Dear Scientific American, Vegetables are Not Toxic. Down With Fake News!

According to a recent article in the Scientific American, “Broccoli Is Dying. Corn Is Toxic”. Really?! Last time I checked, broccoli still rocked the nutrient charts, and Bt toxin only worked in insects.
 
I used to view Scientific American as part of the solution to the growing tide of fake news. Now I see it as part of the problem. This article is misleading and fearmongering, utterly fails to provide a rigorous, scientific look at nutrient density. Perhaps more importantly, it fails to demonstrate how to use science to ask and answer questions.
 
In fact, this article provides a nice illustration of what NOT to do when communicating science.
1. Focus on (unfounded) fears.
2. Appeal to false authorities (or skip the evidence altogether).
3. Cherry pick only the findings that support your view.
4. Fail to put your findings in context by comparing them to what other studies and established experts have reported.
 
This fearmongering fake-news, clickbait headline and article have me steaming…a big head of broccoli, with a side of Bt corn!
 
Keep reading for the full letter  and get more tips here on being a critical science consumer.
 
Thanks to Dr. Kevin Folta and Dr. Steve Savage for bringing this article to my attention and urging me to add my voice to the chorus of scientists demanding a retraction.
 
Response from Scientific American
We got many letters when that article was published. As a result, we insisted that the author revise it. We’re not taking the original down, because we don’t believe in hiding our mistakes. But we did put this editor’s note at the top, which redirects readers to the revised version
 
This post has been substantially rewritten to change or eliminate claims and sourcing that did not meet Scientific American’s editorial standards. The revised post can be found here.

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Dear Editors,

As a scientist with PhD in genetics and a passion for helping the public make well-informed food choices, I found your article on our toxic food supply to be shocking, saddening, and upsetting.

To be clear, I’m not upset that the vegetables in our food supply are becoming “toxic”. I’m upset that science-hungry consumers are getting fearmongering fake news rather than evidence-based information. I also see a huge missed opportunity to positively, rather than negatively, contribute to scientific information literacy. Only a full retraction, with acknowledgement of the egregious errors, will – possibly – redeem your magazine, in my opinion.

Here are some of the disturbing aspects of this article.

1. Fearmongering /  fake news.

Yes, fear sells and the public should be alerted when their food is potentially unsafe. However, this article is riddled with unfounded fear-based statements (check out these well-referenced critiques: Dr. Alex Berezow and Dr. Kevin Folta). In my opinion, using such fearmongering to hook readers not only flies in the face of the mission of science communicators, but is downright unethical.

2. Appeal to false authorities (or no authority).

Information literacy is perhaps one of the greatest challenges of our time. As science communicators, I feel that it is our duty to help the lay public separate “fake news” from evidence-based information.

Rather than sticking to legitimate scientific sources (e.g. peer-reviewed scientific publications and meta-analyses by national organizations) the authors turn to a food author, a health product pushing salesman (Dr. Zach Bush) and pseudoscience haven Planetary Health (check it out if you want a smoothie that can cure Ebola!).

The article also includes strong claims, asserted with zero evidence (“Not only are plants getting less nutritious, they are getting more toxic.”). If you’re posting on Twitter or Instagram, I get it… but if you have a full length article, let’s hold ourselves to a high standard, especially for controversial stances.

3. Cherry picking and lack of appropriate context.

Another layer of information literacy that I feel passionately about is our obligation to contextualize a study’s findings, using the types of questions we typically address in a publication’s Discussion.

  • How do these findings compare to what others have found?

The authors highlight one study that showed nutrient differences, but ignore others that reached different conclusions.

  • Are the differences between groups attributable to other factors?

In a desire to prove their point, the authors fail to acknowledge the many KNOWN factors that influence nutrient density and confound nutrient studies (such as vegetable size, ripeness…)

  • Are the differences likely to be biologically meaningful (not just statistically significant)?

The article ignores a critical concept for consumers – the dose makes the poison. I like to remind people that vitamin D can a useful supplement, but can also be rat poison at ultra high doses. The authors fail on this front several times in the context of glyphosate and health. They suggest that a whiff of glyphosate in water is wrecking havoc on ecosystems, and that a decrease in urine pesticide levels when switching to an organic diet is biologically meaningful. The reality is that even the “high” levels in non-organic consumers are hundreds of times lower than well established safe levels. It’s nonsense to imply that this decrease is biologically meaningful.

Thank you for taking the time to read my concerns. I look forward to hearing back from you with your course of action.

Regards,

Chana Davis, PhD
Founder, Fueled by Science

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2 thoughts on “Dear Scientific American, Vegetables are Not Toxic. Down With Fake News!”

  1. Chana,

    It is so important that you did this, and I hope others reading understand why this is a major issue. SciAm has been a trusted source of information since like 1845. They have a powerful brand. First, we need them to help us communicate proper science. Second, they have lost my trust and many others. They have reduced themselves to tabloid status, and (ugh) fake news.

    The best thing they could do is retract the nonsense, make a clear statement about it, and move forward with stronger editors and reviewers of work before it is printed. Everyone should write. I did. Others did too. We got some response. Unfortunately they replaced the original awful article with something almost as bad. Thank you. Kevin

    1. Thanks, Kevin. I agree wholeheartedly that the fight against fake science news is critically important. It’s such a shame when a potential ally such as Scientific American does more harm than good. Thanks for the important role you play in this crusade and in inspiring others to join you.

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