GMO opponents are the global warming denialists of the left

This article has been updated, revised, modernized, and zombified. Read that one instead.

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:

Which leads me to an article in Slate MagazineAre GMO foods safe? Opponents are skewing the science to scare people by Keith Kloor. In the article, Klorr basically states that the anti-GMO political left are using the exact same methods and tactics that are adored by the climate change denialists. The same individuals and groups who are outraged by whatever the climate deniers do politically, seem to ignore that same anti-science when it applies to GMO. It’s like Mother Jones, the left wing magazine who will jump on any global warming denialist, has switch places with the Wall Street Journal with respect to GMO foods.
According to Kloor,

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).”
But the concerns about the scientific honesty of their work is further exposed in the article:

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.

Key citations:

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!

42 Replies to “GMO opponents are the global warming denialists of the left”

  1. The mentioned anti-vac movement is also a leftish anti-science movement. Another is the 9/11 truther movement, which labels every competent engineer in the country as "working for the government" and accuses those who accept the scientific evidence as "buying the establishment line", and the JFK conspiracy movement (I was a member of this before I was exposed to the evidence… see http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/home.htm). Chip Berlet has written on this extensively, and how right wing conspiracy memes become part of the left wing view. P.S. Keiths' name is "Kloor".

  2. I would say more legitimate criticisms of GM food involve the techniques in which GM food is being produced: For example, crops with pest control in them quickly create pest-control-resistant bugs because they are not being planted in such a way that compensates for that kind of selection, or that the corporations that use GMOs are unscrupulous in using them to take advantage of farmers, or otherwise monopolize on poor business ethics. Or that it leads to a lack of diversity in our crop supply, which currently is not profitable for corporations to handle. So unlike global warming denialism, there ARE issues that surround GMOs and their use…

    But it's not that the actual modifications are POISON! one! 11. Which is in a way worse, because the fuss and fits over GM food cause actual problems in the production and the way we get our food, and the industries/subsides that make it all possible, to be overlooked.

    1. Well, my article was about how the left invents unscientific points of view to dismiss GMO's, much like how the right does the same about global warming. And this is what you just did with GMO's, though at least you didn't bring up the GMO causing cancer strawman. There is little science behind what you say. And blaming corporations for everything gets a little boring after awhile. I'm certainly not going to defend Monsanto, but you'll have to come up with real data supporting your claims, rather than rhetoric.

    2. What? I'm on your side, bro. Anti-GM garbage is whack.

      But how is there 'little science' behind the theory of natural selection? For example (and this is just ONE issue effecting growing of GM crops, and it's NOT a health or environmental issue!), right now it is most profitable for farmers to plant a WHOLE field of corn that has genetic pesticides in it- harmless for humans to eat, but deadly to corn-eating bugs. But this means that all of the bugs that succumb to the toxin die, but those with some immunity may survive, breed, and create resistant strains of bugs. This could easily be solved by creating 'refuge areas' in crop fields with NON-enhanced crops, which would not favor toxin resistance, thus keeping those bugs in the population. But because these refuge areas become less valuable, with less yield, it is not profitable for farmers to plant them and still remain over quota, etc. Thus they aren't as large as they should be to limit pest resistance, etc.

      What, then, if not the people who actually control the technology that is being used, would we blame for this tech not being used to its fullest potential for safe feeding of a growing world population? It's not the fault of the researchers; they have tested and tested to the point where we know it's safe to consume. Not the farmers, who simply plant to meet the demands of buyers. Not the consumers, who don't know shit. Not the government, certainly… but the corporations that CHOOSE how to use their property perhaps not in the wisest way are up for grabs. Claiming that it's boring doesn't make the fact that former monsanto executives are appointed to the FDA, or the fact that the few companies that stand under Anti-GMO opposition now have a nasty monopoly on the field.

      Citations, because you seem to be rabidly assuming I hate you and GM resarch when I don't and you need to calm the hell down:

      http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/06/120605102846.htm (corn refuge areas should be larger; unlikely to happen due to lost profits)

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_R._Taylor (Michael Taylor, a man whose career has shuffled revolving-door style from monsanto to the FDA to monsanto and others, very suspicious buisness practices and ethics, etc.)

      This is the worst part about denialism. Everybody who then fights denialism, or has the least criticism of the issue handling, is screamed down by rabid, frothing people who think that they're the enemy, when really both parties are on the same side, but have two different approaches. It makes people assume others are crazy, drawing attention away from the REAL crazies: people who think that eating GM food will make you some kind of mutant.

    3. I understand that point. I think that monoculture of farming has got to change, or we're going to starve ourselves or whole farmlands are going to be destroyed.

      I missed your points in your original posting. But thanks for following up. This is great stuff.

