(Practically) No one is anti-science — encouraging dialogue on GMOs

|

Last week, Discover science blogger Keith Kloor made a few excellent points about the increasingly frequent use of the phrase “anti-science”,  citing a tweet made by the Genetic Literacy Project as an example of how the phrase has become part of the public discourse.

— Genetic Literacy (@GeneticLiteracy) September 18, 2014


Kloor noted that GLP’s Jon Entine had not used the term “anti-science” in his remarks, but instead had explained that those who aggressively argue that GE crops are harmful, and don’t present other viewpoints, are engaging in ideology and politics rather than science, and that a Harvard panel on climate change had situated climate change denial similarly.

The underpinnings of the anti-climate change movement have given it political resonance, [Naomi] Oreskes said, because of ties to cultural traditions of independence, self-reliance, and small government.

“It becomes an argument about big government,” Oreskes said. “For Republicans in Congress and elsewhere, it’s not about climate change, it’s definitely not about science, it’s about government.”

Kloor maintained that denialist impulses are shaped more by cultural values rather than by an attitude towards the scientific method, including a respect for the weight of evidence:

So it goes with tarring someone as anti-science. Why poison the well even more? I ponder this as I continue to write about GMOs and other hot button topics. It’s relatively easy to debunk urban myths, call out false balance, shake my fist at agenda-driven fear-mongers. (I’m sure I’ll continue doing that.) But I see diminishing returns with this approach. It seems more fruitful to engage in a debate about the socio-cultural values that underlie opposition to GMOs and that inform strong views on related sustainability issues.

Along these lines, I don’t see how characterizing a person’s beliefs, a political party, or an NGO as “anti-science” is helpful. I’m sure it’s good for scoring points and sharpening the lines in a debate, but beyond that, I’m not seeing much value.

Kloor had introduced the topic by noting that the environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who believes that vaccines are dangerous, was stung the most by being labeled “anti-science”. Kennedy insisted he was not. However, I’m sure that Kennedy sees his views on vaccines as being informed by science as he understands his environmental stances to be.

I would concur with Kloor that no one sees themselves as being “anti-science”.  The charge is rooted in the word science being used in an imprecise way. If you tell someone she is “anti-science” she will likely hear different meanings of the words and it’s unlikely that the charge will ring true or result in that person changing their viewpoint.

When people hear the word “science” they may think of the wonders of the natural world that are studied by scientists. “I love pictures of galaxies and learning about the migratory patterns of birds. How can I be “anti-science”?”

Or perhaps the charge of being “anti-science” comes bundled with a charge of Luddism, sweetened with an insinuation of hypocrisy that a denialist rant has been typed out on an iPhone. But there is nothing inherently “anti-science” or hypocritical about believing that the costs of a specific technology outweigh the benefits.

What is really being referred to in the context of the charge of “anti-science” is an “anti-scientific method”. As we learned in seventh grade, the scientific method starts with a question. Information is gathered and a hypothesis, or educated guess, is formed. We then test the hypothesis by doing an experiment. The experiment should be constructed in such a way that our hypothesis can be disproved. We analyze our observations and communicate the results. Ideally results are replicated to confirm or disprove our observations.

Where people go astray is understanding the broader, more social process of forming a scientific consensus on larger issues that can’t be resolved by single experiments.

This goes beyond designing an experiment and testing a hypothesis. Whereas the scientific method helps us separate the signal from the noise to answer a very specific question, the scientific community also takes steps to separate the signal from the noise regarding the state of the knowledge on broader topics like climate change or the safety of biotech crops. Instead of relying on single studies that confirm our beliefs, we try to look at the scientific literature in it’s totality.

An outlier study should reasonably held up to greater scrutiny, rather than immediately embraced, because the weight of evidence has not yet shifted; it’s just one study of many. Researchers go beyond single experiments and conduct systematic reviews of all the studies on topic and organize them into literature reviews. They group the data from like experiments into meta-analyses to gain greater statistical power. They form committees to draft consensus reports. From this larger, social process a scientific consensus forms when the evidence convincingly points in a single direction. That does not lock in that conclusion for eternity, as theories are always open to new evidence. But to reject the weight of evidence based on one or a few outliers makes no sense, and is not science.

We avoid putting politics ahead of science by committing to use the scientific method and respecting (but not blindly following) the scientific consensus first and then applying our values to what we learn, rather the letting our values dictate what we are willing to learn. That’s how we use a scientific consensus as individuals, but it also should inform our dialogue. Instead of asking loaded questions of those we disagree with, “Why are you against science? Why do you want children to go blind by opposing Golden Rice?”, we should be asking, “Why do you see a handful of poorly conducted studies as the signal and the hundreds if not thousands of well conducted studies summarized in literature reviews and meta-analyses as the noise?” Following science means we do not cherry-pick studies that reflect our predetermined values.

