The Anti-GMO Rabbit Hole

By Keith Kloor | September 26, 2012 4:38 pm

I have a piece up at Slate called, “GMO Opponents are the Climate Skeptics of the Left.” It’s generated a fair amount of discussion at Slate and on twitter.

So far, of all the people I lay into, only Tom Philpott of Mother Jones has engaged me (on twitter). I would love it if prestigious anti-GMO players like Marion Nestle and Marc Bittman joined in, but I’m not holding my breath. Then again, liberals are supposed to be an open-minded lot, so who knows…

CATEGORIZED UNDER: genetic engineering, GMOs
  • Brian

    Keith,On topic, may interest you agwest.sk.ca/blog/2012/09/r”¦ #saskbio #agchat

  • Tom Scharf

    Great article.  The term BS kind of drags it down a slight notch.  Seems to be an increasing trend in articles now-a-days.  You will definitely get your liberal card revoked permanently for this one.

    The connecting thread between anti-GMO and pro-Climate is anti-Big.  As in against Big-Oil and against Big-Ag.  We could have Lew do an on-line survey on whether there is an anti-capitalism conspiracy in people who hold both these beliefs.      

  • Mathieu

    Mr. Keith Kloor obviously your story is a statement of how little you like the so-called lefties.

    I need to say that sometimes the lefty spirit with their conspiracy theories bothers me as well, just as much as the secretive researches done by the french or Monsanto.

    Reading your article, I realized that you build your story with the same mistakes that the so-called lefties.

    Your article mentions a number of people and institutions: but spend some time to verify: google+names + Monsanto and you will realize the relationship between some of this institutions, the people and Monsanto. On the other hand the revolving doors between FDA and Monsanto can be an answer about a lot of “safe to the public” Monsanto products.

    But let’s say that thousands of dollars donated by a corporation for this people and institution researches does not mean that the integrity of those is compromised.So let’s look for answers about how dangerous can be the GMO’s  in the history of Monsanto, let me know if something sounds familiar. Here the list of various products with a common and proven (by lefties and righties) dangerous effects on humans. In all cases Monsanto testified that each of these products was safe: DDT, PCBs, dioxin (Agent Orange), BGH (bovine growth hormone) and some other products that were not as important economically for the company.

    This Mean That in almost 100% of the cases Monsanto was wrong, lying, hiding the results from the public.But this is not all, in each place where Monsanto had or have a plant, at least across the USA, great damage has been done to the ecosystem and population and Monsanto always lied about it (hiding facts and avoiding responsibilities).I hope you understand why your story sounds more like a complain about the lefties than a serious research about what really is going on with GMO’s and the new french studies?

    So feel free to talk and let us know what do you think about the french results, sincerely I think is important, but please avoid talking about product safety, the insignificant studies about GMO’s in the US and Monsanto Corp. because is obvious that in this department you haven’t do your home work. Best.Mathieu.

  • Edim

    I am a GMO ‘oponent’ and an AGW skeptic (100% ‘natural’). Follow the money.

  • Cees de Valk

    The unusually small control group of rats in the experiment triggers the suspicion that the originally control group was larger, but results have been reported only for a subset. It is simply too risky to undertake an expensive 2 year experiment with such a small control group; no one would do that. 

  • BBD

    I’m pro plant science (h/t Mary) and very much anti climate ‘scepticism’. Follow the science.

  • Tom C

    Keith – Nice article but I don’t buy the analogy implied in the title.  If you substitute Mann for Seralini, Romm for Philpott, and a quote from a Lindzen or Pielke to the effect that “he is trying to frighten the public” the article would make sense in climate war world.  GMO opponents are the analog of the alarmists, not the skeptics.