      I do get a little nauseous sounding like I support Monsanto. They are a suspicious company. But your reply makes a lot more sense, and I appreciate it. While still using GM crops, we can be a lot more intelligent about it.

    4. Though I have just recently started looking into why people hate/fear GMOs to such a degree, I've already read that the process you describe using the "refuge areas" is how the GM crops are MEANT to be planted. Farmers or plants choose to ignore this essential step and effectively handicap themselves. This problem is one of ignorance.

  3. Thank you for this column and your earlier one on the subject. I posted it and "Knorr's article on Facebook and received some heated responses from fervently anti-GMO friends. Their thoughts boil down to "OK, fine, but even if you post scientific evidence that they're safe we STILL hate GMOs because monoculture is dangerous to the worldwide food supply, and anyway Monsanto is Satan incarnate."

    Have you written about, or do you know of sources for information about the possible dangers of one or a few seeds replacing the larger varieties of seeds currently used around the world?

    1. Yeah, it's kind of painful being a "supporter" of Monsanto or "Big Pharma", when I'm on the pro-vaccination side of an argument. But I have to separate their oft-times unethical executives, from what I believe are ethical and moral researchers and general employees.

      I have to admit, my field of knowledge is biomedicine, rather than agriculture. But if you look at how we have bio-engineered food supplies for over 10,000 years, your concerns about narrowing genetic diversity is a valid one. I think that's something that I'm going to investigate. I'll keep you posted. It's a good subject about which I am going to write.

  4. Hm. Not totally convinced by this analogy. Yes, the Seralini rat study is laughably bad, and anyone who uses it to claim that GMOs are a bad thing is a worthy target of your blog, being just as guilty of anti-science as climate change deniers.

    However, there are some legitimate environmental concerns about GMOs. Can we be sure that they don't have detrimental effects on the environment? From what I've seen, it looks like most of the evidence points to a reasonably benign environmental profile, but I don't think the evidence is robust enough to say for sure they have no detrimental environmental effects.

    So the science is not completely certain (which, let's face it, is pretty much always true). Similarly, the science is not completely certain about climate change. We can be pretty sure that man-made activities are contributing to climate change, but there are some legitimate questions about the extent to which that is happening.

    But here's the thing: it seems rational in both cases to follow the precautionary principle. To do so, we should take the threat of global warming seriously, as although we can't be 100% sure that we need to, it seems prudent to do so, following the precautionary principle.

    Similarly, to be suspicious of the effect of GMOs on the environment is also a reasonable application of the precautionary principle.

    I therefore think your analogy between anti-GMO folk and climate change deniers doesn't really hold. Anti-GMO folk respect the precautionary principle, whereas climate change deniers ignore it.

    1. Wait. But there's overwhelming evidence that climate change has been caused by man. To deny that without a stitch of evidence is the definition of denial. There isn't any evidence that GMO is bad. yes, the precautionary principle applies, hence the EPA, FDA and various other national agencies get involved without much evidence, but we do it. But let's be honest, without a plausible and rational scientific pathway whereby GMO might harm the environment or man, we are becoming irrational.

      Your application of the Precautionary Principle would make us stop in our tracks. We'd stop all scientific progress. We'd have no medications, which is based on a principle of efficacy vs. risk. There isn't any indication whatsoever that GMO's have any possibility of risk. The precautionary principle makes sense if we could imagine some pathway of risk , but we can't.

      We can't just invent precautions, where there are none plausible.

      Moreover, GMO foods may be the difference between mass starvation and feeding an increasingly crowded earth. What do we do? Let 'em starve?

      I completely reject almost all of your reasoning, because you capriciously apply it in one case, GMO's, but seem to not apply elsewhere. We have no evidence that GMO's do anything, yet we must be ultra careful. That's not scientific.

    2. This study just says that some GM varieties live in the wild. If you are concerned about this, it could be prevented by using GURT (aka "terminator seeds"). Strangely, the anti-GMO activists are completely opposed to this! This reminds me of anti-nuclear activists who oppose every possible way of disposing of nuclear waste, because if a solution was implemented, they wouldn't have a problem to complain about.

    3. "Similarly, the science is not completely certain about climate change. We can be pretty sure that man-made activities are contributing to climate change, but there are some legitimate questions about the extent to which that is happening."

      **That** is a bad analogy. The evidence for (and the basic physics of) AGW is overwhelming. Sure there are questions about extent, but the "official" estimates, e.g., the IPCC, are very *conservative* … it keeps turning out that things are far *worse* than initially projected.

    4. Michael Simpson "That's not a peer-reviewed study."

      That wasn't the question. There is *some* indication of GMO risk, such as rootworm resistance.

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