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On Over-Certainty In GMO Beliefs

Only a minor point about GMOs today. Here’s how the Ars TechnicaOn GMO safety, the fiercest opponents understand the least” opens: “Science is our most effective means of understanding the natural world, yet the public doesn’t always accept the understanding that it produces.” (Thanks to Ken Steele for the tip.)

If we start with scientism, as we do here, we’re not likely to escape from it. Here we have the implicit premise that whatever scientists say about the “natural world” goes, and how dare you not accept their word for it. This implies we need to know who is a scientist and who isn’t.

Researchers have been trying to figure out why there’s a gap between science and the public for decades, an effort that is becoming increasingly relevant as the US seems to have a growing discomfort with facts in general. In some cases, the issue is clearly cultural: politics and religion appear to have strong influences on whether people accept the science on climate change and evolution, respectively.

The writer is either ignorant that disagreement among scientists on these topics exist, and therefore it is difficult for a citizen to know what to believe if all he has to go on is the words of disagreeing scientists, or the writer knows full well about the disagreements, but chooses to dismiss those scientists who do not agree with him as not real scientists. The No True Scientist Fallacy.

Enough. The writer is of no use in outlining the problem of uncertainty in GMOs, except where he points us to the Nature: Human Behavior paper “Extreme opponents of genetically modified foodsknow the least but think they know the most” by Philip M. Fernbach et al. Abstract:

There is widespread agreement among scientists that genetically modified foods are safe to consume and have the potential to provide substantial benefits to humankind. However, many people still harbour concerns about them or oppose their use. In a nationally representative sample of US adults, we find that as extremity of opposition to and concern about genetically modified foods increases, objective knowledge about science and genetics decreases, but perceived understanding of genetically modified foods increases. Extreme opponents know the least, but think they know the most. Moreover, the relationship between self-assessed and objective knowledge shifts from positive to negative at high levels of opposition. Similar results were obtained in a parallel study with representative samples from the United States, France and Germany, and in a study testing attitudes about a medical application of genetic engineering technology (gene therapy). This pattern did not emerge, however, for attitudes and beliefs about climate change.

This member of “humankind” (i.e. me) realizes this is yet another survey trying to be passed off as science, and so will be filled at least in large part with opinion masking as indisputable fact. If we removed surveys from the armamentarium of researchers, journals would be drained dry.

Skip that and let’s think about arguments and evidence for and against GMOs.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is agin them. Speaking about their (and other) potential evils, he and some pals said, “It is at the core of both scientific decision making and ancestral wisdom to take seriously absence of evidence when the consequences of an action can be large.”

I publicly teased him about this absurd stance, saying that if his proposition were true then we should marshal all of mankind to protect against Black Swans From Outer Space. There is a complete absence of evidence such Black Swans exist, yet if they did, they would certainly peck every man, woman, and in-between, to death. This pecking would be a mighty large consequence. Send your donations to the Stop the Swans today. Your ancestors demand it.

Taleb’s argument is the core of the so-called precautionary principle, which is the last refuge of the busybody who wants to ban or regulate something without having to point to evidence of the real need of the ban.

Now Taleb’s error does not mean GMOs are safe in every potential aspect. Indeed, his argument says nothing about GMOs, or about anything else, either, and can’t, because whatever the thing is can’t have any evidence for it, or even against it. The precautionary principle is ever empty.

The authors of the Nature paper say “Genetically modified (GM) foods are judged by the majority of scientists to be as safe for human consumption as conventionally grown foods”. This sentence is consistent with saying some scientists judge GMOs as unsafe for human consumption.

Very well, some scientists say yes, others now. How then does a civilian pick whom to believe? Should he trust the majority of scientists running around waving their wee p-values at us, or should instead trust Mary Shelley?

The authors of the paper are on the cheerleading side of science, naturally enough. They remember all the good things scientists have done, and there are many, and forget the bad. Some civilians are gloomier and recall all those ads for drugs that seem to spend an inordinate amount of time warning of side effects, effects which invariably include a worse state of the disease the scientific marvel was supposed to cure, ads followed seconds later by ads for lawyers: “Call us if you’ve taken this pill.”

It can’t be that scientists at this point understand all the long-term consequences of GMOs, for the pretty reason that we haven’t got to the long term yet. This is no argument against GMOs, but if we accept that scientists make mistakes, and that the corporations who push these things want to make a buck, then caution is in order. Add to that all the dietary advice scientists have given us over the years that turned out to be absolute inversions of the truth. But then add to that the many benefits to farming and food production.

Point being, it’s not absurd to take either side in this.

9 thoughts on “On Over-Certainty In GMO Beliefs Leave a comment

  1. I am a Physician, short a Masters in Microbiology by two research papers or a thesis, was head of an IVF/ET program (was very successful) and continue to try to learn and comprehend. That said what I put forth are questions. What does the genetic modification of the seed accomplish? I do not know all the things that have been taken into account but there are a few that are known. The plant can withstand the use of very powerful herbicides (Roundup, or glyphosates). That suggests to me that the plant can absorb with damage this herbicide. Now the question is what can this herbicide do to the animal consumer of this herbicide. That question has yet to be answered, best I can tell. There are other modifications that become evident if one simply looks at a corn field of today and is able to remember one of, approx., 30 years ago. You will see virtually NO weeds in that field. You may have some recollection of a fungal growth (so I was told as a child) called “corn smut”. You see none of that today. If you talk to people that are engaged in “commercial pollinating” (the most lucrative part of being a commercial bee keeper), they have had problems with losing bee colonies for more than 20 years and those entomology scientists associated with them seem to believe that the feeding of “high fructose corn syrup”, the least expensive food source used for transportation while moving bees around the country, is the one consistent variable. Is the reason part of the Genetic Modification, say enhancing a natural pesticide in the plant or the exposure to glyphosates? I do not want this to get too long or no one will read it. Does anyone know? Why did Monsanto sell off the GMO Div. to a foreign company?

