How the media fell for a GMO front group attack on Dr. Oz

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The 55-point headline in Slate blares, “Letter from Prominent Doctors Implies Columbia Should Fire Dr. Oz for Being a Quack.” The story by Ben Mathis-Lilly is based on a letter by a group of doctors who want Columbia University to relieve Dr. Oz of his position as vice chair of the department of surgery at Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons.

“Dr. Oz has repeatedly shown disdain for science and for evidence-based medicine, as well as baseless and relentless opposition to the genetic engineering of food crops,” states the letter, which was sent soon after Dr. Oz aired a show about glyphosate, the herbicide associated with most genetically engineered crops that was recently designated as a probable human carcinogen by the World Health Organization.

The complaint to Columbia was signed by Dr. Henry I. Miller and nine colleagues, “all of whom are distinguished physicians,” the letter claims.

So who are these prominent distinguished physicians?

Mathis-Lilly didn’t ask that question, nor did reporters who covered the letter for the Associated Press, Washington Post, USA Today, NPR, Vox or New York Daily News.

If they had, they would have learned that not all the physicians on the letter are so distinguished. One was stripped of his medical license in New York and sent to federal prison camp for Medicaid fraud. Yet Dr. Gilbert Ross plays up his M.D. credentials in his role as acting president of the American Council for Science and Health (ACSH). Ross was joined on the Columbia letter by ACSH board member Dr. Jack Fisher.

So what is ACSH? Though some reporters treat it as an independent science source, the group has been heavily funded by oil, chemical and tobacco companies, and has a long history of making inaccurate statements about science that directly benefit those industries – for example claiming that secondhand smoke isn’t linked to heart attacks, fracking doesn’t pollute water, and there is no scientific consensus on global warming.

Two other signatories of the letter – Miller and Dr. Scott Atlas – hail from the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank based at Stanford University that has a special affinity for featuring the work of climate change deniers.

“In other words, it’s an institution whose commitment to science is highly questionable to nonexistent in one area, and it’s attacking Oz for pseudoscience?” pointed out Dr. David Gorski in his blog about the Columbia letter.

Though an Oz critic himself, Gorski dismissed the Columbia letter as unlikely to yield anything but a brief media blip, and noted that Miller did “a half-assed job” getting credible signers. (Gorski describes ACSH as “a group that is pro-science when that science aligns with industry interests, particularly the pesticide industry.”)

The obvious irony of Miller’s Hoover Institute association may be why he tends to downplay it in the press; for example, AP reported the Columbia letter was “led by Dr. Henry Miller of Stanford University.” But Miller has landed in hot water before for tying himself too closely to Stanford.

In 2012, a TV ad imploring Californians to vote against GMO labeling was yanked off the air because it identified Miller as an M.D. at Stanford and had him perched in front of the ornately vaulted campus walkway. Stanford demanded it be changed to reflect Miller’s true status at Hoover.

Along with his “colleagues” at ACSH, Miller has a long history of defending the indefensible for polluting and dangerous industries. Nicotine is “not particularly bad for you in the amounts delivered by cigarettes,” he wrote in 2012. He has repeatedly argued to bring back the banned pesticide DDT. After the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster, Miller wrote that people exposed to low levels of radiation “could have actually benefitted from it.”

Now, he’s fronting for the GMO industry. Miller has become one of the most prolific and best-known promoters of genetically engineered food and crops, with frequent articles in Forbes, Wall Street Journal and other outlets – most recently Slate, where he attacked Oz for his coverage of GMOs. Among other industry talking points in the piece, Miller claims that glyphosate “has lower overall health impacts than white vinegar,” and fails to mention its recent listing by the World Health Organization as a carcinogen.

These facts are relevant in stories about scientific integrity. The scientific accuracy and motivations of the accusers matter when they are publicly challenging the scientific accuracy and motivations of somebody they are trying to get fired.

We urge reporters and editors to take a closer look at the sources selling them story ideas, and to act as better watchdogs for the public interest.

Also see:
Mother Jones – Paging Dr. Ross: A doctor who defends corporations from “inconvenient” science has a secret of his own

Mother Jones – Leaked Documents Reveal the Secret Finances of Pro-Industry Science Group: The American Council on Science and Health defends fracking, BPA, and pesticides. Guess who their funders are

USRTK fact sheet – Why You Can’t Trust Henry Miller

USRTK fact sheet – Why You Can’t Trust the American Council on Science and Health