Science Said Y X Years Ago, Therefore…

Science said Y, X years ago, therefore, >>insert non-sequitur here<<. This is becoming an increasingly familiar, and tiring, argument. First, let me use it in a few examples.

GMO foods are bad despite what the science says because science said cigarettes were safe for use 60 years ago.

Organic produce is healthier than conventional produce despite what the preponderance of scientific studies today show because science gave us nazi eugenics 80 years ago.

Got it? Well, it’s a non-sequitur; that is, the conclusion does not follow from the premises. Here’s what it is, a red herring, a debate stopper; what it is not is a logical argument.

There are several points I wish to make against it.

Let’s take cigarettes. It goes something like this, In the 50s, science was telling us that smoking cigarettes is safe, therefore because 600 peer-reviewed studies show that GMOs are as inherently safe as any other form of agriculture, we shouldn’t listen to the science. After all, they were wrong about cigarettes, so it follows — it doesn’t — that they are wrong about this. Well, even the premise in this case (science said cigarette smoking was safe) is wrong — a pretty bad way to start an argument.

The first Western study that showed that cigarette smoking was linked to lung cancer was the John Hopkins University in Maryland, which came to that conclusion in 1938. The British Medical Journal in 1950 (you can actually read the original paper at that link) was the first in Britain. The British Doctors Society confirmed it 4 years later. In the United States, it was 1964 when the Surgeon General’s report came out codifying the same warning as the British, but, the Sloan-Kettering Institute in New York City did so earlier in 1953. However, the first to the ball were actually the Nazi’s in the 30s. (The bloody Nazis!) The science was there, there were just a handful of deniers obscuring it with just enough doubt to leave people perplexed. The majority of scientists and scientific institutions feel this way about GMOs now. So, the excuse, that science said cigarettes were safe 60 years ago (even though it didn’t), so we shouldn’t trust them now shows you the roles the accuser thinks they are taking is actually backwards — they are the equivalent of the “cigarette causes lung cancer” deniers; just like the global warming deniers now. They’ve got it ass-backwards, they are the malcontents.

Eugenics: This one is quite invidious. When the Nazi card is played, the debate is already well out-of-hand, and probably has been over for some time. Firstly, the eugenics movement began in the US of A with California leading the way — does it then follow that by this reasoning that all current Californians are born-and-bred eugenicists with blood on their hand? Of course not, it’s a non-sequitur for a reason. From California, the propaganda (not science) made its way to Europe, and finally in Germany where they ran it to the extreme. The problem in this scenario is not science; after all, Thomas Hunt Morgan discovered genetic mutations in 1915 and the concept of pure hereditary eugenics was rendered scientifically inaccurate. But, of course, knowledge didn’t travel so far and wide a hundred years ago — it’s hard enough even today: 46% of American’s don’t believe in evolution. But as Steven Pinker says, the problem is not per se the science (which was woefully incomplete), it is the social engineering aspect: “it’s not an emphasis on genes or evolution that is dangerous. It’s the desire to remake humanity by coercive means (eugenics or social engineering) and the belief that humanity advances through a struggle in which superior groups (race or classes) triumph over inferior ones.” Eugenics is not science run amok, it is culture and politics run amok, just as it was with Lysenkoism in the Soviet Union. Mix incomplete or bad science with an immature, immoral, and ignorant cultural, racist, and political class, and you’ve got all the recipes for a disaster. This isn’t a mark against science, from 1915, we knew hereditary inheritance had its faults, but small facts like this are often ignored when they are found conflicting with racist ideologies as eugenics was. Lynching’s were still commonplace up until 1920s, are we to blame science for that too? Or the racist culture from which it came? Quite obviously, the latter, and no one is today calling American’s racist and idiotic because of the White over-class a century ago.

Another one I recently heard was in response to comments I’ve made that went much like this; in a few posts, I’ve mentioned that science and technology have made slavery irrelevant, and this is for the most part true. The general responses have been; well, slavery still exists, so science didn’t do anything. In some backwards part of the world, there is indeed still slavery. (Hmm, what might solve that? Since people are forced into slavery usually to do menial labor, if the technologies were made available to do it for cheaper, the practice would stop, as it has in the rest of the world. And, what is technology? Applied science.) Sexual slavery is not uncommon in parts of SE Asia and the richer parts of the Middle East. Context is however, key here. In Ancient Rome during Julius Caesar’s time, Rome had a population of 3 million people: 300,000 of whom were citizens and 2.7 million were slaves. It is estimated that between 30-40% of the greater Roman empire were slaves. Are there are any cities today with such inequality? Very elucidating. Closer to the recently departed 20th century is this quote by David P. Forsythe: “The fact remained that at the beginning of the nineteenth century an estimated three-quarters of all people alive were trapped in bondage against their will either in some form of slavery or serfdom.” That’s just over 200 years ago that 75% of people were slaves or serfs. Today, that number is roughly 0.004%. (That figure is using the highest estimate, which ranges from 2.4 million to 27 million people in bondage worldwide). Why did the disgusting institution of slavery decline as we moved into the 20th century? The Industrial Revolution. What made the Industrial Revolution possible? Newtonian Mechanics. What is Newtonian Mechanics: science.

