Gene Expression

The other denialisms

This discussion between Michael Specter & Chris Mooney pointed me to an interesting new book, Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives. Instead of Global Warming or Creationism, Specter addresses less pervasively disputatious issues such as genetically modified food, the anti-vaccination movement and the politics of the FDA approval process (at least judging from the discussion). Mooney & Specter also point to the reality that denialism exists in Blue America (though anyone who has followed the dabbling of the Huffington Post in this area would be aware of that stream of thought). When I was in college a friend of mine who was active in Leftish causes expressed her disgust with the idea of fish genetic material spliced into tomatoes.* This is a cliche and widely quoted example, so she wasn’t being original, but it was clear that she thought that the argument was powerful on prima facie grounds. That is, fish genes shouldn’t be in plants. Why? Because they just shouldn’t. This genre of argument from intuition and plausibility derived from an emotional response is of the same family as Sarah Palin’s Creationism.

This does not mean that one should reject intuition and reflexive feeling. These stances often encapsulate the wisdom of evolution (e.g., aversion to sibling-sibling incest) and/or society (again, aversion to sibling-sibling incest). The totally rational life, where all acts and opinions are subject to deep and thorough criticism, is not the human life (even Karl Popper was more of a theoretical critical rationalist than an operational one judging by his private and personal actions and style of argument). But, serious problems emerge when our intuitive prejudices push themselves into the scientific domain. Natural science has over the past few centuries proven itself to be a marvel not by extension of our intuition, but contravention of that intuition resulting in an even closer fit to reality (contrast Newtonian physics with “folk physics”).** Humans have always had engineering in the form of tinkering with technology. But the last two centuries of productivity growth through mechanical improvements have been based in part on the rise of science as a theoretical framework which allows for more than trial & error experimentation guided by intuition. Science allows us to stand on the shoulders of giants, no matter how bizarre or counterintuitive their theories are, because they are judged not on plausibility but predictivity.

* This is a very intelligent individual who went and completed a doctorate in the humanities.

** Of course, there’s intuition and then there’s intuition. Specialists in technical fields often develop domain-specific intuitions through long experience. This is often evident when it takes some time to unpack one’s thought process to someone else as to why a problem or issue has a given resolution. When I was an 18 year old taking general chemistry a graduate student explained this problem to me, as she often could immediately balance equations because of her familiarity with the subject matter, but had to slowly think her way through all the various steps to explain to a bewildered freshman the nature of the solution. Or at least that was her apologia for the disjunction between the rapidity of her “recognition” of whether an answer was wrong & what the general form of the solution would be, to her often labored step by step exposition.

Comments

  1. #1 Chris Harrison
    November 16, 2009

    I have a family member who is of the same denialist mold as your old friend.
    However, I also had a genetics professor obstinately against GMOs for what he claimed to be scientific reasons. Actually the best he could do was hand-wave about not knowing all the possible ramifications that GENE X will have on the biological functioning of the GMO that receives GENE X.
    Then again he also encouraged us to watch Loose Change and is generally referred to as “batshit crazy”.

  2. #2 toto
    November 17, 2009

    Instead of Global Warming or Creationism, Specter addresses less pervasively disputatious issues such as genetically modified food

    Sometimes I wonder if America is actually on the same planet as us.

    Why? Because they just shouldn’t.

    Are you sure that there wasn’t an implied sense of hidden dangers? Wasn’t there a subtext of, “doing that kind of stuff may lead to unpredictable, dangerous outcomes”? The mad cow disease, in particular, has made some folks people extremely touchy about “unnatural” methods in agriculture (making cows eat animal proteins was a factor in the propagation of the disease).

  3. #3 razib
    November 17, 2009

    Wasn’t there a subtext of, “doing that kind of stuff may lead to unpredictable, dangerous outcomes”

    the generic precautionary principle is a catchall argument which adds pretty much 0 to an argument. where you find it compelling, and don’t find it compelling, is due to other factors (norms, preferences, informed judgments).

    has made some folks people extremely touchy about “unnatural” methods in agriculture (making cows eat animal proteins was a factor in the propagation of the disease).

    industrial farming is different than GMO. he makes the distinction in the diavlog. the problems which emerge from industrial farming, the trade-offs for cheap production of meat through its particular methods are predictable, even if they manifest stochastically.

