Alex Jones Is A False Flag

Back in November of 2015, after the Paris shooting, I was shocked at the amount of conspiracy comments that were left on Youtube videos discussing the attacks. The Paris attacks struck a personal chord with me. I have played in bands most of my life, and have attended many concerts as well. All events like this are tragic, but the Paris shooting destroyed something sacred for me. As an atheist, live events such as these are much more like cathartic religious experiences than simply music shows. It is about the closest thing I have ever come to having, what some would call, a spiritual experience. Watching Jesse Hughes, leader singer of Eagles of Death Metal, discuss what he experienced was a way of coping with a kind of loss. I want to cry every time I think of what Hughes said, during an interview days after the shooting with Vice magazine, “Our friends went there to see rock and roll and died, I want to go back there and live”. It was a simple reminder that we will not be defeated in the face of hatred.

Sadly, not everyone viewed the tragedy as what it was; a brutal attack committed by angry people motivated by a particular religious ideology against their perceived enemy. Instead, as the comments to the Vice interview attest, many people saw the Paris attacks as a false flag. False flags are covert operations which are designed to appear as if they are being carried out by a particular group, when, in fact, they are being orchestrated by somebody else. In this sense, they are the bread and butter of conspiracy theorists. As someone who spent some time in the conspiracy theorist community, believing that 9/11 was orchestrated by the US government, I witnessed the proliferation of false flag accusations. Ironically, my eventual departure from the conspiracy community was due to the incoherent ramblings, and constant false flag promoting, of conspiracy Super Saiyan, Alex Jones. Which brings us to today. Not even 24 hours after the tragic shootings in Orlando, Alex Jones, once again, is crying false flag.

Before addressing why Alex Jones is completely, and utterly, full of shit, it is important to highlight the sheer absurdity of false flag claims. One of the most upvoted comments on the Vice interview is angrily directed towards the Eagles of Death Metal: “BIGGEST ASS CLOWN BAND EVER!!! crisis actor sell outs FUCK YOU!” What this comment is alluding to is the idea that many people involved in large scale tragic events are really actors, hired by the powers that be, in order to stage tragic events to subvert democracy or pass unpopular laws. Forget the fact that a recent paper shows that conspiracy theories are mathematically prone to unraveling the larger they get. Forget that the Eagles of Death Metal have been a band for years, and that Jesse Hughes’ pro-gun pro-freedom rhetoric contradicts the claims that he is paid actor for a government supposedly staging events to subvert these very ideals. Not to mention the fact that he blames the political left for the attacks, something which ironically conforms to the conspiracy narrative.

Now, I disagree with a lot of what Jesse Hughes has said since the shooting, but I don’t hold it against him. He was not coached to be politically savvy prior to this event, and I wouldn’t be able to predict what I would say or do if I had been in his place. Let alone how to deal with being given a larger audience, due to the fact that a bunch of assholes decided to kill people who simply showed up to enjoy your music. But it is a further tragedy that Hughes’ experience, however he chooses to manifest it, is being systematically denied by a sub culture that sees him as a puppet. Even worse is the idea that the parents of Sandy Hook were also crisis actors. Some parents even being harassed by conspiracy theorists to prove that they actually had children prior to the shooting. Yet again, the same nonsense is being promoted just hours after the Orlando shootings.

Alex Jones who has made the crisis actor claims about Sandy hook and the Boston marathon, has, in the case of the Orlando shooting, taken a different approach. Instead of saying these attacks were staged, he instead claims that the attacks happened due to the governments open border policies and the acceptance of Syrian refugees. The false flag being that our government does nothing to stop these attacks, in order to, you guessed it, destroy liberty and take our guns. Now, the fact that the shooter was born and raised in America doesn’t fit that narrative, but that hasn’t stopped Jones. Who is now claiming that ISIS is activating death squads in America. Don’t forget to also buy his air purifying products to protect you against chemtrails (advertised in all his recent videos).

Jones also claims that he has never been against homosexuals. Although, he compares those who advocate for gay rights to a space cult with a eugenic plot to kill the worlds population. He also thinks that the supreme court ruling on same sex marriage opens the door for pedophile politicians. He views Islamic extremists as reprehensible for how they treat the gay community, something which I agree is terrible, and yet Jones’ radical Christianity leads him to think that the gay agenda is a eugenics space cult defending pedophiles.

Remember also that Jones is a supporter of Donald Trump. After years of supporting the birther movement, Trump and Jones make natural allies. Which, to me, is the biggest thing to fear from these types of attacks. With every threat and attack population level political conservatism increases. This is also why the left has failed to adequately deal with this issue. Calling Jones or Trump Islamophobic isn’t going to do anything. Their millions of followers don’t trust the narratives promoted by mainstream media. They see the medias denial that these attacks have anything to do with Islam as evidence that the main stream media is corrupted by a shadowy organization. Of course these attacks do have something to do with Islam. I take the fact that the shooter self-identifies as a Muslim, and claims it to be the reason for the attacks at face value, but that fact isn’t that helpful in the long run. These kind of attacks are not just carried out by Muslims. This is why Sandy Hook was a hoax, while Orlando was terrorism, to try to make the random acts of large scale violence fit a narrative.

I am glad I eventually got out of this community, and discovered science and reason, but we ignore the conspiracy underbelly at our peril. Alex Jones has over a million followers, and Donald Trump is the front runner of a majour political party in one of the most powerful countries in the world. The conspiracy is becoming mainstream, and no one really knows how to deal with it.

 

 

Yes, We Need GMO Bananas

There was a lot of activity regarding GMO bananas back in February, when Iowa State University was going to run a study on the human consumption of GE bananas. This study was protested by a petition that received 57,000 signatures. Several pieces have been written by those who oppose the tests, and GMOs in general, all of which expose the absurdity of the anti-GMO movement. I will mainly focus on one article, written by Eric Holt Gimenez for Huffpost Green, titled “Yes, We Need No GMO Bananas”.

Gimenez’s article is based on the premise that the petition signed by the protestors should not be summarily dismissed as anti-science quackery. Of course, for someone who works for an organization that vehemently opposes GE technology, this is the angle that he would want to promote. Food First is a non-profit that works against the industrialization of food production. They openly criticize the Green Revolution for promoting ‘technological intensification’, as if this were a bad thing. The worry, for organizations like Food First, is that the Green Revolution, although responsible for saving billions of lives, contributed to the over use of pesticides and removed food sovereignty. However, to go from this concern to a rejection of technological intensification is, to put it mildly, patently absurd. Pesticides are a necessary part of agriculture, therefore being able to make these pesticides safer – by intensifying the use of technology – would actually be a good thing. In fact, GMOs have reduced the use of many pesticides and have replaced them with relatively benign ones. As for food sovereignty, if this was really related to the Green Revolution, the problem has little to do with technology, but instead with our legal systems. So, instead of arguing against technological advancement, maybe Food First should focus more on the legal and economic factors which help destroy food sovereignty. Assuming the lack of food sovereignty is currently as bad as they claim it to be.

