[My response is after the article in grey. My earlier comments on this topic are here.]
Mon Aug 04, 2014 at 04:00 PM PDT
Mon Aug 04, 2014 at 04:00 PM PDT
Neil deGrasse Tyson tells GMO haters to chill out–people get angry
Neil deGrasse Tyson, probably the most popular astrophysicist, if not scientist, of this generation, replaced Carl Sagan as the spokesman of all things science for the country. While not ignoring Bill Nye's impact on making science education fun and approachable (and who took classes from Carl Sagan at Cornell University), Sagan literally passed the baton of being the country's science teacher to Tyson.
For those of us on the left side of the political spectrum, Tyson is like the hero of the pro-science crowd. This past spring, Tyson hosted a program, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, which described and supported some of the great science ideas of our time–evolution, age of the universe, human caused climate change, and other major scientific principles. Ironically, the show was broadcast in the USA on the Fox TV network, whose news division can be charitably described as ultraconservative. Right wing Christian fundamentalist groups, one of the main key demographic groups who watch Fox News, loathed Cosmos for trumpeting scientific knowledge over religious interpretations in just about every one of the the 13 episodes.
Of course, for every reason that Fox News hated Cosmos (even though it was a huge ratings success for Fox, and has garnered a significant number of TV awards and nominations), those of us on the pro-science side loved it. Now, I'm a rarity in the science community in that I did not enjoy the show (the animations offended me on so many levels, but apparently kids loved it), I did watch every episode and would have to rank the episodes on evolution and global warming as some of the best science TV I'd ever seen–despite the lame graphics.
Although he has made comments and tweeted about his skepticism of the anti-GMO crowd in the past, it was only recently, when Neil deGrasse Tyson was recorded telling people to “chill out” about GMOs, that most people found out about it. To quote Tyson:
Practically every food you buy in a store for consumption by humans is genetically modified food. There are no wild, seedless watermelons. There's no wild cows...You list all the fruit, and all the vegetables, and ask yourself, is there a wild counterpart to this? If there is, it's not as large, it's not as sweet, it's not as juicy, and it has way more seeds in it. We have systematically genetically modified all the foods, the vegetables and animals that we have eaten ever since we cultivated them. It's called artificial selection.
His comment lead to a huge outcry from anti-GMO activists (read the comments on this article on the liberal website, Daily Kos–as a disclaimer, I also write there frequently). There's an old saying that "I fucking love science except when it doesn't support my beliefs." The anti-GMO crowd uses the same ridiculous anti-science rhetoric of the anti-evolution and anti-global warming crowd. I seriously could just change "global warming is fake" to "GMO's are dangerous", and literally nothing else, and they would say the exact same thing. I am convinced that all science deniers meet at an international convention somewhere and share strategies.
In an article about Tyson's comments, the liberal intellectual powerhouse Ezra Klein succinctly summed up the uproar about what Tyson said:
In laboratory settings, there's no evident difference between liberals and conservatives in their propensity to believe what they want, evidence be damned. In one experiment, Yale law professor Dan Kahan showed you could get liberals to start doubting global warming (and conservatives to begin accepting it) by making clear that any solution would require geoengineering. In another he showed that both liberals and conservatives were more likely to rate someone an expert on climate change if they agreed with their conclusions. In a third, he showed liberals were about as resistant to evidence showing concealed carry laws are safe as conservatives were to evidence showing climate change is dangerous.
Dr. Kahan, who has advised me that those who are opposed to vaccines are unconvinced by arguments (and even less so with my occasional uncivil commentary about them), makes a major point–evidence doesn't to those who have a political agenda or personal belief. Tyson, who has no personal involvement in GMO's, looks at the evidence as science, not a political issue.
Environmental issues are important to the liberal base. Global warming is an enormous environmental issue that happens to be critical to liberal political parties, not only in the USA, but throughout the world. But when Klein tried to find out what was the liberal equivalent to climate change, it was GMO's.
GMOs are actually an example of liberalism resisting the biases of its base. Though there's a lot of mistrust towards GMOs and fury towards Monsanto among liberals, the Democratic Party establishment is dismissive of this particular campaign. You don't see President Obama or Democratic congressional leaders pushing anti-GMO legislationThere are, of course, party actors who've been more helpful to the anti-GMO movement. In California, the Democratic Party endorsed a proposition to label GMO foods. But that's a modest step — and even that step hasn't yet made it to the national party's agenda.
