Monday, August 11, 2014

Getting the science right on GMOs

Contrary to the saying, all is not fair in love and war, especially when the war isn't literally a war, but a political struggle. There are things we shouldn't do, even if they seem helpful in the short run. Unfortunately, Kamil Ahsan, a PhD candidate in developmental biology at the University of Chicago, doesn't get it. In The New Scientism, Ahsan demands that scientists relax their scientific standards to help in the fight against the evil agricultural-biotechnology (ag-biotech) firms that are using genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to exploit farmers in developing nations. Ahsan is wrong on just about every point: scientists and the scientific establishment are, by and large, not part of the problem. The truth has a liberal, even revolutionary, bias, but Ahsan's calumnies risk alienating one of the left's most valuable allies.

Ahsan sensibly worries that the vast amount of money from Big Pharma and ag-biotech firms is corrupting scientific inquiry. He is not alone. Simple Google searches* will reveal that these issues are being discussed inside the scientific community, in the pages of Scientific American as well as papers in PLOS and ISPUB, etc. Google Scholar reports about 1.5 million results (not all of them original papers) just in the scientific literature. Ahsan links to an earlier article, Llewllyn Hinkes-Jones's Bad Science: Free-market academic research policies have unleashed medical quackery and scientific fraud, forcing consumers to pay premiums for discoveries we’ve already funded as taxpayers, which competently and accurately covers both the economic and scientific problems of big money in science. Many of the links Ahsan himself provides show that the scientific community is concerned about this issue. For example, in the Nature article, GM crops: Battlefield, Emily Waltz investigates whether critics of studies suggesting saftey issues with GMOs "fight fair." There is a real problem, and a problem that requires deep public debate, but the scientific establishment is not a monolithic entity on the wrong side of the issue; there is considerable support in the scientific community for resisting the corrupting effects of money on scientific inquiry. Ahsan does not focus on this important issue. Instead he unleashes a barrage of calumny to discredit the scientific community and subordinate science to his own political agenda.

*pharmaceutical/biotechnology industry influence on science

Ahsan asserts that the scientific community absolutely refuses to legitimize criticism: "To [the scientific establishment], any criticism of this historical narrative [of the "march of technological improvement despite the opposition of a supposedly anti-science public"] is tantamount to wholesale opposition to science." But Ahsan does not cite any criticism of this supposed "historical narrative" and does not cite any response to such criticism. Without support, Ahsan is simply poisoning the well. Ahsan follows with a nonsequitur fallacy: "[D]efenders of science lump together global-warming-denying conservatives, anti-GMO activists, and grassroots environmental activists, treating each as disturbingly anti-science. This simplistic analysis is rooted in the arrogant assumption that science is somehow above criticism — indeed, that it’s above politics entirely." The conclusion simply does not follow from the premises. Furthermore, Ahsan does not provide support for the premise that "defenders of science" really do lump these groups together, and Ahsan makes no mention in his article of the vague category "grassroots environmental activists." Simple assertions without evidence not only fail to persuade, they seriously undermine the author's credibility.

Ahsan seems incapable of an honest reading of anyone he disagrees with. For example, he cites Michael Shermer:
But try telling that to Michael Shermer, who, writing in Scientific American, sees in every critique of corporate behavior an anti-science temper tantrum: "Try having a conversation with a liberal progressive about GMOs . . . in which the words 'Monsanto' and 'profit' are not dropped like syllogistic bombs. . . . The fact is that we've been genetically modifying organisms for 10,000 years through breeding and selection."
Try as I might, bending over backwards to be charitable, tilting my head and squinting, Ahsan's interpretation does not have anything to do with the quotation he interprets. Shermer is not talking about every critique, he is talking about one specific attitude, dropping the words "Monsanto" or "profit" like "syllogistic bombs." Shermer juxtaposes these "syllogistic bombs" with a scientific statement; presumably he intends to mean that those who criticize Monsanto ignore or falsely deny that GMOs are ubiquitous and long-standing, not that Monsanto is a model of corporate social responsibility. There are many other examples where Ahsan labels the legitimate back-and-forth of critical inquiry as arrogant obstinacy. Ahsan clearly cannot engage honestly with disagreement.

Ahsan conflates three distinct issues. The first is scientific: are GMOs safe? Can we eat them? Do they have negative effects on the environments and the ecosystems where they are grown? The second is economic: what are the effects of the business practices of ag-biotech companies that are providing GMOs, especially to low-income farmers in developing nations. The third is an issue of political strategy. As documented in several of the links Ahsan provides (e.g. Nina Fedoroff's Scientific American article, Can We Trust Monsanto with Our Food?), anti-GMO activists claim that GMOs are harmful; scientists consider these claims entirely without scientific merit, indeed anti-science. These issues are obviously interrelated, but they are still distinct.

