The Genetic Engineering Bugaboo

By Keith Kloor | May 27, 2012 6:22 am

It goes like this: 1. You fear something. 2. You find a hypothesis to justify your fear. 3. You block stuff that doesn’t support your case.

That’s from Tim Minchin, who concisely describes the process that leads anti-GMO opponents and apparently many greens to support destruction of an agricultural experiment, that as John Timmer notes, “is actually designed to test a [wheat] strain that has the potential to reduce pesticide use.”

Timmer’s piece is an excellent description of the research and the precautions that scientists have taken for it. For those of you just tuning it, some truly amazing crop research has been the center of a controversy the past few weeks, which is coming to a head today. In future posts, I’ll be returning to a few of the major issues and themes that are now being debated as a result of this particular anti-GMO campaign. (I’m guessing Take the Flour Back didn’t figure on the blowback and mobilization of scientists.)

Right now, I’m going to briefly return to a question I asked in my recent Discover piece, which someone on twitter put this way:

Why do many environmentalists trust science when it comes to climate change but not when it comes to genetic engineering?

This double standard rankles plant researchers, one who asserts:

And you don’t get to say harassment of climate scientists = anti-science and not say the same thing about plant scientists.

One person who has been vocal in his support of climate scientists is Steve Easterbrook, a professor of computer science at the University of Toronto, whose research focuses “on the contributions of computing and software to the challenge of dealing with climate change.”

For the climate science community, climategate was a galvanizing event, in which many of them, such as Easterbrook, have risen to publicly defend their honor and profession. Thus, you might think that he (and other environmental scientists) would naturally come to the defense of plant scientists whose work and profession has also come under assault–by anti-GMO activists.

Not when it comes to genetic engineering.

It seems that many in the environmental community have a visceral dislike of biotechnology, especially GMO’s (genetically modified organisms.) It’s an interesting little quirk, which is worth exploring in more depth.

Meanwhile, Easterbrook has just offered up a long treatise that essentially lays out his misgivings about genetically engineered crops. It’s a holiday weekend here in the U.S., so I don’t have the time right now to go through it in detail. But this section is worth highlighting; it articulates one of the main arguments that enviro-minded folks make against genetic engineering (my emphasis):

Some see GMOs as a health issue. Potential human health effects include allergies, and cross-species genetic transfer, although scientists dismiss both, citing a lack of evidence. While there is some (disputed) evidence of such health risks already occurring, on balance this is more a concern about unpredictable future impacts, rather than what has already happened, which means an insistence on providing evidence is irrelevant: a bad outcome doesn’t have to have already occurred for us to take the risk seriously. If we rely on ever more GMOs to drive the global agricultural system, sooner or later we will encounter such health problems, most likely through increased allergic reaction.  

So if I read this right, he is, on the one hand, citing disputed evidence of health risks already happening, while simultaneously asserting that evidence is not necessary. Oh, and then there’s the assumption (remember, no evidence needed!) that sooner or later, GMO’s are going to cause health problems.

Does this sound like scientific thinking to you?

Easterbrook concludes by saying that the wheat research opposed by anti-GMO protesters “should be halted immediately” by the plant scientists themselves.

If I were a biotech plant scientist reading Easterbrook’s post, I might remind him of the time he said that, when scientists

form opinions on a field other than their own, they are likely to be based on a very patchy reading of the field, and mixed up with a lot of personal preconceptions. They can cherry pick.

Or the time he wrote this:

But outside of a particular scientific field, lay observers find it hard to tell nonsense from sound science. So the nonsense spreads insidiously, and the public discourse diverges ever further from the scientific one.

Luckily, there are a few people who are willing to devote themselves to tackling the nonsense head on. Ben Goldacre is my favourite example ““ he runs a newspaper column, blog and book called Bad Science. It helps that he’s a witty writer and an even wittier speaker. (It probably also helps that he’s British).

Yes, let’s go to Ben Goldacre and see what he has to say about GMOs:

I’m no friend of big biotech. I think GM has created a dangerous power shift in agriculture in favour of multinational corporations. So I’m cautious about GM foods, but they seem safe overall. If there’s something new and frightening, then I want to see it published, in full, so we can all sit down and get frightened by it together, on the basis of well-conducted research that we can see and read.

Of course, you can’t do that if the people frightened by it want the research destroyed before it can be published.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: climate change, GMOs, science
  • Mary

    The irony of that was that when the Australian wheat was destroyed by Greenpeace I was seriously impressed that climate scientists came out in support of plant science because they recognized the parallels. Legal harassment and threats to their person of climate scientists seems pretty similar to Rothamsted to me.

  • http://www.coveredinbees.org Dan Olner

    On “Why do many environmentalists trust science when it comes to climate change but not when it comes to genetic engineering?”, I think it’s not a complex answer. Wrote about that again recently re. right-wing climate skepticism: “a lack of similar skepticism on the left doesn’t imply a greater grasp of
    climate science. It’s just that climate change happens not to clash
    with most left-of-centre worldviews.” The reverse is true for GM (left-wing suspicion; right-wing default acceptance). I suspect precisely the same mix of scientific nous is spread evenly across the political spectrum.

  • Jarmo

    Plant science has been successful in fighting hunger and expanding the envelope on this planet for mankind as well as nature. More efficient agriculture needs less space. Africa could double its harvest simply by reaching similar crop levels as Asian farmers do with the same crops.

     My take is that the problem with plant science is that its core message contradicts the Green revenge of Gaia thinking: humanity can fix its problems with technology and science and improve quality of life. New technology is not a Pandora’s box and Frankenstein was just a literary product.

  • MP

    “Does this sound like scientific thinking to you?”

    As with your Discover piece you are misunderstanding risk assessment
    and the Precautionary Principle. Judging whether a risk is worth taking
    or avoiding is never simply a matter of scientific evidence, to be
    judged scientifically, as Roger Pielke Jr. and pretty much anyone else
    looking at the issue of science and policy constantly points out. It
    depends on how much we value what we might get against how much we value
    what we might lose, things which cannot be determined purely
    scientifically.

    Framing the problem simply as a matter of sound science to be judged
    scientifically is, to a large degree, what led to climate change policy
    getting into the mire that it’s in now (i.e. proponents of action
    portrayed “science” as having dictated that their favoured actions
    needed to be taken; see for example the protestors at the 2007 UK
    Climate Camp carrying a banner claiming they were “armed…only with
    peer reviewed science” and who threw scientific papers at airport regularor workers). Science had not proven that they needed to shut down Heathrow Airport, just as science hasn’t proven (and never will prove) that states and companies will use GMOs in a responsible way.

    Pro-GMO people will shoot themselves in the foot if they take the same tack as the climate action proponents and constantly harp on about the science.

  • Keith Kloor

    MP (4)

    I think you misunderstand what this post is about. I get that risk assessment is based on a number of factors, such as cultural values, political worldview, etc.

    What I see are people taking issue with a technology (GE) based on concerns that have nothing to do with the the technology. I’m all for having that discussion. 

  • harrywr2

    1. You fear something. 2. You find a hypothesis to justify your fear. 3. You block stuff that doesn’t support your case.

    IMHO Almost correct

    1. You experience the emotion of fear 2. You attach a hypothesis to justify your fear…something slightly more rational then the boogeyman in the closet. 3. You block stuff that doesn’t support your hypothesis.

