Wednesday, July 22, 2015

It's a book! CONSEQUENCE coming in October - Goodreads Giveaway starts today.

Have I mentioned I've been writing a novel?

(Oh. I have. Forty-seven times in five and a half years of One Finger Typing, if the Unix utilities trgrep, and wc are to be trusted.)

Well, then...

Ten weeks and counting 'til the official release date (29 September), I'm elated to announce that the finish line is visible at the end of the tunnel: my debut novel Consequence will be in readers' hands, Kindles, Nooks, iDevices, phones, and tablets by early October, in paperback and e-book editions.

If you read posts on One Finger Typing recently you may have already noticed the image of Consequence and link in the sidebar these past several weeks. But let's cut to the chase ... the capsule description from the book's back cover:
San Francisco activist Christopher Kalman has little to show for years spent organizing non-violent marches, speak-outs, blockades, and shutdowns for social and environmental justice. When a shadowy eco-saboteur proposes an attack on genetically engineered agriculture, Christopher is ripe to be drawn into a more dangerous game. His certainty that humankind stands on the brink of ecological ruin drives Christopher to reckless acts and rash alliances, pitting grave personal risk against conscientious passion.
Here's how early endorsers have responded to the novel (these also from the back-cover):
"I couldn’t put Consequence down! Masover ... asks thorny, essential questions about personal responsibility and the role of violence in movements for social change."
– Sam Green, Academy Award-nominated director of The Weather Underground
"Consequence is a great read, full of building tension and excitement ... Masover writes about conflicts central to the human situation."
– Starhawk, author of The Spiral Dance and The Fifth Sacred Thing

Over the coming weeks I'll occasionally post book news here, but a more complete announcement stream will be posted to my Author Page on Facebook, which I invite you to "Like" if you want to keep an eye on notifications about the book's launch party, readings, interviews, book fair appearances, panels, and so forth.

(You can also subscribe to my mailing list to receive a modest number of notifications via e-mail.)

One more thing, hot off the press this morning:



Goodreads Book Giveaway

Consequence by Steve Masover

Consequence

by Steve Masover

Giveaway ends August 11, 2015.
See the giveaway details at Goodreads.
Enter Giveaway

If you have an itch to read Consequence early, there's a giveaway for that. Beginning today you can sign-up for a chance to win an advance-reader copy (ARC) on Goodreads. All you have to do to enter is be (or become) a Goodreads reader -- it's free -- and click the Enter Giveaway link above (or on Goodreads' Consequence page) before the giveaway ends.

Whenever you read Consequence, I hope that you'll leave reviews on both Amazon and Goodreads to let other readers know what you think.


Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Pre-apocalyptic fiction: The Jaguar's Children by John Vaillant
Robert Redford, the Weather Underground, and why we read books
Dystopias in fiction
Allusion in fiction

Monday, July 13, 2015

Oil trains, coal trains: extractive economics vs. people and place

On Saturday -- on my way to a march protesting the transport of Bakken oil via "bomb train" through Richmond, California and other cities and towns -- and within lethal range of homes, schools, churches, shops, and workplaces -- a coal train was slowly rolling south (toward the Port of Oakland) as I stepped off the BART train. Its engine was too far ahead to see from the platform. After hauling my bike down the stairs, through the station, up some more stairs, and peddling to the corner of W. MacDonald and 16th, where I met and chatted with a friend, then finally headed west toward the march's starting point ... yep, that the train was still chugging past.



That was dispiriting.

On the other hand, the march that kicked off at Atchison Village, stopped at the entrance to Kinder Morgan's Richmond railyard, and wound up with a rally at Washington Park, was spirited and colorful. The photo below shows Forest Ethics organizer Ethan Buckner speaking to the crowd at Atchison Village.

