Neil deGrasse Tyson, probably the most popular astrophysicist, if not scientist, of this generation, replaced Carl Sagan as the spokesman of all things science for the country. While not ignoring Bill Nye‘s impact on making science education fun and approachable (and who took classes from Carl Sagan at Cornell University), Sagan literally passed the baton of being the country’s science teacher to Tyson.
For those of us on the left side of the political spectrum, Tyson is like the hero of the pro-science crowd. This past spring, Tyson hosted a program, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, which described and supported some of the great science ideas of our time–evolution, age of the universe, human caused climate change, and other major scientific principles. Ironically, the show was broadcast in the USA on the Fox TV network, whose news division can be charitably described as ultraconservative. Right wing Christian fundamentalist groups, one of the main key demographic groups who watch Fox News, loathed Cosmos for trumpeting scientific knowledge over religious interpretations in just about every one of the the 13 episodes.
Of course, for every reason that Fox News hated Cosmos (even though it was a huge ratings success for Fox, and has garnered a significant number of TV awards and nominations), those of us on the pro-science side loved it. Now, I’m a rarity in the science community in that I did not enjoy the show (the animations offended me on so many levels, but apparently kids loved it), I did watch every episode and would have to rank the episodes on evolution and global warming as some of the best science TV I’d ever seen–despite the lame graphics.
Although he has made comments and tweeted about his skepticism of the anti-GMO crowd in the past, it was only recently, when Neil deGrasse Tyson was recorded telling people to “chill out” about GMOs, that most people found out about it. To quote Tyson:
Practically every food you buy in a store for consumption by humans is genetically modified food. There are no wild, seedless watermelons. There’s no wild cows…You list all the fruit, and all the vegetables, and ask yourself, is there a wild counterpart to this? If there is, it’s not as large, it’s not as sweet, it’s not as juicy, and it has way more seeds in it. We have systematically genetically modified all the foods, the vegetables and animals that we have eaten ever since we cultivated them. It’s called artificial selection.
His comment lead to a huge outcry from anti-GMO activists (read the comments on this article on the liberal website, Daily Kos–as a disclaimer, I also write there frequently). There’s an old saying that “I fucking love science except when it doesn’t support my beliefs.” The anti-GMO crowd uses the same ridiculous anti-science rhetoric of the anti-evolution and anti-global warming crowd. I seriously could just change “global warming is fake” to “GMO’s are dangerous”, and literally nothing else, and they would say the exact same thing. I am convinced that all science deniers meet at an international convention somewhere and share strategies.
In an article about Tyson’s comments, the liberal intellectual powerhouse Ezra Klein succinctly summed up the uproar about what Tyson said:
In laboratory settings, there’s no evident difference between liberals and conservatives in their propensity to believe what they want, evidence be damned. In one experiment, Yale law professor Dan Kahan showed you could get liberals to start doubting global warming (and conservatives to begin accepting it) by making clear that any solution would require geoengineering. In another he showed that both liberals and conservatives were more likely to rate someone an expert on climate change if they agreed with their conclusions. In a third, he showed liberals were about as resistant to evidence showing concealed carry laws are safe as conservatives were to evidence showing climate change is dangerous.
Dr. Kahan, who has advised me that those who are opposed to vaccines are unconvinced by arguments (and even less so with my occasional uncivil commentary about them), makes a major point–evidence doesn’t to those who have a political agenda or personal belief. Tyson, who has no personal involvement in GMO’s, looks at the evidence as science, not a political issue.
Environmental issues are important to the liberal base. Global warming is an enormous environmental issue that happens to be critical to liberal political parties, not only in the USA, but throughout the world. But when Klein tried to find out what was the liberal equivalent to climate change, it was GMO’s.
GMOs are actually an example of liberalism resisting the biases of its base. Though there’s a lot of mistrust towards GMOs and fury towards Monsanto among liberals, the Democratic Party establishment is dismissive of this particular campaign. You don’t see President Obama or Democratic congressional leaders pushing anti-GMO legislation
There are, of course, party actors who’ve been more helpful to the anti-GMO movement. In California, the Democratic Party endorsed a proposition to label GMO foods. But that’s a modest step — and even that step hasn’t yet made it to the national party’s agenda.
Of course, as opposed to politics, where everything is painted in broad black and white brushstrokes, and the public, especially in the USA, who are impatient with any discussion that isn’t wrapped up in 140 characters, science is complicated and requires more than a couple of sentences to explain in detail. Tyson felt that he needed to clarify his comments, mainly because his original comments about “chill out” originated in a 2 minute interview. A couple of days after he made the original observations about GMO’s, Tyson wrote some followup comments on Facebook (I’ve edited the formatting slightly to make it a bit more readable):
I offer my views on these nuanced issues here, if anybody is interested:
- Patented Food Strains: In a free market capitalist society, which we have all “bought” into here in America, if somebody invents something that has market value, they ought to be able to make as much money as they can selling it, provided they do not infringe the rights of others. I see no reason why food should not be included in this concept.
