Michael Balter is a disgraced former writer for Science Magazine who lies about his academic qualifications as a professor of journalism. An avowed socialist, Balter calls anyone who disagrees with him on scientific topics an industry shill, and he appears to have developed a soft spot for activist groups who promote nonsense about agriculture and biotechnology.
Balter’s Devolution: From Journalist to Political Hack
Like other partisan writers such as Paul Thacker, Balter went from a respected science journalist to an apologist for radical environmental causes over the course of his career. As far back as 1991, he was writing sensible science articles for a popular audience. In one piece for the New York Times, for example, Balter explained the evolution of biopesticides, specifically those developed from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, which are now in widespread use because they effectively control many common pests.
These days, however, Balter is content to promote junk science from industry-funded front groups like GMWatch, and he seems to have reversed his position on the importance of Bt crops in controlling pests. The Organic Consumers Association, the major trade group representing organics manufacturers, also uses Balter’s work to argue that U.S. beef producers are trying to poison the world with hormone-tainted hamburgers.
Balter has embraced the conspiracy theory, perpetuated by Thacker and other activists, that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Monsanto colluded to cover up the dangers of exposure to the herbicide glyphosate. “[EPA Administrator Scott] Pruitt is awful and the EPA’s doors are now open to industry,” Balter wrote on Twitter. “…The documents from the Monsanto glyphosate lawsuit, eg, suggest plenty of collusion under the Obama administration.” While Balter is content to take the accusations of trial lawyers at face value, nearly every expert says the herbicide is safe. Along the same lines, scientists who defended glyphosate against activist attacks are “corporate stooges,” according to Balter. Strange as they are, these outbursts make more sense in light of recent developments in Balter’s career.
Balter’s Martyr Complex: Fired by Science Magazine
In March 2016, Balter was fired by Science Magazine because of a “breakdown in trust” between him and his editors. During the fallout, Balter tried to play the Martyr, claiming he was fired for writing a controversial story about a sexual harassment allegation made against paleoanthropologist Brian Richmond. Science denies that Balter’s termination was related to the article and says that they stand by his reporting on the matter. A second source confirms this version of the story.
Science hasn’t supplied very many details around the situation, but Balter’s retelling of events provides a few clues about why he may have been terminated. In October 2014, Balter very publicly protested the firing of four female employees at Science. He acknowledged that “no explanation was provided for their departure,” though he speculated that Science had taken on “…the culture more typical of a Manhattan publisher or a Wall Street corporation…”
Balter wrote another blogpost about the situation on October 20, 2014. In this post he chastised the then CEO of Science’s parent organization, the AAAS, for his handling of the terminations, and argued that there should be a public discussion about the events. “[T]he AAAS is a nonprofit…with a Board that is democratically elected,” Balter opined, “it is also the largest general scientific body in the world. Thus it should be subject to the same scrutiny…as any other large organization of its type.”
One of his editors requested that Balter take the post down. But he declined, arguing that acquiescing would be “sanitizing…the historical record.” Sounding more like an entitled teenager writing on Facebook than a science journalist, Balter further commented: “I consider that [blogpost] to be one of the proudest moments of my life. It’s not often that one gets to put one’s career on the line for something one believes in, and I have no regrets.” To make matters worse, Balter lied to the Washington Post, telling the paper that his termination was a direct result of his sexual harassment story.
Just a Journalist? Balter Takes a Side in the “GMO Debate”
In July 2017, organic industry lacky Paul Thacker attacked science writer Keith Kloor on the Huffington Post, claiming that Kloor “had worked with industry-funded ‘experts’ to present corporate talking points as journalism and then try to cover his tracks.”
Balter jumped into the debate and asked Kloor if he would respond to Thacker’s allegations, adding that Kloor’s “fervor defending GMOs is suspect…” Kloor asked for specific examples of his “fervor” in defending GMOs, but Balter, as he is wont to do, deflected. “Don’t need to,” he wrote, “Giving my overall evaluation of the role you play in GMO debate. Adversarial rather than strictly scientific.”
Merchant of doubt about GMO safety
In August 2017, American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) President Hank Campbell wrote a piece detailing the history of recombinant DNA research in America, such as on GMO insulin. In it he argued that “…in 1977…the same political forces and activists aligned against science now were already against it then. Just the names have changed.” Balter took to twitter and accused Campbell of giving a distorted history, claiming that “many reputable scientists at the time urged caution about recombinant DNA research.”
Balter was correct that biologists in the early 1970s felt that recombinant DNA research should proceed conservatively, but by 1977 the safety concerns had been addressed, and the only holdouts were lay activists and a handful of “dissident researchers” who “turned militant,” according to the National Institutes of Health. Much like the case with GMOs, RNAi and CRISPR/Cas-9 now. Yet Balter fervently insists that scientists are irresponsible today, when far more is known and technology is precise.
For good measure, Balter barked yet again that ACSH is an “industry front group,” an accusation he looks for reasons to make every chance he can. This lends further credence to persistent allegations about his sexism. ACSH was founded by a female scientist and people who know him say that is why he maintains a special hatred for the organization. In response, Balter once again made fun of ACSH’s deceased founder, Dr. Elizabeth Whelan. Unsatisfied with merely mocking the deceased, Balter has also tried to dig up dirt on ACSH, though with no success.
If you’d instead like to talk to a writer who wasn’t fired for making up stories, please DM anyone in science media and not an organic industry PR rep like @mbalter. https://t.co/3e6BzeKq95 pic.twitter.com/QIE08pXyyG
— DeniersForHire (@DeniersForHire) June 15, 2018
Strangely, Balter still pretends to be an objective journalist, frequently claiming he has “no dog in the GMOs debate.” Yet he alleges, as do all anti-biotech activists, that there is “no scientific consensus” on the safety of genetic engineering. Balter also believes there should be a debate to determine if transgenic corn causes cancer, but it won’t happen because “…industry and those paid by it don’t want to have it.” In reality the debate is not happening because the only study linking transgenic corn to cancer has been debunked multiple times, a fact Balter should be well aware of.