The bad science checklist of GMO opponents

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.

Coghill has been doing a couple of series of blog posts, both of which are some of my favorites for science. One is the “Hallmarks of Science,” which endeavors to describe what makes good science.

Then there is its evil twin, the “Red Flags of Science,” which points out the indicators of bad science, pseudoscience or plain nonsense.

So with all due respect to Graham Coghill, I’m going to abscond with his Red Flags of Science series, and show how the GMO opponents use bad science to make their case. (Please note, I deleted some Red Flags that didn’t apply to GMO refusers, like magical powers).

The Red FlagWhat the GMO opponents say
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. However, there is a boatload of data that supports the safety of GMO crops.
Persecuted prophets and maligned mavericks: The Galileo Gambit.Users of 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.
Empty edicts – absence of empirical evidenceThe 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.
Anecdotes, testimonials and urban legendsAnecdotes are de facto evidence of the pseudoscience pushing crowd. The problem is that anecdotes don’t equal data, and more anecdotes doesn’t equal better data. Our friends at Natural News go over the deep end providing us anecdotes about the dangers of GMO’s.
Charges of conspiracy, collusion and connivanceConspiracy theories are the standard operating procedures of the anti-GMO crowd. And Monsanto conspiracy theories are the best.
Stressing status and appealing to authorityAlthough 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. 
Devious deception in displaying data: Cherry pickingGMO opponents love Cherry Picking. They 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 find where it leads. Moreover, any cherry picked study that supports the anti-GMO conclusion is never critically analyzed, truly an official mark of good science. For example, the Séralini study I mentioned previously was just horrendous science with amateur errors that would embarrass your local high school science fair. But it’s accepted as the Truth by GMO opponents
Repetition of discredited argumentsIn this tactic, people 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 assumes 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 listener assumes it must be the truth. Once again, only evidence matters, and it becomes difficult to get the liar (or the person pushing the lie) to provide evidence.
Duplicity and distractionThis 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 is a bad company, 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.
Wishful thinking – favoring fantasy over factWe 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.
Appeals to ancient wisdom – trusting traditional trickeryIn 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.
Technobabble and tenuous terminology: the use of pseudo scientific languageIn this tactic, people use invented terms that sound “sciencey” or co-opt real science terms and apply them incorrectly. The aforementioned Natural News is the most guilty of this, but it’s one of the fundamental tenets of pseudoscience. There’s a belief among the GMO haters that somehow GMO food will somehow incorporate itself into the human genome. 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.” Real science.
Conflating correlation with causation: rooster syndromeThe infamous 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.
Straw man: crushing concocted canardsAnother 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.
Indelible initial impressions: the anchoring effectAnchoring 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.
Perceiving phoney patterns: apopheniaThis happens when you convince yourself, or someone tries to convince you, that some data reveal a significant pattern when really the data are random or meaningless.
Banishing boundaries and pushing panaceas – applying models where they don’t belongThose 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.
Single study syndrome – clutching at convenient confirmationThis 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.
Appeal to nature – the authenticity axiomGMO 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.
The reversed responsibility response – switching the burden of proofA 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.
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. As I’ve stated before, 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.
False balance – cultivating counterfeit controversy to create confusionFalse 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.
Confirmation bias – ferreting favourable findings while overlooking opposing observationsConfirmation 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. Real science is not coming to a conclusion, then finding evidence that supports it.

 

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, safer than the old one using eggs, will save more lives, then all of the above 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.

GMO opponents are almost the same as anti-science people who populate the global warming denier community–both think that the science supports their beliefs, but the truth is it doesn’t. 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.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in September 2013. It has been completely revised and updated to include more comprehensive information, to improve readability and to add current research.

The Original Skeptical Raptor
Chief Executive Officer at SkepticalRaptor
Lifetime lover of science, especially biomedical research. Spent years in academics, business development, research, and traveling the world shilling for Big Pharma. I love sports, mostly college basketball and football, hockey, and baseball. I enjoy great food and intelligent conversation. And a delicious morning coffee!

