Views on Science in High Places

Written by James Schnable

“[Mr. X] told the assembled groups that science itself is subjective, and that he could have three different groups bring him three different supposedly scientific opinions.”

Any guesses on the identity of Mr. X? Could he be a creationist arguing for the inclusion of intelligent design alongside science in the classroom? A new-age radical arguing that alternative medicines are just as scientifically effective was … well medicine? Maybe the most likely bet would be a sceptic of global warming, they’ve been in the press a lot lately, what with temperatures falling across the northern hemisphere (it’s apparently winter you see).

Unfortunately the person in question is (according to an article posted in the wall street journal), US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Secretary Vilsack made these comments during a meeting lead by himself and Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan to address the re-deregulation of alfalfa engineered to be resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, after a lawsuit which required that the USDA conduct a more thorough study of the environmental impacts of the alfalfa’s release. Another source reported:

not once mentioning the health or safety aspects of Roundup Ready alfalfa during the more-than-three-hour meeting

So this is what it comes down to. There are no demonstrated health and safety concerns for this particular crop, even after the further court mandated evaluations, but it appears the US Secretary of Agriculture has lost faith in the idea that science is something more than a system of compromising between everyone’s equally valid opinion.

But it’s not true. Scientists aren’t always right, and yes you can often find scientists who disagree. But the wonderful thing about science is that when reasonable people disagree, we don’t compromise and say the answer is probably somewhere in the middle but we’ll never know for sure. We design new experiments, go out and collect new data, and, in the end, discover which ideas are probably correct, and which are provably false and wrong.

It’s important to note my concerns are based on a paraphrased quote in a single news article. There is a distinct possibility the reporter misunderstood the point Secretary Vilsack was trying to make (I’ve certainly seen similar things happen in print before), but if so I hope he will publicly and vocally denounce the mischaracterization of his postion on scientific inquiry as it has the potential to do serious harm to the already embattled position of science holds public discourse of our nation.

This goes for everything I write, but let me reinterate that the post above represents solely my own opinion and does not reflect views of my employer, supervisor, co-workers, fellow bloggers, family members, friends (both old and new), nor the opinion of my parent’s pet cat.

Written by Guest Expert

James Schnable is an assistant professor and the co-founder of two start ups. His academic lab works on comparative and functional genomics as well as high throughput phenotyping of maize, sorghum, and related orphan grain crops and wild grass species. He’s interested in plants, farming, and saving the world through agriculture, the usual. James blogs at James and the Giant Corn.


  1. When Jairam Ramesh, India’s Environment Minister, set out to prevent commercialization of GM eggplant/brinjal, the first thing he did was hold discussions with “stakeholders”. That gave him the ability to say he had listened to consumers/farmers/etc. when he issued the ban.
    If Vilsack is any student of history, he knows these ‘discussions’ about restrictions on GM alfalfa will give him everything he needs to justify a separation distance of five miles, etc.

  2. This would be troubling news (and a little surprising coming from Vilsack) if true. The real meaning may indeed be lost in the paraphrase. With regard to the Alfalfa issue, I wonder if he was really talking about scientists having different opinions about how to manage co-existence? The WSJ article was saying that the issue was whether or not it was safe, and noted that the issue of safety didn’t come up. Unfortunately, this puts us in the realm of politics and economics rather than science. Science can tell us whether or not the plant is itself a problem for safety, or the environment. But it doesn’t tell us based on people’s values and goals what we should do with it.
    The issue of cross-pollination is an important one, and whatever steps the USDA takes on Alfalfa that differs from previous deregulations may have a large impact on future deregulations. Unfortunately, anti-GE commentators are not willing to take anything less than near-zero percent chance of cross-pollination, and are using organic standards to try to stop GE crops. Blog posts, articles, statements from this camp on the issue of “co-existence” (in scare quotes) describe it as an evil scheme – if you can believe that.
    Organic farmers want to keep their markets, and they are worried that will be hard to impossible if GE crops are grown. They are looking to keep their price premiums, without which they may not be able to continue to farm organically. Conventional farmers want to keep farming and farm better and make more money as well. So on either side at the farmer level, it is money. Sure there is some philosophy mixed in, but that is not reason to legislate.
    There is a complex array of ethical issues involved, and it goes all the way down to the basis for property rights, both intellectual and physical. In fact, the property-right basis for demanding zero cross-pollination from a GE crop has to undermine their neighbor’s equal property right to grow a GE crop. Suffice to say, the simplistic descriptions of who is the aggressor and who is the innocent player are wrong.
    I sent a polite email to someone at one of the major players in the lawsuits, inquiring if I could ask a few questions about their position to help unravel the ethical issues involved for a term paper. (Especially since they have never said precisely how much cross-pollination is acceptable/unacceptable in their view.) The response I got was a tirade against myself and Anastasia that had nothing to do with my questions. Both Anastasia and my professor got a kick out of it. Still, it left questions unanswered.

  3. Those in the organic industry constantly play the role of victim — but their injuries are inevitably self-inflicted. So, for instance, they claim that outcrossing of GM crops will destroy their organic certification. According to the law, accreditation is lost only if GMOs are used on purpose. Which means, of course, that they would have to voluntarily surrender their certification to make the claim stick.
    Another bizarre thing — they market their products by disparaging conventional farmers, and demand that all farmers adopt the organic model. If that came to pass, they’d have no-one to disparage, and organic produce would all be ho-hum commodities selling at cut-throat prices.
    Among this, it’s difficult to find justification, moral and otherwise, for imposing the costs of organic production on conventional farmers — the latter being happy to coexist.
    And we know the organic stance on coexistence: ‘Hell No.’
    Which brings us to the philosophical question regarding tolerance of the intolerant. I would say, championing the cause of tolerance requires intolerance of the intolerant. The US is said to be a free country, a notion that encompasses farming. Anyone who rejects that notion should consider either changing their mind, or emigrating.

  4. Please do not overestimate the rationality of science in relation to policy-making, and even of science per se. With regard to GMOs, we have more than enough examples in the European Union of « studies » prepared right on time to scupper authorisations to release GM varieties, just to be withdrawn or invalidated immediately thereafter. The overarching issue beyond that is that in most GMO cases decision-making is not « a system of compromising between everyone’s equally valid opinion », as said in the post, but a system of compromising between an opinion that is valid to the best of our knowledge and an opinion which is known to be invalid. This, of course, when decision-making turns around opinions and not deals (e.g. Sarkozy’s GM ban for peace on nuclear energy deal with the ‘greens’ and ‘watermelons’).
    Karl, you wrote: « Unfortunately, anti-GE commentators are not willing to take anything less than near-zero percent chance of cross-pollination. » You no doubt meant « zero point zero ». The point is that the anti-GEs have no point and that they can only make their point by being uncompromising.
    It is said in the post that « There are no demonstrated health and safety concerns for this particular crop ». True. But beyond that, any « contamination » of an organic alfalfa crop – i.e. the detection of a transgenic DNA signal in an entire haystack, or even a much bigger one – only results in the presence of such DNA, since the herbicide resistance would not have been used. The issue in the final analysis is coexistence with the intolerant.

Comments are closed.