Naomi Oreskes is a historian of science and currently the Professor of the History of Science and Affiliated Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University. In the context of scientific skepticism, she is one of the most important and hard-hitting defenders of climate science against ignorant and misguided attack by climate change denialists. She has written a persuasive essay in the prestigious scientific journal Science detailing the solid scientific consensus that most of the observed warming in the last couple of decades is due to human activities. Together with historian Erik M. Conway, she co-wrote the fantastic book called Merchants of Doubt which exposed the tobacco and climate change denialist industry and their deceptive methods. A recent New York Times portrait of Oreskes called her “a lightning rod in a changing climate”, which could not be a more apt description.
However, dark clouds appear on the horizon. There is a tendency among public intellectuals who are entirely reasonable in some areas to descend into the promotion of pseudoscience is others. The phenomenon is most commonly know among Nobel Prize winners, such as Nikolaas Tinbergen (autism quackery), Kary Mullis (climate change denialism, astrology, HIV/AIDS denialism), Linus Pauling (cancer quackery), but can readily be generalized to the broader community of researchers. This is terribly unfortunate, because they lend their intellectual credibility and academic achievements to pseudoscientific nonsense and causes real harm to science.
For Oreskes, this appears to be genetically modified foods. Fortunately, she has not yet gone so far astray as to be completely shipwrecked in the vicious marshlands of anti-GM pseudoscience so there may still be some hope. This post reviews and comments on three separate cases of anti-GM sentiments expressed by Oreskes. It finishes off by highlighting the intellectual responsibility of public intellectuals.
1. Transition Network Interview (mid 2014)
The Transition Network, an organization focused on helping people reduce CO2 emissions, posted an interview with Oreskes in early July of 2014. The topics included the history and nature of climate change denialism, the fallacy of false balance, and climate change denialists on social media.
The question posted by the interviewer was the following:
There are some who argue, like Stuart Brand and Mark Lynas, that if the science on climate change is right then we should also therefore accept genetically modified food, nuclear power, geoengineering. What’s your sense of other lenses that we can look through such issues with beyond just the fact of scientifically establishing whether they work or not?
Here is how Oreskes responds:
On the other hand, I think to jump to the conclusion that the solution is nuclear power or genetically modified crops is, let’s just say, not supported by the evidence. One of the things about climate change and fossil fuels is that energy derived from fossil fuels was a super great technology and nobody expected it to do the damage that it’s ended up doing. One of the things we know about technology is that it’s almost always a two-edged sword. It does some things for us very well but it often creates other different problems.
First of all, no serious person believes that genetically modified crops are going to reduce all greenhouse gas emissions to zero and mitigate all possible ecological and social consequences of global climate change. Second, there is actually quite a lot of evidence that genetically modified crops can provide a considerable benefit for reducing emission. For instance, herbicide resistant crops have reduced the amount of herbicide active ingredient used between 1996 and 2012 by 225 million kilograms. This is because although the usage of glyphosate has increased, the previous herbicides that were more toxic has decreased even more. Herbicide resistant crops have also enabled more usage of so-called no tillage farming. This means less emission of greenhouse gases because tractors are not using as much fuel and the soil sequestration is not as diminished. How much less? Estimates are an equivalent of almost 12 million cars during 2012 alone (Lemaux, 2009; Ronald, 2011; Brookes, 2014; Barfoot and Brookes, 2014).
Finally, effective technology cannot simply be dismissed by claiming that there could be negative consequences. Almost everything could potentially have harmful consequences. A rational analysis has to involve a consideration of the benefits and risks, without fear mongering about the risks or undefined “damages”. Naive applications of the precautionary principle simply will not cut it. In a twist of irony, the precautionary principle applied to nuclear power might have led to more use of dirty carbon for producing useful energy.
Further down in the response to the same interview question, Oreskes makes the following claims:
One more thing about genetically modified crops. Again there’s no question in my mind that genetically modified crops could be useful for certain kinds of things. But the idea that they will solve this problem is naïve and ignorant in the extreme. Because look at the Green Revolution. The Green Revolution was supposed to be the fantastic application of technology to solving a major human problem. And what happened?
Well it definitely helped. There was definitely very significant progress and we don’t want to downplay the progress that was made. But where are we today? Well 2 billion people on this planet are still hungry and they’re not hungry because we don’t have enough food. They’re hungry because we don’t know how to distribute and store and get food to the people who need it. That’s not a problem of technology. That’s a problem of human institutions.
The Green Revolution “definitely helped”? The Green Revolution doubled global crop production and tripled trade. The Green Revolution saved a billion people from starving to death. That is the population of the U.S and all of Europe combined! Saying that merely “definitely helped” is a profoundly ignorant statement. The Green Revolution was “the fantastic application of technology to solving a major human problem”.
Claiming that the problem is not lack of food but merely a problem of storage and distribution is “ignorant in the extreme”. At this very moment, we produce enough to food for everyone. But this is not going to be true for very long. In the next few decades, the world population will increase substantially, the amount of arable land will decrease and the effects of climate change will become even more noticeable. So we will be forced to grow more food on less land exposed to more severe climate. Here are some quick statistics:
- According to UN estimates of population growth, the world population will reach 9 billion in 2050. Right now, the world population is estimated to be a little over 7 billion. So we are going to need to feed an additional 2 billion mouths.