This just goes to show that we are still unable to properly place blame. Science, a body of knowledge as well as, and more importantly, a way of thinking, is amoral. The world is the way the world is, if you don’t like it, bad luck. If by uncovering the secrets of the world as science does, and some ignorant person, people, or culture then uses it nefariously; that is not a mark against a body of knowledge or the methodology used to uncover it. When a roof collapses and kills the people underneath it, do we blame gravity? No, we learn how to build better support structures while being aware of the fact gravity will always try to bring it down — gravity is what gravity does. When infected by a virus, do we blame the virus? Well, you can, but that won’t get you anywhere. A virus does what a virus does. Better instead to use medicine the next go-round. You can’t get rid of the natural world. You can’t pretend that it doesn’t exist. (Well, you can, but no civilization has survived for very long by ignoring it.) Science is the best methodology we have for uncovering the laws underlying our reality. Sometimes it gets it wrong, no doubt, but the way that it is set up is so the closest answer approximating reality eventually wins out (the scientific consensus), and answers that reflect it less, or not at all, eventually get thrown out (sometimes — homeopathy is still around for some reason).

To summarize, it doesn’t matter what anyone said 50, 80, or 2,000 years ago. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong. The problem, the real problem, lies in our human need for final answers. The eugenicists used a very incomplete science to justify their social and cultural policies, or extend them in most cases. In the case of cigarettes, the science was quite well-established in the 50s, but nobody listened to the data; then as now, we like to listen to the contrarian voices. The media exacerbates the situation by providing false balance. Remember that there aren’t two sides to everything: evolution, biotechnology, and many more have a scientific consensus, and a scientific consensus is more than an opinion. Even if they didn’t, what someone, scientist or not, said last year, decade, or century matters not a whit. It only matters what the evidence says, the real evidence, and all of it, not little sections here or there.

The war against science is as futile as it is stupid.


  1. Yes! So painful to read. Sloppy writing, sloppy thinking.
    I don’t know why I even read the “science” columns in papers – it’s like a sick fascination for me. There will always be some screaming headline – followed up by some non-news (continuing research that is 12 years old), poorly explained.

    1. Funny, indeed. It’s just like abolition, it was the republicans who legalized it with democrats vehemently opposed. Funny how the roles have switched.

      1. You did indeed – and I didn’t explain myself very well. What I mean is this: slavery exists even in developed countries, but it is hidden. As a percentage, slavery has declined but there are still more people in slavery now than ever before and where it has declined, I disagree that technology is the reason. Plus, there are still so many people on the planet who exist in poverty or who struggle in what may not be slavery or even serfdom but is very much a hand-to-mouth existence. I guess what I mean is that capitalism drove the mechanisation of production, which is what has lifted so many out of poverty. Pedantic, maybe, and I know I have become totally sidetracked from your main point, with which I do actually agree, but I am passionate about standing up for the oppressed and eradicating poverty (which is why I’m interested in what you have been saying about GMO because, in the light of climate change, it may prove a great help).

        1. Hi Sandy.

          I understand what you’re saying, and accept it (not that I want too, it’s hard to believe that it still occurs).

          I do take issue when you say that there are more people in slavery now in absolute numbers than ever before. Recall Forsythe’s quote, 3/4 of the planet 200 years ago were in slavery or serfdom (that’s 750 million people). Even the poorest countries today enjoy a greater median quality of life than the developed countries of a century ago. I’m not saying that’s fair; compared to us in the developed world now, that’s not much consolation, but it’s the trend that matters as unfortunately, nothing changes overnight. And, as you mention, it doesn’t detract from the main point of this post as many of them haven’t had science and technology directly impact in their lives and these are usually for political, cultural, and religious reasons. One example would be the resurgence of Polio because of a single province in Nigeria outlawing it on religious grounds…

          27 million people in slavery is 27 million people to many, but it is less of a problem now than in the past, and hopefully soon it will be banished forever. And yes, GMOs can greatly help with poverty and climate change. If only those organic food elites could see that through their ideology and recognize that.

