Only a minor point about GMOs today. Here’s how the Ars Technica “On 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.