    Just google Fukushima and you will see the ‘panic orientated’ have themselves convinced that Fukushima is on verge of becoming an ‘extinction event’

    Here is the comment thread on a story in a WSJ blog about pool reports examining Fukushima #4 fuel pool.
    First comment says it all…ignore this story…it’s not true…</p

    http://blogs.wsj.com/japanrealtime/2012/05/27/fukushima-daiichis-unit-4-spent-fuel-pool-up-close/tab/comments/

  • MP

    Apologies, that sentence seemed like you were judging Steve Easterbrook for making a risk assessment based on something other than science and using non-scientific criteria (something perfectly legitimate, as I was arguing).I think you’re wrong that these concerns aren’t about the technology itself. As I put under your Discover piece (as Mr M), GMOs are a technology which, due to their complexity and expense, can only be understood and utilised by a small group of specialised scientists working for either states or businesses. Farmers can’t design or create their own GM seeds (though they have managed to illegally “pirate” variants of existing ones) or evaluate others’ GM seeds prior to planting, and if GMOs have any unforeseen effects farmers and everyone else will again be reliant on these scientists to address them.I know some anti-GMO protestors are falsely framing GMOs as something scientists have definitively shown to have health risks. However, I think this is largely a strategy to get media attention by making the story similar to previous scares which got media coverage such as the 1990s BSE crisis and to hide their value judgements (i.e. i’m not opposing this for political reasons: science has shown these things to be dangerous to all of us). In reality I think this is mostly about control, even if anti protestors won’t openly say so.

  • Martha

    “if I read this right, he is, on the one hand, citing disputed evidence of health risks already happening, while simultaneously asserting that evidence is not necessary”
     
    You read it exactly wrong.  Please re-read it.  ;-)He says we do not have strong evidence on which to base claims.  (Since GMO’s were only relatively recently introduced into the food stream and the natural environment, no one should really be surprised.)  His main argument is around unintended, serious negative consequences or future impacts that cannot be undone;  and his appeal is to a very familiar approach to ethical reasoning in science that is more or less known as the precautionary principle, as someone else suggests.  It’s an aspect of thoughtful science.And we need to be thoughtful:  concerns have everything not “nothing to do with the technology”.  Questions about what can be done are not separable from questions about should be done, and who is asking (and answering).  

    I assume we all want a sustainable environment that includes agriculture and health food and water systems to support people.  Unfortunately, it is fair to say that overall Monsanto has not been particularly thoughtful in this regard, as the poorest and most vulnerable farmers around the world will tell you.   Thoughtful science may or may not be balancing the many  important short and longterm issues, but one thing is for sure:  thoughtless science is less likely to do so.

  • Nullius in Verba

    “Since GMO’s were only relatively recently introduced into the food stream and the natural environment,…”

    Only about 11,000 years ago…

  • http://scienceblogs.com/deltoid Tim Lambert

    No, I don’t think you read it right..

  • Mary

    My comment over at Easterbrook’s site (which has been in moderation since last night) includes this:

    Your discussion of introduction of species misses some. Can you tell me
    more about the horrifying introduction of the tomato to Europe?

    If we used the precautionary principle we’d have no pizza. I think the would would be much worse off for that.

  • http://neverendingaudit.tumblr.com willard

    > If we used the precautionary principle we’d have no pizza.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tarte_flamb%C3%A9e

  • Anteros

    NiV – +1

    harrywr2 –

    1. You fear something. 2. You find a hypothesis to justify your fear. 3. You block stuff that doesn’t support your case.

    For many people the ‘something’ in 1. can merely be ‘the future’ especially if there is the slightest chance that it might be somehow different from the present. And of course, if you sit and stare at it long enough, it is always possible to see a difference.

    Sir John Beddington recently said ‘the future is really frightening’ – he was talking about the imagined problem of more people and there not being enough food. This is a perfect example of unconstrained feverish imagination.

    He would do well to understand the trend over the last 200 years and the fact that with 7 times the population we now have a global food surplus.

    But still! Imaginations fly off into the fantasysphere and say “But what if?” “What if the whole of humanity is struck with the idiot stick” “What if market forces suddenly stop working?” “What if the decline in population growth inexplicably halts and wealthy people start having more children?” “What if developing countries suddenly stop developing?” “What if?”.

    People who worry about the future [of the climate, ‘fragile ecosystems’, food security, their poor defenceless grandchildren..] don’t worry because of what Dan Kahneman calls system two, or rational conscious thinking. They worry because they worry and then seek out (still mostly unconsciously) ‘reasons’ to fit the fear.

    This is why I don’t see the anti-GMO people as anti-science. They are just anti-GMO, full stop.

    If the researchers were instead planting GMOs based on ley lines as an article of faith the response would be identical – the science is irrelevant.

    As I’ve said here recently, putting scientific research further down your list of sources of knowledge isn’t necessarily anti-science. However, it may appear that way to people who have a belief that science should be at the top – and unchallenged – as a guide and a touchstone.

    That says more about the prevalence of scientism than it does about the prevalence of anti-science.

  • http://3000quads.com/ Tom Fuller

    There are pizza ovens in the ruins of Pompeii. Pizza bianca is still eaten… and not only by those opposing alien species.This is beginning the way so many political arguments have begun. Whether it is vaccines, BSE, climate change or GMOs it is fairly obvious that most participants pick their side and then search for friendly facts. And if facts are not easily found they are shaped or even manufactured.There is also history involved–some, not all, long time environmentalists are not going to let go of neo-Malthusianism in their lifetime. There are those who hate what humans have done to the planet and fervently wish there were fewer of us to keep doing it. More common are those who think for some reason that 10 billion will do to the planet what 7 will not and do not want to encourage breeding, not realizing that increased fertility is apparently in part a response to food insecurity, not a cause…But my argument is essentially that people go shopping for science to decorate their mental bookshelves, not to inform their opinions. I’ve seen it on both sides in the climate debate and on other debates before it.

  • http://neverendingaudit.tumblr.com willard

    Please let go of your inner precautionary principle and try some tarte flambée. Evil Kennivels among us will risk it with modified flour for an extra pinch of awesome adventure.

  • Anteros

    Willard – Let’s throw precaution to the wind and live a little :)

  • Mary

    @willard–also in Europe, right? Do I really need to make the point that tomatoes are an introduced species to Europe?

    Still not seeing evidence of harm from their introduction.

  • Anteros

    Mary -But wait! The effects could be delayed!

  • http://neverendingaudit.tumblr.com willard

    Mary,

    I believe you did make that point already. I believe this was your point. I don’t believe that you needed to coatrack any caricature of the precautionary principle. Since I don’t want to argue about that, I simply suggest to try something that’s really, really, really good.

    It’s so good that it makes you taste what real tastes like.

    Please don’t mind me. I’m just a gardener.

  • BBD

    Tom Fuller

    To be sure, Mary is right. Whatever the Pompeiians put on their pizzas, it wasn’t tomato puree…

  • http://3000quads.com/ Tom Fuller

    Lots of garlic and onions, BBD, and you can still buy it there…

  • Keith Kloor

    Martha (8) 

    What “natural environment” are you talking about? You mean that idyllic rural, agricultural landscape that is 100 percent human created?

    Along these lines on twitter yesterday, I mentioned to Steve Easterbrook that a “red flag” for me in his post was the use of “released into the wild.” He told me that was  “researcher shorthand” for “not in the lab.” 

