Science

On GMOs & Changing Your Mind…

A few months ago I wrote a post titled What Would it Take? In it, I asked both proponents and opponents of GMOs what it would take to change their minds on their current position. Much to my disappointment only the PRO camp responded—which tells you something there.

Granted, I don’t have the biggest audience in the world, but I know I have Julee K, perhaps the only person whose mind I was instrumental in changing on the dicey issue of GMOs in a piece I did titled The Lowdown on GMOs with a Scientistthough, it is probably more fair to say it was Dr. Kevin Foltaand ask her a few questions on how it felt to change her mind on so visceral and emotional an issue, and you can find our back and forth below.


1

Hi Julee, before you changed your mind, I’m sure that you had read other pro-GMO pieces from other scientists, yet it was me, a non-journalist, non-scientist conducting a Q&A with plant geneticist Kevin Folta that actually began the unwinding of your philosophy. What was it about this particular interview that instigated such a deep change in your outlook?

I’m going to have to set up my answer to this question with a little backstory so please bare with me.

I have always thought myself to be a reasonable person, capable of not onlyhearing but understanding both sides of any issue.  What got me to join the anti-GMO ranks initially was an experience in an Iowacorn field that had just been sprayed by a plane and how it affected my breathing and nervous system.  To this day I don’t know what got sprayed that fateful day.  At thetime I thought it was Roundup.  I now know it is unlikely it could have been Roundup (because Roundup is sprayed on young corn and this corn was mature).  I say this because that visceral experience started my investigation into pesticides, corn and similar topics.  This ‘information sojourn’ landed me smack dab in the center of the anti-GMO activist camp—and like an eager puppy, I lapped up the kool-aid while wagging my tail.

At the same time, the Prop 37 labeling campaign was going on in California and I became further entrenched in anti-GMO rhetoric.  I even gave fifty bucks to The Organic Consumer’s Association!  At the same time I started a blog called Sleuth4Health and was determined to use this blog to warn people about the dangers of GMOs.  Surely they were destroying our food supply and I was to be a beacon of light in the darkness.  Americans were being duped and didn’t even know it.

But along the way certain things began to register in the back of my mind.  The propaganda and sensationalism of the literature bothered me—a lot.  Good facts don’t require hype.  I also began to run across the same information over and over.  The same tired rants were just repackaged in new articles and memes ad nauseum.  This puffed up ‘information’ would also circulate through all of the anti-GMO websites and blogs.  All one needed to do was copy and paste and voila, instant post.

The other big red flag was that the scientists that anti-GMO activists hang their hats all came across to me as rogue characters on the fringe—lone wolfs with an ax to grind.  As I said, these things registered with me at a subconscious level, well before I began to change my mind.

I also began discussing the issue of GMOs with my son. I ranted on and on about all the so-called studies, the most well-known at the time was Seralini’s infamous rat study.  Surely these sad little photos of tumorous rats confirmed the horrific dangers of GMOs.  From the mouth of a just-out-of-high-school babe came these words: ‘yeah mom, but what about the controls?‘  Now granted, he had taken some advanced biology and chemistry in school, but still, how could he be so cavalier about this?  He was giving me that ‘mom is off her rocker’ look. He also seemed completely unconcerned about GMOs and that registered deeply with me although at the time, I would not have admitted it.

So the timing was about perfect that fateful day I came across your blog. Though I didn’t yet know my mind was adjusting, I found your article, clicked on it then clicked away a few times, and then eventually made the courageous decision to read it.  The title drew me in:  The Lowdown on GMOs With a Scientist.  I thought, oh good, I can see how this grand debate is handled in the science community.

I think the very first question you asked is what Dr. Folta wanted people to know about GMOs and he answered quite matter-of-factly that there was absolutely no debate in the scientific community that GMOs pose any more safety risk than conventional.  

This statement quite literally felt like a sucker punch to my gut.  It derailed me.  No debate—like at all?  WHAT?  Ridiculous!  I was determined to prove this arrogant scientist wrong, but even as I was thinking this, I knew it was a futile undertaking.  Though I had no scientific background, I was astute enough to know, before I even tried, that he would shred me.

It was then that the doubts began creeping out of my subconscious like little worms crawling above ground into the light of day.

Oh crap, I thought.  Could it be I’ve been wrong all along?

2

If you remember, how long did your transition take? And could you give a brief outline of how you hustled and tussled with your inner-demons?

I read the rest of Folta’s answers and the firestorm of comments that ensued, taking into account your articulate contributions to all of that.  I noticed early on that you had changed your mind about GMOs, that you were smart, very well informed but not a scientist.  It was the first time I had come across a layperson who had clearly given some time to figuring out what the truth was.  That impressed me very much.   You said something like ‘I didn’t know what I was talking about’ regarding your former position on GMOs and I remember thinking you were brave to admit such a thing.

But it was that pesky ‘no debate at all’ answer that dealt the fatal blow.  I could not reason my way out of that fact.  Folta and I went on to email back and forth for about a month.  I was free to ask anything I wanted.  He berated many of my blog posts, which were growing decidedly more militant due mostly to the California GMO labeling campaign that was getting lots of attention in blogs at the time.  Via the web I was getting daily earfuls of outspoken voices like Vandana Shiva and Ronnie Cummins, two notorious GMO haters. But through all of that, Folta and I maintained  a friendly banter.  I was frankly impressed and a little flattered that such a big personality in crop genetics would even give me the time of day.

In the end, I just didn’t have any evidence that could stand up to that which Folta had and before I even tried to fight him in earnest, I knew it was futile.  My beliefs could not stand up to facts, no matter how passionate they were.  That was a big ‘light bulb on’ moment for me.

At the end of that exchange, my conversion was complete.

3

What were some of the things that you used to believe about GMOs that made you anti-GMO that you don’t believe anymore? What of these things was a key belief/fact for you and what do you think about that now?

There were two main types of GMOs that bothered me:  Roundup Ready seeds and engineering the Bt trait, an insecticide, into seeds.

Let’s go back to the just-sprayed corn field in Iowa.  I wrongly assumed it was Roundup coming out of that plane—giant sheets of Monsanto’s Roundup raining down on acres and acres of mature corn.  Of course, I thought this before I realized the expense of such a practice would be cost prohibitive—to coat all of those leaves just before harvesting.  It doesn’t even make sense.  But that was my wrong thinking.

Now granted, whatever that chemical spray was, my sinuses and nervous system did not like it at all.  I may never know what it was, though a few Iowa farmers have since offered their best guesses.  In any case, it was most likely not Roundup.  But of course I thought it was so I began to dig, starting with reading the entire Roundup label and of course, googling it.  When one is clueless and googles “Roundup” one is ushered into a world of tirades about GMOs and Roundup ready crops and corn is front and center because it is used for so many products.  So my first impressions were that we were eating freakish, monster corn that wouldn’t die.  A horror movie played in my head over this.

I later learned exactly what the genetic mechanism is that enables a plant to be Roundup resistant and it isn’t scary at all.  In fact, it’s pretty amazing.  That’s the thing, the known assuages fear of the unknown.  I also learned that no-till farming can be of immense benefit to farmers and their land and doesn’t mean they are lazy.  There is SO much more to it than that.  First of all, Roundup seeds and the Roundup products are very expensive so farmers wouldn’t bother if they didn’t see value in their use.  And guess what?  Farmers are really quite smart!  Anti-GMO types tend to view farmers as poor, unfortunate victims of Monsanto and that is just ridiculous – and a gross insult to them.

Now on to my other main concern at the time—the Bt trait engineered into the corn and cotton, which makes the plant itself resistant to the targeted pests.  First of all, it should be known that organic farmers use Bt too, topically.  But yes, transgenic technology allows for the engineering of the Bt trait into the seed so that the plant is itself resistant to pests.  People who are not scientifically savvy immediately believe that if the plant does damage to insects when they eat it, it will do damage to us as well when we eat it.  I understand that thinking because I thought that too.  But humans are not insects!  It doesn’t work that way.  The fact is, engineering the Bt trait into crops has saved fields, lots and lots of fields, from those nasty crop-dusters.  This is a hard and fast fact that is either ignored or misconstrued by the anti-GMO movement.

4

Did your emotional transition take longer than your intellectual transition?

