Friday, June 5, 2015

Bill Nye and the Science Lie

In an interview with HuffPost last month, the Science Guy revealed how Monsanto changed his mind about GMOs.  In so doing, he showed within a few minutes of conversation the shallowness in his scientific understanding of the issues involved.

LIE #1
“We are able to feed 7.2 billion people, which a century and a half ago you could barely feed 1 and a half billion people and [it's] largely because of the success of modern farming."

There are so many things wrong with this.  In the first place, what’s Bill’s data base for assuming that a century and a half ago, the world could hardly feed itself?  Zero, to the best of my knowledge.  To the contrary, folk over most of the world fed themselves as well as or probably better than now until European colonialism screwed up their economies.

In the second place, who exactly is meant by the "we" and the "you" hereAm I alone in seeing  gross arrogance in this remark?  Not "The world is able to feed itself" or "The  world as a whole is able to feed 7.2 billion", but “WE” are able to feed the world, the way “we” want to feed it.  Naturally, the last thing we want is for the world to feed itself, because people in the rest of the world are so stupid and ignorant they wouldn’t have a clue how to feed themselves unless we "advanced nations" kindly either showed them how or did it for them.  Bill probably doesn’t realize that’s what he’s saying.  But it is.

In the third place, pretty well everyone who’s seriously studied the world economy is agreed that shortage of food is not and seldom if ever has been the problem.  Shortage of money, shortage of infrastructure, exploitative governments, these are the kinds of factor that make for shortage of food.  Not to mention the use of vast areas of land for cattle, the use of vast quantities of food fed to cattle, the use of agricultural products to produce ethanol, and on and on.  If you don’t do something about these kinds of thing, you can improve agriculture as much as you want and you will still get hunger and wider malnutrition in a large part of the world.  It’s inexcusable for a supposedly primo science communicator not to know all of this.

LIE #2
“GMO crops put the herbicides and pesticide inside the plant, rather than spraying it on them and having it run down into streams.” 

Come on, Bill!  This is a real “Duh!” moment.  How COULD you get a functional herbicide inside a plant?  How would it work, would the plant go out and fight other plants?  Surely even Monsanto didn’t try to pass off this whopper?  Of course, what really happens is probably the worst aspect of genetic engineering.   The whole point of making Roundup-resistant plants is so that you CAN “spray it on them”, just as much as it takes—the weeds wilt and wither, but your crop still stands tall.  Because the herbicide not only still “runs down into streams”--with the aid of the adjuvants (themselves untested, btw) that are added  to all pesticides, it spreads all over and is thoroughly absorbed by every part of the plant,  so eventually by you and your nearest and dearest.

And what effect might this have?  Don’t go there, Bill, it’s more than your career’s worth.  If any serious science communicator starts to even look at the accumulating scientific evidence that chemicals in general and herbicides in particular may be responsible for the otherwise inexplicable rise in chronic degenerative diseases that has pushed America down to forty-somethingth place in world longevity rankings, those nice people at Monsanto who were so generous with their time and trouble will demonize that communicator, will hound and harass him (or her) and try to discredit her (or him) in any way they can.

Your choice, Science Guys in general.  You can save your jobs while you go on betraying the public you are supposed, like the police, to serve and protect.  Or you can do the right thing, which is to alert that same public to the risks that are being imposed on them in the name of corporate greed.  Of course, if enough of you did this, there would be too many of you to demonize. 
It’s the old problem of the mice belling the cat.   Who’s on first?  Who will dare?

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Pro-GMO Firms Shoot Themselves In The Foot by Fighting Labeling Laws

Ever heard that old expression, “hoist with his own petard” and wondered what it means?  Turns out it comes from the old days of siege warfare, when some unlucky guy was ordered to pick up the mediaeval equivalent of an IED (the “petard”) and plant it beneath the iron-studded oaken gate of a fortified city.  Explosives being pretty new in those days, it often happened that the thing would go off before the guy could get rid of it.  Hence the expression.

Whodathunk it?   That’s exactly the kind of result Monsanto & Co. got by wasting millions of dollars trying to block GMO labeling initiatives (and in most cases succeeding).  In two states alone (Washington and California) they spent, according to one source, more than $55,000,000, of which Monsanto’s share fell just short of a whopping $12,000,000.

They should have saved their money.

We first got wind of what was happening several weeks ago.  Costco seldom if ever used to carry organic produce.  Suddenly, overnight it seemed, the megastore blossomed with organic signs and labels in almost every food department.  Safeway and other mainstream supermarkets followed suit.  What was happening?
Well, frustrated at the ballot box, consumers were voting with their wallets.

