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.

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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.

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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…