    Regardless, as other commenters have previously noted on related threads, much of the opposition to GMOs seems derived (in addition to the anti-agribusiness angle) from some romanticized (and by now thoroughly debunked) notion of nature as untouched and pure. This is still a big outdated assumption that many greens can’t seem to let go of.  

  • BBD

    TF

    Sounds good, but hold the garum… ;-)

  • Anteros

    Keith –

    “This is still a big outdated assumption that many greens can’t seem to let go of.”

    It seems to me that it is an un-debunkable assumption. It’s rooted  in faith, feeling and… imagination.

    Hence ‘romanticised’ is an appropriate term. ‘Reason’ isn’t sufficient to remove such a notion (however false) because reason wasn’t used to acquire it.

  • Mary

    There was a great article on nostalgia for the rural farming life last year:

    Pastoral Romance

    I think there are a lot of parallels with people who don’t think we need to use vaccines or pasteurize milk if we get back to this purity (never mind other ag tech). But anyone who reads actual history (not novels) and history of medicine knows the reality was much less attractive than the sepia veneer on this in people’s minds.

  • David in Cal

    I think certainty is the common factor.  Some of those worried about GMOs are certain enough that they’re right so that they’re willing to destroy other people’s experiments.  And, some warmists were so certain that they’re right that they were willing to use unethical means to prevent opposing viewpoints from being published in scientific journals.

  • http://3000quads.com/ Tom Fuller

    Mary, I don’t know what you think of Matt Ridley but his book The Rational Optimist is a pretty good cure for romantic ideas about the life we left behind.

  • huxley

    It goes like this: 1. You fear someone’s point of view. 2. You find language, i.e. “anti-science”, to banish that point of view. 3. You block any other discussion.I’m not a fan of Steve Easterbrook or Take the Flour Back, but they are making rational arguments, however imperfect and whatever emotional motivations they may also have, that are worthy of rational counterpoint.Labeling them as “anti-science” and dismissing them is Orwellian manipulation. You might as well be charging Easterbrook and Flour with “thoughtcrime.”

  • huxley

    It goes like this:

    1. You fear someone’s point of view.
    2. You find language, i.e. “anti-science”, to banish that point of view.
    3. You block any other discussion.

    I’m not a fan of Steve Easterbrook or Take the Flour Back, but they are making rational arguments, however imperfect and whatever emotional motivations they may also have, that are worthy of rational counterpoint.

    Labeling them as “anti-science” and dismissing them is Orwellian manipulation. You might as well be charging Easterbrook and Flour with “thoughtcrime.”

  • http://scienceblogs.com/deltoid Tim Lambert

    I note that Easterbrook doesn’t think you read him correctly either:

    Oh dear. Just read your blog post. Pity you didn’t read mine (properly). Do ad homs get you more web traffic? 

  • DeNihilist

    KK says – ” from some romanticized (and by now thoroughly debunked) notion of nature as untouched and pure. This is still a big outdated assumption that many greens can’t seem to let go of. ” 

    I am nature, so when I touch nature, it stays untouched and pure.  

  • Keith Kloor

    Tim (30)

    I’ll note that you and Easterbrook haven’t said how I’ve misread him. Also, what are the ad homs?

    While you’re driving by every so often with you contributions, Tim, how about you telling us how you feel about GMO’s and whether you think this particular research should be destroyed, as Easterbrook argues. 

  • Keith Kloor

    Mark Hoofnagle at his Denialist blog wrote a long, related post. But this comment of his in the thread I rather liked:

     I think biologists like myself do know what we’re working with, we’ve been generating transgenic plants and animals for decades, the concerns cited are based on defective understanding of biology and paranoia equivalent to the old worry that microwaves would make food radioactive.

    Fundamental ignorance of biological science on the part of the critics is not a valid reason to stop all GMO research.

  • Tom Scharf

    You need to try hard to detach the emotion of fear from the rationality of that fear.  Trying to suppress that fear (pretend it doesn’t exist) isn’t very effective in my experience, but you can stop from acting out on it.

    I have a common fear of spiders.  When I see them I invariably dispatch them to a better after-life because I can’t stand the thought of sleeping in the same room with them.  

    I also see this as irrational behavior (at least for non-venomous spiders).  They pose little threat, eat other insects, etc.  

    You cross a line when you group of with other like minded individuals and start campaigning for the extinction of spiders based on your irrational fear and little else.  I’m quite sure I could find some anti-spider research out there to help justify my fear based position.

     As for me, I’m going to keep killing spiders, but I do not condone the extinction of spiders.  Call me conflicted.  

  • http://yfnwg.blogspot.com YFNWG

    In a related topic as well as in the un-intended and unforseen consequences category, breeding a more hardy breed of wheat (eg Durum) increases the gluten content of wheat products, eg bread and pasta.  Unfortunately gluten intolerance cases have sky rocketed.

  • http://3000quads.com/ Tom Fuller

    If they surrounded the experimental farm fields with mobile phone masts, perhaps the enviro thugs would be too afraid to trespass.

  • Mary

    @Tom Fuller: giggle. Best tweet I saw on the outcome:

    So today protestors failed to destroy wheat that had been genetically modified to repel pests? Christ, that stuff is really effective

  • http://scienceblogs.com/deltoid Tim Lambert

    Keith, I believe it is up to you to support your claim that Easterbrook is arguing that the crop should be destroyed. With, for example, a quote where he says that.I’ve already posted on this topic here, though I suppose you might misread it.

  • Mary

    I can’t speak for Keith, but I thought this was pretty clear:

    My personal take is that the experiment should be halted immediately, preferably by Rothamsted itself, on the basis that it hasn’t yet passed the test for beneficence in a number of systems.

    What does that mean to you guys? Define what “halted” looks like in your language.

  • Pingback: Inconvenient Environmentalists » Climate Resistance()

  • Mary

    Ok, I just realized that you guys may not understand what halting the research means on a project like this. There are regulations for removal of the plants that have to be adhered to. Please note this comes from one of the researchers, Toby Bruce, who uses the word “destroyed” for what happens when a trial ends:

    “¢The GM plots will be separated from the edge of the trial by 10 meters of barley (or space) plus a 3 metre “˜pollen barrier’ of wheat that helps to contain pollen from the GM plants within the trial site. All these plants are treated as though they are GM and harvested /destroyed at the end of the trial. There will be no cereals grown for 20 metres
    outside the boundary of the site and no wild relatives of wheat that can cross with our cultivated variety exist in the vicinity.
    “¢Couch grass species, distant relatives of wheat will be controlled in a 20 metre wide area around the trial site to avoid any slight possibility of cross-pollination.
    “¢All small seed samples removed from the trial site will eventually be destroyed by an approved technique. The remainder of the site will be harvested by either a combine. The grain obtained will be disposed of to deep landfill using an approved contractor. All straw will be chopped
    and left on site. The combine will be cleaned in the empty half of the fenced area prior to leaving the site so that all traces of plant material will remain in the trial area. The trial area will remain in stubble for the following year to enable monitoring of volunteers and a broad spectrum herbicide such as glyphosate will be applied as required.

  • Anteros

    Mary @40

    Thank you. I think that sort of information is very useful in the face of chants about multinationals and only being in it for the money.

    A great description of cautious science at work.

  • Nullius in Verba

    #38,

    “@DanOlner @yetanotherjon Try my “pro-trash-the-crop” piece: http://www.easterbrook.ca/steve/?p=290

    It’s true he put quotes around “pro-trash-the-crop”, the signification of which may arguably be ambiguous. If it was supposed to indicate irony, there’s no contrary indication in the linked piece that would make that clear.

