Why We Need to Move Beyond Facts in the GMO Debate

By Keith Kloor | January 2, 2014 1:23 pm

Imagine if National Review, a long-established U.S. conservative publication, assigned a writer to investigate all the facts on climate change, from soup to nuts. But instead of this being a politically and ideologically-driven exercise, the writer would do it in a judicious, non-partisan, fair-minded manner. Of course, given National Review’s slant on climate issues, such an endeavor is unlikely.

But should it or any publication decide to challenge its own ideological biases and undertake a fact-finding mission on a controversial subject, Nathanael Johnson at Grist has provided an excellent model with his six-month foray into the GMO thicket. Recently he’s distilled all that he’s learned into a round-up post.

The overwhelming consensus judgement of science journalists is that Johnson has done a spectacular job of sifting through all the claims and counterclaims and the technical density of a complex field of science to render clear-headed assessments. And he’s done this while buffeted by the great sound and fury of the quarrelsome GMO debate. It really is an impressive feat.

When Johnson started out, I was dubious, since Grist had previously covered agricultural biotechnology the way National Review covers climate change: Reflexively, selectively (always reinforcing its own assumptions about a science) and as a means to score political points.

It didn’t take long for Johnson to win over cynics–myself included–who thought that such a rigorous deep dive couldn’t be done by an unabashedly snarky outlet with a pronounced political worldview. But Johnson pulled it off and in doing so he has performed a great service.

What I wonder, though, is if his sober exploration of GMOs has made a difference with progressives and environmentalists (Grist’s audience). Have these readers–many who are predisposed to believe that GMO = Frankenfoods–been moved to rethink their own assumptions and biases? Perhaps more importantly, has Johnson’s dilligent work influenced anti-GMO thought leaders? Yes, I’m looking at you, Michael Pollan.

It helps that Johnson is a member of good standing in the same tribe as Pollan and Grist readers. That makes him trustworthy. Still, anyone familiar with the psychology of risk perception on the GMO issue knows that even a credible messenger bearing facts will make only so much headway. It is hard, for example, to shake mental constructs that inform the way we process information. As Maria Konnikova wrote last year in the New Yorker

Psychologists have long observed that there is a continuum in what we perceive as natural or unnatural. As the psychologist Robert Sternberg wrote in 1982, the natural is what we find more familiar, while what we consider unnatural tends to be more novel—perceptually and experientially unfamiliar—and complex, meaning that more cognitive effort is required to understand it. The natural is seen as inherently positive; the unnatural is not. And anything that involves human manipulation is considered highly unnatural—like, say, G.M.O.s, even though genetically modified food already lines the shelves at grocery stores.

Another barrier to logical consideration of facts, Konnikova noted, involves how we evaluate risks and benefits (my emphasis):

As early as 1979, the psychologist Paul Slovic, who has been studying our perceptions of risk since the nineteen-fifties, pointed out that, when it comes to new, unknown technologies, data always loses out to emotion. For instance, people judge the risks of radiation from nuclear power plants to be much higher than those from medical X-rays—a conclusion that is not backed up by the data and is at odds with the advice of most risk experts—simply because nuclear power plants seem more foreign and inspire greater dread. What’s more, when we’re in a state of heightened emotion, we don’t weigh risks and benefits equally—risks take on an outsized impact and benefits begin to pale in comparison.

Once an initial opinion is formed, Slovic continues, it is very difficult to shift it with new evidence: the exact same piece of information—say, additional data on the effects of G.M.O.s on a natural ecosystem—can be interpreted in opposing ways, depending on your starting point.

All this suggests that Johnson’s very earnest and rational approach to the GMO debate has limitations. So where might he go from here?

Earlier this week the Wall Street Journal had an interesting article on a California-based nonprofit (called CFAR) that runs workshops for people who want to make rational-minded decisions. The objective isn’t to become more like Spock,

Spock

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

but rather, as the WSJ explained, to understand the feelings that shape our decisions:

For individuals, the odd secret of rationality is its reliance on emotions, proponents say. “People are always really surprised at how much time we spend at the workshops talking about our feelings,” says CFAR President Julia Galef, who has a statistics degree from Columbia University. “Rationality isn’t about getting rid of emotions, but analyzing them and taking them into consideration when making decisions,” she says.

Now that Grist’s Johnson has methodically worked through the pros and cons of GMOs, and what the science says about their safety and other related issues, perhaps he can delve into the science of why people, irrespective of facts, will continue to remain suspicious of genetically modified foods. Doing this will require an exploration of the emotions and mental shortcuts that influence the way we think about GMOs. If more people could grasp this, along with established facts about biotechnology, then maybe we can advance the conversation.

