Mailbag: Genetically Modified Foods and Immigration Statistics

mailbag letter

It is time for another entry in the mailbag series where I answer feedback email from readers and others. If you want to send me a question, comment or any other kind of feedback, please do so using the contact form on the about page.

Selective skepticism both amuses and frightens me at the same time. It is the approach whereby you accept the mainstream scientific position on a great many things (such as HIV/AIDS, vaccines, 9/11 etc.), but then have cordoned off a special area where you promote pseudoscientific nonsense and believe in all sorts of unreasonable things (say, you are anti-GMO or anti-psychiatry). To an external observer, it is a trivial lack of consistency, especially since most forms of pseudoscience share the same basic rhetoric: quote scientists out of context, misunderstand basic science, play the martyr card, create fake “controversies” and so on. Selective skepticism is closely related to pseudoskepticism, whereby a person gives a shallow pretense of being a scientific skeptic but shares almost none of the substantive content of scientific skepticism.

In this post, I will examine a couple of emails and comments received about genetically modified foods and immigration statistics. Those topics are not directly related, but they share the basic premise of selective skepticism or pseudoskepticism.

A person going by the name of personperson1 left me the following comment on a post about climate change denialism. Since it was not relevant to the blog post itself, I decided to save it for a mailbag entry. It also got caught in the spam filter and I did not discover it until a few days ago:

Emil Karlsson, you are really foolish to put this in a blog as if this is on the same level as being anti-GMO. Who are you trying to fool?

Yes, anti-GMO and climate change denialism are on the same general level. They are both pseudoscientific nonsense. They both contradict accumulated scientific evidence. They both make use of well-known denialist tactics and they both attack research scientists by flooding them with disingenuous FOIA requests. Trying to carve out a special safe-zone for a particular form of pseudoscience while acknowledging another is a classic symptom of selective skepticism. My advice to selective skeptics is to make their position consistent: either accept GMOs or reject climate change (the latter option is indefensible, of course). They cannot have their cake and eat it too.

Like climate change denialists, the denialism against GMOs is from the corporate and vested-interest side.

Typically, those who are anti-GMO are:

– some people religious conservatives who dislike the notion of playing god (but they still donate to charity or eat antibiotics, of course).
– some people on the far-left who oppose large, multinational corporations (apparently without realizing that conventional seed companies and organic companies are similar).
– some people who have an obsession with the notion that “natural” is morally good or healthy (they would of course never eat botulinum toxin, but might consider botox for non-medical usage).
– some organic corporations that benefit from their GM competitors being under fire.

GMOs cause great harm to the environment, are uncontainable when they’re let loose. They are slowly contaminating the natural world and the more they are allowed out there the more it will continue to happen. You know, I know it, from a logical, scientific and in particular practical point of view advocating GMOs is a hopeless argument to mark.

Using a broad spectrum insecticide harms both insect pests and insects that are not harmful to the crops. This is bad. It reduces biodiversity and harms the ecosystem. It is often toxic to the farmers themselves, who are often forced to put on several applications per year. In many areas of the world, they have to go around on the field themselves, carry tanks with insecticides and spray it.

By targeting specific pests with GM applications such as BT crop, GMOs can actually be beneficial to the environment and human health. The GM plant produces its own specific insecticide that is enormously specific: it requires an alkaline stomach environment to dissolve the aggregate, the existence of a specific protease to cleave it into the active form and the presence of a specific receptor on the stomach lining to have a lethal effect. Non-target organisms, whether insects or humans do not have these three factors.

As for being impossible to contain, most GM traits are not beneficial in the wild. A wild plant that lives in the forest and competes with other plants for sunlight and resources is not going to benefit that much from being, say, resistant to Roundup (glyphosate).