Instead of short circuiting the conversation, we can hopefully open a new avenue for understanding. Kloor wrote:

Now I’m not suggesting that we sugarcoat denialism of any sort, but I do think the disparaging language that takes hold in a public discourse can be off-putting to those who perhaps identify with a certain tribe but not necessarily buy into all its positions.

I would also suggest that the term “anti-GMO” is not always helpful and that “GMO critic” is a more accurate and less alienating term for those who do not embrace biotechnology in agriculture, but who are not denialist by temperament. I’m talking about those who may be inclined towards anti-corporate and naturalistic viewpoints, but who are persuaded by evidence when it is presented to them. This is a different dialogue partner than a classic “Anti” who is conspiratorial by nature, cannot be persuaded by evidence and generally buys into an entire suite of denialist beliefs. Most GMO critics are not “anti-science”, they just haven’t committed to following all the evidence where it leads. They haven’t put any checks in place to push back against confirmation bias and motivated reasoning.

Calling someone an “Anti” defines them by their opposition to something. Identities harden over time. The identity of “Critic” is be defined by critical thinking and that should be the place where we can find common ground and challenge each other to think more critically.

Marc Brazeau is a writer and editor for the Genetic Literacy Project. Follow Marc on Twitter @realfoodorg

  • mem_somerville

    I rarely use the term anti-science anymore, because it just becomes like a “I am not anti-abortion, I’m pro-life” or “I am not anti-vaccine, I’m pro-safe vaccine” stupid retort series, when we all know very well what the stand is. So I’ve given it up just to save time, but not because I don’t think it.

    But there are folks who deserve to be called this. I hardly think these folks assaulting Kevin Folta should be called pro-science GMO critics: Evil and Ignorant Comments to a Scientist Trying to Teach.

    I also think it’s anti-science to misuse the tools of science to scare the crap out of people with misinformation.

    I am not sure I see the value in patting “GMO critics” on the head and pretending they are something different. I would like to see evidence that it changes the discourse on their end. I think it will have no difference, or will just embolden them. “Vaccine critics” are continuing to harm public health not matter what you call them. Same thing here.

    • Jim Kling

      I don’t think it’s about the most strident people, who as you point out have cemented their positions. I think it’s about people who have legitimate concerns but remain open-minded. If they’re vilified by labels, they’re more likely to dig in their heels and less likely to be swayed by evidence.

      • marcbrazeau

        Jim, that’s exactly right. Perhaps I didn’t underline that enough. The perfect example is Michael Pollan. Does he have the temperament of someone who is reflexively Anti-fluoride/vaxx/gmo? I would say not. I would say that his political priors are steering him into confirmation bias and motivated reasoning. I think that’s also the point where the debate is most productively engaged, rather than charges of Luddism or “anti-science”.

        • JoeFarmer

          Pollan is anti-GMO because it ups his foodie cred and consequently his bank account.

        • mem_somerville

          The people I’ve seen try to interact with Pollan are not calling him anti-science. I’ve seen them be quite civil as well. The Long Now folks, the Biofortified folks, and various scientists and journalists.

          This has not stopped him from reflexively retweeting every piece of crap work that comes his way on this. There’s no evidence that the civil conversations have had any impact on him whatsoever. But I’d be happy to see it if you have some.

        • You’re playing with psycho-babble Marc.

          It’s not our job to figure out what Michael Pollan’s motivations are. He’s anti-GMO, anti-synthetic pesticide, anti-synthetic fertilizer, and anti-fossil fuel. Ask any farmer, organic or conventional… this makes Pollan anti-science through-and-through.

          The only way to protect the public from Pollan’s lunatic ravings (and I mean that literally by the way) is by confronting his urban-elitist vision of how farming should be practiced in America head-on, every time, without holding anything back.

          So please stop pretending you’re smarter than everyone Marc, especially farmers. This is serious business, and jack*sses like Pollan need to be confronted.

          • marcbrazeau

            I didn’t say that Pollan doesn’t need to be confronted, I said that we need to be specific about what we are confronting.

            I don’t know why you always have to interpret everything everyone else says in the least charitable light, including allies. You’re Leninism is really tiresome.

          • Lenin would have embraced your approach Marc, as long as you were his opposition.

            You want to engage Luddites like Pollan in dialogue when you should be engaging in debate.

          • marcbrazeau

            If you are going to continue to misrepresent me and what I do, you can stop trying to engage in debating me.

          • As with any debate Marc, it’s not merely you, but everyone else who can benefit from our engagement.

            I really don’t understand why you’re so scared to debate with me. We are, as you say, allies. Or at least we should be.

          • marcbrazeau

            Who said I’m scared to debate you? Why would you even frame my position that way. I’m not scared to debate you, I’ve debated you repeatedly.

            I’m just tired of having my character attacked rather than my positions critiqued.

          • I have never attacked your character Marc. Never. Not here. Not anywhere.

            We should take organic activists at their word when they say they want to ban modern, science-based farming. But you view this as an opening gambit in some sort of high-stakes chess match.

            Don’t negotiate; debate.

