Anti-science is not a state of mind


Can you be skeptical about GM but believe in climate change? So asks Alice Bell in The Guardian. The answer is of course, "Yes," but you can also be a fundamentalist Christian while believing in evolution and being a great scientist, so being able to hold two things in your brain at the same time is not a useful measure of logical incompatibility. One can be right about one thing and wrong about the other.

But let's get to the real issue raised in Bell's piece, the use of the term "anti-science" to describe opponents of genetically modified organisms (GMOs):

When people use the term "anti-science", I want to know what definition of science they've based their concept of anti on.

Challenge accepted. When I use the term "anti-science," (and I have a couple times), I'm referring to the act of ignoring studies that refute your hypothesis without explaining their flaw, cherry-picking studies that support your hypothesis without regard to their rigor, ignoring the consensus of experts in peer reviewed literature, making claims that are not based in fact, shouting down people who point out those facts as shills, liars or worse etc.

Who'd be simplistic enough to be "pro" the whole of science? What sort of shallow, shampoo advert "science bit" approach to the complexities of modernity are they living by?

Who'd be simplistic enough to expand a term to it's most far-reaching interpretation, and sophistic enough to argue against that interpretation as if it meant anything. The opposite of being "anti-science" on GMO is not being "'pro' the whole of science." And what's so wrong about being pro-science? It doesn't take much nuance to accept that the scientific process is, as Carl Sagan said, "by far the most successful claim to knowledge accessible to humans," while also acknowledging, again as Carl Sagan said, "It is not perfect, it's just the best we have."

Still, I'm sympathetic with the idea that the term anti-science is, as Bell writes:

...all too often applied to close down debate.

As science communicators, we can't just say that someone is anti-science, dust off our hands and walk away. We need to explain the science, and explain why those people are wrong. The fact is, no one is really against science, which is why the anti-science criticism stings so much. Science is consistently rated among the most trusted professions, and people that don't believe in global warming or are against GMOs have to believe that their positions are grounded in scientific veracity.

I think that my main difference with Bell, and perhaps the source of the rest of my disagreement is this:

It's also a lot easier for the GM lobby to play a game of "you are wrong on science" rather than acknowledging that the bulk of the critique against them is economic and political. [emphasis mine]

It's simply not true that the bulk of objections to GMO are economic and political, and this is a huge problem. There *are* very reasonable political and economic arguments about the problems with modern agriculture, like industrial farming, monoculture and sustainability. But anti-GMO activists rail against "frankenfoods" as the boogyman for everything that ails agriculture, when most of these problems are not unique to genetically modified crops.

If my experience with people on the internet, family members, friends and acquaintances that oppose or are skeptical of GMOs is at all representative, the main objection is a vague feeling that GMO is unnatural, and therefore unsafe. For those that rise to the level of activism, economics and politics are almost never brought up, except as a last resort after I've addressed their other concerns.

But don't take my word for it, take a look at the literature published by groups supporting labeling laws in CA. They claim that GMO crops:

  • Are laboratory-made, using technology that is totally different from natural breeding methods, and pose different risks from non-GM crops

  • Can be toxic, allergenic or less nutritious than their natural counterparts

  • Are not adequately regulated to ensure safety

  • Do not increase yield potential

  • Do not reduce pesticide use but increase it

  • Create serious problems for farmers, including herbicide-tolerant “superweeds”, compromised soil quality, and increased disease susceptibility in crops

  • Have mixed economic effects

  • Harm soil quality, disrupt ecosystems, and reduce biodiversity

  • Do not offer effective solutions to climate change

  • Are as energy-hungry as any other chemically-farmed crops

  • Cannot solve the problem of world hunger but distract from its real causes – poverty, lack of access to food and, increasingly, lack of access to land to grow it on.

Now, I could spend days discussing many of these points, but that's a separate issue. I've bolded the points that I think could be classified as "economic and political," though the regulation and world hunger are really a mix of political and scientific questions. Still, that's 3/11 bullet points, hardly "the bulk" of criticism.

I would love to move to a discussion of economics and politics. There's a lot to be said, a lot of policy that could be changed. Despite my criticism of the Union of Concerned Scientists' position on GMO crops, their proposals around agriculture policy generally are excellent and deserve serious discussion. But having those discussions while people scream about non-existent allergens, toxins and health risks due to GMO is impossible.

For environmentalists that care about the health of the planet (I consider myself among them), agriculture is one of many 1,000 lbs gorillas in the room, but we're not having the right conversations. The anti-science of GMO activists is not a state of mind, not a philosophy or underlying motivation, it's an adjective for a subset of positions that is not based in experimental reality. And I for one will continue to call them out on it.


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I feel the need to state that I have no strong feelings about GMOs. But it seems to me that those who object to them on ideological grounds are better described as anti-technology, not anti-science, providing that by science one means a process or profession rather than an ideology. Science provides the basic information necessary to produce GMOs and many other modern products, but their commercial production is technology. Some people take the ideological position toward "modern" technology that we should strictly apply the "precautionary principle" and avoid anything new that is possibly harmful until it has been proven safe. Others take the ideological position that any new and profitable technology should be embraced until (and often after) it has been proven harmful. There seems to be no way of proving that either of those positions or any other point on the spectrum between them is "right."