  2. GMOs allow literally billions of people to eat, who otherwise would not.
    Whether that is a good or an ill, I leave to the conscience of the reader.

    There are a few real problems with GMOs. Farmers cannot grow their own seed stocks. Genetic diversity is lacking, which may result in things like the banana crisis.

  3. When the Precautionary Principle is applied to itself, as it must be for the sake of rigorous consistency, it’s nullified or at least severely crippled as the most reasonable approach to handing uncertainty. The there’s “Who guards the guardian’s guards?” … all the way down.

    We’ve had GMOs since the first nomads began planting grasses and domesticating animals, but the laborious methods were limiting at the species level. Technology now allows trans-species gene transfer, something that happens more rarely in nature and even then requires some contact between and similarity of donor and recipient. One worry is that a foreign gene (from say a jellyfish) might be transferred from a domesticated plant to a native closely-related species and cause it to change it’s growth characteristics — for example, from a minor component of the flora to an aggressive dominant.

  4. Exring: If you were the last Dr. on earth, I’d avoid you and wing it. I find doctors such as yourself disgusting. Do you want millions of diabetics to DIE in case GMO’s turn out bad—your answer seems to be resounding YES YES YES YES. Thanks for wishing me dead. I appreciate any doctor who hates humans enough to wish them dead because they watch and/or read too much science fiction. You, to put it mildly, disgust me.

    It appears many want witch doctors and voodoo dolls now. I never thought such rampant idiocy would exist, yet there it is. The 14th century replacing the 21st. Maybe yielding to climated change believers is best—even the “smart” among us believe in fantasy, conspiracy and voodoo. Hatred of humanity seems to be the major force here and to damn much science fiction. People are just emotional fools.

    Yes, I despise people that want me dead. I have that right. Get over it.

  5. I’ll throw my two cents in. GMO (Round-Up ready) corn has been out since 1996. Since that time, people from about 14 countries have been growing this product. There appears to be no conclusive evidence of harm to people or animals by the consumption of this product. The limited number of cases reporting harm from the Starlink strain may have been caused as much by the fear generated in the media as anything.

    However, given the US children of today have grown up eating GMO corn, maybe that explains the mental state they seem to find themselves in. I bet a very strong correlation could be found in that regard.

  6. Sheri, I don’t make the connection between questioning Genetically Modified seeds and DM. I am NOT saying that all things done to arrive at a more “pure” hormone or “clean system” bad but I do ask about the rise in “peanut allergies” (the first GMO seed) that started about the same time (actually slightly delayed but that would be expected while awaiting the birth of potential babies effected). Dare I suggest that the increase in Autism, which has more than doubled and by the most recent statistics reached near 2% might suggest that we have changed something that contacts us all. The susceptibility of the growing embryo to things we do not generally associate can be critical. What I did in the Medical profession may or may not have touched you but your response is about as “unscientific” as I could imagine. Please look at the questions and try to consider what has taken place on a time line and consider what may have had an effect…
    To address the feeding of millions of people-If you cripple or kill a huge percentage what have you accomplished and only because you didn’t wish to consider serious questions.

  7. “I publicly teased him about this absurd stance, saying that if his proposition were true then we should marshal all of mankind to protect against Black Swans From Outer Space. There is a complete absence of evidence such Black Swans exist, yet if they did, they would certainly peck every man, woman, and in-between, to death. This pecking would be a mighty large consequence. Send your donations to the Stop the Swans today. Your ancestors demand it. Taleb’s argument is the core of the so-called precautionary principle, which is the last refuge of the busybody who wants to ban or regulate something without having to point to evidence of the real need of the ban.”

    I agree with much of this, but surely absence of evidence of possible dangerous Black Swans in general should guide some of our attention and resources, if not a great amount? For example, we already do this, weakly, in the form of preparing ways to destroy possibly catastrophic asteroids. I think the precautionary principle has many degrees of strength—being foolish in its strongest form but simply wise in its weaker form where a modest amount of our “power” is saved for, and is even actively used to ward off, possible crises. No?

    Moreover, I don’t think Taleb was advocating for the strong form of the principle but simply a weaker form of it. Read again what he wrote: “It is at the core of both scientific decision making and ancestral wisdom to take seriously absence of evidence when the consequences of an action can be large.” Okay, he did not write “to take with the utmost seriousness.” He wrote “seriously.” That can mean many things, and a charitable interpretation of what he means is simply a wise but not indulgent seriousness—the kind of seriousness we invest in destroying possibly catastrophic asteroids, even though there is no evidence, now, of one incoming.

  8. It is not just the genetic modifying, it is the way Monsanto did business that made people in Europe averse to GMO. And for what? Corn. Which is food for animals.

  9. It is not just corn, beet sugar, canola, peanuts, soy beans are some of the 8 or more plants that have been modified. The glyphosate issue doesn’t stop with those plants genetically modified. Small grains are manipulated by killing them systematically so they attempt to produce more seeds and can be harvested on a schedule… That said it is not just the corn and animal feed issue. France has recently changed their position, according to my Professional/Commercial Bee Keepers, because of the effect on their Bee Colonies. They have noted a change in the survivability of their colonies. Those of you that seem to require an increase in their Thorazine, have at it.

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