David Ropeik views Nassim Taleb’s odd views on GMOs through a precautionary lens

David Ropeik, an internationally respected expert on risk, has been going head-to-head with ‘black swan’ proponent Nassim Taleb over Taleb’s dire concerns about GMOs–and his slashing attack on anyone and everyone who dares raise questions about his content or style–including the GLP’s Jon Entine.

We reviewed round one on the Genetic Literacy Project.

Now Ropeik responds in a feature piece at Medium. Ropeik agreed to the GLP’s request to post short excerpts from his long article, and we hope that will spur you to read his entire post–it’s very thoughtful.

The noted Nassim Taleb and colleagues, in The Precautionary Principle (with application to the Genetic Modification of Organisms), suggest that GMOs pose a “ruin” problem, “in which a system is at risk of total failure”. Taleb and colleagues believe that the risks from GMOs, even if small, can mount up and spread because our agricultural and natural systems are globally connected. So even though each risk may be “small and reasonable”, they “accumulate inevitably to certain irreversible harm.” Taleb et.al. say these potential threats pose the “risk of global harm”. Not just local harm, which we can live with, but global.

Intellectually that makes perfect sense. But when a reader looks for evidence that GMOs potentially portend “total irreversible ruin”, such as the “extinction of human beings or all life on the planet” or “an irreversible termination of life at some scale, which could be planetwide”, the evidence that actually shows up is evidence of advocacy masquerading as objective argument. They argue that these characteristics warrant a strong Precautionary Principle approach, essentially a ban on GMOs, at least while much more research is done.

So the whole case that GMOs could cause catastrophic ruin is based largely on speculation, mixed with a handful of mostly suspect studies from known GMO opponents. None of those studies, by the way, portends the “ruin” or “irreversible termination of life at some scale” that Taleb and colleagues establish as their criteria for warranting a strict PP for GMOs.

Read full, original articleTaleb’s “The Precautionary Principle (with application to GMOs)”. Advocacy Masquerading as Rational Argument

Related article:  Black Swan author Nassim Taleb warns of unpredictable dangers from GMOs

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