What most people get wrong about science (Synopsis)

“Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day.” -Thomas Jefferson

If you could magically make the world a better place, what is it that you'd get rid of?

Image credit: Starving Ibos in Biafra (Nigeria) — 1967/8, via http://www.kingsacademy.com/mhodges/03_The-World-since-1900/11_The-Bewildering-60s/11i_The-Emergence-of-a-'Third-World'.htm. Image credit: Starving Ibos in Biafra (Nigeria) — 1967/8, via http://www.kingsacademy.com/mhodges/03_The-World-since-1900/11_The-Bewi….

The list is long, and the path there is uncertain. Yet if we look back and how much better our lives are today than they were hundreds or (especially) thousands of years ago, it's clear that we owe an awful lot to science and technology. How are we likely to move forward in the future?

Image credit: Global Giving of a village in Bangladesh, via http://www.globalgiving.org/projects/supply-safe-drinking-water-to-bangladesh-villagers/. Image credit: Global Giving of a village in Bangladesh, via http://www.globalgiving.org/projects/supply-safe-drinking-water-to-bang….

Science and science-based technology, of course, but there's a caveat: our ideologies get in the way. Don't let it happen to you!


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You're statement about the death toll from nuclear bombs is incorrect. The total historical death toll from nuclear weapons (including side effects) is less than the death toll from many natural disasters (e.g. the 2004 tsunami)

> In fact, GMOs, one of the most vilified techniques out there, has a better record of food safety than conventional breeding techniques, and has the potential to save millions from hunger and malnutrition.

In my opinion, the main problem of GMOs is _not_ that they are unsafe to eat, the problem is that they have the potential to drastically reduce the diversity of the crops which get cultivated. Take corn for example: The genetically modified variant which is resilient to certain insects (e.g. the corn borer) has an economic advantage for farmers, which is great by itself, _BUT_ what happens if most of the other breeds get displaced by the genetically modified one? Here is my prediction: After a few years -- or, if we're lucky, after some decades -- the insects will become resistant. There is just too much evolutionary pressure into that direction to expect otherwise. Now, the "new" crop breeds exhibit a very limited genetic diversity and are thus very susceptible for such vermin (and other diseases) which may very well lead to severely bad harvests.

Note that I'm not saying that this can't happen with conventional breeding methods (bananas are a good example), but I find it very plausible that GMOs significantly worsen this problem.

the number of deaths due to the earthquake/tsunami in Japan exceeds 15,000, and the number of deaths due to radiation is still zero, although there are a few thousand with radiation-related (and almost always non-fatal) thyroid cancer.

Worth repeating. And while the following statement is not true for some countries, the loss of human life associated with nuclear accidents vs. oil refinery accidents in the US would also be similarly lopsided: 0/year for nuclear, a few to a few tens of people per year for oil.

what happens if most of the other breeds get displaced by the genetically modified one?

They produce future generations of corn that have their own genetic variation(s), and evolution happens. That's it. I don't want to completely downplay this: the issues of GM corn are probably comparable to the issues associated with other human-introduced invasive species. When we do that, we can cause local ecological problems (and in some cases, local ecological disasters) leading to unanticipated boom and bust cycles and even local species extinctions. That's very bad. But my point is twofold: one, its not going to be any worse than what we've seen/done in the past, and two, the "GM" aspect isn't what's causing the problem here, what's causing the problem is the human tendency to introduce invasive species into a local ecology for our own benefit. We've been doing that for centuries before we discovered genetics, let alone genetic modification, and even today, just because of the relative rarity of GM species, I'd bet that the problems we cause by doing it with unmodified species are probably greater than the problem we cause by doing it with GMed ones.

> They produce future generations of corn that have their own genetic variation(s), and evolution happens. That’s it.

True. If you're talking about several thousands of years, you may actually accumulate enough mutations to have a diversity barrier again. I somehow doubt that you meant it this way, though...

Andreas, you are not the first person with this objections, even the GMO engineers very carefully think about them. The solution is:

1. The farmers are obliged to seed some percentage of the land with non-GMO corp to lower the evolutionary pressure.
2. The GMO corp combines at least three different insecticides to lower the probability of resistance.
3. They have several tents of variants of the insecticides to develop new GMO variants if the resistance occurred.

In addition, the same insecticides that are produced by GMO corp are allowed for BIO farmers. Because BIO farmers doesn't have such rules to avoid resistance, they "successfully" developed resistant insects.