The bottom line is this: using genetic modification techniques is more precise, involve smaller and well-known genetic changes, is more controlled, safer and more tested than conventional crop breeding. I have posted this table several times before here on Debunking Denialism:

Traditional plant breeding Production of GM crops
What is the size of the genetic changes? Genetic recombination causes thousands of large genetic changes. Adding or modifying one or a few genes qualifies as small genetic changes.
How precisely are the changes done? Very low precision because all breeders have to look at is the phenotype. Extremely high precision because scientists can use biotech techniques.
How well-known are the genetic changes? Unknown since you are only looking at the phenotype. Highly characterized, both by virtue of the techniques involved and because of regulation requirements.
How long does it take? Decades, unless you mutate seeds with chemicals or radiation (which still qualifies as traditional plant breeding by regulators). Very fast.
When can they be released? Right when they are made. No government regulation. After 10+ years of intense toxicological and ecological testing.

No rational and minimally informed individual could support or be in favour of GMOs. Nobody proficient in science and logical thinking would ever support such a view. Stop living in a fantasy world dreamt up by GMO PR companies. This is going to affect all life on the planet for the rest of time, I suggest you let go of your willful ignorance and cop on.

The mainstream scientific position is that GMOs are a useful technology and that GM crops are generally considered safe. You can always find individual applications that could be problematic (just like you occasionally withdraw medications), but this cannot be so carelessly generalized.

Personperson1 appears to have gotten somewhat agitated at getting caught by the spam filter:

You seriously banned me from commenting on this blog? Looking at the amount of people here I’m pretty sure you need all the comments you get.

Maybe it’s time to take a step back and question where you’re getting your ideas and inspiration from. It’s not hard to rattle off the talking points of multi-million dollar industries and follow “the science”, ie., what most mainstream scientists seem to think from your perspective. What’s hard is to critically look at all the arguments and to find something original, to understand everything properly and come up with an independent interpretation. I think that you are just hiding behind “the science” a lot of the time without really understanding what’s going.

No, you did not get banned, you got stuck in the spam filter.

I’m sorry, but regurgitating flawed pseudoscientific talking-points does not qualify as “critically look at all the arguments”, “find something original”, “understand everything properly” or “come up with an independent interpretation”. Do better.

A person going by the name of Christina Smith recently sent me an email where she shared her concerns about GMOs:

WOW!!! You are so uneducated on this topic it angers and disgusts me!!

When a proponent of pseudoscience laments that people who accept the mainstream science are “uneducated”, you know this is a clear sign that they do not know what they are talking about. Reading crank blogs is not the same as being educated on a topic. The failure to distinguish between issue and person is another clear warning sign of nonsense.

The pesticides used in GMO’s are PROVEN to be VERY hazardous to human health.

As was explained above, BT is not generally toxic to humans. In fact, BT has been used in organic and conventional agriculture for many decades, whereby farmers spread BT spores on their plants instead of making the plant produce BT itself.

But if you believe that GMOs are “very hazardous to human health”, where are the dead bodies?

It is being banned by a huge majority of the world now.

This is a misbegotten appeal to (in)popularity. Homosexuality is banned in over 70 countries. Would you ever use this as an argument against LGBT rights? Hardly.

It is also proven that there is less yield to gm products now.

Not even close. Here is what I wrote in a previous post on GM crops and yield:

A recent meta analysis by Klümper and Qaim (2014) looked at almost 150 research papers investigating yield improvements for genetically modified soybean, cotton and maize. The results were clear: the average yield increase was 22%. This supports previous research that showed a 24-37% increased yield for GM cotton in India (Qaim, Matin Subramanian and Sadashivappa, 2009; Kathage and Qaim, 2012).

A common tactic by anti-GM activists is to ignore all of this research that shows that GM crops increases total yield by referring to an investigation by the Union for Concern Scientists. However, this study looked at intrinsic yield not total yield. Intrinsic yield, which roughly corresponds to the number of corns per cob, has not changed that much regardless of agricultural technology, but his is not the kind of yield that farmers are mostly interested in. They are interested in total yield, which as we have seen, has increased substantially.

