Monday, August 10, 2015

“Science? What Science?” GE's Achilles Heel Revealed!

Yes, we know.  We’ve heard it a million times.  Guys who believe in genetic engineering (GE) are the science guys.  Anti-GE guys are the anti-science scare-mongering wingnuts.  To which all that us anti-GE guys can muster in the way of rebuttal is the wimpish whimper, “No, no, we’re not anti-science, it’s just that there’s science that says different things, look at X, Y and Z.”  After which it’s just a he-said, she-said, which they win by sheer force of numbers. 

Nobody, to the best of my knowledge, has ever gone to the root of things and asked “Science?  What science?”  So, for the first time, let’s ask it.

For starters, let’s get our definitions straight.  GE isn’t science.  It’s technology. And if you think that’s wrong, you’re suffering under an inability common among even educated Americans to distinguish between science and technology.  Even NPR can’t do it—their Science Friday should be renamed Technology with Some Science Thrown in Friday.  So here’s the quick Cliff’s-notes-type definition: science is finding out how things work and technology is finding ways to make things work differently (hopefully better).  True, technology often uses science to assist in that.  But two things have to be noted.  One, there’s an inevitable time-lag between the science and the capacity to make use of it, which often means that by the time the technology’s up and running, science has moved on in a different or even contrary direction.  Two, the technology is only as good as the science it uses.

And the science GE draws on is not good.  It’s an eclectic mix of old sciences all past their sell-by date, ranging from mid-twentieth-century genetics all the way back to sixteenth-century toxicology, when there was hardly anything you could call “science” at all.

Before GE advocates have an apoplectic fit, let me elaborate.

Anti-GEers often moan about how government agencies leave pesticide toxicity testing to industry--conflict of interest and all that.  That’s a nonstarter because both Monsanto and the EPA use the same “science” as the basis for their protocols: the dogma from a sixteenth-century astrologer and alchemist that “the dose makes the poison”, meaning that for literally every substance there is a NOEL (no-observable-effects level) above which harm may occur, but below which no harm can possibly occur.  

Astrology is still around in daily newspaper columns, so we skeptics know how much that’s worth, but alchemy is little heard of nowadays.  It was the sixteenth-century equivalent of Nigerian scams, and it had the same basic ingredients: a big pot of gold (in alchemy it really was gold) at the end of the rainbow, but a considerable expense on the part of the sucker to get there.  The only significant difference was that while no Nigerian scammer ever believed in a multi-millionaire Swedish businessman who died in a plane crash intestate and without issue, some alchemists (and I’m sure Paracelsus, an alias for Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, was one of them) genuinely believed that with the right chemical procedures you could turn base metals into gold.  Indeed the belief that this was possible, at least in principle, formed part of the sixteenth-century scientific consensus. 

Alchemy had been thoroughly debunked by the seventeenth century (most notably in Ben Jonson’s comedy The Alchemist (1610), which though seldom performed nowadays is one of the funniest plays ever), but toxicology’s dogma remained without serious challenge until the eve of this century.  By now, of course, it’s been shown to be invalid for many, perhaps most chemical substances (see my post “Unsafe At Any Dose”) but because of this same time-lag between scientific discovery and technological application, we’re stuck with sixteenth-century toxic-substance testing for probably another decade or so. 
But what about GE genetics?  We have to start by remembering the scientific orthodoxy that followed the mid-century unravelling of the DNA code, because this was what dominated the 1970s when GE took off.  This orthodoxy was the genes-conquer-all, one-gene-one trait science of Dawkins’ Selfish Gene, which resulted, among other things, in the commonsense belief that the more complex an organism, the more genes it would have to have.  Now we know how wrong that is.  And evo-devo has taught us that genes “are not the leaders, but the followers” in the development of any organism (West-Eberhard, Developmental Plasticity and Evolution)—in other words, that epigenetic factors, both organism-internal and environmental, play vital roles in determining what genes get expressed when and how, and that in any case very few traits are controlled by a single gene.

What this all boils down to is that GE technology has been blindsided by scientific change.  Nothing in Dawkins-type genetics led you to expect the emergence of superweeds and the consequent “pesticide treadmill” in which more herbicide-resistant weeds would mean spraying more (and/or more toxic) herbicides which in turn would select for more pesticide-resistant weeds.  Nothing in Dawkins-type genetics led you to predict that most attempts at inserting genes would be doomed to failure; for instance, the University of Hawaii hasn’t brought out a single successful transgenic crop since the ringspot-resistant papaya of the 1990s.  Forget for a moment about the overblown issue of possible harms— the sheer complexity of the process turned out to be orders of magnitude harder than anyone could have imagined in the 1970s.  But anyone who had kept up to speed with science would have known to prepare for these things at least a couple of decades ago.

Bottom line: GE advocates' claim to represent science is simply a version of Goebbels’ Big Lie—the one people end up believing if you just repeat it often enough.  It’s sheer stupidity to suppose that “a consensus of scientists” has proven genetic engineering to be harmless, or anything else for that matter.  New science trumps outdated science every time.   Who was right, Wegener who said continents had moved or the consensus of geologists who said they hadn’t?  Hayflick who said there was a strict limit on cell longevity or the consensus of microbiologists who said there wasn’t?  Margolis who said that eukaryotes resulted from symbiosis or the consensus of evolutionary biologists who said that was nonsense?  Never forget Haldane’s Four Stages of Acceptance:
            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.

And never forget either, that we were told DDT was safe, stilboestrol was safe,  smoking was safe, thalidomide was safe, Agent Orange was safe.  You’d think we’d have learned some sense by now, wouldn’t you?  But those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it.   

So, next time you hear someone saying they’re scientific and you’re not, you know where to tell them to stick it, right?

No comments:

Post a Comment