Ethan spent the night in jail earlier in the week, arrested by the California Highway Patrol for hanging a banner off a railroad bridge in Benicia, part of a week of action aimed at stopping lethal transport of volatile crude (whose extraction via fracking from the Bakken formation dangerously exacerbates CO2 emissions that are changing Earth's climate, not to mention the earthquakes and fouled aquifers) along routes that endanger anyone and everything within a kilometer of the tracks (see the Canadian National Post timeline of the Lac-Megantic train disaster, in which a bomb-train killed 47 people).

Here's an excerpt from a call to participate in Saturday's march:
In Richmond, the fight against crude by rail is the latest example of the fossil fuel industry’s blatant disregard for the climate and the health and safety of communities of color. We know we don’t need this toxic and explosive extreme oil - already, our communities are building solutions for climate resilience and social justice. Together, we demand an end to extreme fossil fuels as we usher in a just transition to a clean, equitable, and thriving economy for all.

This summer, the fight against oil trains is heating up across the Bay Area, California, and North America. Richmond is on the front lines of two major oil train fights: first, environmental justice leaders have been fighting to shut down the illegal Kinder Morgan oil trains terminal, which was permitted behind the backs of the community. In addition, the proposed Phillips 66 oil trains terminal in San Luis Obispo County would bring an additional 2.5 million gallons of toxic, explosive tar sands oil daily through the city. Already, the climate justice movement in Richmond and beyond have been stepping up to fight both projects. Now is the time to turn up the heat.
So what about that coal train?

Well, I can't say for sure but I'm guessing it was headed for the Port of Oakland, where the city (both government and citizens) and real-estate developer Phil Tagami are in a nasty fight over whether the dirty coal is to be shipped through the port. A rally followed by a speakout at the Oakland City Council meeting next Tuesday, 21 July, will demand a coal-free Oakland.

The threat to people and planet posed by our deeply-embedded reliance on fossil fuels to power economies around the world isn't going to be neutralized easily. Anyone who has paid the least bit of attention to climate change politics over the last fifty years knows that. Regular people need to engage en mass if we're going to successfully drive a wedge between politicians and the massive energy companies that grease their every lubricious surface.

Later this year, the United Nations Conference of Parties will have its 21st annual meeting, in Paris this time around (COP21 is one of the meeting's several appellations). Here in the Bay Area, organizing has begun for a mass action to demand "a global agreement to implement dramatic and rapid reduction in global warming pollution" (from the emergent coalition's Points of Unity statement, to be finalized later this week and published online soon). The coalition keeps tweaking its name, but this week it's the Northern California Climate Mobilization.

What's happening in your part of the world?



Related posts on One Finger Typing:
The lemming situation: things we've known for 50 years about environmentalism
Human are like rats and cockroaches: the coming feudalism
Unvarnished truth is hard to swallow


Monday, June 29, 2015

Egg whites to treat moderate burns? Do the intertubes really know better?

An odd thing happened on Facebook the other day.

S--, a former colleague, posted the unhappy news that she had "just burned the F*CK out of my left index finger" while making dinner. A bunch of her Facebook friends chimed in immediately with sympathy and suggestions, led by her mom ... who offered the sensible advice that she cool the injury immediately in ice water. I didn't see the post until nearly an hour later, but thought I'd suggest -- for next time -- a folk remedy my family learned from another when I was a wee lad: after a minor to moderate burn, crack an egg over the injured area to coat it in raw egg white (it's a better idea to cool the injury under cool running water, then crack the egg).

Apparently this was novel advice to S-- and those of her friends who were weighing in on the What Is To Be Done question raised by her not-uncommon kitchen mishap. She was certain that the burn was severe enough to blister, and it was still hurting an hour later, so -- better late than never -- she tried the egg treatment, and found that the pain went away. S-- wrote that she was "happily flabbergasted."

I was flabbergasted too. Not because the egg trick had worked, I was pretty certain it would -- but because the treatment seemed to be unknown to S-- and her circle. So I turned to the hive mind to find out whether Everybody Knew that raw egg white helps to treat moderate burns, or if I had been living in an alternate universe since the 1970s.

