The Frankenfish Fallacy: How interest groups suck us in

January 27, 2013

Fishy petition against GM salmonHave you seen in Facebook recently, the links to a petition entitled, Stop The Frankenfish Attack?

It is worth a read if you want to study propaganda creation.

There are so many underhanded communication tricks and so much misinformation that we should create a new type of logical fallacy called The Frankenfallacy.

In fact, this spurious piece of manipulation is as much a hodge podge of elements as a seafood platter.

The essence of the piece is that the world’s first genetically-modified fish is about to be farmed and heralds doom for the world.

I am glad my newly awakened awareness for lies and half-truths sent off alarm bells the moment I saw it and two sources deserve credit for this alertness:

  • Skeptics with a K podcast – these guys riff on all manner of topics and within days of me seeing this dangerous petition, they covered this topic, which has made my job easier here
  • Andy White’s Quackometer – Andy’s list of wording and claims that should raise red flags has been invaluable in this case, as I shall elaborate upon.

Let’s dive into the murky practices that produced this fishy piece of action bait.

Automatic red flags

Media literacy classes in some high schools thankfully teach students to consume media with an awareness of whether or not they feel their emotions being manipulated.

The classic examples are those trashy, prime time programs like Today Tonight and A Current Affair, where heavily-laden, emotionally-charged adjectives are used throughout stories to steer opinions and lead us to conclusions about the subjects in the stories and the topics themselves.

It is in these barrel-scraping programs that we hear such loose language as ‘wonder’ drugs, ‘super’ foods and ‘miracle’ cures. It really is the stuff you expect from a sleazy, circus slideshow from generations past where the gullible were sold water as medicine (today’s version is homeopathy, I suppose, a topic for another day) or paid to stair at a ‘freak’.

Thanks to Andy Lewis’ list of how to spot a quack, here are just a couple of the red flag elements in Stop The Frankenfish Attack:

  • ‘Mutant’ salmon – when something you are against is cloaked in grotesque adjectives, we must be wary
  • ‘Based on studies paid for by the company that created the GMO creature’ – this is an example of claiming to be fighting on the side of the public against some conspirator, eg, big pharma, multinationals, etc.

Never let the facts get in the way of good fear-mongering

Thanks to some research into the GM salmon by the team at Skeptics with a K (that link will take you to the episode in question), and an article from Nature (the international weekly journal of science), the AVAAZ claims can be sunk quite quickly:

  • ‘Could wipe out wild salmon populations’ – not sure how that works, given approval is for raising this fish in land bound tanks. Some opponents are suggesting the company behind it will lobby for raising them in nets at sea, but it has taken 17 years to get this far, so this is purely speculative. However, even if the fish were farmed at sea and some escaped, the genetically-modified fish are all female and ‘near sterile’ and hence extremely unlikely to stand a chance against incumbent species. So that is one crushing fact balancing on one mightily tenuous hypothetical.
  • ‘Threaten human health’ – this is an interesting claim based on nothing. There has only been one study suggesting human harm from GM food and that related to GM tomatoes in the 1980s, with that research later reviewed and found to be flawed. So, there is no evidence of GM being a threat to human health but the stigma of that early misreporting is enough to whip up a frenzy of Ludditism.  This health claim seems to be based on the notion that eating genes can be harmful to humans, despite that fact that everything we eat contains genes. As the Skeptics with a K crew joked, we eat pig with pig genes and they do not jump through our stomach walls and turn us into pigs, etc.
  • ‘A growing coalition of consumers, environmentalists and fisherman’ – hmmm, it makes for a nice throwaway line but ‘growing coalition’ hardly puts numbers on the fact but neither is it persuasive because even if a million people were convinced of the truth of a wrong statement, it does not suddenly become true. As has been pointed out by others, truth is not democratic.

For me, the underhanded and emotive way proponents of this petition have worded their page, undermines their claims. They claim they will support the move when ‘sufficient’ research has been carried out but amid the propaganda-like context of the piece, this comes across as a disingenuous offer most likely designed to appease the sensibilities of mainstream visitors to the page.

The sad thing is, AVAAZ stands for some decent principles like taking action on issues ranging ‘from corruption and poverty to conflict and climate change’. The group seems to have been taken over by an anti-science movement that risks robbing the globe of innovation that can produce more food, more safely.

I’m hoping this development gets approved so the world CAN have fish on its plate for a long time to come.