"to a reasonable standard"
I do agree. However, the relative safety of any scientific intervention should be balanced against its relative risk. Just because science can bring forth an shiny new innovation, doesn't mean it should.
I see GMO's as being potentially a very high-risk intervention. Releasing unknown, fertile genetic material into the wild is shortsighted. Once it's out there, via pollen drift, cross breeding, or other means, it's out there forever. What happens when twenty years down the road, science ferrets out a previously unknown severe harm that is attributed to the GMO? It's too late to close the door. When it comes to genetics, once it's in the wild, you can't get the pee out of the pool.
The entire world depends on our genetics not going horribly awry. I see the risk of releasing fertile GMO's into our world as being unacceptably high.
Additionally, what's the real benefit? The stated goals of the GMO organisms can be met via conventional breeding, which does not introduce foreign genes into the pool.
That said, the snowy apple sounds like a much safer version of a GMO. Here is a crop that is almost never produced from seed, almost always grafted. It seems a frivolous goal to spend that much money developing an apple that doesn't brown, but, whatever. Again, there is a risk of unknown harm down the road. Bees? Allergies? Unknown, unpredictable. But unlike corn or salmon which reproduce, this harm can potentially be wholly eradicated from the environment by simply killing the offending orchards. That seems to me an acceptable risk.
Do you see the differentiation here?

I have not heard of any of these practices taking place.
Can you provide some citations, please?

GM = more 'food' = less hunger = greater population = less arable land = less natural resources = more pollution = more illness = ......... and so it goes on.


So then no GM = less food = more hunger = more starvation and human suffering would be preferable to you?


Just to add: I assume from the fact that you are using a computer to post on a science blog that you live in a developed country and would not actually be one of the people who would be starving to death if GMO crops were not used. It's pretty easy to advocate less food production in order to decrease population if you aren't actually a member of the population that is to be reduced.


GM = more ‘food’ = less hunger = greater population = less arable land = less natural resources = more pollution = more illness = ……… and so it goes on.

That's the malthusan "zero sum game" veiw of life. I submit to you that a more accurate description is:

GM = more ‘food’ = less hunger = greater population = more science and innovation = more arable land = more efficient use of resources = less pollution per erg = longer life spans = greater population……… and so it goes on.

From "Famine 1975" by Paddock, 1967, pg 56: "The world is on the threshold of the biggest famine in history. If present trends continue, it seems likely that famine will reach serious proportions in India, Pakistan and China in the early 1970s... Such a famine will be of massive proportions affecting hundreds of millions."

From "Wall Street Journal," 26 August 2014, Headline: "China Is Awash in Grain Crops, Surpluses Will Be Sold Into a Global Market Already in Oversupply."

The real problem with GMOs is that their success hampers alarmists' book sales and depresses all those effete academics whose soapboxes are kicked out from under them.

By Bill McConnell (not verified) on 05 Sep 2014 #permalink

> These articles are excellent answers to your question:
> http://www.biofortified.org/2014/07/sex-and-death-in-the-cornfields-wha…
> http://www.biofortified.org/2014/08/sex-and-death-in-the-cornfields-par…

here is all I would like to respond to this:


to be clear: I'm not against GMOs per-se, but using them is also always a political decision with some huge corperations being in the lobbying part of the audience...

Reggie, thanks for the reference, that's good to know.

Bill, I was under the impression from last week's news that GMO's aren't allowed in China. http://mobile.reuters.com/article/idUKL4N0BY2BC20130307?irpc=932
That Wall Street journal article you referenced also notes that China is not currently allowing GMO's to be imported. Additionally, I don't know of GMO wheat on the market, at least not in the US. Could those bumper crops not be coming from conventional seed?
There's many real problems with GMO's. One of them is that people are attributing unrelated agricultural advances to the introduction of GMO's.

"Imagine a world where all of your hopes and dreams of ridding the world of evils could actually come to fruition, simply at the snap of your fingers."

Okay, I've snapped my fingers. Instantly, everyone is provided with the following gifts: humility; critical thinking skills; and a basic understanding of science.

"What is it that would be missing from this world?"

Ideologies (i.e. all systems that place ideology above evidence-based reasoning) and all dogma-based disputes, including warfare.

The most common error in reasoning that I've encountered during my lifetime seems to be the category error (aka category mistake).