          1. I’d be interested to read more of what Forsythe has to say. I’ve not heard of him. It is an interesting point. I’m currently reading about 20th century Chinese agriculture as part of my studies and what you say rings true.

            The ‘more people in slavery today than ever before’ refers to literal slavery, as in being forced to work, under threat of violence, for little or no pay and having no choice to leave or run away.

            It strikes me as incredibly lucky to be debating the degrees of poverty/financial struggle of other people. I recently read that anyone with an income of £23,000 sterling (about US$35,000) is in the top 1% of earners in the world. That was very sobering.

            Looking forward to reading more, Mr Fourat.

  2. What about the simple fact that debt is slavery? Considering that, then 99% of the world’s population are slaves. But if you want to get philosophical, then slavery has never actually existed at all; how can one own my consciousness and state of being?

    Also, Google “studies showing organic food healthier than conventional. ” I think you’ll be surprised by the results… I’ve also cited a few on my blog post “10 Ways to Eat Healthy on a Budget” in the comments section.

    1. So I googled the exact phrase you mentioned, and 8 results on the first page show up as showing that organic is no healthier than conventional. (They’re all referring to the same study, so by no means am I claiming this is scientific.) Anyway, it doesn’t matter what google or anyone else says. Google ranks popularity and number of back-links to rate popularity and originality. It only matters what the scientific literature says, and when it comes to that, the last 50 years of studies show there is no statistical difference between organic and conventional is statistically non-significant. There are variations in nutritional quality, but it is due to variations in soil and closeness to market, and they carry their own drawbacks (they are less efficient). At the end of the day, even if organic was healthier, it’d still be cheaper to eat 2 conventional carrots than 1 organic carrot. And, my main beef with the organic philosophy (only those who demand it be exported and everyone else use it — so this is not referring to you), is that only those lucky enough to have beautiful arable land as you do in the states and in places like the EU have the liberty to farm this way.

      I saw that post of yours, and liked your reasons, all except for No.10. The so-called dirty dozen is almost a complete fabrication with neither rhyme nor reason. Read a plant pathologist’s take on it:

      Debt = slavery? I find this too simplistic. If i had to choose between being in debt and being a physical slave. I know which one I’d pick, so I wouldn’t call it a fact in that regard. The majority of people aren’t forced into debt at gunpoint. Granted, there are influences, from the media, the joneses, and so forth, but no one is ever forced; convinced, maybe, but not forced. In that light, the two cannot be equated. Philosophically, that’s one way to look at it, but they can force you to perform stuff. Physical slavery is concerned with the output of the body, not the internal state of mind. But, the control of consciousness is completely possible, it just requires work (torture, brainwashing, indoctrination etc.; as they say, the human mind is malleable) If you read the last chapters in 1984 (and I’m not saying to skip to the last chapters, read the whole book if you haven’t), you get a very visceral method of how it can be accomplished. I had goosebumps the entire time, and was actually depressed when I finished. One of the most depressing books I’ve ever read; also one of the best.

      As always, appreciate the discourse 🙂

  3. Evolution is slow and doesn’t upset the balance of nature. Change happens, but species have time to adjust to each other. GMO farming has the potential to throw everything out of whack by making a new, untested life form suddenly become dominant in a large area. What will be the long term effects? We don’t know and the first people likely to find out will be those who profit the most from GMO and who will be motivated to hide what they learn. Hurray for science, but it can’t tell us what the unintended consequences of GMO will be. That’s the real issue, Mr. GMO Fanboy, and knocking down some obviously silly straw men arguments doesn’t change the fact that GMO cannot now be proven to be a good thing in the long run.

    1. Amen Mr. Producto, I’ve been wondering how to effectively make this point without digressing and I think you hit the nail on the head. And while the pro-GMO folks continue to “appeal to a higher power” in that they say they just want to help 3rd world countries and those in arid/desolate climates have a thriving agriculture and fill the need to feed 9-10 billion people while stroking their egos and beating their drums that there is just no other possible solution but theirs, I’m inclined to disagree there as well. There are other (much more) promising technologies, the most prominent in my mind is hydroponics and aeroponics. With these technologies you can create an immense number of healthy, organic, thriving crops with zero pesticides in carefully controlled climates, and I’ve yet to see any credible biotech scientist even discuss the future of such alternative solutions. Some just see the anti-GMO crowd as a bunch of soccer moms and middle/high school kids incapable of critical thought and scientific analysis.

