A caring scientist's view on things to be afraid of.

The other day I was having a conversation with a number of scientist types, and specifically the topic of movies like Sizzle or Expelled came up. This, of course, led to the whole "framing" thing, which to be frank is a little confusing to me generally.

It was here, that one of my colleagues mentioned that an old creative non-fiction piece of mine, about science communication, might actually make a good narrative for a movie on big science issues. In particular, the ones that desperately need communicating and clarification to the public at large, but also those that are more meta in nature, such as the importance of literacy and engagement. This piece was my "Be Very Afraid" article that I wrote a few years back, primarily as a way to prepare for a keynote talk.

Anyway, I just reread it to see if it still works as a piece, and whilst some of the alternative energy bits may need a little less strongly worded text, I think it's still a good overview of some of the things you need to be wary of in the world of science.

In any event, I've reprinted it below for folks to take a gander. I actually think it would make an unwieldy film narrative (it's kind of all over the place), but then I'm not one to talk really when it comes to film.

- - -


A few months before he died, a Nobel Prize winner wandered into my office, sat down, and proceeded to talk about science and ethics. He did this for about an hour. In fact, most of it boiled down to something like this.

"Science is in a very interesting predicament these days. It has accelerated so much, in so little time, and has led to a glut of information. It has progressed beyond our wildest dreams, such that we can do amazing things, exciting things, even frightening things."

Of course, he said this stuff in a much less verbose way. The Nobel Prize winner was Michael Smith, inventor of something known as 'DNA site-directed mutagenesis,' an unfortunate mouthful that some view as the first step towards all this genetic modification brouhaha. You should know, however, that he was a very nice man.

Nevertheless, it got me thinking about fear and science in our world, and six years later, this is what I've come up with.

We should be very very afraid. That, incidentally, is one word for each year.

I'm using a proverbial we, of course, since I'm of the opinion that it's not necessarily the science that is faltering. There is nothing to fear from the science itself. Remember, science and understanding is progressing right? This proverbial we really means all of us in general.

* * *

Here's something interesting I bet you didn't know. My Dad beat up Bruce Lee. This, I swear, is the God's honest truth. Mind you, he was ten at the time, and Bruce (I believe) was maybe seven or eight. Anyway, what I just did, my friends, was what PR folks would call a spin. Now spin is something we should fear.

Spin factors in on stories like GM foods, a big part of that brouhaha mentioned earlier. Did you know that the pollen from certain GM crops has an inadvertent and toxic effect on Monarch butterflies? You probably knew this already since it was pretty hard to not notice WTO protestors dressed in tatty butterfly costumes on television.

More specifically, all of this fuss was over a GM variety known as Bt corn. Which, by the way, is not short for Bag O' Treats, or Beelzebub Tamer, or the Big Tickle, or even Bitchin' Toxin for that matter. In truth, it is short for Bacillus thuringiensis, a small and relatively unassuming bacteria.

Here's why.
Bt corn has had a special gene inserted into its make-up.
This, incidentally, is a gene from the Bacillus.
Which, incidentally, is responsible for producing something known as a crystal delta-endotoxin.
Which, incidentally, is often shortened to cry.
Which, incidentally, has the power to kill insects that might otherwise make your corn look a little spotty.
Which, incidentally, is the same stuff that is commonly used as pesticide in organic farms.
What a marvelously ironic world we live in.

But back to the butterflies. Did you know that the aforementioned toxic effect was a result of force-feeding the butterflies roughly 5 times the amount of pollen that they would have ingested in the wild? Sort of like drinking 40 cups of water a day.

I think if I was the butterfly, I would be angry and protesting as well. The point is, of course, spin. Force-feeding butterflies, even to make a point, is hardly what you would call environmentally friendly is it?

And what about those big ag-biotech firms espousing their commitment to stem the tide of world hunger? To which I say, give me a break! I have a feeling that deep down they have other priorities in mind.