  • Mary

    I wasn’t familiar with Steve’s work before, but I just found this which seemed to me an interesting parallel situation:

    http://www.easterbrook.ca/steve/?p=1001

    But even worse, once datasets and codes are released, it is very easy for an anti-science campaign to tie the scientists up in knots trying to respond to their attempts to poke holes in the data. If the denialists were engaged in an honest attempt to push the science ahead, this would be fine (although many scientists would still get frustrated ““ they are human too).But in reality, the denialists don’t care about the science at all; their aim is a PR campaign to sow doubt in the minds of the general public. In the process, they effect a denial-of-service attack on the scientists ““ the scientists can’t get on with doing their science because their time is taken up responding to frivolous queries (and criticisms) about specific features of the data. And their failure to respond to each and every such query will be trumpeted as an admission that an alleged error is indeed an error. In such an environment, is it perfectly rational not to release data and code ““ it’s better to pull up the drawbridge and get on with the drudgery of real science in private. That way the only attacks are complaints about lack of openness. Such complaints are bothersome, but much better than the alternative.In this case, because the science is vitally important for all of us, it’s actually in the public interest that climate scientists be allowed to withhold their data. Which is really a tragic state of affairs. The forces of anti-science have a lot to answer for.

    Here they should be “allowed to withhold their data”? But Rothamsted should kill theirs? What a weird turn.

    The forces of anti-science have a lot to answer for.

  • biff33

    Would somebody please state the “precautionary principle”?

  • huxley

    It seems to me that KK has substantially misrepresented Easterbrook.The eight points which comprise the bulk of Easterbrook’s post are not his arguments against GMO but his summaries of other people’s concerns. Easterbrook is attempting to examine the effects of the Rothamstedt experiment at different systemic levels of society including issues of politics and public trust in scientists.Easterbrook asserts, after the passage Mary cites @ 39, that:The knowledge gain from this one trial is too small to justify creating this level of societal conflict.I’d agree that Easterbrook ought to support this claim better, but I would hardly call it “anti-science.” Nor would Easterbrook. In fact he predicts that he will be accused of “anti-science” and defends himself thus:I would argue that my position here is strongly pro-science: an act of humility by scientists is far more likely to improve the level of trust that the public has in the scientific community. Proceeding with the trial puts public trust in scientists further at risk.

  • Mary

    I enjoyed Stewart Brand’s take on the Precautionary Principle, part of which you can get to here: http://bit.ly/BrandPrec

  • huxley

     It seems to me that KK has substantially misrepresented Easterbrook.

    The eight points which comprise the bulk of Easterbrook’s post are not his arguments against GMO but his summaries of other people’s concerns. Easterbrook is attempting to examine the effects of the Rothamstedt experiment at different systemic levels of society including issues of politics and public trust in scientists.

    Easterbrook asserts, after the passage Mary cites @ 39, that:The knowledge gain from this one trial is too small to justify creating this level of societal conflict.

    I’d agree that Easterbrook ought to support this claim better, but I would hardly call it “anti-science.” Nor would Easterbrook. In fact he predicts that he will be accused of “anti-science” and defends himself thus:

    I would argue that my position here is strongly pro-science: an act of humility by scientists is far more likely to improve the level of trust that the public has in the scientific community. Proceeding with the trial puts public trust in scientists further at risk.

  • Keith Kloor

    So here in the states it’s been a long three day weekend. I’ve spent it all with family and friends doing NYC-like activities (Hudson River Park, Coney Island, Governor’s Island, etc).

    I happened to bring up the GMO issue with one friend who’s very intelligent and overall pretty well-informed. Politically, I’d also describe him as liberal. Anyway, it was interesting to hear him go on about the health concerns related to GMO’s. When I mentioned that the science hasn’t shown any harmful effects, he replied “so far.” Well, after a 10 minute back and forth, I finally asked him who he trusted on food safety issues and GMO’s, he said Michael Pollan. Then the kids nearly collided on the bikes in front of us, so the conversation concluded.

    I can’t remember: what does Pollan say about all this?

  • huxley

    The Brand quote Mary links to @48 is worth some quick OCR (my bolding). The Precautionary Principle is a blade that cuts just about anyway you want it.

    In response. the Africans pointed out that the Precautionary Principle can just as well be used as a philosophical basis for saying yes. The growing population and general impoverishment of Africa are already causing irreparable damage to the ecology, and saying no to GM food will only make the irreparable damage worse. The European pretense of allowing no risk of irreparable damage makes no sense in the real world. In the real world there are risks of irreparable damage no matter what you do. There is no escape from balancing one risk against another. The Africans need GM crops in order to survive. In most of Africa, soils are poor, droughts are devastating, and many crops are lost to disease and pests. GM crops can make the difference between starving and surviving for subsistence farmers, between prosperity and ruin for cash farmers. Africans need to sell products to Europe. The European ban on GM food protects European farmers and hurts the Africans. As the Africans sec it. the European ban on GM food is motivated more by economic advantage than by philosophical purity.

  • Mary

    Steve didn’t answer any of my issues over there, but they included many pieces of problems with his assertions.

    Beneficence: he claims stakeholder/impact weren’t included. That’s false. Maybe not to TTFB and Steve’s level of demands, but there were public discussions. And I gave a link about the previous engagements by Rothamsted.

    I already went into the tomato thing. He’s overstating the risks and discounting any benefit.

    His allergy link is from 2000 and is a report of possible considerations–not a shred of evidence of actual allergies. This is the sort of report cherry-picking that’s particularly sad.

    His desire to reduce nitrogen pollution could have been assisted by the nitrogen efficient wheat Greenpeace weed-whacked last year.

    I still can’t figure out why I’m not allowed to ask enviros if they support this damage. That makes no sense to me at all. I didn’t say it was science, and he wants us to talk about stuff that’s not science…so…wha?

    And he’s just 100% wrong on the climate science matters now, plant science doesn’t.

    So no only are most of the component pieces based on flimsy reasoning, the conclusion is bogus. There’s no way that adds up to Rothamsted needing to destroy their work.

  • http://biofortified.org Anastasia

    I was lucky enough to meet Michael Pollan thanks to a contest that Biofortified won for excellence in encouraging discussion about biotechnology. In that discussion, Pollan expressed concern about “industrial agriculture” and the role of biotech in industrial ag, but didn’t seem concerned about the technology itself. I think we can all agree that there are many instances where a technology can be used for good or for bad, depending on the situation. In The Botany of Desire, it is clear that Pollan’s concern with New Leaf potatoes wasn’t the technology used but the farming conditions in which the technology was set.

  • Keith Kloor

    Anastasia (52)

    Thanks for stopping by. Yes, that jives with what my friend was most concerned about–industrial ag and monocultures. 

  • Mary

    For a quick hit on some of Pollan’s thoughts, check out this Long Now talk. Watch the whole thing if you want, but he didn’t touch GMOs until the questions segment in any detail. At almost exactly the 1hr point, start watching that discussion for about 5 minutes:

    http://fora.tv/2009/05/05/Michael_Pollan_Deep_Agriculture

    “I can imagine the kind of genetically modified crops that would contribute to the kind of sustainable agriculture I’m describing. We don’t have them now…” {2009, ahem}

    But then he goes on to complain about Big Ag and IP. Which is not at issue with Rothamsted.

