We in the media rarely lie to you.
But that leaves plenty of room to take things wildly out of context.
That’s where most big scare stories come from, like recent headlines about GM foods. GM means “genetically modified,” which means scientists add genes, altering the plant’s DNA, in this case to make the crop resistant to pests.
Last week, Poland joined seven other European countries in banning cultivation of GM foods.
The politicians acted because headlines screamed about how GM foods caused huge tumors in rats. The pictures of the rats are scary. Some have tumors the size of tennis balls.
What the headlines don’t tell you, though, is that the female Sprague-Dawley rats used in the test usually develop tumors—87 to 96 percent of the time.
It’s a similar story with chemicals that the media constantly tell us to fear.
More often than not, rats get tumors if given high enough doses of manmade chemicals. I shouldn’t say “manmade.” Nature’s chemicals cause tumors at the same rate.
Reporters and environmental activists have incentives to leave out details that might make the story boring. It’s useful if you think you’re in danger.
“It’s a great way to get attention,” says Bjorn Lomborg, statistician and author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, “but it focuses you on the wrong solutions.” Instead of doing something that really fights cancer, like quitting smoking, people devote their energy to banning things like GM foods.
GM foods require less water, need fewer pesticides and grow where other crops will not survive.
By forcing farmers to stick to the old-fashioned corn, activists and regulators force customers to pay higher prices for food.
Reporters sleep with clear consciences because we (usually) don’t say anything completely false. We tell ourselves that we may save lives and draw attention to important issues—and so what if people err on the side of safety?
But the answer to “so what?” is that people waste time, money and emotional energy, and we are less safe, because we worry about the wrong things.
Years ago, the Natural Resources Defense Council claimed the chemical Alar, which helps keep apples from rotting, killed kids. When “60 Minutes” ran the story, I believed it. So did lots of people.