* * *

Or you could say that they don't care- better still, call them apathetic. Or, like teenagers, maybe they're just acting cool.

Arguably, 52% of new car owners think they're acting cool. This number reflects the millions of SUVs and light trucks that were sold in the US last year. One reason I make this statement is because of an interesting story called "Car Wars." A short version goes like this.


A longer version goes like this. You are buying a car. You are not thinking about the damage a bigger car causes. You are not thinking about the sense of security you feel because you are higher up in your bigger car. You are not thinking about the car's subsequent higher centre of gravity. You are not thinking about previous year's 14% increase in rollover fatalities.

Instead, you are thinking about the 11 cup holders a 2005 Ford Expedition has. You are thinking how nice it is to have the option of traversing rough terrain, no matter how unlikely. But most of all, you are thinking how the car looks "really kick ass"

But wait, another reason I call these car owners apathetic is because of something called global warming. Bigger cars do, indeed, cause bigger damage. About 85% of the energy used in the States is derived from fossil fuels. 40% alone from the use of oil, most of it from automobiles, and most of that not from Honda Civics. All of that CO2 from your friends' SUVs, leading to warmer climates, el ninos, rising seas, bad bad weather and the like. Who could have guessed that being 'cool' could be so scary?

* * *

I'm assuming that you didn't know that I have two young children. They mean the world to me, and I, like other parents, try very hard to do the right thing. Like not freak over buying a Tickle Me Elmo, for instance. Have you ever seen a stampede of parents? It is altogether a very surreal and somewhat ugly sight. Sometimes that happens when you decide to not be apathetic and actually want something but it is no longer there. Call it a form of withdrawal if you will.

Our oil is supposed to run out sometime in the next 100 years or so. And this is loosely based on current consumption figures, meaning that this number could be significantly smaller. Which would be a problem, since we seem to be very very fond of oil. It might even start a war or two.

The usual alternatives frankly don't cut it right now.
Fuel cells, akin to batteries with gas nozzles, are disappointing. Most use hydrogen. Lovely in that water is the only pollutant being produced, but cruelly inefficient in that producing the hydrogen in the first place is energy expensive (in fact fossil fuels are generally used to do this). People also think hydrogen is sinister, wrongly so as it were, for being ballistic. I guess people forget that petroleum, itself, can explode.
Hydroelectricity, on the other hand, does not go boom, but needs a river that does not object to being dammed - a feature, which is all the more troublesome in the chassis of a car.
Solar still relies on complicated, expensive, nasty chemicals. Please say it with me - solar still relies on complicated, expensive, nasty chemicals.
And what about wind energy? Wind powered turbines kill innocent birds - do I really need to say more?

But wait, there is always banana power. Yes, those crazy Australians have figured out a way to use banana waste to generate electricity. Apparently 60kg of decomposing bananas produce enough methane to power a fan heater for 30 hours. Incredible how useful this might be with our screwy weather.

* * *

Here's what Dole has to say about bananas. "Bananas are the most popular fruit in America. An average person eats 29 pounds a year." Nowhere does it tell you that bananas are reproductively sterile. A bit ironic, really, given its overly phallic shape.

Fact of the matter is that the bananas we eat are clones of each other. That's great! No seeds! That's bad! One banana being susceptible to disease means all bananas are susceptible. And because there are no seeds, it's very difficult to breed better varieties.

Here are some biggish words to throw at you. Mycosphaerella fijensis. These two refer to a fungus that causes a banana disease known as Sigatoka. Believe it not, these words have been useful to me at the occasional cocktail party. I mean really, doesn't even saying them give you the tingles? Of course, if you were a banana, you might actually wet your pants.

Some have even said that the banana could be wiped out in as little as 10 years time. Look out for the fruit lover's stampede!

* * *

So this is what people are doing.
They're inserting genes into bananas to make them stronger. And maybe, one day, they'll insert genes so that you can grow them anywhere, even in colder places like Winnipeg. Imagine that - a prairie banana.
Except that if this was done, I'm sure many farmers in Central America and the Caribbean would be royally pissed off. Worse still, they would go bankrupt. How can they compete with Winnipeg?

