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Monday, July 20, 2015

It’s Even MORE Complicated AND Scarier Than You Thought

General Introduction:

It always surprises me when otherwise intelligent people undercut their own arguments by resorting to easy, sleazy informal fallacies, such as slapping a label on an opponent (e.g., liberal, conservative, libertarian) and thinking that constitutes an argument. Or outright name-calling (e.g., Luddite, elitist, extremist)– even worse.

An initial response of anger or disgust on hearing or reading something personally upsetting, I understand. I have those emotional responses, too. I feel I’ve been attacked – or, worse, ignored, unseen. But I’m not looking to get into a brawl with anyone. My hope is to present my own view so reasonably that my opposition will have no choice but to consider it.

I did not always hold the political views today. My positions on a few issues were different when I was younger. Not on everything but on some important matters, I have changed my mind over the years. People who disagree with me are not villains or morons. I do – I must – believe in reason, but I don’t believe in using reason as a bludgeon, its blows delivered with sarcasm and disdain.

Why I Bring It Up Again Today:

A recent article in an online magazine decried alarm from a segment of the public over genetically modified food products, suggesting (none too subtly) that genetic modification is too complicated for Americans not trained in science to begin to understand. So as not to seem completely patronizing or dismissive of concerns, however, the author went on to present cases where adoption of a GM alternative had (1) solved a problem posed by the previous unmodified version of the plant and (2) presented no health danger to the public.
If you’re like me, you don’t really want to wade into this issue. It’s too big, technical, and confusing. But come with me, just this once. I want to take you backstage, behind those blanket assurances about the safety of genetic engineering. I want to take you down into the details of four GMO fights, because that’s where you’ll find truth. You’ll come to the last curtain, the one that hides the reality of the anti-GMO movement. And you’ll see what’s behind it.
The reasonable-sounding, measured language above gives way later in the article, where the author calls opponents of genetic modification “Luddites,” “ quacks,” and “pseudo-environmentalists waging a leftist war on science.” It’s surprising that someone claiming the scientific high ground in defense of GMOs would stoop to name-calling, one of the most common uneducated informal fallacies. A strong argument need not insult opponents, and insulting anyone is the surest way to fail to persuade. Perhaps the writer hopes to intimidate and shame? Or simply raise cheers from those who already agree with him? Is his case weak, or simply his rhetoric? You can read and decide for yourself. He failed to persuade me.

Full disclosure: As will not surprise anyone who knows me, I am not a laboratory scientist. Not any kind of scientist at all. The last university math and science classes I had, very low-level, were as an undergraduate. My chief focus as an undergrad and nearly exclusive focus as a graduate student was in philosophy. If you never studied philosophy or only took one philosophy class, you may be tempted to joke about angels dancing on the head of a pin (how many can?) or trees falling in a forest when no one is there to hear them fall (is there a sound made?).

But the main business of philosophy, from cut-and-dried logic to way-out-there criticism is (a) to investigate the world and human thought and action, (b) to formulate arguments to make cases for stating claims about world and/or thought and/or actions and consequences, and (c) to analyze and critique claims and arguments made by others. This is not some idle, esoteric game. It is, in fact, a generalized, thought-experiment form of the scientific method itself.

Researchers in laboratories, medical researchers in the field, botanists, agronomists, farmers, courtroom lawyers, corporate attorneys, and men and women in every field of life, every day, are engaged in some version of this process. Differences in conclusions depend on starting points, knowledge, rigor of reasoning -- also, crucially, on background assumptions (almost always unstated and very often unrecognized); limits of the investigation; and wide implications attached to narrower legitimate conclusions.

An argument is presented to persuade. There is nothing “scientific” about falling down in awe of an argument presented in the majestic robes of “science,” and there is nothing rational about being persuaded without examining an argument.

Good science has no need to hide behind a curtain.

The author says the issue of genetic modification is “big, technical and confusing.” Unfortunately, despite promising to shed light, he cherry-picks facts and oversimplifies the issues. The truth is much, much more complicated than he would have us believe -- not because of shadowy conspiracies of science-phobic Luddites the author imagines "behind" opposition to GMOs but because of the limitations of scientific research and the holistic nature of both agriculture and health.

A farmer friend who is always open to new organic methods -- both because reducing chemical inputs means more money in his pocket if an organic experiment is successful (i.e., produces a crop as good or better than would conventional methods) and because he takes seriously his role as steward of the land, and he cares about growing nutritious, good-tasting, safe food in a sustainable manner – is often frustrated by his inability to control experiments and quantify results. Scientists commonly study plants grown in greenhouses, in sterilized “soil,” under controlled conditions. Or animals raised in laboratories and fed measured amounts of food and drugs that has been subjected to careful chemical analysis.

That isn’t farming.

Weather affects crops. Variations in soil play a role. What has grown or been raised on the land in previous years? What about the health of pollinators in the vicinity? And that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the complex, interconnected, very real physical world of nature and what we do with it and to it.

The online author writes that GMO opponents do not worry about toxic chemicals used to grow food, that they should worry about poisons instead of GMOs. Where did he get such an idea? Who are these people who worry about one and not the other?

Clearly, the writer wants to frame a debate in which one must choose either genetically modified crops or heavy doses of agricultural chemicals., but this is an egregious false dilemma. (Note: another fallacy in reasoning.) Roundup-ready seeds genetically modified to be immune to herbicides have triggered speeded-up evolution of weeds, necessitating increased applications of chemicals to the fields, so it is not a case of choosing either genetic modification or chemicals: if you choose the GM seeds, you have also chosen the chemicals, in ever-increasing doses. Roundup has been used for forty years, he reminds us. Not, I would point out, at levels of application we are seeing today. A short history of weed control, including Roundup and its consequences, can be found hereThe increase in tons applied over the last decade is astronomical.

