If it weren’t for false balance there’d be no balance at all.
BY JACK HEINEMANN · SEPTEMBER 2014
A recent exchange over at Twitter illustrates what can happen when expression of controversial opinions causes conflict in the media. In this episode, those serving as critic and conscience of society are not the direct targets. Instead, the journalist becomes the target for having mentioned that these other opinions exist.
Reuter’s reporter Cary Gillam, who has the agriculture beat, was being taken to task for her articles by Keith Kloor, a blogger, and Val Giddings, a former chief executive of an industry public relations organisation. The latter represented the companies that make genetically modified crop plants and might have been sensitive to Gillam’s story.
By including in her stories reference to studies that did not agree with Kloor and Giddings, Gillam was accused by the two of misleading her readers into thinking that there could be more than one scientific opinion on GM crops.
Kloor called this creating a ‘false balance’. False balance has become the way science media outlets react to opinions that don’t represent their constituency. To undermine the reporter, she is described as lazybecause she hasn’t used her training to “recognize pseudoscience and agenda-driven research.”
Kloor and Giddings’ views appear to be unchallengeable. Yet at least Kloor is no scientist even though he writes blogs for a popular science magazine. But if his work reporting his views on science news left readers or Gillam herself in any doubt of his authority, Kloor puts that to rest. “You are willfully ignoring the scientific consensus on this,” he says to Gillam. He and elsewhere also Giddings invoke the same reference to ultimate authority that disgruntled students write on the course survey, the ‘everyone I know thinks the same thing’ argument. (Moreover, while the consensus meme is popular, that doesn’t make it true, as I discuss here.)
Research is consistently being published in peer-reviewed international journals that presents a far more nuanced evaluation of different biotechnology products. Moreover, careful reading of the literature reveals that many study authors that find some evidence of harm nevertheless reach normative judgments in favor of overall safety or benefit. In contrast, many other authors that find some evidence of harm reach normative judgments that are not definitive of either safety or benefit and subsequently recommend more research. To gloss over the actual science and dwell nearly exclusively on the normative conclusions is, I would say, false balance.
Access to large marketing and legal budgets, and influence on the way public research funds are prioritised and distributed, makes it easier for industry to claim a consensus in favor of their products. Likewise, the entrepreneurially-oriented public scientist speaking similar conclusions is not subject to the powerful reaction from these concentrated financial interests.
Perhaps it is getting tedious to hear that under the regulatory regime in most countries the safety and efficacy studies of products of all kinds, including pharmaceuticals, GMOs and pesticides, is based on unpublished and un-replicated studies provided to government safety regulators. While some studies may subsequently be published, by far most are not and it would be exceedingly rare to find one published in a peer-reviewed journal prior to being evaluated by the government regulator.
Research studies have repeatedly found that the conflict of interest inherent in this way of evaluating products is not properly balanced by regulators. For example, researchers evaluating the process of pesticide approvals by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) said in their study: “it is essential to consider that industry-supplied studies suffer from COIs [conflicts of interest], which must be mitigated. A USEPA risk assessment, however, does not mitigate COIs. In fact, the system in place increases the likelihood that only industry-supplied data will be used in the risk assessments…which potentially obscures the impact of a pesticide so that risks cannot be responsibly managed” (Boone et al., 2014). This is not a problem special to the USEPA but is generic to most safety regulators.
Expressing scientific opinions that are compatible with powerful industries, governments and technology developers is always easier than expressing opinions that conflict with these centres of power. By ensuring that the voices of skeptical or cautious scientists, researchers and others with special experience are heard, Gillam brings appropriate balance to these forces. The false balance is one that ignores the power of companies and governments to broadly advertise in their own interests. Those perpetuating a false balance are those that amplify a privilege of power.
Boone, M.D., Bishop, C.A., Boswell, L.A., Brodman, R.D., Burger, J., Davidson, C., Gochfeld, M., Hoverman, J.T., Neuman-Lee, L.A., Relyea, R.A., et al. (2014). Pesticide regulation amid the influence of industry. Bioscience in press.