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 Flag||What 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 evidence||The 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 legends||Anecdotes 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 connivance||Conspiracy theories are the standard operating procedures of the anti-GMO crowd. And Monsanto conspiracy theories are the best.|
|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. |
|Devious deception in displaying data: Cherry picking||GMO 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 arguments||In 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 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 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 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.|
|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.|
|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. 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 syndrome||The 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 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.|
|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.|
|Perceiving phoney patterns: apophenia||This 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 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.|
|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.|
|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.|
|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.|
|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 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.|
|Confirmation bias – ferreting favourable 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. 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.