An example that we've all experienced is people who take any critique of their stated beliefs and opinions as a personal attack. Although I have the right to believe, and state in public, that Pluto is made of Cheddar cheese and has mice living on it, this right carries with it a responsibility to accept challenges, harsh criticism, even ridicule. If I take offence to critique of my beliefs or my ideology then I've not only committed a category error, I'm in dire need of attending a course on developing interpersonal skills, followed by a course on developing critical thinking skills.

One thing that most people get wrong about science is holding the false belief that they can swiftly dismiss it by equivocating science to just one of many belief systems — e.g. science is only a dogmatic ideology. Doing this is making the most profound category error, a fundamental epistemic error, and attacking the pillars of reason.

If you could magically make the world a better place, what is it that you’d get rid of?


Sean, #11, there aren't any people dying of starvation due to not enough GMO foods.

The starving are doing so because of corruption, being of the wrong faith/caste/race, war and huge underwriting of western food by the west, making the third world unable to compete.

GMOs wouldn't do anything for the politics or bigotry and would make the inequality of access worse.


I am aware of that. I was responding to PJ's premise that increased use of GM crops would lead to more food production and therefore more population which PJ regarded as a negative thing. While a population increase may not be desirable, I was simply pointing out the hypocrisy in the views of those who advocate for a population reduction, namely that it never seems to be the population-reduction advocates who are the ones to be "reduced". Or do you deny that in a hypothetical shortage of food that it would be people living in the underdeveloped countries that would be the ones hardest hit by such a shortage?

@ Sean T

while I completely agree with you on subject of GM and crops etc..

The hypothetical food shortage scenario might play out in many different ways, depending on the scenario that caused the shortage in first place. In one such scenario, I would disagree with your view that 3rd world countries would be hardest hit. Here is why. Imagine global shortage of everyday food produce caused by i.e. no more gas and no general available alternative solution (hypothetical scenario). It is not an immediate event, meaning there are several years or decade of "warning". If you already live of a land, you will not be affected that much in terms of feeding yourself and your family. By muscle alone, you can produce/hunt/gather enough in order to feed a small family. The lack of petrol, or some economic colapse, or lack of electricity will mean you will not be able to mass produce, there will be no surplus, or might be in some years. And there will be famine if your crops fail etc.. but in general, most living of the land won't be that affected. Those who will be most affected are people living in large urban areas, that are entirely reliant on bought food, in other words, the surplus of people working the land. In case of i.e. mass energy shortage all those mega farms and green houses are gone. And millions living in cities will start to starve after couple of weeks. So my view would be that in fact opposite would happen, and that (in this hypothetical scenario) the most developed areas (most reliant on electricity) would suffer first and most, regardles of econimical prosperity or GDP.... i.e. a farmer in Mongolia will still have his heard, but a person living in center of LA will have no food in area of 100km... and no skill or resource to make food. In fact he
will be in the middle of civil anarchy.

Am not preaching those doomsday preppers or anything... but the fact is, that living in underdeveloped parts of the world, and living in "underdeveloped" conditions... might have some good sides in certain cases. Much "less" to loose or to change than for someone 100% reliant on modernity to survive.

By Sinisa Lazarek (not verified) on 09 Sep 2014 #permalink

Just following up on James comment #1 - The bombing of Horishima (the dealisest of the two) wouldn't even register in the top 10 natural disasters of all time - nowhere near. The big earthquakes, cyclones and floods are all way bigger. In fact, it has been argued that even on the level of human destruction, the firebombing of Tokyo caused as many, if not more casualities, than the nuclear attack of Hiroshima.

By Waterbergs (not verified) on 09 Sep 2014 #permalink

Well, that went well. I do not recall advocating the reduction of any group. As it stands, science is looking for answers re how to feed future populations - would that not imply a food shortage is already upon us? Breeding less might hold a better answer for the long term survival of the species.
It is not only the number of humans on this planet; think of how many animals have to be here to support this population. We bury our waste, then wait for those piles of detrius to reduce, meanwhile eking into the water table, slowly degrading its quality. Let's cut down more forest. That way we will have more land for crops, less clean air for us eventually.
I am all for science & research for the betterment of humanity, but, somewhere along the way, we need to take stock of where we are at this moment.
Sinisa (#20) seems to have a good understanding of survival probabilities were the proverbial to hit the fan.
We have a planet to look after for our & future welfare. We should have started seriously doing that 100 years ago.