007) than Entine,—or, for that matter, any other blogger of whom I’m aware—has been. Yet, Adams has never complained to Seed or National Geographic or threatened me with a lawsuit. Maybe it’s good not to be part of Forbes.com, at least if you’re as “Insolent” a blogger as I am. There’s no reason for me to write about the merits of Adams’ threats. There are none. To me, this incident is yet another in a depressingly long list of examples of a promoter of quackery trying to use the legal system to bully a critic into silence. …

The reason no scientist will tell Adams, “Great job with the lab!” is because no one has any way of knowing that he has, in fact, done a great job with the lab, while we scientists do have lots of indications that he has not, given his track record. To turn Adams’ words back on him, the way to win allies, in other words, is not to sue one’s scientific critics. Real scientists do not sue those who criticize their work based on science and fact. They engage them and use the criticisms to examine whether perhaps they are doing something wrong. Of course, Adams is not a real scientist, nor will he ever be. Just measuring a bunch of heavy metal levels in a bunch of supplements looking for high levels that one can point to (assuming that Adams can even do that) is a job for a highly skilled technician, not a high level scientist. Surprisingly, the tone of Adams’ e-mail is rather sad and pathetic. Adams is clearly desperate to be taken seriously. Sadly, he also seems pathologically blind to the very reasons why he is not taken seriously.

From “About Censorship” by Val Giddings, a senior fellow at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation with nearly thirty years of experience in science and regulatory policy relating to biotechnology innovation in agriculture and biomedicine:

Calling himself the “Health Ranger” and hosting a widely viewed website Adams offers up a steady stream of health related claims and comments through which he has become one of the Internet’s leading promoters of bogus health schemes, medical conspiracy theories and quack medicine. He often starts from a springboard of fact, but regularly careens off in some conspiratorial and/or fear profiteering direction that leaves sane folks scratching their heads in wonder. Adams is a constant campaigner against science-based medicine and health policy, and regularly attacks biotech improved seeds and crops as well as other forms of science based innovation in the life sciences. His business model is of the worst sort, preying on the sick and gullible, and advancing policy nostrums (like mandatory GMO labeling) that would have negative, if not disastrous consequences for consumers and society in general.

And unfortunately his efforts have been effective, as his writings have been used by anti-technology campaigners to strengthen the case for labeling in Vermont and other states across the nation. Jon Entine is an experienced, accomplished and reputable journalist and science writer who is among the very best at putting out fact-based stories. His penchant for following the facts where they lead has made him over the years into a staunch supporter of biotech improved crops and foods. Entine has been forward leaning in the battle against “whacktivist” disinformation campaigns and fear profiteering. His principal vehicle is the Genetic Literacy Project based at George Mason University.

Entine recently took a closer look, at Adams and lined up some of the claims Adams has made against GMOs and other life science technologies in his own words. Then things ricocheted in an altogether different and uglier direction. Adams lobbed some heavy handed threats to sue and otherwise intimidate the journalist, saying, among other lovely bits, that “You are no doubt also aware that I have many friends in law enforcement and that we are simultaneously pursuing an effort to have you arrested and charged with cyber bullying crimes. I honestly cannot say for sure whether such an effort will be successful, but it is one of the areas we are actively pursuing against you.”

Why do we care about this? How is this relevant to sound policy making? Adams’ attempt to bully a critic (and a mild one at that) into silence is part of a larger campaign to stampede state legislators into wrong-headed, anti-technology public policies that undermine the public good while abusing the power of the state to benefit special interest rent-seekers, as we saw with Vermont’s recent GMO labeling law. Making public policy in a society whose members have multiple competing interests can be hard. It is not improved when one faction sneaks a thumb on the scales. If Adams has a beef with what Entine wrote, he should publish his argument so the world can evaluate it and decide. He is certainly not lacking any access to the media. But to attempt to achieve through intimidation and threats what he cannot win by force of reason is execrable.

PZ Myers, associate professor of biology at University of Minnesota Morris, posted a response, “Mike Adams, blustering scoundrel” on his blog, Pharyngula, hosted on both the Science Blogs and FreeThoughtBlogs networks:

It’s pretty much the routine response nowadays to getting hit with evidence that leaves one dangling guiltily — call up the lawyers, try to intimidate the accusers into silence, and even if one’s suit doesn’t stand a chance in hell of succeeding (or worse, will just drag more exposure of one’s unpleasant behavior into an open court), one can hope that a good loud cease-and-desist letter will intimidate someone. It shut Forbes up, anyway — they pulled the article from their website. You can always trust a corporate lawyer to play turtle and shell up at even the most bogus legal threat. Now Mike Adams’ has attempted a rebuttal — he’s playing the poor pitiful me card, claiming to just be an honest scientist doing his best with his very own lab equipment to make the world a better place — while not mentioning that it’s all dubious crap that he uses to peddle quack supplements on his various websites. He also doesn’t mention where his reputation as an “AIDS denialist, a 9/11 truther, a Barack Obama citizenship ‘birther’ and a believer in ‘dangerous’ chemtrails” fits into his imaginary scientific credentials.

I predict this will go nowhere. A few lawyers will get a little richer. Adams will bluster and use the Forbes article as evidence to his conspiracy theorist followers that the Man really is out to get him, and he will get a little richer. Jon Entine would be silenced by corporate cowardice, except that the internet will make his article even more well-known. But maybe someone, somewhere will read about Adams’ scam and steer clear, and that makes it all worthwhile.