So GM yield is higher, in some cases much higher, than their conventional equivalence.

It is made by a company that has said DDT, PCBs, Dioxin, Agent Orange, Saccharin, and Aspartame(just to name a FEW)… be SAFE!!!

This is a classic confusion between the methods of genetic modification and some of the economic contexts. Being in favor of GM technology or specific GM applications does not require that you support Monsanto, and attacks against Monsanto has no relevance for GM technology.

You would trust anything these companies have to say now???!! They pay so many researchers to say what they want.

Let us do some back of the envelope math. ExxonMobile made around 33 billion USD in 2014, whereas Monsanto made roughly 3 billion in the same year. Christina Smith want us to believe that ExxonMobile with its 33 USD billion net income could not pay off climate scientists to keep quiet about climate change, but that Monsanto, with less than 10% of ExxonMobile, could do it with GMOs?

Trust the science, not corporations or pseudoscientific cranks.

Gmos are made to use MORE pesticides. They were just approved to be made to contain the pesticide gene IN them to have even MORE roundup sprayed on them!!

All pesticides are not equivalent. The usage of Roundup has increased, but this is because they drastically reduced the usage of much more harmful pesticides.

WOW. I am still in shock that you write these bullshit articles and ignorant people will believe you.

An assertion is not an argument.

Don’t you understand that you cannot undo nature?? They are changing genes(and yes…they are suing farmers whose farms are contaminated by pollinating from other farms), and those plants have pollen and the wind spreads it miles and miles away….causing them to grow in areas where they are not supposed to. Guess what? It doesn’t take long that the land will be filled with these dangerous plants. It cannot be stopped!!!!! It will be too late.

Conventional crop breeding changes genes. That is how we made plants produce more yield during the Green Revolution. That is how we made the conventional bananas and maize you find in the shops today. Google “wild banana” or “wild maize” and compare. That change involves changes in genes.

It is a trivial exercise to distinguish between accidental contamination by wind and intentional intellectual property violation. If it is accidental, it is only a small fraction of all crops that contain the patented gene and those are hybrids. If it is intentional, there is a very large fraction of all genes that contain the patented genes and they are homozygous for it. The is Schmeiser case study is discussed in additional details in Why Rachel Parent is Wrong About Genetically Modified Foods.

Also, how dumb are you that poison will only kill one type of insect and not others???? WOW. It is killing numerous beneficial insects.

Because BT is highly specific. It requires an alkaline stomach environment, a specific protease and a specific receptor on the gut lining. Only the target species have this three features.

BTW…pick up a bottle of roundup at your home depot. It says NOT TO BE INGESTED!!!!!!!!!! Then they spray it on our food. Poison is poison hun. You are not supposed to eat poison.

If you drink too much water, you can die from water intoxication because you disrupt the balance of important electrolytes in the central nervous system. You can die from caffeine if you drink 50 cups at once. Does this mean that you should fear water or coffee as “dangerous poison”? Of course not.

Toxic effect is dose-dependent. Water in small amounts is required for life, in too high amounts it can kill. If you drink an entire bottle of Roundup, then you might have negative health consequences. However, any residue on food is too small to have any substantial health effects.

Do the world a favor and stop writing your stupid blogs. You are poisoning the minds of people who need true information.

Do the world a favor by reading actual scientific papers instead of blindly trusting crank blogs (which do not provide “true information”).

John Asherson posted the following comment on a post about climate change:

Emil, is it true that in Sweden immigrants make up most of the rapists? I’ve heard this claim many time before on various places

He later added:

Including some mainstram Swedish newspapers, I might add

Alternative far-right “media” (and I use the term very loosely) like Avpixlat (“Depixilated”), Fria Tider (“Free Times”), Exponerat (“Exposed”) and so on are not “mainstream Swedish newspapers”. I have previously covered their false claims that immigration somehow causes cancer and psychosis.

Most of the statistics below come from a report from the Council of Crime prevention from 2005 called Brottslighet bland personer födda i Sverige och i utlandet (“Crime among persons born in Sweden and abroad”).

