Forces of antiscience

During the Changemakers contest, several parallels came up between the people who have extreme anti-genetic engineering views, and several other flavors of antiscience. Comments on PZ Myers’ blog compared the often religious-like responses of certain groups to the technology, and indeed the ludicrous reaction of GM Watch in particular, to creationist tactics against evolutionary biology. On the other hand, on Orac’s medical blog, he made the comparison between those groups and the Alternative Medicine crowd, including and especially the Anti-vaccination groups. It is fascinating to note that politically, the creationist version of antiscience is conservative, and the anti-vax version is generally liberal. But they share a commonality in that science is rejected as the best means of obtaining knowledge, and something else, be it political or religious ideology takes its place and dictates the facts.
I thought it would be a good idea to write a post detailing several of them, and then Steve Savage at Sustainablog went and did it for me. Check out The Bizarre, Modern Coalition of Anti-Science Forces. He didn’t cover every kind, but he delves into several of them including anti-GE forces, anti-global warming activities, and the antiscience-of-the-year, it seems, Anti-vaccination. In the comments section a reader confirms exactly what he is talking about.
In the blog discussions that ensued while the voting went on, a few fights broke out over one issue or another, but a very strong sentiment was expressed by several people – they had some reservations about one aspect of genetic engineering or another, and felt that the accusations of ‘antiscience’ were unfairly being applied to them. Perhaps there was a bit of miscommunication going on.
To be antiscience on a particular topic, for one reason or another you reject solid knowledge derived through the scientific method in favor of some other satisfying belief. Saying that “scientists were wrong once on nutrition so I shouldn’t believe what they say now,” is an antiscience sentiment. A person who says this clearly expresses that they believe that they have just as much of a chance of being right or wrong if they ignore the science as if they listen to it.
Saying that “I have concerns about the social impact of this technology, or about intellectual property rights issues” is not an antiscience sentiment. It is a statement about values and their concern for how those play out in an issue. Nor is having a disagreement about a particular scientific detail necessarily a mark of antiscience. Certainly, not everyone who doesn’t like genetic engineering is antiscience – but some people are.
In practice, sometimes it can be hard to distinguish antiscience from other concerns about science. What do we make of someone that argues that we don’t know enough about the long-term consequences of say, GE crops, to consider them safe to eat? How much is enough? Do they have a clear idea of how much that will be and will put that on the table to be convinced, or each time a more detailed study comes out will they move the goalposts even further?
How about this one. Recently, Greenpeace India campaigned for Nestle to promise never to have GE ingredients in their products in India. On the FAQ page of safefoodnow, a Greenpeace campaign site, they made this claim:

Greenpeace believes that GM food cannot be introduced until every stringent scientific test has established that they are 100% safe.

This is at the very least an unscientific statement. If there is one thing to know about science it is that it NEVER deals with 100% certainty: science deals with data from which we calculate statistics and form conclusions. No scientific study ever finds that something is 100% anything, so what they are effectively saying here is that science must prove something that in essence it cannot. Does this reveal an antiscience position? I am reminded of creationists that often say there must be one more transitional fossil before they accept evolution, only to ask for further more when one is discovered.
You could go to their FAQ page to read this statement in its context, but after I quoted it in a discussion at Genetic Maize, this telling statement disappeared from the Greenpeace site. Thanks to the Ecology to Economics blog for copying the entire thing, and I will reproduce it here so it won’t disappear down the memory hole again.

So what do you want me to do?
On August 2009, Greenpeace India wrote to about 20 major food companies in the country and asked them to declare their stand on GMs publicly. While some of them had a policy on GMs such as MTR, the others did not even reply to us! We have collated all this information for you and put it together in our safe food guide. You can find it at www.safefoodnow.org. It will give you a quick snapshot of the GE free food brands in this country. You can even download it from our site and print it to take it along with you the next time you go grocery shopping. You will also find detailed information and other resources on this site. You have every right as a consumer to ask all then companies to declare what they are putting in your food.
And what about Nestle?
Global food giant Nestle India, wrote back to Greenpeace saying that they are in favor of using GM technology in food! Greenpeace believes that GM food cannot be introduced until every stringent scientific test has established that they are 100% safe. Second, it should be completely the choice of the person who eats it to know what they are eating and to reject GE products if they want to. Therefore, we are running a campaign right now urging Nestle India to initiate, formulate and strictly enforce a GM free policy in this country.
You cannot become a lab rat for these experiments in food!

