Anti-science is not a state of mind

This post initially appeared on Science Blogs

Can you be skeptical about GM but believe in climate change? So asks Alice Bell in The Guardian. The answer is of course, "Yes," but you can also be a fundamentalist Christian while believing in evolution and being a great scientist, so being able to hold two things in your brain at the same time is not a useful measure of logical incompatibility. One can be right about one thing and wrong about the other.

But let's get to the real issue raised in Bell's piece, the use of the term "anti-science" to describe opponents of genetically modified organisms (GMOs):

When people use the term "anti-science", I want to know what definition of science they've based their concept of anti on.

Challenge accepted. When I use the term "anti-science," (and I have a couple times), I'm referring to the act of ignoring studies that refute your hypothesis without explaining their flaw, cherry-picking studies that support your hypothesis without regard to their rigor, ignoring the consensus of experts in peer reviewed literature, making claims that are not based in fact, shouting down people who point out those facts as shills, liars or worse etc.

Who'd be simplistic enough to be "pro" the whole of science? What sort of shallow, shampoo advert "science bit" approach to the complexities of modernity are they living by?

Who'd be simplistic enough to expand a term to it's most far-reaching interpretation, and sophistic enough to argue against that interpretation as if it meant anything. The opposite of being "anti-science" on GMO is not being "'pro' the whole of science." And what's so wrong about being pro-science? It doesn't take much nuance to accept that the scientific process is, as Carl Sagan said, "by far the most successful claim to knowledge accessible to humans," while also acknowledging, again as Carl Sagan said, "It is not perfect, it's just the best we have."

Still, I'm sympathetic with the idea that the term anti-science is, as Bell writes:

...all too often applied to close down debate.

As science communicators, we can't just say that someone is anti-science, dust off our hands and walk away. We need to explain the science, and explain why those people are wrong. The fact is, no one is really against science, which is why the anti-science criticism stings so much. Science is consistently rated among the most trusted professions, and people that don't believe in global warming or are against GMOs have to believe that their positions are grounded in scientific veracity.

I think that my main difference with Bell, and perhaps the source of the rest of my disagreement is this:

It's also a lot easier for the GM lobby to play a game of "you are wrong on science" rather than acknowledging that the bulk of the critique against them is economic and political. [emphasis mine]

It's simply not true that the bulk of objections to GMO are economic and political, and this is a huge problem. There are very reasonable political and economic arguments about the problems with modern agriculture, like industrial farming, monoculture and sustainability. But anti-GMO activists rail against "frankenfoods" as the boogyman for everything that ails agriculture, when most of these problems are not unique to genetically modified crops.

If my experience with people on the internet, family members, friends and acquaintances that oppose or are skeptical of GMOs is at all representative, the main objection is a vague feeling that GMO is unnatural, and therefore unsafe. For those that rise to the level of activism, economics and politics are almost never brought up, except as a last resort after I've addressed their other concerns.

But don't take my word for it, take a look at the literature published by groups supporting labeling laws in CA. They claim that GMO crops:

Are laboratory-made, using technology that is totally different from natural breeding methods, and pose different risks from non-GM crops

Can be toxic, allergenic or less nutritious than their natural counterparts

Are not adequately regulated to ensure safety

Do not increase yield potential

Do not reduce pesticide use but increase it

Create serious problems for farmers, including herbicide-tolerant “superweeds”, compromised soil quality, and increased disease susceptibility in crops

Have mixed economic effects

Harm soil quality, disrupt ecosystems, and reduce biodiversity

Do not offer effective solutions to climate change

Are as energy-hungry as any other chemically-farmed crops

Cannot solve the problem of world hunger but distract from its real causes – poverty, lack of access to food and, increasingly, lack of access to land to grow it on.

Now, I could spend days discussing many of these points, but that's a separate issue. I've bolded the points that I think could be classified as "economic and political," though the regulation and world hunger are really a mix of political and scientific questions. Still, that's 3/11 bullet points, hardly "the bulk" of criticism.

I would love to move to a discussion of economics and politics. There's a lot to be said, a lot of policy that could be changed. Despite my criticism of the Union of Concerned Scientists' position on GMO crops, their proposals around agriculture policy generally are excellent and deserve serious discussion. But having those discussions while people scream about non-existent allergens, toxins and health risks due to GMO is impossible.

For environmentalists that care about the health of the planet (I consider myself among them), agriculture is one of many 1,000 lbs gorillas in the room, but we're not having the right conversations. The anti-science of GMO activists is not a state of mind, not a philosophy or underlying motivation, it's an adjective for a subset of positions that is not based in experimental reality. And I for one will continue to call them out on it.

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