    “If we had open source genetic engineering…that was being applied to making the system more sustainable…I’m open to learning about it.”

    Then again around 1:20 he talks about how he expect there to be multiple kinds of agriculture that persist in the future. He doesn’t expect conventional/industrial ag to go away:

    “And I’m not even so sure that would be a good thing for it to vanish….Coming up with one solution is another form of monoculture thinking. And that we would make a mistake to throw all our eggs in one basket.”

    Michael Pollan is interesting. He seems to say different things depending on the group that’s listening. Long Now is a bit more “tech”, other times I’ve heard him give the organic purity line version. But something like Jesus, it’s his followers who have selectively chosen which parts they want to adhere to, and they are a pain in the ass for the most part.

  • Marlowe Johnson

    @keith and Mary,

    Do you have any concerns about biotech/GMO? If so, what specifically?

    Mary, I gather you’re a plant scientist and therefore have a particular POV. What gov policies and/or industry practices are you uncomfortable with, if any?

  • Adam Merberg

    Pollan’s response to Andrew Revkin’s piece on GMOs last summer is also worth mentioning here:

    Provocative piece, which I’ve just tweeted. I agree that enviros and foodies can be fanatical about GMOs, which I think are a lot less important than many who rail against them do. So far, they are just crude bandaids on the same old monocultures, no new paradigm at all. I don’t see evidence they hold potential to solve our big problems, not yet anyway, and think they have been hyped beyond belief. Proponents argue they would have worked wonders already if not for the enviros battling them, but in fact enviros have done little to slow their progress, and that progress is none too impressive:great flood of Round Up sprayed across the world, and the predictable resistant weeds in response. (See this week’s piece in the St Louis Post Dispatch.) Then there’s the argument that they’ve been thoroughly studied, but as the Times reported last year, a prominent group of crop scientist wrote a petition protesting the fact they were not allowed to do precisely that science without Monsanto’s approval and right to review. So I’m not sure 25 years without finding a problem is all it’s cracked up to be — more like, 25 years of trying to do that science, with Monsanto doing all that it can to stop it.

  • Marlowe Johnson

    @56I think your comment cuts to the heart of many concerns with how GMO technology is deployed and research is managed/focused given the obvious for-profit motive. It seems to me that cheerleaders? like Keith and Mary attempt to gloss over these uncomfortable aspects by using the “yes-but-look-over-here-at-these-dirty-hypocritical-hippies”.In previous threads, BBD and others have suggested that GMO research is also being sponsored by LDC governments. While this may indeed may be the case, consider me skeptical that there has been enough of a sea-change in to make me more sanguine about the current state of affairs. The basic truth IMO — that links in with climate change is this: corporations, by definition, exist to maximize shareholder profits. Externalizing liabilities is simply one of the many ways that they achieve this goal. It seems to me that this aught to be an obvious blind-spot that begs for government intervention/oversight. And yet Keith and others seem determined to focus on scientist purity tests….

  • Mary

    I’m in genomics, not specifically plants, but one of my degrees was in a plant system. I like all the genomes, I’m not speciesist. I have never worked for Big Ag in any way, and I have no patents.

    (My other degrees are in microbiology and mammalian cell/molecular/developmental biology if it matters.)

    I don’t have many concerns. I am mostly fine with the current regulations to examine the sequences for allergenicity, and to have feeding studies prior to human consumption. If people wanted to increase the duration of those, that would be fine, but I don’t think it’s necessary and it could be costly. I like the FDA and would be happy to see it better funded so it could do more independent testing. Our food is really safe on this front though–there have been no reports of any issues in all these years that bore out to be GMO related. (I wouldn’t touch an organic sprout though. And an organic peanut could personally kill me.)

    I understand the pollen concerns, but they are overblown (heh). Pollen has to find a compatible partner, which is not common and not very long lasting for activity. Most farmers buy new certified seeds anyway for major production operations. If nearby plants flower at different times, there’s very little chance of issues. Seeds do fall out of shipments, but that’s always been true. But then you have fragile farm plants trying to compete with weeds. Weeds probably win.

    Backyard farmers who want to save their seeds have to worry more about the next door neighbor’s heirloom tomatoes than random industrial ag pollen finding them.

    I think that’s actually the biggest frustration–that the rules for GMOs are strangely specific, when conventional mutagenesis or breeding is a much bigger mess and has just the same outcome issues. If the rules were more science based: does this new plant of any type have issues (new hybrid fruits for example, or conventional herbicide tolerant wheat, or any new plant) should be subject to the same hoops. The National Academy of Sciences reviewed the threats and the GMO risks are not higher than other types of creating new plants.

    What I mean by that: create an herbicide-tolerant rice with 2 new genes–regulatory hell. Create an herbicide-tolerant rice with irradiation–no problem. ?? There’s one conventional (not GMO) herbicide plant I saw recently that risks outcrossing with a weed that seems like a bad idea. But that won’t have any regulatory problems. Slides right through the process.

    I want farmers to abide by the guidelines–refuge plantings of appropriate size, etc. I want those to be subject to inspection. They need to use good practices for herbicides and other inputs. But that’s also true for conventional for the most part too. Farmers are smart people and they don’t want to abuse their land or their crops.

    IP: I know people hate patents. But I don’t. I think Floyd Zaigler is entitled to patents on his plant creations. I understand why farmers understand and use the system. But I think it will also be cool when there is more open source and off-patent stuff–but the side effect of that will be it will be much harder to monitor. I plan to fund my retirement personally making new plants that can produce THC in my basement…*cough*.

    Monoculture: Yeah, I know you hate monoculture too. But that’s also not specific to GMOs. You can get there (and were there) without GMOs. That’s a separate issue. I support new strategies for more butterfly refuges, for example, but again–not specific to GMOs. Could be true of huge fields of conventional wheat too.

    There is one thing that I would like to see fixed. There is a loophole for non-food plants.

    Imagine if GMOs vanished tomorrow–would those problems go away? Nope. And you might even get more pesticides back, and other bad consequences.

    People are blaming GMOs for all the ills of big ag. And because of that they can’t think past it to the possible benefits. And to me the benefits outweigh the risks.

    God, that’s long, but probably doesn’t cover everything–certainly the highlights/hot topics. Hope the formatting doesn’t suck.

  • Adam Merberg

    @Marlowe Johnson (57), to be clear, I was quoting Michael Pollan because Keith raised the question of where Pollan stands on the issue, not to endorse the viewpoint myself.That said, I agree that there are issues with the way GMO research is influenced by profit motives. However, I tend to see these as symptoms of deeper problems in intellectual property law and the structure of our economy more generally. I think that bad corporations will find a way to do bad things regardless of the tools available to them, so I find it disheartening when activists oppose the technology altogether, when there are examples (like rainbow papaya or the Rothamsted wheat) which aren’t affected by these issues. I’d much rather work on addressing the actual problems. (And I think supporters of genetic engineering ought to be working on that as actively as anybody.)

  • Mary

    Big comment in moderation you’ll have to see later, but just to address a point I didn’t see before submission: yes, there are GMOs being created in developing countries for their use, and other by non-profit groups, which won’t be subject to the corporate issues. But they have to abide by the biosafety regulations.

    One of the things I can’t understand is who thinks they have the right to keep Brazil from creating a bean resistant to a virus that they want to provide to small holder farmers.

