Originally published 19 May 2014
Updated 22 December 2014.
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 USA, 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.
Although denial of anthropogenic global warming and evolution tend to be the domain of the right wing, the left-wing have their own particular brand of science denialism–GMOs (though some same I should include vaccines too). Last year, I deconstructed and debunked a very poorly written article, published in Food and Chemical Toxicology by French researchers Gilles-Eric Séralini and Dr Joël Spiroux de Vendomois, which essentially invented data about a certain strain of GMO corn caused 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. Lots of pro-science (and from what I could tell, progressive) writers thought that the article was bogus:
- 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.
As a sort of counter groundswell started to build against the anti-science nature of the GMO refusers, an article in Slate Magazine stated that the anti-GMO political left are using the same debate methods and tactics that have been adopted by the climate change denialists–they ignore the scientific consensus, cherry-pick data that supports their pre-determined positions, and use popular polls, instead of scientific evidence, to support their beliefs.
The same individuals and groups who are outraged by whatever the climate deniers do politically, seem to ignore those same anti-science principles when it applies to their hatred of GMO products. It’s like Mother Jones, the left wing magazine who will jump on any global warming denialist, has switched places with the Wall Street Journal when it comes to GMO foods.
According to the Slate article,
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 Séralini 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).”
But the concerns about the scientific honesty of their work is further exposed in the article:
Another big red flag: Séralini 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?
The scientific criticism of Séralini’s article was so widespread and so harsh that the journal, Food and Chemical Toxicology, eventually retracted it in 2013. And as you might surmise, the GMO refusers created all kinds of strawman arguments (and veiled conspiracies) about why the journal retracted it. One GMO refuser group called the decision to withdraw the article “illicit, unscientific, and unethical.” Actually Séralini’s work was “illicit, unscientific and unethical,” and the journal did the right thing in retracting it.
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.
The scientific consensus
Global warming and evolution is supported by a massive mountain of scientific evidence, and has been established by a definitive scientific consensus. 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, high impact factor journals, and that has been subjected to tough analysis and criticism from peers.
Both global warming and evolution are well-substantiated explanations of the natural world. There is no debate, unless someone has a political or socio-economic bias.
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 American Association for the Advancement of Sciences is an international non-profit organization that has as its stated goals to promote cooperation among scientists, to defend scientific freedom, to encourage scientific responsibility, and to support scientific education and science outreach for the betterment of all humanity. It is the world’s largest and most prestigious general scientific society, and is the publisher of the well-known scientific journal Science. It occasionally makes statements on the scientific consensus about various issues.
With regards to GMO’s, the AAAS has stated the clear scientific consensus on genetically modified foods (pdf):
The science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe … The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society, and every other respected organization that has examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion: consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques.
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. There is a lack of biological plausibility to correlate consumption of genetically modified foods and any medical condition. 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 the global warming deniers. 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.
Sadly, there just 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 intellectual failures of the left-wing GMO refusers:
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 complained about the “polluted science communication environment” that has deeply polarized the climate debate between political camps. He wrote, “people acquire their scientific knowledge by consulting others who share their values and whom they therefore trust and understand.” This means that left-wingers 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 Dr. Kahan’s 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, they ignore science, ignore evidence, and jump on any pseudoscience, even if it’s very poorly done science. to support what they currently believe or what they want to believe about GMO’s.
And this goes back to one of my points that aggravates the left-wing members of the political discussion–they have converted the scientific consensus about GMO’s into a political debate rather a real scientific one, such as what has happened with climate change. GMO’s are safe, and the scientific evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of that statement. The left wing has created a political and social debate about GMO’s, an expensive and scientifically ignorant debate, no different that the same same one the Republicans have started with anthropogenic global warming.
Take politics out of science, it will make science so much better.
- 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.