Correcting Flawed Armchair Objections to GMOs

Comparison between anti-GMO and anti-vaccine movements

(image credit to Chuck Lasker)

Combating anti-GMO misinformation online is a constantly struggle.

It often boils down to explaining basic research results to people who have never done any research on plant biotechnology or ever worked on a farm. They are often exceptionally arrogant while demanding that scientists should be more humble. They reject the scientific consensus on GMOs and recycle stale myths while insisting that they are not anti-GMO.

Philip Loring, an ecological anthropologist, has recently written a post called Science denialism is dangerous. But so is science imperialism published on the website Ensia. It is a terribly uninformed piece that recycles many anti-GMO misconceptions, confuses scientific methods and results with institutions of science, denies the existence of a scientific consensus and many more.

Loring is one of those feel-good environmentalists without a natural science background who has his heart in the right place. Unfortunately, he has allowed himself to be contaminated by anti-GMO ideology. This article takes on and refutes most of the serious errors in his post with references to the scientific literature where possible.

Being anti-GMO means being against social justice

Many anti-GMO activists insists that they care about social justice. In reality, being anti-GMO often means being against many forms of social justice in practice.

This is because GMOs is one of many crucial elements to achieve social justice. Opposing it means opposing reduction in pesticide use, opposing yield increases and opposing boosting the income of poor farmers and the women who work in their fields.

Being anti-GMO also stinks of privilege, because anti-GMO activists want to keep modern biotechnology in the hands of powerful people in rich countries instead of sharing the technology and the fruits of that technology with poor people.

Many anti-GMO activists also fetishize the “natural” and “ancient” (both fallacies), essentially turning other people’s poverty and resource scarcity into something they think is desirable. Of course, people who romanticize the past conveniently ignore that life in the natural state is short and full of dangers. They more or less fantasize about a past that never was.

Here are the basic facts: GMOs increases yield by 22% even without there being any commercially available traits that focus directly on crop yield. GMOs have reduced pesticide use by 37% by adding a gene that kills a specific kind of insect pest instead of having to spray entire fields with insecticides. GMOs have saved non-target insects because broad spectrum insecticides are no longer needed to control the worst insect pest. It was increased farmer profits by 68%.

In India in particular, the use of Bt cotton has allowed, on average, farmers to use, 41% less pesticide, gotten 37% increased yields and a whopping 89% gain in cotton profits. Calculating on all of the 7.6 million hectares, this means an additional 135 USD profit per hectare and a total increased profit of 1 billion dollars for small-scale farmers. This is not just money going to those already on the top, as 60% of the gains go to those that are either extremely or moderately poor.

It has reduced hard labor carried out by poor women in agricultural fields because herbicide-resistance crops allow farmers to use herbicides against weeds and no longer rely on manual weed clearing done by women. The return for women in agriculture has increased by 55% and allowed employers to employ more women to help pick cotton. This also has positive effects for their children and families.

GMOs have a wide range of other environmental benefits, including boosting no-till farming and reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

Many more GM applications have benefited hard-working people, including saving the Hawaii papaya, allowing synthetic insulin to be made without relying on the pancreas of farm animals, curing blind children with a rare form of genetic blindness, reducing toxic cyanide compounds from cassava and many others.

Bottom line: being against GMOs means being against social justice.

Jurassic Park is not actual science

Loring starts his post by quoting Jeff Goldblum from the movie franchise Jurassic Park. However, Jurassic Park is not a science movie and Jeff Goldblum is not a scientist. In fact, the Jurassic Park franchise is filled to the brim with scientific inaccuracies. This is fitting, since the post written by Loring also contains multiple scientific inaccuracies.

In reality, Velociraptor are barely half a meter large (not the size of humans or larger) and had feathers on parts of the body. Brachiosaurus did not sound like a whale. Dilophosaurus is much larger in reality, doesn’t have a neck ruffle and cannot spit poison. Spinosaurus probably ate fish and did not fight Tyrannosaurus as they did not even live around the same time or in the same geographical location. The vision of Tyrannosaurus was probably not based on movement either.

