Mailbag: Lynas flap, is he laudable?

1 minute read

Re: “Recantation of a former genetic know-nothing”:

I'm an admirer of your blog. I work in academia, but I've also had some experience writing for print media (though nothing so influential as The Guardian.) As such, the only thing I found jaw-dropping about Mark Lynas writing anti-GMO articles without the scientific background is the idea that you found it jaw-dropping. From my experience, nothing could be more common. From what I know of journalism it is tough enough without having to write peer-reviewed articles in science journals. Skills that papers value and pay for include the ability to write and the ability to appear competent about the subject. And meet deadlines. They're also in the business of selling news, so literally for the sake of argument editors are happy to include both sides of the story - even when there really is only one side. That's why anti-GMO people and climate change deniers are given space to air their views. As I understand it Mark Lynas is one of a handful of journos from the environmental left in Britain who are now letting their opinions be filtered through the science. He and George Monbiot, for example, are now cautiously pro-nuclear. The Mark Lynas thing got picked up by Slate today. As the piece notes, "To admit you were wrong for decades is terrifying. It is also the mark of intellectual rigor." He should be lauded for his change of opinion.

Thanks so much for this. I appreciate the kind words!

I agree, “jaw-dropping” is a bit of hyperbole. In my experience this particular problem is common and I find it shameful. Journalists have poor science training as a general rule. This seems forgivable if you consider that their media employers care about the news, not about getting science right. They consult experts for that.

And yet

An op-ed piece about genetically modified crops is fairly obviously NOT news. Even as a perspective on something currently in the news, such as a court decision, it is not a news angle, it is advocacy. When it is purchased from a writer at anything less than the market rate, it is paid advocacy.

I do think Lynas’ change of opinion is a good thing, whatever his motivation. I want to focus on the editors, who are typically beyond shaming.