Yes it certainly did.  After my complete one-eighty, I knew there was absolutely no rationale for fearing GMO crops or foods manufactured from said crops – intellectually.  But the more visceral ick factor had set in and was much more difficult to overcome.  Perhaps it goes back to that Iowa corn field.  I don’t know.

5

How long did it take before you felt comfortable eating GM produce? (Provided, that is, you actually eat it.)

It probably took a year to work through most of my irrational fears at the grocery store.

Today I eat almost everything, GMO or not.  I sometimes buy organic if it makes sense and if I can afford it, but when I don’t I am much more relaxed about it.  I am eternally grateful to know that food really is pretty darn safe and I’m not going to die from eating non-premium, regular store brand canola oil.  It really is a huge relief to be in that place!

OK, to be honest, there is one GMO I still won’t eat, but not because it’s a GMO.  I won’t buy dairy products that come from cows that received rBGH.  My rationale is that because of the opportunity to get the expanded milk production, the cows are milked non-stop and the poor things have sore, infected udders and they are miserable, hence the need for antibiotics.  So it’s more an animal cruelty issue than the fact that a GMO is in the hormone.  And I don’t even know if I have good facts here.  But there you have it.

6

What advice would you give to others firmly entrenched in the anti camp who, like you, have skeptical parts buried under layers of ideology?

I would advise anyone who suspects they might be caught in the middle of a quagmire of misinformation to immediately halt any reading on the subject that is generated by activists.  There is a lengthy list of these activist websites and groups but I’ll just name a few:  Institute of Responsible Technology, Organic Consumers Association, GM Watch, Moms Against Monsanto, Health Ranger, Mercola.

Instead I would research some of the more benevolent uses for transgenic technology – uses that may not be tied to industry and profits at all, such as Golden Rice.  One of the co-founders of Greenpeace, Patrick Moore, now speaks out heavily in favor of Golden Rice and has a website devoted to educating the public about it.  http://www.allowgoldenricenow.org/moral-compass

Furthermore, I would read blogs such as yours or my own that chronicle an actual individual’s change from anti-GMO to pro-science.  My blog serves as an honest real-time narrative of someone who, without any plans to do so initially, switched from Camp A to Camp B because Camp B simply had more reliable information.


Why The Precautionary Principle is Misguided…

It was some two-thousand years ago Gaius Plinius Cecilius Secundus, also known as Pliny the Elder, in book 35 of his 37-volume encyclopedia, Earth, told of an aspiring young goldsmith who presented a shiny new metal to the Roman emperor Tiberius. The metal? Aluminum. The emperor, an extremely wealthy man with vast holdings of precious metals such as gold and silver, inquired if he had shared this discovery with anyone. The Goldsmith’s answer was no. Tiberius had him instantly killed.

The Emperor’s reasoning went something like this: If a rarer—therefore more valuable—metal than gold and silver had been allowed to spread, the Emperor’s holdings would depreciate. (Why he did not just force the potter to work solely for him befuddles me, but emperoral thought is an enigma unto itself—and I may just have made up a word.) The Emperor’s use of the Precautionary Principle (PP) successfully delayed the re-discovery of aluminium by almost 1700 years, where again it became the most valuable metal on Earth. (That is, until 1886 when the method of electrolysis was adapted for aluminium.) Now it is so cheap that we wrap it around our food only to throw it away when we’re done.

This post concerns itself with similar use-cases of the PP in the modern world to nefarious ends. However, before continuing with my extrapolation of the PP in the present day, some definitions are in order. The Precautionary Principle, at least defined by modern standards, was formulated in the early 1990s by the UN as below:

In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.

The above is quite sensible. The Emperor’s actions, however, which are not in accord with the above, would be considered an extreme example of the precautionary principle—hereafter referred to as Extreme Precautionary Principle (XPP), however, it has been referred to as the strong form of the PP, also. What’s troubling is not Tiberius’s actions 2000 years ago (bygones be bygones), but that today many modern greens are advocating similar use-cases for the XPP. Today, greens and those on the left advocate the XPP in regard to biotechnology (albeit only those we eat; those we inject ourselves with, ala insulin, get a free pass). Here is the activist version of the Precautionary Principle, formulated at the Wingspread Conference in 1998:

When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.

 

At face-value, it is almost identical, yet there are critical differences. Compare the following fragment from the UN’s PP: “where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage,” to the Wingspread’s XPP: “raises threats of harm.” The two are quite distinct. The former implies that there ARE threats occurring, or WILL occur as a result of some cause-effect mechanism postulated (it does not have to be fully understood). The latter uses weasel words such as “raises threats” and makes no mention of cost-effectiveness (e.g., the solution needs to have a good chance at being better than the problem, so as not to distract from other solutions that might be better, as is the case with the backlash against Golden Rice today). The result of such ambiguity is that non-existent fears can be—and have been—cooked up. The quintessential modern case is genetically modified (GM) foods. One method by which many oppose GM foods is to harp up that they are not proved safe. Now, anyone who understands an inkling of how the scientific method works find no surprise there. Scientific hypotheses/laws/theories can only ever be proved false, not true. The best we can aspire to is to show that a particular scientific law/theory is applicable within the bounds of so and so empirical boundaries given conditions X, Y, Z.

What’s more troubling than ignorance of the scientific method is that the Wingspread PP allows such rationalizing. It has no cost-effective (cost-benefit) mechanism, and as a reviewer of this article pointed out to me, those raising threats of harm are never accountable for being wrong. Moreover, what does one mean by threat of harm—why not actual harm?—which begs the question: whose definition of threat? The scientist or non-scientist definition? A scientist needs at least a hint of a cause-effect mechanism to propose a hypothesis, set up an experiment, and attempt to disprove the null hypothesis. Activists, however, as evidenced by numerous articles, seem to only require a priori considerations (albeit, sometimes they seem to make stuff up), though usually bringing motivated reasoning to the table.

The XPP, as espoused by many greens in the last few decades, requires of science a standard of evidence that demonstrates absolute safety (which is literally impossible), and when that evidence is not forthcoming, and it can’t be, attempts to steer the discussion towards the curtailment or cessation of that technology. Such reasoning is often found among those reasonable greens who pontificate on the dangers of GMOs decades down the line (because there is no evidence to suggest any danger today). “Sure, GMOs have been shown to be safe today, but what do we know about potential complications twenty years from now?” some may say. However, theoretical concerns twenty years from now are almost irrelevant when the problems that GMOs solve are manifestly real here and now. (I choose the word irrelevant very carefully. That is to say, they do not exist and, furthermore, may never exist.) The risk that complications may arise twenty years from now are outweighed by the rewards they solve today, such as reduced pesticide and water use, reduced soil erosion and carbon emissions. These problems, if allowed to continue as is, would generate very real risks tomorrow, next decade, and twenty years from now if not addressed today. In other words, non-existent unknown fears twenty years from now, which may or may not transpire, are allowed to outweigh problems that we know will most certainly exist in twenty years. Today we find that GMOs increase yield, replace intensive pesticides with milder ones, while their negatives, if any, may transpire (or, perhaps more likely, may not) one, two, or three decades from now. That is a bet any rational person should take every time, regardless of differing risk perception. Many modern greens would not take this bet, which is a sure sign something is awry with modern risk perception.

A tangential situation occurred in recent years when scientists created a potent human-transmissible version of the bird flu (H5N1). Controversy stirred after the news became public. People picked their sides from: ‘This is too dangerous to pursue’ to ‘This is vital research that can help explain how viruses evolve.’ The former group was advocating the XPP; the latter group was operating on the principle that more knowledge is better. Well, the advocates of the XPP were wrong in this situation, and the latter group justified. Why is this? Well, for one, we do not live in the ancient Roman Empire where, if some piece of knowledge were discovered, you could cut off the head of the snake with one fell swoop and be content it had vanished—at least for a time. There were no scientists then, and no mode of instantaneous communication across continents. People were, for the most part, beset with the problem of surviving the day-to-day—little else mattered. None of which is the case today. Today, the world of censorship is all but impossible. (Yes, Big Brother can monitor what you see, do, and filter through some of it post-hoc, but look at the last few times that Western governments and corporations have tried to regulate information pathways on the Internet; they’ve failed.) On the Internet, you can find instructions to make just about anything, from—unfortunately—bombs to—awesomely—3D printers, and everything in-between. In other words, once something is out there, its out there. The idea of a human transmissible bird flu is out there and there is no putting it back in the bottle. Moreover, even if these particular scientists did not publicize their experiment, it would not have been such a leap to put two and two together by both good and bad actors.