Gimenez begins by saying the move towards testing is, in some sense, something to praise. This is because, as he claims “the GE industry has yet to carry out any epidemiological or regional ecological studies to assess GE’s adverse impact on public health or the environment.” Guess what, here is a list of over 400 studies conducted on the health and environmental safety of GE products. More studies than these exist, since the database is not updated regularly, but the point should be clear enough. Anti-GMO critics continuously claim that these products have not been tested, and yet this is simply and utterly false. Which makes Gimenez’s statement, that we have all been part of an “uncontrolled industrial experiment”, simply mind boggling.

Of course, Gimenez, though happy that there is finally a test – though an absurd assertion given the prevalence of GMO research – is unhappy that the ISU study was directed at the beneficial aspects of the GMO banana. In other words, the scientists wanted to know whether the beta carotene in the banana was actually having a beneficial effect. Gimenez, also downplays the role in which this petition was worried about the health effect of GMO bananas. AGRA watch, another ideological non-profit, makes it clear that they were concerned about the safety and environmental impact of the GMO banana, which is why they promoted the petition. The most depressingly hilarious concern is raised by David Schubert. Schubert, who has a PhD in immunology, and works for the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, should know better. However, as this piece written in 2014 shows, Schubert is ideologically opposed to GE technology. He even raises the dreaded specter of Agent Orange, as a reason to reject GE food, which, in fact, is not related to GE food at all. Here is Schubert’s comment to AGRA watch regarding the banana study:

Beta carotine [sic] is chemically related to compounds that are known to cause birth defects and other problems in humans at extremely low levels, and these toxic chemicals are possible if not likely by-products of plants engineered to make large amounts of beta carotene.  Since there is no required safety testing of the banana or any other GMO, doing a feeding trial in people, especially women, should not be allowed.  It is both unethical and immoral, particularly because there are several naturally occurring varieties of banana that are safe and have higher levels of beta carotene than the GM varieties.

If it isn’t obvious why this statement by Schubert is word salad, let me be more precise. For one, I have no clue whether or not beta carotene production, within plants, is linked to the production of chemicals which are responsible for birth defects. I have looked, and can’t find anything. Sadly, Schubert never mentioned where he got this information either. I also like the use of the word toxic, serving no more of a purpose than to stoke fear in those who already ideologically agree with him. Again, wouldn’t it have been nice if he had mentioned what this toxic chemical compound really is? Secondly, the gene that was used to make these bananas was taken from… other bananas. Therefore, the production of beta carotene in these bananas is similar to if not identical to the production of beta carotene in these other banana varieties. So, if Schubert is right, there should be an increased rate of birth defects for those who eat bananas with high levels of beta carotene, and yet he explicitly states that naturally occurring high levels of beta carotene in bananas are safe! Clearly, having a PhD doesn’t make one immune to poor argumentation.

Getting back to Gimenez, his next paragraph takes the cake for bold unsupported assertions. He claims that the creation of this GMO banana is running under to false assertions; that Ugandans will eat the banana, and that there aren’t bananas high in beta carotene already there. Again, no sources are given to provide evidence against either of these assumptions. The first assumption, is one for which there is no clear answer, but this should not dissuade researchers from trying. Other vitamin A solutions have failed to make an impact, so why not try to take a staple crop used in those regions, primarily by the poor and marginalized, and fortify it? The second assumption is dismissed by Gimenez, but again, he is simply wrong. You have to ask yourself, if those varieties exist in Uganda, why are Ugandans still vitamin A deficient? The problem is that there are economic, ecological, and cultural reasons for why these bananas are not grown and eaten. The modified banana is a staple crop for poor farmers in Uganda, who are with the highest rates of vitamin A deficiency. Therefore, it is more likely for Ugandans to adopt this strategy than to begin growing a new type of banana, which is economically and ecologically not practical, and culturally not wanted.

Gimenez then turns conspiratorial. The only reason Cornell University is arguing against these protestors is because they received money from Bill and Melinda Gates! Cornell isn’t the only institution against the protests, considering that the majority of scientific institutions support the safety and efficacy of GE products, and not all of them receive Gates money. Gimenez then claims that these institutions are stymieing public debate, but are they? Trying to educate the public about the scientific consensus of the safety of GE products is only seen as stymieing if you work on the assumption that GMO food is bad in the first place. Conspiracy theorists abound though, for example, this article claims that Bill and Melinda Gates are modifying this banana so that they can profit off of it. Ignoring the fact that this GMO banana is being developed by the Ugandan government, and is not being patented. The new theory is that this product would be an open-door to allow for the release of further GE products, but if there is no reason to fear GMO food this isn’t really a problem.

This gets to the next part of Gimenez’s problem, that we shouldn’t just focus on GE technology to help fix hunger. This is because hunger and vitamin A deficiency is also social and political issue. But who seriously ignores this fact? After all, why else are the scientists working directly with the Ugandan government? This is a frequent complaint of pseudo-scientists, that somehow academics are blinded to the holistic processes of health and safety. This, of course, is nonsensical spin. However, this spin has an official seal. As anti-GMO activists frequently point to an IAASTD report, as Gimenez does in this piece, which claims that we shouldn’t be investing all our time in GMO technologies. For a full debunking of this report I recommend this article. I will add, however, that this report, released in 2009, is a bit outdated. It is also alone. One lonely outdated report is, well, useless, scientifically speaking. Especially a report which ignores the large scientific consensus surrounding such foods.

Here is the heart of Gimenez’s position:

Science is a negotiation – an iterative process rooted in asking questions, in testing hypotheses and counter-hypotheses. Thus it is crucial that scientists and students of science, regardless of status, expertise or background, be able to ask critical questions regarding each other’s work without fear of vitriolic retribution or retaliation. The GE proponents’ over-simplified approach — and their attacks against anyone who questions them are not only unscientific — pose risks to us all.

This superficially seems like a great idea. But at what point is something so true, so beyond doubt, that systematic questioning and protestation become a hindrance to scientific progress as opposed to a integral part of its functioning? Creationists deserve ridicule because they are wrong. It is not that I am critical of questioning itself, instead I am critical of bullshit. If anti-GMO activists continue to trot out tired and debunked claims, then I am going to continue to counter their propaganda. It is funny how Gimenez’s dire prediction can work in the opposite direction. If Gimenez is wrong, his anti-science fear mongering, and promotion of questioning in the face of overwhelming evidence, will pose a risk to us all, especially to those kids who are needlessly going blind due to vitamin A deficiency. This is the pseudo-scientists appeal for open-mindedness, but as the brilliant Carl Sagan famously said, “Be open minded, but not so open that your brain falls out”. It is time we put the brains back into environmental activism.