It seems that everybody knew I'd been living in an alternate universe.

From Snopes, my favorite repository of hoax-debunking wisdom:
Akin to another Internet-spread rumor regarding the treatment of burns (which involved placing the injured extremity into a bag of flour), this seemingly helpful heads up also began making the online rounds in March 2011. In a nutshell, don't do it, because the danger of introducing salmonella into an open wound should not be toyed with.

The Internet-spread egg white remedy is somewhat more reliable in its approach to treating minor burns at home in that it outright states one should first cool the injured area completely with cold water before applying anything to the wound, yet even in regard to that exhortation, it's a bit off the mark [...]

If egg white is at all effective in treating burns (and we're not at all convinced that it is, 100+ year medical references to the contrary), it's as an occlusive dressing that would keep contamination out of a raw wound, not as a magical curative of burned flesh. Its effect on the healing process wouldn't have anything to do with its collagen content or that it's a "placenta full of vitamins," but rather that it's a thickish liquid that would form a barrier. (In other words, motor oil — which has no collagen to it at all — would work equally as well.)

As to what to do with all this confusion, even when the burn is minor and the injury is fully cooled before anything else is done to it, there is a downside to coating such an injury with egg white. Raw eggs sometimes contain or have resident on their shells salmonella, a deadly bacteria. Introducing salmonella into an open wound would be a dangerous idea. Says a physician friend of ours, "Burn-injured, denuded skin is an excellent culture medium, and a contaminated egg white applied to his burn could readily cause severe damage or death to the patient."
Oh, c'mon, I thought. Really? Salmonella? Motor oil?

But then I turned to the Journal of Emergency Nursing, and read of a study published in March 2010, First-aid Home Treatment of Burns Among Children and Some Implications at Milas, Turkey submitted by Banu Karaoz, whose abstract reads as follows:
This descriptive study was conducted among 130 families in Milas, Turkey, who have children ages 0 to 14 years. Among the 130 families, a total of 53 children (40.8%) experienced a burn event. Twenty-seven subjects (51%) had treated the burn with inappropriate remedies including yogurt, toothpaste, tomato paste, ice, raw egg whites, or sliced potato. Of the 28 subjects (52.8%) who had applied cold water to the burn site, 21 patients (39.6%) applied only cold water and 7 patients (13.2%) used another substance along with cold water. In addition, 13 subjects (24.5%) applied ice directly on the skin at the time of the burn. Excluding the subjects who had treated their burns with only cold water or with only ice, raw egg whites were the most commonly used agent, both alone (n = 3) or accompanied by cold water or ice (n = 6) in a total of 11 subjects (21%) who applied eggs. Based on these observations, it is suggested that educational programs emphasizing first-aid application of only cold water to burn injuries would be helpful in reducing morbidity and mortality rates. A nationwide educational program is needed to ensure that young burn victims receive appropriate first aid and to reduce the use of inappropriate home remedies and burn morbidity.
Burn morbidity. That sounds pretty grim.

I learned about burns and egg whites on a family car-camping trip in the mid-seventies. It was a multi-family camping trip, including mine and that of a postdoc in the Stanford University lab where my father was earning a degree in medical microbiology. The postdoc -- now a decades-long family friend -- was from Japan, and he was already, by the time he came to Stanford, a medical doctor (and therefore, going back to the Snopes screed, a physician friend of ours). He went on to become a professor and internationally respected research scientist before retiring a few years ago. But it was his wife, E--, who taught us about burns and egg whites.

At the time of this camping trip my brother was eight or so years old, plus or minus, and while our families were preparing a meal he burned his hand on a hot pan, cast iron if memory serves. Shocked, hollering bloody murder, in the middle of nowhere and hours from the Stanford Medical Center, E-- lunged for the ice chest, found a raw egg, and -- you guessed it -- cracked it over my brother's throbbing hand, slathering his injury in albumen.