  4. #4 miko
    November 17, 2009

    I think there are some legitimate arguments against GMO, but they are all practical rather than principled. For one, we leave safety testing in the hands of the agribusiness and the FDA, which is a joke. I also disagree with certain uses, for example when it is used solely to make crops that can have more herbicides used on them. Gene flow may be a problem. But given current agricultural practice overall, particularly the meat industry, I find it very strange that people obsess over GMO. I never think twice about it from a personal health point of view, being fairly confident that anything a gene can do in a piece of food, my digestive enzymes can undo.

    I think there is something to be said for generic precaution, like the Asilomar conference and moratorium in the early days of recombinant DNA. Those were brilliant scientists who were sure what they were doing was safe, but had some sense of how little they knew about what bacteria might do once you started handing out useful plasmids, and some sense that they should honestly earn some regulatory trust. The tools developed in that era are amazing and have been standard for 30 years. In ag-tech you have hacks who have to make quarterly progress reports in a poorly regulated industry. Mostly this is a shame because the potential for GMO to do things more useful than selling more Roundup goes mostly unrealized. Golden rice (non-industry) was a good try.

  5. #5 Don
    November 17, 2009

    I’m from the university that produced the canning tomato, the Flar Savr (an early commercial gene spliced tomato),and scientists basic and social on both sides of the left right divide. Growers are also in evidence around here, at conferences and sometimes gifting the university as they approach the Grim Reaper. My introduction to anti-GMO prejudice was from a very conservative grower who had the litany down pat. He talked lots of the fish-gene stuff, “it ain’t natural,” and “they taste bad” (which is true). At the end of the day it appeared to me that his major objection was a fear that GMOs would be brutally competitive, lessening his advantage in access to subsidized, cheap water. His fears have not materialized. Not yet at least, as it is very hard to engineer drought resistance in high yield crops.

  6. #6 Sam c
    November 17, 2009

    So, Razib, anybody who doesn’t agree with your judgements is an unscientific denialist, are they? And the precautionary principle is rubbish too?

    This pro-scientist arrogance is all too typical of Science Blogs, where the bloggers routinely insult anybody who doesn’t agree 100% with their infallible verdicts.

    Right, let’s approach some of your nonsense. GMOs are not different from industrial farming, they are part of industrial farming, which is one of the reasons many people are not happy about them. GMOs involve huge commercial concerns taking over control of agriculture with onerous licence conditions for use and re-use of seeds. Oh, that’s not science? Well, tough, it’s still a damned good reason to be fearful. Loss of variability is another good reason. Not everything is about science, it’s often about people.

    Precautionary principle no good? How totally pathetically ignorantly stupidly arrogant can you be? Anybody of any age has seen any number of techno-fixes that have come unstuck due to lack of knowledge. In the UK we built lots of box girder bridges, fine construction technique, lots of good engineers on the job, but unfortunately many needed to be modified when the flaws were found. We had wonderfully safe nuclear power, never mind the Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Windscale and other accidents that demonstrate its problems. Mothers were given thalidomide for morning sickness, and we’re still discussing compensation for the drug’s victims. DNA testing is said to be highly accurate to one in ten to the lots but at least one mother had her children taken off her because infallible genetic testing showed she was not their mother – she was, but she was a genetic chimera so had two mixed genotypes. And the mad cow disease problem has already been raised.

    GMOs are probably mainly safe. But I’m still happier with integrated naturally and artificially selected genomes than ones that have been mucked about with, by scientists who have not necessarily understood that this fact: just because you don’t know something doesn’t mean there’s nothing to know.

    Why do scientists of all generations seem to think they are on the boundaries of knowing everything and there are just a few details to fill in? Why should we respect your knowledge as much as you demand when you don’t seem to appreciate the possible bounds of your ignorance?

    You quoted approvingly:

    But, serious problems emerge when our intuitive prejudices push themselves into the scientific domain.

    Well, I think we can say that serious problems can also emerge when scientific prejudices push themselves into the social domain.

    And that intuitive prejudices may often reflect far more rational concerns than one-eyed scientists can understand.