Pteranodon, although technically not dinosaurs, did not have teeth, probably ate fish and could certainly not carry away young boys in their mouths. Besides getting dinosaurs largely wrong, they also butchered molecular biology. DNA degrades and fragments in the environment and it is likely not possible to get enough DNA from 65 million years ago to make a viable genome. Since birds are technically dinosaurs, it would be much better to scaffold the dinosaur DNA with the help of bird sequences, not amphibians. Finally, no existing species is suitable to carry the fertilized dinosaur embryos to term and it is currently not possible to use synthetic methods from fertilization to delivery.

The precautionary principle cuts both ways

The real reason behind the quote from Jurassic Park is to deploy the precautionary principle. This principle states that we should reverse the burden of proof by saying that we should refuse or even ban things that have not met an enormously high burden of proof in terms of safety and somethings efficacy.

However, there are a number of problems with this.

First, GMOs have been found to be safe and effective (more about that in the next section). In fact, there is no known risk with GMOs that do not exist with other breeding methods.

Second, it assumes that “zero risk” is possible, which just is not true. You could die from choking on clean tap water. You could die crossing the street. You could die due to an asteroid impact. You could die after falling from your bed or a chair. In fact, this happens to hundreds of people do every year in the United Kingdom. You could even die due to too hot tap water.

Third, it is deployed in a highly inconsistent manner as proponents do not require the same level of “zero risk” for things like personal computers (about as old as GMOs) or organic farming or things deemed “natural”. But of course, calling something “natural” tells you nothing about its safety. In fact, there are many highly dangerous products in nature, from individual toxins like Botulinum toxin and digoxin to hundred and hundreds of poisonous plants and frogs and venomous spiders, snakes and other animals. Nature is not your friend. It can easily kill you with too much heat, too much cold, too little food, deadly infections from just a scratch, contaminated drinking water, deadly diseases mosquito bites, animal attacks and so on. Everything better is due to science, medicine and technology.

Fourth, the precautionary principle applied to itself suggests we should not rely on it. If we believe that the precautionary principle is something good, then we should of course apply it to itself. But we know that the reliance on the precautionary principle when it comes to nuclear power (one of the safest energy sources per TWh) has increased our reliance on dirty coal (all coal is dirty) and natural gas. The precautionary principle with respect to GMOs have made hundreds of thousands of children suffer vitamin A deficiency, blindness and death. The precautionary principle has allowed anti-vaccine activists to abuse and bully doctors and regulators. In reality, vaccines are generally safe and effective. It has even been used by climate deniers to slow and disrupt evidence-based solutions to climate change due to unfounded fears about economic impact. In reality, climate mitigations are cost-effective and vital. This is something that economists who deny the climate consensus even understands.

So, ironically, the precautionary principle suggests that we should not be so quick to jump on the precautionary principle bandwagon. It prevents people and communities from acting despite overwhelming evidence of safety and effectiveness.

Science does not have all answers, but pseudoscience has none

A common complaint among anti-science activists is that science does not have all the answers and that scientists need to be humble in the face of the unknown or domains where science cannot answer questions. In reality, science knows it does not have all the answers. If it had, there would be no need to do any more science.

Of course, anti-science activists have claimed for hundreds of years that science cannot possibly answer this or that question about the age of the earth, the history of the planet, the origin and development of species, how the mind works and so on. Time and time again, science has indeed intruded onto those and found good, evidence-based answers to questions that were deemed to be unanswerable by science.

In reality, scientists are humble. They must be because there is always the risk that data will contradict their ideas. No one likes getting humiliated in the peer-reviewed literature, getting papers retracted, losing collaborations and so on. Rather, it is pseudoscience activists that are arrogant and lack proper humility. They often put forward the most batshit of ideas that can be disproved by basic science. They insist that vast conspiracies exists when even the most powerful people in the world could not keep infidelity in the Oval Office a secret or keep a global surveillance network secret. They attack scientists who work at universities for very little money while themselves are funded by non-governmental think tanks that attack the link between smoking and cancer, acid rain, vaccines, GMOs and climate change.