  • Loren Eaton

    Keith, I like the phrase, ‘…always reinforcing its own assumptions about a science…’ As one of the ‘squadron of shills’ (as one poster put it) who participate regularly, I find it interesting the amount of animosity directed toward Nathanael and indeed Grist for basically NOT reinforcing those assumptions. These folks cannot seem to see the debate as useful. All they see is that opening up that debate and making an effort at balance are signs of defecting to the other team. I don’t agree with everything Nate says but he deserves a lot of credit for putting forth this effort.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

      I absolutely agree that Nate deserves much credit–as does Grist. It’s much easier to play to the crowd and what they expect.

      But now that they’ve done such an exemplary job–a heavy lift, in fact–I think it’s time to take stock and reflect on what that effort yielded. And also to consider what else needs to be done to address anti-GMO attitudes.

      • Nocturnesthesia

        Another issue, at least from what I’ve noticed, is that laypeople tend to conflate GMOs with overuse of steroids and antibiotics in factory farming of livestock. Videos and images of cruelty in factory farms are accessible and very powerful, and there are proven ecological repercussions of antibiotics and steroids being present in agricultural runoff, but it is really a separate issue. Plus, I am wondering how many large corporations are actively encouraging the unfounded fears surrounding GMOs so they can soak people for products with “natural” or “organic” slapped on the label?

        • Martin

          There does seem to be quite a lot of money in ‘being green’, and there are some large international corporations dedicated to massaging public opinion who include that in their messaging, eg of course:

          http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/campaigns/agriculture/problem/Corporate-Control-of-Agriculture/

        • J M

          I think opposition to GMOs by some people is strongly linked to opposition of capitalism and globalization in general and industrial agriculture in particular.Then it forms an ideological divide impossible to cross.

          The anti-GMO crowd has also carried out an impressive flooding of the Internet with their propaganda. A couple of months ago I happened to google for a piece of information about GMO’s and what I got was a lot of hits…. page after page of anti-GMO sites and their “news”… sometimes repeated by MSM. It was a revelation.

          • jh

            “I think opposition to GMOs by some people is strongly linked to opposition of capitalism and globalization”

            No doubt they employ that argument, but it has about the same amount of merit as the rest of their arguments.

            The greeny boppers hate Exxon and Monsanto because of the evil profit they make, but they don’t care much about Google and Apple, which routinely haul down 2-3x the profit margins that oil companies make. Apple hauled down $7.5B on $35B revenue in their last quarter, while Exxon managed only $8.1B on $108B in revenue.

            The anti-profit / anti-globalization thing is about as disingenuous as the rest of the anti-GMO arguments.

        • Cairenn Day

          I have seen them post pictures of Piedmontese Cattle as ‘examples’ of steroid fed ‘GMO’ cattle.

          Of course that breed is from a natural mutation. They either didn’t check too to see, or they couldn’t believe it or the picture better furthered their agenda.

      • Brian Schmidt

        It would be interesting see Keith do a similar deep dive on environmental issues, especially genetic contamination of wild relatives of GMO plants. He might be surprised at what he would learn.

    • Matt B

      Well, Dylan pissed off a lot of “original fans” when he went electric, The Beatles pissed off a lot of bobbysoxers when they left I wanna hold your hand in the rearview, Hitchins pissed off a lot of his original tribe when he called out Islam for intolerance; it happens….I think KK has pissed off his fair share of “supporters” along the way as well………

  • Martin

    It’s not really fair to say that data always loses out to emotion. We might say that our interpretation of data is often altered by emotion, but that’s really not the same thing. Data is not the new faith that ‘dictates’ what we must conclude; let’s remember that there is data that suggests that GMO is harmful. The problems we have are in weighing that data against the data that says that it is safe – it’s hard to objectively weigh positive-evidence-of-harm against no-evidence-of-harm (‘evidence of safety’).

    As for it being difficult to shift opinions, that too isn’t always bad; too far the other way is to be too gullible, constantly shifting our conclusions as the data landscape changes. The largest *stickiness* in opinion in some public controversies may in fact not be the evaluation of evidence at all (are there individuals who actually have all the evidence?), or the feelings worked through by Galef, but associations with political outlooks and identity, and consequently pride.

    After all, no-one likes to be wrong, especially after having strongly advocated / argued a case, even “teh scientists”

    • Loren Eaton

      ‘Data is not the new faith that ‘dictates’ what we must conclude; let’s remember that there is data that suggests that GMO is harmful. The problems we have are in weighing that data against the data that says that it is safe.’
      You are absolutely, positively….wrong!!! Data most certainly dictates ALL conclusions. Data indicating lack of safety has to stand on its own…and from Seralini to Carman to Pusztai, it doesn’t. Poorly designed and executed studies don’t merit a position of equivalence merely because folks of a certain, ahem, faith, feel they are worthy of comparison.

      • Martin

        Evaluating what studies if any ‘merit a position of equivalence’ or superiority or inferiority is indeed the point. Data never stands on it own; it is sat in the context in which it is collected and adjusted,

        And data should not be discarded or declared invalid simply because folks of a certain, ahem, faith feel they are not worthy of comparison.