Of course, as opposed to politics, where everything is painted in broad black and white brushstrokes, and the public, especially in the USA, who are impatient with any discussion that isn't wrapped up in 140 characters, science is complicated and requires more than a couple of sentences to explain in detail. Tyson felt that he needed to clarify his comments, mainly because his original comments about "chill out" originated in a 2 minute interview. A couple of days after he made the original observations about GMO's, Tyson wrote some followup comments on Facebook (I've edited the formatting slightly to make it a bit more readable):
I offer my views on these nuanced issues here, if anybody is interested:
- Patented Food Strains: In a free market capitalist society, which we have all “bought” into here in America, if somebody invents something that has market value, they ought to be able to make as much money as they can selling it, provided they do not infringe the rights of others. I see no reason why food should not be included in this concept.
- Labeling: Since practically all food has been genetically altered from nature, if you wanted labeling I suppose you could demand it, but then it should be for all such foods. Perhaps there could be two different designations: GMO-Agriculture GMO-Laboratory.
- Non-perennial Seed Strains: It’s surely legal to sell someone seeds that cannot reproduce themselves, requiring that the farmer buy seed stocks every year from the supplier. But when sold to developing country — one struggling to become self-sufficient — the practice is surely immoral. Corporations, even when they work within the law, should not be held immune from moral judgement on these matters.
- Monopolies are generally bad things in a free market. To the extent that the production of GMOs are a monopoly, the government should do all it can to spread the baseline of this industry. (My favorite monopoly joke ever, told by Stephen Wright: “I think it’s wrong that the game Monopoly is sold by only one company”)
- Safety: Of course new foods should be tested for health risks, regardless of their origin. That’s the job of the Food and Drug Administration (in the USA). Actually, humans have been testing food, even without the FDA ,since the dawn of agriculture. Whenever a berry or other ingested plant killed you, you knew not to serve it to you family.
If your objection to GMOs is the morality of selling non-perennial seed stocks, then focus on that. If your objection to GMOs is the monopolistic conduct of agribusiness, then focus on that. But to paint the entire concept of GMO with these particular issues is to blind yourself to the underlying truth of what humans have been doing — and will continue to do — to nature so that it best serves our survival. That’s what all organisms do when they can, or would do, if they could. Those that didn’t, have gone extinct extinct.
- Silk Worms: I partly mangled my comments on this. Put simply, commercial Silk Worms have been genetically modified by centuries of silk trade, such that they cannot survive in the wild. Silk Worms currently exist only to serve the textile industry. Just as Milk Cows are bred with the sole purpose of providing milk to humans. There are no herds of wild Milk Cows terrorizing the countryside.
I'm fairly certain that part of the anti-GMO sentiment relies on the old Appeal to Nature logical fallacy, which states that only natural is good. Of course, how do you define natural? Diabetics inject a GMO human insulin, that is the actual human insulin gene is inserted into another organism, then it synthesizes "natural" human insulin. And if you think this is appalling, and refuse to do it, then you will die, particularly fast if you're a Type 1 diabetic.
As I've written before, evidence is all that matters in science. Yelling and screaming that Monsanto is going to crush the world and is trying to kill us all (which is seriously illogical), that's just yelling and screaming, and has nothing to do with real science. The scientific consensus on GMO's is nearly the same as it is for human-caused climate change.
For example, here is the consensus position of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS) on climate change:
The scientific evidence is clear: global climate change caused by human activities is occurring now, and it is a growing threat to society. Accumulating data from across the globe reveal a wide array of effects: rapidly melting glaciers, destabilization of major ice sheets, increases in extreme weather, rising sea level, shifts in species ranges, and more. The pace of change and the evidence of harm have increased markedly over the last five years. The time to control greenhouse gas emissions is now.
The AAAS has also released another statement of consensus science on genetically modified foods (pdf):
The science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe … The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society, and every other respected organization that has examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion: consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques.
I guess someone could argue that the AAAS is right about one matter, but completely off-base on the other. Science deniers all do the same thing, pick and choose the science that supports their pre-existing beliefs in attitudes. Evolution deniers try to find evidence that the world is only 6000 years old, ignore the figurative (if not literal) mountains of evidence that support evolution as a scientific fact. But there is a group of people who mock those evolution deniers, while inventing massive conspiracies and fake science to support their anti-GMO beliefs.