It wasn’t long before even the MSM caught on to the trend.  On April 15th, Mark Bittman wrote a column on it for the N.Y. Times.  “A growing demand for organics, and the near-total reliance by U.S. farmers on genetically modified corn and soybeans, is driving a surge in imports from other nations where crops largely are free of bioengineering”, he opened, and went on to recite a litany of woe for the GMOers.  Since most corn and soybeans become chicken or cattle feed, GMO varieties can’t be used if the meat is to be labeled organic.  But customers had decided that if they couldn’t get labels for GMO food, the only way they could avoid GMO-fed meat was by buying organic.  As a consequence, countries where few if any GMO crops were grown reaped a bonanza—soybean imports from India doubled in a year, while Romanian corn increased almost twentyfold.  And guess what?—prices for organic meat are starting to fall already.

The meat story is only part of a much larger trend that’s featured in a special report, “The War on Big Food” by Beth Kowitt in the June issue of Fortune magazine.  “Major packaged-food companies lost $4 billion in market share alone last year, as shoppers swerved to fresh and organic alternatives,” says Kowitt.  “This is the most dynamic, disruptive, and transformational time that I’ve seen in my career” says one food executive with 37 years’ experience.  One new organic-food company has grown to an astonishing $1.2 billion in sales in a space of only two years. 

Of course the trend didn’t begin with the labeling referendums. Organic-food sales have been growing steadily over the last decade.   Most processed foods contain other things besides GMOs—artificial preservatives that, ironically, were put there to stop food going bad and sickening people.  But, as our experience in Costco showed us, the trend only reached the tipping point—the point at which retail companies started to jump the sinking GMO ship—after labeling initiatives in Washington, California, Oregon and Colorado had failed.  That caused even companies as big and seemingly impregnable as Hershey’s to look at the sales figures and decide it was time to switch teams.  In 2014 Hershey’s had kicked in $258,000 to defeat the Washington initiative and $493,900 to defeat the California initiative.  But even if you do beat them, you may still have to join them.  In February of this year Hershey’s announced the start of a campaign to clean up their act.  In future, they would remove all “unnatural” substances from their products, including milk from GMO-fed cows and artificial sweeteners made with GMO corn.

It’s interesting to see exactly how the “hoist-with-own-petard” machinery worked.  Prior to the initiatives, most people had little if any idea of what GMOs were.  If instead of jumping immediately into battle mode the Big Six had just waited on the sidelines, things would probably have stayed that way.  If the vote had gone against them, as well it might, they could have fought a series of delaying actions in court—just as they are now doing with the successful initiatives in Hawaii counties—and meanwhile spent some of the money they’d saved on pro-GMO propaganda.  Thus, even if they didn’t win back what they lost at the polls, their control over the media and their relentless “Science, science, science” b.s. could have taken any steam out of the rush to buy non-GMO-labeled foods.

But no.  They made a big production out of it.  GMO foods were suddenly on every TV and radio station and in every newspaper and magazine.  They came front and center to public awareness as never before.  And while John and Jane Q. Public might buy the arguments about labeling adding to food costs, they were still far from sure about GMO safety.  Why would GMO firms spend all that money if they weren’t hiding something?  So, once you knew you weren’t going to be able to buy stuff with non-GMO labels, the logical thing to do was to buy food that had an already-existing label that could by law be placed only on non-GMO foods.

The Law of Unintended Consequences has struck again.  GMOers seem especially prone to it.  Look at the “superweeds”, herbicide-resistant species that Monsanto swore could never be produced by its precious Roundup.  Look at all the GMO wonder products announced with great fanfare that have quickly fizzled.

The market has its own inexorable logic.  Sellers will sell whatever sells.  If it stops selling, they’ll switch to something else.  It would be ironic indeed if GMOs were finally defeated, not by new scientific revelations, not by government legislation, but by the inscrutable workings of the Invisible Hand.  And those same market forces are not yet done with GMO foods.  Any trend, once it passes the tipping point, automatically picks up strength as a rolling snowball picks up snow.  Increased demand causes increased production.  Increased production brings a fall in prices.  A fall in prices results in more and more customers.  So even one of the GMOer’s favorite stories--the one about organic food being just a rich yuppie fad—no longer works for them, as Mr. & Mrs. Average find growing quantities of competitively priced organic food on their local supermarket shelves.

GMO firms must be kicking themselves.  With their shot foot, in their petard wound.

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.”