  • steven mosher

    Some see Carbon taxes as a health issue. Potential human health effects include stress, and suicide, although scientists dismiss both, citing a lack of evidence. While there is some (disputed) evidence of such health risks already occurring, on balance this is more a concern about unpredictable future impacts, rather than what has already happened, which means an insistence on providing evidence is irrelevant: a bad outcome doesn’t have to have already occurred for us to take the risk seriously. If we rely on ever more carbon taxes to drive the global C02 mitigation system, sooner or later we will encounter such health problems

  • steven mosher

    RE 44.
    yes Mary that was one of Steve’s more retarded arguments against release of data. Luckily the profession and the institutions did not listen to Steve.

  • Dan

    Many “strawman” arguments have been used in both the initial post and in many of the comments, to first mis-represent the thinking of those who are anti-GMO, and then to speculate about why they are so mis-guided in their (misrepresented) thinking. Since the anti-GMO case is not accurately presented, the entire dialogue becomes a red-herring chase.It is very simple. The reason why so many on the side of sound science with regards to climate change are also anti-GMO is… because sound science is on the side of the anti-GMO’s. Pro-GMO “science” is overwhelmingly bought-and-paid for by the biotech industry and corporate ag, big-daddies who will not pay for “science” that does not deliver results pleasing to those corporate sponsors.  GMO proponents want us to live in a Nanny State wherein consumers are not allowed to chose what we eat. We deserve the right to know. Label GMO’s, and let the Free Market decide.

  • huxley

    Steve didn’t answer any of my issues over there…

    Mary @ 51: For the record, you’ve not been responsive to my concerns either. Not that you are required to.

    My primary issue is that “anti-science” is a sledgehammer charge that is not accurate for Easterbrook or even the Flour people. They are using combinations of political, economic, social and slippery slope arguments that are disputable in whole or in part but really are not “anti-science” unless one is pleading a very special definition of the term.

    Accusing them of “anti-science” boils down to a fallacy of emotional appeal because science held in such high esteem that to be on the other side of science is to arouse negative emotions.

    Are you and Keith “anti-reason” for attempting to use this fallacy?

  • huxley

    The irony here is that much of the opposition to genetic modification comes from half a century of public science education, from Rachel Carson onwards, in our schools and media about ecology.

    People got the message. If scientists invent DDT, companies produce it, and farmers use it, then egg shells become thinner worldwide, the birds start dying out, and “Silent Spring” will be the result.

    That’s the template. Rachel Carson, a scientist, started it and legions of scientists since have beat it into the public’s awareness.

    Now scientists want to accuse people following this template of being “anti-science.”

  • Mary

    @Huxley: I thought we covered that in the last thread. It’s describing exactly what I mean. Do you think Steve was using thoughtcrime on his use of the term that I quoted too?

    But funny you should bring up Carson. I’m totally with Rachel Carson–here’s what she said in Silent Spring:

    “A truly extraordinary variety of alternatives to the chemical control of insects is available. Some are already in use and have achieved
    brilliant success. Others are in the stage of laboratory testing. Still others are little more than ideas in the minds of imaginative scientists, waiting for the opportunity to put them to the test. All have this in common: they are biological solutions, based on the understanding of the living organisms they seek to control and of the whole fabric of life to which these organisms belong. Specialists representing various areas of the vast field of biology are contributing””entomologists, pathologists, geneticists, physiologists, biochemists, ecologists””all pouring their knowledge and their creative inspirations into the formation of a new science of biotic controls.

    That’s a nearly perfect description of the Rothamsted team and work. And keep reading–you may be surprised how keen she is on male sterile mosquitoes (made by irradiation, but she didn’t have our precise tools).

  • huxley

    I thought we covered that in the last thread. It’s describing exactly what I mean. Do you think Steve was using thoughtcrime on his use of the term that I quoted too?

    Mary @ 66: Huh? Please supply antecedents for all the thats and whats above.

    Do you take my point that the “anti-science” charge is a fallacious emotional appeal that does not apply and should not be applied to Easterbrook and Take the Flour Back?

    Do you get my point that some of the opposition to GM arises from the Rachel Carson template I described?

    Personally I support the Rothamsted research. I am not opposed to GM, though I believe a close eye should be kept on these techniques. Splicing a gene sequence from one organism, or an entirely synthetic gene sequence, to another organism is not equivalent to selective breeding, as some proponents glibly claim. GM is a relatively new technology with near infinite possibilities. It’s not hard to imagine this technology being misused or having serious unintended consequences.

  • Mary

    I went away (actually was in a meeting) and thought about your claim. And no–I don’t take your point. I tried to consider other parallel constructions for what I mean, and here’s how I use this phrase. You may not like it, but it think you’d be thought-criming to insist that I not use this as I intend:

    If you are acting on–or actively advocating–interference with and harassment of scientists, or destruction of scientific experiments or the blocking of their work, it is anti-science.

    Let’s try another: If you are acting on–or actively advocating–interference with and harassment of doctors, or destruction of clinics or the blocking of their work, it is anti-abortion.

    Another:If you are acting on–or actively advocating–interference with and harassment of Muslims, or destruction of mosques or the blocking of their work, it is anti-Muslim. That’s the construction I’m using. Is that really different? I don’t see it.

    Here are some previous items I assumed you had seen, as you had been present in those threads. I’m sorry that I was unaware that we have to repeat everything every time.  http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/2012/05/24/is-environmentalism-anti-science/#comment-110190

    If you interfere with publicly funded science based on your philosophy”“and not based on the science”“I think it is anti-science.http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/2012/05/24/is-environmentalism-anti-science/#comment-110344

    I still don’t see the problem with the phrase “anti-science”. It conveys exactly what I want it to: that there are people who are actively
    engaged in harassment of scientists and interference/damage to their work or funding, or affect the education of others (in the case of
    creationists in schools, or the public in other forums) based on ideological grounds.

    And this is Steve’s usage–I find it to be hilariously the same as mine, to describe what I see as an nearly identical situation:

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/2012/05/27/the-genetic-engineering-bugaboo/#comment-110775

    ..it is very easy for an anti-science campaign to tie the scientists up in knots……The forces of anti-science have a lot to answer for….

    And I’ve also been looking for other users of the term, and there was one today in this article: Anarchists attack science

    Believed by authorities to be genuine, the letter is riddled with anti-science rhetoric.

    Now, does this mean that they don’t use chemistry and physics to inflict damage? No. But I think they qualify as anti-science. Your parsing may apparently vary.

  • Mary

    Second attempt…sorry if this is a duplicate, the first comment seemed to vanish.+++++++++++++I went away (actually was in a meeting) and thought about your claim. And no–I don’t take your point. I tried to consider other parallel constructions for what I mean, and here’s how I use this phrase. You may not like it, but it think you’d be thought-criming to insist that I not use this as I intend:

    If you are acting on–or actively advocating–interference with and harassment of scientists, or destruction of scientific experiments or the blocking of their work, it is anti-science.

    Let’s try another: If you are acting on–or actively advocating–interference with and harassment of doctors, or destruction of clinics or the blocking of their work, it is anti-abortion.

    Another:If you are acting on–or actively
    advocating–interference with and harassment of Muslims, or destruction of mosques or the blocking of their work, it is anti-Muslim.

    That’s the construction I’m using. Is that really different? I don’t see it.

    Here are some previous items I assumed you had seen, as you had been present in those threads. I’m sorry that I was unaware that we have to repeat everything every time.

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/2012/05/24/is-environmentalism-anti-science/#comment-110190

    If you interfere with publicly funded science based on your philosophy”“and not based on the science”“I think it is anti-science.