        Too many analysts have this backwards; the conclusion is obvious from their worldview, ‘therefore’ the evidence is filtered according to the conclusion, ‘therefore’ (for example) there is *no* evidence for homeopathy, for GMO harm, for climate change, for ghosts, etc, ;therefore’ it is foolish to believe these things.

        Each polarised side declares that only their evidence is the right evidence, and so it becomes impossible to have a discussion about how we weigh and compare evidence; how we evaluate their relative merit…

        • Loren Eaton

          ‘And data should not be discarded or declared invalid simply because folks of a certain, ahem, faith feel they are not worthy of comparison.’ Strawman!! The Seralini data is flawed. It has nothing to do with my view of the world (or his for that matter), it has to do with statistics. It has to do with whether or not his data show statistically significant differences. They don’t…and therefore you can not draw conclusions. The fact that the conclusions he chose to make fall on the side of potential harm and tend to ‘balance out’ the literature that already exists is not a reason to take it seriously.

          • Martin

            It’s not a strawman. It *might* not be relevant in this case, but it’s just the mirror of your sensible statement that we should ‘not blindly accept data because of faith'; they are both perfectly ordinary statements about avoiding bias.

            So the Seralini study is flawed? Well, alright. So the data itself is insufficient; it does not stand on its own, it does not dictate a conclusion, it has to be evaluated in the context of the collection, the method, the processing. As does all data.

            Even then we cannot rest and claim that conclusions are dictated by what derived processed results that we have, as we know that the results we have are skewed by ordinary things like publication bias. And we can maybe skirt slightly more uncomfortable biases to do with funding and conflicts of interest, as the medical research community is doing.

          • http://www.facebook.com/Kieseyhow Kieron Seymour-Howell

            Most of the people who “talk” about science, treat it as a religion. The ones who actually work with it, are far too busy to be talking about it online.

          • Loren Eaton

            Really? Where is that written? I do this at home quite a bit. Some at work, but there’s plenty of time for both.

          • Kevin Folta

            You’re kidding, right? The reason many scientists are “too busy” is because they don’t want to endure the hassles and abuse.

            However, more and more research scientists are reaching out to public audiences. We’re sick of charlatans and the manipulation of public opinion by fear and crap science.

            I’m personally sick of dealing with the anti-science nuts. We need solutions now, not more problems.

          • http://www.facebook.com/Kieseyhow Kieron Seymour-Howell

            Yes, I agree with you. That is precisely what we need, and precisely what people are fed up with.

  • Tabitha Wilson

    what a load of crap…has anyone considered the possiblity that emotional decision making is a survival trait? just because some decides to publish a study on the psychological reasons people don’t trust gmo’s doesn’t mean they are safe…come on…these people are the same ones who told us agent orange was safe and posed not threat to our troops..now veterns are recieving benifits do to exposure related illness..now the government has given them permission to tell you what is safe to eat….hello sheepel.

    • Taylor Johns

      Don’t say sheeple when YOU are the one being led around.

      Grow up. Learn something. Start making decisions based on facts and analysis. That’s what makes us a higher life form.

    • Charles Rader

      “these people are the same ones who told us agent orange was safe”

      No Tabitha, that was fifty years ago. They were NOT the same people. What you perhaps mean to say is that they were the same kind of people.

      You can’t discredit me for a mistake made fifty years ago by someone who I never even met.

      • http://www.facebook.com/Kieseyhow Kieron Seymour-Howell

        I can, if you share the same genetics …. lol

        • Cairenn Day

          They don’t. That is like calling me a slave owner, because my great grandfather was.

          • http://www.facebook.com/Kieseyhow Kieron Seymour-Howell

            Well, can you prove you would not be, were the circumstances to be the same? No, you cannot. In fact genetic probability would suggest that you are more likely to repeat the same actions if raised in the same circumstances.

            Genetics play a powerful role in who we are and how we act. There are many studies that you can search out that will support this reasoning. People inherit not only the eye colour and the bone structure of their lineage but behavioural characteristics as well.

          • Cairenn Day

            That is some of the silliest reasoning I have seen in awhile. It shows how little you know about genetics.

            You imply that siblings should always do the same things, the same abilities, even have the same morals. There are no ‘studies’ that show that. One of the things that have been shown from cloning animals, is that talents (like racing), or temperament or even coloring (the first cloned cat was from a calico and clone was a tabby) are not strictly genetically controlled.

            You do not inherit the behavioral characteristics of your parents and fore bearers.

            It might be time for you to check out a genetics course.

