The Very Thick Line Between Raising Concerns And Denialism

By Christie Wilcox | June 19, 2013 8:00 am

The real question is, which side of the line are studies that lack scientific rigor on?
Image credit: silent47

Recently, Kara Moses asked Guardian readers: “Should we wait for conclusive scientific studies before becoming concerned about an issue?” Her personal answer was no; that special interest groups should perform and publicize their own findings. “I believe they should be given a voice,” she concluded, “not dismissed out of hand for lacking the scientific rigour demanded by professional scientists.”

Quick to support her was Treehugger writer Chris Tackett. “The point here is that scientific proof matters in science, but it shouldn’t necessarily be what determines our actions,” he wrote. “We can intuit that some things are unwise or dangerous or against our values without needing reams of scientific data to back up our concerns.” While Kara’s piece talked only about the use of glyphosate (the pesticide known by its brand name RoundUp), Chris used it to attack both the pesticide’s use and Monsanto GM crops.

I understand where they are coming from, but the hair on the back of my neck bristled reading those words. I think they’re both getting into very dangerous territory (or, in the case of Chris’ comments later, happily dancing around in it). The trouble is, it’s one thing to notice a potential danger and raise a few alarm bells to get scientists to investigate an issue — it’s a whole other to publicize and propagandize an unsubstantiated fear despite evidence against it. The former is important, as Kara suggests, and should occur. I have no problem with non-scientists raising honest concerns, if their goal is to have the concerns considered — so long as they’re actually willing to hear what the evidence has to say. The latter, on the other hand, is denialism. You see, once scientists have weighed in, you have to be willing to listen to them.

When it was first suggested that vaccines might lead to autism, is was a legitimate question to ask. Kids seemed to develop autism around the same age they got their vaccines — and can you imagine if the vaccines were to blame? That would have been huge news! We would have had to revolutionize the vaccine industry, to start from scratch and figure out if we can keep these life-saving shots without screwing up our kids’ brains. One of the core foundations of our children’s public health program would have been forever shaken. So, like they should, independent scientists investigated the concerns. They checked and double checked the safety testing. They ran and re-ran results, but they kept getting the same answer: whatever causes autism, it isn’t vaccines. A cumulative sigh of relief was uttered by doctors, nurses, scientists, parents and children around the world.

Except that some people didn’t listen to the data. They called foul, saying every scientist that disagreed with them was under the thumb of Big Pharma and lying to the public. They released the results of unscientific, pet studies showing how they are right and everyone else is wrong. These anti-vaxers still won’t give up their beliefs, even though scientists have come to consensus that vaccines are, in no way, related to autism. We see the same refusal to listen when it comes to climate change. It doesn’t matter how many studies show the same thing, or how many consensuses are reached by scientists. They simply don’t want to question their biases. They don’t want to be informed. They stick their fingers in their ears like children, shouting “I can’t hear you!” — and sadly, the same attitude is found throughout the anti-GMO platform.

Instead of listening to the evidence, campaign groups conduct unrigorous, unscientific and completely biased studies, dig in their heels, and stand their ground. Just look at the recent anti-GM rat and pig studies which have been thoroughly flayed by scientists that have nothing to gain from the GM industry. The groups that performed and published these “trials” weren’t asking whether GM foods are unsafe; they sought and executed sham research hellbent on proving their beliefs, then denied any conflict of interest. I can’t agree with Kara that such studies deserve equal voice. They don’t. 

I’m not sure where Kara stands on the GM issue, but Chris’ clear bias towards one side of the argument shows in the comments. “I don’t need scientists to tell me that GMOs are not a good idea,” he says. There is an astounding level of cognitive dissonance in his statements. Though Chris brings up climate change, he misses his own point. For example, he calls out deniers, saying that “once enough peer-review science had been completed, still maintaining disproven beliefs would not be respectable, like in the case of global warming deniers”, then doesn’t even blink when he says “I would dislike GMOs whether the scientific community agreed they were bad or not. Likewise, I think we should not use Roundup, whether the scientific community agrees that it is dangerous or not.” [emphasis mine]. This is exactly the problem.

GM crops have undergone rigorous safety testing — and passed.
Image credit: adapted from Andrey Khrobostov

The simple fact is our fear of GM technology is based entirely on emotion. There is no science to support it. When it comes to GMOs, the anti crowd are not ‘raising concerns’—they’re denying scientific consensus.

There is a plethora of science that supports the safety record of GM foods. As the Skeptico blog pointed out, there are more than 600 studies (>125 of which were independently funded) that stand behind the safety record of GM crops. Scientists have been studying GMOs and their potential effects for decades. With every major scientific body saying the exact same thing, I simply don’t know how else to spell it out: there is a scientific consensus that GM foods are safe. Continuing to act as if the science is mixed or unclear about the safety of genetic modification is not raising a legitimate concern. It’s not even uninformed; it’s denialist. It’s right up there with the claims of anti-vaxers and climate deniers: that is, simply, flat-out, 100%, dead wrong.