  • http://3000quads.com/ Tom Fuller

    I’m  of the left. However, I strongly believe in the power of science to transform our lives and societies, and that it is our responsibility as individuals and societies to insure those changes are for the good.GMOs are clearly good for us as a species. That doesn’t mean that no oversight or regulation is beneficial or even necessary–the scientific realm involving the technology is sure to grow and companies in the marketplace will act like, well, companies in the marketplace.I’m not a skeptic on global warming, but the alarmists would certainly class me in among them. Global warming as a societal phenomenon is a clear example of what can go wrong when NGOs exert undue influence on government regulatory bodies and institutions that commission science.Hence I do not see the parallel you describe.

  • Keith Kloor

    Tom (8),

    You’re not the only one to argue this. I think it would be more fair to say that there is more than one parallel (such as the stretching of climate science by climate activists), and I have acknowledged as much on Twitter.

  • http://3000quads.com/ Tom Fuller

    More importantly, are you going to hook on as a regular contributor to Slate?

  • http://3000quads.com/ Tom Fuller

    I’m reading the comments on your Slate article now. I have to say that those who are attacking you there remind me of those who attack me here.

  • Mary

    Oh, my….what a fascinating poke at a hornets’ nest. I liked the article very much. But the twitter jousting is even better.

    It is funny to me the way the enviro journos break on this topic. The scientists/bloggers they usually read, retweet, chatter with–like ScienceBlogs and SciAM–are pretty clearly aligned with plant science researchers on this. And the support for the Seralini work is mostly of the David Icke, Mercola, Mikey Adams sort. You’d think that would offer a clue….

  • Keith Kloor

    Mary (12):

    Yeah, been having some fun today with Grist’s Dave Roberts on twitter, who unlike Philpot, won’t directly engage with me. 

    You write: “It is funny to me the way enviro journos break on this topic.”

    It is depressing to me. These are my people. Yet I’d be surprised if even one of them retweeted my Slate piece (unlike science journos).

     

  • Mary

    Oh, yeah, tell me about it. I had the same problem on a big librul blog.

    They would try to chase me out of any anti-GMO discussion (this didn’t work, of course). And I would separately post pieces that offered scientific details, education, explanations, discussion, and they refused to come and discuss.

    What can you do then? They want to both shut down discussion and not participate. How can you get anywhere on this?

  • andrew adams

    Keith,If people are not seeing things from your perspective on this issue then the problem is obviously the way you are communicating your message, so you should be looking at yourself and consider why this is. Perhaps you are not framing it in the best way and you should search for a winning GMO frame.

  • andrew adams

    Keith,

    Slight snark aside, I’m certainly not saying you are wrong. TBH, I can’t say for sure how valid your analogy is, but that’s because I haven’t followed the arguments around GMOs, not because you have mischaracterised climate change skeptics, so I’m not buying either of the Toms’ objections.

    Tom C says we should compare Mann with Seralini, but better examples than Mann would be Soon & Baliunas or Spencer & Braswell or Loehle or Gerlich & Tscheuschner or Lindzen & Choi or Miskolczi  – all far worse papers than Mann’s. Similarly the likes of Monckton, Plimer, Bolt, Delingpole, Morano, Rose etc. are all far more unreliable sources than Romm. And I don’t buy Lindzen and Pielke as the “voices of reason” either.

  • http://3000quads.com/ Tom Fuller

    Kinda looking like a Rorschach test here, judging by our comments.

  • Marlowe Johnson

    everyone has blind spots. including many on the ‘left’ when it comes to GMOs and nuclear safety. One of the main reasons, I think, is the prominence of risk aversion and anti-corporate sentiment in the ‘left’s’ world view. those are the common threads that shape their view on climate change, air pollution, anti-GMO, anti-nuclear, etc. As an aside Keith, since you’re so fond of pointing out inconsistencies and/or blindspots in others, what do you think your blindspots are? Or are you perfectly consisent and logical in all of your opinions ;) ?