          • http://www.facebook.com/Kieseyhow Kieron Seymour-Howell

            Actually there are indicators that all sorts of things are inherited. Behaviour patterns, social preferences, skills and capabilities, and even environmental weaknesses and resistance that is introduced before and during pregnancy. I read some research that has shown significant statistical links between life experiences of the mother, and even the father, appear to influence the genetic coding of offspring, which at first glance seems ridiculous and impossible, yet people are working on these studies because anomalies and significant statistical variations have been found. I am sure if you look around you will find new information that will lead you to new opinions.

            The moment I see someone who becomes secure in what they know, that is the moment they have chosen to become irrelevant. The only constant, is change, especially in science.

          • Cairenn Day

            There are some things that will follow, like it was discovered when foxes were bred to be gentle, a lot of other things followed.

            However to say that because someone’s Great Grandfather was a slave owner that they would be one too, if it was allowed is just silly. It is like saying that the children of mass murderers, or child abusers should be locked up and they their children also.

            But companies don’t have DNA. The Monsanto of today is not the Monsanto of the 70s, no more than one would say that Pres Obama’s administration is just the same as Pres Reagan’s or to blame the current Pres for something that happened, say the war in Viet Nam that happened long before he came to office and that he had no part in.

            Why don’t you learn about Monsanto today and stop making the a demon and target for unfounded hate?

          • Deyan

            Troll harder bro.

          • http://www.facebook.com/Kieseyhow Kieron Seymour-Howell

            Actually, I am not trying to troll at all. Trolling is for people who believe they know everything. I understand that tomorrow, something new may be discovered that throws everything I thought I knew, right out the window. Science is about always searching and never feeling secure in what you think you know. If history has proven anything, it has proven that mostly everything we think we know, will probably turn out to be at least partially wrong sooner or later.

        • Loren Eaton

          No you can’t. What publication did you get that drivel from. Some behaviors and traits are influenced by genetics, some aren’t…and you’re completely discounting the effect of environment.

        • Charles Rader

          Keiron, I suppose I should not bother to respond to such a silly comment, but looking at this thread, it seems that you actually believe it.

          Even so, and even if you believe and can’t stop believing that mistakes made by people fifty years ago can be attributed to their children because of genetic inheritance of behavior, it still has nothing to do with Tabitha’s claim that “These are the same people who …” I, for one, was around fifty years ago. And I most explicitly did not say anything, one way or another, about the safety (or danger) of Agent Orange fifty years ago.
          Tabitha doesn’t seem to feel the need to give us the name of even a single person who said, fifty years ago, the Agent Orange was safe and who is now saying anything about GMO safety. For her, “These are the same people …” is a throwaway line.

    • jh

      has anyone considered the possibility that emotional decision making is a survival trait?

      That has been done. Emotional decision making is a non-survival trait.

  • Buddy199

    Ideologues might present a factual argument but they usually just use that to build a case that anyone who disagrees with them is either evil, stupid or crazy – or some combination thereof. Leaving out the personal invective goes a long way if you’re actually trying to change minds.

  • jh

    “people judge the risks of radiation from nuclear power plants to be much
    higher than those from medical X-rays—a conclusion that is not backed
    up by the data”

    This is misleading. Are the two risks in any way comparable? Nuke plant melt-downs are extremely rare. But if one happens in a neighborhood near you, well, that’s a very very big problem. OTOH, how many X-rays do you need to get to be overexposed?

    These are different types of risks. One is knowable and calculable. We can predict with some precision, that Y number of X-rays will produce a negative effect – in all likelihood, a relatively small effect. OTOH, nuke meltdowns are “fat tail” events – so extremely rare that they are unpredictable – and so catastrophic when they do happen that the effects are devastating. So it’s not surprising that people see nuclear power as a much greater risk.

    • Nocturnesthesia

      We’re barely a generation removed from 70+ years of Cold War hysteria surrounding nuclear weapons. While I don’t think you’re wrong, I do think that fear of meltdowns or explosions is extremely blown out of proportion because so many people immediately associate “nuclear energy” with “nuclear bombs”.

      • J M

        Look at Germany. The peace movement of 1970s and 80s simply transferred their dissatisfaction from nuclear weapons to nuclear power and after the Wall came down, formed the nucleus of Green party.

      • jh

        Well, personally, I agree that fear of meltdowns is overblown.

        But that doesn’t really change the equation in the public’s view: medical X-ray radition ODs could never even come close to the consequences of a single nuke plant failure in your neighborhood.

        To some extent that fear is justified. Look at the response of the Japanese officials when the Fuki plants failed. They made matters much worse by refusing to come to terms with the situation. So people feel that once an event happens, they can’t even count on officialdom to come clean about it and get the proper response rolling ASAP.

        But my real point is about how experts dice and slice “risk”. Beyond simple probability of relatively frequent events with well defined populations, these risk asessements don’t tell us much that’s actually useful.