One last thing. People ask how can an astrophysicist speak about GMO crops, which is a valid criticism. But here's the difference–Tyson isn't pretending to be an authority figure on GMO's, he's supporting the official scientific consensus developed by authorities. I strongly criticize scientists, who may be authorities in one area, but who then abuse that authority and pretend that they can speak to the science in something wholly separate from their own. They take their fame in one field to pretend they are an expert in another one, trading in on that fame. It happens all the time with those "scientists" who sign petitions disputing evolution or climate change. They are usually engineers, or computer "scientists" or some other non-expert, who wouldn't know evolution if it smacked them on the head.
Tyson is supporting the consensus, because he's a brilliant scientist. He isn't going to suddenly switch fields to become an geneticist or cell biologist, and even he did, he'd be publishing his first paper 10 years from now. What he does is what any scientist does–examine the consensus, look at whose research has the most weight, and see if the opposing view has the same quality of research. And right now, the evidence is overwhelming that GMO crops are safe for humans and for the environment (and if you're going to bring up glyphosate, Roundup, then that's a different conversation, it's no longer about GMO's). And the evidence that GMO plants are harmful is pitifully weak.
And again, because science isn't black and white, if the scientific consensus changes because of real evidence, I'm willing to switch my position. And foods ought to be tested, and that means GMO's, "organic" foods, meats, dairy, everything. I find it ironic that there's an implication that "organic" means healthy and GMO isn't, when the science behind GMO's is significantly broader and deeper than with regards to organic foods.
I am not naive. I know that there are conservatives who think that Tyson right and wrong. And some liberals who are apoplectic about Tyson today. To me, Neil deGrasse Tyson is perfectly rational and consistent–he follows the evidence to the conclusion, not establishing a conclusion, and denying all science that doesn't support it.
Originally posted to SkepticalRaptor on Mon Aug 04, 2014 at 04:00 PM PDT.
Also republished by SciTech.
1. Does a nation need a science teacher in chief? And if we need one, can we have one more like Carl Sagan? Keep your emotions and personal agenda of always being correct in check, please. Science should not be decided using emotions or terms like "chill out" when one is not "chilled out" oneself.
2. Quoted: "...Fox TV network, whose news division can be charitably described as ultraconservative. Right wing Christian fundamentalist groups, one of the main key demographic groups who watch Fox News..." I'm not sure it is necessary to bring religion into this issue, however the analogy is specious about the networks. MSNBC and CNBC are owned by the same corporate entity which has profit as its main goal. CNBC is conservative while MSNBC is left wing. One could argue NBC News itself is as corporate as one can get when it constantly hypes its parent company. The point here in this quote is to get in a punch at religion, not to edify. Tyson did not bring religion into the issue of GMOs. And I hope he does not bring it into his "authoritative" teachings of science. Why would anyone want to alienate and push people away from truth towards ignorance? Science basically has nothing to do with religion. When science tries to explain the basic assumptions it has about the subject of creation of the universe, it falls far short in the incontrovertible truth area . Want to teach evolution in the schools? Stop attacking religion. Want people to stop demanding religion be taught in science? Don't make it an issue yourself by attacking rather than defending. I did not watch "Cosmos" but I hope it did not use all 13 episodes to pit science against religion.
3. Spellcheck. I am guilty of grammatical problems and misspellings as well but "GMOs" is correct while "GMO's" is incorrect. The article waffles back and forth between the two spellings. This is the major topic being discussed. I misspelled Neil by using "Neal" and one of my Facebook friends pounced. This article is being published for a general audience and its subject includes guaranteeing the accuracy of science. [ I have no audience. :) ] I do not pretend to be accurate. I myself admit to being flawed and error prone. Holding someone else up as an expert in ALL fields of science is just wrong and mistakes are bound to happen. Defending Monsanto? That was a mistake. Science is very complicated and splintered into very technical areas. Add to this that scientists have bosses who are not necessarily familiar with their field who tell them what to do... and, well, I question your findings. That is a part of the scientific method. Not questioning the motives of scientists... that is just ignorant.
4. I am not a science denier though I often am a science doubter. I doubt science as truth because the very point of the scientific method is that anything and everything is questionable. Doubt plays an important role in science and statements should be made carefully not on the spur of the moment. "I'll get back to you on that," is a perfectly reasonable response. I personal doubt almost everything told to me by authorities. I feel that is actual scientific thought to do so. It is quite possible that all GMOs are safe up until this time. Remember, there are many many GMO variations and will probably be a huge amount of them every year. If they are not tested for safety, I am not sure how a science organization can say for certain that they are safe. But that is the point really. Trying to hush critics is not science. I'm curious, where is the structure of testing them to get these conclusions? Is it anywhere near the amount of study done on global warming, at least by scientists who do not answer to the company? "Scientists" claimed cigarettes were healthy at one time and it was so advertised, until we got some testing by scientists not hired by the cigarette companies.