84 Replies to “The bad science checklist of GMO opponents”

  1. You could not hang in a full on debate versus @Jan Irvin. He would compulsory school you and your fallacy ridden diatribe in a full on trivium education to your false rhetoric.

  2. Grant McLeester I'm not arguing that. However, like all things in science you need to pull YOUR head out of your ass and examine it without bias and following the nuance. GMO crops actually allow us to use less glyphosate. A lot less. And if your head is so far YOUR ass that you think there's some dream world where we can feed everyone while using hand tilling methods, pulling weeds with migrant farm workers, you live in a delusion that doesn't exist.

    Before accusing someone of having their heads up their ass, my suggestion would be to remove one's own and get the scientific support for your statements. And living in a dream world, despite our food sources coming under great stress from global warming? That isn't helping your argument.

  3. Skeptical Raptor I agree that Natural News isn't a good source to quote in a science based argument. On the other hand, in order to argue that Monsanto's main product, glyphosate, isn't detrimental to our species, your head has to be pretty far up your ass.

  4. "In other words, you are just right wing Republicans with a different agenda. I hope you’re proud of the company you keep."

    Guilty of some of your own criticisms of the anti-GMO crowd there.

    Oops. 😉

  5. Madelin Siedler AHHHHH! Now I understand your question, and obviously it wasn't a Full Poe. However, you should get to know a Poe, because a lot of people use the technique in putting down anti science claims. 🙂

    And yes, the Argument from Ignorance is in the toolbox of every science denier. Creationists use it all the time. 🙂

  6. I don't know what "Full Poe" means, but I just didn't see that claim on the list, and to me it seems to be one of the most often used tools in an anti-GMOer's toolbox. Didn't make the connection between that and the Argument from Ignorance, which you already listed – thanks! Love your blog, by the way! It can't be easy work, but we need more intelligent, scientifically oriented and dedicated folks like you in the blogosphere to keep up with the Mercolites.

  7. Julia Johari Sorry, but Natural News ranks the lowest on the Real Scale of Scientific Sources. If you're going to argue here, and I don't care if you do or don't, bring peer-reviewed studies published in high impact factor journals.

  8. I'm not exactly sure if you're going Full Poe or making a claim. BUT, that is called the Argument from Ignorance. It is a formal logical fallacy that states that if you can't prove it true (or false), then it must be false (or true). Those that are making the assertion must provide evidence supporting said assertion, and none have been found.

    However, I have in fact posted literally 112 articles (I only have a certain amount of time in my life to do this, so I stopped at 112 or so) that were NOT funded by Monsanto (or whomever) that showed GMO's were safe for humans, other organisms and the environment.

    http://www.skepticalraptor.com/skepticalraptorblog.php/science-gmo-safe/

  9. LIBERAL scientologist? Calling you on that. No way do you say what you said in the beginning of the paragraph and get away with that.

  10. You forgot the all-too often used claim that "no data exist to tell whether GMOs are actually safe! And all the data that *have* been gathered have been produced by corporate interests and compromised scientists!" What is that one called?

  11. Very well done. Now if only those anti-GMO people would read it!! You can show them the proof of the safety of GMO's and they still refuse to believe it, which goes to show that you can show people the truth, but they still prefer to believe the lies!!

  12. I guess from my point of view, someone who thinks that some wizard in the sky created the earth 6000 years ago is a bit different than those who think there's some poison in GMO's. But maybe I'm just trying to be nice. 🙂

  13. Yes, there are. GMO opponents are obviously left wing science deniers. The point I was trying to make is that these left wing GMO opponents use the same exact BS tactics and the right wing Republicans do with global warming. Republicans are just a more loathsome form of science deniers, but it's nearly a tie with left wing versions who are opposed to vaccines and GMO's.