      1. I found nothing in his argument that merited serious consideration. If you want to feed the world using hydroponics and aeroponics, you are free to try, or help out others who try. You’re setting up a strawman here. Scientists aren’t stopping anyone from doing anything else. When Ingo P. created Golden Rice, he didn’t intend to stop anybody else from helping the millions from suffer from Vitamin A deficiency. He saw a problem, he tackled it using the best methods he knew how, and did something. Greenpeace went nuts and blocked it. Meanwhile, a quarter-million kids die a year; does Greenpeace have any other solutions? Do they offer them? Do they offer to fund them with their $ 300 million funds? Nope, they jsut want to stop people eating safe rice and living longer because of their ideology. Thats plain and simple bullshit.

        If activist truly wanted to help the world, and I doubt they do, despite their brow beating because they only offer organics as a solution, which can’t feed the world, then they would outdo scientists at their own game, and you know what, I bet my left arm the scientists would help if they could.

        I dont see the anti-gmo crowd as lacking critical skills. I just dont see them applying it and instead protecting an ideology. No scientists I’ve ever come across has said GMOs are the only way, and I’ve read a lot of pro-gmo’s articles (in the 100s). However, I’ve come across plenty of people (like you just did) who strawman scientists into saying GMO’s are the only way. GMOs are a tool in the toolbox, there has never been a case of documented harm, they are the most regulated agricultural product (organic radiation blasted mutated seeds clear no regulatory hurdles to arrive to market despite the fact that thousands of genes are altered. One gene is altered in a GM seed, and it takes 10-20 years of testing and approvals to bring it to market, if you’re lucky), and they have reduced pesticide use, improved the health of non-target organisms, and reduced by billions of tonnes, CO2 emissions into the atmosphere. Those are facts; there isn’t one good scientific reason to oppose them, and it’s not because scientists are tied into their ‘ideology.’ The scientific process is so setup to ensure that that does not occur. You’re living in a bubble. Im in a rush, so this may come across as blunt, but that’s not the way I intend. Talk soon B.

        1. I guess we can bale hay with all these straw men. Sigh…

          The scientific method is a beautiful invention, there’s just no arguing that. It is perfect in every way for determining cause and effect. It’s the scientific establishment that constantly and vigilantly needs to be scrutinized and met with skepticism. The establishment is what provides bias, falsifies data, and alters conclusions to suit the desired outcome. Perhaps I’m reading into a concept that doesn’t exist in your mind, but based on some of the comments you’ve made it appears to me that you hold the scientific establishment as an infallible body, always held to the highest and strictest standards, impossible to be tainted (in the long term). A faith, if you will, that the scientific establishment has the answers we need and should be the final authority. Well, I hope that will eventually might be the case, but it certainly isn’t now.

          Might I suggest a great read for you, if you haven’t read it; one that has helped me greatly in interacting with people in my new line of work: “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” I’m not being facetious, I’m just observing that the way you convey facts (which are, sometimes, actually opinions, like you’re perspective on mother nature) is perhaps not the most ideal way to win people to your way of thinking. Yes, I’d love to chat soon and talk about something else for a change lol.

          FYI – irradiated food does not meet the definition of organic should not be labeled as such, and when foods are irradiated it is identified on the label, so it is easily avoided.

          1. Yo B,

            I don’t mean irradiated food. I meant seeds. The majority of seeds today didn’t exist a 100 years ago. They were blasted with mutation-inducing radiation and planted, and those that showed desirable traits were selected and planted (with very little study into their safety). Most organic foods today are the result of this process (which still occurs in much of the world).

            I don’t mean to say that the scientific method is infallible, but if you read a little more about science from scientists, it is that the best answers always win out in the long-term. We have almost a 1000 studies that show no harm from GM food. If there was any concerns to be had, one of those 1000 would’ve showed it. There are more and more studies everyday coming out, and only poorly-designed, methodologically flawed studies show otherwise (the pig study, the rat study by Seralini, etc). Science is not perfect, but it’s head and shoulders above everything else. There’s no faith involved; it’s empiricism, plain and simple. If it was faith, I’d have a lot less fervor, if you will, on the issue.