  • MarkB

    So liberals don’t want to engage you on the facts? Funny thing – your buddy Anthony Watts had a similar run-in recently. Or does the analogy not occur to you

  • http://3000quads.com/ Tom Fuller

    Andrew, I would proffer as examples Anderegg, Prall et al or Lewandowski’s latest extravaganza…

  • Keith Kloor

    Marlowe (18)

    I don’t have any blind spots or biases. My kids are perfect, the refs make all wrong calls against my NY Giants and New York City is the center of the world.

    I am always consistent and logical, except the time I wore my lucky hat every sunday when the Giants went on a big winning streak one year. I admit that might have been a tad out of character.

  • Tom C

    Andrew Adam – I am interested in the concept of motivated reasoning and how it affects perceptions of scientific credibiity.  The only scientists that criticized Soon and Baliunas, Spencer and Braswell, etc. were the ones shown to be deeply in the thrall of motivated reasoning.  You can read about the extent that motivated reasoning has overtaken this small band of scientists in the book “The CRUtape Letters” by Mosher and Fuller.

  • andrew adams

    Tom,Lewandowsky’s paper is a social science paper, not a climate science paper, not that I necessarily accept that it has been discredited anyway. Anderegg and Prall isn’t really a “scientific” paper either, it’s just a “who said what” excercise, it has no impact on the actual science.

  • andrew adams

    Tom C,Both of those papers you mention were so flawed they caused resignations at the journals that published them. Maybe the people who continue to defend them are the ones guilty of motivated reasoning.  I think both the climategate emails and the criticisms of them display motivated reasoning, which is completely unsurprising and (to me anyway) not very interesting.

  • http://3000quads.com/ Tom Fuller

    Andrew, I’m sorry. Stephen Schneider’s name is on Anderegg, Prall et al. He was until his death one of the most recognized climate scientists on the planet. That paper is junk science–pure and utter crap, far worse than anything Baliunas and Soon or Loehle ever put out. And it got published in PNAS.

    The consensus has said that climate science covers a wide territory, much like anthropologists said of their specialty for decades. And Anderegg, Prall et al speaks to several of the areas concerning climate science, most especially who is qualified to speak for science itself. If it isn’t a science paper, what the hell is it doing in PNAS?

    Lewandowsky’s gutter offering is just a run-of-the-mill attempt to medicalize dissent, as poorly executed as I have ever seen in a social research project. But it is done in defense of the climate scientists you would hold out as exemplars. And I say, where is their condemnation?

    Spencer Weart rubbished Anderegg Prall, et al the day it was published. Nobody joined him–in fact people like Michael Tobis said they disagreed with Weart, although they never said why.

    Where is someone from the consensus with the good sense to step forward and say Lewandowsky’s research is crap?

  • Joshua

    Figures you’d be a Gints fan, Keith.  Your boyz are going down HARD on Sunday night* (*although I need points if you want to take me up on a bet).

  • andrew adams

    Tom,My understanding is that Anderegg, Prall et al. was a sloppy piece of work, and Schneider shouldn’t have put his name to it. PNAS probably should not have published it, regardless of its merits, because it is nothing more than a list of who put their names to certain public pronouncements. Not worthy of publication, not worthy of the attention it was given when published, not worthy of the furore it has caused in certain quarters. It has zero relevance to the scientific arguments for or against AGW, whereas all of the papers I mentioned made claims to undermine the mainsteam scientific view.   As for Lewandowskys paper, all it says is that people who are inclined to conspiratorial thinking are also inclined to be climate change skeptics, something which, regardless of the merits of the actual paper, hardly came as a shock given that some skeptics believe (C)AGW IS a conspiracy. IOW, it’s just another social science paper about a variant of motivated reasoning and my (possibly unfair) reaction to these kind of papers is always “meh, tell me something I didn’t know”. Curry posts this kind of stuff on her blog all the time and uses it to have digs at the “team”. I’m not defending the paper as such – I don’t have the expertise to judge his methodology, but neither evidently do a lot of his critics from what I’ve seen of the discussions. To call it “medicalising dissent” is just silly, but not as silly as the hysterical reaction of the likes of Watts and McIntyre – they’ve made fools of themselves regardless of the merits of the paper. Anyway, no-one gives a toss about it outside the increasingly bizarre and depressing climate blogosphere and I don’t see why there is any obligation whatsoever on climate scientists to express a view on the subject.