Also, the problem here is in not understanding the differences among science, the scientific method, and technology resulting from science. Please, let's get a better science spokesman than Neil deGrasse Tyson who wants so bad to always be right and wants to lecture us on what the "truth" is on GMOs and what we should believe politically about them. Again, equating GMOs with hybridization is just a stunning error and Mr. Tyson is doubling down. There is only a fairly specious analogy to be made between GMOs (gene splicing to sell Roundup in its worst incarnation) and hybridization. I understand the point Mr. Tyson is making but his methodology in rhetorical argument is just not that of a scientist.
5. Monsanto GMOs are a political issue. Tyson did not mention Monsanto. In my mind he should have because one cannot separate out the political consequences of GMO production any more than one can separate out the political consequences of producing and advertising cigarettes.
6. People have a right to be afraid of scientists and err on the safe side of an issue. I myself err on the side of supporting legislation on global warming, that will cost boatloads of money, just to be on the safe side whether I agree with the infallibility of scientists or not.
7. The term "organic" should include the lack of use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. One would guess that "organic" foods are less likely to be GMOs because again, one of the reasons GMOs are created is to make them resistant to pesticides so that strong pesticides can be poured on the fields. Consequentially, whether GMO foods are healthy in themselves or not, we can guess the residual pesticide may have an effect as well.
8. Another new quote, from Mr. Tyson: "If your objection to GMOs is the morality of selling non-perennial seed stocks, then focus on that. If your objection to GMOs is the monopolistic conduct of agribusiness, then focus on that. But to paint the entire concept of GMO with these particular issues is to blind yourself to the underlying truth of what humans have been doing — and will continue to do — to nature so that it best serves our survival. That’s what all organisms do when they can, or would do, if they could. Those that didn’t, have gone extinct extinct. [sic]" If you are unsure that Mr Tyson is aware of the issue, this should put it to rest. Quest for science trumps bad effects of quest for science. But again, we are not talking about science but technology. I could make a darned good argument about the wonderful science of internal combustion engines and not worry at all about global warming. I choose not to. Basically, rash statements were made and Mr. Tyson is not correcting himself but doubling down on his attitude. That is not science. Science can consider various opinions and does not resort to ramping up rhetoric to prove all contrary opinions should not be considered. It does not have to save face.
9. The labeling issue is more rhetoric disguised as science. People want to know if food is the result of gene splicing or not. What is the problem here? Lack of information is not the hallmark of science. For whatever reason, people want to know. For obvious reasons, Monsanto does not want us to know and spends large sums of money lobbying to make sure we do not know. Science is not a totalitarian decider of political issues. If you want prayer out of schools, science is not your go-to argument. Politics are politics and democracy still has an input. A public scientist should not be arguing political issues this arcane. We do not yet have a capitalist science dictatorship. If you want people to take science seriously about global warming in the voting booth, then act like professional scientists and not Monsanto spokesmen or, for that matter, destroyers of religious belief.
Basically. Neil deGrasse Tyson has proven himself beyond a shadow of a doubt to be no Carl Sagan scientist but more of a television pundit. He tries to double down on the inductive link between hybridization and gene splicing. He relies on his audience to believe this a priori conclusion that these are one and the same. A priori knowledge is basically knowledge that does not have to be proven but one can simply surmise while sitting in one's easy chair smoking a pipe. This is not true if thinking people disagree in significant numbers. If people do not make the logical leap from Johnny Appleseed to Monsanto, then good for them. They are thinking. They are questioning.
This is only a partial response because honestly, I think neither this writer nor Tyson realize the importance of the issue of scientists being employed in capitalistic endeavors as opposed to pure science. Neither appear to understand the difference between science and for profit technology.
GMOs are political. GMOs are ongoing. To say a future GMO will be safe because past ones have been (even in the absence of proof or cited studies on the safety of all GMOs) is absurd. To say that they have been tested, when long range studies are necessary for the safety of any drug, or new food for that matter, is absurd as well. Absurdity is not science.
[ Keep in mind that my agenda here in this blog is to question authority in the very limited amount of time I have to write during a very busy life. My agenda is also to have fun writing. I make no claims to be correct nor anything other than the equivalent of a non-read pundit.:) ]