Another Horgan Hater

Anyone familiar with the skeptic movement is probably well aware of John Horgan’s talk at NECSS, and his subsequent blog post. Rather than cover all the horrible scientific inaccuracies, and lack of awareness, I will address why Horgan’s opinion resonates with the wider public. For direct criticism of the content of Horgan’s presentation David Gorski, and Steven Novella have wonderful responses.

As a side note, in a future post (or possible video?) I will be criticizing the work of Robert Whitaker, someone who Horgan cites as a respectable journalist. I happen to think Whitaker is wrong, on a lot of issues, but there doesn’t seem to be that much information online explaining how wrong he is. I hope to fill that void in the future; so look out for that! Ironically, this is precisely WHY we need a skeptic movement, so people can think critically about the people they use as sources. And the fact that Horgan used Whitaker as a source, at a skeptic conference, where he criticized skeptics… is priceless.

The first thing that really annoys me with his talk, which is a standard way of shutting down a conversation, is that he automatically set up the skeptics movement as being ideologically motivated to reject his talk. That way, any criticism towards his talk can be perceived as petulant whining and thus easily dismissed. The fact is, that skeptics cover a wide range of topics, including a lot of the issues that he himself raised. We are not, as a whole, superficially science enthusiasts that simply digest what we are spooned by the media or by scientists. The skeptic movement, at its best, has a respectful appreciation for earned expertise, combined with an attitude of critical self reflection and a desire to learn. Of course, not everyone who self identifies as a skeptic is going to be “right”, after all, Bill Nye was wrong about GMO’s (and still is wrong about philosophy), but at least he tries to maintain a proper skeptical outlook. Horgan’s talk reflects a common straw person of the skeptical movement; one which is used by cranks to convince their followers to believe in superstitious nonsense. That skeptics are mindless followers of science.

My main issue with Horgan’s talk, is that Horgan assumes that wanting to end war is obvious. If there is one thing I have learned as a skeptic, it is that very seldom is anything obvious. A lot of issues are complicated. Take, for example, the local food movement. Contrary to popular belief it is not always environmentally beneficial to buy your food locally. Why? Because water use, and soil efficiency, can often create more CO2 locally than the CO2 produced to have the food shipped from more efficient areas. However, sometimes that is really hard to calculate and figure out. People cling to catchy little slogans “eat local!”, “end war!”, but these sayings often try to simplify very complex realities with almost no benefit to actually solving the shared underlying issues.I sometimes have to defer to experts, given that I don’t have the time to do a deep dive on every aspect of the ecological impact of food production while at the same time keeping a steady job.But even then, it is often that when you become deeply familiar with a specific knowledge base that you become intimately aware with the fact that the world is far more complicated than it superficially seems. Only when you know a lot about one specific subject do you realize that there is so much more that you don’t know about it, and then you realize that everyone, in almost every field, has the exact same thought. It is amazing that we know anything, given how little we actually know.

Of course, most people, and most skeptics, would probably love to see an end to war, but we often disagree about the best ways to accomplish such tasks, given how complicated such tasks are. Furthermore, it is not clear what evidence exists to make such complex predictions. Almost no one predicted Donald Trump, and yet Horgan thinks we can somehow reach a consensus on the proper means of ending world wide conflict? Violence and war have been decreasing, but it is not clear what is causing these declines. Steven Pinker has catalogued a lot of interacting social and psychological factors which he thinks play a role in this decline, but his review is far from conclusive. That being said, Pinker is a skeptic, and he is addressing the issue that Horgan thinks that skeptics should address. Given that Horgan had the stage and an opportunity, why didn’t he provide any reasonable solutions to the problems he wishes that we would address (even though we are already addressing them)?

Lastly, Horgan’s distinguishing between soft and hard targets is simply silly. Homeopathy is a soft target? Then why are they a billion dollar industry? The fact that people are avoiding proven cancer treatments for sugar pills is an important issue which requires a movement to combat it. How do we expect to solve war when it is this difficult to convince ordinary, every day people, that homeopathy doesn’t work. The skeptics movement is important because we are on the pulse of why people believe weird things. Why we are motivated, not by the evidence, but by heuristics and biases which lead reasonable people to make unreasonable decisions. So called “soft targets” make these human faults salient, in order that we might learn from our mistakes. If we hope to end war, we should probably get to the bottom of why people believe in Bigfoot first. Horgan has his priorities backwards.

Anti-Vaccine Bingo: This Week, Epilepsy

An article has been making the rounds on the internet claiming there is a link between vaccines and epilepsy. This is outrageously false, but worth taking a deeper look. Mainly because this article highlights some key points which can be used to teach others how to skeptically read things on the internet.

The article’s first paragraph nicely highlights all that is wrong in what follows:

The rate of epilepsy among children and the elderly has been skyrocketing, with 1 in 20 children under five now suffering from the seizure condition in the United States. More and more parents say that vaccines triggered their children’s seizure disorders. The government maintains that while vaccines can trigger febrile (fever related) seizures, the many cases of epilepsy that begin immediately following infant vaccination are merely coincidental or were bound to occur eventually.

There are two main claims here, which i will dissect separately. The first claim is that epilepsy is skyrocketing. The second claim, which is a bit more complicated, involves the relationship between Doctors and parents, and their differing standards of evidence.

“Skyrocketing”: I Don’t Think It Means What You Think It Means

A rocket is something that goes from slow to fast at a fairly quick pace. In order for the analogy to work, something that skyrockets must dramatically change between two time points in roughly close proximity. For example, in places that do not vaccinate, measles can skyrocket. Where measles was almost eliminated in the United States, 113 cases were linked to the Disney Land outbreak last year, which spread due to low vaccination rates. Therefore, there was an environmental cause of the skyrocketing disease; a decrease in herd immunity.

To my surprise, with the 1 in 20 figure listed in the articles title, there was no mention of a preceding number. We can’t determine based on one number alone what the trend of diagnosis is. With a simple google search, no news was found indicating any trend in epilepsy cases. In fact, the only thing that came up, was the article itself!

Those two facts alone should be sufficient for an immediate quick skeptical read, but I decided to go a bit deeper into the research to see what I could learn about the prevalence of epilepsy. Epilepsy is highest in children younger than 5, which is what the 1 in 20 figure represents. However, kids younger than 17, have a prevalence between 6-10 in 1000, depending on which study you look at. These studies were mostly conducted in the mid 90’s, and as far as I can tell, none of them claim that this number is indicative of an increase in epilepsy, but simply a more robust accounting of its prevalence. Again, this leaves me wondering, how this author concluded epilepsy was skyrocketing?

Even more telling, in the study cited in the last paragraph, they acknowledge the difficulty in measuring childhood epilepsy. What they say is worth quoting in full:

Almost 40% of children in our study previously diagnosed with epilepsy/seizure disorder were not reported by parents to currently have the condition. Although these data could reflect a true remission of seizure activity, they could result from an initial “misdiagnosis” of epilepsy/seizure disorder, inclusion of some children with single febrile seizures, or variation in interpretations of the terms “current” versus “ever” having seizures.