        • facefault

          Sure, but fear about Fukashima is itself massively overblown. No one died from the radiation, and only a few hundred deaths are expected from it (once excess cancers have had time to develop). http://www.stanford.edu/group/efmh/jacobson/TenHoeveEES12.pdf

          • jh

            “No one died from the radiation, and only a few hundred deaths are expected from it”

            “Only” a few hundred? :) that makes collateral damage from a drone strike look like a bargain.

            It’s hard not to laugh at that. I mean, the corporate management lied about the danger, then expects people not to blow things out of proportion. Then they claim “only a few hundred” isn’t very many deaths, and they expect people not to be upset about?

            I think that right there presents a pretty clear picture of why people don’t trust nuclear power. It has nothing to do with the power itself.

          • facefault

            Only a few hundred, when fifteen thousand died in the tsunami itself. How many stories have you read about the radiation, compared to the number of stories you’ve read about those fifteen thousand men, women, and children?

          • Deyan

            The Fukushima “disaster” is another fear-mongering tale of hyperbole. 700+ nuclear tests were done in the Pacific Ocean between the 60’s and late 80’s. Where’s the outrage and fear about the effects of THAT?

      • http://www.facebook.com/Kieseyhow Kieron Seymour-Howell

        It is associated with it. Thorium is much more practical, but does not yield any useful by products that people can use to threaten each other with. I looked into the history of nuclear energy. The governments pushed the use of uranium, because they can get the byproducts out of it they can turn into weapons. It is just a larger richer group of weapon nuts prancing about threatening one another.

  • m12345

    The problem with people who think GMO is good is that they are stupid.

    The issue revolves around a line, how far do you draw it, and for some people who love GMO (bio-tech etc) there is no line.

    For me and others, taking DNA from fish and putting it into pigs so they are luminous is too far.

    and Planting GMO seeds, is too far. Because you cannot stop DNA hopping between organisms, its quite impossible to.

    Therefore any genetic tinkering you do can be spread, whether you agree with it or not. and you have no control over bio-tech and what they can manipulate. So look forward to more unnatural GMO in your near future.

    • Taylor Johns

      Stupid, huh? Well let us see how smart YOU are.

      Where are you getting your information?

    • facefault

      >For me and others, taking DNA from fish and putting it into pigs so they are luminous is too far.

      Why? Who is it hurting?

      >Because you cannot stop DNA hopping between organisms, its quite impossible to.

      Yes you can. You can sterilize plants so they don’t produce pollen. You can also use something called GURT, which prevents organisms with particular genes from reproducing,

      But GURT never went into production, because people like you opposed it.

    • Cairenn Day

      If DNA ‘jumps’ around so easily then it has been doing that for eons.

      DNA is just a code. There is not dog DNA and spinach DNA, they will share the same code for some things. Humans have over 50% of the same DNA as a banana, and over 97% of that of a chimp.

    • Deyan

      With modern genetic engineering, single genes
      are added, altered, or removed specific to known desired result. With artificial selection AKA ‘natural’ selection,, hundreds of genes are altered in ambiguous and unpredictable ways. Therefore, it’s unreasonable to argue that genetic engineering is in any way more harmful when the opposite is more likely
      to be true. Furthermore, no testing is done on non-GMO crops, including organic crops. Testing is a unique requirement of GMO crops. So, we know far more about the safety and nutritional value of GMO crops than we do most other foods.

  • davidmcsf

    it is not about the genetic modification necessarily that many anti-GMO people are against and that is where a lot is lodt in this debate. the issue is the vast and increasing amount of chemicals and pesticides that are polluting not just our waters but our bodies and especially chemicals designed or created by a company that gave us DDT and agent orange. i personally believe that chemicals must be removed from our food supply-science be dammed. if you want it in your food by all means buy the chemical and put it in your dinner but dont put it in my food.

    how long til we find out that monsantos latest gift is deadly when all studies so far on their chemicals are done by their own corporate scientists. i also find it ironic that they wont even serve GMOs in their own cafeteria.

    next i think it is safe to say that the patenting and cronyism of GMO cross contamination and bully tactics must be a concern even to scientists. we are talking about an altered crop that problems undetected may arise. what happens if we discover that a gmo crop turns out to be not so healthy but its pollen has eradicated all mother nature’s creation.

    i think all of these issues should be of great concern to not just scientists but anyone who eats food which is all of us.

    • Taylor Johns

      You just made the emotional argument. You are avoiding data.

    • Taylor Johns

      And who told you Monsanto scientists have done all the studies? That’s amazingly untrue.

      Seek facts. You will make more informed decisions.

      • Martin

        From whom?! This is a fact-free debate; the number of steps between us and the facts are many.

        Instead we have to look to whom to trust to provide evaluations and *why*. While people claim authority by saying “it’s science, stupid”, they get lumped in with all the other times authority was claimed by people with the label ‘scientist’.