I have also just found a textbook example of antiscience with regard to genetic engineering. In an article titled, Why Do GM Scientists Lie? by Devinder Sharma, he suggests that there is a global network of ‘liars’ known as, well, scientists.

Every time I meet an agricultural scientist, especially those who are engaged in Genetic Engineering, I am shocked at the blatant manner in which they lie. They are not even remotely ashamed of telling a lie, although they know they are not speaking the truth.

I thought telling a lying was a prerogative of the agricultural scientists alone. But over the past few years I am noticing that molecular geneticists, whether they work for the Royal Society in London or Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi or even the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, have picked up the art (or should I say science) of lying, and that too right through their nose.

Genetic Engineering has surely come of age. It has become synomenous with lying.

Questioning the integrity of individual scientists is one thing, but now he is questioning the whole scientific enterprise. My humble suggestion is that maybe – just maybe – if the information being provided by agricultural scientists across the world does not square up with your personal beliefs, that perhaps your personal beliefs are wrong. A consensus amongst scientists about solutions to global food issues is a lot more parsimonious than assuming a global consensus of lying scientists!

It is not just agricultural scientists that are his target, he really does mean science as a whole.  After spending some time misreading the Royal Society, he lays down the punchline:

I am so glad my children did not pick up science in their graduation.

This is little different from what we might hear from a young-earth creationist, or an “Al Gore is in on the climate conspiracy” global warming denier. When science is seen as a threat to something you hold to be true, the choice is often to attack science itself as the enemy.

Not everyone who is skeptical of genetic engineering is antiscience, nor are they necessarily anti-technology. Nor is someone who is in favor of it necessarily pro-science or pro-technology. Many just have not spent the time understanding the science in its proper context, and still more have issues not with the science but with the social, economic, or philosophical implications of it.

In what forms have you seen antiscience in the debate over geneic engineering? What other common patterns do you see between its different forms? Or does the antiscience label instead apply to very few of the partisans and should be used very sparingly in this discussion because it alienates moderates? On the other hand, we know that real antiscience beliefs influence people, so would ignoring their existence be even worse?

Written by Karl Haro von Mogel

Karl Haro von Mogel serves as BFI’s Director of Science and Media and as Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. He has a PhD in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics from UW-Madison with a minor in Life Sciences Communication.

15 comments

  1. Hey Karl, thanks for the link. You make a lot of good points here. Are you familiar with the work of Robert Paarlberg of Welsley/Harvard? You would like his book, “Starved for Science: How Biotechnology is being kept out of Africa.” He also wrote a very thoughtful article in the journal, Society http://www.springerlink.com/content/l12858476u034458/fulltext.pdf
    He has some broader credibility because he is not from the ag side and his interest is in the ethical dimensions of the debate
    Steve

  2. I think the common thread is that many Americans have lost their default faith in the “experts.” In the past few generations, the popular sentiment seems to have swung from blind faith in doctors, scientists and the president to hyperactive skepticism.
    I currently work on genetic engineering risk assessment and am very often confronted with fears that always seem focused on the supposed machinations of companies like Monsanto. In both genetic engineering and vaccinations, the public doesn’t really understand the huge positives that accompany the possible threats because they’re barely visible. (e.g. vaccination side effects aren’t so scary when the alternative to a polio vaccine is the risk of paralysis). I think the conservative side is afraid that a powerful government/changing popular values are a threat to their culture.

  3. Hi Steve, thanks for the link to Paarlberg’s essay. His book is on my list of things to read! Maybe we can get him here to write some guest opinions… 🙂
    Thanks for helping to bring some of the disparate antiscience movements together in one post. Scientist bloggers have been focusing a lot on antiscience from one side of the political spectrum, and it is time that the discussion is broadened to note that patterns are more than just political in nature.

  4. Karl, great post.
    I worry sometimes about skeptics et al “over-diagnosing” people as anti-science. Even when it’s true, it sounds elitist and probably is not a great way to reach common ground. Wouldn’t it be better to talk about a particular _idea_ as anti- or unscientific rather than labeling the person who expresses it?
    Obviously I’d agree that a highly prominent person or organization making statements as absurd as your examples here should not be treated with kid gloves. I’m rather thinking about the casual lay reader who is concerned, say, that vaccines or GMOs aren’t safe. That person may be wrong for trusting bad sources of information, but I think it’s unfair to condemn her as anti-science just because she fell in with a bad crowd, so to speak.
    It is definitely terrific, though, to point out the parallels between different kinds of science denialism, particularly when the run across the political spectrum. This tactic was used to great effect recently by Michael Shermer on vaccine denial: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-shermer/an-open-letter-to-bill-ma_b_323834.html