Furthermore, the technologies such as Information Technology that underly the Internet and the biotechnology underlying biology sit on exponentially growing trends that every year propels them into more hands at less cost with increased capability. Perhaps, were one committed enough, one could recreate the flu variant the researchers did (or something close enough), with very little help—and if not now, then it is only a matter of time. To show how far along biotechnology has come; recently, in California, a competition was held among students to produce novel organisms. The students succeeded in creating 248 novel bacteria. Students. Kids. New life. Never been seen on the Earth! Eventually, one way or the other, the right chain of thought, experimentation, or discussion will instigate some bio-hacker or terrorist to do it on their own, and if governments squash a website with such information, it will simply pop up somewhere else—as the DHS and CIA have discovered terrorist propaganda does.

However, to come back to the main point: The reason the scientists were, and are still, justified in doing such research was to better understand the mechanisms by which the flu virus evolves, mutates and, given enough research, discover any weaknesses. If the H5N1 were ever to evolve to make the jump to the human population, either on its own (plausible), or by some malicious act (terrifying), such information would put to shame any further usage of the word ‘priceless’ for all time. The globalized world being interconnected and constantly traversed such a virus, were it ever released or evolved, would devastate humanity. It would catch every government and scientific institution by surprise reaching every corner of the world in a matter of weeks, if not days. By the time any research was started; its weaknesses, if any, discovered, and a vaccine developed and deployed, who knows how many people would have died. (The movie Contagion accurately depicts such a global pandemic, and it is very, very scary.)

At the end of the day, human transmissible bird flu is possible. It may evolve naturally or be developed nefariously or weaponized for purposes of terror. Given that potential reality, it behooves us to instigate steps to ensure that if it does happen, the counter-attack is ready and swift. The mortality rate from H5N1 is somewhere in the region of 60%. Even if there is the tiniest chance of it evolving to be human-transmissible—and there is more than a tiny chance, not to mention the many other flu variants—any effort put into preventing such a disaster could reap untold benefits. That is to say; the risk-to-reward ratio is in favour of research, because tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people dying infinitely outweigh a few million dollars in research in a Level IV quarantine lab. Yet, the crux of the XPP would have its constituents stick their heads into the sand and do nothing—in essence, hoping that such a scenario never comes about, instead of doing everything possible to ensure it does not. Part of the problem, I think, is that the XPP gives the illusion of taking action, while in reality, only superficial action, at best, was taken.

Furthermore, it seems that in recent decades society has been cajoled into defaulting to the XPP. Take the following two examples.

DDT

In 1962, Rachel Carson published her book Silent Spring, which stressed the adverse effects DDT was having on bird populations in the United States. The burgeoning environmental movement latched on like a fat kid on cake, and within a short amount of time, the pesticide was banned worldwide. (It was not banned for disease vector control, however, often enough aid money coming from wealthy western countries came with an addendum: DDT not be used—an example of the XPP approach on top of the XPP!) The banning of DDT had many deleterious effects, most notably for poor people in developing countries without recourse to alternate methods of fighting malaria, or, in rare cases, only access to more expensive and less effective methods. Today, up to 3-million people, most of whom are in Africa, die of malaria each year, and DDT was, and still is, the most effective pesticide for fighting malaria-borne mosquitos. Yet, despite never being implicated in a human death, it became almost impossible to source due to its banning for everything else. What were the ramifications of the XPP approach? Robert Gwadz of the National Institutes of Health wrote “the ban on DDT may have killed 20 million children.” Some price to pay for egg-thinning in Bald Eagle and Pelican populations in the US. In the decades since Carson’s book and the banning of DDT, we have learned a lot more about DDT’s effects, and though not everything is known, its effects fall far, far short of the original claims put forth to justify its banning. As Brian Dunning wrote: “There probably is a correlation, but it’s not a strong one; and at best it’s only one of many causes. Whether DDT is used or not would probably not have a large impact on bird populations.” As a result of activism, society and government went way, way too far in its curtailment, and adverse affects (seems wrong calling the deaths of 20-million children an adverse effect, but language fails me) have demonstrably made this world worse off. 

Golden Rice

Golden Rice is another example. It is a genetically-modified rice that produces beta-carotene, which the human body converts into vitamin A. In 2005, it was estimated that 190 million children and 19 million pregnant woman were affected by Vitamin A Deficiency (VAD). Of these two staggeringly large numbers, 1-2 million of them die each year, while causing 500,000 cases of blindness. Golden Rice, despite being effectively ready since 2002, has been blockaded by Green organizations such as GreenPeace and Friends of the Earth delaying its introduction to those it could help the most. Despite the controversy over GMOs (most of which relate to agriculture in general, instead of to GMOs specifically, such as patents, abuse of monopoly, and market share concerns), Golden Rice was intended from the outset to be patent-free, zero-cost, and freely re-plantable to any and all farmers who earn less than $10,000 p/a. Despite these concessions, opposition to Golden Rice remains as adamant as ever, with full support from the badly defined, easily rationalized XPP. As we saw with DDT, there is no cost-benefit analysis; such as, what is the risk of two beta-carotene inducing genes escaping into the wild and what are the implications to the local environment vs. the well-being and suffering of hundreds of million of people. Is that a price we can afford to pay to ensure the health and safety of a significant portion of the region? The answer, clearly, is yes. Despite the lamentations of Greenpeace et al. that vitamin-A pills are a superior solution, which are of a top-down nature, it can never have the reach and cost-effectiveness of a bottoms-up approach. Supplementation programs cost $4,300 for every life saved in India; fortification programs cost $2,700 per live saved, while golden rice is estimated to cost $100 per life saved and is just as effective in imparting the necessary vitamin A. Both cost-effective, with a favourable risk-reward ratio to tackle a moral dilemma. Instead, as a result of fundamentalist use of the XPP, twelve to twenty-four million people have died of preventable-VAD since 2002. (Although it is easy to say X amount of people died, this is not to say that X amount of people would have been saved if GR was legal and distributed in the region. The key measure is that some fraction of X would have been saved—hopefully a high fraction, of course—and a population of people would be on their way to telling their children of the scourges of VAD as their society course-corrected to an optimum use of their resources to become and stay healthy. Instead, what we have now is a stagnating population of people continuing to die without any moral outrage on the part of the public.)

The Precautionary Principle can a valid tool, if used rationally. It can paint a big picture of what could be one way or the other.

What might happen if we do this?

What could occur as a result of that?

But, it is only the first step. Very few, if any, conclusions can be drawn from there. From there, it not only needs a cost-benefit analysis (which the activist PP avoids entirely), but further a risk-reward ratio, plans of action, contingency planning for the ‘what-if’s’ and ‘could’ve been’ scenarios that are brought up, along with a host of other factors. For example, in the 60s, someone could have asked “what will replace DDT in disease-vector control?” Then, as a follow-up: “what do these replacements cost and how does that affect the poorer countries most afflicted by malaria?” (The severity of mosquitos is underestimated by almost everyone, so I think a little context is needed here: malaria today kills 725,000 people a year, which for comparisons sake: humans kill 475,000 other humans per year.) How effective are they compared to DDT? Finally, they could have asked if the cost of banning DDT outweigh the potential risks of doing nothing: continue using DDT? In hindsight, it is easy to say the answers were: nothing, more expensive, less effective, and no. Yet, there was nothing in principle stopping regulators and scientists from being able to find out the answers to such questions then. At the time, it was known that DDT saved millions of lives as the discoverer of DDT was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1948, while the effects of DDT in American populations of Eagles and Pelicans were only hinted at, and when studied in greater care, was shown to not be entirely causal (there were multiple causes, of which DDT was a relatively minor one). The question then becomes (if we could travel back in time, that is): do we risk millions of lives for the reward of potentially helping the environment? Even if one were a misanthrope, the answer is not so clear-cut, as families tend to have more children in areas with higher child-mortality, because they know some will die, therefore, the environmental burden increases one way or the other.

To bring this back around to the bird flu fiasco: What are the risks from H5N1 becoming human transmissible?

Risk, in the case of a virus, depends on several factors:

The R0 (basic reproduction rate) of the virus, N (human population), the contact rate, and a suite of other variables that estimate how fast and how deadly a disease is to a given population. All told, the result would be that millions, perhaps tens of millions, of deaths. As a reference point, in 1918, the Spanish Flu infected a third of the planet (some 1.6 billion) and killed 50-100 million people. If the early 20th century had our population density, comparable numbers would put the death toll between 175-350 million.)