  • andrew adams

    Tom,

    My understanding is that Anderegg, Prall et al. was a sloppy piece of work, and Schneider shouldn’t have put his name to it. PNAS probably should not have published it, regardless of its merits, because it is nothing more than a list of who put their names to certain public pronouncements. Not worthy of publication, not worthy of the attention it was given when published, not worthy of the furore it has caused in certain quarters. It has zero relevance to the scientific arguments for or against AGW, whereas all of the papers I mentioned made claims to undermine the mainsteam scientific view.

    As for Lewandowskys paper, all it says is that people who are inclined to conspiratorial thinking are also inclined to be climate change skeptics, something which, regardless of the merits of the actual paper, hardly came as a shock given that some skeptics believe (C)AGW IS a conspiracy. IOW, it’s just another social science paper about a variant of motivated reasoning and my (possibly unfair) reaction to these kind of papers is always “meh, tell me something I didn’t know”. Curry posts this kind of stuff on her blog all the time and uses it to have digs at the “team”. I’m not defending the paper as such – I don’t have the expertise to judge his methodology, but neither evidently do a lot of his critics from what I’ve seen of the discussions. To call it “medicalising dissent” is just silly, but not as silly as the hysterical reaction of the likes of Watts and McIntyre ““ they’ve made fools of themselves regardless of the merits of the paper. Anyway, no-one gives a toss about it outside the increasingly bizarre and depressing climate blogosphere and I don’t see why there is any obligation whatsoever on climate scientists to express a view on the subject.

  • http://3000quads.com/ Tom Fuller

    Andrew, seems like you (and many others from the consensus ‘side’) are eager to wash your hands of the mistakes made by your adherents but have memories of biblical proportion regarding errors from the other side.

    You forget the eyes of the world weren’t on climate scientists when they first started publishing on this and got a pass on some important errors–such as Jones 1990, which didn’t get busted for more than a decade after publication. Whereas when skeptics first started there was already a lot of attention and the consensus side was poised to pounce on anything that didn’t smell right. 

    Not surprising, not anything other than human nature. And I know that climate science does not stand or fall based on Prall, Lewandowsky or Jones 1990 for that matter.

    But the fact is that science on both sides has been characterized just as much by mistakes as by insights. And again, that isn’t different from science as a whole–but both sides in the climate fight are guilty of having selective memories.

  • http://neverendingaudit.tumblr.com willard

    > You can read about the extent that motivated reasoning has overtaken this small band of scientists in the book “The CRUtape Letters” by Mosher and Fuller.

    I just received the book, courtesy of John F. Pittman, to whom I wish to express my gratitude, and will certainly have the immense pleasure to read in in the upcoming weeks.

  • Keith Kloor

     Brian (1)

    Thanks for alerting me to that article.

    Joshua (26)

    It would be hard to put into words how much I hate the Eagles. In a very tribal way. Almost as much as I hate the Cowboys. I think I got more pleasure out of the Giants win against the Eagles early last season and against the Cowboys later in the year (thank you JPP) than I did out of the Giants winning the Super bowl. 

  • Tom C

    Andrew Adam wrote: “Tom C,Both of those papers you mention were so flawed they caused resignations at the journals that published them.”  Nice try, but you can’t bring up these episodes as if they are detached from the problem I mentioned.  These papers (which may or may not be correct) fell victim to the political machinations of the small band of motivated scientists that I mentioned and the story is well-described in the book I referenced. 

  • Tom C

    Regarding Pielke, I certainly don’t take all his utterances as gospel, but no one has a more deep and distinguished record in climate science than him.

  • Joshua

    Keith – The fact that I actually root for the Cowboys when they play the Gints should tell something about how I feel about your team. 

