This article is a substantial update of the original one published last year.
One of my favorite science websites is at Science or Not, the author of which, Graham Coghill, claims that “this website will help you separate real science from nonsense that’s masquerading as science.” Most real scientific skeptics have that goal, but Coghill does a great job in formalizing science into a readable, logical format. If I had to only read one science blog, it would be his, since his logical methodology to critically evaluate scientific claims would help me evaluate anything I read.
Coghill has two ongoing series of articles, one, the “Hallmarks of Science,” which endeavors to describe what makes good science, and it’s evil twin, the “Red Flags of Science,” which establishes the key indicators of bad science, pseudoscience or plain nonsense. With these two powerful tools, one could, through an openminded analysis, determine the the strength of evidence supporting a claim.
Below, I’ve listed the relevant Red Flags of Science that apply to the anti-GMO beliefs. I haven’t used every Red Flag, because some don’t apply, but almost all do.
- Red flag: The ‘scientifically proven’ subterfuge–the GMO refusers love this tactic. They love to state that GMO’s harm humans, in some unknown way, by stating that it is “scientifically proven.” Setting aside the semantic point that science doesn’t “prove” anything, it provides evidence in support or refutation of a hypothesis, and the body of evidence is used to support a scientific principle. Moreover, there just isn’t a “scientific consensus” of any type that shows that GMO products may harm human or environmental health, in fact, the scientific consensus states, to the contrary, that GMOs are safe to humans, animals, and the environment. Moreover, there is a boatload of data that supports the safety of GMO crops.
- Red flag: Persecuted prophets and maligned mavericks: The Galileo Gambit–GMO opponents who utilize this tactic will try to persuade you that they belong to a tradition of maverick scientists who have been responsible for great advances despite being persecuted by mainstream science. Natural News, the absolute worst scientific source you could find, thinks that Gilles-Eric Séralini, who published what has to be one of the worst articles about GMO effects on a rat, is the martyr for the anti-GMO cause.
- Red flag: Empty edicts – absence of empirical evidence–GMO opponents frequently use this tactic to make claims in the form of bald statements, without supplying us with supporting evidence. You will see it in numerous declarative statements, “this is the way it is” or “this is true” or “I know/believe this” or “everybody knows this.” When you push them on the evidence, they rely on other Red Flag attempts. It can be frustrating, mainly because they are unaware of their own lack of real evidence to support their claims.
- Red flag: Anecdotes, testimonials and urban legends–anecdotes are de facto evidence of any pseudoscience-pushing group. The problem is that anecdotes don’t equal data, and more anecdotes doesn’t equal more data. Anecdotes are biased observations that really have no scientific value, even if we were to accumulate hundreds of anecdotes. Of course, we would be ignoring the thousands of anecdotes that might not support biases. Natural News go over the deep end providing us anecdotes about the dangers of GMO’s.
- Red flag: Charges of conspiracy, collusion and connivance–conspiracy theories are the standard operating procedures of the anti-GMO crowd. And Monsanto conspiracy theories are the best.
- Red flag: Stressing status and appealing to authority–although GMO opponents use all logical fallacies, one of their favorites is the Argument from False or Misleading Authority, which is when someone provides an argument from an authority, but on a topic outside of the particular authority’s expertise or on a topic on which the authority is not disinterested. Furthermore, arguments from authority are judged not on the fact that individual is an authority, but on the quality and quantity of evidence supporting the authority’s conclusions. For example, David Suzuki, an eminent zoologist and geneticist is vehemently opposed to GMO’s, yet his quality, let alone quantity, of evidence in support of his belief is underwhelming.
- Red flag: Devious deception in displaying data: Cherry picking–GMO opponents love Cherry Picking, that is only using data that supports their beliefs, rather than looking at all data and coming to a conclusion from that, the hallmark of being openminded. The anti-GMO crowd will focus on one or two legitimate studies (or worse yet, only a part of the a study), while ignoring the body of evidence. Science does not function by inventing a conclusion and finding only data (or research) that supports the conclusion; in fact, good science examines the peer-reviewed data and determines where it leads. Moreover, any cherry picked study that supports the anti-GMO conclusion is never critically analyzed–good science critiques all data, to determine it’s quality. For example, the Séralini study I mentioned previously was just horrendous science with amateur errors that would embarrass your local high school science fair. It was eventually retracted by the publisher. Nevertheless, the Séralini study is accepted as the Truth by GMO opponents and promoted widely.
- Red flag: Repetition of discredited arguments–in this tactic, GMO deniers persist in repeating claims that have been shown over and over to have no foundation. It’s like the Nazi’s Big Lie, basically repeating a lie so often and with such authority that the listener just begins to assume that it’s true, or that no one would have impudence to actually state a lie. The GMO opponents state so many lies about Monsanto, crops, and how it harms human health that the average reader (or listener) assumes it must be the truth. However, from a scientific point of view, only evidence matters–the pusher of the Big Lie either refuses to provide or actually has no evidence.
- Red flag: Duplicity and distraction–this is the False Dichotomy logical fallacy, which states that there are only two possible, and usually opposite, positions from which to choose. You will hear many times from GMO refusers that “either you’re against GMO’s or you support Monsanto’s plan to do XYZ.” In fact, there’s a perfectly valid position that Monsanto has made some bad decisions, but GMO crops are still safe. It’s possible to say that Monsanto is a polluter, but GMO crops are safe. But the worst part of the False Dichotomy fallacy is that the GMO refusers wants you to believe that if one argument is shown false (or true), the other argument is true (or false). In fact, one form of this argument has been renamed argumentum ad Monsantium, that is, if you support genetically modified foods, you must love Monsanto. Or the supporter of GMOs is obviously a paid Monsanto shill. Someone will make that claim eventually in the comments section of this article.
- Red flag: Wishful thinking – favoring fantasy over fact–we all fall victim to this tactic because we use it on ourselves. We like to believe things that conform with our wishes or desires, even to the extent of ignoring evidence to the contrary. People just want to believe that natural foods (whatever that may be, since many crops were genetically modified 10,000 years ago when we first domesticated many of the most common crops) are somehow better than all other foods, and evidence be damned. Or they want to believe that “natural” selection is somehow different than “artificial” selection for our food crops.
- Red flag: Appeals to ancient wisdom – trusting traditional trickery–in the world of foods, somehow there’s a belief that our ancestors ate better and healthier. And some go back to 10-20,000 years ago to try to convince everyone that the “Paleolithic diet” is the right one. Or that somehow our ancestors ate better, organic foods. Or that farmers knew better how to farm in the 13th century. In fact, food is better today because we have better transportation systems which means there’s less spoilage and generally healthier. Humans today not only live longer today, we live more productive active lives. Although there are lots of reasons for this (vaccinations, sanitation, medicines), one of the reasons is more and better food. Our ancestors had pests, wars, plagues (which killed laborers), and many other issues that made food worse. And despite some major issues like obesity in modern society, we are generally healthier than we were 100’s of years ago. Or even 50 years ago. The cancer rate in the USA is slightly lower than 50 years ago, irrespective of our food sources.
- Red flag: Technobabble and tenuous terminology: the use of pseudo scientific language–in this tactic, people use invented terms that sound “sciencey” or co-opt real science terms and apply them incorrectly. It’s one of the fundamental tenets of pseudoscience. The aforementioned Natural News is the most guilty of this tactic. There’s a belief among the GMO haters that somehow GMO food will somehow incorporate itself into the human genome, which is patently untrue. They use all kinds of science terminology to sell their point of view, but on further examination, it’s all laughable. Because experts on gene therapy state that “the reason is that I have experience with working with DNA, human, mouse, and otherwise, including injecting it into tissues and trying to get it to express the protein for which it encodes. This is not a trivial matter. Think of it this way. If it were, gene therapy would be an almost trivial matter. But it’s not. In general, it’s difficult to induce human cells to take up foreign DNA in tissue. Even with viral vectors, it’s hard to get more than a small percentage of cells not only to take up the DNA but to express detectable levels of protein.” That’s real science.
- Red flag: Conflating correlation with causation: rooster syndrome–this is he famous Post hoc ergo propter hoc logical fallacy, which is essentially a belief that, because a second event follows the first, the first event must be the cause of the second. So, just so you know, GMO’s cause autism. Oh wait, everything causes autism.
- Red flag: Straw man: crushing concocted canards–another favorite logical fallacy of pseudoscience pushers, the Strawman Argument. Remember, all logical fallacies exist because one side of the argument completely lacks any evidence. The strawman argument is a method by which one side invents a position or quality about the other side, then proceeds to destroy that invented position. Monsanto, again, is the King Strawman for the GMO crowd. Like I mentioned above, there are probably some valid reasons to dislike Monsanto, but the invented belief that Monsanto is ruthless about harming human beings is unsupported by any evidence whatsoever.
- Red flag: Indelible initial impressions: the anchoring effect–anchoring is the human tendency to rely almost entirely on one piece of evidence or study, usually one that we encountered early, when making a decision. The aforementioned Séralini study has been used over and over and over again by anti-GMO forces as “proof” that GMO’s cause cancer, even if the evidence was so bad that the scientific community, including individuals who don’t discuss GMO’s that often, mocked it without remorse.
- Red flag: Perceiving phoney patterns: apophenia–the belief that some data reveal a significant pattern when really the data are random or meaningless. Many times, science deniers will attempt to show that there is a real pattern in random data.
- Red flag: Banishing boundaries and pushing panaceas – applying models where they don’t belong–those who use this tactic take a model that works under certain conditions and try to apply it more widely to circumstances beyond its scope, where it does not work. Recently, I discussed research that seemed to indicate that GMO rice passed some fitness (the biological meaning) to weedy rice (which are rice-like grasses which are not agriculturally useful). Except the article didn’t actually show that result (it was poorly done). And some news sources wildly claimed that these results meant that GMO crops actually benefit weeds. Setting aside the low quality of the research (and some egregious experimental errors), it is scientifically illogical to apply these results to other genetically modified foods.
- Red flag: Single study syndrome – clutching at convenient confirmation–this tactic shows up when a person who has a vested interest in a particular point of view pounces on some new finding which seems to either support or threaten that point of view. It’s usually used in a context where the weight of evidence is against the perpetrator’s view. In other words, it’s a type of bias where the person ignores all other points of evidence while attacking this one study.
- Red flag: Appeal to nature – the authenticity axiom–GMO supporters push the Appeal to Nature, which is the belief or suggestion that “natural” is always better than “unnatural”. It assumes that “nature” is good, and “unnatural” is not. Yoni Freedhof, an MD and Professor of Family Medicine, recently wrote that, believing that nature is good, and chemicals are bad, “is arrogant because it suggests that the entirety of the natural world has been created purely as a service to humankind – that somehow the earth and everything on it grows simply for our pleasure or our consumption.” There is nothing in nature that is necessarily and inherently better than something invented by mankind, but don’t tell that to the GMO refusers.
- Red flag: The reversed responsibility response – switching the burden of proof–a form of the Argument from Ignorance, this is an logical fallacy where the arguer deflects a demand for evidence of a claim, by demanding that the other side provide evidence to refute the claim. Then, if you cannot refute it, the arguer declares victory because if you can’t prove it’s untrue, it must be true. Or vice versa.
- Red flag: The scary science scenario – science portrayed as evil–sometimes invoking the precautionary principle, the anti-GMO crowd will often scream out that “science,” as if it is an anthropomorphic organism, has ulterior motives. I presume people watch too many movies, which often make scientists out to be evil Dr. Frankensteins, rather than life-saving heroes like Jonas Salk or Paul Offit. Science has no inherent motive, but to understand the natural universe. It is a method to gain information. And the evil recently attributed to “science” is just patently false.
- Red flag: False balance – cultivating counterfeit controversy to create confusion–false balance, an annoying tactic used by the anti-science crowd, that makes it appear that there’s a debate, and both sides of the debate is essentially equivalent. Many journalists routinely look for a representative of each “side” to include in their stories, even though it might be inappropriate. Anti-GMO groups like to exploit this tendency so that their point of view gains undeserved publicity. There is no scientific debate about GMO’s.
- Red flag: Confirmation bias – ferreting favorable findings while overlooking opposing observations–confirmation bias is a cognitive bias that causes us to search out evidence that supports our point of view, while ignoring anything that doesn’t. It is a basic human behavior. The anti-GMO world, no different than any other pseudoscience pushing group, subjects itself to this type of bias regularly. There are substantially more peer-reviewed articles that state that there are no issues with GMO foods, yet if you read any blog post against GMO’s, they only mention the rare study (cue Séralini again) that supports their anti-GMO point of view. Again, good science takes all the evidence, weighs higher quality evidence against lower quality ones, then decide if there’s enough evidence to support or reject a hypothesis. The goal of real science is not necessarily to support or reject a conclusion, but it is to find evidence, and determine whether that evidence supports or rejects a hypothesis.
If you think that GMO crops are safe and are necessary tool to feed the world, if you think that genetically modified organisms are necessary for medicine, or if you think that a new genetically modified flu vaccine is safer than the old one using eggs, then all of those Red Flags will make sense. You will see how the anti-GMO activists use bad science.
If you didn’t have much an opinion about GMO’s, but maybe thought that there was something wrong with it, then understand that nearly everything negative you’ve heard about GMO’s is based on logical fallacies and bad science.
If you’re against GMO’s because you think science supports you, then you’re no different than the anti-science people who are known as “global warming denialists.” In fact, if you think that you have “science” supporting your nonsense beliefs about GMO’s, just understand that you use the same tactics, the same unscientific rubbish that the global warming deniers use. In other words, you use the same tactics as right wingers, which should make you proud.