Flash column creates online firestorm

Posted by Skylar Browning on Tue, Jan 17, 2012 at 11:29 AM

Ari LeVaux's latest "Flash in the Pan" column covered a new study at Nanjing University and something called MicroRNAs. The study found that these MicroRNAs, or tiny bits of ribonucleic acid, can survive digestion and alter host gene expression. LeVaux connected the discovery to questions about genetically modified food.

Many readers took issue with LeVaux's interpretation of the study, prompting numerous online rebuttals and a re-write of the column. The updated version now appears on the Indy website.

Here's what happened:

The column ran in the Indy under the headline, "Eating Information." It was also posted on The Atlantic's website, where LeVaux's columns regularly appear. The Atlantic version, titled "The Very Real Danger of Genetically Modified Foods," became that website's most emailed article and has received, so far, more than 400 comments. Many are not positive, arguing about the sensational headline and noting specific errors within the piece.

Media outlets also rebutted the column. The Biology Files wrote a response titled, "Why did The Atlantic publish this piece trying to link miRNAs and GMOs?" Big Think took it a step further with a piece titled, "The Dangerous Blurring of News and Opinion Online." Discover Magazine offered a long article of its own titled, "Natural RNA, Transgenic DNA, and What They Actually Mean for Our Food."

LeVaux has responded to the criticism and posted comments in the comment section of most of the rebuttal articles. (Discover has yet to publish his response.) He acknowledges the original column contained "many unfortunate errors," but maintains his "main argument remained intact." He also points out that he has no control over his column's headlines.

LeVaux offered an expanded re-write of the column, which now appears on the Indy website with an editor's note. The updated version also appears at The Atlantic and Alternet.

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