The Right Opinion

First, the Bad News

By John Stossel · Jan. 16, 2013

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.

Schools across America banned apples. Moms poured out apple juice. Apple growers lost billions.

But the scare was bunk. Apples, even apples with Alar, are good for you. Since banning Alar meant apples decay more quickly, apples become slightly more expensive, and that meant some kids ate less healthy food.

Today, we have new scares, like the one over plastic water bottles. Some contain a chemical called BPA, which activists say causes cancer, hyperactivity, all sorts of problems.

Chemicals called phthalates, which keep school supplies like backpacks soft, are accused of damaging kids' livers and kidneys and causing asthma.

If these stories were true, who could blame parents for being frightened? Who can blame reporters for telling the story?

Julie Gunlock, from the Independent Women's Forum, blames them. She points out that the activists scare mothers needlessly, because “over 1,000 studies, independent studies, have said that BPA is perfectly safe.”

She knows how the scare stories work: “BPA is easily vilified. I mean, it's invisible. And people tend to say: 'Chemicals, it's scary. I'll just trust what some activist organization or consumer rights organization says and avoid it.'”

There's no reason to get excited about chemicals – unless you're an environmental activist eager to acquire money and power.

“A lot of them make money on newsletters,” says Gunlock. “Bad news sells.” NRDC has raised $185 million by scaring people.

To keep scares in perspective, remember all the good news that gets less attention. Coverage of horrors like the shooting in Newtown, Conn., makes us think our kids are in more danger today, but school violence is actually down.

And despite all the chemicals – actually, because of them – we live longer than ever.

There is plenty of bad news that's real – like the national debt, and most of what politicians do. But in most ways, most of the time, the world slowly but surely gets better. To most of us, that's good news.



Tod the tool guy in brooklyn ny said:

"Phthalates" keep things soft? Now you are giving ideas to Hillary Clinton! And "We in the media rarely lie to you." John, are you smoking something, or is it me, that does not get it?

Wednesday, January 16, 2013 at 6:45 AM

Doktor Riktor Von Zhades in Western KY said:

I remember when in JHS back in the ancient times of the mid 1960s how the big bru-ha-ha about cyclomates was making headlines. It was later found out that the lab rats were injected with the stuff that would have to be the equivalent of a human drinking a gazillion bottles of soda for years.

Now John I might take you task on the media not lying...surely you jest. Ok, maybe they don't lie, but they sure to commit a huge amount of the sin of omission, which in the end is danged close second to a big fat lie.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013 at 9:27 AM

wjm in Colorado said:

A half truth is as much an outright lie as a total fabrication. The media lies every night to the sheeple.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013 at 11:04 AM

BKlipfel in Northwest Arkansas said:

The idiocy proceeds as follows: 1). Give massive amounts of a substance (equal to about 250 yrs worth of exposure for the average human) to a (genetically engineered to get cancer more easily) lab rat, then generate hysteria over the resultant tumors. 2). Look for the 1 in a million average human that actually DOES have health problems due to this substance. 3). Claim that "If it saves even one life, it's worth it", thus selling to the (low-information) public that you are doing a "good thing". 4). Repeat as necessary for any other substances you can receive a grant to study.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013 at 12:52 PM

JAC in Texas replied:

The same logic that says, "If we can keep just one child from being murdered by a crazed idiot with a gun in a mass shooting, then we should ban guns," is used for everything, because most people believe it. This is just another example.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013 at 1:59 PM

Kevin from Arkansas in USA replied:

"If we can keep just one child protected and alive by an armed citizen then we should allow all citizens, should they wish, to carry not only for the child's protection but also for protection from a tyrannical government."

Wednesday, January 16, 2013 at 8:13 PM

MIResident in Michigan said:

John's listening to industry lackeys for his information. The primary reason for UK to ban GM soybeans was an outbreak of allergies associated w/ soybeans. Google India and GM cotton and you'll see pictures of cotton farmers and what its done to their skin.

As many things that have turned out not to be an issue (including DDT), there are just as many that have turned out to be dangerous (um, smokinng is the easiest example). Another danger that Stossel does't mention is that all GM seed is trademarked and copyrighted. Seed companies like Monsanto have sued farmers (and won) when their GM seed cross pollinated w/ the farmers crops. When Monsanto has cross pollinated all of the seed, they will control the seed market - guess what happens to prices?

Wednesday, January 16, 2013 at 2:40 PM

Howard Last in Wyoming said:

Remember the cranberry scare of the mid 1950's . It occurred right before Thanksgiving that year. You had to eat a boxcar full of cranberries to have a problem.

Then there is the DDT ban. DDT just about wiped out Malaria. But William Ruckelshaus banned it during the early 70's and Malaria now kills between 1 and 2 million people a year, mostly children. So much for doing it for the children. BTW, DDT was used to delouse the happy campers that were freed from Adolph's camps. So if you do the math, Ruckelshaus killed more people than Adolph, Joe Stalin or Mao.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013 at 3:08 PM

Ted in Bethesda, Md. said:

Talk about selective reporting! Not to mention being clueless! The French study about BT you referred to may not have included enough of the right types of rat, but it was at least a start, considering that there are no credible long term studies. That’s because Monsanto, principle producer of GE food, won’t do them and won’t allow independent researchers to do them. Monsanto doesn’t get flack for this because it pays “campaign contributions” to members of Congress to “hear no evil, see no evil” and because our revolving door regulatory system enables former Monsanto to essentially regulate itself. You would think this can’t be true; that reputable science would tell it like it is. But you would be wrong, because the FDA has spies on its own employees who whistleblow about harmful products that glide through approval, like Vioxx, which ended up killing 60,000 people before being taken off the market. FDA spies have posted personal information about whistlblowers on the internet, which Sen. Charles Grassley criticzed last July in a speech on the Senate floor. All of this leaves Monsanto pretty much free to regulate itself, regardless what the American people want. But back to selective reporting. If GM foods need fewer pesticides to grow where other crops will not survive, then why is it that the pesticide use since the emergence of GMOs since in the mid-nineties has gone up by roughly three times? As for drought resistance crops, which have been talked about for two decades, well, where are they? Or is it just talk to get us to buy into the GMO agenda? Want more selection, John? Your statement - “ by forcing farmers to stick to the old-fashioned corn, activists and regulators force customers to pay higher prices for food.” Sorry, missed the mark again. What makes corn go down in price are millions of dollars in corn subsidies that go to big Ag farmers every year – the very corn that is produced to process the junk food that accounts for are increasing illness and decreasing longevity rates. While junk food maybe cheaper, what is the ultimate price we pay for it when you take into account our personal health care costs, and the financial burden that this imposes on our nation’s financial health? Reporters often state half truths, true. But trying to act as if you are free of this shortcoming and would never do such a thing - in light of your specious arguments here – makes you appear completely two-faced.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013 at 2:22 PM