This sort of stuff was already happening in 2004, a year which (in case you didn't know) the United Nations had declared "The International Year of Rice." I guess since some big biotech firms sequenced the rice genome in 2002, a lot of patents have been issued, a lot of info passed around, some say inappropriately. No matter, what we now have are American versions of Basmati and Jasmine rice. Pity the poor folks in India and Thailand who have to compete.

Money, of course, makes the world go around. I wish I could take credit for that statement, but I can't. I also can't take credit for the following Oscar Wilde quote:

"It is better to have a permanent income than to be fascinating."

Which, in its own way, says it all perfectly. That is, economics rules our society. To survive, people very quickly learn to look out for the bottom line, and pray that they never ever get caught in the crossfire.

Which is difficult these days since we're shooting all over the damn place. Because of science, the turf we stand on may not be so special anymore, which is frightening if you thought your turf was special for growing bananas, or jasmine rice, or sneakers, or weapons, or anything really.

* * *

Guess what? Earlier on, I sort of told a small lie. Turns out, I didn't even mention nuclear energy as an alternative and I should have. Nuclear energy is clean, abundant, and, most importantly, technically doable. Here's what a colleague had to say about it:

"Generating nuclear power is as cheap as it gets. Unlike coal and natural gas plants, there are zero emissions -- no CO2, no sulphur and nitrogen oxides. No greenhouse gases, no ozone depletion, no acid rain. No rivers to dam up, no valleys destroyed to build your hydroelectric plant."

Of course, he also mentioned that, "when the nuclear fuel is spent, the by-products are highly radioactive - this is very bad."

Which is why in Nevada, specifically at Yucca Mountain, they are digging the mother of all holes. Home sweet home, as it will be, to most of the 77,000 metric tonnes of nuclear waste our neighbours down south have already generated. Just most, not all, not even with space left over for future sakes. Price tag? To date, it's cost about US$60 billion dollar, with another US$7 billion to study and/or argue over it. After all this, there is also a distinct possibility that it won't work or won't open.

And one single location! Can you believe it? Imagine lead plated trains and trucks going through your community, on "their way" so to speak. Or maybe it's best that they didn't go through your turf in the first place.

* * *

Of course, Nevada does have its advantages. It has some very specific laws, no doubt carefully thought out for the common good. For instance, it's illegal to drive a camel on the highway, but it is still legal to hang someone for shooting your dog on your property. By the way, human cloning is also legal in Nevada. In fact, when I last checked maybe a year or so ago, it was only banned in 8 U.S. states.

Don't get me started on human cloning. Creating life in this fashion is still a creepy proposition to most of us here at science land. But isn't it wonderful that advocates had Rodney Dangerfield and Raelians as spokes people. What could be more perfect?

And what about therapeutic human cloning? Superman, or Christopher Reeve to be exact, was more or less right - the use of embryonic stem cells for things like treating a plethora of tricky diseases, or regenerating tissues of all types has great potential. But what exactly is an embryo, a stem cell? Where does "life" begin exactly? Instead of talking about the "The Facts of Life" will we instead need to talk about "The Facts of STEM CELL / ZYGOTE / BLASTOCYST / EMBRYO / FETUS / NEWBORN?"

Maybe we should ask a creationist. Actually, better not - that would be stupid.

Instead, maybe we should vote on it. Maybe then we can come to a decision.

Because voting does that sort of thing. It gives you a small say about how things are determined, although sometimes, you may still disagree with the end result. Still, I suppose that's much better than in China. Nobody votes per se in China, so regulation just happens.