On top of that, as if that wasn’t enough, it is fair to say that economic output would plummet, millions would lose their jobs, with a concomitant drop in quality of life. These would increase the general disease burden, population growth would increase to compensate for the increasing disease burden, and tangential factors like infant mortality, maternal mortality, poverty etc., would likewise rise in lockstep. In short, it could be a planet-wide disaster.

What are the rewards?

Increased health (as has been the upward trend of the last century) and less human suffering. The likelihood of increasing disease burdens (along with infant/maternal mortality) rising are slim to none in a stable, growing world economy. That also goes for the economic rewards from not losing the billions of work-hours from death and illness, and the restriction of travel, plus the economic output that would not have materialized if the pandemic occurred.

Does it make sense, therefore, to attempt to mitigate such a risk for such a reward, even at the cost of a potential outbreak? Yes, it does, by any criteria with the risk so enormously large (the bird flu could evolve on its own, it could be weaponized etc.), and the reward so much larger (that is, the reward includes hundreds of millions not dying if the risk materializes).

But, perhaps, the biggest lesson is this: outlawing research into any particular field only stops law-abiding scientists and citizens, not bio-terrorists or would-be Malthusians. The outcome merely stops honest folk from working to understand it within a regulatory framework that the public and government allow with oversight. Adopting, in this case, the XPP does not get you a better risk-reward ratio; it simply deepens the risk and superficializes the reward. It may as well be called placebo logic. (If the expected risk never comes along, it is pure luck that saved society, and not rational forethought, hence its superficiality.)

Contrarily, if we allow scientists to research it under strict quarantine, we will in time learn to develop a cure. Perhaps be able to synthesize one in very short order, or know where to look should the unthinkable happen. One thing is for sure: whether we outlaw it or not the universe will not respect our wishes. Nature won’t decide to give up on virus strains evolving, adapting, and mutating to better allow for their fitness just because we’ve collectively decided that we don’t like catching the flu. Nature has no laws; it just is, and it just does, and it is humanity that must adapt to it instead of the other way around. By allowing research to continue, we are accepting that responsibility.

This situation is going to come up again and again as we move into the technologically accelerating future. Very soon we’ll have nanotechnology coursing through our veins, more lines of genetically modified crops will be needed to combat climate change and pest resistance, and nutritional deficiencies in crops as a result of higher CO2 atmospheric conditions. We’ll even genetically modify humans (in fact, the first have already been born—and yet, we can barely get to grips with GM corn, and by we, I mean only affluent foodies in the West). No matter the answer or ethical outlook one has for banning such technologies, only one thing will occur if they’re banned outright: They will move underground. Bans rarely ever, under any circumstances, eradicate a problem. Outlawing drugs has not decreased drug use; outlawing abortions has not stopped abortion; and placing speed limits hasn’t stopped speeding. Trying to do so are examples of placebo logic, and humans are as bound to placebo logic as human physiology is bound to placebo medicine. Sometimes it works purely by chance; however, more often than not, it doesn’t.

Ramez Naam’s brilliant book, Nexus, accurately depicts a future where genetic enhancements (such as enhanced intelligence, increased muscular strength, carbon-fiber enhanced skeletal structures, etc.) are banned in the West, yet are available in locations such as Thailand where it is not legal, but it is tolerated. (For the record, these are all potentially real enhancements that may come in the following decades.) Their illegality has the adverse effect of creating a global tourist trade of folks making their way to where it is legal, or illegal and tolerated, to receive the enhancements—of course, minus the safety net and regulatory structure that a government provides. Because, as we all know, when humans really want something, it is practically impossible to stop some fraction of them from getting it. As is often the case in reality, in his fictional universe the crime syndicates are the primary beneficiaries. Much like today it is the cartels who benefit most from the illegality of various drugs to the tune of $26-29 billion, at the expense of human well-being.

Over 60,000 people have been killed in the pursuit of profits from illegal drugs in Mexico alone, and millions have been thrown in jail and had their futures destroyed for taking a decision that would, were those drugs legal, affect only their own body—except in the most extreme circumstances. This situation is not only pathetic, it is backward, counterproductive, a waste of resources, and most importantly, human life. Yet, it is an example of the XPP: Let’s not deal with the issue of drugs and why folks want them; let’s just ban them and pretend the problem is solved. Society tried to outright ban drugs, i.e., to work against human nature, which wants what it wants, instead of working with human nature and researching ways to allow human social life and drug use to co-exist. It is evident that one cannot exist without the other. Were we to do similar with studying the bird flu, we’d be embracing a similar scenario: we’d lose the benefits of the research, while still exposing ourselves to the risks, which have not been mitigated by the political solution of banning, as has been the case with drugs.

The future is coming, and it is coming fast. In order to create the best possible world, we need to identify the shortcomings of human risk perception, see the Extreme Precautionary Principle for what it is: placebo logic resulting in the propagation of the status quo (which in real and relative terms is a regression), and above all, foster public understanding that doing nothing is itself doing something (i.e., it is a risk, and sometimes a big one!). And, lastly, just making something illegal (the opposite extreme of doing nothing) does not solve the issue of the problem’s existence; it just pushes it underground where there are no ethics committees, oversight boards, safety regulations, or public oversight and accountability. In other words, outlawing or banning ensures that society receives the bad parts, and none of the good.

In place of informed, real-world choices that include the potential implications of both doing something and not doing it, we have simplistic bans, precaution’s monotonous answer to every challenge. ~ Tracy Brown, managing director of Sense about Science.

The Extreme Precautionary Principle is no longer a practical mode of thought in the fast-moving world we find ourselves. This is not to say “away with the Precautionary Principle. I happen to agree with Andy Stirling that “Precaution does not necessarily mean a ban. It simply urges that time and space be found to get things right.” In light of that, imagine if the time and space was given to the study of the use of DDT. Imagine if greens took the time and space to actually understand GMOs and Golden Rice without ideological baggage. However, that is not what we get, what we get instead is the overuse of a XPP which leads to bans of benign substances like DDTs, opposition to required medical interventions such as Golden Rice under the facade of doing the right thing, and, when things go wrong, are not even held accountable for their actions! We need better, much better. Public buy-in and commitment would be nice, but we can very easily do cost-benefit analyses, calculate risk-reward ratios, prepare contingency plans in case plans go awry, and demand scientifically literate politicians so that correct policy can be crafted to watch industries, with experts to anticipate and ameliorate potential problems. At the end of the day, more knowledge is almost always a good thing, and less knowledge a bad thing. Yes, there are risks with everything we do; however, doing nothing is often just as big a risk, if not bigger. And banning anything is akin to sticking one’s head in the sand. The original PP allows for risk, because it is implicit that doing nothing is risky, the XPP does not.

The example is easily followed when presented in a single person whom we’ll call Bob. Our friend Bob has just been diagnosed with cancer and is given three options:

(1) Receive chemotherapy

(2) Take alternative medicine

(3) Do nothing

Chemotherapy (or evidence-based medicine, to be more precise, as better therapies will come) gives him the best chance of survival (albeit, not 100%). Alternative medicine, while giving the illusion of action, keeps him on his path towards inevitable death (unless, by some luck, his cancer goes into remission or disappears). However, Bob doesn’t like either option: he has read too much Natural News and, as a result, thinks chemotherapy is a fraud, yet, he is not quite comfortable taking alternative medicine as it often includes ingredients not indicated on the label, and even though such active ingredients might be very small, because he is a homeopath (the smaller the dose, the more potent the effect), he foregoes even this option. So poor ol’ Bob opts neither for the red pill (chemo), the blue pill (alt.med), but opts instead to do nothing. Six months later, Bob is dead.

Now, you say: “thank you Captain Obvious for pointing out the obvious! Obviously, doing nothing is a risk in this situation!” And yet, though some will disagree, if Bobby boy chooses the blue pill (alt.med), his likelihood of death is quite likely to be just about the same as doing nothing. The obvious choice (the chemo) does not have a 100% success rate, yet it sure beats the others, but wasn’t chosen. Now, replace Bob with Society.