  7. #7 razib
    November 17, 2009

    This pro-scientist arrogance is all too typical of Science Blogs, where the bloggers routinely insult anybody who doesn’t agree 100% with their infallible verdicts.

    sam, i routinely simply do not publish asshole comments. you’ve made comments before which weren’t asshole before, so i’ll let this go through. for a non-dick version of your argument, see miko above. since miko was not being an asshole, i did read his comment. didn’t read yours too much.

  8. #8 bioIgnoramus
    November 17, 2009

    Can anyone state for me this so-called “Precautionary Principle”? I am sceptical as to its existence.

  9. #9 Keith Harwood
    November 18, 2009

    The Precqautionary Principle is real and widely known. It is this.

    Nothing should ever be done for the first time.

  10. #10 D
    November 18, 2009

    Other examples from the left: blank slate doctrines, including group differences(IQ); the existence of innate intelligence; and sex cognitive/emotioanl differences.

  11. #11 Christophe Thill
    November 18, 2009

    Intuition is not magic. It’s merely habits that sink into the unconscious level, “hardwire themselves” so to say, and start working automatically. Most of the time it’s an analytical process; only its steps remain hidden.

  12. #12 Chris Schoen
    November 18, 2009

    It is trivially true that genes from two edible organisms are still edible when combined in a single food item. For many people there is still a yuk factor (obviously there is also a moral problem for many vegetarians and vegans), but this is not the same as denialism. Your friend was not claiming that fish genes in tomatoes were impossible, or even unsafe, but merely yucky. That’s her prerogative without being called anti-science.

    The primary arguments against GMOs are moral, not scientific. Should giant agrobusinesses be allowed to patent genomes? Should farmers have to buy seedcorn every year because the GM variant is sterile? One area where precaution is warranted is in cross-pollination with wild variants, so that non GM corn (in the one example) also becomes sterile. Farms do not exist in quarantine.

    Most people with concerns about GM food do not believe that precaution should prevent us from innovating anything new to solve problems like hunger. Rather they feel that the public debate should be transparent and vigorous, and that the scientific/industrial establishment has lost the benefit of the doubt long ago when it comes to safety. There are serious conflicts of interest in play, so that (for example) even now as the EPA promises that the PCB clean-up around hundreds of General Electric sites has been successful, massive contamination is still being found by interest groups.

    PCBs were known to be lethal as early as the 1930s, and yet were legal until 1978 in the US, mostly because safer alternatives would cut into GE’s profit margins. Let’s consider new technology in the context of the real world, where powerful interests routinely lie to protect the bottom line.

    It’s not denialism to respond to bland assurances of safety with some reticence, under the circumstances.

  13. #13 Clark
    November 18, 2009

    So, Razib, anybody who doesn’t agree with your judgements is an unscientific denialist, are they? And the precautionary principle is rubbish too?

    This pro-scientist arrogance is all too typical of Science Blogs, where the bloggers routinely insult anybody who doesn’t agree 100% with their infallible verdicts.

    You have to admit this is pretty good evidence that the left wing denialists sound a lot like the right wing (anti-evolution, anti-global warming) denialists.

  14. #14 Joseph W.
    November 18, 2009

    Bio – the more common phrasing is, “When in doubt, we should err on the side of caution.”

  15. #15 jay
    November 18, 2009

    Intuition, trained by experience, can be helpful in areas where we don’t have the immediate facts available for a full rational analysis. It’s the analog side of our brains, as well as many animals, where the neural network learns to balance inputs and produce some semblance of a credible output.

    A good engineer, or scientist, will have a strong sense of what will work and what will not, while not fully understanding why.

    Intuition should never replace rational analysis where that is available, but in much of life, intuition is a good bet.

  16. #16 Raging Bee
    November 18, 2009

    This pro-scientist arrogance is all too typical of Science Blogs, where the bloggers routinely insult anybody who doesn’t agree 100% with their infallible verdicts.

    Coming from someone who himself leads off by both insulting and misrepresenting someone who had expressed skepticism of the “pro-science” position, the above accusation is as hypocritical as it is ignorant. Sam c, you just blew your own credibility and left me a LOT less inclined to read the rest of your comment.

  17. #17 miko
    November 18, 2009

    “Nothing should ever be done for the first time.”