If epilepsy is frequently misdiagnosed, so that the prevalence is probably lower than the 1 in 20 figure, then it doesn’t seem like the rocket has even been launched.

The Pitfalls of Patternicity: The Plural of Anecdote is NOT Data

Michael Shermer, in his book The Believing Brain, describes what he calls patternicity “…the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise”. Patternicity is not always bad, after all, our folk psychology, and folk physics, tend to lead us towards correct predictions some if not most of the time. However, our tendency to find patterns, even where none exist, can lead us into trouble. This is why we do science, and why we should approach anecdotes skeptically.

The main body of the article is basically a list of anecdotes, which are almost always useless in determining the causal relationship between an environmental stimulus and a disease or disorder. There are three main problems with the anecdotes provided; the problem of diagnosis, the differences in time between the supposed cause and its effect, and the problem of biased sampling.

Given the frequency of misdiagnosis as pointed out in the previous section, some cases of febrile seizures will be diagnosed as epilepsy. Febrile seizures are a possible side effect of vaccines, although they are relatively harmless they can be scary to witness as a parent. One of the anecdotes is as follows:

My daughter had her first seizure about 12 hours after her mmr shot at 12 months. When I contacted the administering gp we were told it was a normal reaction to the vaccination febrile seizure, and it will not happen again. from then on she started having myoclonic seizures where her eyes would roll for a split second. when i mentioned this to the GP they said, those will go away with time. Instead of going away they have increased in length and frequency.

Notice how the seizures changed? It is possible that the child had a febrile seizure initially, but then later developed epilepsy. This is portrayed as Doctor incompetence, but diagnosis can be complicated. Given that the symptoms of a febrile seizure and epileptic seizure can manifest themselves similarly, diagnosis is difficult. Notice as well that it seems like the patient self-diagnosed their child with myoclonic seizures.

Diagnosis is not simple, you can be misdiagnosed, you will tend to self-diagnose, and in the future your diagnosis could change. In fact, 70% of children outgrow their epilepsy. None of the anecdotes provided gave any indication of whether or not the epilepsy remained, improved, changed etc.

The times between the vaccine and the seizure differ from anecdote to anecdote. Some range between minutes after, to days after, to weeks after.

My son had his 1st seizure IN THE DOCTOR’S OFFICE 1-2 minutes after receiving two vaccinations. The seizures continued from that day forward.

My son is now 6 years old and has been having seizures since he had his first vaccine at 2 months of age. He had his first seizure about 36 hrs after his needle. He did not have any fever, actually has never had a febrile seizure ever, but has had a multitude of others.

My son has been having neurological problems, seizures, movements that doctors aren’t sure what to call, etc. since last May. He was a healthy 18 mos. old little boy and then 11 days after his checkup (vaccines) he vomited and had a 1+ hour seizure.

Even in the first anecdote, there is a gap in time between the first febrile seizure and the supposed myoclonic seizure. We are not told how long the myoclonic seizure occurred after the initial seizure. It could be that the child had both a febrile seizure that was vaccine related, but was also going to eventually develop epilepsy, the two having nothing to do with each other.

If vaccines do cause epilepsy, or autism, or anything, there should be some consistency between the onset of the problem and the supposed cause. Given that no mechanism has been provided, probably because no mechanism exists, people can just decide that their child’s seizure is vaccine related even when it occurs weeks after they received their shot.

There is also the concern of the ‘post hoc, ergo propter hoc’ fallacy, which is related to the oft quoted phrase, correlation does not equal causation. Just because something occurs after something else, does not mean that that something caused it. This is why scientists try to isolate potential causes in order to increase our confidence in the causal relationship. A simple anecdote is worthless, since it wasn’t isolated from the myriad of potential causes which make determining causation almost impossible. This is especially problematic in the field of health, since a lot of what goes on beneath the skin is hidden from us.

Finally, all these anecdotes were culled from a message board of an epilepsy foundation. In other words, this is a biased sample, from a population of worried people. A proper epidemiological study will look at the population at large, and given that there is no reason to suspect that epilepsy is increasing, such a study would most likely be a waste of time, energy, and resources.

All of which is why the Doctors are not worried of, or suspicious of, a link between vaccines and epilepsy. Notice the title of the article states that parents are questioning; not Doctors, not scientists. The parents see this as Doctors being dismissive, but really it is probably because most people don’t understand what consists of good evidence. Personal anecdote, no matter how compelling, is simply not good enough.

A Narrative Confusion

It is clear that the author of this piece is trying to create a narrative, especially considering the lengths she goes to avoid the obvious pieces of evidence sitting right in front of her. Notice the first sentence of the article:

The rate of epilepsy among children and the elderly has been skyrocketing, with 1 in 20 children under five now suffering from the seizure condition in the United States.

It took me awhile to see it, but when it finally struck me, it was so obvious what was going on. Why did she include the elderly in this first sentence? Think about it; if the article is claiming that childhood vaccines are causing an increase, a skyrocketing increase, in epilepsy, why is epilepsy skyrocketing in the elderly? A population which would really only be exposed to a single vaccine.

Notice how she also avoids the evidence that 70% of children outgrow their epilepsy:

Approximately 1 in 100 adults now has epilepsy in the United States, while 1 in 20 children under five years old are now believed to have the disorder.

How odd, that she would include the elderly as having skyrocketing epilepsy, acknowledge that adults do not, but then use that fact to bolster how frightening it is that more children have it. Odd, or clearly the case of someone trying to fit the evidence to their narrative. Funny, however, that the evidence so obviously does not fit her narrative that she can’t even succeed at contorting the evidence to make it work in her favour.

Conclusion

Vaccines don’t cause epilepsy. They don’t. Seriously, internet. Stop.

Cow Burps and Global Warming

One of the main motivations behind becoming vegan (or at least vegan-ish) was learning that cow flatulence is one of the main contributors, bigger than car exhaust even, to global warming. I came to this belief long before I had the ability, or the education necessary, to adequately assess the science. Now that my veganism is grounded in more ethical concerns, I have decided to reflect on some of my initial reasons to see if they conform to the science. This is not a ‘debunking’ post, since there does seem to be evidence on this issue, but the answer isn’t at all clear, and unpacking it can be a lesson in the complicated inter-connectivity of the human impact upon Earth’s climate.

Cow Burps: The Introduction of Methane into our Atmosphere

If I can debunk one thing, it isn’t cow farts, but their burps, which contribute the largest impact on the climate. Cows, which belong to the class of animals called ruminants, produce a large quantity of methane from bacteria which help to aid in digestion. I won’t cover exactly how methanogenesis works, but it is fascinating, and you could learn more about it here. What interests me is how this gas, once it is expelled, impacts the climate.