It worked. The pain subsided, my brother calmed down, then my parents calmed down, and eventually we ate.

I remembered this trick when I was working in a restaurant some fifteen years later. I don't recall what I was making, but it involved a 10" All-Clad skillet and a very hot oven. Short story, I was doing five or six things at once -- S.O.P. for an on-duty cook -- and managed to forget to wrap a towel around the skillet's handle when I grabbed it and pulled the pan from the oven.

Hot? Let me tell you ... the whole palm of my hand and the inside of all my fingers went instantly bright, angry red, and I hurt like I'd never imagined.

It was a kitchen, probably not fundamentally different from yours at home, so a sink, ice, and a big metal bowl were mere steps away. I ran water over my right hand before plunging it in ice water, then did my best to get on with pumping out my station's dishes, one-handed. After a few minutes, in a moment between plating antipasti, I cracked a couple of eggs over still throbbing hand, wrapped it in a clean towel, and finished my shift. Miraculously, the burn didn't blister and the pain had subsided altogether by the time the kitchen closed. I was back behind the stove the next night.

I posted a letter to Japan shortly afterward, thanking E-- for saving me from a second degree burn over a distance of 5,000 miles and a fair few years.

So what's a person to do when folk wisdom -- verified by repeated, first-person, empirical experience -- contradicts medical authority?

I'm not going to try to give a general answer to that question.

But in the case of egg whites and kitchen burns? I'm thinking that if "only one in every 10,000 to 30,000 supermarket eggs is typically infected with salmonella enteritidis" (without clear evidence that free range organic chickens lay fewer infected eggs, so don't get cocky, as it were, if your fridge is stocked with the good stuff) -- even so, it's got to be way safer than crossing the street to go with the egg white treatment, unless a burn injury involves broken skin.

But caveat lector: I'm not a doctor, and I don't even play one on the intertubes.


Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Amateur food porn from Austria and Italy
One hundred trillion bacteria: the microbiome within you and without you
Broken food chains
Eating insects

Thanks to Samuel M. Livingston for the photo of a cracked egg, via Flickr.


Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Foolish arguments for surveillance state aren't helping

It's hard to keep one's head from spinning right off one's neck trying to follow 'arguments' by which the surveillance state scrabbles to paint its interest in snooping as legitimate.

Here from Reuters today, in U.S. tech industry appeals to Obama to keep hands off encryption [emphasis added]:
Obama administration officials have pushed the [technology] companies to find ways to let law enforcement bypass encryption to investigate illegal activities including terrorism threats, but not weaken it in a way that would let criminals and computer hackers penetrate the security wall.

So far, however, the White House has not spelled out specific regulatory or legislative steps that it might seek to achieve that objective.

Last week White House press secretary Josh Earnest called this a "thorny policy challenge" that has Obama's attention.

While he recognized tech companies' efforts to protect Americans' civil liberties, Earnest, responding to a reporter's question, added that the companies "would not want to be in a position in which their technology is being deployed to aid and abet somebody who’s planning to carry out an act of violence."
Hmmm.... Will Mr. Earnest next deploy that argument against the developers, manufacturers, and distributors of ... wait for it ... handguns? What about pesticides, chain saws, high fructose corn syrup, automobiles, and alcohol? What about military weapons, from bayonets to nukes?

White House rhetorical fluff masquerading as argument fills the sails of libertarian me-firsters and paranoid Texas governors who cast sinister aspersions on the hostile intentions of the PotUS until they needs help bailing out the state after fierce rainstorms that have nothing to do with climate change, which just happens.

Why feed those trolls?

Obama administration officials are wrong to push for a technically and politically impossible 'good guys only' back door to the encryption technology that protects any and all online communication and commerce.

They should quit trying to justify their demand with dumb-as-rocks arguments.


Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Is data security worth it? Depends who's counting.
Surveillance and power through fiction and fact: Max Barry's "Lexicon"
Not your granddaddy's metadata: don't believe the PRISM anti-hype
Pimped by our own devices: electronica, the cloud, and privacy piracy



Thanks to WoodleyWonderWorks for the image of a door key via Flickr.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Pre-apocalyptic fiction: The Jaguar's Children by John Vaillant

Peter Heller is the author of a finely crafted, deeply melancholy, but -- against type! -- hopeful post-apocalyptic novel The Dog Stars, published to wide and well-deserved acclaim in 2012. Heller was at Diesel Books in Oakland last month to read from the newly-released paperback of his second work of fiction, The Painter, where I met and spoke to him as his audience arrived.

Because he asked (another Diesel Books regular having already told him I am a writer), I described my forthcoming novel Consequence, and in the course of our conversation I categorized it as "pre-apocalyptic fiction." The concept seemed to intrigue Heller, and when I described my book's focus on a community of San Francisco activists organizing against the proliferation of genetically-engineered agriculture he told me about a book he recently blurbed: John Vaillant's The Jaguar's Children. I put it in my queue immediately.

The Jaguar's Children is told by Héctor María de la Soledad Lázaro González from the inside of a welded-shut water truck transporting Héctor; an old friend and agricultural scientist César, whom he has only recently found after a long separation; and a company of fellow border-crossers. Following a mechanical breakdown, their coyotes have abandoned the truck and its human prisoners to a slow, tortured descent toward death-by-dehydration in the Arizona desert. Héctor narrates his tale as a series of text and voice recordings queued up in a cell phone, in the hope that sufficient signal will be miraculously regained that he can transmit to an unknown, desperately hoped-for rescuer. Late in the novel we learn that the phone -- César's -- carries the last surviving copy of research that proves the biotech company SantaMaize has released a genetically modified variant of corn that will wipe out genetic diversity that indigenous farmers have depended on for thousands of years, and transform Mexico's self-sufficient communities into indentured servants of agribusiness ... which is why César and Héctor have fled Mexico in the first place, pursued by thuggish enforcers in the service of SantaMaize.

Vaillant's work is set in a pre-apocalyptic, present-day world: amid brutal genocide in Mexico and Central America, fueled by drug cartels and boughten police; among desperate rivers of immigrants to the United States, driven by otherwise inescapable violence and poverty into the predatory clutches of coyotes, who rob then abandon them to die in desert borderlands; and in the shadow of a corporate oligarchy hellbent on destroying indigenous people, culture, deeply-rooted agricultural practice, and land in order to accrue profit and power that dwarfs the crude ambitions of druglords.

Does any of that setting sound familiar? Maybe that’s because you've read about the fictional world of The Jaguar's Children in the reputable, non-fiction press. The chaos and savagery in which Vaillant has set his novel is happening. Today. Now.

That's the thing about "pre-apocalyptic fiction," as I conceive it. It isn't nearly so speculative as its darker, post-apocalyptic cousins. It takes place in a world that has already come into being, not a world that might come to pass. And its heroes are the women and men who are doing what they can to turn the apocalyptic tide.

At a demonstration in support of fossil fuels divestment yesterday on the UC Berkeley campus, I was talking to a fellow-activist and retired psychiatrist about current fascination with post-apocalyptic fiction. My own theory, I told him, is that novels of this sort function in the same way that dreams do: they permit people to grapple with issues, conflicts, and fears that are too overwhelming to confront in real or waking life.

Pre-apocalyptic fiction, on the other hand, like The Jaguar's Children and Consequence, portray real people overcoming fears from which one might naturally and normally hide, in order to confront forces that are -- in real life, today and now -- propelling humanity and all living beings toward an apocalyptic precipice.