  5. Karl, great post.
    I worry sometimes about skeptics et al “over-diagnosing” people as anti-science. Even when it’s true, it sounds elitist and probably is not a great way to reach common ground. Wouldn’t it be better to talk about a particular _idea_ as anti- or unscientific rather than labeling the person who expresses it?
    Obviously I’d agree that a highly prominent person or organization making statements as absurd as your examples here should not be treated with kid gloves. I’m rather thinking about the casual lay reader who is concerned, say, that vaccines or GMOs aren’t safe. That person may be wrong for trusting bad sources of information, but I think it’s unfair to condemn her as anti-science just because she fell in with a bad crowd, so to speak.
    It is definitely terrific, though, to point out the parallels between different kinds of science denialism, particularly when the run across the political spectrum. This tactic was used to great effect recently by Michael Shermer on vaccine denial: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-shermer/an-open-letter-to-bill-ma_b_323834.html

  6. For me it boils down to willful ignorance. It’s not the folks who just don’t understand the issues. There are plenty of things outside of one’s background or education that you just can’t know.
    The ones who win the “anti-science” label from me are the ones who repeatedly make debunked, false claims– -after being shown the data that contradicts the claim, and those who actively interfere with the progress of science.
    It’s funny– -as I’ve been watching several fronts on this (creationism, anti-vax, anti-GMO, anti-stem cell) the parallels have been stunning. Crappy internet sourcing, peer reinforcement in lieu of data, faith-based assertions, active lobbying against funding– -the ones that bother me the most are the ones that are actively interfering with ongoing research.
    Creationism, as far as I’m concerned, is an education issue. I want the next generation of scientists trained properly, but creationism doesn’t have an impact on the cutting edge of the science I’m involved with (genomics). It’s a non-issue in our daily work. None of the algorithms are affected, none of the funding is currently affected, none of the experiments are physically destroyed or picketed.
    The others lead to public health problems, starvation, and suffering. Those are the ones that earn my full ire.

  7. I agree with the above. There are people who take positions that are anti-science, but aren’t anti-science themselves, because the people who are truly anti-science have boondoggled them. It is those who laugh in the face of facts and logic who are anti-science. But, like they say, it is hard to reason someone out of a position they weren’t reasoned into to begin with. Some will accept science. Sometimes, if you keep throwing facts at someone, they’ll get it. I did. I used to buy into young earth stuff. I saw the facts (and the facts, and the facts…), and eventually rejected it. It happens. Not overnight, but eventually. Others, I don’t know what you can do about true believers. And that’s the crux of it; it is a belief versus an actuality, and if someone wants to believe strong enough, if someone really wants to believe that something is wrong or simply evil, they can spin any web they need to keep that belief propped up. I’d like to think that GMOs will one day gain widespread acceptance, but heck, look at the current state of vaccines, and they stopped smallpox. I guess you just do what you can.

  8. Party Cactus said:

    it is hard to reason someone out of a position they weren’t reasoned into to begin with

    Absolutely. The people who’re engaged in the issue, have access to all the evidence, and still maintain there positions are going to be very hard to sway. As you said we can keep throwing facts at them, but to get where they are and still hold their beliefs means they got good at dodging facts they don’t like a long time ago.
    Where the facts can do a lot of good is with people who’ve come into a position (whether creationism, anti-vaccine, anti-GMO, etc) simply because the people they know, and the people they listen to think the same thing. For every active creationist or angry anti-GMO protester there are a bunch of people who accept the ideas because “everybody knows that’s the truth.” Hopefully those people are easier targets for facts.
    And congratulations on coming to your own realization, I know how hard it can be to reconsider deeply held beliefs.

  9. The problem for GMO in India is pure politics in most cases. When a particular party/candidate needs some attention they will organize a farmers group to go destroy something. The politician could generally care less what it is as long as it gets him the attention desired.
    The small farmers are either illiterate or very close to it 95% (I am being optimistic – it is probably more like 99%) of the time and have no idea what they are up to.
    The educated class is generally disinterested as they understand that for small pocket change the candidates buy the peasant vote making votes cast on their beliefs almost meaningless.
    Foreign companies are a very good target for this kind of action. For GMO to succeed there it must appear to have come from within and have the backing of the powers in the capital.
    The ‘green revolution’ came from the governments fertilizer program – large coop ventures to convert natural gas to nitrogen.
    There are concerned and smart ag scientists in India but they are very much overwhelmed by the political side of things.