Finally, just because science does not have all the answers does not mean that pseudoscience can answer those questions. That is a false dichotomy. Alleged arguments against science is not arguments for pseudoscience. Pseudoscience stands and falls on its own merits or lack thereof. If some pseudoscience activist insist that it has the answers, they should provide the evidence for it and let it be tested by independent experts.

Science has been wrong before, but is a lot less wrong than pseudoscience

Loring deploys another classic anti-science trope called Science Was Wrong Before. This is a terrible argument for several reasons.

Science may have been wrong in the past, but it is far worse to be wrong now.

Science is probably not wrong on very broad issues. No amount of future research will find that the heart does not pump blood, that the earth is flat, that evolution never happened, that humans cannot impact climate. This is because these conclusions are supported by many lines of independently converging evidence and new models need to account for the same evidence in areas where they both make the same predictions. That is why you can land on the moon using nothing but Newtonian mechanics even though we know that it is inaccurate in contexts with very high masses and very high velocities.

The reason we even can say that we know that science was wrong in the past is because science is reasonably correct on those issues today. Thus, the argument presupposes the validity of science to attack the validity of science, which is a clear self-contradiction. Science does not need to be perfect to be highly effective and reasonable. If we demanded zero errors from something before we accepted it as reasonable, then of course all forms of pseudoscience would automatically be rejected. In essence, the science was wrong before claim is an example of the perfect solution fallacy.

Science updates and improves over time, but this is not an arbitrary change with respect to the evidence. This is unlike pseudoscience, which rarely updates to be consistent with the bulk of the scientific evidence.

Finally, many sociological objections to science hit anti-science ideologies even harder, since they have less self-correction and fewer intellectual norms.

There is no such thing as “western science”

Another trope that Loring deploys is condescendingly dismissing the fruits of science as merely “western science”. Of course, there is no such thing as “western science”, just like there is no such thing as “Jewish physics” or “Muslim algebra”. Science is a human universal and originates on multiple continents in different time periods, not in Europe in the 1500s.

If you go into a modern hospital in China, they will treat you with modern medicine. If you ask for acupuncture for your type I diabetes instead of insulin, they will look at you the same way that U. S. doctors would look at someone who asked for exorcism for the same condition. In fact, the entire construct of “eastern medicine” was invented by Mao Zedong to cover up a failing health care system in the 1960s. It was popularized by ignorant westerners who opposed modern medicine. Ironically, the construct of “eastern medicine” is a way that rich white people can view Asian cultures as less advanced and primitive than they really are.

The Emperor Dao Gaung banned acupuncture in 1822 from the Imperial Medical Academy. Forever. Now that is some old eastern wisdom everyone should get behind.

Science was not discovered in Europe. A modern understanding of the history of science shows that there were many early scientific, medical and technological achievements in places like China, the Middle East and parts of Africa. Science did not begin with Galileo or Vesalius. Here is just a brief list of achievements by earlier cultures other than Europe in the 1500s or later:

Astronomy: discovering that the earth was not flat, calculating the circumference of the earth, calculating the effect of the Moon on the tides, mapping positions of stars, predicting solar eclipses etc.

Biology and medicine: classifying species, discovering the function of the kidney, anatomy based on dissections of many different plants and animals, pulmonary circulation, that the larynx generates voice, the broad picture of the human nervous system, fermentation, cultivation of rice and soybean, pest control etc.

Technology: the printing press, paper, gunpowder, the compass, bells, drilling, pottery urns, quern stones, use of wet fields for food cultivation, paper currency, bellows powered by hydraulics, blast furnace, cannons, cast iron, many different kinds of crows bows, refining oil, pinhole camera, well drilling, air conditioning etc.

There are literally hundred and hundreds of scientific, technological and medical discoveries and advances that were made well before the scientific revolutions in Europe. Many of these discoveries involved experimentation and testing hypothesis with the help of empirical evidence. They were not just happy accidents or divine revelations. They were produced by hardworking people who tested their ideas, looked at how things worked and kept the things that worked and got rid of the things that did not.

