How can environmental groups and media outlets maintain that they are advocates of science, and not ideology, when they engage in the anti-science Luddism of GMO fearmongering? The potential of this anti-science behavior to poison their credibility on global climate change is real, as there is an obvious comparison between their flawed risk assessment on GM foods being compared to their legitimate risk assessments on issues of global climate change and pollution.
One of the major arguments of environmental groups on global warming is that there is overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change. This consensus, which is represented by the IPCC and supported by the national academies and scientific societies of every country in the world, is that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and that human activities add enough of this heat-trapping gas to warm the planet. This is a valid argument. When one finds oneself on the opposite of the scientific consensus of such esteemed bodies as the NAS, the Royal Society, the IPCC, etc., you should be worried. If you don’t have an overwhelming level of evidence and a solid body of literature backing you up, you should consider a period of introspection and self-evaluation, because you might just be a crank or denialist. Most cranks don’t have this capability, instead they have conspiracy theories, and a set of ready-made logical fallacies to throw at their critics like “you’re just a shill for x”, where x is variably big pharma, monsanto, corporations in general, big government, grant money, environmental groups, the democratic party, the republican party, or whatever other bogeyman the crank hates. If they throw in a reference to how they’re just like Galileo, we’ll happily give them the crank stamp and call it a day.
That’s why it’s so disturbing when purportedly pro-science environmental media groups like Grist engage in this exact same behavior. In his promotion of the underwhelming evidence presented recently against GMO corn and soy, Tom Laskawy wrote against the “GMO-lovers” (uggh it’s just like Warmist) “freaking out” over these results.
Umm, no. Freaking out would suggest that a study had been performed that created enough evidence that the extensive literature on safety has in any way been put in doubt. This is not the case. What’s Laskawy’s read of the situation?
OK, everyone have a seat and take a few deep breaths. Go to your calming place. Ready? Good. Because I’m about to talk about a new study that suggests that eating genetically modified crops might not be the best thing for us.
You’ll remember, I’m sure, the recent brouhaha over a French study by scientist Gilles-Eric Séralini that purported to find evidence that a GMO-based diet caused tumors in rats. Critics immediately raised significant questions about that study and the consensus quickly became that it was poorly conceived and executed. It was also the study that caused several science writers to conclude that anti-GMO sentiment was the moral equivalent of climate denial. Good times.
Already we’re in trouble. The study in no way suggests that GM might be harmful to us, because the study doesn’t suggest anything at all. The study authors might make that suggestion, but the results of the study are just as likely to be due to chance as from any effect of GM food, and in the days since I’ve learned their assay of inflammation was only based on redness at gross pathology. In my first read I had been too charitable and thought they had actually performed histology to assess for inflammation, silly me. Similarly, the the Seralini paper was a joke, its press-release promotion was despicable, it was ample demonstration of the ideological bias and political motivation of those performing the study. When science writers like me discuss the equivalence between GMO scarmongering and global warming denialism, it’s not a moral one. We’re criticizing the methods, not their motivations or good intentions. So we already have overstatement of a paper that literally shows nothing, followed by a straw man about how we science writers are just big mean bullies calling them “immoral”. Sorry, we have a legitimate beef with the anti-science methods of the anti-GM advocates, and the methods, not surprisingly, are the same as with global warming deniers. That’s because, when one wants to oppose a body of evidence, the tactics of denialism are pretty much universal, that’s what we’ve been writing about here for the last 6 years.
For the most part we have no issue with the morals of the anti-GM advocates, if anything, they only really have good intentions, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions. This may be why there is is one clear difference between global warming denialists and GM advocates as far as I know. Marc Morano and Steve Milloy tend to confine their insane stupidity to websites and TV appearances, while anti-GM advocates have frequently used violence, including arson, property damage and destruction of scientific experiments rather than engage in dialogue. The global warming denialists might be mean, and routinely slander scientists like Michael Mann, but they have yet to show up in his lab and set it on fire.