    Here – a little sumptin for your viewing pleasure:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ddTacY83qBk&feature=related

  • Joshua

    Actually, this version is even better. My favorite part? When Coughlin comes out on the field to ream out the punter. Priceless. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FUr_oXh6h_o

  • Matt B

    I like the clip, Joshua; every time the Giants lose an angel gets their wings………

  • Steven Sullivanm

    “Regarding Pielke, I certainly don’t take all his utterances as gospel, but no one has a more deep and distinguished record in climate science than him. “BWAHAHAHAHA.  And yes, I know you are referring to Pielke the Elder.

  • sl149q

    And don’t forget that these self proclaimed saviors of man kind are also totally against food irradiation.. The theoretically possible risks of which totally out weigh any possible benefit. And to top it off food that lasts longer might also mean that global trade in food increases meaning the locavoires also tend to dislike both technologies…Qui bono.

  • http://www.mutantblog.co.uk andrew adams

    Tom,

    Sure, I don’t deny that my natural inclination is to be more forgiving to people on my side of the argument than on the other. I’m not alone in that though – you seem to put the worst possible interpretation on the actions of the “consensus” side. And whilst I try to be fair I’m sure that sometimes my arguments suffer from that inclination – looking back, I should have just conceded the point on Anderegg & Prall, in the end it was a poor paper, even if I think some of the criticisms of it are over the top.

    Of course there are flawed papers on the “consensus” side, apart from A&P. Jones 1990 is a fair example, although people making accusations of fraud do not help things. There was the case recently (I can’t remember the name) of the paper which had to be withdrawn due to erroneous statistics. And I’m not suggesting that the people responsible for the skeptical papers I mentioned were necessarily any less honest in their intentions than those who produced flawed “consensus” papers, but the number of high profile papers challenging the mainsteam view which turn out to be flawed seems remarkably high, especially given that “skeptical” papers only form a small minority of those published anyway.

    This is not really surprising when you think about it. If the scientific fundamentals behind AGW are basically sound, and presumably you think they are as you say you are not a skeptic, then papers which challenge those fundamentals, ie by disputing the existence of the greenhouse effect or claiming very low climate sensitivity, are necessarily making some very bold claims and the balance of probablilty is that the reality will turn out to be rather more mundane. Not that’s it’s impossible for someone to produce a paper which totally overturns the mainstream, it just doesn’t happen very often. And when people make bold claims which attract a high profile but do not stand up to serious scrutiny it is often going to create a bit of a stir. Whereas if papers supporting the mainstream position are found to be flawed it’s unlikely to undermine the fundamentals of AGW because they are supported by many other papers, so it’s not such a big deal in the overall scheme of things. There are exceptions of course, where papers are covering genuinely new ground, such as Hansen’s paper on extreme events. It would certainly be news if that were proved to be rubbish.     

  • http://www.mutantblog.co.uk andrew adams

    Tom C

    The problem with that “motivated reasoning” argument WRT the S&B affair is that you have to make some pretty big assumptions about the motivations of certain parties and gloss over the motivations of others. And assume that certain people are lying when they have no reason to. Sorry, but I don’t buy it.

  • http://3000quads.com/ Tom Fuller

    Hi Andrew, well, we’re pretty much in complete agreement. I also consider it far more likely that skeptics would write erroneous papers, just from a statistical probability point of view. I think reality supports much of what the consensus has arrived at in terms of observed temperature rise and an inferred human contribution to greenhouse gases.

    I will note that there are rumors that Hansen’s paper latest does have problems that will be noted by some outside the consensus. So I’d get ready for another round of the tussle. I read his paper and I have to say that it all depends on definitions. I still haven’t seen his–do you know where he actually defines a three sigma event, two sigma and one sigma? Does he ever give an example of each? Are those classifications derived from energy, reach, consequences? 

  • http://3000quads.com/ Tom Fuller

    Off topic but a real question–does anybody know if someone is taking a serious look at the way ice loss in the Arctic and ice gain in the Antarctic are moving in apparent lock step, albeit in different directions? 