Pre-apocalyptic fiction dramatizes the heroism that surrounds us -- in real life -- from Vandana Shiva's "fiery opposition to globalization and to the use of genetically modified crops" described by Michael Specter in The New Yorker last year ("Seeds of Doubt," 25 Aug 2014); to the pacifist anti-nuclear heroines and heroes of the Plowshares movement, described in that same magazine by Eric Schlosser last month ("Break-In at Y-12," 9 March 2015).

As John Vaillant has proven in The Jaguar's Children, these dramas are the stuff that compelling fiction is made of.


Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Asking the wrong questions about GMOs for disinformation and profit
Teju Cole's Open City: protagonist as open book or guarded guide?
Surveillance and power through fiction and fact: Max Barry's "Lexicon"
Tinkering: on bookstore serendipity and novels that show what it is to be alive
Robert Redford, the Weather Underground, and why we read books

Friday, March 27, 2015

21 reasons it's not nearly so bad as it could be

This morning I woke up a little bit blue, and -- until mid-day or so -- the overcast sky in Berkeley matched my mood. I took a walk around the neighborhood, and found a lot of good reasons to feel better. Here are twenty-one of them.






















Just sayin' ...


Related posts on One Finger Typing:
April showers brought May flowers
On the bright side: an iris in someone's front yard
Flowery front yards in Berkeley

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Asking the wrong questions about GMOs for disinformation and profit

Even in 2015, the public doesn't trust scientists, according to Mark Lynas of the Cornell Alliance for Science. His article appeared in the Washington Post a couple weeks back, and the author isn't going where you might imagine if you just glance at his title.

The setup is textbook: Progressive-seeming Hyperbole 101 ...
America risks drifting into a new Age of Ignorance. Even as science makes unparalleled advances in genomics to oceanography, science deniers are on the march — and they’re winning hearts and minds more successfully than the academic experts whose work they deride and undermine.
About four paragraphs in, Lynas shows his hand:
But for the general public, the strongest anti-science attitudes relate to genetically modified foods. Eighty-eight percent of AAAS scientists say it’s safe to eat genetically modified food, compared to just 37 percent of U.S. adults. Such discrepancies do not happen by accident. In most cases, there are determined lobbies working to undermine public understanding of science: from anti-vaccine campaigners, to creationists, to climate-change deniers.

These activist groups have been especially successful in undermining public understanding of just how united the scientific community is on many of these issues. The polling data shows that two-thirds of the public (67 percent) thinks that “scientists do not have a clear understanding of the health effects of GM crops.” And 37 percent of the public says scientists “do not generally agree that the Earth is getting warmer because of human activity.”
Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Cornell Alliance for Science has a mission: to "increase access to agricultural innovations through collaboration and innovative communications." In pursuit of this mission, the organization aims to:
Build a significant global alliance of partners who believe in the common mission of solving complex global hunger issues by leveraging advances in agriculture including the creative tools and insights biotechnology can offer.
That is to say, they're a well-financed PR machine for biotech agriculture, posing as a disinterested, objective, squeaky-priestly-clean booster club. For Scientists. With a capital ess.

Partner organizations advertised on the CAS's web site include (bold emphasis added):
  • International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), "a not-for-profit international organization that shares the benefits of crop biotechnology with various stakeholders through knowledge sharing initiatives, as well as through the transfer and delivery of proprietary biotechnology applications";
  • Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa (OFAB), which "aims at enhancing knowledge sharing and awareness on biotechnology to raise understanding and appreciation of agricultural biotechnology"; and,
  • Uganda Biosciences Information Center (UBIC), which bills itself as "an information hub that contributes to raising awareness and educating the public about the agricultural research," and "hopes [...] to develop messages and terminologies that are more publicly friendly and relevant.
In a perverse and demoralizing twist, these masked apologists for profit and ruin are blending a focus on peripheral questions with scientism to sow confusion and doubt, which isn't so difficult when political discourse has been softened by the Fourth Estate's lazy failure to deconstruct false syllogisms, shallow analysis, and gotcha sound bytes. Like these, again from Lynas' Washington Post article:
Scientists are also increasingly dismayed that government regulations — particularly on food safety and environmental management — are influenced more by public sentiment tha[n] scientific evidence. It now costs tens of millions of dollars to get a new genetically modified crop variety past cautious government bureaucrats, because of the public’s fears of modified food; whereas new seeds developed using chemical or radiation mutagenesis can go straight to market and even be labeled organic.

