War and Food

I recently finished reading Robert Greene’s marvellous book, The 33 Strategies of War. The book is essentially a 33 stage journey in destroying your enemies on the battlefield, politics, the office, and other scenarios as explicated in the book and explained via fascinating historical example. As I was reading this delightful compendium of strategy, history, bloodshed, and intrigue I couldn’t help but think that a lot of the strategies seemed strangely familiar. “That’s funny,” I thought to myself, “last time I checked I wasn’t a warmonger.” Yet, with this strange sense of deja vu, and due to the absorbing nature of the material, I continued reading…until, at last, it hit me. About halfway through the book I realised that “I didn’t know these strategies, I had seen these strategies…” From where is a very good question? From the anti-GMO brigade.

War is not some separate realm divorced from the rest of society.” ~ Robert Greene

At first, that struck me as an odd realisation. Yet the similarities in tactics and strategy were just too uncanny…the pieces just…fit, and continued to fit as I progressed. And I remembered that, often times, the antis proclaim themselves as waging a war so it’s not much of a leap, then, to using the strategies of war. It is interesting to note that a recent study published in the Environmental and Development Economic Journal of Cambridge early in 2014 calculated the lost life years due to opposition to genetically modified golden rice (Wesseler et al, 2014). All in all, it estimated that 1.4 million human life years have been lost as a direct result of anti-GMO opposition. Collateral damage?

From a quick analysis of Greene’s 33 strategies, which have been lifted from thousands of years of history, I surmise that the antis use about half. It is a funny thing, isn’t it, to be writing about environmentalists waging war; however, it should be done. As Greene writes early in the book: “[Judge] people by the results of their actions, the deeds that can be seen and measured, the manoeuvres they have used to gain power,” and not their intentions. (This is known as the philosophical system of consequentialism.)

The 1st strategy, Declare War on your Enemies, is perhaps the most evident in use: It is no surprise that in basically any hit-piece on GMOs, an enemy is named and shamed. This strategy focuses the energy of the group toward a specific end; this, usually, also entails the end of the enemy. (This explains the fervor with which Monsanto is targeted.) This strategy is, as Greene recounts, the most important, as it reduces infighting among one’s camp, and makes it easier to evaluate strategies by asking a simple question: will this hurt my enemy? If the answer is “no,” abandon it to find one that does.

The 4th and 7th strategies: Create a Sense of Urgency; and Transform your War into a Moral Crusade are prevalent, yet are so self-explanatory in my view that I shan’t meander into an explanation — just read anything from online media mogul Mike Adams or renowned academic Vandana Shiva to see them in action (“cancers,” “end of humanity,” “evil corporations,” “seed of death…seeds of renewal” among other hyperbolic statements are littered throughout their work).

The 10th and 20th: Create A Threatening Presence; and Maneuver Them Into Weakness are the MOs of the Food Babe and her #foodbabearmy. They are large and loud enough that corporations have trouble ignoring the Food Babe’s demands. Yet, the corporations have been placed, by design, in a position where they’re ‘damned if they do’ (respond to her simpleton demands) or ‘damned if they don’t‘ (ignore her, which would be used against them). Not coincidentally, both of these outcomes fulfil the fifteenth and twenty-eighth strategies: Control the Dynamic; and Give Your Rivals Enough Rope to Hang Themselves. (As scientifically illiterate as the Food Babe is, you gotta give her props as a general.)

Strategy 23, which involves Weaving a Seamless Blend of Fact and Fiction, is, without a doubt, the most used strategy. There are just enough grains of truth in any article lambasting GMOs that the fictions, when present (read: basically always) are allowed undue cognitive leeway by readers, having had their skeptical defences previously lowered. (Note: Generally those truths are the percentage of crops in the USA that are genetically modified. You can safely ignore just about everything else though occasionally they will accurately describe the process of genetic modification — occasionally.)

There are, of course, many more such strategies — most of them being used liberally among the decentralised anti-GMO movement each, it seems, catering to their strengths. However, the most troubling aspect of this Battle Royale is the candor and manner in which scientists and science journalists are treated when dealing with these scientific subjects. This subject is, after all, one of the very reasons that science journalism exists: to communicate the benefits and risks to the public, yet, as occupations, they’ve been almost universally sidelined, ignored, and sometimes threatened. There are many reports of both scientists and science writers being threatened, mostly online, but sometimes offline (strategy 30: Penetrate their Minds).¹ Also, in a few extreme cases, labs and fields have been destroyed (strategy 33: Sow Uncertainty and Panic Through Acts of Terror).² How — perhaps why is the better question — did it come to this? I’ll get to that shortly, but first, a quick tangent on the marketplace of ideas.

The crux of the issue really comes down to this: why can’t ideas defend themselves?³ The historical purpose of criticism has been to strengthen an idea through argumentation (logical, philosophical, experimental). If an idea cannot survive a routine round of criticism, it is modified (to be criticised again) or, more usually, thrown out due to the simple fact that the majority of ideas are wrong. At this juncture, the idea holder has two options: forget the idea; or, defend it. The latest psychological research leaves very little doubt that people are biased toward the latter (conservatism bias: the failure to revise one’s beliefs in light of new evidence). Further, the next steps are just as predictable as the first: defending a failed idea (in our case: GMOs are unsafe) requires the liberal use of logical fallacies, ignorance of empirical facts, charges of conspiracy, and, often, misleading or false knowledge to give the appearance of scientific standing.

It follows then, that, in the conservatism (bias) of the anti-GMO brigade, they have employed the strategies of war to cleverly give their failed idea/s an unfair advantage in the marketplace of ideas, where even true scientific ideas must compete. (Whether they have done so accidentally, i.e., trial and error until finding working strategies, or purposefully is a good question.) It is clear that their ideas cannot defend themselves on the grounds of their epistemic strength, they need the strategies of war to be taken seriously.

The fact that anti-GMO movement has continually gained political strength and have become the de facto trusted sources of information on the science of biotechnology has puzzled many saddled with the weakness of thinking rationally. “How did it happen?” I imagine many quietly asking themselves and their colleagues and friends. It seems that was no accident either. I shall let strategy 27 speak for itself: Seem to Work for the Interests of Others While Furthering Your Own.

[1] - Paul Raeburn, Are these science writers and publications facing death threats for covering GMOs, Knight Science Journalism MIT, July 24 2014 
(a) - Marcel Kuntz, Destruction of Public and Governmental Experiments of GMO in Europe, Science Daily, Vol 3. Issue 4, 2012 
(b) - Leigh Phillips, Nanotechnology: Armed Resistance, Nature, Aug 29 2012 
[3] - I believe this meme was spoken by Carl Sagan, though the quote may not be word-for-word. The reason for this footnote is that I can't find an attribution to it, so I am not sure if it is accurate. Still, the point still stands: why can't ideas defend themselves.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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: