GM and the obfuscation of science: or, the denialist Mark Lynas

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

2. Scientism

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.

11 thoughts on “GM and the obfuscation of science: or, the denialist Mark Lynas

  1. Pingback: Daily Essentials | 7 May 2015 | Food and Farm Discussion Lab

  2. A busy few days on your side of the pond. Lionel Messi works his magic against Bayern-Munich (to make even an American baseball fan’s jaw drop). The Conservatives appear to have won another round in the UK, and perhaps most newsworthy, some Greentard (an ignorant one from all reports) has labeled Mark Lynas a denialist. Truly heady times.

    I suppose someone venturing upon this rant might have little doubt where your sympathies lie. And that’s a fine tribute to your craft. So where’s my quibble today? Thought you’d never ask.

    You said:
    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.

    Of the three points, 1 rise of resistant weeds and pests (I fairly agree); 2 transgene transfer to wile crop relatives (so?… I mean I’m not in favor of this, but I imagine HGT a rather natural phenomenon, spread of Bt genes to wild crop relatives is likely more problematic than spread of herbicide resistance). If point 1 then point 2 is more or less benign (but benign or no, its not a ‘good’ outcome). Point number 3 is where I want to stand for a quarrel. I don’t think compromising human and ecosystem health becomes a sociological issue unless it actually occurs. And determining whether or not it is really occurring seems to me a scientific issue. Sociology and political realms do seem quite qualified to make sure the question is duly asked and rigorously answered… and if that’s your meaning then I’ll stand down. But if sociology has the tools to decide the question, I may need to go back to school. [BTW, HGT is horizontal gene transfer, should have made that clear]

    • Yes indeed – some stunning goals by Snr Messi, and some stunning own goals by the British electorate. More on the latter soon.

      Apologies for my tendency to rant about GM – Mark Lynas et al do tend to bring out the worst in me. Not that the Ranters were a wholly despicable bunch:

      Regarding your quibble – no, you’re right that deciding the health impacts is a scientific and not a social scientific question. My point was that the negative impacts stem largely from the ubiquity of a small number of GM crops, and the underlying reasons for that ubiquity are social and political. Possibly not a hugely enlightening argument, inasmuch as the reasons underlying anything that people do are ultimately social and political…though maybe it’s worth restating in the context of the GM/science nexus, where some of the pro positions come close to arguing that the science says yes so we should do it.

    • Christ, counting has only stopped a few hours and the misery is starting already. This is what happens folks when you are unable to eat a bacon sandwich in front of the british electorate. I am a vegetarian but if I wanted to be a labour prime minister I would have done it properly *and with gusto* for the sake of my country. I’m sure the pig would have taken the bullet for the working class, secure that his protein was a symbol of five precious years without tory misery.

      • Ah well, truth is whatever Ed did or didn’t do the press would have pilloried him. Cameron abandoned his defenceless daughter in a drinking den – surely a graver mistake for a would be prime minister…

  3. Yes, the discord has certainly been unflattering. If one imagines most correspondents in the GM debates have an axe to grind then I suppose the supply of sharp axes is really piling up. Your link to the Diels et al. paper in Food Policy (second link, point 3 above) is very interesting in this regard.

    The recent media dump on Chipotle seems interesting… they likely deserved a bit of the flak for not setting out their vision in plainer terms. But quite a bit of the piling on is just so much red herring.

    Marc Brazeau makes some interesting points at the Food and Farm discussion lab:

    And it may be worth noting you’ve been picked up by FAFDL (see pingback). Congrats on that.

    • Thanks for the link Clem. I don’t disagree with everything Brazeau says, but I don’t buy the line that the science of GM safety is more watertight than the science of anthropogenic climate change, that anyone who says otherwise is a quack, and that journalists have rightly learned to disengage with them. Seralini is vastly better qualified to comment on glyphosate than most of the jokers who still routinely get wheeled out to refute climate change…I’d like to see the likes of Brazeau working through a critique like the Meyer & Hilbeck study I linked above rather than just dismissing Seralini as a quack. However, while GM proponents in my opinion make too much of the generic ‘science’ of GM crops – the main point of my post – I agree that the anti-GM movement probably makes too much of the safety of GM generically as a technology. It’d be better off indeed taking more of a stand against the failures of corporate agriculture, and making this critique less ‘generic’.

      • I’ve actually written at length about Seralini and it would be ridiculous at this point to stop in the middle of every piece about biotech crops and rehash a debate that was really over before it began.

        See here:

        There may be niggling standards issues with the Monsanto 90 day studies, but their is simply no comparison with the problems that disqualify the Seralini paper.

        Monsanto used 20 rats per sample group in a study that lasted 90 days.. Seralini used half that for a study that went on for 2 years, an amount of time where 80% of the rats could be expected to have tumors and 50% could be expected to be dead, making his effective sample size 5. The standard under those conditions is 65 rats in order to be able to generate a result with any statistical power.

        That this is even a conversation at this point suggests a lack of seriousness.

        The question of the risks of biotech crops is much more straightforward than the questions that surround climate science. Whether biotech breeding techniques introduce risks that are unique compared to non-biotech techniques is not that complicated compared to the incredibly noisy data sets involved in tracking and projecting climate change, determining the extent and rate of change and calculating the cost benefit analysis of various policy actions.

        I wholeheartedly agree that critics of industrial agriculture, of which I count myself, would be better off to stick to critiquing industrial agriculture instead of wrapping their critiques up in red herrings about breeding techniques that have little or nothing to do with the issue they are concerned with.

        There is not a single economic, environmental or sociologic critic of biotech crops that isn’t MORE true clone graft breeding.

        1. Intensifies corporate control of agriculture? Check. (In fact it has intensified corporate control over whole countries – the don’t call them banana republics for nothing.) And that control has taken a much uglier turn than requiring farmers to sign technology agreements. It took the form of worker massacres. All because of graft clone breeding.

        2. Encourages monoculture. Check. Forget about corn/soy rotations. Plantations, orchards and vineyards literally cannot be rotated.

        3. Requires increased use of pesticides. Check. While you have your facts wrong and backwards on the impact of GE crops and pesticide use, clone graft bred crops require greater and greater use of pesticides because they can’t be rotated. The use of pretty nasty pesticides is much greater in vineyards, orchards and plantations than on corn, soy, beets, canola, etc.

        4. Loss of genetic diversity. Checkmate. The point of clone graft breeding is to make all the plants of a cultivar EXACTLY the same. This is not at all the case in GE breeding, where a single trait can be and is added to multiple varieties.

        It just sounds silly when you say out loud in public that you are critical of clone graft breeding because of the socio-economic implications.

        • Marc, I issued a challenge for you to work through a critique of Séralini, which you sort of have so fair play to you. But I find your remarks rather strange.

          On Séralini: I’m not primarily interested in the study’s flaws – I’m more interested in whether there is publication bias in the academic literature such that studies reporting problems with GMOs are more stringently weeded out than ones with the opposite results. You don’t address this point at all. I am slightly interested in learning about the study’s alleged flaws, however. I don’t really have the time or the methodological expertise to go through all the literature from scratch, so I’m interested in impartial and authoritative overviews of the affair. Grateful as I am for the links to your writings on this, I don’t think you cut it on either count. Calling Séralini a quack is just silly, and almost immediately disqualifies you in my eyes from being a serious commentator on the issue. I gather your background is as a trade union organiser and a chef, which makes you somewhat less qualified than even me to pronounce on Séralini’s methodology. Sorry, I’d rather look at other people’s analyses of this – doubtless there’s much that could be discussed concerning statistical power in chronic toxicity and carcinogenicity studies, but I don’t think you’re the person to discuss it with. Meanwhile, the glyphosate debate has moved on with the publication of the Lancet Oncology study on the carcinogenicity of glyphosate. But no doubt it’ll turn out that Guython et al are all quacks too. Well, maybe I’ll read your paper some day. But life is short – how do I know if it’s worth reading? Has it passed through peer review, like Séralini’s paper did?

          On climate change: you wrote in your post “the scientific consensus on GMO safety is even more solid than the one around climate change”. No it isn’t. You now raise the issue of “the incredibly noisy data sets involved in tracking and projecting climate change, determining the extent and rate of change and calculating the cost benefit analysis of various policy actions”. Those are different issues. If you’d written “the scientific consensus on GMO safety is even more solid than the one around calculating the cost benefit analysis of various policy actions around climate change” then I’d have agreed with you. You’re a bit of slippery customer aren’t you?

          Your analogy with clone graft breeding is interesting in places, but also a bit hard to take seriously. In relation to your numbered points:

          1. You think brutal labour conditions in agriculture are especially associated with clone graft breeding? Oh come on. There are plenty of clone graft crops that have been grown in the most benign social conditions, and plenty of non-clone graft crops (sugar cane, tobacco, cotton, to name three) grown in brutal plantation conditions. There is no association here. When it comes to corporate control, I can and have clone grafted my own apple trees. Will Monsanto let me have the germplasm to work up a bit of my own glyphosate-tolerant corn?

          2. In what way does clone graft breeding in and of itself encourage monoculture? I’ve got about 15 clone graft fruit trees in my orchard and each one is different. I also have numerous grasses and forbs, bees, sheep, chickens etc etc in the orchard, not to mention a thriving population of wild insects, reptiles, mammals, and weeds. You seriously want to talk about polyculture? There is no necessary relationship between clone graft breeding and monoculture.

          3. I said nothing at all in this post about the impact of GE crops and pesticide use, so I struggle to see how I can have got my facts wrong and backwards on this. Doesn’t say much for the rigour of your thinking, but at least I’m enjoying the irony of someone getting the facts wrong about me getting the facts wrong. Still, perhaps we can agree that modern agribusiness incentivises short-term gain over long-term pest control success in both clone grafted and GM arable farming?

          4. Genetic diversity – well yes at the level of the individual plant, but there are hundreds of cultivars to choose from which are all readily available. At the level of the agroecoystem, you’re quite wrong. Traditional orcharding in Europe is a high nature value practice because of the wild and cultivated biodiversity. Not so with Roundup Ready® corn or soy. Which, by the way, have a global acreage more than five times higher than all the major clone grafted crops put together. And you really want to talk about polyculture and genetic diversity?

          This clone graft breeding analogy sounds to me like a fatuous meme someone’s come up with and you’ve fallen for. Yes, it’d be silly to question clone graft breeding because of the socio-economic implications. But not so with the current suite of GMOs. Obviously, clone graft breeding has been around a long time – maybe at some point in the future, if the technology is wrested from corporate control and proves itself long term, then it’ll be just as silly to question GMOs on socio-economic grounds as clone graft breeding. But not yet.

          • Oops, factual error alert in my comment above. Corn & soy have a global acreage >5x that of the clone grafted crops. Not just Roundup Ready® corn & soy.

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