[...] On climate change, public support for urgent decarbonization measures is being undercut, while food security and agricultural sustainability is under threat by activists aiming to prohibit technological innovation in seeds.
Well, that's the world we live in: one in which capitalists seek to loosen any and all constraint on profit (a.k.a. government oversight) by deceiving and distracting with little regard to what's true or important and what's not (a.k.a., "marketing"). Why educate when there's big, big money in rendering "messages and terminologies [...] more publicly friendly"? Cf. truthiness.

Here are three things that are fundamentally disingenuous about the WaPo's Cornell Alliance for Science puff piece:
  1. Lynas writes as if scientists are a priesthood whose pronouncements ought to be regarded -- by the laity (a.k.a. citizens) -- as theological imperatives: certain and static. In real life, of course, science is neither certain nor static. Scientific understanding and certainty evolves over time: in light of further experimentation, and fresh discovery of empirically-testable context. That, more or less, is the point of science. I'll come back to stasis in a moment.
  2. Opposition to GMO agriculture is not chiefly about whether, for individuals, it’s safe to eat genetically modified food. Opposition to GMO agriculture has much more to do with the damage that monocropping, loss of biodiversity, disruption of relationships between living species, and unintended consequences of vastly overclocked 'evolution' is doing and will do to the only biosphere we've got -- an intricate balance of interdependent life forms that scientists are only beginning to appreciate, let alone understand (link).
  3. Those who deny what we do know about data-rich aspects of Earth's current environmental trajectory are avoiding reality; those who paper over what we don't know about environmental conditions that early, data-sparse science has yet to reveal are making it up. Trusting climate science and its models is not exactly the same as trusting medical science on the subject of infectious disease; and each of these is markedly different from trusting genetic engineers. Genetically modified plants were first grown in fields circa 1986, not even 30 years ago (link). On the other hand, we have gathered hundreds of thousands of years of data that figure into investigations of the relationship between atmospheric carbon dioxide and glaciation (link); and humans have been burning coal and oil for several thousand years, burning those fuels in vast quantities since the 18th century (link).
Opposition to GMO agriculture is largely about resisting the one-way release of poorly-understood mutations of highly complex living organisms into the only ecosystem we've got. You can't put GMOs back in Pandora's box; biotech is young and crude; living systems are as complex as anything humankind has ever encountered. What that adds up to: scientists do not know what the ecosystem-wide effect will be of multiple, pervasive, sudden, poorly understood, impossibly-unlikely-to-happen-without-human-intervention evolutionary disruptions over the long term and on a planetary scale. Humans (including scientists) have vastly greater stores of data to draw from in analyzing the effects of burning fossil fuels than we do about radically mixing-and-matching the genetic makeup of living organisms. Scientists' degree of certainty about one area of study is not transitive: it doesn't apply to another topic altogether.
Coming back to the question of science and stasis: one way of thinking about how climate change and climate science relates to GMOs -- which is not the way of thinking that Mark Lynas presents -- is this: genetic engineering's effect on Earth's future environment is currently understood at a level comparable to that achieved by scientists of the 1700s with respect to then-future effects of fossil fuel use at a rate those scientists couldn't begin to foresee.

In other words: it's primitive.