Layla Katiraee, a PhD in molecular genetics from the University of Toronto who writes under the pseudonym BioChica at FrankenFoodFacts blog has written a long response, “In Defence of Science.”

Did you know that NaturalNews.com gets 4 million unique visitors a month? Or that Dr Mercola’s website has one million subscribers? Go ahead. Take a look at both of those websites. Peruse and then come back here and tell me that you’re OK with someone telling millions of people a day about how they can control the methylation of their DNA or that you don’t care if someone is selling probiotic supplements to help buyers take control of their microbiome. Because odds are that one of your friends is reading those articles and believes them. You and I are generally quiet, introverted people. We don’t like to make noise nor do we like to stand out. But while we’ve been quietly chugging along, minding our own business, the noise-makers have managed to convince the general public that we are not to be trusted and that we’re in it for the money.

If you think that it doesn’t impact you, think again. We’ve seen a rise in cases of vaccine-preventable illnesses, little action is taken against climate change, and funding for life sciences is less than ideal. These stem from a fundamental lack of knowledge about sciences and can be corrected. You may argue that there are lobbying efforts in play and you’re powerless to exert any change. Yes, it’s true and it does suck, but grassroots efforts have managed to pass legislation mandating the labeling of GMOs in Vermont and managed to get Subway to remove azodicarbonamide from their bread, despite the absence of a valid scientific argument for both these moves. If you read about the “yoga mat chemicals in bread” petition, knew of the error in the argument, yet failed to say anything, you’re accountable to the 22-year-old version of you who used to raid conference rooms to get free Subway sandwiches and stash them for dinner. But I know you care. If there was anything that came out from Jenny McCarthy’s recent public shaming on twitter is that a LOT of you care, but seldom say anything until it smacks you in the face.

What prompted me to write this post is one of the people who has actually stood up and tried to promote scientific literacy is being threatened by a lawsuit by none other than the Health Ranger, Mike Adams, who is the editor at NaturalNews. Jon Entine, executive director at Genetic Literacy Project, had written a very thorough piece for Forbes.com highlighting the many conspiracy theories that Mike Adams subscribed to, with links and references to articles from NaturalNews itself. In what I consider an unfortunate decision, Forbes.com decided to withdraw the piece. But it has left me wondering how we are supposed to highlight frauds and exploiters, when those who try to bring these to our attention, are basically muzzled.

We live in an unfortunate time when poor research can get easily published for a fee. It has led to the ability to promote agendas through poor, but published, “research” and to shun those to highlight such corruptions by labeling them as “shills” or other such titles. I’m not exactly sure what the solution is, and somehow we all need to find a way to stop predatory (i.e. sham) journals. But there is one thing you can do: it’s your responsibility to stand up and say something, write something, or comment on something that you know to be a truth or fallacy, and to do it without being a douche. If you don’t think it’ll work, I refer you to the sentence a few paragraphs back which states that people turn to “family and friends” for their health information, among others. Because to your friends and family, I’m just a person in a lab coat who knows the cure for cancer, but is holding it back because of lobbying by Big Pharma. But to your friends and family, you are “Helen” or “Juan Carlos” or “Nasrin” or “Insert your Name Here”: a person they value, believe in, and trust, and can actually teach them a thing or two about their concerns.

Steve Strauss, Distinguished Professor in Forest Biotechnology Oregon State University, wrote a blog titled: “Adams’ legal threats against Entine alternatively laughable and depressing.”

I recently read the multiple online articles, blog entries, and other sources that discuss Mike Adams (the “Health Ranger”) and his threatened lawsuit against Jon Entine of The Genetic Literacy Project (GLP). It is truly extraordinary that Adams—who lacks any significant science credentials and has routinely made outrageous anti-science comments in online communications (that he of course claims are scientific)—should seek to silence an honest and reasonable critic. There are far far worse critiques of him and his “field” than what Entine produced, and they are available in many places on the internet.  Entine and the GLP (to which I subscribe) routinely posts news about anti-biotechnology actions and actors; it’s not filtered or censured to provide only news on biotech cheerleaders. It provides a valuable service to anyone interested in biotech, from whatever angle.

He also helps to digest complex science-society issues in his own writing, which I have found to be consistently accurate and enlightening. I know something about biotechnology; I have done millions of dollars of competitive, federally funded research for more than two decades, given hundreds of invited lectures, served on many government panels, published hundreds of publications in high quality journals, and have been recognized as a Fellow of the largest scientific society in the world (AAAS) and a Distinguished Professor by my university (Oregon State University). If someone as notorious as Adams, with money and high paid lawyers, can silence a high quality journalist like Entine (either via courts or the costs of legal defense)—it is a tragedy for every citizen and our entire democracy.  Is this China?  Is this 1984? I can only hope that Adams’ absurd threat dissipates as rapidly as it has arisen.

That’s not all. Below are links to more responses:

  1. Rational Wiki, an online community that analyzes and refutes pseudoscience, has added a section, Legal Action, to their wiki about Mike Adams’ reflecting these events.
  2. Sharon Hill, a specialist in science, society and public outreach for science, has a blog post about this incident at Doubtful News.
Related article:  U.S. Right to Know rated #1 in junk science for 2015

The GLP featured this article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis. The viewpoint is the author’s own. The GLP’s goal is to stimulate constructive discourse on challenging science issues.

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