Debunking Denialism

Fighting pseudoscience and quackery with reason and evidence.

Tag Archives: GMOs

Mailbag: Ban All Agricultural Pesticides?

Mailbag

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 info on the about page.

There is a culture of fear and hate around agricultural pesticides. This is to some degree understandable, because pesticides have some risks. Large, chronic exposure can cause severe harm, thousands of people die from acute exposure to high doses and pesticides can kill non-target organisms and pollute groundwater.

However, there are also beneficial aspects with pesticides. If we let pests run amok, we would lose 50%-80% of the crop harvest and pesticides play a partial role in preventing such devastating crop loss. They can also reduce labor required to manage weeds and contribute to suppressing insect vectors for diseases (at least for a certain time until resistance develops). Extreme anti-pesticide activists also actively oppose replacing more dangerous pesticides with safer pesticides and using genetic modification to reduce pesticide use. Read more of this post

The Perils of Anti-Pesticide Hysteria

Pests and pesticides

Pesticides have brought humans breathtaking benefits. They help to protect plants from the adverse impact of weeds, parasites and microscopic pathogens that is a constant threat to their existence. Pesticides were vital for the Green Revolution (occurring between the 1930s to 1960s). This was a powerful transformation that doubled to tripled agricultural output and is credited with saving the lives of hundreds of millions of people from starvation. If pests were allowed to reign free, an estimated 50% to 80% of all crops (ranging from wheat to cotton) would be lost (Oerke, 2006), although pesticides are not the only form of crop protection available. Pesticides can also suppress insect vectors for important human diseases and reduce the amount of exhausting manual labor used to clear weeds.

Yet, there is a much darker side to pesticides that cannot be ignored. Large, chronic occupational exposure to pesticides can make people sick or even kill them. Pesticides are typically very broad in their specificity, so they do not just harm the target pest, but many non-target organisms that benefit both the crops and the environment. They can also contaminate surface water, ground water and soil and thus have much more far-reaching effects on organisms outside the field. Excessive agricultural use can also make pests resistant to the pesticides, which can substantially reduce their effectiveness in managing insect vectors for human diseases. Many pesticide apologists ignore or downplay many of these problems.

Developing newer and safer pesticides, replacing older and more harmful pesticides, and deploying biotechnology to help plants resist pests should be a global agricultural priority. Yet in a cruel twist, these crucial solutions are often opposed by many anti-pesticide activists and other extreme environmentalists who push fear and misinformation about “chemicals” and genetically modified crops. This apparent paradoxical situation might be called the perils of anti-pesticide hysteria.

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New Medium Primer: Five Ways GMOs Benefit The Environment

Five Ways GMOs Benefit The Environment

Debunking Denialism has recently expanded onto the social journalism platform Medium where magazines, professional writers and any really any user can write posts about topics that matter to them. It is part of an effort of Debunking Denialism to reach more people outside of the skeptical movement and encourage people to accept mainstream scientific facts about things like vaccines, GMOs, climate change and so on. It might also help to reach people who are stuck in a social media filter bubble, since Medium is a platform that is very open and accessible.

In particular, Medium is optimized for brief and condensed post with a hard-hitting and persuasive message. It is thus suitable for reaching new people with information about science and skepticism. The first Medium article published by Debunking Denialism is called Five Ways GMOs Benefit The Environment. At first glance, it appears to be a clickbait listicle like any other, but it delivers in terms of content and also uses crucial scientific references to back up all major claims. Read more of this post

Mailbag: GMOs and Corporations?

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 info on the about page.

Science is hard. That is why we need dedicated research to explore, discover and untangle the nature of reality and how the world works. When a scientific issue also becomes socially controversial with powerful forces trying to persuade us to hold positions that run counter to evidence and mainstream science, it can get very complicated. One such area is genetically modified crops and genetically modified foods. It is an area where many different issues, from details of molecular biology and field trials to patent law and corporations get mixed together in a confusing mess. Read more of this post

Climate Science Hero Naomi Oreskes Promotes Anti-GMO Myths

Naomi Oreskes Harvard Bio

Naomi Oreskes is a hero of climate science. She completed one of the earliest database surveys of climate consensus among publishing climate scientists and contributed to the largest ever survey of consensus studies. She has taken on misinformants who think that smoking does not cause cancer, who think that acid rain was not an issue and those who deny that humans are the main contributor behind climate change. If there was a team of climate science superheros, she would be a core member.

However, dark clouds has appeared on the horizon. During the past few years, she has been slowly getting closer and closer to the anti-GMO movement. She downplayed the Green revolution and the scientific consensus on GMOs and even linked to conspiracy websites. This might be innocent mistakes since she did admit that she has not researched the area enough. However, recently Oreskes actively and intentionally promoted the harmful anti-GMO myth that GM crops caused an epidemic of suicides among Indian farmers. In reality, empirical data shows that the introduction of GM crops in India has had no impact on suicide rates. As a public intellectual, Oreskes has an intellectual responsibility to avoid spreading anti-science misinformation.

