Let’s get real. It doesn’t matter if you think Monsanto is evil. Genetically modified food is safe—no matter what logical fallacies will lead liberals like Bill Maher to believe.
If Monsanto has anything to do with it, it must be evil. That seems to be the prevailing opinion on the monolithic biotech company. Following that logic, if they produce corn or soybeans or another crop that has been genetically modified (GM), those too must be evil. That’s Bill Maher’s reasoning at least—reasoning that lures liberals away from science and towards denial.
Making the leap from Monsanto’s business practices—whatever you may think of them—to the “dangers” of GM foods is a mistake in logical reasoning. It is akin to saying landscape paintings are potentially evil because the painter was a serial killer. The conclusion does not follow from the premise. And giving some product or process the attributes of its user is the logical fallacy that currently leads typically pro-science liberals like Maher astray on questions of nuclear power, vaccination, and especially GMOs. Whether genetically modified foods are safe is a scientific, not a political, question. To intertwine views of Monsanto with GM foods is therefore an argumentum ad monsantum, a disturbingly popular logical fallacy, and Bill Maher is the classic example.
I am a fan of Real Time with Bill Maher. It’s HBO’s version of The Daily Show, with a liberal host poking fun at the foibles of government and politicians. But every so often, satire can veer off course, lampooning scientific findings as if they were the latest sex scandal. This is the case with Bill Maher. Though you will hear him on Real Time staunchly defending the science of climate change and evolution against politically-charged deniers, you will also hear him railing against vaccines, nuclear power, and GMOs with the same polemic language he satirizes.
For example, in episode #294 of Real Time, Maher invites the director of “GMO OMG” for a conversation about the “dangers” of GM foods. (Note that fellow Scientific American writer Ferris Jabr has convincingly argued why “GMO OMG” is an emotionally manipulative film that skimps on the science.) Maher begins the conversation with a question: “I don’t want to start things off by asking why Monsanto is evil…but why is Monsanto evil?” The director goes on to explain why, with the rest of the panel chiming in. Then you see something very telling. CNN contributor David Frum, a Republican, interrupts to explain how humans have been genetically modifying food ever since we prioritized seeds from desirably growing crops at the dawn of agriculture. He was booed and hissed by the crowd. I mentioned Frum’s political affiliation because Real Time has an admitted slant towards liberalism, and Republicans encounter much resistance on each episode. This time was no different. Though Frum was exactly right on the science, he was treated as exactly wrong. The argumentum ad monsantum struck again.
Maher, who I think gets a lot of science right, gets the science of GM food so wrong because he is unable or unwilling to disentangle the politics from the science. Many liberals seem to have the same problem.
The first component to the liberal opposition to genetically modified food appears to be a genuine misunderstanding of how it works. The genetic modification of food is a much more exact science than many opponents realize. As this fantastic explainer outlines, genetic modification is typically about inserting a single gene—whose effects we test for toxicity and allergenic properties—into a crop. It is not a haphazard Frankenstein process of sowing and suturing animal and plant parts together. In fact, a Frankenstein-style process is exactly what was done before genetic modification.
In the early days of agriculture, farmers crossbred plants to take advantage of the genetic diversity thrown up by evolutionary processes. Whatever beneficial properties emerged were saved in the seeds and transplanted into the next generation. This is a Mary Shelly-style process, with more recent farmers exposing their plants to radiation in the hopes of increasing the genetic variations at their disposal. That’s a fact that is absent from many a Monsanto discussion. If anything exemplifies the messy, unknown nature of altering crops, it’s what farming looked like before genetic modification.
Even when we are taking genes from animals and inserting them into plants or vice-versa, the results are still safe, reduce pesticide use, and dramatically increase crop yields. In fact, this year, a review of over 1,700 papers [PDF] concerning the safety of GM food in the journal Critical Reviews in Biotechnology concluded, “The scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazards directly connected with the use of genetically engineered crops.”
Increasing the hardiness of our crops to better feed the world is also the main benefit of genetic modification, often omitted from the curious liberal opposition to GM food. As climate change picks up its pace, we will need crops that can feed more people while at the same time resisting parasites, infections, and drought. Scientifically established safety is bolstered by moral obligation.
While Bill Maher has a habit of outright denying the safety of GM food, he does sometimes taper his views by offering the alternative—growing food “organically” (GM food is still organic material, of course, but it may not fit the FDA’s designations of what “organic” food is). However, the supposed superiority of organically grown food has little scientific justification. Organically grown food still uses pesticides, those pesticides are largely untested, the pesticide reduction that organic food does offer is insignificant at best, and the food itself is no more nutritious or safe than its engineered alternative.
Still, even though the scientific community is in agreement over the safety of GM foods, there is a question of disclosure—the second component of the argumentum ad absurdum. To Maher, the “evil” nature of Monsanto is bound-up in the fact that GM foods are not currently labeled as such. We deserve to know what we are eating, and if Monsanto won’t tell us, GM food must be bad for us, or so the argument seems to go. But again, the science must be separated from the politics. No one will deny that Monsanto had a dog in the fight to prevent GM labeling in California, but Maher might be surprised to hear that labeling genetically modified foods is a bad idea, despite the benefits of transparency. There is no scientific reason to label from a safety standpoint, and doing so would likely only create more fear around the already beleaguered technology. And that fear would probably have damaging implications for all advances in food technology. Just look at what happens when people realize that fluoride—a safe and amazingly effective addition to our public water supply—is coming from their tap.
For questions that science, and not politics, has a bearing on, it really does not matter what you think of Monsanto. It does not matter what you think of the corporation’s business tactics or how it treats its customers or employees. Similarly, it does not matter if you think Al Gore a hypocrite or Charles Darwin a heathen–climate change and evolution are real and established. By calling GMOs “poison” and “evil”, Bill Maher poisons the well of reasoned scientific discussion with ideologically driven fear mongering.
It’s fashionable to think that the conservative parties in America are the science deniers. You certainly wouldn’t have trouble supporting that claim. But liberals are not exempt. Though the denial of evolution, climate change, and stem cell research tends to find a home on the right of the aisle, the denial of vaccine, nuclear power, and genetic modification safety have found a home on the left (though the extent to which each side denies the science is debatable). It makes one wonder: Why do liberals like Maher—psychologically considered open to new ideas—deny the science of GM food while accepting the science in other fields?
The answer to that giant question is an unsettled one, but themes do leap out of the literature. Simplifying greatly, cognitive bias and ideology play a large role. We tend to accept information that confirms our prior beliefs and ignore or discredit information that does not. This confirmation bias settles over our eyes like distorting spectacles for everything we look at. Could this be at the root of the argumentum ad monsantum? It isn’t inconsistent with the trend Maher has shown repeatedly on his show. A liberal opposition to corporate power, to capitalistic considerations of human welfare, could be incorrectly coloring the GM discussion. Perhaps GMOs are the latest casualty in a cognitive battle between confirmation bias and reality.
But just how much psychology plays into the opposition of GMOs is a question that can’t even be asked until the politics and the science are untangled.
To his credit, Bill Maher has a record of seeing the science forest for the political trees when it comes to topics like climate change and evolution. He spots the political manipulation of climate change when the Koch brothers fund disinformation. He picks out when arguments to “teach the controversy” are just semantic manipulations to get religious ideology into science classes. I hope that he, and the liberal bastion of science denial he sometimes represents, one day gets real and recognizes how much his political views are manipulating his stance on genetically modified foods.
Tip of the hat to Brian Dunning who came up with the phrase “argumentum ad monsantum” on Twitter.