        Now that’s a strawman (!) because that’s not (always) the defence for GMO (or, say, homeopathy), but my impression for why people continue to distrust GMO is because they distrust the people, methods and establishments that declare them safe.

        Where does this distrust come from? ‘Green’ activists have long discredited any studies associated with evul capitalist expansions, and even try and bypass the whole concept of study and comparison with the inane Precautionary Principle.

        How can it be reestablished? Can it?

    • facefault

      If you’re opposed to “chemicals,” why are you talking about GMOs? That’s like protesting against Mexico because you don’t like US foreign policy. Also, could you specify *which* chemicals you’re opposed to? Because you’re breathing in chemicals right now.

      Taylor is correct that most of the studies are NOT by Monsanto scientists. If you don’t believe me, go on Google Scholar, look up papers, read author affiliations, and find out yourself.

      >what happens if we discover that a gmo crop turns out to be not so healthy but its pollen has eradicated all mother nature’s creation.

      That cannot happen. There are several reasons why it cannot happen. The first is simple biology – nothing can grow fast enough to replace all other plants rapidly. The second is evolution – no plant could outcompete other plants in all environments. The third is economics – pretty much the same is the second, especially because many people don’t want GMOs. The fourth is seed banks, most famously the Svalbard one, that ensure that current species of plants cannot be completely eradicated.

      >i also find it ironic that they wont even serve GMOs in their own cafeteria.
      Source, or bull?

    • http://www.facebook.com/Kieseyhow Kieron Seymour-Howell

      I believe, that just like with almost any other product that was subsequently proven to be unhealthy after 25 years of stupid people using it, that it is about farming people, as resources, to make money NOW. Let future generations deal with the problems and the real research LATER when you have retired and lean back chuckling to yourself how you did your part to reduce the population of the world, and actually feel good about that.

      Welcome to humanity, here is your sign, and there is your grave, the clock is ticking, now get to work.

    • Cairenn Day

      Well, it first seems that you have some misinformation. Monsanto does serve GMO food in their cafeteria. The story got started because a contractor that handle the cafeteria in a plant/office in England, did only use organic food. It was something they did for every place they had a contract with them. Not something Monsanto asked for.

      BTW, most GMO crops are not ones that we eat directly. Even most GMO corn is dent corn and it is mostly used for livestock feed and ethanol. Some does go to produce corn products.

      All crops, including organic ones use various pesticides and chemicals. The use of many of those is REDUCED by farmers that use GMO crops. (It is one reason that they pay more for GMO seeds, then then need less of pricey chemicals and the time and fuel needed to apply them.

      Today’s Monsanto is not a chemical company, the chemical business was sold off years ago. Agent Orange was made to the military’s specifications by them and several other companies. DDT was eventually overused, but the use of it saved millions of lives in mosquito ravaged areas.

      We can not remove ‘chemicals’ from our food supply. Chemicals are the building blocks of the universe, they are in you, in the salad you eat, in chair you are sitting on, in the sun that sends light through your window.

  • mem_somerville

    If only someone would explain how to overcome the resistance to facts. We keep hearing what it isn’t–it isn’t the “knowledge deficit” and it isn’t “lefties”. But nobody seems to be able to identify what we need help us to get past the blockage.

    Once I went to a CDC meeting on vaccination, swamped with anti-vaxxers (because they are the one who turn out for stuff like this, while people ok with vaccination stay home). All day I was battling with this highly educated Cambridge (US) mom at the table we were stuck at. I gave references, biology, consensus from organizations…None of this matters. Same as GMOs.

    There’s never the right studies, never the right data–no matter how much we have. Demands for impossible, unethical, and poorly designed imaginary protocols. Everyone is a shill, of course–academics and government too. It’s all a conspiracy. At the end of the completely frustrating day I asked her: Who would you believe when we have that data? What sources would convince you?

    She said, “I don’t know.” So you can’t even assess what it would take from the people who are actively doing resisting the data. They can’t tell you either. Where can you go with that? When you are dealing with a belief–there’s no entry point for facts.

    I swear–if someone could show me what works, I’d stop trying to sling links to the literature, quality science blog posts, the consensus statements, and to public sector scientists’ discussions. But I have yet to see evidence of what might change the direction. Kevin Folta keeps offering to work with them–replicate the studies they flog, give them help with this new “pathogen”. Doesn’t have any impact–they run away.

    And if Nathanael would try to go there, I’d keep reading. I had abandoned Grist years ago, but did return for his series. The rest of the place is still pretty sad though.

    • BioChicaGMO

      I think that the pro-vaccine movement is onto something by having started a campaign of anecdotal stories about the benefits of vaccines (see http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/apr/24/wish-my-daughter-vaccinated and http://www.qt.com.au/news/what-happens-when-your-parents-refuse-vaccinate/2129867/). I know that it’s against everything scientists stand for, but take a look at how effective Katy Couric’s piece on the HPV vaccine was in scaring people by simply featuring a handful of parents who thought their children had been negatively impacted by the vaccine.
      Unfortunately, the “story” about GMOs is much more difficult to tell. And worse yet, scientists are no longer credible in the eyes of the public (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/21/faith-in-scientists_n_4481487.html). So I don’t know how easily scientists will be able to sway the public without running a marketing campaign.