Let us look at crimes generally before moving on to the sex crimes category. Compared with a person born in Sweden with two Swedish parents, those who are born abroad are 2.5 times overrepresented in all criminal categories (p. 34). When you control for confounders, such as legal sex, age, income and education, this drops to 2.1 (p. 40). For comparison (p. 35), the figure for men is 3.5, for people with no high-school education it is 5.7, for people with an income of less than 4800 USD per year it is 5.3 and for people on welfare it is 6.1.

However, if you look at % of offenders (p. 36), people with both parents born in Sweden constitute 60% of all criminals, and about 26% of criminals are born outside the country. About 5% of all offenders are from Nordic countries besides Sweden and 2.8% from Africa and 3.4% from western Asia. So the typical criminal is not an immigrant and only a small fraction of all criminals are from Africa or western Asia.

Moving on to rape and attempted rape, about 0.04% of people born in Sweden with both parents born in Sweden have ever been suspected for those crimes. For those born abroad, that figure is 0.22% (p. 41). Crunching the numbers (with the group sizes given in the report) gives 0.0004*3273856 = 1309 for people with two parents born in Swedish and 0.0022*574781 = 1264 suspects born abroad. Thus, comparing those born in Sweden with two parents born in Sweden with those born abroad, they are suspected in roughly comparable proportions. Adding in data from those born in Sweden, but with one or two parents born abroad makes the figure for immigrants smaller and in neither case does the evidence support that most rapists are born abroad.

When thinking about this dataset, we should remember that:

1. These figures are for ALL immigrants, not just immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East. This figure includes immigrants born in Norway, Finland, Denmark, U. S. etc. I repeat, these figures are not the figures for North Africa / Middle East, but ALL immigrants regardless of country. I cannot stress this enough, because when people hear “immigrants”, they think “people with dark skin who are Muslim”.

2. These are figures for suspected rapes/attempted rapes and not convicted rapes/attempted rapes or perpetrated rapes/attempted rapes. Only about 20-25% of rapes/attempted rapes are tied to specific person(s) in Sweden, so this is a small sample out of a small sample to begin with.

3. No confounders are being controlled for, such as age, education, legal sex or income. Controlling for confounders reduces criminality that can be attributed to the immigration variable (see above, also p. 39).

4. The tendency to file a police report is assumed to be the same against perpetrators that are born in Sweden with Swedish parents and against immigrant perpetrators.

5. It is also assumed that the criminal justice system has no bias against ethnic minorities, which we know it does.

This means that we should interpret those figures with a grain of salt, since we do not have adequate data that takes these factors into account.

In the end, if we are to judge immigrants (or any collection of individuals) as a group, it is not overrepresentation we should base that on. That would be the statistical mistake known as fallacy of transposed conditionals. Instead, we should base that on the proportion of immigrants who rape. We do not know this figure precisely, but less than 0.5% have been suspected of a sex crime and less than 0.3% have been suspected for rape or attempted rape under the study period (p. 42). A very, very low proportion of immigrants commit sex crimes, and we should therefore drop the moral panic about immigration and rape.

I find the topic of immigration and crime in Sweden to be a bit dull because it is an almost exact replay of the arguments that were put forward in the 1990s about African-Americans and crime in the U.S. Scientific results discussed here showed that most of the overrepresentation could be attributed to confounders.

Why is there such a fetishistic obsession with immigration and crime? In times of economic difficulties, unemployment, and sensationalist mass media, people are looking for someone to blame for their troubles. This often turns out to be, both in historic and modern times, members of specific groups: the rich, the poor, the politicians, the sick, immigrants and ethnic minorities. The fact that so many countries in different parts of the world, with different politics, religions and cultures often blame different minorities for their difficulties should give us pause. We should definitive be skeptical of populist demonization of large aggregates of people.

Emil Karlsson

Debunker of pseudoscience.

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