  10. I wrote about Science Denial over at Genetic Maize a few weeks ago. I do find strong parallels between denial of climate change, vaccines, genetic engineering, and other sciences.
    There are risks to everything, but there are also risks to doing nothing – this fact seems to escape a lot of people.

  11. Russ:
    Any sources?
    AFAIK, the Indian farmers have been much more interested in GM than European farmers, specially cotton farmers.
    Mr. von Mogel, I think that even worse is having to deal with completely bogus claims, people talking out of their a**es, like around 2002-2001, some fear mongers were talking about sheep or goats that ate GM cotton and died withc a blackened gut. More than half a decade later, millions are using BT cotton and not a word of this has been confirmed.

  12. And the lack of open debate and testing of gmos long term , the vilification of courageous adult scientists that speak out, public concern denials? This has been a societal debate for the past few years as it should be.

  13. Scotti, debate is great. I can’t speak for all scientists, but every one that I know welcomes debate and discussion on science. What we don’t want is twisting of facts. I don’t even know how to have a discussion with someone who just wants to run a shock and awe campaign.

  14. Well Anastasia perhaps understanding the ‘facts’ are very contestible due to lack of peer testing and some falsification of results in in-house testing and are not unilaterally in the pro-GM ‘we’ lobby .Science is a subset of overall society that includes ethic and cultural values and is answerable.Not sure what you could mean or what counter organisation you allude to by ‘shock and awe’ you might be perpetuating that myth by one of the blog personas here, the idea of ‘Frankenfoods'(less so the mad, insular scientists)from UK newspapers and outrage about ten years ago.M

  15. Well, I got relegated to the second page of comments over at Steve’s site, so I’m cross-posting here. Note that that the “you” here is Steve:
    Another fringe green activist here. First, I completely agree with Don, and I will add that the distrust is not unwarranted given that we’ve had (1) a colossal, obvious financial crisis which the institutions didn’t catch, but many individuals saw coming, (2) an EPA which recently contested California’s regulation of carbon emissions (regulatory capture/politics in science), (3) researchers who are frankly petty and dishonest (the recent Climate Research Unit hacking incident). I won’t even discuss the myriad of other issues.
    You could start convincing “fringe green activists” by referencing something more convincing than that Springer article (http://www.springerlink.com/content/l12858476u034458/fulltext.pdf), which was written by a Paarhlberg, a political scientist advocate who fails to reference such bold statements as organic yields in Europe are ~70% lower for cereals and potatoes than conventional yields. I’m not a advocate for organic farming, and I wish it discarded with its old natural/synthetic distinction and measured pesticides solely on toxicity and environmental lifecycle. However, I just like to see better research from those who are supposedly informing the unlearned masses. Paarhlberg’s statement is particularly surprising given that the largest dataset on the issue found organic farms yield ~91% of conventional in cereals (Stanhill, G. (1990). The comparative productivity of organic agriculture. Agriculture, Ecosystems, and Environment. 30(1-2):1-26 doi:10.1016/0167-8809(90)90179-H). I have not yet found a focused critique of this paper, but I am open to reading one, as I suspect its results should not be generalized.
    I’m not anti-science, but I am opposed to the way that genetically-engineered foods are regulated. That’s not to say I’m an expert on the regulation. I’ve just read a fair bit of the 2004 NRC book (http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=10977#toc) a while ago and determined that the regulatory process didn’t meet my standards. I’ve also read about troubling allergen effects (http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn8347) and know for a fact that no long-term safety studies have really been done in humans; in fact I’m pretty sure no real studies have been done in humans at all. Animal research alone doesn’t cut it (see, for example, http://dx.doi.org/10.1006%2Frtph.2000.1399). I haven’t looked into the ecological aspect, but certainly there is an ecological risk. If this research is carried out, it should be fully funded by the industry rather than externalized on the taxpayers. Obviously avoiding regulatory capture then becomes a problem, but the money should not support at all the agencies who collect it – it should be purely doled out (by the agency) as research grants to academic researchers. Does that happen now? I doubt it. My requirements would be quite stringent, since I would like to see long-term evaluation prior to introduction.
    I’ll give you props for answering the comments gracefully, even if you lost my respect when you referenced Paarlberg as your scientific support.

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