It is one thing to allege that because of the corrupting influence of ag-biotech money, scientists are getting the science wrong on GMO safety. But this is not Ahsan's focus. Instead, Ahsan asserts that because Monsanto and other ag-biotech corporations exploit developing-world farmers, the scientific establishment should therefore, and for that reason only, not label anti-GMO activists, who are struggling against this corporate exploitation, as anti-science:
A rigid defense of “the science” prevents scientists from recognizing that Monsanto monopolizes seed production, dictates market prices to the exclusive benefit of rich farmers, drives the emergence of superweeds, allows the spread of transgenes to wild crops in other countries, and uses the state to boost its profits.

Acknowledging these facts should produce a thorough rethinking of the politics of GMO research and the ethics of GMOs. It should prompt a response to anti-GMO activists that doesn’t cast them as malevolent and anti-science, or conflate the movement to label GMO foods with celebrities who refuse to vaccinate their children. [boldface added]
This passage is the crux of Ahsan's thesis. If Ahsan really believed the problem was that money is corruption of science, then he himself would be defending "the science"; instead, he attributes problems directly to the defense of "the science." He asserts we should not consider the scientific claims of anti-GMO activists on their scientific merits, but on their political merits. Essentially, Ahsan is not decrying the corruption of science, he is lamenting that the wrong side has corrupted science, and hopes that the correct side will do so, indeed that the scientific establishment has an obligation to corrupt its standards of evidence and analysis in the service of the left.

It is not the scientific establishment but Ahsan himself, with breathtaking hypocrisy, who is arrogant, obdurate, and resistant to criticism. The truth is simply this: scientific criticism should be scientific. Moral, political and economic criticism should be moral, political, and economic. Neil deGrasse Tyson makes this point crystal clear:
If your objection to GMOs is the morality of selling non-prerennial seed stocks, then focus on that. If your objection to GMOs is the monopolistic conduct of agribusiness, then focus on that. But to paint the entire concept of GMO with these particular issues is to blind yourself to the underlying truth of what humans have been doing -- and will continue to do -- to nature so that it best serves our survival. That's what all organisms do when they can, or would do, if they could. Those that didn't, have gone extinct extinct.

In life, be cautious of how broad is the brush with which you paint the views of those you don't agree with.
We gain nothing and risk much by distracting the conversation away from the corruption of scientific inquiry, a conversation that can only help the left, towards a insistence on rigid short-term political loyalty. Shame on Ahsan for writing this piece, and shame on Jacobin for publishing it.

7 comments:

  1. To summarize Tyson....Get over it! We have been doing GMO since the beginning. And to add to that ...The GMO we have done in the past, the safety tests were tested on PEOPLE!!!! At least today the GMOs using short cut genetics are heavily tested BEFORE people use them. And yes it is very necessary to insure proper controls and testing and reviews.
    The part of the argument is that the GMOs are made mostly sterile and BIG PARMA is shafting the farmers!!!! But you must keep GMOs sterile so that they don't spread !!!! So what these dims are saying is make GMOs sterile, invest HUGH sums of money into the product then give it away??!!!?? So everyone else can make a profit but not Monsanto???
    Labeling GMOs??? Sure why not as almost all foods would have to be labels GMO. Also food labeled GMO and priced at $0.25/lb and right next to it is the same food labeled "organic" & priced at $1.25/lb; give you 3sec to guess which I buy! And the people throwing their hard earned money away on a meaningless label?? There's a sucker born every minute!
    Don't remember the dude's name but a genetic scientist developed a GMO rice that as allowed over 3million people to have food. The "organic farmer" has done what????
    But as stated the most important thing is to test, control, test some more, inspect by 3rd party, test some more, and then when released for use, inspect and watch closely to insure continued safety.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. OPS!!! I must have insert some code with out realizing it.
      it is ...25cents per lb and right next to it is the same food labeled "organic" & priced at 1.25 dollars per lb....

      Delete
    2. Yeah, sorry, I have MathJax going. You need to prefix a \$ with a backslash: \\\$

      Delete
    3. Thanks I thought it was the dollar sign that did me in.

      Delete
    4. Another part of this that I seen is the same mental attitude that we see in religion......
      I BELIEVE that GMOs cause problems and believe big anything is bad.
      They give NO proof of this just ....it makes my tummy feel odd so it is bad.
      And any facts given to show that they are safe is ignored or denied.
      And I think this come ultimately from a total ignorance of science and how it works and an UNWILLINGNESS to learn. Well science is so very very hard to learn.

      Delete
  2. You is dodohead ma frand. Dodo...head.

    ReplyDelete

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