Routinely, society has the same three choices to pick from: take the red pill (evidence, logic, and course-correct as required in full view of the public) making hard choices on the way that will occasionally backfire; take the blue pill (i.e., political solutions and placebo logic to technological problems, human nature, or both, i.e., drugs, free trade, globalization), or freeze/ban/ignore innovation (DDT, stem cell research, and who knows, perhaps very soon, self-driving cars, wearable computers, and nanotechnology). Society and Bob are not so different from eachother. (While ban/freeze and ignore are two different options, I have simplified them into one for convenience’ sake. For example. imagine if the US government ignored the Soviet push into space; that is, did nothing. No NASA agency, therefore, no Mercury, Gemini, or Apollo programs. We wouldn’t have explored the hundreds of worlds in our solar system, made it to the Moon, or launched satellites, or learned about climate change from Venus. As a result of such a program, microprocessors would not have been invented, nor single-crystal silicon solar cells, memory foam, safer helmets, emulsified zero valent ironadjustable smoke detectorsimproved breast-cancer detection analysiswater filtersstanding wave reflectorscochlear implants, and thousands of other inventions that have returned to Earth to benefit humanity. Imagine, without the Cold War, the Internet, originally called the ARPAnet, might not have been invented, which was spawned by the US government to ensure that geographically disparate scientists and government leaders could communicate with each other in the event of a nuclear world war. The adverse cost of doing nothing can be large.)

In the near future, we may find ourselves ill-equipped to deal with the dangers of antibiotic resistance, stagnating worldwide food yields that need to be 70% higher than today by 2050, population growth (which will increase if the standard of living drops), resurgent and new diseases, pollution, declining water-tables, and the problem of climate change because politicians are all too eager to pander to the crowd, and the crowd never bother to learn about the important issues of the day—if they are able to do so, at any rate. So far, societies have tended to oscillate between doing nothing/banning and the blue pill, and we’ve muddled through—so far. However, we may soon need the red pill. Given our history and propensity for easy answers, how likely are we to take it in an age where everybody thinks he or she is an expert or, even worse, think themselves smarter than the experts? A Bayesian argument here spells trouble.

The coming decades will present bigger issues than we have ever encountered before, and if the public still allows itself to be cajoled, either by activists, industry, or government, to the Extreme Precautionary Principle, we will be the worse for it.

Yes, there can be misuse and abuse. Yes, we will make mistakes. But perhaps the worst abuses are committed by those espousing the precautionary principle: “Prove this will never harm anyone, and I’ll give you permission.” Had such folks been in charge a few decades ago, we would never have had cars, stairs, electricity, or hammers. ~ Juan Enriquez

[UPDATED: 17th May for grammatical, spelling, and flow errors. ~ Fourat J]

Whaddya Know, GMKnow Responds

It happened. It actually happened. The proudly anti-GMO group, GMKnow, responded to the question I posed to them two days ago. If you’ve read my last post, then you’ll know the story so far. If not, read it here (and the twitter conversation here). The summary, if you don’t care to, is this: I asked them why mutagenetic radiation breeding, which blasts seeds coated in Ethyl methanesulfonate (EMS), sodium azide (SA), N-nitroso-N-methylurea (NMU) with X-RAYS, Gamma Rays, and fast neutrons inducing thousands of random double-strand chromosomal breaks, safer than GM seeds. The reason I asked is because a multitude of mutagenic seeds today are sold as organic food. Yet, the fierce furore over GMOs is inversely correlated to the silence over the radiation breeding of crops. GM crops tend to have 1-4 added genes, while organic mutagenic-created crops have had their genomes essentially scrambled resulting in changes to hundreds, if not thousands, of genes. It’s truly bizarre. I asked GMKnow three separate times for an answer over Twitter, which they deflected each time, instead, bringing up childish, illogical tropes about “GMO-biotech Ag science” and ad hominens such as “Sir Pesticide.” 

After my post was shared across Facebook and Twitter (I am assuming it found its way over to them), they finally decided to respond. If you tuned into Part one of this charade, I would hope you have not been holding your breath for a logical answer, because one I did not get. Let’s go through them and distill the stupid.

How much nonsense can you fit in 140 characters? Apparently, a lot. Let’s start with the claim that food with 1000s of natural changes is natural. Aside from the tautologous nature of the claim (natural changes are natural), which is not at all what mutagenesis is. They cannot even get this right, and people believe their truth-claims on GMOs? Where in nature, I wonder, would one find a seed coated in EMS, SA, or NMU, and then have it blasted with sufficient, and sustained quantities of gamma ray and X-ray radiation? There is nothing natural about the process. Then, they go off on a tangent on commercial profits, annuity licensing and, the horror, selling chemicals. I think I’ll go on a tangent too.

Here is their Twitter byline: Fostering awareness via industry commentary, spiced with a healthy organic & 100% rotationally grazed ethos. I wonder, then, why don’t they have a problem with organic farmers selling their wares? Organic food is, on average, twice as expensive as conventional. Could this not be made into a talking point? Of course, it can be, but they are ideologically aligned with the organic philosophy against GMOs, so such inconvenient facts are dismissed with, or never considered. “Okay,” you say, “on a per-capita basis, organic food costs more due to economies of scale, but conventional produce, on the whole, generates more money.” Wrong! Globally, organic sales totaled $63 billion in 2012 ($31.5 billion in the US alone). And what was the global market value of biotech crops in 2012? $14.84 billion; less than a quarter the value of organic crops. There goes the profit claim! How’s this for a compromise: when organic farmers start giving away their hard-earned produce free, then you can start complaining about corporations selling their property. Deal? Anyway, I’m going overboard, so back to my reply to this unexpectedly stupid answer:

Pretty self-explanatory. The natural claim is fallacious, otherwise known as the Appeal to Nature fallacy. Their response was predictably hilarious. It truly is, as Bullet-Tooth Tony said in the movie Snatch, that you should “never underestimate the predictability of stupidity.

Yes, because going from “natural changes are natural” (remember: they are defending mutagenic organic crops are safer than GM crops, and why  those GM crops with 1-4 added genes do need to be labeled/baned) to “natural bad things need are labelled,” which is not a contradiction at all! In other words: unnatural GMOs need labels; natural chemicals need labels; unnatural mutagenic organic crops are natural and safe!

The flow starts to become a bit confusing, because at certain points, I answer a tweet with multiple tweets, and they do too. Here is one of those tweets to which he/she answered with a second tweet:

I love it when anti’s move into species territory, because it shows a lack understanding of biology. Species is a man-made distinction that we use for convenience. They (species) diverge as a result of population radiations and no longer sexually co-mingle, thereafter evolving separately. Eventually, due to diverging recombination hotspots, among a host of other factors, they can no longer inter-breed. However, there is no specific boundary to which you can point to and say: that former-ape is now a human, because no offspring ever born was a different species than its parents. This is significant because while humans can no longer produce offspring with chimps, much of our biology is similar, which makes xenotransplantation possible. This is also true with other animal species, and is why diabetics, before e.coli bacteria was genetically engineered to excrete human insulin, used insulin harvested from pigs. In other words, there is a commonality between many species, and, in many cases, we carry identical genes from long-lost ancestors. Nature re-uses the same genes over and over again. After all, every living thing on this planet is made from the same four base chemicals: Adenine, Thymine, Cytosine, and Guamine. If, instead, GMKnow were protesting the insertion of the genetic code of aliens, I might agree with them, however, here on Earth, we’re all one big, happy family:

Their response to my above tweet was the coup d’etat of stupidity. I’ll let you read it yourself first:

Umm…ok. Wow, I guess…

No response to that one, unfortunately. I am sure it would’ve been good. But they did come up with another doozy:

As is clear, when they come up against a brick-wall, instead of admitting they don’t have an answer or are wrong, they simply deflect. Either they call being pro-GMO a religion, refer to the evidence-based as manipulated by “GMO-biotech Ag science“, and whitewash an entire industry as “snivelling biotech consumer subterfuge.” I countered by asking for evidence, any evidence, aside from “ad hominins, fallacies and deflections.” Their response, hilariously, was the non-labelling of GM food. Seriously!