The first thing to note, which is integral to this issue, is that methane, in fact, is increasing in our atmosphere. From about 700 ppb pre-industrialization to about 1800 ppb today (2011), the highest concentration in 800, 000 years. However, there are several contributing anthropogenic factors, such as rice agriculture, landfills, natural gas, ecological conversion of forests into agricultural plots, the release of methane from glaciers and permafrost due to warming effects already anthropogenically caused, and of course, cow burps.

It is hard to put a number on how much of this atmospheric methane is directly caused by cows, this is due to the variability in the sources of methane release. Some estimates put cattle methane production at about 37% of all anthropogenic sources of methane in the atmosphere. Since cows can produce between 30-50 gallons of methane per day, depending on their diet, this number is difficult to quantify when assessing cattle’s long term impact on the climate.

Is Methane Worse than Carbon Dioxide?

Almost everything you read online tells you that methane is about 20-30 times worse as a green house gas compared to carbon dioxide. This figure is measured by GWP (global warming potential), which is a relative measure of the amount of heat trapped by a green house gas, compared to a similar weight of carbon dioxide. This can get complicated, given that methane has a shorter half life than carbon dioxide when it is in our atmosphere. In a 20 year window, methane can be 86 times worse, as a green house gas, compared to carbon. The 20-30 times figure is the difference in effect, compared to carbon dioxide over a 100 year period. The longer window you look at, the more methane’s GWP will decrease.

When compared to car exhaust, cow burps are worse in the immediate future, but not as bad as car exhaust in the long term. The take home message is that both are bad, but the relative risk between the two is not as simple to calculate.

Solutions

One solution is to modify the cows diet in order to decrease the amount of methane produced. Switching to crushed oilseeds reduced methane production in cattle by about 20%. Feed supplements have also been designed to reduce methane gas production in cows. Cows given a methane inhibitor decreased methane production by 30%. However, all of these are added costs into a system that would still add inputs into the climate system which impact warming.

In the end, I still think veganism, or at least a non-dairy, non-beef, diet is one of the best strategies towards reducing this greenhouse gas. This, of course, will not offset our climate impact completely. Any type of agriculture is going to have a release of greenhouse gases.So going off dairy and beef means calories created by other means, albeit with a substantially smaller impact.

Realistically, going completely off beef and dairy won’t be accepted by most people, so even a modest reduction in these products can have some sort of effect. The best solution is probably one that combines all three strategies. Change diet when the cost to do so is cheaper than supplementation. Supplement when changing diet is more expensive. All the while decreasing our consumption of cow related products.

Conclusion

I am not a climate scientist, nor a chemist, nor an agricultural ecologist. So, if any of the information here is inadequate please message me and I will update, fix, reform what I have written here to better suit the data.

Campbell’s Soup and the Ethics of Food Labeling

I have not blogged in some time, but I am back and here to stay. I hope to make weekly contributions here every Sunday, so stay on the edge of your seat!!!!

If you have read some of my other posts, you will know that I am not a huge fan of labeling foods which contain genetically engineered ingredients. In part because those labels are not that informative, but also because creating regulations for labeling, especially for something which is not informative, is a waste of tax payers money. Labeling itself is fine, such as including the names of allergens (milk, soy, wheat, etc.), or ingredients which could potentially harm a sub set of the population (such as phenylalanine), but labeling genetically engineered food is simply a bad idea.

The recent turn in this debate is a choice by Campbell’s Soup to include voluntary labels on their soup cans. These labels announce to the public that their soup indeed contains genetically engineered food, and they provide a link to an explanation of why it is safe to eat. Not only are they volunteering to do this, but they are also backing federal regulations, particularly in the United States, for all companies to submit to a federal standard of labeling genetically engineered products. I think this is a horrible idea, but I realize that the issue is complicated.

What Does a Label Mean?

Before I go into detail about why I think Campbell’s Soup is making a mistake, I am going to include a brief overview as to why labeling genetically engineered foods is pointless and problematic.

When a consumable product is being made, there are several stages of development all of which contain vast amounts of information. Obviously, all of this information is not something a consumer needs to know, such as the name of the person who unloaded the bananas off the truck at the grocery store from which you purchased them. Not only is this information not necessary to have, but labeling all of it would take up an inordinate amount of space. Also, this amount of information would create an informational overload, such that the information, in principle, would be unusable by the average consumer. What consumers should want is only that information which is relevant to have.

The problem, of course, is what information is it relevant for the consumer to have? There is going to be some disagreement here, given that there are a diverse range of needs, and beliefs about those needs, in the population at large.However, the consensus seems to be that we label foods based on the possible effects these products might have on those who consume them, and we only label those foods at the level which is useful. For example, labeling bananas with every chemical compound that make up a banana is not useful if the banana itself is safe to eat.

We have decided, as a society, to label the 8 ingredients which account for 90% of all food allergies, milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soy. We label these ingredients even when they are not necessarily in the product, (the ‘may contain’ label on food products is to alert the consumer that the product was either made in the same facility as, or made with the same equipment as, the allergen in question). We also label the basic nutritional facts, which are arguably necessary for maintaining adequate health (such as the quantity of sugar). Lastly, we label the specific ingredients which go into making a product (with some exceptions such as specific flavourings), so that those who have a rare disorder can still make sure that nothing in the food is going to have a negative effect on their health.

What Kind of Information Would Be Contained in a GMO or GE Label?

Labeling something a fruit is not useful to a consumer, since it does not tell you about the specific effects of each individual fruit. Similarly, with a blanket GMO or GE label, the labeling tells you absolutely nothing about what the food is possibly going to do to you. Even if genetically engineered corn caused tumors, which it absolutely does not, blanket labels would cover other fruits and veggies too, such as Bt brinjal, which likely would not have the same effects.

If the end product of a genetically engineered plant was actually harmful, it wouldn’t be the fact that it was genetically altered that would have the effect. After all, it is not likely that genes survive, or have any effect, when they are consumed. What would have the effect is the possible allergens created by the product, and the possible introduction of specific chemical compounds which are detrimental to human health. Of course, not all chemicals are harmful, and it is the dose that matters, but it is possible, though not likely, that engineering a crop could introduce a large quantity of chemical compounds which are indeed detrimental to human health.

The issue, is that these kind of harmful changes would be easily detected, and can be screened before the crops make it to the super market. This problem is also not specific to GE crops, since all foods, regardless of how they are manipulated (natural selection, artificial selection, mutagenesis, etc.), undergo genetic alterations. So again, what information is a GMO or GE label providing? It seems, when it comes to human health, all that needs to be labeled are those foods which have a specific effect on human health, since GMO or GE food labels lack the specificity required, it is not clear how they could be helpful in this regard.

Labeling the Process

The only reasonable position left to adopt is that the process itself is what should be labeled, such that the process has negative environmental consequences. The only problem with this line of argument is that the process isn’t any more worrying, and possibly less worrying, than some of our more frequently used breeding technologies. It is also interesting to consider that there is no ground swell of activism in favour of labeling mutagenic crops. In other words, shouldn’t all food be labeled regarding the processes in which they were made so that every consumer can make an informed environmentally friendly purchase?