      • mem_somerville

        Yeah, the anecdote thing is hard for us to accept. But I know what you mean.

        I think we had kinda an example of that with the Harmon story on the oranges though. That was not corn, not soy, not stuff that’s processed and unidentifiable–and something people would notice if it went away. I think the blight-resistant potato might also be a good anecdote style story too.

        But the conversation still couldn’t get past Monsanto–even though it had nothing to do with them.

        “Monsanto” to foodies is like the “mercury” in vaccines is to anti-vaxxers. They have no understanding of it’s actual role, and nevertheless blame it for everything. Simultaneously, this means they are unable to lift the fog of fury to focus on what actual issues and solutions might be. They divert energy and attention from solving problems to bloviate about the demons and the conspiracies around it. Neither science nor anecdotes do much for that gestalt.

      • mem_somerville

        Son of a gun–Amy Harmon just anecdoted the issue again. Excellent piece in the NYT:
        http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/05/us/on-hawaii-a-lonely-quest-for-facts-about-gmos.html

    • http://www.facebook.com/Kieseyhow Kieron Seymour-Howell

      For most people, this is a matter of not believing what anyone has to say. It is not about accepting studies and citations, it is about the belief that these are all evil greedy people who are out to kill as many others as possible to hoard the world’s resources for themselves. Sort of like king-of-the-hill game, but played by governments and adults. Humans are mostly evil and selfish if they believe they can get away with it. That is most people. The happy people become victims, and the rest become cynical. Ignorance is bliss, until something happens. lol

      For me, I believe that most people are incompetent. From my own direct experience watching and interacting with people over 40 years, I no longer accept certifications, credentials or references anymore. I have learned that anyone you meet is about 90% likely to not be reliable, efficient, or effective, at ANYTHING they are trying to do, whether it is good or bad, moral or immoral. Humans are useless, lazy and stupid. So, I prefer to assume that until proven otherwise, no one knows what they are doing. It saves a heck of a lot of time and energy.

  • http://wildernessvagabonds.com/ Mike Lewinski

    In his TED talk titled “The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives” psychologist Jonathan Haidt identifies five moral values that he says are universal in all cultures (a sixth was later added to his list). Of those values, one stands above the others in this debate: purity.

    For conservatives, he says purity is mostly about sexuality. For liberals, it’s about food. I’d go further and say it’s also about “natural”.

    When someone experiences the emotion of disgust, it’s a signal that their purity moral has been violated. No matter how rational we are, almost every single one of us has something we find disgusting. Even beyond sensate experiences of nausea (say, spoiled milk), there’s experiences of disgust at inequality, or government oppression, or the idea of gay sex, or even the violation of a species boundary.

    It’s that last one I focus on most. We have come to believe that what defines a species is the sexual compatibility with others of the same kind. The taboo against bestiality is universal and evokes a reaction of disgust in most people. I suspect that, subconsciously, for some people the idea of putting genes from one species into another triggers that taboo (there’s a piece of artwork done by a child titled “That’s Disgusting (Fish Gene into Tomato)” which exemplifies this.

    Disgust is only one of the emotional bases I see in opposition to GMOs (speaking as one who fought them for the last 20 years before coming around to belief and feeling revision).

    The other core emotion is a little harder to label. In some people it might take a form like disgust, but I’ll simply call it “fear of hubris”.

    Hubris was originally a crime against the gods. By assuming the powers of a creator to alter life at such a fundamental level, scientists are transgressing again on the purity of God’s creation. Even the atheists I know who oppose GMOs see the evolutionary process as something that has “perfected” us and our foods. Meddling in the perfect products of nature for profit is a form of hubris to them, and I know plenty of atheists who decry the hubris of genetic engineering. “As if we know so much better than the product of billions of years of evolution we can alter it for profit!”

    It is no coincidence that the term frankenfood was adopted. In Mary Shelley’s story of Frankenstein, it is arguably the titular Dr. Frankenstein himself who is the monster, playing God in a laboratory. Indeed, his creature (who never gets a name) is rather pitiable and misunderstood.

    Jonathan Haidt writes about how our moral senses are really more akin to emotions. We concoct post-hoc explanations for why we hold the moral values that we do. With disgust at the transgression of species boundaries, and at the contamination of God’s (or evolution’s) pure designs, we proceed forth with the belief that genetic engineering is immoral and seek out data to reinforce our beliefs.

    Of course it is easy enough to design experiments to reach pre-ordained conclusions (ala Séralini and Carman). It is a bit harder to design good experiments and actually learn something new.