    I think that’s Harvard’s motto, though my Latin sucks.

    “You have to admit this is pretty good evidence that the left wing denialists sound a lot like the right wing (anti-evolution, anti-global warming) denialists.”

    I don’t see anything “left” about SamC’s comment… contempt toward scientists is pretty balanced across the spectrum, though on the right it is sometimes masked by knee-jerk defense of any and all corporate interests, and on the left when it is anti-corporate. Everyone loves “science” that coddles their sensibilities.

  18. #18 Ponto
    November 18, 2009

    It is all very simple: We are not all created equal.

    The vast majority of the humanity are not evil, psychotic or in any way, offensive to the life of others BUT unfortunately they are dumber than dipsticks. They don’t get it, will never get it. Basically hewers of wood and drawers of water. That is not referring to any human group of whatever level of skin pigmentation but all humanity. Leave them to their silly beliefs, and they will continue to hew wood and draw water. I know that sounds arrogant. To me that is the fact.

    Science or more properly scientists have their beliefs. Paradigms as Thomas Kuhn called it in his very boring book. Once scientists form a hypothesis they do their damn best to prove it, to the point of fudging results, and hold on to their paradigms come hell or high water and will fight to the death to defend their beliefs despite facts proving their hypotheses are crap. In other words scientists are basically just ordinary humans with human foibles.

    I am interested in genetics. I am haplogroup J1. My word, have all the nutters come out on that one. The Jewish caste of Cohens, Muhammad’s haplogroup, the haplogroup of Shem and all the other Bible existing folks that lived in the Middle East at some mythical date in history. Haplogroup J1 was originally found to be less than 10 ky and supposedly the same age the Semitic language group, and those Bible folk. I call that an agenda par excellence, and pseudo genetic science. Haplogroup J1 is at least 25 ky old, much older than Jews or Arabs or Semitic languages or any holy books written by the hand of any male human.
    You can see the same wrong thinking with haplogroup R1b. It is Paleolithic! It was in Cro Magnon men! Really silly assumptions based on the frequency of R1b in the current era in western Europe being assumed to have been in that part of Europe and at that frequency for tens of millenia. The proof is totally lacking. The Basques elevation to be modern facsimiles of Paleolithic men, which I think is amusing, is another pseudo scientific belief.

    Most of the genetic science that has been done to date, example, trying to prove the putative level of sub Saharan, and North African admixture in Spain or Italy, is a total waste of time, of money and of scarce funds earmarked for real science endeavors. As you see I think the idea of the retention of dna from the Paleolithic men of ancient Europe, in the modern European is somewhat exaggerated and in reality, not true. I wait to be proven wrong when the first Paleolithic European human genome has been sequenced and compared with modern Europeans. Putting the Neanderthal theory of mixing with any ATMs should also be put to rest. My theory is that the ancestors of modern Europeans only go back to the time after the LGM and is mostly of more recent vintage than that date. In other words all those ATMs as well as the Neanderthals went extinct like many animals did during the Ice Age. That hypothesis is as provable as the Paleolithic/Neolithic one that is the current paradigm used in genetic studies.

    Science is good but it is definitely not perfect.

  19. #19 zlz
    November 19, 2009

    The precautionary principle is that when you have a new strain of organism that has been developed by breeding methods other than recombinant DNA techniques, you can assess its safety with respect to unintended consequences of breeding by putting it on the market and seeing if anyone gets sick. And sometimes they do, because breeding does give rise to surprises (e.g. elevated levels of psoralens in celery causing dermatitis, solanidine and demissidine glycolalkaloids in potatoes).

    However, if the new strain was developed by using a recombinant DNA technique, then the idea that you’d take the same risks you’ve happily been taking all along is an Evil Plot by Corporate Agribusiness with the support of Scientific Arrogance and is the worst and most evil thing in the world.

    That would be the ‘Precautionary Principle’.

  20. #20 Russell
    November 23, 2009

    This does not mean that one should reject intuition and reflexive feeling. These stances…

    Razib, it seems to me you here conflate a) reflexive feeling as motivation and b) reflexive feeling as themselves constituting a knowledge claim. It’s worthwhile teasing apart those two roles. Which you do, for example, by talking dispassionately about incest.

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