            Yes, I absolutely agree with being skeptical of science, where the data merits it or where the data is inconclusive, or where you’re told to take it on a scientists authority (big warning sign). On the GM subject, neither condition exists. Besides, the scientific field is so set up to be that way all on its own. The most famous scientists of history and of our day get famous by overturning the establishment (Newton, Einstein, Krauss, Sagan, Dawkins, Hawking, Feynman). Towing the line is the fastest way to a dead-end career in science. I’d recommend one of Sagan’s books (specifically, The Demon-Haunted World by Sagan). In science, you get famous by disproving other scientists and get nowhere towing the line. Most outside of the scientific sphere don’t quite get that, I’m sorry to say, but faith enters it nowhere, and there are no desired outcomes. The scientist who proves GMOs (any specific one or all) are harmful will be an instant mega-million and recipient of the Nobel Prize (which all but guarantees tenure): no winners so far. GMOs are not a panacea, but they are part of a multi-pronged approach we’ll need to achieve our food news, present and future.

            I understand where you’re coming from, especially with that book reference (I’ve read some of it). Again, I apologize for any haste and bluntness in my approach, it’s been a really bad day. I really shouldn’t have commented at all today. I’ll leave it here. Talk soon, buddy.

            P.S. I don’t see talking about the way nature is as just an opinion. Try being a gazelle for a day or any animal who is supposed to be lunch for another… I’m not sure you’d enjoy it. Nature is beautiful, astoundingly beautiful yes, but it is not nice. We’ve insulated ourselves from it and have never been better off.

    2. Balance of nature? Species don’t have time to adjust to each other. They adapt, to varying degrees, or die. That’s all there is to it. Nature is not a benign process; as they say, it is red in tooth and claw. It’s benign from an objective point of view because no life really needs to be here, from the subjective perspective of all sentient creatures subject to her, she is a cruel mistress.

      As for your point about greed motivated profit. Sure, some companies maybe like that, but to think that this is a sound business practice that all GM companies provide by ignoring all safety data, and compromising the health of those who drive their profit margins (the consumer) is a good long-term business practice, then you’re as silly as you sound constantly harping on comment after comment about corporate malfeasance and hiding of data. The incentive in the free-market is to balance short-term and long-term needs and wants . What worth will fiat-backed currency carry in the future when the poor and middle class have been hollowed by unsafe food? Zilch. Our economies are predicated on growth and will go to ground the day the population stops growing (which will happen in 40-90 years anyway, so we’ll need a change by then, but it won’t be by giving cancer to everyone who eats GMOs).

      I suppose you never heard of the ‘potential’ allergen that might have developed as a result of GMO technology in the 90s where they tried to adopt the characteristic of the brazil nut. They run their rigorous safety testing beforehand, discovered the allergen (theoretical only, no physical evidence of allergenicity), and halted the research, discarded the material, and moved onto something that wouldn’t hurt or kill people. Typical of clueless folks who think that GMOs are untested. It only takes 10-20 years to bring a GM seed to market, I wonder what they’re doing that whole time?

      Besides, your pessimistic view of hiding data occurs only when government is in collusion with industry to the detriment of the people who vote for them? So you’re a follower of that conspiracy as well, I take it? It would take a grand conspiracy to pull that off, and all it would take is one scientist with the requisite data to prove it to break rank and bring the most groundbreaking news to the planet… Considering their are millions of scientists involved in the biological sciences, and you’d only need one, or a handful.

      What strawmen are you referring to? A quarter of the comments on my Lowdown on GMOs with a scientist bring up those points directly! Cigarette smoking, Eugenics, blah blah blah. You’ll find plenty elsewhere on GMO posts on the web. A strawman argument is where you distort the argument to your own argument’s benefit, not actually debate it square on.

      As for the spread of GM seeds, there are safety practices that farmers are advised to hold too. But the biggest tool that would have HALTED the spread of genes was phased out by the GM companies because of the vehement backlash by actvists and the public: the terminator gene, which would have made it impossible for the modified genes to make into the wild. You know, because sterility does not pass itself on… I suppose we should still ban GMOs because folks like you, who don’t actually understand molecular biology don’t know, or understand, anything about agriculture, aren’t comfortable with it, right? Right?

      For the record, By taking down bad arguments against them, doesn’t make it so my thoughts are that GMOs are the only way, or that they are perfect, only that they are a tool in the toolbox and we should use it accordingly when merited.

  4. ……..”plants don’t want to be eaten” and “no life really needs to be here”! “Nature is astoundingly beautiful yet a cruel mistress” and All is true true! So why is man so driven to go forward and move on just to exist at all?
    I am not intentionally thrashing a finger but it is sure something to try to digest and process the continuous scientific discoveries and then survive through the struggles and that propel the arguments of science vs. nature vs. man-created!

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