  14. It was a very good article. You could of left the last paragraph. To claim that a person who is anti-science must be a right wing Republican is wrong. There are plenty of anti-science people in the left wing Democratic party including the anti-gmo and fracking environmentalist, the new age mystics, the anti vaccine crowd, and and the liberal Hollywood scientologist. It's wrong to paint just one side of the political spectrum of being anti-science when there are people on both sides that accept or deny the science based on their ideologies.

  15. Skeptical Raptor Reducing the amount of pesticides is one of the use case for GMOs. It is not the case of Monsanto’s, whose primary business is still selling chemicals.

  16. Very thorough, nice job! -It's funny you mentioned "magical thinking" as not applying, but I think it actually applies:

    When explaining that we have been genetically modifying organisms for thousands of years, GMO-opponents counter that it's not the same type of modification, that when done in the lab with gene insertion ect. it's "not natural" -And somehow there is an unknown risk inherent with that.

    -While on one hand this is the "Appeal to Nature" Red Flag, on the other hand, if something is not 'natural', then what is the claim being made? That it's somehow outside the realm of nature, or 'supernatural'?
    Now that this GMO is considered 'unnatural', anything it touches it would contaminate, and that would automatically be a 'bad' thing, cuz, 'unnatural'.

    There are other arguments that spring from this such as; "Modern science doesn't know how to predict the risks from GMO's" and they sound suspiciously like claims for the effectiveness of acupuncture: "I know acupuncture works, and if studies can't verify that in the lab, then science doesn't have a way of detecting how it works." Also, prayer/God, and any non-verifiable or non-testible claims.
    They all invoke the supernatural, or magical.

    I dunno, maybe a stretch, but something i've noticed.

  17. Since this is an article just to point out where GMO opponents use bad science in their rhetoric, the "proof" is in the links. If I were going to write an article about how GMO corn makes you lose 20 lbs a week in the great new diet, I'd provide tons of peer-reviewed articles.

    No, GMO corn does not cause weight loss. Just in case you were wondering.

  18. I'm not going to go through a point by point refutation of Josselin's claims, but in fact GMO's allow for LOWER amounts of pesticides and fewer people to handle said pesticides. We don't live in a world where we can ignore the use of chemicals, just in one where we need to do everything to manage them.

  19. Honestly, I looked into the allegations made against Monsanto and I found that almost all of them were either false (Monsanto suing for accidental contamination) or happened decades ago when Monsanto was a chemical company. I'm not saying that Monsanto is perfect angel, but the only legitimate complaints I found about them generally involve the usual big corporation stuff that every other large corporation is also guilty of.

    As far as Monsanto GMOs being a scam to sell more toxic chemicals to farmers, I have to call BS on that. GMOs, including those created by Monsanto, were designed to require less pesticide (BT crops) or enable
    the use of herbicides that are far less toxic to the environment than the alternatives (RR crops).

    I have had the pleasure of discussing this issue with many successful farmers who utilize GMOs from Monsanto and they had nothing but good things to say about them. These crops reduce the inputs (expenses) that are required to grow the crops thus increasing the farmers' bottom line. Even though GMOs were considerably more expensive to purchase than the alternatives, these farmers felt that the decreased expenses associated with pest and weed control more than made up for the additional initial investment.

    I'm told that Monsanto has over 250,000 customers. Given that there are numerous other seed companies that farmers can purchase their seed from (including GMO seed), Monsanto must be doing something right in order to have built such a large customer base.

  20. The reason why pseudo-science people are getting so much hype on this topic is really Monsanto. I cannot buy arguments that say this company is not evil. And the worst evil they have done is to give GMOs a bad name.

    GMOs will be necessary to feed the World in the near future. Especially in a World with so much climate change that plants will not be able to evolve quickly enough with natural processes.
    Monsanto GMOs, on the other hand, are just a scam for farmers, designed to sell them even more toxic chemicals, poisoning them in the process (as well as consumers). And here, the science tells you these chemicals ARE toxic.

    Monsanto are the ones who give these pseudoscience fallacies a target. When you hear “GMOs”, you understand “Monsanto GMOs”, because they are the only ones in industrial use.

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