They even used a hashtag! After calling them out on the fact that is not an empirical reason, I asked them for any kind of “cause-effect mechanism, new allergen discovered, something, anything at all.” Of course, they didn’t (because they can’t), though I have to give them credit for not linking to Seralini’s rat-cancer story or Carman’s pig-inflammation story. What they did instead was to deflect (shock and awe!) and ask for one example of an ethically irresponsible human peer-reviewed study. The ethics of human trials go something like this: it needs to have a potential benefit (which normal GMOs don’t have since they are functionally equivalent), and the difficulty of identifying cause-and-effect in such a study would be impossible, anyway, so why bother. So, there’s that. Then, for some reason, they answered again with the following doozy: “doesn’t exist. Enjoy your GMO vegan bacon.” Are they saying that no other evidence exists? Sure seems like it, then, for whatever reason, they bring up GMO vegan bacon. Umm, what?

From there, the conversation pretty much ended. I called them out on their contradiction and received a predictable response signalling again, the end of their argumentative arsenal: “Blow, blow, blow your writer GMO science horn.” How hard can it be to get coherent answers based in evidence or some kind of logical system? I responded that “at least I’m coherent. One tweet, natural = good. I mention mercury, u say its labelled for a reason, showing natural can be bad.” To which they responded: “Coherent advocating GMO orthodoxy? How nice for you.” Unfortunately, they did not get the irony inherent in that response: The currently approved GM crops on the market are safe, and the evidence for that position numbers almost 2,000 studies, while the evidence for the inverse position is two horrible studies, one of which was retracted, which leaves just one. Beyond that, however, they have no shortage of logical fallacies, non-sequiturs, and made-up nonsense. If there is an orthodoxy here, it is smack-dab in the middle of the anti-GMO position.

I can’t help but feel that the anti-GMO movement is the last gasp of the postmodernist movement. I wonder what the GMO landscape will look like in ten-years, and, if society accepts them, what will today’s anti-brigade do? Will they try to blend in, or wear their ignorance proudly as a postmodernist would do? Thoughts?

[UPDATED: 30th April to reflect additional tweets and edited for errors.]

 

What the Anti-GMO Brigade Wont Admit…

Last night, I got into a back-and-forth with GMKnow over on Twitter (you can read the exchange here). As is obvious from one look at their website, they’re vehemently opposed to GMOs. However, the point of this post was because the exchange was funny for one particular reason, at least to me. Namely, that the one point I wanted them to at least address, they wouldn’t. So, they’re anti-GMO, and, therefore, have a problem with inserting genes into a crop for our consumption. Yet, strangely, won’t even address mutagenesis organic crops that have thousands of induced mutations as you can see from my first tweet:

Her/his/their response was to deflect on how the GMO-biotech ag science (oddly reminiscent of pre-WW2 language: “German science!” “British science!” as if the two were mutually exclusive) claims of GMO DNA being the same as that of normal food:

What they meant to disparage was the claim of functional equivalence, which doesn’t at all imply sameness of product, but sameness of result. Yet, they wouldn’t touch the mutagenesis claim. So I asked again:

Still, no reply. Instead, they accuse me of deflecting and again harp on about sameness (functional equivalence) of food:

So, I answer their question by saying that “it would only be subterfuge if they lied. The only ppl who think so are scientifically illiterate like u and other phony orgs.” So I proceeded to re-ask, for the third time, the same question:

Can you believe that they still didn’t answer? Actually, I do. Because to answer truthfully would undercut their claim that GMOs are dangerous on account of 1-3 additional genes. Their reply to this last tweet was to call me “Sir Pesticide”, accuse me of using science to impress my GMO peers, and finally closed with: “Be gone with you!” How mature. Frankly, I don’t expect them to ever see how ride the anti-GMO position is with contradiction, false knowledge, and uses ideology to counter evidence.

Anyone familiar with agriculture in the 20th century will know the role that mutagenesis played in both organic and conventional agriculture. The process involved blasting seeds soaked in toxic chemicals with gamma rays to induce double-chromosomal strand breaks randomly (this deletes or rearranges genetic sections), then planting the seeds to see which, if any, exhibit beneficial traits. Then, breeding that tiny, tiny percentage that showed beneficial traits, and, hoping against hope, that genetic drag didn’t bring in undesirable traits along with the singular beneficial trait. Then, spending year after year planting generation after generation, of those seeds to weed out the undesirable traits with no guarantee of success! And, to top of our irony cake with a retarded cherry on top, no long-term safety studies need to be performed on such a crop. A significant portion of the seeds that were painstakingly developed from this process are now grown as organic crops. As plant scientist Kevin Folta wrote: “it has been done for decades. No opposition, no labels wanted, no protesters, no fear.” 

I’m sure by now you’ve noticed why GMKnow couldn’t afford to even try to answer such a question: there is simply no way to answer without making GMOs look super-safe in comparison, and if there’s one thing they can’t do, it’s admit they are wrong. Tow the party line at all costs is the de facto tagline of the extreme left. This is despite the fact the majority of organic crops today exist by such a process, and these crops contain thousands of rearranged genes and mutated genes potentially eliciting new proteins, allergens, etc. (no safety studies are performed to find out). Yet, despite this, they still manage to vehemently oppose the insertion of 1 to 3 understood genes in a precise fashion. And, in case some may underestimate just how pervasive this method of creating new cultivars, over 3000 have been created using this method. See the below table sourced from Folta’s article titled Atomic Gardening – The Ultimate Frankenfood. (My edits in red.)

mutation_vs_gm

How is that for intellectual consistency? Rather, blatant hypocrisy, with a side-serving of cognitive dissonance.

The science of transgenics is a convenient place to cultivate misunderstanding and fear. But somehow the same fear mongers miss mutation breeding. ~ Kevin Folta [Emphasis mine.]

Somehow, indeed. It’s too bad that organizations like GMKnow is so far down the rabbit of baloney, they couldn’t turn around to save their lives. If they could, they might actually make the world a better place. Instead, they’re making it worse.

To close, here’s an infographic by Genetic Literacy Project that builds on Folta’s above:

GLP-Infographic

 

David Deutsch and Jason Silva

The Beginning of Infinity: Untestable Theories & the Power of Explanation

In reading David Deutsch’s brilliant book, The Beginning of Infinity, I finally came across a couple of simple reasons why untestable theories in science are a dead-end and why the explanatory content of a theory matters. It’s very common for me to harp on about empiricism and evidence to friends and folk I debate on subjects like God, heaven, homeopathy, alternative medicine and other realms where science cannot speculate or has to no avail. I’ve never, however, managed to condense such lectures into conversational fragments that didn’t make them hate me by the time I finished. For that reason alone, I’m glad I came across Deutsch’s book; for my argumentative arsenal has increased.

Let me start by asking a few questions:

Q1 – What is the single factor that science, pseudoscience, and non-science have in common? (This is not a trick question).

A1 – The answer is that they started thousands of years ago, with the same base of information, which is relevant to the conclusion at the end of this post.

Q2 – Now, what differentiates science/pseudoscience, and non-science?

A2 – Testability*

Put it that way, A2 is obvious. As Karl Popper wrote: empiricism is the demarcation point between science and non-science (the criterion of demarcation). In other words, the testability of a hypothesis will tell you if it can be improved by experience. And, if it can’t, there is nothing to rely upon except authority, yet the rejection of authority is what allowed the scientific method to come into being, and thereafter flourish!

Deutsch’s 1st Science Nugget: an untestable theory cannot be improved upon by experience

There was nothing new in Deutsch’s nugget of wisdom that I didn’t know before, but its succinctness and comprehensibility are what struck me. No longer will I need to leap off onto fifteen minute tangents on why someone’s pet theory is wrong. It is as simple as this: if it can’t be tested, it can’t be improved by experience, therefore, it is far more likely to be wrong (which, in a Bayesian sense, may as well mean that it’s always wrong—in the sense that a rational person wouldn’t believe something a priori).

Another way to put it is this: when an untestable theory is set forth as an argument one has no good reason to believe it, as there are any number of equally untestable theories one could believe in. In such cases, there is nothing to resort to except authorities (which is to say ‘you’ll only have reason to believe this because he/she/I said so’—i.e., the way Natural News works!). Without testability, there are only arbitrary reasons for choosing between competing theories. Religion is the quintessential example of this phenomenon. How many religions are there? Hundreds. Christianity alone has something like 2,000 different sects. Furthermore, in Mankind’s short history, there have existed some 10,000 gods. According to Deutsch, the reason why is because the hypothesis that there exists a God or Gods is inherently untestable, and I can find nothing wrong in such logic. And, in the absence of rigorous empirical results, anybody’s pet reason for why this religion/sect/god is better than that religion/sect/god is as good as any other. (Actually, it is testable as Deutsch eventually avails, but only when the explanatory theory of the theory is bad, which I’ll get to soon).