If it were that simple those labels would probably already exist. Even organic labels fail to adequately capture the environmentally friendly effects of the products which are special enough to have such a designation. It is possible that different processes, have different effects, in different contexts (and environments). Which means that the label itself does little to inform the consumer about the environmental impact of the product.

Better yet, instead of labeling campaigns, why not advocate for better environment regulation, so that it removes, from the consumer, the choice to buy more damaging products in the first place? Governments already try to regulate pesticide use by what is known as Integrated Pest Management. This is a way of using the right amount of pesticides as to keep pesticide levels in the environment at a sustainable level, while also trying to improve yields and decrease mutation rates in pest species. This is a fine balance that is going to differ for each region, crop and pesticide used. Genetically engineered food helps in this case, since the use of genetically engineered foods has reduced the amount of pesticides needed, thus decreasing negative environmental effects.

If the health and environmental reasons for labeling are both non-existent, then why label? Labeling seems to be a way of manipulating the public, and this manipulation can either have good or bad intentions.

Campbell’s Decision

First, I will start by at least highlighting some good points. The labels direct customers to a website called What Is In My Food. The website does a good job of describing the ingredients in the food, and does so while explaining why they are used. At the bottom of each page the company has an addendum about genetically modified (though I prefer engineered) food, which acknowledges their safety record,

In America, approximately 90% of all canola, corn, soybean and sugar beet crops are grown from genetically modified seeds. Farmers have been using these seeds for more than 20 years as they are safe, reduce costs and improve yields.

They then go on to list the ingredients in the particular product which have these specific ingredients. All of which is perfectly reasonable, and I think it is well within the companies power to make such information available to the public.

However, in their press release they also stated:

Campbell is making several key changes to its recipes and outlined plans to increase its organic offerings.

Based on feedback from parents, the company will simplify the recipes of existing condensed soups for kids, removing ingredients such as added MSG and continuing to make the soup with no preservatives, no artificial colors and no artificial flavors. The first updated range of kids soups is expected to hit U.S. shelves in August.

In other words, Campbell’s is not making a science based decision, but a marketing decision. Which is sad, given that they just said that GMO’s are perfectly safe! They are basically saying, even though genetic engineering is safe, we are going to sell our more blatantly anti-scientific customers a highly price gouged, more environmentally damaging product.

Here is where I think the big problem lies, who are Campbell’s trying to accommodate here? All those who could care less what process was used to breed the crops used in Campbell’s canned soup, will continue to eat it and not care. All those who erroneously believe organic is better are still going to perceive Campbell’s as a large evil corporation that is destroying the world and our health. By stating both that GMO’s are safe, while simultaneously increasing organic offerings, is basically Campbell’s Soup attempting to have their cake and eat it too, and I don’t think anyone is going to buy it.

Some think it is better to encourage mandatory labeling than to have governments outright ban genetically engineered food, but I don’t think this is a fair description of what is going on. The activists don’t seem to be pushing for a ban, what they are pushing for is labeling, and they assume that once labeling is in place companies will see customers leave and therefore they will stop using GMO’s in order to keep customers. Some pro-GMO activists think that mandatory labeling will make it blatantly obvious to the public at large that over 80% of the foods they eat contain genetically engineered foods, and thus they will simply accept it as a fact and not care. I would love to see how Campbell’s decision will affect their bottom line, given that only 37% of people, compared to 88% of scientists, think genetically engineered food is safe.

This decision, as any decision made by a large corporation, is a marketing decision, and we will have to wait and see whether it pays off. Many companies see labeling as inevitable and are worried that it is going to be mandated state by state. A federal standard would be far more cost effective.

The move to organic foods is another indication that this decision is not in the worlds favour, but in the companies, since it seems to be an indication not of sound science, but of public taste. As this Huff Po article highlights

Campbell Soup CEO Denise Morrison has been outspoken about the need for big food makers to adapt to changing tastes. The company, based in Camden, N.J., has been diversifying its packaged food lineup with offerings that are seen as fresher.

Being seen as fresh, perceived as healthy, branded as environmentally friendly etc. etc. etc. The consumer is left more confused. If the food is safe, why the shift in tastes? Why remove MSG if it is safe? Why remove artificial flavours if they are safe? Why remove preservatives if they are safe? BECAUSE THIS HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH FOOD SAFETY.

What About Choice?

Choice is overrated, just ask psychologist Barry Schwartz. I don’t think choice is what is needed here; the outcomes, health and environmental safety, are probably far too serious to be left to the whims of consumer choice. If genetic engineering is bad, it shouldn’t be used. The decision should not be made by consumers, but by an appropriate regulatory body which has the requisite knowledge base to make appropriate decisions regarding food. Which is the ironic thing about this whole issue, most people against GMO’s don’t think the government, or the scientists, have our best interests in mind. This is why they harass public scientists, and espouse libertarian ideals.

We don’t need more choice, what we need is proper, scientifically informed, regulation. Food safety should not be left in the hands of consumers, given that health and environmental safety are essentials to living a good life. Companies, understandably, will not rally behind increased government regulations to maintain food standards, but we have the institutions already in place to make those standards better. The fight for labeling, and the manipulation of labels by companies, is only going to confuse the public more on this very important issue. It is time to stand up for science.

GMO Labeling is Anti-Scientific

No one wants their views to be labeled as anti-scientific. That is why those who hold anti-scientific view points try so hard to shield themselves from this accusation. A good example of this is David Gorski’s long running blog series about the anti-vaccine movements consistent denial that they are, in fact, anti-vaccine. In this post I will address a similar claim made by those who are critical of the scientific consensus surrounding genetically engineered foods, focusing on an article written by philosopher Roberta Millstein, titled, “GMOs? Not So Fast”. In this article, she argues that those who are critical of GMOs are not necessarily anti-science, and that the problem instead involves values. Although she holds more reasonable positions than some of her more flagrant anti-science compatriots (I’m looking at you Natural News), her position still should be characterized as anti-scientific.

Framing the Debate

Millstein begins her article by framing the GMO debate in the context of labeling. Proponents of labeling argue that the consumer has a right-to-know how their food is made. In contrast, she claims that many scientists are against labeling because it is anti-scientific. Right from the start, I think this is a straw-man of the actual views held by scientists who are against labeling, although this will become more clear when we reach the core of her argument.

Millstein’s description of what GMOs are, is fairly accurate. What has come to be called Genetically Modified Organisms, is a process in which a gene is transferred from one individual or species into another. That gene is then expressed in the newly created plant, leading to the various desired traits that are currently used by biotechnologists. Millstein is right to point out that most of the crops you will find in the market that are genetically modified have been engineered in various ways to combat pests, whether they be other plants or insects. However, when she frames why these traits have been selected, she states, “Biotech companies claim that modifications like these will increase crop yields, save farmers time and money, and reduce the use of pesticides and herbicides.” Notice the use of Biotech companies, as opposed to stating that these positions are advocated by scientists. Both independent scientists and Biotech companies think this technology is effective at increasing yields, saving money and lowering the use of pesticides, but by framing it in the context of Biotech companies Millstein is shaping the narrative, whether intentionally or not.