“Western science” is often a term used by anti-science activists to condescendingly dismiss scientific methods and discovers that are often not even made in Europe or by white Europeans.

It crushes and attempts to erase a rich history of scientific, medical and technological achievements made by diverse people in many different parts of the world.

It tries to make scientific methods the exclusive property of one group of people, when science belongs to everyone.

A similar conclusion applies to terms like “eastern medicine”. It is not really eastern in any meaningful way. It is essentially a collection of harmful stereotypes that rich westerners have about Asian populations and culture. Many of these supposed “ancient eastern” practices are just a few decades old and has very little in terms of real historical connections to real practices discovered or developed in Asia.

Conflating scientific methodology with institutions

One of the core reasons why many postmodernist sociologists pour such hatred on science is that they cannot distinguish the methods of science from the institutions of science. Look at how Loring misleadingly defines science:

Western science — by which I refer to the observation- and hypothesis-based practices for generating knowledge about the world, as well as the societal edifices (e.g., universities) that enable and promote this endeavor — is a robust institution

Notice the sneaky addition of “societal edifices”? This is a deceptive way to define science, because there are important differences between the methods of science and the institutions of science. In reality, it is the institutions of science that are plagued by racism, colonialism and sexism. This is because it is run by flawed humans working in a flawed system with discriminatory structures. The institutions of science are not at all above the problems that exist in many other institutions.

This does not mean that all minute methods in science are flawless. For instance, algorithms are regularly trained on datasets that are contaminated in such a way as to be biased against women and ethnic minorities. Those algorithms will produce biased results, often with terrible outcomes. It is clear that there are still many problems when it comes to equality that needs to be overcome. In fact, we know this to be true because of the scientific evidence that shows this. Scientific evidence produced by the same system that was previously condescendingly dismissed as “western science”.

But that has nothing to do with e. g. testing ideas against the evidence, looking for independently converging evidence from different sources, basing knowledge on evidence etc.

By the way, universities is also not a pure European invention as there existed similar institutions in both Africa and Asia in earlier times. The basic math (algebra) behind comparing two groups of people to check for biases was also not invented in Europe.

Accusing other people of being fake experts

Perhaps the most hilarious part of the post is when Loring accuses Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson for being fake experts when it comes to GMOs:

Consider the issue of GMOs. Both Nye and Tyson, neither of whom is a plant biologist or medical researcher, put their names behind the notion that there is a consensus on their safety.

First of all, to be accurately labelled as a fake expert, someone has to claim to have expert-level knowledge in an area and not have it. There are no well-documented cases where Nye or Tyson has claimed to be experts on GMOs. Furthermore, they are also not wrong on the facts. Thus, we can safely conclude that neither are fake experts when it comes to GMOs.

However, Philip Loring qualifies much better as a fake expert when it comes to GMOs. He claims to have deep knowledge of the field, yet he is often wrong on the facts. In fact, he is so wrong that he even denies the existence of a scientific consensus on GMOs (more on that later). Yet, of course, Loring does not have a relevant education, degree or research experience when it comes to GMOs.

In fact, Loring does not even have a background in the natural sciences whatsoever. According to his bio at the University of Saskatchewan, he has:

– Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies (Philosophy and Classic Studies), University of Alaska Fairbanks.
– Master of Arts in Anthropology, University of Alaska Fairbanks.
– Doctor of Philosophy in Indigenous Studies, University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Of course, philosophy, anthropology or indigenous studies are not part of the natural sciences, but either humanities or social sciences. So, if Loring thinks it is a reasonable argument to dismiss what Nye and Tyson claims based on the fact that they do not have relevant degrees or research experience in plant biotechnology, he must in a delicious case of irony also dismiss himself!