    • Loren Eaton

      ‘I also think it’s anti-science to misuse the tools of science to scare the crap out of people with misinformation.’
      Great point. I’ve been watching this thing play out for almost 15 years now. For me, the “antis” are kind of falling into two categories. First are the kind who are just plain ignorant of the science: Jeffrey Smith, Claire Robinson, Mike Adams and the Food Babe.
      Second, are the ones who SHOULD know better. Trained scientists who knowingly equate correlation and causation and just make up stuff as they go along: Huber, Shiva, Seralini, Carman and Dr. Oz (have you seen his latest?)

    • Bang on Mem!
      Changing terminology never works. It just confuses the debate.

  • Jim Kling

    Great article. The one point not brought up is that scientific consensus still turns out to be wrong sometimes. Think recommendations that babies should sleep on their stomachs to avoid SIDS, which actually made the problem worse. Think about the changing attitudes about eggs, and even cholesterol levels.

    Those changes are a sign that science works, but if you’re a person who is wary of the government and believes centralized regulation of carbon dioxide emissions as an evil, it’s easy to look at scientific consensus on global warming and say, “well, maybe they’ll turn out to be wrong about this, too.”

    Same with GM critics (I like that phrase) who are mistrustful of the technology. Scientists have said GMO crops are as safe as any other varieties, but maybe that will be overturned too in time.

    • The problem with anti-GMO organic activists is that they not only want to avoid using and consuming GMOs themselves; they want GMOs banned.

      So, while you’re right, Jim, that it’s their right to be suspicious of the scientific consensus surrounding GMOs, it is most-certainly not their right to impose their views on the rest of us.

    • Warren Lauzon

      But there have also been a few times in the past that what was assumed to be “scientific consensus” actually was not. One that comes to mind is the discovery a few years ago that many or most stomach ulcers were caused by bacteria, not things like spicy food. I have heard people claim that this is an example of “scientific consensus” being overturned – but in fact it was not.

      What actually happened is that science actually proved that the NON-scientific “consensus” was wrong – prior to those actual scientific studies, there was no “science” – it was nearly all assumption, anecdotes, and “common sense”. Almost no real research up until then had been done.

      • marcbrazeau

        Yes, usually what was described retroactively was not consensus, which implies the weigh of evidence, but conventional wisdom based on either morality or industry clouding the issue. But the evidence was clear at the time for those who wished to look at it.

        This is not analogous to the science on biotech breeding.

        • Warren Lauzon

          No, and I am not comparing that. I was just pointing out that quite often science deniers use the argument that “look, the scientific consensus for xxx was wrong” – when in fact there really WAS no scientific consensus – it was as you say, conventional “wisdom” (which is seldom “wise”).

          • marcbrazeau

            Gotcha.

  • Solvealltheproblems

    I think there are another few layers to this onion. Read
    ‘Manufacturing Consent” by Noam Chomsky and understand that the many
    filters that apply to the way the media shapes public opinion also operate in
    academia and shape the scientific consensus.

    Although some of them may be as flawed as research conducted
    by Big Ag, outlier studies saying things Monsanto doesn’t want you to hear
    shouldn’t be ignored.

    • marcbrazeau

      I understand Chomsky and Foucault, and Marx, Domhoff, Mills and Latour. None of the sociology changes the science in this case. You need to hit the books a little more.

      • marcbrazeau

        It’s exactly what I talk about in the piece, a lack of understanding about how a scientific consensus come together and a lack of safeguards against motivated reasoning. A complete deference to “funding base” is a form of motivated reasoning, which is what you are falling back on to dismiss inconvenient evidence.

  • Solvealltheproblems

    I think there are another few layers to this onion.

    Read ‘Manufacturing Consent” by Noam Chomsky and understand that the many filters through which the media shapes public opinion also operate in academia and shape the scientific consensus.

    Although some of them may be as flawed as research conducted
    by Big Ag, outlier studies saying things Monsanto doesn’t want you to hear shouldn’t be ignored.

  • You can rest assured, friends, that organic activists are most certainly anti-GMO.

    No, they are not GMO “critics.” They want GMOs banned, and they’re pretty clear about that.

    Hence, these activists are also anti-science, because genetic engineering is the culmination of 13,000 years of science in the field of agriculture. And they seek to deny the very existence of this science… at taxpayer expense no less.

    Finally, organic activists are also anti-human because they want to reduce human population levels by at least half, for a start, in order to match the limited productive capacity of their current version of audit-based organic farming.

    Organic farmers meanwhile are very pro-human, and would be happy to participate in the process of feeding more and more people.

    Organic farmers are also pro-science, because that’s how they already contribute to feeding people. They ignore the activists as best they can, and apply whatever versions of science these activists allow them to on their certified-organic farms.

    Last but not least, organic farmers are largely indifferent on the question of whether or not GMOs should be allowed on their neighbor’s farms. They know it’s none of their business.

    Consensus is for losers folks. Thesis versus antithesis yields a synthesis. May the best ideas win… someday, as soon as we stop pretending this is debate-club at college.