- Labeling: Since practically all food has been genetically altered from nature, if you wanted labeling I suppose you could demand it, but then it should be for all such foods. Perhaps there could be two different designations: GMO-Agriculture GMO-Laboratory.
- Non-perennial Seed Strains: It’s surely legal to sell someone seeds that cannot reproduce themselves, requiring that the farmer buy seed stocks every year from the supplier. But when sold to developing country — one struggling to become self-sufficient — the practice is surely immoral. Corporations, even when they work within the law, should not be held immune from moral judgement on these matters.
- Monopolies are generally bad things in a free market. To the extent that the production of GMOs are a monopoly, the government should do all it can to spread the baseline of this industry. (My favorite monopoly joke ever, told by Stephen Wright: “I think it’s wrong that the game Monopoly is sold by only one company”)
- Safety: Of course new foods should be tested for health risks, regardless of their origin. That’s the job of the Food and Drug Administration (in the USA). Actually, humans have been testing food, even without the FDA ,since the dawn of agriculture. Whenever a berry or other ingested plant killed you, you knew not to serve it to you family.
- Silk Worms: I partly mangled my comments on this. Put simply, commercial Silk Worms have been genetically modified by centuries of silk trade, such that they cannot survive in the wild. Silk Worms currently exist only to serve the textile industry. Just as Milk Cows are bred with the sole purpose of providing milk to humans. There are no herds of wild Milk Cows terrorizing the countryside.
If your objection to GMOs is the morality of selling non-perennial seed stocks, then focus on that. If your objection to GMOs is the monopolistic conduct of agribusiness, then focus on that. But to paint the entire concept of GMO with these particular issues is to blind yourself to the underlying truth of what humans have been doing — and will continue to do — to nature so that it best serves our survival. That’s what all organisms do when they can, or would do, if they could. Those that didn’t, have gone extinct extinct.
I’m fairly certain that part of the anti-GMO sentiment relies on the old Appeal to Nature logical fallacy, which states that only natural is good. Of course, how do you define natural? Diabetics inject a GMO human insulin, that is the actual human insulin gene is inserted into another organism, then it synthesizes “natural” human insulin. And if you think this is appalling, and refuse to do it, then you will die, particularly fast if you’re a Type 1 diabetic.
As I’ve written before, evidence is all that matters in science. Yelling and screaming that Monsanto is going to crush the world and is trying to kill us all (which is seriously illogical), that’s just yelling and screaming, and has nothing to do with real science. The scientific consensus on GMO’s is nearly the same as it is for human-caused climate change.
The scientific evidence is clear: global climate change caused by human activities is occurring now, and it is a growing threat to society. Accumulating data from across the globe reveal a wide array of effects: rapidly melting glaciers, destabilization of major ice sheets, increases in extreme weather, rising sea level, shifts in species ranges, and more. The pace of change and the evidence of harm have increased markedly over the last five years. The time to control greenhouse gas emissions is now.
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.
I guess someone could argue that the AAAS is right about one matter, but completely off-base on the other. Science deniers all do the same thing, pick and choose the science that supports their pre-existing beliefs in attitudes. Evolution deniers try to find evidence that the world is only 6000 years old, ignore the figurative (if not literal) mountains of evidence that support evolution as a scientific fact. But there is a group of people who mock those evolution deniers, while inventing massive conspiracies and fake science to support their anti-GMO beliefs.
One last thing. People ask how can an astrophysicist speak about GMO crops, which is a valid criticism. But here’s the difference–Tyson isn’t pretending to be an authority figure on GMO’s, he’s supporting the official scientific consensus developed by authorities. I strongly criticize scientists, who may be authorities in one area, but who then abuse that authority and pretend that they can speak to the science in something wholly separate from their own. They take their fame in one field to pretend they are an expert in another one, trading in on that fame. It happens all the time with those “scientists” who sign petitions disputing evolution or climate change. They are usually engineers, or computer “scientists” or some other non-expert, who wouldn’t know evolution if it smacked them on the head.
Tyson is supporting the consensus, because he’s a brilliant scientist. He isn’t going to suddenly switch fields to become an geneticist or cell biologist, and even he did, he’d be publishing his first paper 10 years from now. What he does is what any scientist does–examine the consensus, look at whose research has the most weight, and see if the opposing view has the same quality of research. And right now, the evidence is overwhelming that GMO crops are safe for humans and for the environment (and if you’re going to bring up glyphosate, Roundup, then that’s a different conversation, it’s no longer about GMO’s). And the evidence that GMO plants are harmful is pitifully weak.
And again, because science isn’t black and white, if the scientific consensus changes because of real evidence, I’m willing to switch my position. And foods ought to be tested, and that means GMO’s, “organic” foods, meats, dairy, everything. I find it ironic that there’s an implication that “organic” means healthy and GMO isn’t, when the science behind GMO’s is significantly broader and deeper than with regards to organic foods.
I am not naive. I know that there are conservatives who think that Tyson right and wrong. And some liberals who are apoplectic about Tyson today. To me, Neil deGrasse Tyson is perfectly rational and consistent–he follows the evidence to the conclusion, not establishing a conclusion, and denying all science that doesn’t support it.