French geneticist warns ‘new religion of precaution’ threatens US GMO policy, science

Like many of my fellow researchers, for some years, I have observed the diminishing importance given to scientific facts, opening wide the information market to scaremongering. As an expert in plant biotechnology, I have become—involuntarily—well-trained in uncovering false science and claims distorted by ideology. Since the first cargo of genetically modified soybeans was delivered to the European continent in 1996, European scientists have continuously come under fire from an inseparable triad: activists at war with the industrial society, the media fond of fearmongering, and the dark side of the internet. Well-funded activist groups have now extended their war against GMOs to the U.S. As in Europe, they initiated their campaign with their “right to know” slogan, while their real goal is to destroy a technology.

The European experience shows us that after GMOs, the same scare tactics are used against other technologies (nanotechnologies, electromagnetic radiation, etc.). As a consequence, it becomes almost impossible for an ordinary citizen to distinguish truth from lies. (And I consider myself to be “an ordinary citizen” for the many scientific fields in which I am not an expert.)

To help understand what is happening, I suggest the following classification of false sciences. At the bottom of the scale, we have (classical) pseudoscience, such as astrology, paranormal, unscientific medicines, etc. supported by an ancient community of believers. Generally, they do not attempt to undermine the foundation of science.

A second category is what the French historian Alexander Moatti termed altersciences, mainly represented by individuals who have received scientific training and who use their knowledge to promote alternative theories or rebuild their own discipline. Even when alone against the rest of the scientific world, an “alterscientist” will claim he or she is right and seek recognition elsewhere, usually in the media. Moatti showed that this phenomenon has existed for centuries. Now, via the internet, an “alterscientist” can become an international hero. There are many recent examples of this in the activism against vaccines or chemicals.

A third category is what I call “parallel science,” which is often used to serve a political project. Parallel science is what the tobacco industry used. Similarly, when the results of science are seen as a threat by the “advocates” of a political project, they may be tempted to create or invent their own “science” to create the evidence that suits them.

Parallel science is aided by fake research centers (claiming to be independent), colloquia with predetermined conclusions, “scientific” journals devoted to the cause—today, it is very easy to create a pseudoscientific journal on the internet—and occasionally heterodox publications passing through the sieve of true scientific journals (and which will be given wide publicity). All combine to create, for the nonspecialist, the appearance of science. False science, but real ballyhoo!

It would be wrong to believe that these phenomena only exist outside official institutions. The International Agency for Research on Cancer, a specialized agency of the World Health Organization, has exhibited questionable behavior. For example, IARC publishes a classification of substances, food, and occupational exposures into five categories ranging from “carcinogenic for humans” to “probably not carcinogenic for humans.” Red meat is classified as “probably carcinogenic,” which is absurd if one does not take into account the amount eaten on a regular basis: Indeed an excess can be deleterious, but reasonable consumption of meat is beneficial to health.

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On the IARC website, one can actually read (highlighted in bold) that this classification “does not measure the likelihood that cancer will occur (technically called ‘risk’) as a result of exposure to the agent.” Strangely, the expert working group at IARC did not attach this warning to its classification of the herbicide glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic.” Glyphosate is in the same boat as red meat—its carcinogenicity depends entirely on the dose. At the levels used, the carcinogenicity of glyphosate has been refuted by the European Food Safety Authority, but rather than trying to explain the difference between what a substance can do and what it actually does—which could have been a way out of polemics for IARC—some of its officials preferred to formulate accusations against the EFSA. (There are details about the exchange of letters on the EFSA website.)

Today, many other scientific organizations (including another WHO organization) have contradicted IARC’s position on glyphosate. Moreover, suspicions of (ideological) bias have surfaced against an editor of the report and other IARC officials. That IARC advised its experts not to disclose documents that were requested under U.S. freedom of information laws is doing little to build trust in its work.

Nevertheless, glyphosate use has been banned in some countries; it is still under the threat of a ban in the European Union. The latter has made non-science-based “precautions” a kind of new religion. If a corporation was insisting on such false claims to be made without scientific evidence, there would be outrage. But because the political power of this precautionary approach is stronger, the unscientific process is accepted.

As can be seen, we are far from a “knowledge-based society,” a concept coined by some international organizations (such as the Organization of American States) and … the European Union! The debate on the best way to protect science from ideological (or corporate) interference and how to share scientific knowledge deserves to be open. In the IARC/glyphosate case, Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has asked a good question—namely whether taxpayers’ money has been wasted on IARC. Why do I feel I already know the answer?

This article originally appeared in Slate as “Overly Cautious and Unscientific” and has been republished with permission from the author. 

Marcel Kuntz is research director at CNRS, Laboratoire de Physiologie Cellulaire Végétale, Grenoble, France.  His book (OGM, la question politique) was recently published by Presses Universitaires de Grenoble.

