Bill Nye Gets Invited to Attend Another GMO Debate

By Keith Kloor | December 5, 2014 12:31 am

If you missed the recent Intelligence Squared debate on GMOs, it’s worth watching. Or if you prefer, read the transcript.  Like Nathanael Johnson, I was initially dubious about the event, then pleasantly surprised at how it turned out.

I was also a kinda surprised to see Bill Nye (The Science Guy) piggyback on it:

His opinion, alas, is not very Science Guy-like, as we learned several weeks ago. Some of you might recall the open letter from Kevin Folta, a University of Florida plant scientist, inviting Nye to participate in “a forum at a major university for a civil, evidence-based debate on the benefits and risks of agricultural biotechnology.”

The Science Guy never responded.

Nevertheless, he is sufficiently interested in the topic to have attended the GMO debate organized by Intelligence Squared. He even got to ask a question: Read More

A Conundrum Haunts Climate Debate

By Keith Kloor | November 28, 2014 9:05 am

This tweet caught my eye:

A greater elaboration on this statement by Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, can be read here. It starts out this way:

Two great challenges define the 21st century–the threat of catastrophic climate change and the maddening gap between global rich and poor. These biggest challenges to worldwide peace are closely interlinked.

No question that climate change looms large, but is economic inequality–“the maddening gap between the global rich and poor”–really entwined in the manner suggested here? Please understand: I’m not questioning the inequality gap. It is distressingly real. Rather, it’s the premise of the statement that I’m questioning. For I thought that the big challenge coupled with climate change is increasing access to energy for the world’s 1.3 billion people that don’t have it–without dangerously heating up the planet.

A few sentences later, Shellnhuber says: Read More

“Imbeciles” on Twitter Continue to Distract Nassim Taleb

By Keith Kloor | November 26, 2014 12:15 pm

Those of you familiar with Black Swan author Nassim Taleb know he has a formidable mind and an abrasive public persona. It is necessary to separate the two when analyzing his logic, which is what economist/writer Noah Smith does admirably in his Bloomberg column on Taleb’s controversial GMO paper. (More on Smith’s take in a minute.)

To quickly review, Taleb and his coauthors argue that the ecological and public health risks of GMOs are not adequately known, and because of the unique nature of these concerns they cumulatively pose a “risk of global harm.” Here is Taleb et al’s definition of the precautionary principle, and why they think it should apply to GMOs:

We believe that the PP should be evoked only in extreme situations: when the potential harm is systemic (rather than localized) and the consequences can involve total irreversible ruin, such as the extinction of human beings or all life on the planet.”

Taleb and his coauthors argue that GMOs “fall squarely under the precautionary principle because of their systemic risk.”

Smith takes a hard look at the case laid out in the paper and identifies its fatal flaw: Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Uncategorized

A Victory for Anti-GMO Forces and a Blow to Science

By Keith Kloor | November 13, 2014 8:02 am

UPDATE: Additional news stories and responses at bottom.

The campaign by Greenpeace and other anti-GMO groups to abolish the position of the European Union’s chief science advisor appears to have succeeded.  James Wilsdon, a professor of science and democracy at the UK’s University of Sussex, laments this news in the Guardian, including the odd timing of the announcement:

Borrowing a trick from the Jo Moore school of media management, the European Commission chose the evening before the Rosetta landing to quietly confirm that its most senior scientific role, that of chief scientific adviser (CSA) to its president, is being scrapped.

Mark Lynas has a rundown at his website.  He also notes: Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: biotechnology, GMOs, green groups, science

Open Letter to Bill Nye from a Plant Scientist

By Keith Kloor | November 10, 2014 7:30 am

Below is an open letter from Kevin Folta, a plant scientist at the University of Florida, Gainsville. In recent years, Folta has taken a leading role as an educator on the subject of agricultural biotechnology. He often engages with GMO critics and foes. Folta is a professor in a public institution and his research is sponsored by federal and state agencies.   

Dear Bill Nye:

I’ve always appreciated your ability to communicate science to the public.  Your television shows taught us about our biological world and physical universe in an accessible, engaging manner.  In recent years you have become an outstanding ambassador for science. You have helped many people understand  that good science starts with a plausible hypothesis that is tested with careful design and statistical rigor, resulting in data that could be interpreted within the framework of the scholarly literature toward building or augmenting a scientific consensus.

You have applied this approach to teach the scientific evidence for evolution and anthropogenic climate change. You also have publicly and robustly rebutted the pseudoscientific positions underlying creationism and global warming denial.  In doing so, you have shown that evidence-based conclusions trump personal beliefs.

Last week you published a new book, Undeniable, again covering the harm of science denial with regard to evolution.  But then in the same text, and in later comments on Reddit, you expressed a belief-based criticism of agricultural biotechnology, or “GMO” technology.  No evidence, just “here’s what I think” coupled to arguments from ignorance, and positions that lay perpendicular to the scientific consensus.  Your logic and reasoning match the fallacies of climate and evolution deniers, the people you correctly criticize. Read More

Bill Nye Explains Why he is a GMO Skeptic

By Keith Kloor | November 6, 2014 4:54 am

Bill Nye, stalwart defender of evolution and climate science, has a new book out called, Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation. Nye, for those unfamiliar with him, is a popular science communicator. He also relishes verbal debate. In recent years, he’s become known for taking on creationists and climate skeptics.