Scientists of the 1700s did not widely predict that burning fossil fuels would wreak havoc on systems that balance our planet's composition of air, regional temperatures, proportion of water to ice, etc. Scientists didn't begin to connect those dots reliably until quite recently, by which time we humans had developed economies so fully dependent on burning fossil fuels that the bad news got buried -- and continues to be obfuscated -- by people and corporations with self- and economic-interests in continuing to burn fossil fuels in reckless quantities.

People who oppose GMO agriculture aren't eager for humankind to make that kind of catastrophic mistake again.

So -- yes! -- science is inflected by politics, history, the passage of time (with its development of greater scientific understanding and accuracy), and (not incidentally) by greed.

That doesn't mean scientific knowledge is a matter of pure opinion, not by any stretch of imagination. But it does mean that there's no such thing as a Good Scientists Seal of Approval that can be glanced at and trusted in every context, as those who argue like Mr. Lynas assert or imply. Peer review is as close as science gets. But peer review is far from perfect. It's complicated.

A sensible approach might be this: in making political choices we could and should place greater trust in science that is better understood, better tested, and therefore better founded. The relation between infectious disease and herd immunity is pretty much a solved mystery, for example, so it's not unreasonable to draw up social contracts (policy) organized around this well-understood corner of reality, as, say, the State of Mississippi has done (despite that state's brutal failures in other areas).

Is this sensible approach a simple approach to take? Heck no.

In discerning science that is reliable from science that isn't, confusion is endemic. The differences are not cut and dried. The distinctions are hard to suss out. The effort takes a lot of attention. Development of some level of scientific literacy and expertise is required to sift the wheat from the chaff. The analysis is not easily reducible to Tweets.

But there's good reason for honest, responsible people to make every effort -- despite these obstacles. The exploitation of scientism to manipulate public opinion, and thereby to influence public policy, is not hermetically confined to think tanks at Ivy League universities.

For example: since reading the Mark Lynas piece in the Washington Post, I've been subjected to a meme circulating on Facebook that asks "Is genetically modified food safe?" and answers: "If an overwhelming majority of experts say something is true, then any sensible non-expert should assume they are probably right." That's scientism in a nutshell. And it's not hard to imagine where specious responsibility-punting of that sort, egged on by organizations like CAS, might lead. (Hint: one obvious destination is spelled o-l-i-g-a-r-c-h-y.)

On Valentine's Day, just this past Saturday, the front page of the SF Chronicle featured a story titled Measles fears a mild case of mass hysteria. The article, if one reads it from start to finish, makes sober and credible points about the improbability that the current outbreak of measles will go epidemic; and gives a nod to legitimate concern about vulnerable populations of people (young kids especially, though not exclusively) who cannot be vaccinated for one reason or other. But if, like many news readers in this information-overloaded age, a person only skims headlines or a newspaper's front page, s/he might take away some pretty twisted ideas from these paragraphs, which front-load the much longer article:
The reason measles is on the tip of so many people’s tongues these days, and the subject of so much sturm and drang in the media, is this: It’s a mild case of mass hysteria.

It has played out pretty much like its predecessor in the hysteria chain, Ebola, experts said — or genetically altered animals before that.
That last bit must have made the staff at Cornell Alliance for Science dance a happy dance. Why? Because: experts said. And because, to an inattentive reader, genetically altered animals are about the same thing as genetically altered agriculture, right? Only cuter. And if the one is a case of mass hysteria, then the other ...

And so on.

When concern trolls are publishing puff pieces for biotech in the national press, pretending they're interested only in objectivity and evidence, beware focus on the wrong questions. And quadruple-beware scientism.

We're going to get a lot more of this, not less, in the coming decades. Keep your eyes peeled.



Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Monoculture v complexity; agribusiness and deceit
One hundred trillion bacteria: the microbiome within you and without you
Unvarnished truth is hard to swallow




Thanks to Martin Speck (CC BY-SA 2.0) for the monocrop image; and to Billy Baque (CC BY-SA 3.0) for the image of a classic shell game -- both via Wikimedia Commons.