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/2012/05/24/is-environmentalism-anti-science/#comment-110344

    I still don’t see the problem with the phrase “anti-science”. It conveys exactly what I want it to: that there are people who are actively
    engaged in harassment of scientists and interference/damage to their work or funding, or affect the education of others (in the case of
    creationists in schools, or the public in other forums) based on ideological grounds.

    And this is Steve’s usage–I find it to be hilariously the same as mine, to describe what I see as an nearly identical situation:

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/2012/05/27/the-genetic-engineering-bugaboo/#comment-110775

    ..it is very easy for an anti-science campaign to tie the scientists up in knots…
    …The forces of anti-science have a lot to answer for….

    And I’ve also been looking for other users of the term, and there was one today in this article:
    Anarchists attack science

    Believed by authorities to be genuine, the letter is riddled with anti-science rhetoric.

    Now, does this mean that they don’t use chemistry and physics to inflict damage? No. But I think they qualify as anti-science. Your parsing may apparently vary.

    And on Rachel Carson: like Michael Pollan, I think some people are either misremembering or selectively remembering her point. But unless you can prove that quote didn’t come from Silent Spring, I think you are wrong.

  • Mary

    Third attempt–I’m going to break my comment into 2 because apparently it’s too long:

    Part the first:

    I went away (actually was in a meeting) and thought about your claim. And no–I don’t take your point. I tried to consider other parallel constructions for what I mean, and here’s how I use this phrase. You may not like it, but it think you’d be thought-criming to insist that I not use this as I intend:
    If you are acting on–or actively advocating–interference with and harassment of scientists, or destruction of scientific experiments or the blocking of their work, it is anti-science.

    Let’s try another:
    If you are acting on–or actively advocating–interference with and harassment of doctors, or destruction of clinics or the blocking of their work, it is anti-abortion.

    Another:
    If you are acting on–or actively advocating–interference with and harassment of Muslims, or destruction of mosques or the blocking of their work, it is anti-Muslim.That’s the construction I’m using. Is that really different? I don’t see it.

    Other items in the next one.

  • Mary

    Part the second:

    Here are some previous items I assumed you had seen, as you had been present in those threads. I’m sorry that I was unaware that we have to repeat everything every time.
    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/2012/05/24/is-environmentalism-anti-science/#comment-110190

    If you interfere with publicly funded science based on your philosophy”“and not based on the science”“I think it is anti-science.

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/2012/05/24/is-environmentalism-anti-science/#comment-110344

    I still don’t see the problem with the phrase “anti-science”. It conveys exactly what I want it to: that there are people who are actively engaged in harassment of scientists and interference/damage to their work or funding, or affect the education of others (in the case of creationists in schools, or the public in other forums) based on ideological grounds.

    And this is Steve’s usage–I find it to be hilariously the same as mine, to describe what I see as an nearly identical situation:
    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/2012/05/27/the-genetic-engineering-bugaboo/#comment-110775

    …it is very easy for an anti-science campaign to tie the scientists up in knots……The forces of anti-science have a lot to answer for….

    And I’ve also been looking for other users of the term, and there was one today in this article:Anarchists attack science

    Believed by authorities to be genuine, the letter is riddled with anti-science rhetoric.

    Now, does this mean that they don’t use chemistry and physics to inflict damage? No. But I think they qualify as anti-science. Your parsing may apparently vary.

    And on Rachel Carson: like Michael Pollan, I think some people are either misremembering or selectively remembering her points. But unless you can prove that quote didn’t come from Silent Spring, I think you are wrong.

  • Mary

    I have tried to put the next part of the comment in 6 times, and it keeps eating it. I don’t know what’s up, I have restarted the browser and tried over and over.

    Here are previous items I assumed you had seen, as you had been present in those threads. I’m sorry that I was unaware that we have to repeat everything every time.
    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/2012/05/24/is-environmentalism-anti-science/#comment-110190

    If you interfere with publicly funded science based on your philosophy”“and not based on the science”“I think it is anti-science.

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/2012/05/24/is-environmentalism-anti-science/#comment-110344

    I still don’t see the problem with the phrase “anti-science”. It conveys exactly what I want it to: that there are people who are actively engaged in harassment of scientists and interference/damage to their work or funding, or affect the education of others (in the case of creationists in schools, or the public in other forums) based on ideological grounds.

    And this is Steve’s usage–I find it to be hilariously the same as mine, to describe what I see as an nearly identical situation:
    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/2012/05/27/the-genetic-engineering-bugaboo/#comment-110775

    …it is very easy for an anti-science campaign to tie the scientists up in knots……The forces of anti-science have a lot to answer for….

    And I’ve also been looking for other users of the term, and there was one today in this article:
    Anarchists attack science

    Believed by authorities to be genuine, the letter is riddled with anti-science rhetoric.

    Now, does this mean that they don’t use chemistry and physics to inflict damage? No. But I think they qualify as anti-science. Your parsing may apparently vary.

    And on Rachel Carson: like Michael Pollan, I think some people are either misremembering or selectively remembering her point. But unless you can prove that quote didn’t come from Silent Spring, I think you are wrong.

  • Mary

    I have tried to put the next part of the comment in multiple times, I don’t know where it’s going. It may have too many links back to the previous pieces you need to see Huxley.Keith–can you see if my comment is getting filtered? Pick the last one of the 7 if you see it…

  • Marlowe Johnson

    @ Mary

    Thanks for your interesting comments  and the NAS link in particular. I agree with much of what you say, but still have this nagging, (and quite possibly irrational/uninformed) fear that GMO tech may produce some unpleasant unforeseen problems in the future, just as other applied technologies have in the past (think DDT, CFCs, lead, fossil fuels, asbestos, leeches :) , etc.).  Now one could reasonably argue that our current understanding of the benefits of GMO far outweigh the risks as we understand them, but then one could reasonably respond that our understanding of the risks is insufficient to make a proper determination, as Suzuki suggests:

    I am shocked at how little my colleagues in genetics pay attention to history. They actually forget how ignorant we are””that although we have achieved incredible manipulative powers, we know next to nothing about the real world in which those manipulations will reverberate.Science does not proceed in a linear fashion the way we write up our grant applications, you know””experiment A leads to experiment B to C to a cure for cancer. So all of the supposed benefits of our manipulations are purely speculative. We don’t know how it will all turn out. And then when we create new organisms, new products, and release them in the wild, in our food, in our drugs, we simply don’t know enough to anticipate what the consequences will be.I believe that until the science is mature””that is, until we can take a completely specified sequence of DNA, insert it at exactly a specified sequence in a recipient and predict completely its behavior””the science is not ready to be applied. When we can do that, we won’t be able to publish, because we publish papers when we get results that we didn’t expect. Last time I looked, the papers and journals in biotech were exploding. To me, it indicates we must not know a helluva lot. In any revolutionary area, most of our current ideas are wrong. That’s how science proceeds””by invalidating, altering and discarding our current ideas. What we believed in 1961 when I graduated with a Ph.D. in genetics seems ludicrous today, and so will today’s ideas in 20 years.So what is the rush to apply ideas that will prove to be irrelevant or wrong? Money, of course.

    @59

    I agree that there are issues with the way GMO research is influenced by profit motives. However, I tend to see these as symptoms of deeper problems in intellectual property law and the structure of our economy more generally. 

