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.



What Would It Take?

A few weeks ago Ken Ham ‘the creationist’ and Bill Nye ‘the science guy’ had a debate. The subject of the debate was ‘is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern, scientific era?’ During the Q&A session afterward, they were both asked a question asking them what it would take to change their mind. This made me think of people on opposing sides on the subject of GMOs; pro, con, or on the fence. It was a brilliant question, and one that should be asked in every debate.

Following the vein of the question, I’d like to ask to you, my readers, whichever side of the GMO fence you sit on: what would it take to change your mind that the opposing side is correct?

To be more specific:

If you are against GMO use: what would it take to convince you, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the currently approved GMOs are safe?

If you are for GMO use: what would it take to convince you, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the currently approved GMOs are dangerous?

Let me know in the comments below…

From Anti-GMO to pro-science: A Layman’s Guide to GMOs

My latest article on biotechnology has been featured on The Genetic Literacy Project website. It is now featured on the home page. The opening paragraphs are below, but be sure to head over to the GLP the rest. Enjoy!

From Anti-GMO to pro-science: A Layman’s Guide to GMOs

Knowing whom to trust on the touchy issue of GMOs (biotechnology) is a thorny issue—especially on the Internet, where tensions flare to a 100 with an absence of nuance and body language. Leaning on an authority is, of course, a shortcut. Who has the time these days to understand a field as diverse and comprehensive as biotechnology? Very few of us; in that light, it is a perfectly reasonable shortcut—provided one seeks out the correct authorities, that is.

That is why appeals to authority are the main weapon on both sides of the e-divide on GMOs. However, in many ways, many such arguments fall flat on their face as they exhibit fallacious reasoning (often called the argument from authority fallacy). The trick, of course, is finding an authority one can trust and that is right—no easy task.

What happens if one picks the wrong authority and psychologically ties oneself to a person expressing an argument, rather than to the evidence—doing just that is a quirky trait of human psychology. Over the past few years, this is the dilemma that I faced. The authorities I trusted in were wrong. Thus began the project that led to my book.

Read more…

And don’t forget my latest project: The Lowdown on GMOs: According to Science has been released as a free eBook featuring contributions from molecular biologists, plant pathologists, farmers, journalists, and authors on the what the evidence concerning GMO actually says. Go grab it.

You can read reviews of the Lowdown here, here, and here.

The Lowdown on GMOs: According to Science eBook

I’d like to announce that my project at which I’ve been working on since April has finally sprouted its wings and made its way into the digital ether. The Lowdown on GMOs: According to Science features chapters from the likes of plant geneticists, plant pathologists, molecular biologists, farmers, professors, journalists, renowned authors, a couple of bloggers and even a historian. The subject matter tackles fear-mongering, gene commonality between species, knowledge discrimination, how GMOs reduce farming inputs, the myth-making ability of the human brain, and many more.

Lastly, I haven’t mentioned the best thing about the eBook: It’s FREE. You can download it for Kindle, Nook, iOS, or as PDF here at Smashwords.

I have an upcoming guest post at Genetic Literacy Project which should come online later today. In it, I’ll be discussing the role of the authority in an argument from authority, specifically when it comes to arguments of the scientific type in promotion of The Lowdown on GMOs: According to Science. In the meantime, there are two reviews below. And, if you’d like to share the pro-science message, click here to tweet about the eBook.

Get The Lowdown on GMOs: According to Science for free

“I enjoyed the synthesis provided by “The Lowdown on GMOs According to Science”. Janabi recombines writings from researchers, farmers, former anti-GMO activists, science writers, and consumers into an operon that expresses a lot of great information about genetically-modified organisms. It’s hard to find this level of quality discussion on this topic around the internet, where murky misinforming fearmongers overwhelm the discussions.

Scientists, farmers and folks who had the drive to learn more about the issues provide a variety of perspectives on GMOs. Their grasp of the historical context, the present directions, and the current and future benefits will help anyone to understand why GMOs are tools that people who have experience with them *want* to use.