    There’s always going to be data that can be pointed to as evidence of harms, and a plausible refuge for our moral intuitions against the violations of purity that are perceived as a result of genetic engineering.

    About the best we can do is to strip away the false conclusions from the bad studies and expose the emotional bases that underpin them. Then there’s hope that the competing moral value, of our own rationality, can come back into play.

    Thanks for your writing on this topic Keith. I continue to track this issue closely because I am still an environmentalist and wish to see the misguided energy put into fighting GMOs into more worthy causes.

    • rand18m

      Excellent Mike Lewinski! May I forward your response to a young college grad that really needs to read this? Thanks!

      • http://wildernessvagabonds.com/ Mike Lewinski

        Go for it! I usually publish all my writing with a Creative Commons license anyway, there’s just no easy way to apply that here in Disqus comments without adding it by hand each time and I’m too lazy to bother.

        Depending on why you want to forward it, I also have a blog on my experiences at the March Against Monsanto that might also be helpful:

        http://wildernessvagabonds.com/blog/?p=1266

        • rand18m

          Just for a young man I know (good friends son) who has quite an emotional attachment to anti-gmo and anti-vaccine dogma, he is now engaging me with data and vice versa and we’ve been discussing the need to acquire credible (as possible) information from all sides and the use of critical thinking skills. He’s a smart guy, I think he might enjoy your response here. Thanks

  • OWilson

    It all comes own to those two human emotions known as “idealism” and “realism”.
    Idealism is the way we would like things to be, and realism is the way things are.
    An idealist believes that we can all hold hands and solve any problem.
    A realist points out that if it were not for armed police cruising your street, your neighbors would be more than likely to invade your home and help themselves to your stuff.
    The realist viewpoint is not usually not well received by the population at large.

  • Tom Scharf

    Keith,

    You probably saw this already, but just in case…

    A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops

    http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/05/us/on-hawaii-a-lonely-quest-for-facts-about-gmos.html?pagewanted=1&_r=0

    A quick read of the comments shows all the same propaganda as usual, and the NYT “picks” is entertaining as always.

  • scientist

    Maybe I’m an unrealistic optimist, but I think the tide has turned on GMOs. The series at Grist and Amy Harmon’s articles are from credible environmentalist/liberal media outlets. I have a number of friends who are good people and generally rational, but for a variety of reasons are prone to oppose GMOs. Being able to refer them to evidence based explorations of the issue from sources they can identify with and trust (Grist, NYT) really seems to help break the stranglehold of their skepticism. Not that anyone reads these and immediately alters their entire worldview, but I just get the strong feeling that it kicks off a thought process in their minds.
    The key to all of this, I think, is that it is an interpersonal, social conversion. In order to change how you think about something controversial (no matter what it is) it really helps to observe people you trust doing so (either people you know or opinion makers that matter to you). From that perspective, I think these are really great developments
    I foresee that in the future, the liberal intelligentsia will come around to the potential of the technology, while radicals will keep opposing it no matter what, driving themselves further out of the mainstream and into irrelevance.

  • Melissa in Virginia

    These perspectives make sense, in part. If they are a bit insulting and condescending. They are though based on one enormous untruth. The FDA does not test these new products as they come on board and third party, long term research is not required prior to bringing new GMO products to market. Go and look at their website. It is clearly published.
    The FDA created the guidelines that exist today in the 90s around the Flavor Savor Tomato. That process involved manipulating genes within a tomato. Not even between two different vegetables or plants, simply within a tomato.
    We now have animal and bacteria genes being combined with the various plants we consume. This is a substantially different process, yet the guidelines and regulation or have not changed.
    And I’d also like to point out that while the Flavor Savor Tomato failed, it was done with complete transparency. The fruits were clearly labeled and an 800 number was available for those with questions. Complete transparency. Why the change in approach?
    I do not blame Monsanto for this situation. capitalism says that we all have a right to go out and make as much money as we can. But it is the role of the Government in capitalism to provide balance and keep companies in check. The FDA has failed remarkably in this regard as it relates to GMO foods.
    These products are banned in more than 20 countries and labeling is required in more than 64. This number is growing. The FDA will not be able to take such an irresponsible approach for much longer without completely.
    And as a journalist, it should disturb you that every scientist who raises objections to GMO is immediately and viciously attacked. Science itself invites debate, cross examination and counter opinion. It is an indication that more research and examination is needed.
    The “noise” that you refer to is not the sign of the uneducated masses who need to be schooled in what’s good for them, it is disgust and anger that our government bodies have left us at the mercy of unchecked corporate greed and at the fact that there is a witch hunt going on among any scientists brave enough to question the status quo and yet no journalist seems to be alarmed by this.
    It is disgusts that we seem to now think that Science is a matter of screaming the loudest and having the largest legal and PR budgets.

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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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