She also briefly touches upon other types of GMO crops, such as biofortified vitamin A rice (golden rice), as well as disease resistant papayas and oranges. All of which are the products of independent groups. In the case of golden rice it is given away for free. None of these facts were addressed by Millstein, and they reflect her anti-corporate bias when assessing the pros and cons of GMOs. Being against corporate involvement with biotechnology says little about the actual effects of biotechnology in general, yet that seems to be the main focus of those who claim to be critical of GMOs. This corporate aspect of biotechnology continues to pop up through out her paper, and will be further addressed through out my criticism.

Science is Full of Values

The main bulk of Millstein’s paper is a list of six problems with the claim that GMO critics are anti-scientific. The first three points are basically the same, that science is value laden. This itself is not controversial, especially given the history of the philosophy of science during the 20th century. This means, according to Millstein, that critics of GMOs might not be necessarily criticizing data, but instead are criticizing certain values in relation to GMOs, such as a consumers right-to-know. Science can tell us what is in something, and can give us reasonable evidence of the safety of something, but cannot tell us what our rights are. I agree with this, GMO science is not value free, but is motivated by the values of safety, for the environment and health, and for economics, which could potentially benefit both farmers and large corporations.

This is why I think her view is a straw-man, because it unfairly portrays the pro-GMO scientist as someone who disregards other peoples values. Health, the environment, and probably certain aspects of economic growth, would be values shared by both sides of the GMO debate. The problem is that both sides disagree about the science, which is why the anti-science claim is relevant and not being misapplied. Millstein also fails to give evidence or examples of this phenomenon, which is interesting, considering it is the main thesis of her article.

Why Anti-GMO is Anti-Science

The last three problems listed by Millstein, are the exact reasons why those critical of GMOs are, in fact, anti-science. Problem number four states, “There really is something biologically new about GMOs”. She points out, that those who are pro-GMO claim that “farmers have been genetically modifying foods for centuries”, and she reasonably points out that this is misleading. However, in describing modern agricultural practices, Millstein only mentions selective breeding and hybridization, which is also misleading since it leaves out the conventionally used process of mutagenesis. She also mentioned that gene transfer technology can take genes from different species (say from a pig to an orange), which is also true, but misleading. Nature does not discriminate based on where the genes come from. In fact, we share various genes between a large spectrum of species, and everything seems to be working out just fine. The worry of this kind of gene transfer, according to Millstein, is that it will result in an increase of unintended genetic effects, and she cites a 2004 National Research Council book on assessing the unintended effects of genetically engineered food to support this claim.

I don’t know why Millstein neglected to talk about mutagenesis, but it’s omission is interesting considering the argument she is making. There is no movement to label food produced by mutagenesis, at least not one that has the same kind of national support as GMO labeling (I certainly haven’t heard of one). Yet the process of mutagenesis, which haphazardly creates new genetic strains by exposing plants to radiation should be far more concerning than GMOs. At least with GMOs, we are specifically selecting traits, which then we can monitor for their effects. With food produced through plants exposed to mutagenesis, no testing is necessary before the product hits the shelf.

Now, I am not worried about plants being produced through mutagenesis, but according to the science that Millstein herself provides, the 2004 book by the National Research Council, mutagenesis is far worse when it comes to unintended genetic effects. So, given that Millstein thinks GMOs are inherently risky, due to their unintended effects, why is there a lack of condemnation of mutagenesis? Whether in her paper or in the wider public? We have been using mutagenesis for much longer (since the 1920’s), so if there were negative effects due to this process I imagine they would have surfaced already. And considering that mutagenesis is inherently more risky than GMO breeding, by Millstein’s own arguments, what does that say about the scientific literacy of those who still claim we should be concerned about one and not the other?

Another omission by Millstein is that, contrary to those against GMOs, gene transfer does, in fact, readily occur in nature. With no intervention by humans at all, gene transfer occurs between species, usually carried out by viruses or bacterium. Scientists are essentially doing the same thing with GMOs, which is why they view the procedure as relatively safe. The fact that genes are jumping species all through out nature has not led to all the health or environmental catastrophes predicted by the anti-GMO movement. So why assume that now that we are artificially doing it, things will be much worse?

To her credit, Millstein does point out that a lot of anti-GMO activists are wrong to be against GMOs because they are “unnatural”, but she still thinks that the process of gene transfer gives us reason for concern. In the same 2004 book cited earlier by Millstein, bacterial gene transfer is listed just below artificial gene transfer, and both are listed below mutagenesis. So, no, there is nothing really biologically “new” about GMOs, and no reason to fear it above and beyond the conventional processes we already use.

The Plague of Conspiratorial Ideation

Problem five proclaims that safety data is not as good as those, who are pro-GMO, claim it to be. Most of Millstein’s argument is to portray the government regulatory bodies in charge of food safety as being inept or corrupt. It is true that there is no rule mandating specific testing for GMOs, yet no GMO has been approved by the FDA without a significant amount of testing. This also paints the research with a narrow brush, since several of these studies have been done at reputable institutions with independent scientists. You can always claim that not enough time has passed, or more research is needed, but there is no evidence to suspect major health complications, and a lot of evidence suggesting there has been none so far.

Shill and conspiracy claims are leveled by most anti-science advocates, and Millstein’s argument tends in this direction, while not overtly stating it. She instead tries to paint a picture of all the research being highly disputed and weak at best, or lacking oversight, which allows for nefarious corporate meddling. But, if the data were that weak, how does it explain the scientific consensus over the safety of GMO crops? Does Millstein have information that the relevant scientists don’t? Are they too corrupted to see their own flawed literature, requiring outside help from anti-GMO crusaders?

I often find it sad, and slightly ironic, that those who continuously preach in favour of the scientific consensus over antropogenic global warming fail to appreciate the consensus formed around the safety of GMO crops. Somehow Monsanto succeeded at corrupting academia when it comes to agricultural science, yet poor Exxon couldn’t expend enough funds to warp the morality of those climate scientists! If there is a good reason for why Monsanto succeeded where Exxon failed, I have yet to hear it, and I would bet it doesn’t exist. This failure at bridging the gap between respect for the climate consensus and the scientific consensus supporting GMOs among environmental activists is elegantly explained by ex-anti-GMO activist Mark Lynas, and I highly recommend his speech on the subject.

Millstein argues that those who are anti-GMO should be treated different than those who deny evolution, or reject the science of anthropogenic global warming, because each case is different, and have different reasons for being doubted. However, there is a common thread in all these anti arguments, in that they first try to discredit an entire field in the face of a strong consensus by claiming that the research available is weak, then they cherry pick the field for bad studies, or studies which contradict the consensus. The last move is to claim some sort of large conspiracy involving either a political or corporate force or both!