The writers here use their own experiences, their years of work, and their own due diligence to assess the issues. They explain the framework of misinformation and how it clouds attempts to see the facts. And it might be a perspective you haven’t heard much before. Overall it is a compelling plea for people to look at the real evidence and decide.”

~ Mary Mangan, PhD (Cell, Molecular, and Developmental Biology), President and co-founder of OpenHelix LLC

“The use of biotechnology in agriculture is a topic you hear  a lot about these days: farmers in distant regions of the world, looking to improve their yields, receive two versions (this will save you/this will poison you); voters in conditions altogether more comfortable than those small holder farmers weighed down by debt, are driving up to vote on whether products should be labeled to let consumers know they were grown using biotechnology. All of this and more is contained in 3 letters GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms). But what exactly does this mean? To anyone advocating for food policy issues, the superficiality of information (or, in some cases, complete misinformation) which form the basis of debates on GMO are held is worrisome.  So I am happy to be the bearer of some good news: “The Lowdown on GMOs: According to Science” is here and is going to be an excellent source of information for anyone seeking to learn more about this issue.

The book is put together with articles from a range of experts in this domain: molecular biologists, Alan McHughen and Kevin Folta; plant pathologist Steve Savage and plant geneticist Anastasia Bodnar, among others. The scientific viewpoint, often so frustratingly opaque to those of us who were relieved to be done with science on high school, is presented here in clear terms and the reader can come to their own conclusions.

Also interesting are the accounts of the journey of those who started out as skeptics but after doing the research became convinced by the actual facts to support the use of biotechnology in agriculture. This is especially useful because it resonates with those of us who may still be educating ourselves but feel intimidated by all the noisemakers into taking up a hasty position. This perspective is a nuance often lost in the noisy and often vicious debates that characterize this topic. It also helps that one of these journeys is that of Mike Bendzela who is a farmer. That farmers’ voices are not heard often enough in the food debate is something I have often blogged about. You may think you know all that is there is to about Monsanto, but after reading Brian Scott’s views on using Monsanto’s products on his farm; you might look at the picture differently. Of particular note is the piece by Mark Lynas, the British journalist and environmentalist who recently changed his viewpoint and came out in strong support of GMOs. 

In his own piece, Fourat Janabi replies to the “Nature does it best” argument that the anti-GMO lobby is so fond of, pointing out that nature is full of experiments which created our diverse world; also drawing our attention to the fact that the Big Ag lobby is matched by a robust Organic lobby!. He also takes up the question of how to feed 9 billion people in a time of climate change and it is here that biotechnology is going to prove crucial. The use of biotechnology can increase yields, enable climate resilience and improve health outcomes through biofortification of crops. It is not the only or perhaps even the most important tool but it is a crucial one and throwing it away on the basis of misinformation and fear mongering would be a grave mistake.

The conclusion consists of an impressive list scientific bodies from all over the world that have found that biotechnology is no more risky than any other conventional breeding technology and is safe for human consumption; hopefully this book will convince many people of that point of view.”

~ Arpita Bhattacharjya, Formerly worked in developing Economic Policy for Agricultural and Rural Development

Spread the pro-science message by tweeting about The Lowdown on GMOs: According to Science.

GMO Rice

GMOs: it’s our right to know. But what will you do with the information?

This is a guest post by Allallt.

He writes prolifically on science and atheism. I’ve always been amazed at the simplicity of his arguments. I once jokingly referred to him as the Steve Jobs of atheist arguments, but I well and truly meant it. He knows how to write about both science and atheism in such a way as to make you slap your head at the obviousness of his arguments in hindsight. He makes his arguments and polemics very simple, and that is the most powerful thing about them, so I challenged him to write a post about GMOs a little while ago in the hope he could likewise make a difficult subject simpler. He dutifully accepted. I’d like to say he succeeded. (There’s another article written by him on organic farming coming in the pipeline.)

Knowledge, generally speaking, is a good thing (so long as it’s true). I’ve poked my head into the world of genetically engineered organisms (GMOs) for the sake of food, and people are making the seemingly harmless demand to simply know if the food they’re buying is the result of genetic engineering or not. And, on the face of it, I’m happy with a little green sticker that says “GMO” in the bottom corner of my packaging. It’s about as important to me as the name of the person that sealed the box; whatever, who cares?