- According to UN information on desertification, the arable land loss is 12 million hectares per year, corresponding to 20 million tons of grains. In contrast, the total amount of arable land in Sweden is less than 3 million hectares. So the world is loosing over four times the total arable land in Sweden per year.
- Climate change will make the world warmer and see more extreme weather events. This will have considerable negative effects on agricultural production.
With these basic facts in mind, the “if we just distribute the food and store it properly” comes off as a dangerous delusion tainted by ideology.
2. Twitter exchange (late 2014)
In October of 2014, Oreskes had a short but revealing Twitter exchange:
It is telling that Oreskes claims to not have studied the issue, but felt competent enough to make categorical pronouncements about the science of GMOs earlier. This is a glaring inconsistency. Here is how the exchange continued:
Notice how Oreskes repeats the claim that GMOs and world hunger issue is “exaggerated”. Notice how Oreskes parrots the classic anti-GMO claim of “need more research”, despite the fact that the technology is as old as Commodore 64 as she seems to have no problem using laptops without appealing to precaution.
There is, however, an even bigger problem with this reply is that it acknowledges the scientific consensus (“most scientists think more good than bad, or good potential”), but then deploys two classic anti-GM tropes. A clear case of false balance, which is a tactic that Oreskes has rightly criticized when it is deployed by climate change denialists.
About one year after the Transition Network Interview, Oreskes decided to post a link to an anti-science website called “Independent Science News”.
A causal browsing of the website in question triggers several alarms: posts about how there is allegedly no scientific consensus on the safety GM foods, a guest post by Vandana Shiva, and even conspiracy theories about genetic testing and population mass surveillance by the government and corporations. Needless to say, it is a quack website.
The post Oreskes linked is a thinly veiled pieces of anti-GMO propaganda. Here are just a few examples:
– Focuses on increase usage of glyphosate, but fails to mention that this is coupled to a larger decrease in other, more dangerous, herbicides. The graph they show for herbicide is based on projections and thus the large decline of alternative herbicide is overshadowed.
– Paints herbicide resistance as a large and GM-specific issue. It is not. Herbicide resistance will appear any time you use herbicides, whether it is done in GM agriculture or conventional. Conventional farmers just switch the herbicide and that does not cause any major panic among anti-GM activists. The alternative, stop using herbicides in general, will lead to a large loss in yield since the weed takes up nutrients and sunlight to compete with the crop.
– Claims that glyphosate, which is highly specific to plants, cause “escalated ecological damage” and implies harm to human health without any evidence.
– Asserts that the GMO “product pipeline is not bulging with promising ideas”. This is false. Here are just some of the interesting projects currently under way:
- Cyanide-free cassava will reduce the risk of goiter, konzo paralysis and death.
- Plants modified to resist to viruses, water molds (including potato blight) and fungus will increase yield.
- Plants that can remove salt, heavy metals like mercury or selenium, explosive residues, polychlorinated biphenyls and other contaminants can bioremediate non-arable land and make it possible to grow food on it again.
- Delayed ripening in fruit, which means longer shelf-life and thus less food waste.
– During the discussion of RNA interference (RNAi) as a tool for genetic modification, the author claims that genetically modified crops that use double-stranded RNA is ineffective, untested and unsafe. In reality, this is not the case. For instance, in the case of PRSV-resistant papaya, scientists introduced a gene into the genome of the papaya that produced a transcript that was complementary to the virus RNA. This was put under a pathogen-inducible promoter, so it would only turn on during infection. This RNA base-paired with virus RNA and triggered the equivalent of the plant immune system that degrades dsRNA and protects the plant from the virus. Before genetic modification solved this problem, the papaya farms in Hawaii was almost wiped out. Unlike what the author claimed, this has been shown to work under real farming conditions (references in the above post).
– Plants modified with a gene that produce a complementary transcript to a viral RNA is not a threat to human health as is claimed in the post that Oreskes linked. This is because the transcription is set under a pathogen-inducible promoter. It is not being transcribed in the absence of infection. Furthermore, the human body does not produce viral RNAs from plant viruses, so that is another stake in the heart of this kind of anti-GM argument.
Perhaps Oreskes just did not read through the post thoroughly enough. Perhaps she would say that she disagrees with it after thinking and reading about these issues in greater detail. At any rate, it is demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that Oreskes has promoted anti-GM pseudoscience by making those arguments and linking that blog post. We now turn to the issue of intellectual responsibility.
The intellectual responsibility of public intellectuals
Naomi Oreskes is a professor at a world-leading university and a powerful force for reason on the issue of climate change. When wielding this kind of intellectual respectability, however, one should also erect powerful safeguards against succumbing to or spreading pseudoscience in other areas. If a random guy on Facebook had done what Oreskes had done, the consequences would probably not extend further away than a few friends on social media. When a professor that has demonstrated gigantic reservoir of intellectual and scientific integrity starts promoting pseudoscience, then the consequences of can be dire, both in terms of the direct effect, but also from being used as a figurehead for years to come. This is why we should be especially critical when good people go bad. In conclusion, Oreskes should reconsider her stance on genetically modified foods.