Only in recent years has the place of mycorrhizal fungi in the production of humus even begun to get scientific attention. Australian soil ecologist Dr. Christine Jones, in an interview in the March 2015 issue of AcresUSA, discusses the carbon cycle and the nitrogen cycle as these are played out in the soil, the breaking-down process in compost, the building-up in formation of humus. Soil testing, long the gold standard to determine soil health, Jones says,
will only tell you what is available to plants by passive uptake. The other 97 percent of minerals – made available by microbes – will not show up on a standard test.
The kicker is that if the necessary microbes are present, minerals and trace elements not even present in fertilizers will be available to crops, but cultivation and chemical fertilizers and pesticides destroy the mycorrhizal networks. With graduate degrees (albeit in philosophy) from the University of Illinois, I was happy to see Jones referencing that university’s Morrow Plots, “the oldest continuously cropped experimental fields in the United States.” Beginning in 1955, U of I scientists began applying nitrogen and testing the soil:
They discovered that the fields that had received the highest applications of nitrogen fertilizer had ended up with less soil carbon – and ironically less nitrogen – than the other fields.
Hardly the result a fertilizer producer would be anxious to publicize. Then comes increasing soil compaction, loss of water-holding capability, more demand for irrigation, and increased soil erosion....

Also, nutrients present in food are not automatically available to those consuming it, either. Certain chemicals added to crops can bond two minerals together and make them inaccessible to the end consumer’s internal system.

Looking at rats in a laboratory eating two different diets for four weeks, all other things being equal, is such a distortion of the world in which plants and human and nonhuman animals live that it tells nothing about our ability to grow food and feed ourselves and remain healthy in the future. It’s complicated because it’s all connected – agriculture and food and health, chemicals in soil and in food, soil management and soil loss, microbes, pollinators, erosion, water supply -- and more. Initial increases in yields from GM crops looked good; over the longer term, the increases were lost. Now more herbicides are needed to control weeds, as GM seeds, lacking natural resilience, need chemical support. The chemical glysophate, Roundup’s main ingredient, is estrogen-sensitive, an endocrine disrupter, crosses the placental barrier, disrupts the gut microbiome, and causes necrosis in cells, among other things [Interview with André Leu in AcresUSA, , October 2014]. Sound safe to you?

And arguing against agricultural chemicals is not changing the subject from GMOs, as long as the latter are dependent, over the long term and increasingly, on the former.

It baffles me that otherwise intelligent people can be so lost in admiration for what they see as “science” that they label skeptics “unscientific,” “Luddites,” quacks,” “pseudo-environmentalists waging a leftist war on science,” etc.

Skepticism is scientific. Caution is scientific. Continued investigation before making illegitimately broad claims is scientific.

When the GMO issue comes up on Facebook, as it does repeatedly, I issue an open invitation to anyone in the area, either as a resident or a visitor, to drop by my bookstore and take the opportunity to read back issues of AcresUSA. In-depth interviews with scientists in the field, with organic practitioners of many years, with government and former government ag workers, etc. are eye-opening. And yet, so far, despite repeated invitations, the only person, ever, to take up my offer -- and he’s not even on Facebook -- has been my farmer friend. He is my age, no spring chicken, but he has an open mind. He follows up avenues of information. He continually questions – and he questions himself, too. He has what I call a truly scientific mind.

And he’s out on the front lines, too. In the field. Practicing rather than preaching. He doesn’t have time for blather.

The truth is that a massive experiment is already underway in our world, and every living thing, animal and plant, is a guinea pig in that experiment, and by the time the results are in, it will be too late to put the toothpaste back in the tube. As usual, to make use of another figure of speech all too often appropriate, we human beings, with our scientific hubris, are overdriving our headlights.

What do you expect from science? Its practitioners, as in any other field of human endeavor, are human beings, with agendas, biases, and blind spots. Scientific? How do you define it? 


I'll apologize for this post in that it is not a polished essay. It's summer, and between home and bookstore, mowing grass and selling books, making and cleaning up after meals and setting up and promoting author events, I am not at leisure during waking hours and have put this together in pieces, at odd moments. If I could write and edit myself and rewrite in my sleep, it be better, but it is what it is.


A grim future... said...

Pamela, thanks for taking the time to offer an explanation of a difficult subject in a manner which is free of bias. Kudos for your efforts.

P. J. Grath said...

Keith, thank YOU for reading and commenting. I appreciate it!

Julia Brabenec said...

My first opportunity to see your blog and a great pleasure, Pamela. You are wise and well informed, and a treasure for our community. I hope to see and read more of your blog thoughts. Julia Brabenec

Gerry said...

I just read this for the first time. I don't have a good comment because the topic is too big to address in one bite. I have a suggestion though. I'd like to hear more about the farmer who drops by the bookstore to read AcresUSA. His musings about the challenges of farming in 2017 would be enlightening. Short pieces that give readers a flash of insight and inspire further investigation. The tail end of Winter is a good time for farmers to have such conversations - and probably for booksellers to jot them down! Always good to know what you're thinking about.

P. J. Grath said...

Julia, welcome! Books in Northport began in 2007, so in September it will be ten years old. I hope you will visit and read and comment often, because YOU are a community treasure!

Gerry, you have given me a wonderful idea. I could do a regular feature called "Meet a Local"! What do you think? The diversity of our little Northport community would probably surprise a lot of people. Thank you!!!

Gerry said...

I am very glad whenever someone of taste and discrimination thinks I have sparked a useful notion. Also, I think posts featuring individual denizens of Northport would be irresistible. You're welcome. And pets to Sarah.