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.