As for the use of pesticides like glyphosate… that’s a much more complex and difficult question. It’s not as simple as “is this pesticide toxic” because the answer to that is undoubtedly yes. That’s what makes it a pesticide! If it wasn’t toxic, it wouldn’t kill anything. A better question is how toxic is this pesticide? Is it more or less toxic than another? Is it toxic to other species we’d like to keep around at the levels it’s used, including us? And what are the consequences — in terms of yield and meeting the demand for food and nutrition in an area — if it isn’t used? What are the alternative options?

When it comes to RoundUp, those kinds of studies have been conducted and continue to be conducted. So far, glyphosate has passed the tests, at least as well as any other pesticide (I personally think RoundUp Ready plants are a disgraceful use of GM technology, and would be perfectly happy to see them wiped off the face of the Earth and replaced with drought-resistant or nutrient-boosted GM varieties instead). Unfortunately, there still isn’t a black and white answer to whether that means the use of glyphosate is warranted.

That’s not to say that all future GMOs or pesticides will be perfect, or even that all current GMOs or pesticides are great or the best option for every farmer everywhere. Modified foods and pesticides raise a myriad of concerns outside questions of safety, including those about agricultural politics and environmental impact. These are legitimate questions that still are being answered. Monsanto and their sway over agricultural law and standard practices are definitely worth investigating. Our reliance on chemical pest control when there may be other options is worth investigating.

But what keeps happening is that anti-GMO or chemiphobic interest groups choose to attack technology wholesale, claiming a supposed lack of safety and demanding outright bans instead of tackling the real issues. They keep saying things like ‘GM crops are untested’, when they’re not, and they do so while, without a second thought, supporting things like alternative medicines, even though only 1/3 of those have been tested for safety or efficacy and some of those are responsible for serious negative ecological impacts. They make bold statements that all synthetic pesticides are dangerous while blindly believing in natural ones that are just as (if not more) toxic. But of course, if you point out the horrendous double standard, you’re attacked and called an industry shill*. Climate change science they will listen to. Vaccine science, they listen to (at least some of them). But all synthetic pesticides and GM foods are going to kill you and they always will, no matter what the scientists say. The level of hypocrisy displayed in these arguments (including Chris’) is simply inexcusable.

To reply to Kara’s original question: no, you don’t need a body of scientific evidence to raise concerns, if that’s really the goal of what you’re doing. But you do need at least a shred that suggests such concerns are valid before you shout them as facts from the rooftops. You should support independent scientists that study what you’re concerned about instead of trying to tie every one (usually in some ludicrous way) to biased funding. And if those scientists weigh in with well-designed studies that don’t agree with your initial concerns, you should feel relieved, not betrayed. If scientists are in consensus on a topic, it’s because the evidence is strong. It’s because they’ve investigated and rigorously tested the possible hypotheses using different methods, and the same conclusions keep stubbornly arising. Scientists don’t come to consensus easily, so when they do, you should listen to them.

The difference is night and day.
Image credit: photo by simonquinnphotography.com

The real question is whether the charities and NGOs Kara talks about that perform and publicize these unrigorous studies are really just sounding alarm bells, or whether they’re trying to push an agenda. There’s a very thick line between raising concerns and denialism, though the latter will always staunchly claim that there isn’t.

 

 

UPDATE: Since a few comments have pointed this out, let me clear up my use of the word “pesticide”. Glyphosate kills plants, and thus, yes, is an herbicide. All herbicides — and insecticides, and fungicides, etc — are classified as pesticides by the EPA, as they are a chemical used to prevent, destroy, repel, or mitigate a “pest” (see, also, the Wikipedia page on pesticides). The choice to use the word pesticide was intentional; I felt jumping back and forth between “herbicide” and “pesticide” would be confusing and, for the sake of the argument I was making, irrelevant.

* I can’t even count how many people have attacked my scientific integrity in response to my opinions, claiming that I am being paid by Monsanto or that I’m clearly in Big Ag’s pocket, even though my scientific research and funding sources are clearly stated. And, of course, I can’t help but laugh at the hypocrisy of such specious arguments. Attacking my opinions by saying they’re driven by money when those of the assailants are entirely based upon the unscientific claims pushed by biased and sometimes even profit-driven interest groups is simply laughable.

Side note: I disagree completely with Kara’s statement that “charities and NGOs often don’t have the resources or expertise to undertake full scientific studies and publish them in journals.” Many of the scientists I personally know are funded by The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, and a suite of other big and small name charities and NGOs with cash to burn on the issues they care about. Which, of course, makes me a little wary when such organizations release and push results that haven’t been peer-reviewed, because I know full well that they *can* afford to follow the proper scientific channels. 

 

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About Christie Wilcox

Dr. Christie Wilcox is a science writer based in the greater Seattle area. Her bylines include National Geographic, Popular Science, and Quanta. Her debut book, Venomous, released August 2016 (Scientific American/FSG Books). To learn more about her life and work, check out her webpage or follow her on Twitter, Google+, or Facebook.

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