I see no reason to think that Millstein’s argument is any different on this front. I see the growing consensus between independent and corporate scientists for the safety and efficacy of GMO crops to be quite compelling, but obviously Millstein does not. And beyond slamming my fists against the table and repeating this fact over and over again, I doubt Millstein will be convinced.

Even if we were to dismiss the safety studies, due to possible regulatory incompetence or direct corrupt manipulation, there still has not been one iota of data to suggest that GMOs are harmful. There is also no reason to expect that GMOs are risky for human health, and no mechanism is provided by Millstein or other critics to explain how this harm could occur. Allergens are often raised as the number one concern, but this harm, if it exists, would not be an unknown. When it comes to allergens, what matters is what material gets expressed by the genes. There is nothing inherently risky about eating DNA, your body destroys it when you eat it. However, an allergen is the product of gene expression, and we can detect those in the final product. If, for example, we insert a gene into corn which expresses the same allergen that people react to who have peanut allergies, we would be able to detect this before a crop comes to market. No company will ever make crops that, for example, contain large amounts of cyanide which kill people after consumption. What economic benefit do companies gain when all their customers are dead? These are also problems which could occur during conventional practices such as mutagenesis, and are therefore not specific to GMOs, but even if they were to occur in GMOs there is no reason to think we will miss them in our research. So until a mechanism is proposed which represents a specific threat from GMOs I think it is safe to side with the scientific consensus that GMOs are safe.

Of course nothing can be 100% perfectly safe, as Millstein herself points out, but how high does the threshold need to be, and why should we hold GMOs to a harsher standard? She may argue that she values a higher threshold than the scientists, but she would probably run into some inconsistencies if she maintains this line of argumentation.

Millstein then proceeds to undermine her own argument by proclaiming that not all GMOs are the same, which not only makes labeling difficult (if not impossible), but also would mean that conventional breeding is also risky by the same argument. If we shouldn’t treat all GMOs as one super group, why is there a double standard when it comes to conventionally bred crops? Why is there no call to test every new genetic variation, regardless of how it is created? Millstein gives no answer here, and her silence is telling.

Contexts are Important, but so are Facts

Her final problem with GMO crops involves the environment, and her argument suffers from similar issues found in problem five. Most of the things she finds problematic with GMOs and their environmental impact are not specific to GMOs. Weed and insect resistance to pesticides is an agricultural problem not just a GMO problem. She also raises concern about gene flow, but if the genes in GMO products are not themselves worrisome, why is GMO gene flow worse than non-GMO gene flow?

She also raises concerns about impacted species. Glyphosate, which is used on some GMO crops, kills milkweed which is eaten by monarch butterflies, thus glyphosate use is contributing to the death of monarch butterflies. But again, what does this have to do with GMOs? Agriculture, no matter how it is practiced, impacts the environment. There are also ways to alleviate the monarch issue without discontinuing the use of GMO crops by, for example, providing land devoted to milkweed.

Part of Millstein’s argument seems to be that labeling products as GMO will help people in choosing the foods that don’t have such a negative impact, but if we stop using glyphosate resistant crops, what other crops will we be using? It is not like we would just throw are hands up and cease using pesticides. It is true that there may be negative consequences of pesticide use, but the consequences of not using pesticides, or using older and worse pesticides, needs to be considered as well. But again! What does this have to do with GMOs?

Millstein’s final objection is that even if you say these practices are not inherent to GMOs themselves (which I have been saying in the last three paragraphs), but part of a bad cultural context, such as introducing GMOs, without proper instructions to farmers in India, leading to economic complications. Then refusing to eat GMOs, by properly labeling the food, could improve the situation. She explains that we are stuck with the context we are in, and we have to make real world decisions based on those contexts.

Sure, context matters, but if GMOs are irrelevant, they are… irrelevant. I fail to see how boycotting GMOs in this particular situation would have solved anything, especially since they were not the problem. The problem was human mismanagement. Merely saying, “context matters” gets us nowhere. For starters, I am not yet convinced the context is that dire. Secondly, if one GMO company mismanaged GMO implementation in one region, is that really indicative of a larger problem specifically related to GMOs? But if we should treat this claim seriously, how is labeling going to help? Considering her own position that GMOs should all be treated differently, how does a consumer assess whether or not this particular GMO product is part of the harmful context based on the GMO label? Especially considering that most of the negative implications (if there even are negative implications) of GMOs that she raises are against strains created by agricultural companies? What effect would this have on the papaya, and the various economic communities which depend on its production? And, yet again, what types of practices do we use in their place? It is not clear that there are better alternatives. Those praised by Millstein, such as rice root intensification, have their own problems and have not been widely adopted. So yes, context does matter,  it just doesn’t support the anti-GMO position.

A lot of the studies Millstein refers to have been thoroughly debunked elsewhere. No, neonicotinoids are not as easily problematic for the bees, it is far more complicated. No, 250,000 Indian farmers have not committed suicide because of GMO crops. Like the consistent chants of evolution deniers for missing links, these readily available anti-GMO retorts will constantly rear their ugly heads.They will continue to deny that these studies are discredited and the scientific community will continue to bash its head against the table. CONSENSUS! CONSENSUS!!!!

Conclusion

Which brings us back to the core of her argument, that straw-man from the very beginning, that the pro-GMO scientist is someone who disregards other peoples values. In reality, they are actually against labeling because the information is useless to the consumer, which is a value that happens to be supported by the science. There is no reason to treat all GMOs the same. GMO labeling tells you absolutely nothing about the crops safety or environmental impact, since it only informs you about the process in which it was created and not about why it is specifically harmful. A gene, whether produced artificially through gene transfer or whether produced through plant hybridization or even mutagenesis or any other conventional practice of plant breeding will behave no differently when it is expressed. Mutagenesis, which is the process of breeding biotechnologists will continue to use if GMO sales decrease is arguably a riskier breeding process, even by Millstein’s own standards, yet is not labeled.

Should consumers have a right-to-know? How far should this right extend? Should we begin labeling every naturally occurring chemical compound that occurs in our produce, even if they are viewed negatively by the public? Such as pears, grapes, bananas, cauliflowers, potatoes, cabbages and apples, which contain formaldehyde? Or the fact that coffee is possibly carcinogenic? Is overloading the consumer with information all that psychologically feasible? Do we really want to spend money on regulatory boards for labels which are useless? If labeling creates a market for even worse foods, for the environment and our health, is that not a context worth being worried about? Don’t we all want a healthy more environmentally friendly world to live in?

So, to straw-man scientists as being ignorant of their own value laden conclusions, ignores the fact that the values at issue are shared by both pro-GMO and anti-GMO advocates, the only difference is that the science is on the pro-GMO side, and that is why the anti-GMO position is anti-scientific.

I also recommend Jon Entine’s companion piece to Roberta Millstein’s article found in the same journal, which covers a lot of the issues I raised here and more.