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Harbingers of Doom – Part VI: Doomsday Predictions

Here Be Dragons

Can you prove that we are in the last few millennia of human existence based on a statistical argument alone, in the total absence of scientific evidence? What if we use even more sophisticated statistical paradigms? Is scientific evidence from billions of acres of GM crops over at least two decades not enough evidence to show that GM crops are safe? What is the Ord-Hillerbrand-Sandberg methodology and can it help us evaluate the claims of experts in its proper context? How big of a threat to humanity are asteroids? Can a single rotten apple in a cake mix productive plant cause an epidemic infection millions? Do governments really need to prepare for an astronomically large number of potential pathogens or can they successfully use more general approaches? Is i possible to be an expert in something that have never ever happened? What are the most prominent risks to the future of humanity?

Through this article series, we have dived into an enormously broad range of topics and issues, such as medieval maps, bioweapons, anti-psychiatry, heritability, embryo selection and IQ, neuroscience, cryogenics, destructive teleportation, uploading your consciousness to a computer, superintelligent machines, atomically precise manufacturing, 3D printing, science in antiquity, philosophy of science, solipsism, and statistical significance. In this sixth part, we take a closer look at two chapters of Here Be Dragons, namely The fallacious Doomsday Argument (chapter 7) and Doomsday nevertheless? (chapter 8) and the reason why we briefly return to the two chapters per post approach is that the seventh chapter is almost completely without problems in stark contrast to previous (and later) chapters.

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Are There Any Risks With GM Crops Not Found With Conventional Crops?

Corn

One of the best strategies used by scientific skeptics against anti-GMO activists on the Internet is to ask them to cite one risk that exists with genetically modified crops, but does not occur with any conventional breeding method. This is best done after presenting evidence of the safety and efficacy of GM crops and other GM applications. That way, the anti-GMO activist has to both respond to the published evidence, but also figure out unique risks with GM crops. Because it is very hard to find these supposed unique risks, the anti-GMO activists finds themselves in a very difficult position.

Far from being stumped, anti-GMO activists often try to come up with alleged unique risks, but they are often mistaken: the same risks occur with traditional breeding methods such as cross-breeding, marker-assisted breeding, radiation breeding or breeding that uses mutagenic substances such as EMS. This post repels many of the most common retorts given by anti-GMO activists when asked to cite a unique risk with genetic modification compared with conventional breeding methods.

What about allergens?

GM crops are required to go through stringent toxicological and ecological testing by regulatory authorities. This includes testing for the presence of allergens. If GM crops are found to contain allergens, they are not approved. In contrast, there is nothing that prevents a farmer from developing a new form of food item that we know contain allergens, such as peanuts, or crossing plants that cause the mixing of thousands of genes that could potentially cause an allergen.

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Anti-GMO Statistician Nassim N. Taleb Now Defends Homeopathy

Taleb on Twitter

Over a year ago, statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb co-wrote an ignorant paper on the precautionary principle and its supposed lethal application to genetically modified foods. In it, the authors made several errors. They asserted, without evidence, that genetically modified crops are more dangerous than conventional crops and failing to consider the benefits of GM crops in preventing vitamin a deficiency, blindness and death (instead falsely comparing it to letting poor people play Russian roulette to get out of poverty).

Despite critics writing several detailed refutations, Taleb retained the irrational belief that no “intelligent comment” had been made. A person even tweeted Taleb the above article from Debunking Denialism and after spending a total of two minutes on it, Taleb declared that it was “not very intelligent”, “full of flaws” and “even downright stupid”, despite the fact that it had demolished the central claims made by the authors.

As if this was not enough, Taleb has now gone full-blown anti-science. In a couple of recent tweets, he went so far as to defend homeopathy at length. He falsely claimed that homeopathy was harmless and thus totally ignoring documented expectancy side-effects as well as the problem that people with real dangerous medical conditions (such as cancer) might avoid science-based intervention. He also completely misunderstood and mocked the psychiatric condition known as health anxiety, thereby implying that those individuals are better of with homeopathy than psychotherapy. In a final twist of incomprehensible absurdity, Taleb stated that superstitions such as homeopathy can sometimes be rational, particularly if they somehow “prevent you from listening to forecasts by economists”.

Homeopathy is not “harmless placebo”

Taleb starts out by making the common claim that homeopathy is harmless:

Taleb defends homeopathy

Homeopathy is not harmless. It is certainly pharmacologically inert on its own, but this is not the same as harmless. First, promoting homeopathy might make people with dangerous medical conditions forgo science-based treatments. Second, homeopathy can be accompanied by negative expectancy effects called nocebo effects. Third, unscrupulous alternative medicine sellers can mix in pharmacologically active substances that can have potentially dangerous health consequences. In the United States, all of this is unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

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