10 thoughts on “French geneticist warns ‘new religion of precaution’ threatens US GMO policy, science”

  1. Fantastic article Marcel, but also deeply concerning as this new religion has the potential to cause significant social, environmental and economic harm. The anti-science from the anti-vaccine arm of this religion has already contributed to drops in vaccination rates and as a consequence, some children have become unnecessarily sick and some have even died. It is amazing how quickly this changes once an outbreak of measles occurs, but is it a very brutal education for people on the benefits of vaccination. The anti-GMO arm of the religion will harm developing countries the most. Wealthy regions like Europe can afford the luxury of banning GM crop cultivation and importing GM products from other countries (e.g. 33 million tons of GM soybeans p.a. to feed their millions of livestock). Not so for developing nations. I also question the concept with the organic food industry, how much of this is the new religion and how much is simply selfish greed, cynical denigration of other forms of food production to increase market share?

    With ardent followers of the new religion it is impossible to discuss rationally. I am looking for ideas on the best way to communicate with the reasonably large group that is uncertain about what is information and what is knowledge. We have to do something as otherwise the vacuum will be filled (with the anti-science garbage).

    • Part of the issue may be that the average person doesn’t perceive a near-term direct benefit from these various technologies and so is open to accept arguments for their possible risks which then grow to absurdly distorted levels in their minds.

      Most people willingly ride in automobiles despite having a formal knowledge that significant numbers of their fellow citizens are maimed or killed in those vehicles because the benefit – transportation – is immediate while the risk of harm is a nebulous probability. Many have trouble saving for retirement because spending money now has an immediate benefit while poverty in old age resides in the nebulous future.

      I sometimes wonder how the ag biotech industry might be different now had the Flavr Savr tomato been an outstanding success rather than a failure. With consumers perceiving value in that first GMO, would activists have been as successful inspiring fear of the GMOs that followed – where direct benefits went to farmers but not consumers?

      Perhaps the lesson is that any new technology which would be mysterious to the average person but potentially exploitable by the fear-mongers, should if at all possible be initially applied/promoted in a manner that generates a substantial number of ‘converts’ among the general public. That would be a type of ‘religion’ the technology providers might appreciate.

      • That’s a very interesting idea, but somehow it is sad that innovations that provide very clear benefits to farm markets would also have to be marketed to consumers downstream. So-called “checkbook activist” organizations will always find some angle to create fear about anything. There are many interesting new words in the article. Alterscience and parallel science will get added to my vocabulary!

        • While I respect the logic of Dr. Kuntz’s essay, in my view his comment ’And I consider myself to be “an ordinary citizen” for the many scientific fields in which I am not an expert.’ points to the problem: a misperception by most of us who’ve learned to think rationally as scientists as to how the ordinary citizen might think about these issues.

          I’ve become a fan of Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist who spent many years studying how people make ‘moral’ decisions. Haidt uses a metaphor to describe moral reasoning: ‘a rider on an elephant’ – where the elephant is guided by intuition/emotion (akin to Kahneman’s “system 1” as described in his excellent book “Thinking Fast and Slow”) and the rider possesses reasoning (Kahneman’s “system 2”). According to Haidt’s metaphor model, the rider acts more like a press agent or lawyer for the elephant than an in-control scientist – the elephant decides the direction it wants to go and the rider provides the rationale for the elephant’s decision.

          Haidt’s model explains why arguing with someone having a strong anti-GMO stance is like playing a game of “whack-a-mole.” You discredit one of their arguments and they quickly come up with another one – because their intuition tells them GMOs are bad so they continually produce justification for and seek confirmation of that core bias. Another consideration is our instinct toward loss-aversion – fear of possible negative effects can easily outweigh attraction toward benefits. Any ‘nebulous’ technology that provide indirect benefit at best to the average consumer but “could” be harmful is easily connected to peoples’ sense of loss aversion.

          This takes us to my original point that it’s important to ‘speak to the elephant’ initially by bringing as many people as possible to a solid conviction that a new technology is good for them and/or beneficial to society. That hopefully provides some ‘intuitive immunity’ against the inevitable fear-mongers.

          • Exactly. He went right to the heart of the matter, although have you noticed that it is the liberal end of the spectrum that seems to favor the parallel science and pseudo-science movements? For that reason I have changed from liberal to centrist, as I believe Jonathan did. May I also suggest that you read “The Blank Slate”by Steven Pinkerton. He suggests that the origin of these personality traits is genetic.

          • Thanks, I’ll put it on my reading list.
            I do believe Haidt may have touched on that concept, mentioning experiments, for example where tracking babies’ eyes indicated preferences in cartoon depictions of fair/unfair or mean/nice characters – suggesting an innate ‘morality’ that life experiences then build upon.
            His book “The Righteous Mind” has had a profound effect on the way I view human behavior/morality. I now see evidence of our ‘tribalism’ everywhere.
            Each end of the conservative/liberal spectrum has its deluded rationalizations to support a worldview. On the conservative side it’s religious fundamentalism of course – and for agnostic libertarians – a belief that ‘free’ markets can solve nearly all human problems.

    • I don’t think it is possible to convince them, just as it is impossible to reason with a religious person about the validity of his beliefs. It will take multiple catastrophes before people will agree with the validity of science. Think back to smallpox. The original vaccination-like techniques were in the 1700’s ….and understandably everyone thought that to deliberately innoculate yourself with a disease was folly. But slowly slowly this changed.

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