    +1

  • Anteros

    Mary -If you are acting on”“or actively advocating”“interference with and
    harassment of scientists, or destruction of scientific experiments or
    the blocking of their work, it is anti-science.
    I completely disagree.You may be anti-science, you may not. I’m sure you can think of thousands of examples of scientific experiments that you think/feel vehemently should not take place. Up to and beyond those carried out by Mengele and others.Nobody would say that trying to stop such experiments is anti-science.If you believed that it was similarly wrong to carry out genetic engineering, you would not be behaving in an anti-science manner if you attempted to stop genetic engineering. You would be anti genetic engineering.If you object to experiments on animals (and try to stop people doing so) it has nothing to do with the fact that it is ‘experimenting’ or ‘carrying out science’, it is because you don’t like the way the animals are treated.If animals were treated in a similar manner for a religious ritual, you’d probably feel the same way. I don’t see that an ‘anti-science’ attitude comes into it at all.BTW, I’m fine with animal experiments, wholly behind GMO (with appropriate caution) but am not 100% pro-science.

  • Anteros

    Oops……

    Mary –

    If you are acting on”“or actively advocating”“interference with and harassment of scientists, or destruction of scientific experiments or the blocking of their work, it is anti-science.

    I completely disagree.

    You may
    be anti-science, you may not. I’m sure you can think of thousands of
    examples of scientific experiments that you think/feel vehemently should
    not take place. Up to and beyond those carried out by Mengele
    and others. Nobody would say that trying to stop such experiments is
    anti-science.

    If you believed that it was similarly wrong to carry out
    genetic engineering, you would not be behaving in an anti-science manner
    if you attempted to stop genetic engineering experiments. You would be anti genetic
    engineering.

    If you object to experiments on animals (and try to stop
    people doing so) it has nothing to do with the fact that it is
    “˜experimenting’ or “˜carrying out science’, it is because you don’t like
    the way the animals are treated.

    If animals were treated in a similar
    manner for a religious ritual, you’d probably feel the same way.

    I don’t
    see that an “˜anti-science’ attitude comes into it at all.

    BTW, I’m fine
    with animal experiments, wholly behind GMO (with appropriate caution)
    but am not 100% pro-science.

  • huxley

     Mary @ 68: The answer, as is so often the case, is “It depends.”

    The anti-abortion people really do oppose abortion across the board or most of it. Yes, they are anti-abortion.

    Those who oppose or harass Muslims or destroy their mosques may or may not be anti-Muslim. Actually the worst offenders in this regard are Muslims.

    The people who oppose or harass scientists or destroy their research are mostly opposed to a very narrow aspect of science. No, they are not anti-science. Very few people in the modern world are anti-science.

    Following up on Anteros’s post, I oppose the Japanese scientists in Unit 731 who experimented on humans. If I had had the opportunity, I would have killed those scientists and destroyed their research. As far as I am concerned it is one of America’s sins that we gave those scientists amnesty in return for their data.

    I currently opposed to that Dutch scientist who is working with ferrets to refine a more deadly avian flu.

    Am I “anti-science”?

  • Mary

    Very simple–answer this question for yourself:

    Am I acting on”“-or actively advocating”“-interference with and harassment of scientists, or destruction of scientific experiments or the blocking of their work?

    If your answer is yes, you are anti-science by my definition. If the answer is no, you are not.

  • huxley

    Mary @ 78: So by your definition I am anti-science.

    Furthermore no one can interfere with any scientist or any scientific work in any way for any reason without being anti-science. Good to know.

    By that definition, I would say that 99% of people are anti-science and therefore your definition is not very useful. Most people who give your definition some thought will find it amoral. Others, like myself, will find it illogical because it is such an extreme example of either/or thinking.

    Also, your definition is misleading since most people understand “anti-science” differently. For example, wiki (not my favorite source but it will do) says: “Antiscience is a position that rejects science and the scientific method.”

    I suggest if you are going to use “anti-science” in such an unfamiliar, global manner that you always provide your definition upfront so that you will not be misunderstood.

  • Mary

    Thanks for your guidance. I hope your campaign on this will not be too busy. You may find the complaint box at Nature linked from their page, Steve’s blog from the top, and I just saw a new one you should go after:

    Violent anti-science anarchists vow to strike again

    Please let them know that only your definition will be tolerated unless they pre-define prior to future uses.

    For those of you still interested in the topic of GMOs rather than Huxley’s definition services, you can check out this paper that just came across my desk today.

    Stop worrying; start growing
    Risk research on GM crops is a dead parrot: it is time to start reaping the benefits of GM

  • huxley

    Mary: I’m still reeling from your post @78. It occurs to me that by your definition most scientists are anti-science and thank God for that.

    Most scientists accept that there must be ethical considerations in scientific research. If a scientist commits an ethical violation in his or her research, other scientists would interfere with that scientist and block that research.

    Your definition makes no provision for ethical concerns. According to your definition, no one, not even other scientists, can stop scientists or science without being anti-science.

    Do you realize how monstrous your definition will seem to most people? Do you get how closely your definition fits the inhuman, arrogant stereotype of scientists?

  • huxley

    For those of you still interested in the topic of GMOs rather than Huxley’s definition service…Mary @80: You are the one insisting on a non-standard definition and style of definition that I’ve never seen anywhere before…and a definition you are unwilling or unable to defend.Rahm Emmanuel opposed Obama’s push on healthcare. By your definition style, Emmanuel is therefore anti-Obama. I don’t see how that makes sense or is useful.

  • Mary

    @huxley: Grab the smelling salts, dear. We have codes and regulations for research, and need to meet those. If someone is working outside of those, then they are breaking the law and that’s a different issue.

    But your strategy allows anyone to shout that the research was opposed to their personal ethical beliefs–like creationism or stem cells let’s say. And stop anyone from doing any research on evolution or stem cells. And that is–again–anti-science behavior.

    Some people might also consider it really arrogant to withhold science or technology from others based on their personal beliefs.

  • huxley

    For those of you still interested in the topic of GMOs rather than Huxley’s definition service”¦

    Mary @80: You are the one insisting on a non-standard definition and style
    of definition that I’ve never seen anywhere before”¦and a definition you are unwilling or unable to defend.

    Rahm Emanuel opposed Obama’s push on healthcare. By your definition style, Emanuel is therefore anti-Obama. I don’t see how that makes sense or is useful

  • huxley

    @huxley: Grab the smelling salts, dear. We have codes and regulations for research, and need to meet those.

    Mary: I’m well aware of that. I’m pointing out bugs in your definition of “anti-science.”

  • Vinny Burgoo

    Huxley, equity is the gateway to environment ambition.

  • Mary

    Careful hux, you are starting to look like Thought Police.

  • huxley

    Come to think of it, I do remember a parallel to Mary’s “anti-science” definition: the “One-Drop Rule” of the racist South.

    According to that definition, a person was black if he or she possessed any African heritage (“one drop of black blood”) at all.

  • huxley

    Careful hux, you are starting to look like Thought Police.

    Mary @87: Still not able to defend your definition I see.

  • Mary

    I stand by my definition Hux. You are still not allowed to control my thoughts.

  • huxley

    You are still not allowed to control my thoughts.

    Mary @90: Geez. You really did lose this argument.

  • Mary

    Yes dear. I’ll grab my smelling salts now. How will I survive?

  • huxley

    Later, gator.

  • Pingback: Turning Uncertainty into Certainty – Reinventing the Precautionary Principle » Climate Resistance()

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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