There is a consensus on GMOs

Loring dismisses the existence of a consensus on GMO safety. In fact, he even goes so far as to say that it cannot even exist in principle:

There is indeed a strong body of evidence that certain existing GMO foods are safe. But the scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs is exaggerated. There arguably can’t ever be such a consensus, because the GMO category is so broad with respect to the many kinds of technologies that it encompasses.

This is, of course, an arbitrary argument. Later in the article, Loring accepts the scientific consensus on vaccine safety, but he could hypothetically make the same argument with regards to vaccines. Surely, we have not tested all existing vaccines against all possible side effects, we have not tested vaccines we might develop in the future and we have not tested each individual ingredient or each individual molecular biology tool against all possible negative effects. So according to the flawed approach adopted by Loring, he cannot even say there is a scientific consensus on vaccine safety. By the same torturous “logic”, he would even have to reject the fact that there is a scientific consensus on global warming, since we have not measured all hypothetically possible factors and because there are still error bars.

The rest of us, of course, can say there is a scientific consensus on vaccine safety and also a scientific consensus on global warming for the simple empirical reason that this is what the scientific evidence shows. There is also a similar consensus on the safety of GM foods. The existence of a scientific consensus does not require zero risk or that everything is known. It only requires that the bulk of published evidence independently converge on the same general conclusion about GMOs, vaccines or global warming. In fact, for global warming, there is even consensus among consensus studies. That is how much knowledge we have.

Read more about scientific consensus in What is Scientific Consensus and Why Should You Care?.

Excessive use of outdated and non-scientific references

As we shall see, Loring primarily relies on outdated or non-scientific references to support his claims. Many references are well over 20 years old and often not even relevant for his claims.

He cites a 2008 paper that carries out simulations without empirical based on faulty assumptions (including using wrong figures for climate sensitivity) to support the claim that science “can be wrong”.

Loring cites a single case study from the late 1970s (almost 50 years ago) to back up his claim that science are more influenced by social circumstances than people want to admit.

He goes on to cite a previous blog post he has himself written to show that humans being at odds with nature is merely a cultural myth. This is, of course, historically false. Nature is dangerous and can kill you quickly if you are not careful, and humans are certainly harming the environment and climate in enormous ways.

He often cites his own writings as well. They suffer from similar problems. For instance, in the article he links to support his claim that “the scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs is exaggerated”, he claims that non-GMO crops have larger productivity than GMO crops. His citation for this is a paper about how biodiversity increases crop production. Looking at actual scientific studies on yield show that GM crops have a 22% increased yield compared with non-GMO crops. It is worth taking into account that there are currently no commercially available GMO crops that focus specifically on boost crop yields, but instead of protecting against insect damages. So the yield is very impressive because it is so large considering the fact that the underlying application is indirect and not direct.

According to the same meta-analysis, pesticide use has dropped by 37%. There is also ample evidence that GMOs protect non-target insects. This is because Bt crops only target a specific group of pests so that farmers do not need to use a broad spectrum insecticide. There are several other environmental benefits of GMOs.

Arguments against GMOs rarely have anything to do with GMOs.

To support his claims about alleged negative societal effects of GMOs, Loring cites a 2001 legal article from the Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies (impact factor 0.71). This shows again how Loring relies on cherry-picking old and non-scientific articles to support his claims. The issues brought up in that paper has nothing to do with GMOs, but relate to things like agricultural corporations, global trade, patents and so on. None of these factors are unique to GMOs. Conventional or organic plant varieties can be patented and you have to pay fees to the person who developed them in accordance with plant breeders’ rights. In essence, the problem people have is with corporations, not GMOs or the technology behind it. In other words, these objections are just red herrings. It is like denying that vaccines are generally safe and effective because you dislike pharmaceutical companies or denying climate change because you do not like the behavior of solar panel corporations.

The self-refuting nature of some sociological attacks on science

There is strong need for sociological criticisms of the institutions of science. We know there is widespread bias against women and ethnic minorities. People who will be hit hardest by global warming are not the ones setting research priorities and have overall very little impact on the way science is done from an administrative and practical standpoint. Algorithms are trained on biased datasets that produce unfair outcomes that harm women and ethnic minorities. Science institutions vastly underpay and overwork researchers at the lower tiers of the system and assume that they will do a lot of work for free. There is a known leaky pipeline for LGBT people in science. All of this must be fixed. Not merely should be fixed, but must be fixed. Preferably ten or twenty years ago, but the next best time is right now.