In China, couples are strongly advised to give birth to only one child. Most people, I think, already know this. Most people, however, don't know that before a couple becomes a couple, they have to take mandatory genetic tests. This is to see if they are compatible. In a sense, to question whether the child they may produce has a significant risk of developing something bad. Here it is in plain English:

Article 10: Physicians shall, after performing the pre-marital physical check-up, explain and give medical advice to both the male and the female who have been diagnosed with certain genetic disease of a serious nature which is considered to be inappropriate for child-bearing from a medical point of view; the two may be married only if both sides agree to take long-term contraceptive measures or to take ligation operation for sterility.
(China's Maternal and Infant Health Care Law, 1995)

By the way, this is called legislated eugenics, which some people think is dangerous. But I ask you, in light of the one baby rule, is it really?

* * *

In the end, I guess you have to vote for a government that you think will make the right decisions. Hope they have the knowledge to make informed choices.

But listen people. Let's be serious. When everyone is busy spinning, acting cool, washing their SUVs, rearing children, eating bananas, gardening in Winnipeg, making money, diverting traffic, watching TV, taking tests, creationing, and voting for government, who has time to stay informed? And that, my friends, is perhaps the scariest thing of all.


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Ow. My head is spinning. This is probably the most disorganized piece of text I have read in at least a year.

life is messy.

By Matt Hussein Platte (not verified) on 01 Aug 2008 #permalink

"This is probably the most disorganized piece of text I have read in at least a year."

I liked it. The way it goes from topic to topic was pretty interesting (my favourite was where it went from Yucca -> Nevada -> Cloning), and it having that convoluted feel is maybe kind of the point.

i.e. Science literacy is not a simple challenge, not something with a magic fix, so that in many ways, this is the thing to be most afraid of.

Disorganized? Hey, speaking of organs, I bet you didn't know that the skin is the largest organ of the human body. The skin! Can you believe it?

Of course, the brain is pretty important too. We need it to think, to write text, and most importantly, to edit that text.

Which is, of course, what the author of this essay should have done. Actually, maybe it's better this way. Of course, I wouldn't have commented on this if it weren't for my frustration at its style.

* * *

Okay, nonsnarky comment -- the last 'paragraph' is really the important thing. We are too comfortable. People don't stay informed, because there is no immediate penalty for being uninformed.

I think you did the framing thing yourself. Too much hysteria in the text.

Ouch! Tough crowd, but I guess, that's o.k.

Writing is nothing if not character building. And isn't that what's communicating is about - bouncing things off an audience, seeing the consequences, and making adjustments to get it just so?

I'll note it seemed to work pretty well as a talk (to undergrads anyway). Plus (now that my memory is coming back) I should add that the piece was also a result of a request from a magazine looking for an article about "things to fear in science."

What these folks wanted, actually, was very much a hysteria piece, which I actually thought was beside the point. Should we fear the science of climate change, or is it that we should fear how society reacts to climate change, and how that reaction might unfold if there isn't at least a certain comfort level with the science of climate change?

Anyway, keep it coming. Always great to hear feedback one way or another. It's interesting, but I think the last time I put this piece up, most of the comments were actually kind of positive. Maybe the context is different this time? Maybe this whole framing thing is getting people all riled up?

I find it interesting how this blog has gone from promoting an interview with Alton Brown where he's promoting locally grown food, to lamenting the plight of farmers in 3rd world countries if crops are developed that can be grown locally in just one blog post.

And yes, it does ramble a bit, but it seems like a stream-of-consciousness type of piece that will do that.

I find it interesting how this blog has gone from promoting an interview with Alton Brown where he's promoting locally grown food, to lamenting the plight of farmers in 3rd world countries if crops are developed that can be grown locally in just one blog post.

Great observation, and also a good reflection of how involved these discussions can be. For instance, I think both the desire to eat locally and the desire to be vary of the world repercussions of our actions (in the case of this piece, related to biotech) are commendable. The tough question (to some anyway) is: Which is the better path when they apparently conflict with each other?

BTW, for what it's worth David, I really enjoyed the piece. It's definitely got my mind churning.

The good news, Dave, is that at least two readers read more than one of our posts! (Hopefully they'll note that they were written by different people.)