Normally the information on a packet helps me make certain decisions and answer certain questions: that’s too many calories; I can’t cook that for my cousin, he’s allergic to nuts; I feel ill if I eat that much salt; I’m trying to see if I feel more mentally focused if I cut aspartame out of my diet; I’m boycotting palm oil because there’s no distinction between orangutan friendly and unfriendly palm oil etc. What do you hope to know by seeing the “GMO” label, or not, on your food? That is the central question I want to discuss, and suggest that people will only be misinformed.

I spoke to a friend about GMOs and she is wildly against them, under the banner of “we don’t know what we’re doing”. She even had a reference for her issue: thalidomide. Now, there’s a word with a legacy. Thalidomide was an anti-nausea pill and sleeping aid, marketed at helping women with morning sickness. But it also induced birth defects in children and a high infant mortality rate. This, according to my friend, is what happens when we mess with nature and we don’t ’now what we’re doing. We have a good reason to fear new things.

My friend sees “GMO” as a thing she doesn’t understand and things she doesn’t understand as potentially being thalidomide. If there were truth in this, would we not know about it already? Thalidomide was on and off the market in the UK in 3 years. GMOs are not some idea that might be introduced and people are protesting. GMOs already happen, and they are widespread. I was learning about their application in terms of case studies when I was doing my GCSEs (when I was 16, 8 years ago). And there is simply no evidence to suggest there is a problem. Despite research.

I may need to digress momentarily to make a note about science, but as I’m guest-posting on Random Rationality I suspect I won’t need to say much. There is a big difference between there being no evidence and there being no evidence despite research. To be clear about the difference (and perhaps a little facetious) “there is no evidence that my sock is under my bed because I haven’t looked” is very different from “I have looked, and there is no evidence my sock is under my bed”. These mean “I haven’t looked” and “it’s not there” respectively. We have looked for health effects from GMOs and we haven’t found them.

“This box was packed by Steven; it will be identical to the boxes packed by Jill” is useless information. Trivia. “This food was produced via genetic engineering; it will be identical to foods not produced by genetic engineering” is an equally useless statement, and so any non-zero effort made to put a label on the box is a disproportionate amount of effort. But the issue is not just that the label is a disproportionate effort, but that it is misinformation.

You may wonder how correct facts can be misinformation. And that paradox is a fair question. So long as GMOs (wrongly) mean ill-health and disease and FrankenFood* and contaminated ingredients to people, the label “GMO” is simply misleading. GMOs are not these things, despite public perception and fear. To me, GMO means feeding the world, pest-resistance, better sustenance, more nutrition, bigger yields, longer shelf-lives. These are profoundly excellent things.

Imagine a child in sub-Saharan Africa who is both starving and malnourished. This means that she is immensely hungry, to the point the body is atrophying away, and what food she has eaten is so nutritionally imbalanced that she has life-threatening deficiencies of certain nutrients. She’s starving because farmers can’t grow enough food in the current drought, and pests and disease attack what is grown, and that which farmers can harvest doesn’t have the shelf-life to make it to her village. And she is malnourished because that is the nature of the food she can scavenge or does reach her village. There is hope, and it’s no mere glimmer. There’s no problem in this paragraph that cannot be eradicated by GMOs. GMOs would transform this poor girl’s life, and the thousands who live like her. They would be her saviour.

BandAid, in 1984, released “Do they know it’s Christmas (feed the world)”. And your one-off donation to buy a cheesy but delightful Christmas song made big differences in Ethiopia. But to feed the world, to have enough food successfully delivered to every remote corner of the planet, will take a lot more than your one-off donation. Feeding the world will take GMOs.

*Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a great metaphor for GMOs. Throughout most of the book, Frankenstein’s monster is a kind, humane, misunderstood and terrified creature. He seeks acceptance and love and doesn’t pose a threat to anyone’s health or wellbeing. Frankenstein’s monster is a good person. It is the DeLacey family, in their ignorant fear, who started the hatred.