However, many sociological attacks against science involve the knowledge and methods of science in ways that are not reasonable. Perhaps the best refutation of this is to point out that postmodernism has an even worse track-record when it comes things like intellectual honesty and self-correction. So any attack against science instantly self-detonates. Why should be trust postmodernism when it comes to their criticism of science, when postmodernism has a lower accuracy, worse self-correction and abysmally lower respect for facts than science? The answer, of course, is that we should not.

The world is better now than it has ever been

Contrary to popular opinion, the world is better now than it has ever been. It is, in part, due to the things that postmodernist sociologists scoff at: the pervasiveness of scientific research, global trade, industrial systems for food production and so on. These are not without their flaws, but the evidence for their effectiveness is obvious across fields and datasets.

Most people think the world is getting worse. In fact, people, even highly educated people, answer systematically wrong on tests about how the world is doing and they are even worse at it than chance. To see if you are better than chance (you probably are not) when it comes to global progress questions, go ahead and take the Gapminder ignorance test before reading the facts below.

Here is just a short list (taken from the book Factfulness by Hans Rosling):

– During the past 20 years, the proportion of people living in extreme poverty has more than halved.
– 80% of 1 year olds are vaccinated against at least one disease.
– During the past 100 years, deaths due to natural disasters have more than halved.
– Majority of the world’s population live in middle-income countries.
– 30-year-old men have spent an average of 10 years in school. The corresponding figure for women is 9 years.
– 60% of girls finish school in low-income countries.
– 80% of the people in the world has access to electricity.
– The global life expectancy is 70 years.

These things are due to, among other things, the very things that postmodernist sociologists dislike: the global domination of science, global trade, industrial agriculture etc.

The massive contradiction of being pro-vaccine, but anti-GMO

As a parting irony, it turns out that Loring accepts the scientific consensus on vaccine safety:

I want to be clear: Western science must be a central component of how we make decisions and social policies for a sustainable and just future. A mountain of evidence shows that climate change is real, caused by humans and an existential threat. We should act accordingly. Likewise, the evidence is clear that vaccines are safe. Again, we should act accordingly.

Of course, it is a massive contradiction to be pro-vaccine, but anti-GMO. One cannot logically accept one without accepting the other. This is because anti-vaccine and anti-GMO activists basically use the same pseudoscientific tactics straight out of the science denialist playbook (image credit to Chuck Lasker):

Many vaccines are based on biotechnology and sometimes the very same tools used for making GMOs. Vaccines and GMOs are produced by multinational, profit-driven corporations. This cannot be used as an argument against GMOs if you do not accept it as an argument against vaccines. In fact, the anti-vaccine and anti-GMO movements are merging to a certain extent due to similar methods and political interests.

Looking at the comment section supports this as well. For instance, one anti-vaccine comment basically regurgitated some of the most common anti-vaccine claims (that have of course been repeatedly debunked by the scientific evidence).

It is interesting to note that Loring himself insists that he is not anti-GMO. However, denying the scientific consensus on GMOs and deploying tired claims that have been debunked for many years is the ultimate piece of evidence that Loring is, in fact, anti-GMO. Actions speak louder than words.

Another irony meter explodes…

And it is essential that scientists be a bit humbler about how much we can, and should, lean on the best available science for making difficult societal decisions.

Scientists are generally humble. That is how they make progress by questioning their own assumptions and that of others and by putting it to the test. That is more than can be said about armchair “researchers” who have never done any relevant lab or field work in their entire lives but relied on outdated references repeating old myths that have been refuted by actual scientific research.

Don’t you just love it when arrogant pseudoscience activists demand that scientist should be more humble?

Another irony meter explodes.

Emil Karlsson

Debunker of pseudoscience.

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