An untestable theory (that is to say, a theory not able to be falsified) cannot be improved upon by experience, only by authority, which confers no explanatory power other than because I said so, therefore, it offers no real-life implications (other than those implications that it confers as a result of pretending it has real-life implications).

In Q2, I put pseudoscience on the same side as science when differentiating the demarcating factor between science and non-science. The difference between science/pseudoscience and non-science, as I wrote above, is testability. You can test science and find out one way or the other it’s validity, and you cannot do this in non-science. The reason that science and pseudoscience line up together is because you can test the pseudoscience. However, it’s staying power in the realm of its empirical demise is the difference between science and pseudoscience. That difference being their theories respective explanation. That is, whether a theory is a good explanation or bad is what further demarcates science and pseudoscience.

Duetsch defines a bad explanation as a theory that is easily variable while still explaining the same thing. For example, Deutsch uses the Greek myth explaining winter: Persephone was forced into marriage with Hades and had to visit the Underworld to perform her womanly duty for 6 months of every year. Persephone’s mother Demeter would become so sad upon her annual leave to the Underworld that she would blanket the known world in snow. That was the ancient Greek explanation for the winter. However, it is a bad explanation because it did not account for the seasons of the Southern Hemisphere, where it was summer alongside the Greek’s winter. Now, if replication was the sole factor in transforming a hypothesis into a scientific theory, an ancient Greek would need wait only year and after and upon winter’s recurring return, would have proved Demeter’s sadness to be the cause of winter.

Imagine then, after our Greek scientist successfully proved his theory that knowledge of the Earth’s sphericity was discovered, and in the northern hemisphere’s winter the southern hemisphere experienced summer. Would they then abandon the theory of Demeter’s winter? No, as Deutsch argues: our Greek scientist would’ve modified his theory to state that in Persephone’s annual absence, Demeter banishes the heat from her vicinity only, thereby explaining the South’s summer. Theory saved and Greek life marches on. Yet, what has changed in the explanatory content of the theory? Nothing! It essentially boils down to the same argument: the gods did it. By Deutsch’s definition, the theory is easily variable (a bad explanation). A good explanation for the winter, on the other hand, looks something like this: the combination of the Earth’s 23.5 degree axial tilt, albedo, atmospheric components, distance from the Sun, along with the Sun’s thermonuclear transmutation of hydrogen into helium which releases photons that, as a result of stellar convection, forces the photons on a 10-million year journey to the Sun’s surface, upon which they break free of the sun’s gravity and dash out on an 8-minute sprint to the Earth all interact in such a way to produce regular annual variations in the average temperature on the surface of the Earth that humans call spring, autumn, winter, and summer. How easy is that theory to vary while still explaining winter? Nigh impossible. Remove the axial tilt component of the Earth, and our weather would be relatively unchanged year round (no explanation). If the strong nuclear force—a key process of stellar transmutation—were 2% stronger, helium would not be produced in the sun’s core; in fact, no stars would exist at all because all the hydrogen in the universe would have transformed into bi-protons within minutes of the big bang resulting in a boring universe devoid of form (no explanation). If any one of a million variables is changed, the end-result is entirely different. That is a good explanation.
There we have the demarcation point between science and pseudoscience. The variability of the theory’s constituents should modify the theory’s explanatory power significantly. If it does not, be wary.

Deutsch’s 2nd Science Nugget: A hard to vary theory is more likely to be a good explanation than an easily-variable theory

Take the real-world example of homeopathy vs. medicine. They both started at ludicrously wrong theories of the human body. The conventional medicine of the time believed the body to consist of four humors: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm; while homeopathy believed that diseases can be cured by a ‘like cures like’ remedy that increases in a potentiality inversely correlated to the amount of remedy present. Despite medicine believing an equally silly thing (though at least they could see those 4 things in the body), it has today come to the point of organ transplants, chemotherapy, antibiotics, vaccines and a host of other lifesaving devices because it used the criterion of demarcation (testability) to remove the non-science components of then-medicine, and further, regularly tested new explanations for why certain things worked or did not work, and updated the relevant theories with those that had better explanatory content. (I make it sound simple here, but in reality, it happened millions of times, across millions of people, and millions of times with information being lost/rediscovered all the time, and to top it all off, thousands of dead ends, duplicative works, hoaxes and the like. It was, by no means, an easy process, and it will continue for centuries more, so long as the core of science remains intact.)

To demonstrate the issue at hand. Consider when homeopathic practitioners learned of the existence of atoms, their finitude, and pesky facts like Avogadro’s constant. They didn’t stop believing in the explanatory content of homeopathy (that substances which cause similar symptoms in large quantities in healthy people cure that same symptom in dilute quantities in sick people), they instead opted to invent a water memory that cannot be directly tested (just like our ancient Greek would’ve amended his theory of Demeter’s winter). Compare that to the discovery of thalidomide’s effect on pregnant women. It was banned, with no excuses or fake hypothesises present.

In the end, the key difference between the competing theories is that even though they both started at horrible explanations (as Q1 above), one strived not only for testability, but for good explanatory prowess, while the other did not. (Homeopathy has regressed into non-science because it embraced testability until it didn’t work, and can no longer be considered a pseudoscience by Deutsch’s definition.)

To summarize: real science revises its theories in light of new observations to arrive at better explanations, while pseudoscience does not. These are further differentiated from non-science by being testable, which separates theories that can be improved upon by experience from those that cannot.

The Beginning of Infinity is a fascinating escapade into science, philosophy, and epistemology and I heartily recommend to anyone so interested. He rails against scientists for not taking their theories seriously, and ravages pseudoscientists to shortsighted to see past their own bad explanations alike. And this post, by the way, is only material from the first chapter. I look forward to reading the rest of this book, interlocuting my own thoughts on his chapters in written posts like this.

Afterword: I am well-aware that I’ve defeated the purpose of why I like those two tiny tidbits of information by extrapolating them into a 1,800 word post! Some things never change. I’m okay with this.

This Post & Others Like it Should Not Exist

The controversy over vaccines has been popping its head up a little more than usualat least, so it seems from my vantage point. There is the Chili’s controversy; Mike Adam’s lunatic appeal to Neil deGrasse Tyson to denounce the use of mercury (he meant thimerosal) in the flu shot, and the usual spiel of links and articles that keep showing up in my Facebook news feed. That being said, I follow a hilarious page on Facebook: Refutations to Anti-Vaccine Memes. And, perhaps because I’ve recently become a father, I’ve taken a liking to their counterpoints to the horrendous talking points that the anti-vax groups bellow out in every direction to any who dares forfeit their prefrontal cortex. Below, I’ve catalogued my favourite memes that I’ve come across from their Page. Check’em out and go follow the page if so inclined:


anti-vaxxer copy

You’d think the above was obvious…yet, people still think vaccines are about making money…

ethyl vs methyl

Methyl-Mercury is 100% natural…Yet its bad for you; so, why is natural immunity any good?

anti-vax pro-drunk

Statistics 101…

formaldehyde - vaccines

Appealing to Nature helps you none…

mercury hydrogen bomb

Logicz…
vaccine conspiracy theories

More logicz…

maths, vaccines, and profit

2+2 = 4.

vaccine research

If you can’t answer every single question, you’ve no business telling other folks to not vaccinate…

my unvaccinated kid vs yours

Which is very similar to the below meme

sober driving

Mirror-image velociraptor for the win!

10247313_679526865450659_8918230243104864063_n

Why, yes it would…

vaccine-seatbelt comparison

Funny how replacing the word ‘vaccine’ makes it sound just as stupid.


So…

vaccine

Considering the centuries of data and evidence we possess, if you are anti-vax…

Science Proves you Wrong

And regarding your opinion’s empowerment in this Age of Misinformation…

MLK Quote There were so many more that I wanted to post, so be sure to check’em out for a good-hearted laugh. Live long and vaccinate…

Guest Post: The Union of Concerned Trolls

On March 27th, the MIT Technology Review—an otherwise great resource on science and technology—published a bizarre diatribe on GMOs: Are GMOs Worth the Trouble by Doug Gurian-Sherman. I encourage you to read it before coming to the meat of this post. I call it bizarre for the many non-sequiturs, misrepresentations, and statements so easily falsifiable that one wonders how it got past the editors; yet it did. As I was considering writing a response to it, Mary Mangan and I exchanged a few puzzled tweets, and I decided the response would be far better received from an actual scientist such as she is, instead of from a two-bit nitwit like myself.

