Sunday, May 31, 2015

Real Science versus GMO Fantasy Science

My last post showed how the microbiome in our guts could give us Alzheimer’s disease (AD).  That’s pretty straightforward and blindsides pro-GMOers, who’ve been telling us how “Glyphosate targets an enzyme found in plants, but not in humans or pets”—an error they may bitterly regret when current legal proceedings grind to an end.  But we’re still far from knowing enough about brain-gut interactions to be able to nail the precise mechanism.

However, when we look at other routes, there’s a confound—the current state of play in AD studies.  Repeatedly we are told that “AD is mostly genetic”, but in fact “later age of disease onset (≥ 65 years) representing most cases of AD [like 98%, DB] has yet to be explained by a purely genetic model.”  So even for those who do harbor suspect genes, there must be some (probably exogenous) factor that triggers them to express whatever causes AD.

One hypothesis was that AD is triggered by failure to synthesize enough of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, but treatments based on this theory failed to cure or even substantially delay the progress of Alzheimer’s.  A rival hypothesis claimed that AD resulted from the formation in the brain of amyloid plaques, a common feature of AD patients.  This went through several stages as researchers argued over which form of which protein did what to cause the plaques.  Yet a further hypothesis, nowadays maybe the most popular, saw the plaques as merely part of a process that commenced with a different protein, called tau, which supports the internal structure of nerve cells.  These are just the major hypotheses.  Minor ones include causative agents as diverse as herpes, copper, electromagnetic fields, myelin breakdown and oxidative stress.  After decades of study, there is still no proven effective treatment for AD.

But what the facts about AD reveal most clearly is the difference between Real Science and what GMO advocates regard as science.  Even in literary genres, people regularly refer to “Fantasy AND Science Fiction”, thereby carefully drawing a line between the two.  But that line is blurred by GMOers, who regularly produce a genre that can only be called “Fantasy Science”.  So here’s the distinction between Real Science and Fantasy Science.

In Real Science, nothing is cut and dried; even what seem eternal verities are always subject to challenge.  In the 18th century, Pope confidently proclaimed:
          Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night.
         God said, “Let Newton be!” and all was light.
In the 20th century, the British poet Sir John Squire answered him:
          It did not last: the devil, shouting "Ho,
          Let Einstein be," restored the status quo.

That’s the norm, and the AD literature just represents the same process, speeded up.  It may take many years or even decades for knotty problems to reach, not a final or permanent solution, but a solution that stands up for the moment, may hold indefinitely, but quite possibly won’t last forever.  No matter.  For now it works.  The huge crazy edifice of science shifts and reshuffles itself, and it may comfort us to pretend we’ve reached some kind of terminus, but we know in our hearts this isn’t true.  It all looks terribly inefficient, but in actual fact it’s more efficient, a better guide to understanding nature, than anything else we’ve found or probably ever will find.

For this reason, people in Real Science take one another in good faith.  When someone writes a paper you think is wrong, you don’t accuse him of being an activist not a scientist, or of producing something called “Junk Science”.  You lay out the evidence for your point of view, and possibly (not necessarily) criticize the evidence for the other.  If you produce only evidence for your own views, nobody demonizes you or even accuses you of “cherry-picking”.  Why should they?  What we are looking for is not THE TRUTH, but the best account of reality we can currently manage.  And the best and perhaps only way of doing this is if I make the strongest case I can for my views, and you do the same for yours, and then all the other people who are interested in what we are arguing about pitch in, and in doing so keep eliciting new data, some of which favors me, some you, until there gets to be a preponderance of evidence one way or another.

Not that it’s easy, or even always polite.  Never forget J.B.S. Haldane’s Four Stages of Acceptance for any new idea in science:
          1. This is worthless nonsense.
          2. This is an interesting, but perverse, point of view.
          3. This is true, but quite unimportant.
          4. I always said so.

Well, the world of GMO Fantasy Science is a very different one.  In this alternative universe, science is neatly divided into two kinds.  There is Sound Science and there is Junk Science.  Most science is Sound Science, and all of it strongly supports all aspects of GMOs.  All science that questions any aspect of GMOs is Junk Science, and if it is not swiftly stamped out by the proponents of Sound Science, heaven only knows what might happen!  So those who produce Junk Science are not only demonized—they’re chain-demonized.

Chain-demonization is a phenomenon not yet (to the best of my knowledge) commented on, but it needs to be, because it is a regular strategy employed by Fantasy Scientists, and it is diametrically opposed to anything Real Scientists would ever dream of doing.  It consists of demonizing, not just the authors of particular papers that have pissed off Fantasy Scientists, but (a) any paper written by a demonized scientist (b) any paper in which a demonized scientist appears as a co-author (c) any paper that cites any paper authored or co-authored by a demonized scientist in its bibliography.  All papers that fall into any one of these categories can summarily dismissed without even attempting to discuss their content, because of course their content is—can only be—Junk Science.

So the Fantasy-Science scenario of Men in White Coats Who Know Everything versus fear-mongering activists paid by those huge, evil, organic-food corporations is just that—a fantasy.  The really shocking thing, though, is that this fantasy is accepted by people who should know better—like so many science journalists, who may be up on all the latest whizz-bang, bet-this-will-shock-the-reader science factoids but who have little notion of what makes science tick, what it’s all about.

One final mark of the Fantasy Scientist is lack of humility.  I have yet to see a GMO advocate who wasn’t totally sure that everything s/he believed was true and who took that “fact” as a license for swaggering arrogance directed at anyone who disagreed.  I know of no better corrective for this attitude than these wonderful words from a scientist probably greater than any alive today: Isaac Newton. 

“I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

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