Nye’s reputation as a soldier of science has led some to wonder where he stands on GMOs. Specifically, folks are curious if he’s changed his position since 2005, when his television show featured an episode that has since been criticized for mischaracterizing the science of biotechnology in a way that reinforces unwarranted fears, as one observer writes. Others have been more forgiving of that segment:

Most of the questions and fears he raises are the questions and fears of 2005 and, to a disappointing extent, the same fears we need to address today.

So now it’s nearly a a decade later and GMOs are still saddled with a fear factor that activists have worked hard to promote, much to the dismay of the plant science community. Where is Nye in this battle between scientists and those that frequently contest (and muddy) the science of agricultural biotechnology? Read More

Republican Takeover of Senate Will Spotlight Climate Denial

By Keith Kloor | November 5, 2014 7:59 am

Now that the Republicans control Congress for the next two years, what’s in store for U.S. climate politics? Well, Keystone is the first order of business, and then probably a whole lot of bombast and theater, which many will find unappetizing:

Not good for science and sane politics, perhaps, but if you’re a Democrat who cares about climate change and you are already looking ahead to 2016, there’s a silver lining: You have the face of climate denialism in a top leadership spot, quoted often in the media, representing the Republican brand in Congress.

And this is not your garden variety climate skepticism that nitpicks the science. We’re talking all-in global conspiracy belief, infamously expressed, as The Hill recently noted: Read More

No Love in Boulder for Colorado’s GMO Labeling Proposition

By Keith Kloor | November 4, 2014 11:18 am

The following is a guest post from Paul McDivitt, a second-year master’s student studying journalism and mass communication research at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Follow him on twitter @paulmcdivitt.

UPDATE: The GMO labeling initiative in Colorado was soundly rejected. (Breakdown of Boulder vote is at bottom of post.)

Today, Colorado voters will decide if the state should require genetically modified foods to be labeled as such. The ballot measure is called Proposition 105. A Suffolk University poll showed that 49.2 percent in Colorado oppose the proposition, 29.8 percent support it, and 21 percent are undecided. The Democratic Party of Denver endorsed it.

Weeks ago, when I received a voter guide in the mail from the Boulder County Democratic Party, I was surprised to see that it did not take a stand on Proposition 105.

After all, Boulder is known as a liberal bastion. It established itself as a hippie paradise in the ‘60s, and remains a choice destination for free spirits and vagabonds alike, home to countless yoga studios, marijuana dispensaries, and a sprawling farmers’ market. Just the kind of place you would expect to support GMO labeling, right? Read More

Why is Nassim Taleb So Venomous on Twitter?

By Keith Kloor | November 1, 2014 10:48 am

Watching Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan and other books, engage on twitter, is like being ringside at a verbal boxing match with the intellectual equivalent of Clubber Lang, the snarling, contemptuous boxer played by Mr. T in Rocky 3. In the movie, Clubber Lang was so mean and nasty the performance was almost a parody.

When you see Taleb go ballistic on Twitter, as he often does, you wonder similarly if the guy is truly an angry asshole of the highest order, or if it’s just some performance schtick by an egghead scholar trying to liven up his day. Then again, he can’t seem to help himself: The guy did get into it one time with a parody Twitter account. As one observer noted:

Taleb has a propensity for being quite combative on Twitter, on topics ranging from bonds to GMOs, and Taleb will fight with just about anybody.

Yeah, you could say that again. Some people, such as the economist Noah Smith, make allowances for Taleb’s bad behavior: Read More

Taking Credit for GMO Failures

By Keith Kloor | October 31, 2014 11:46 am

Earlier this year, the earth scientist Jon Foley wrote an article that laid out why he was skeptical about agricultural biotechnology. Among other things, he said “that GMOs have frequently failed to live up to their potential” because of the way they have been deployed:

GMOs have done little to enhance the world’s food security. Mainly, that’s because GMO crops primarily in use today are feed corn (mostly for animal feed and ethanol), soybeans (mostly for animal feed), cotton and canola. But these aren’t crops that feed the world’s poor, or provide better nutrition to all. GMO efforts may have started off with good intentions to improve food security, but they ended up in crops that were better at improving profits. While the technology itself might “work,” it has so far been applied to the wrong parts of the food system to truly make a dent in global food security.

This struck me as a shortsighted, wholly incomplete view of GMOs, which I and others, such as Ramez Naam, commented on at the time. I thought of Foley’s essay and his main argument while attending a recent conference called, Techno-Utopianism & the Fate of the Earth: Why Technology Will Not Save the World.  One of the panels–The Quest for a “New Nature”–featured Andrew Kimbrell, the founder and executive director of the Center for Food Safety, which for years has spearheaded opposition to biotechnology. Read More

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