Scientific denialism (also known as pseudoskepticism) is the culture of denying an established scientific theory, law or fact despite overwhelming evidence, and usually for motives of convenience. Sometimes those motives are to create political gain for their supporters.
Two of the most annoying denier viewpoints are the darlings of the right wing: evolution denialism and global warming denialism. The former is more commonly known as creationism and is mostly an American phenomenon, though it is known in other countries. In the US, creationism is a fundamental part of the Republican Party strategy across the country. The latter is sometimes mistakenly called global warming skepticism, because “skeptic” was stolen by the pseudoskeptics, but plainly is a right-wing belief across the world, often intersecting closely with the evolution deniers. In fact, much of the anti-evolution legislation pushed by Republican legislatures in the United States has an anti-global warming component.
Global warming or evolution is supported by a massive mountain of scientific evidence. Both are theories that are ” well-substantiated explanations of some aspect of the natural world, based on a body of facts that have been repeatedly confirmed through observation and experiment.” As I have stated before, rhetoric and debate are not going to refute these theories. We demand scientific data, produced in world class laboratories that have been published in top tier, high quality journals, subject to withering criticism. After time, they will either be accepted into the body of evidence or rejected. That’s how science works. It’s not a political debate where the person with the loudest voice wins.
Well, this type of argument is happening now. But it’s happening with the left-wing’s favorite demon of the week, GMO crops. I recently deconstructed a very poorly written, but published in an admittedly poor impact-factor journal, article that essentially invented data about GMO corn causing cancer in rats. If I were the only progressive who thought the data and conclusions in this article were useless, then maybe I should be writing about something else. But I wasn’t. Here is just a highlight of progressive science writers who bashed this anti-GMO article:
- Science-Based Medicine » Antivaccine versus anti-GMO: Different goals, same methods.
- Bad science about GMOs: It reminds me of the antivaccine movement – Respectful Insolence.
- NeuroLogica Blog » The GM Corn Rat Study.
- Study linking GM crops and cancer questioned – health – 19 September 2012 – New Scientist.
- Control Freaks » Blog Archive » Why I think the Seralini GM feeding trial is bogus.
- Illumination: Rats, Tumors and Critical Assessment of Science.
I’ve found that fears are stoked by prominent environmental groups, supposed food-safety watchdogs, and influential food columnists; that dodgy science is laundered by well-respected scholars and propaganda is treated credulously by legendary journalists; and that progressive media outlets, which often decry the scurrilous rhetoric that warps the climate debate, serve up a comparable agitprop when it comes to GMOs.
The latest audacious example of scientific distortion came last week, in the form of a controversial (but peer reviewed!) study that generated worldwide headlines. A French research team purportedly found that GMO corn fed to rats caused them to develop giant tumors and die prematurely.In short, I’ve learned that the emotionally charged, politicized discourse on GMOs is mired in the kind of fever swamps that have polluted climate science beyond recognition.
As I pointed out, the study was nearly instantaneously ripped apart by literally dozens of scientists, myself included. It wasn’t that hard.
- The selection of rat model was faulty
- The statistics were amateurish and suspect
- The cherry picking of data would have made a global warming denier proud
- The sample size, and how the size of the control group vs. experimental groups were chosen, reminded me of someone who had never taken a science course
- Dr. Kevin Folta, University of Florida, stated that the study was “designed to frighten” the public.
- One of the co-authors, Dr Joël Spiroux de Vendomois, is a homeopath. I mean seriously, someone who believes in a pseudoscience, something that has absolutely no plausible mechanism of action, is expected to be a reliable scientist? I think not.
- NPR reports, “has been campaigning against GM crops since 1997,” and whose research methods have been “questioned before,” according to the New York Times.
- Also according to the Slate article, “the circumstances surrounding Seralini’s GMO rat-tumor study range from bizarre (as a French magazine breathlessly reports, it was conducted in clandestine conditions) to dubious (funding was provided by an anti-biotechnology organization whose scientific board Seralini heads).”
Another big red flag: Seralini and his co-authors manipulated some members of the media to prevent outside scrutiny of their study. (The strategy appears to have worked like a charm in Europe.) Some reporters allowed themselves to be stenographers by signing nondisclosure agreements stipulating they not solicit independent expert opinion before the paper was released. That has riled up science journalists such as Carl Zimmer, who wrote on his Discover magazine blog: “This is a rancid, corrupt way to report about science. It speaks badly for the scientists involved, but we journalists have to grant that it speaks badly to our profession, too. … If someone hands you confidentiality agreements to sign, so that you will have no choice but to produce a one-sided article, WALK AWAY. Otherwise, you are being played.”
Could you imagine if a global warming denialist published an article and established the same conditions on a journalist? Every single journalist, except those at Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, would walk away laughing, beating their chests about scientific integrity. Why not in this case? Is it because this “science” supports their values, their point-of-view, and their well-constructed environmental politics?
As I have said dozens of times in dozens of my articles, what makes science so special, and what makes anti-science so repugnant, is that science allows itself to be open to the bright lights of criticism. That’s what we all are doing now. We are blasting this study into bits because it is so poorly done. It is what we do to the other denialists, whether they are anti-vaccinationists, global warming denialists, or creationists. We take apart the bad studies that they provide, if they ever do. Just to be clear, we also criticize studies that support our own understanding too. That’s how science develops a consensus, through fine-tuning, but also through honesty, not through accepting very bad research.
As Pamela Ronald, a UC-Davis plant geneticist, pointed out last year in Scientific American: “There is broad scientific consensus that genetically engineered crops currently on the market are safe to eat. After 14 years of cultivation and a cumulative total of 2 billion acres planted, no adverse health or environmental effects have resulted from commercialization of genetically engineered crops.” Moreover, humans have been selectively breeding plants and animals for food for a very long time, manipulating genes all along. For example, wheat was domesticated about 12,000 years ago by forcing wild forms into six sets of chromosomes (hexaploidy) instead of the normal two. We have had GMO crops since then, and we have done quite fine.
The important issue is that these “GMO denialists” lack any credible scientific evidence that GMO foods pose any type of short-term or long-term health risk. And if this study by Seralini is their pivotal study, then they have failed miserably. In addition, there are numerous, and onerous, regulations regarding GMO foods that probably keep us safe just in case there is some unintended consequence of our activities, because science is not absolute, and a mistake could be made. But GMO has incredible benefits to the world, feeding us in a world with limited resources.
But the problem still is that the left wing accepts the anti-GMO point-of-view without the level of critical analysis that they do with global warming. The amount of data that supports climate change is overwhelming, and those that deny it must truly be blind. There are scientifically based climate change websites that discuss the tiniest parts of the story. Here’s one that just details the level of Arctic sea ice (and if it doesn’t scare the hell out of you about what’s happening to our planet, you are truly a denialist). I can find the same type of detail for evolution. There isn’t the same level of science for the GMO refusers. There’s not that depth of science from the GMO refusers that gives us clinical trials, plausible mechanisms, and meta-reviews, all published in peer reviewed journals of high impact.
Slate concludes the article with a discussion about the intellectually failures of the left-wing regarding GMO’s:
The anti-GM bias also reveals a glaring intellectual inconsistency of the eco-concerned media. When it comes to climate science, for example, Grist and Mother Jones are quick to call out the denialism of pundits and politicians. But when it comes to the science of genetic engineering, writers at these same outlets are quick to seize on pseudoscientific claims, based on the flimsiest of evidence, of cancer-causing, endocrine-disrupting, ecosystem-killing GMOs.
In a recent commentary for Nature, Yale University’s Dan Kahan lamented the “polluted science communication environment” that has deeply polarized the climate debate. He writes: “People acquire their scientific knowledge by consulting others who share their values and whom they therefore trust and understand.” This means that lefties in the media and prominent scholars and food advocates who truly care about the planet are information brokers. So they have a choice to make: On the GMO issue, they can be scrupulous in their analysis of facts and risks, or they can continue to pollute the science communication environment.
Remove “GMO” from this commentary, and we could be talking about any pseudoscience, whether it’s creationism, vaccine denialism, global warming, or even HIV/AIDS denialism. Orac compares the misuse of science and scare tactics by GMO opponents to the behavior of the anti-vaccine movement, that is, instead of using real science to find a conclusion, ignoring science, ignoring evidence, and jump on any pseudoscience to support what you believe or what you want to believe.
And this goes back to one of my points that the left wing hates–making it a political debate rather a real scientific one. And that’s what’s happened with respect to GMO.
- Séralini GE, Clair E, Mesnage R, Gress S, Defarge N, Malatesta M, Hennequin D, de Vendômois JS. Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize. Food Chem Toxicol. 2012 Nov;50(11):4221-31. doi: 10.1016/j.fct.2012.08.005. Epub 2012 Sep 19. PubMed PMID: 22999595.
- Kahan D. Why we are poles apart on climate change. Nature. 2012 Aug 16;488(7411):255. doi: 10.1038/488255a. PubMed PMID: 22895298.
- Kloor K. Are GMO foods safe? Opponents are skewing the science to scare people. Slate Magazine. September 26, 2012.