In my previous post, I mentioned the problematic way in which GM proponents tend to appeal generically to “the science” in support of GM crops, a point amplified by Ford Denison in his comment. Encouraging, being as Ford is a scientist…though not necessarily “the scientist”. Some of his own scientific work hinges on the complexities of the biological tradeoffs involved in trying to develop ‘improved’ crops that deliver on all the demanding traits humans ask of them. But as a social scientist, here I’m going to take a different tack and focus on some of the problems associated with making generic and normative truth claims (for example, of the form “…the science says that we should adopt crop x”) on the basis of the scientific evidence. There is, I think, a tendency in the GM debate to invoke science as metaphor (hard, objective, unarguable) in a battle with politics (soft, perspectival, debatable). So here for your consideration are five levels of obfuscation involved in generic claims that ‘the science’ supports GM crop technologies.
1. Peer review, only peer review.
There is, to be sure, a lot of nonsense out there on the information superhighway, so there’s something to be said for restricting your evidence base to credible sources, such as peer reviewed scientific journals. But in these days of ‘evidence-based policy-making’ (or ‘policy-based evidence making’ as some wags call it), peer review has assumed an evidentiary cachet whose weight it really can’t bear. I mean, they’ve even published a paper by an ignorant greentard such as myself in a scientific journal, so on the Groucho Marx principle peer review surely can’t be that rigorous…And in any case, there are plenty of peer reviewed journal articles pointing out the shortcomings of GM technologies, such as this one…
Ah, but that’s in a social science journal – not proper science at all. Social scientists put on all sorts of airs and graces, and even admit to not being objective. Proper scientific research is, as Peter Medawar explained, about the art of the solvable. It can’t answer questions like ‘Is treating vitamin A deficiency with golden rice an appropriate intervention in terms of social benefit?’ but it can answer questions like ‘was there increased morbidity in a treatment group exposed to golden rice compared to a control group?’ By ruling wider questions – policy questions, political questions – out of the purview of science proper, a lot of awkward issues around GM can be deflected. This manoeuvre is called scientism, but it doesn’t have an awful lot to do with science. It’s more a social ideology about the primacy of certain kinds of knowledge. GM plant scientist Pamela Ronald’s book Tomorrow’s Table about the errors of opposing GM is full of a gentle, patrician scientism which guides the reader towards the right kind of journals that will inculcate the right kind of views on GM. Ach, but absence of evidence is not evidence of absence…
3. False positives, false negatives…
Well, the absence of scientifically acceptable evidence (‘acceptable’, that is, in the sense of getting through peer review in the kind of journals scientism is prepared to acknowledge) against certain GM technologies isn’t total. But of course, as GM proponent Steve Savage argues, a peer reviewed journal article is only the beginning of a conversation about the merit of the research – the fact that it queries a GM technology doesn’t mean it’s right. Very true. Savage goes on to savage the failings of certain choice studies that question aspects of GM/biotech. But of course his strictures apply to studies finding in favour of GM technologies just as much as those finding against. Are findings reporting safe and beneficial results from GM technologies treated with the same level of critical scrutiny as those that find otherwise? The possibilities for publication bias in the scientific literature are legion. What we need is systematic reviews that attempt to address this. But I’m not sure what we need is what we’ve yet got. Still, here’s a study that reports statistically significant correlations between author affiliation to the GM industry and study results favourable to GM crops. Food for thought.
4. The discreditable practice of discrediting
With really high profile negative findings you can take the next step on the publication bias road and exert political pressure to get the study discredited and retracted. The retraction vultures have had their fill in cases such as the Pusztai and Séralini affairs, and are currently circling around the glyphosate cancer study. It’s not that any of these research findings are necessarily beyond reproach – it’s just that ol’ problem of publication bias again, if the papers that feel the methodological heat are systematically more likely to be ones to which the GM industry objects. The Séralini affair has now spawned an interesting secondary literature – including this analysis which argues that if Séralini’s methods are flawed then so are those used by Monsanto in studies reporting no raised rat morbidity. Eventually, I think, the truth will out. Meanwhile, I’m not inclined to put too much trust in the (often opaque) processes by which studies disfavoured by the GM industry lead to journal retractions. Why not avoid publication bias and legalistic interpretations of peer review by letting studies that pass initial peer review stand? In my eyes, the discrediting of studies that are sceptical about the merits of GM technologies is itself becoming discredited.
5. Denialism denied
Failing all of the above, you can simply dismiss opposition to GM crops as an ‘anti-GMO denialist myth’ as per Mark Lynas. The ‘denialist’ concept troubles me. Ironically non-scientific, it’s an “as everybody knows…” rhetorical strategy designed to circumvent debate and stigmatise one’s interlocutor. Thus has Edward Skidelsky referred to denialism as a “word that thinks for us”. I like his argument that “The extension of the “denier” tag to group after group is a development that should alarm all liberal-minded people. One of the great achievements of the Enlightenment—the liberation of historical and scientific enquiry from dogma—is quietly being reversed.” Spot on – there are instructive paradoxes involved in dogmatic appeals to ‘the science’ and in unreasonable appeals to reason in the GM debate, probably on both sides. I suppose in some contexts – Holocaust denial, climate change denial – ‘denialism’ does at least refer to the active denial of something that has manifestly happened. But what is it that GM ‘denialists’ are denying? Not that GMOs exist, or that they’re being grown. Nope, they’re just denying that growing them is a good idea. Of course, you can disagree with their reasons for thinking so. And indeed that’s what Lynas’s concept of denialism amounts to. GM denialists are people who disagree with Lynas and his ilk about GM crops. Well, two can play at that game. So henceforth I plan to refer to Lynas as ‘the denialist Mark Lynas’ on the grounds that he disagrees with me.
From Science to Society
In my humble opinion, both GM critics and GM proponents spend too much time arguing over what “the science says” about GM crops. The science is important for sure, but it doesn’t ‘say’ any single thing. And indeed, as eco-panglossian guru Stewart Brand sagely writes in his book Whole Earth Discipline, “nothing is fully established scientifically, ever”. Strange that in the same book he should later write “the science is in” in favour of GM crops.
Enough of this nonscience. Let us stop appealing to ‘the science’ just because it sounds grander and more objective than appealing to ‘the politics’. The issues around GM crops are political and sociological as much as scientific: the overuse of a handful of GMOs – thereby driving the rise of resistant weeds and pests, potentially transferring transgenes to wild crop relatives, and compromising human and ecosystem health – is a sociological issue. The fallacies around the notion that GMOs are pro-poor technologies are sociological in an even more fundamental way. And so are the affinities between GMOs and the neo-improver ideology of large-scale corporate agribusiness. I’m yet to be convinced that these are not all serious problems with existing GMOs, though I wouldn’t go so far as to say that they fatally undermine the possibility of useful GM crops in the future. But ultimately the debate ought to be about what kind of society we want, and therefore what kind of farming we want. It ought to be about how we can best solve problems like poverty and malnutrition. These issues are sociological and political, not just scientific. ‘The science’ on GM crops is, well…just the science.