She graciously agreed to my proposal for a reply to the article to be posted here. You’ll find her insightful rebuttal below.


The Union of Concerned Trolls

If you have spent any time around the series of tubes in the last decade, you will have come across many personality types. One of these is the “concern troll.” A definition of this term from Wikitionary offers a glimpse at the behavior of this type of individual:

Someone who posts to an internet forum or newsgroup, claiming to share its goals while deliberately working against those goals, typically, by claiming “concern” about group plans to engage in productive activity, urging members instead to attempt some activity that would damage the group’s credibility, or alternatively to give up on group projects entirely.

In comment threads around the internet, there’s probably not much harm to come from random concern trolls. Unfortunately, though, there is a more insidious variety of concern troll that has wider influence, or a larger megaphone, and these behaviors can then really become barriers to progress. In science and science policy, this can mean undermining support and funding, and for some research areas: losing time on breakthroughs that could provide benefits in many arenas of health and environmental sustainability.

Science and science policy concern trolls in the wild

There have been many examples in recent years of concern trolling that have attempted to re-direct science efforts and funding, and to dismiss the importance of certain lines of research work. Senator Tom Coburn famously mocked the research conducted on shrimp on treadmills. The fact that this research was actually about an important food species and the effect of water quality on the shrimp didn’t seem to be important to the Senator. Sarah Palin took issue with funding for fruit fly research, you may recall. This research was actually aimed at understanding the olive fruit fly—a serious threat to olive farmers. You like olive oil? Would you like farmers to research the best tools to combat this pest and reduce losses? And who can forget Bobby Jindal’s concerns about volcano monitoring as a waste of resources.

I was reminded of all these efforts to diminish the value of the research, and redirect the resources of scientists, by a post at the MIT Technology Review. Not long ago a scientifically sound and excellent piece on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) was published there: Why We Will Need Genetically Modified Foods, by David Rotman. In response, the Union of Concerned Trolls Scientists was recently given the megaphone to provide their thoughts on this topic. Doug Gurian-Sherman asks, “Are GMOs Worth the Trouble?” Using deliberate misrepresentations of the science and the field of work, Gurian-Sherman joins Coburn, Palin, and Jindal in aiming to redirect research priorities to align with ideological preferences rather than the real needs of the field.

Is Doug Gurian-Sherman a concern troll?

Now, I’m not saying he is. I’m just asking the question. You know, like Fox News does:

…Cavuto’s not saying these things. He’s just asking, like, ‘Is your mother a whore?’ What? I’m not saying she’s a whore. I’m just wondering out loud if she is a whore. All I’m saying is that reasonable people who have banged your mother for money can disagree.  ~ Jon Stewart

Let’s explore Doug’s piece and see if it fits the definition. Does he claim to share goals, while raising “concerns”, and attempt to encourage giving up on certain directions? It does appear so.

From reading his piece we see immediately that Doug thinks GMOs are “trouble”. How does he support this case? He begins by citing a paper about plant genetic repositories and resources by Susan McCouch and other attendees of a meeting on crop wild relatives. This work has absolutely nothing to say about disagreeing on technology, or any “trouble” of GMOs. In fact, it heavily supports investments in genomics and other allied technologies to unlock the potential of the wide variety of plants that are available to us. And then do what with them? Among the directions celebrated in this piece:

Thus, useful genetic traits are moved across the breeding barrier, expanding the genetic diversity of domesticated plants and opening up new opportunities for environmental resilience and future gains in quality and yield.

“Moved across the breeding barrier.” I wonder how that might be done…. Well, anyway. Let’s continue to examine Doug’s concerns.

Next he goes on to celebrate a rice variety that was developed for flood tolerance. Using the techniques of biotechnology, he notes this was developed “in about 5 years, rather than the typical 10 to 15.” He doesn’t cite any work here, so we don’t know where this typical number comes from. However, in the McCouch piece we learn:

Plant breeders often worry that using wild species or landrace varieties is too risky, scientifically and economically. It took 20 years and 34,000 attempts to cross a domesticated rice variety with a distantly related, highly salt-tolerant wild relative from India before fertile offspring were obtained. It will now take at least 4-5 years of breeding to eliminate unwanted wild characters to generate a new high-yielding, salt-tolerant rice variety (see go.nature.com/knztl5). That is too long for most plant-breeding programmes, especially in the private sector.

Other recent examples of plant breeding timelines include the development of a cherry with an altered maturation time—something that might be helpful in times of climate change. How did the breeders describe their work?

It took 45 years of sorting through the junk offspring to find the seedlings that took us where we wanted to go,” she says. “Ninety-nine percent of them didn’t have the qualities we were looking for.

The development of virus-resistant papaya is another example of a crop that needed strategies to combat a pathogen that was wreaking havoc on the fruits. Dennis Gonsalves began testing virus-resistant GMO papayas in 1992, and they were released to farmers in 1998. How long had it taken to do this with breeding?

We report the first successful production of PRSV-P resistant backcross (BC) papaya plants following intergeneric hybridisation between C. papaya and a Vasconcellea species after 50 years of reports on unsuccessful attempts.

Hmm. The evidence seems to be at odds with Doug’s claims, doesn’t it?

Breeding is important, and will remain important. There’s not a single scientist anywhere trying to withhold the techniques and strategies of breeding. Nobody is lobbying to interfere with breeding, or to keep it out of researchers’ and farmers’ hands. Nobody is burning down labs or fields to delay or destroy breeding efforts. In fact, last week I jealously watched from afar as plant scientists from around the world celebrated the career of Norman Borlaug and his huge successes in plant breeding, as they talked about their plans for the future to improve the qualities of crop species.

However, Doug’s main point seems to be that breeding is all we need (despite what breeders are actually saying). Overcoming the time and species barriers is crucial, though, as we saw in McCouch’s piece. Another respected plant breeder recently commented on access to tools of biotechnology:

De Jong enjoys dabbing pollen from plant-to-plant the old-fashioned way, but he knows that selective breeding can only do so much.…To him, genetic engineering represents a far more exact way to produce new varieties, rather than simply scrambling the potato genome’s 39,000 genes the way traditional breeding does.

There are other examples of situations where there simply is no breeding option to obtain the necessary traits. Virus-resistant cassava is being developed where there are no resistant varieties. Bananas, which suffer from numerous challenges, also lack resistant varieties and grow as clones—that is, they cannot be bred with traditional means. No source of natural resistance to the citrus greening (HLB) threatening oranges around the world has been identified, and saving them may require insertion of novel genes from other species.

Unlike Doug, breeders are not troubled by GMOs. They want—and sometimes need—to have this tool available.

Doug claims there are other “challenges” that he blames on GMOs. However, none of the things he cites are actually unique to GMOs. Monocultures, herbicides, and patents—the bogeyman trifecta—neither require GMOs nor would vanish if GMOs disappeared. It is entirely disingenuous to conflate these. He also says there are other strategies to affect water use, pests, and fertilizer needs. Fine—none of these are in conflict with GMOs in any manner—there is no trouble there. Pretending these are mutually exclusive at all is entirely bogus.

Sadly, he also raises the canard that’s becoming popular among his allies, and among climate contrarians—that “consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough” as Earth Open Source claims. This is a despicable misrepresentation of the facts, as legitimate scientific organizations support the consensus on the safety of GMOs.

Is Doug Gurian-Sherman worth the trouble?

Perhaps not. Although he manages to grab a megaphone sometimes, increasingly the scientific community and journalists are becoming aware of the rhetorical two-steps and destructive strategies employed by organizations that are hostile to GMOs, while pretending that they cling to science. Becoming the designated science support mechanism for GGFC, a group that is stalking public scientists and proponents of GMO technology, which is steered by one member who claims vaccines are “cannibalism” and “subverting evolution“, puts them in very unfortunate company and may make the UCS embarrassingly irrelevant anyway without further assistance.

He is actively trying to influence the support for the options of tools be available for researchers, however. And we have to be wary of that. Folks who misrepresent science, and attempt to undermine the public support, are not helping us to solve challenges we face.

 

~ Mary Mangan, PhD in Cell, Molecular, and Developmental Biology

  President and co-founder of OpenHelix LLC