Anyway, after a summary of the study, Laskaway continues:
Nonetheless, even critics of the study agree that it was conducted in a rigorous way, and the findings are intriguing and worth pursuing. The researchers did, after all, find high rates of severe inflammation.
Well if you actually read what the critics said in that link you find something interesting, they said, “The paper does not support the claim that GM crops cause stomach inflammation or increased uterus weight.” Who cares if they complemented its design if they felt the results were so weak that it didn’t support it’s own conclusions? If anything, that would be more damning to the study. Nor do I see where they said these results are “intriguing” or “worth pursuing”. Maybe Laskaway is taking the classic, “needs more study”, deflection of scientists seriously. By the way, when scientists say that, it’s usually a more polite way to say, “nice try, but you haven’t proven anything yet”. Then look to see who is exaggerating to see where the bullshit it. Huffpo described this paper as “damning” to GMOs. Um, are we reading the same paper? The author, Carman, on her website refers to the paper as a “landmark study”. A paper that shows nothing has been declared, by the authors no less, to be a “landmark” within days of it’s publication because why exactly? Has it been cited yet? Has it created a new field of study? Has the Nobel committee been calling already? This paper is only intriguing to those who desperately want it to be. To me it’s about as intriguing as roadkill.
But instead of calling for independent, rigorous science to explore the questions the study raised, critics dismiss it as “junk science,” biased by Carman, who is a professor at Flinders University in South Australia but has produced commentary critical of GMOs.
But what if the study didn’t really raise any questions worth answering? If you perform a screen for 100 different variables, and you end up with 5 statistically-significant results, you haven’t actually raised any questions or proven anything. Really, all you’ve done is performed an exercise in statistical probabilities. Without any follow-up analysis, without expansion upon and prospective validation of the findings of the screen, all you’ve done is wasted our time. Don’t make me post the relevant XKCD again, because I will goddammit. This is, also, ignoring the critique which suggests the stomach inflammation assay itself was fundamentally-flawed as they apparently didn’t even do tissue histology for their pathological scale! Basic peer review should have taken care of these problems, and that’s why you have to be so careful about lower tier journals with questionable peer-review and editorial standards.
Critics of GMOs are accused of letting ideology trump science. But watching the scathing, knee-jerk reactions to any new piece of research that shines a less-than-positive light on GMOs, it makes me think that the shrill has found itself on the other foot.
These are not “knee-jerk” reactions to criticisms of GMO, these are reasoned and valid criticisms of shoddy papers, and over-interpretation of data. If there were a legitimate paper showing a risk to GM foods I wouldn’t be pissed off at all, I have no dog in that fight. What irritates me is waking up to find lay-media sources parroting exaggerated claims of a press-release for a paper that basically shows nothing.
And what exactly is the ideology that ties together Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, Mike Shermer, Dave Gorski (who thinks the anti-vaxx comparison is more apt), Steve Novella, and Keith Kloor? Could it be skepticism? Respect for science? It sure isn’t politics (Shermer is even a libertarian – ewwwww). None of us works for any of these companies, or receives money from them (although I hear Keith is in bed with Monsanto these days). That won’t stop us all from being called a “shill” in every comment thread in which we express skepticism of the often outrageous, science-fiction claims of anti-GM advocates like Jeffrey Smith. So what’s this ideology that binds us all together on the ludicrous nature arguments made against GMO, other than a hatred of bullshit?
So Laskaway is partially correct, on one side we have groups with a specific and obvious bias with a high probability of ideology clouding their reason on science. On the other side we have the AAAS, the European Commission, the Royal Society, the National Academy of Science Institute of Medicine, and a diverse group of skeptic and science writers from Richard Dawkins to PZ Myers to Dave Gorski and Steve Novella. Feel free any time to take these two weak papers that show nothing, wave them under our nose and call us the ideologues.
This reminds me of Amy Schumer taking on a heckler and warning them to take the draw.
Take the draw.