Your list of bullet points is instructive. You claim that only three are "economic or political," then suggest that the remainder are "vague anti-science feelings" or "screaming" that, not being based in "experimental reality", merit automatic rejection. Firstly, I would say that most of the bullet points are indeed economic. If it were indeed true that a certain GMO may not have superior yield, but increases the farmer's total costs for various inputs and may lead directly or indirectly to superweed production or other damage to the soil and ecosystem on which the farmer ultimately depends, these would be powerful economic reasons to reject the new crop. Secondly, these questions imply others, such as: if there is a possible environmental problem or economic risk, should our default opinion be concern or unconcern? Published scientific studies do support the plausibility of some ecological concerns; how much evidence should be necessary to sway our opinions? (Do you know how much is available in each case?) If the best available science says that there is no obvious human health risk but there probably is a risk to other species, is that a reason to limit a product's use? If the only support for claims of increased yield comes from the producer because independent tests are legally restricted, how much weight, if any, should be placed upon it? These are not factual questions but values questions. Since values questions cannot be answered by science, a person's answer to them cannot be termed "unscientific." (This applies whether he is taking the extreme anti-technology position or the extreme pro-technology position. I might think it is crazy and evil, say, to be willing to cause a mass extinction for the sake of coal company profits, but I would not term it unscientific; only denying observed facts - let's avoid here the argument about what counts as a fact - or well-supported scientific hypotheses is anti-science.)

But it seems to me that those who object to them on ideological grounds are better described as anti-technology, not anti-science

This is a fair bit of nuance that deserves conversation. I would argue that they are against the technology, but deny science in order to support their position.

Your list of bullet points is instructive. You claim that only three are “economic or political,” then suggest that the remainder are “vague anti-science feelings”[I said "vague feeling that GMO is unnatural] or “screaming” that, not being based in “experimental reality”, merit automatic rejection.

I think you're mischaracterizing my position a bit here. I obviously did not go into detail about each point; that would require many epic posts, and others have done the leg work on most of these claims already. I would never say that a position merits "automatic rejection," but these claims merit rejection on the balance of scientific evidence.

Firstly, I would say that most of the bullet points are indeed economic.

Almost any claim about a commercial product will have economic components, but the principal objection in these cases is not a claim about the economics, it's a claim about a fact that is amenable to scientific scrutiny.

If it were indeed true that a certain GMO may not have superior yield, but increases the farmer’s total costs for various inputs and may lead directly or indirectly to superweed production or other damage to the soil and ecosystem on which the farmer ultimately depends, these would be powerful economic reasons to reject the new crop.

This is certainly true. I have trouble believing that farmers would make the informed decision to purchase seeds that cost more and did not improve yield, but long term negative externalities of soil depletion could be harder for farmers to price in. Of course, that first statement that I bolded is key, the "if it were true" part is a scientific question. If it were true, there would be economic consequences, but the arguments are around the truth of the claim, and that's where the anti-science comes in.

All of the questions that follow in that paragraph are good questions, ones that merit discussion, and I agree that they are based on questions of values and not science. Unfortunately, those are largely not the conversations being had, since proponents and opponents are so apart on the basic facts. Further, the answers to many of those questions will be answers in the specific, not general, use of genetic engineering. It is possible that the environmental or economic impact of "GMO X" is too high, while the impact of "GMO Y" is acceptable, or vise versa, or both may be neutral, or both may be net positive or net negative. These discussions of value are worth having, and we should talk about what sort of regulation and policy will get us where we want to be. But those discussions are largely drowned out by erroneous claims about "toxins" and "safety," claims that the weight of scientific evidence says are false.

Yeah, they are anti-technology as they shout on Twitter from their iPads.

I'm sorry, but if you want to prevent academic researchers from even performing trials to see if GMO potato plants could resist blight, it's anti-science.

If you work to prevent a food security and agriculture education bill from passing because it has the word "biotechnology" in it, it's anti-science.

If you destroy a trial of wheat plants that might reduce nitrogen use, it's anti-science.

If you burn a lab of a researcher because she works on biotechnology, it's anti-science.

I actually suspect that for Alice Bell that it is economic and political objections that drive her. But using those things to help club other's research to death does not make you pro-science.

Hm. Well, I've certainly heard people hanging out around the water cooler bash science and scientists. No thoughtful argumentation, just a lot of smirking, sneering and what in regard to any other group of people would be considered out-and-out bigotry.

So maybe it's not the stance on a particular issue that makes it anti-science much as what lies behind it, if you can discern it. Some people are just thick and can't help it, others are vicious and on the attack. I tend to look for hints of postmodernist type thinking as an index of how much ant-science might actually be present.

By Obstreperous A… (not verified) on 06 Aug 2013 #permalink

Kevin - Thanks very much for your thoughtful and courteous response. I certainly agree that when independent scientific evidence is available, it is the best means of evaluating claims regarding either the benefits or the harms of GMOs. Unfortunately, the published evidence regarding most of these claims is not extensive and one-sided enough to make such a slam-dunk case, one way or the other, that everyone who really looks at it is forced to agree. As in so many other areas of endeavor where money and highly valued beliefs are involved (nutrition and health being high on the list), the same evidence can be termed "definitive" or "worthless" depending upon the interests and ideology of the viewer. Since the available evidence will always be finite and imperfectly congruent, I have come to doubt that it's possible to get an answer even to a question of fact that everyone agrees is correct.