    Thanks

  • http://www.mutantblog.co.uk andrew adams

    Hi  Tom,TBH, no I can’t answer that question.

  • jim

    Keith,
     
    It is a bit of a hoot to point out people who side with The Science! on Principle! on one issue and reject The Science! for some other Principle! on another issue. 
     
    Just the same, I wonder if this activity is missing the real point: it doesn’t matter what The Science! “says”: people are free to have their own opinions independent of The Science!  It may come as shocking news to many scientists, but science isn’t the only form of useful knowledge.  In fact, there are many things science can’t tell us, but that we can still know.  So the idea that every opinion on anything has to be justified by The Science! isn’t a very good one.
     
    We know from experience that The Science! is often wrong, and often wrong for decades at a stretch.  The Science! told women they shouldn’t breast feed their children.  And was it The Science! that brought breast feeding back, or just good old fashioned experience?  Yes, today many studies show that breast feeding is healthier.  Did they lead the way back to breast feeding, or was that path opened by people that refused to accept The Science!?  The failures of science are myriad and, as often as not, uncovered by people that reject The Science!, and not by scientists themselves.
     
    Perhaps if people felt free to express views based on factors besides The Science!, they’d be less inclined to distort science to fit their policy position and, ultimately, we’d all be much more inclined to agree about what science actually has to offer us.
     
    Regarding the Giants, Cowboys and Eagles: Americans spend way too much time on football.
     

  • Lewis Deane

    Kieth,It’s interesting but not entirely absurd? If the fear of ‘technology’ is ‘irrational’ it has a rational base. The anxiety over a supposed ‘interference’ with ‘mother nature’, of which GMO is not really a radically different instance, though it might feel qualitatively so, is as old as time. Not only is there an atavistic feeling of ‘sacredness’ but, also, surely, there is a fear of coping with what is ‘new’ and whether human beings could take on the responsibilities that blind chance, which is nature, formerly assumed. Of course, those who should know better, should not, in all conscience, exploit these feelings. Strangely enough, this is not the same as regards the nuclear issue, since the fear there is completely a modern creation – the invisible ‘miasma’ and the bomb.

  • Lewis Deane

    Also, Keith (sorry for misspelling your name!), does it really surprise, the ‘irrationality’ of the supposed ‘left’, any more than the ‘right’? I like what Nietzsche once said , in Beyond Good And Evil: “in any philosophy there is a moment whenThe ass comes alongBeautiful and strong.”

  • Lewis Deane

    It is also interesting, and as a reflection on what some might see as the in built tendencies of the BBC, that the referenced study was reported completely uncritically by them. This is why I think the more rational of us prefer a different news channel, broadcast from Doha of all places, which respects the old Riethian values of balance and critical thinking, and has, incidentally, attracted most of the aforesaid channels best reporters. The BBCs reporting of science has become a joke, worse, a dangerous nuisance.

  • Ul

    Tom, 42http://noconsensus.wordpress.com/2012/02/04/seasonal-comparison-of-northern-hemisphere-sea-ice/#more-13124

  • Joshua

    Add another video clip to the list, Keith.

  • Michael

    Keith, I was wondering if you have read ‘Wheat Belly’ and has any thoughts on it.  I would be interested to hear them. 

  • 2crudedudes

    I have one question for you Mr. Kloor: What evidence is there that GMOs are safe? Clearly there is little if any concrete evidence that they’re unsafe. That doesn’t automatically mean GMOs are safe, however. As we know, politics interferes with research (as well as corporate money), so to simply say “nothing has happened in the past decade and a half” is not sufficient to completely ignore the potential side effects. Nothing in this universe is inconsequential. And we don’t have some sort of manual that tells us exactly how mutations affect humans. Any changes that occur must be studied and documented in order to learn from them. To simply assume something is “safe” after so little time of exposure is nearsighted at best.

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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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