Forces of antiscience

posted in: Science | 15

During the Changemakers contest, several parallels came up between the people who have extreme anti-genetic engineering views, and several other flavors of antiscience. Comments on PZ Myers’ blog compared the often religious-like responses of certain groups to the technology, and indeed the ludicrous reaction of GM Watch in particular, to creationist tactics against evolutionary biology. On the other hand, on Orac’s medical blog, he made the comparison between those groups and the Alternative Medicine crowd, including and especially the Anti-vaccination groups. It is fascinating to note that politically, the creationist version of antiscience is conservative, and the anti-vax version is generally liberal. But they share a commonality in that science is rejected as the best means of obtaining knowledge, and something else, be it political or religious ideology takes its place and dictates the facts.

I thought it would be a good idea to write a post detailing several of them, and then Steve Savage at Sustainablog went and did it for me. Check out The Bizarre, Modern Coalition of Anti-Science Forces. He didn’t cover every kind, but he delves into several of them including anti-GE forces, anti-global warming activities, and the antiscience-of-the-year, it seems, Anti-vaccination. In the comments section a reader confirms exactly what he is talking about.

In the blog discussions that ensued while the voting went on, a few fights broke out over one issue or another, but a very strong sentiment was expressed by several people – they had some reservations about one aspect of genetic engineering or another, and felt that the accusations of ‘antiscience’ were unfairly being applied to them. Perhaps there was a bit of miscommunication going on.

To be antiscience on a particular topic, for one reason or another you reject solid knowledge derived through the scientific method in favor of some other satisfying belief. Saying that “scientists were wrong once on nutrition so I shouldn’t believe what they say now,” is an antiscience sentiment. A person who says this clearly expresses that they believe that they have just as much of a chance of being right or wrong if they ignore the science as if they listen to it.

Saying that “I have concerns about the social impact of this technology, or about intellectual property rights issues” is not an antiscience sentiment. It is a statement about values and their concern for how those play out in an issue. Nor is having a disagreement about a particular scientific detail necessarily a mark of antiscience. Certainly, not everyone who doesn’t like genetic engineering is antiscience – but some people are.

In practice, sometimes it can be hard to distinguish antiscience from other concerns about science. What do we make of someone that argues that we don’t know enough about the long-term consequences of say, GE crops, to consider them safe to eat? How much is enough? Do they have a clear idea of how much that will be and will put that on the table to be convinced, or each time a more detailed study comes out will they move the goalposts even further?

How about this one. Recently, Greenpeace India campaigned for Nestle to promise never to have GE ingredients in their products in India. On the FAQ page of safefoodnow, a Greenpeace campaign site, they made this claim:

Greenpeace believes that GM food cannot be introduced until every stringent scientific test has established that they are 100% safe.

This is at the very least an unscientific statement. If there is one thing to know about science it is that it NEVER deals with 100% certainty: science deals with data from which we calculate statistics and form conclusions. No scientific study ever finds that something is 100% anything, so what they are effectively saying here is that science must prove something that in essence it cannot. Does this reveal an antiscience position? I am reminded of creationists that often say there must be one more transitional fossil before they accept evolution, only to ask for further more when one is discovered.

You could go to their FAQ page to read this statement in its context, but after I quoted it in a discussion at Genetic Maize, this telling statement disappeared from the Greenpeace site. Thanks to the Ecology to Economics blog for copying the entire thing, and I will reproduce it here so it won’t disappear down the memory hole again.

So what do you want me to do?
On August 2009, Greenpeace India wrote to about 20 major food companies in the country and asked them to declare their stand on GMs publicly. While some of them had a policy on GMs such as MTR, the others did not even reply to us! We have collated all this information for you and put it together in our safe food guide. You can find it at www.safefoodnow.org. It will give you a quick snapshot of the GE free food brands in this country. You can even download it from our site and print it to take it along with you the next time you go grocery shopping. You will also find detailed information and other resources on this site. You have every right as a consumer to ask all then companies to declare what they are putting in your food.
And what about Nestle?
Global food giant Nestle India, wrote back to Greenpeace saying that they are in favor of using GM technology in food! Greenpeace believes that GM food cannot be introduced until every stringent scientific test has established that they are 100% safe. Second, it should be completely the choice of the person who eats it to know what they are eating and to reject GE products if they want to. Therefore, we are running a campaign right now urging Nestle India to initiate, formulate and strictly enforce a GM free policy in this country.
You cannot become a lab rat for these experiments in food!

I have also just found a textbook example of antiscience with regard to genetic engineering. In an article titled, Why Do GM Scientists Lie? by Devinder Sharma, he suggests that there is a global network of ‘liars’ known as, well, scientists.

Every time I meet an agricultural scientist, especially those who are engaged in Genetic Engineering, I am shocked at the blatant manner in which they lie. They are not even remotely ashamed of telling a lie, although they know they are not speaking the truth.

I thought telling a lying was a prerogative of the agricultural scientists alone. But over the past few years I am noticing that molecular geneticists, whether they work for the Royal Society in London or Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi or even the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, have picked up the art (or should I say science) of lying, and that too right through their nose.

Genetic Engineering has surely come of age. It has become synomenous with lying.

Questioning the integrity of individual scientists is one thing, but now he is questioning the whole scientific enterprise. My humble suggestion is that maybe – just maybe – if the information being provided by agricultural scientists across the world does not square up with your personal beliefs, that perhaps your personal beliefs are wrong. A consensus amongst scientists about solutions to global food issues is a lot more parsimonious than assuming a global consensus of lying scientists!

It is not just agricultural scientists that are his target, he really does mean science as a whole.  After spending some time misreading the Royal Society, he lays down the punchline:

I am so glad my children did not pick up science in their graduation.

This is little different from what we might hear from a young-earth creationist, or an “Al Gore is in on the climate conspiracy” global warming denier. When science is seen as a threat to something you hold to be true, the choice is often to attack science itself as the enemy.

Not everyone who is skeptical of genetic engineering is antiscience, nor are they necessarily anti-technology. Nor is someone who is in favor of it necessarily pro-science or pro-technology. Many just have not spent the time understanding the science in its proper context, and still more have issues not with the science but with the social, economic, or philosophical implications of it.

In what forms have you seen antiscience in the debate over geneic engineering? What other common patterns do you see between its different forms? Or does the antiscience label instead apply to very few of the partisans and should be used very sparingly in this discussion because it alienates moderates? On the other hand, we know that real antiscience beliefs influence people, so would ignoring their existence be even worse?

Follow Karl Haro von Mogel:
Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He recently moved back to his home state of California. His favorite produce might just be squash.