About Censorship

Cowboy pondering

For those of us who are curious, or maybe just in need of an occasional diversion from reality, the Internet is a rich and wondrous toy. With a click or two we can open a window to unexpected marvels or places we’d love to visit  but will likely never get to. But the path to unexpected marvels can just as quickly shunt you off into bad neighborhoods and dark places that no one needs to visit. Herewith a tale…

We all love somebody who beats the odds, a self-made success who overcomes a challenge and builds something significant; even better if there’s a “cowboy” angle of bucking current trends or speaking truth to power. On its surface, then, Mike Adams would seem to have a lot going for him.

Calling himself the “Health Ranger” and hosting a widely viewed website Adams offers up a steady stream of health related claims and comments through which he has become one of the Internet’s leading promoters of bogus health schemes, medical conspiracy theories and quack medicine. He often starts from a springboard of fact, but regularly careens off in some conspiratorial and/or fear profiteering direction that leaves sane folks scratching their heads in wonder. Adams is a constant campaigner against science-based medicine and health policy, and regularly attacks biotech improved seeds and crops as well as other forms of science based innovation in the life sciences. His business model is of the worst sort, preying on the sick and gullible, and advancing policy nostrums (like mandatory GMO labeling) that would have negative, if not disastrous consequences for consumers and society in general. And unfortunately his efforts have been effective, as his writings have been used by anti-technology campaigners to strengthen the case for labeling in Vermont and other states across the nation.

Jon Entine is an experienced, accomplished and reputable journalist and science writer who is among the very best at putting out fact-based stories. His penchant for following the facts where they lead has made him over the years into a staunch supporter of biotech improved crops and foods. Entine has been forward leaning in the battle against “whacktivist” disinformation campaigns and fear profiteering. His principal vehicle is the Genetic Literacy Project based at George Mason University.

Entine recently took a closer look, at Adams and lined up some of the claims Adams has made against GMOs and other life science technologies in his own words. Then things ricocheted in an altogether different and uglier direction. Adams lobbed some heavy handed threats to sue and otherwise intimidate the journalist, saying, among other lovely bits, that “You are no doubt also aware that I have many friends in law enforcement and that we are simultaneously pursuing an effort to have you arrested and charged with cyber bullying crimes. I honestly cannot say for sure whether such an effort will be successful, but it is one of the areas we are actively pursuing against you.”

Media mud fights are nothing new. For example, Thomas Jefferson was so disgusted with what he saw on the world wide web of his day that he once wrote “… nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle” (letter to John Norvell on June 11, 1807). One wonders what he would say of today’s Internet.

The Founding Fathers decided the best disinfectant for this type of “fevered thinking” was sunlight, and created a mechanism, through the First Amendment, to ensure that all opinions and presentations of fact receive a proper, public review. The last 250 years would seem to uphold that wisdom, and it is therefore not only disappointing but dangerous to see what Adams is trying to do in this case.

Why do we care about this? How is this relevant to sound policy making? Adams’ attempt to bully a critic (and a mild one at that) into silence is part of a larger campaign to stampede state legislators into wrong-headed, anti-technology public policies that undermine the public good while abusing the power of the state to benefit special interest rent-seekers, as we saw with Vermont’s recent GMO labeling law. Making public policy in a society whose members have multiple competing interests can be hard. It is not improved when one faction sneaks a thumb on the scales. If Adams has a beef with what Entine wrote, he should publish his argument so the world can evaluate it and decide. He is certainly not lacking any access to the media. But to attempt to achieve through intimidation and threats what he cannot win by force of reason is execrable.

Others have written about this at some length, so we need not do much more here than include links to a couple of blog posts. But if what Adams is seeking through his lawyer is “respect”, as Keith Kloor suggests, then maybe he needs a friend to tell him his approach is counterproductive. History has shown repeatedly that attempting to suppress an author usually backfires on the suppressor. In the present case, Adams’ heavy-handed response has now led to several more reviews of his work that are even less flattering. Did he bother to ask himself what would likely happen if he threatened a journalist for quoting him?

It may be that the most important characteristic for a person involved in the public sphere is a bit of a thick skin. Adams may need some skin grafts.

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About the author

L. Val Giddings has nearly three decades of experience in science and regulatory policy relating to biotechnology innovations in agriculture and biomedicine. He works with ITIF to bring intellectual leadership to examination of the constraints inhibiting innovations in these areas, and devising remedies to those constraints.