I naively once thought that anti-GMO activists only occasionally crossed paths with the anti-vaccine ones. Sure, on the Venn diagram of anti-science beliefs, anti-GMO anti-vaccine activists overlapped quite a bit, but I just thought they were separate species. Maybe they once were, but there appears to be a substantial amount of convergent evolution between the separate species of anti-science activists. It’s hard to distinguish the two these days, as I regularly see one or the other type of activists just lump GMOs and vaccines together as one evil against all children.
Anti-GMO and anti-vaccine zealots may have started independently for different reasons. These days, however, they have converged into one group, the anti-GMO anti-vaccine militants, which utilize almost the exact same methodology:
- Ignore, attack or belittle the scientific consensus.
- Cherry picking badly designed and poorly analyzed published to support their pre-conceived conclusions rather than examining the body of evidence and see what conclusions one can reach from it.
- Creating ridiculous straw men based on conspiracy theories and misinformation.
Using bad, or no science, the anti-GMO anti-vaccine extremists attempt to blame each science, and/or both together, as the cause of a whole host off issues with children – autism, other neurological disorders, allergies, and so many others it would take 5 articles to describe them all. Worse yet, they try to simplify their messages with memes and tropes that attempt to scare the reasonable parent away from the safety of GMOs and vaccines. We’ve all seen the the photos with a tough looking nurse or doctor trying to inject a crying baby with a syringe that is so large, it appears to be used for elephants. Or to really conflate the issues, a photo with some researcher injecting chemicals (and genes I suppose) into an ear of corn or tomato. As if that’s how GMOs are created.
Let’s take a look at the three areas where the anti-GMO anti-vaccine activists have gone off the rails.
Anti-GMO anti-vaccine anti-scientific consensus
I think a scientific consensus is an extremely important stage of developing new scientific ideas and principles. The scientific consensus is the collective opinion and judgement of scientists in a particular field of study. This consensus implies general agreement, and if there is disagreement, it is limited and generally insignificant. For example, the scientific consensus around GMOs doesn’t arrive from mathematicians or quantum physicists – the consensus is formed by the leading experts in the field, including geneticists, plant biologists, agronomists, other agricultural scientists.
It doesn’t come about from a handful of scientists over dinner and drinks, as has been stated by lots of opponents. In fact, a scientific consensus is quite different from the consensus used in a political or group sense. There are three criteria necessary to establish an evidence based consensus:
- Consilience of Evidence – Many different fields of science all contribute to the understanding of major scientific principles, such as anthropogenic climate change – scientists range across the fields of biology, geology, chemistry, and other natural sciences. Similarly, our acceptance of the safety and effectiveness of vaccines is supported by research in diverse fields like epidemiology, public health, microbiology, immunology, virology, physiology and many others. It’s not one subspecialty of science that builds the consensus, it’s several interrelated ones.
- Social calibration – The experts involved in the consensus agree on standards for evidence – and this standard is ridiculously high, which is why it is so powerful. Moreover, there is broad and powerful evidence that creates a scientific consensus, something that is lacking in pseudoscience. For example, the best research in the biomedical sciences are either a double blind clinical trial or a case-controlled epidemiological studies, both with huge number of participants.
- Social Diversity – Having researchers from many cultural and economic backgrounds provides diversity that helps eliminate social biases as a cause of error. For example, the published literature on the safety of GMOs has provided agreement from researchers in countries around the world from various cultural backgrounds.If the evidence of safety only came from middle-class white scientists, whose parents are farmers, and who live in St. Louis, Missouri only 5 blocks from Monsanto headquarters, we might rightfully suspect the consensus. But in general consensus is formed by the weight of evidence, and to get that weight requires research from nearly everywhere on the planet.
Furthermore, and this is a key point – a consensus is not permanent, because, as I’ve said a number of times, science is not dogmatic. If contradictory evidence arises, of the same quality and quantity that formed the original consensus, then the established concord could fall apart, or move to a different one. Remember, all science is provisional – if the evidence changes, the consensus changes.
But you can’t disestablish the consensus based on one cherry picked article found in some obscure predatory journal. Writing “GMOs are dangerous” with crayon on a big sheet of paper will have all of the effect of a badly designed, written and reviewed paper in a junk journal. That would be nothing.
Actually, scientific consensuses require the best research available. It generally relies upon the highest level of excellence that science has to offer. On the hierarchy of scientific evidence, meta reviews and large studies count the most, and scientific consensuses generally demand these studies to even get formed. Again, it isn’t 5 old white guys eating a steak and drinking expensive wine who make this decision. It’s the evidence that drives the consensus.
The number of meta-reviews that have shown no link between GMOs and issues between humans, animals (livestock) and the environment is fairly robust. Similarly, there is overwhelming scientific evidence about the safety of vaccines with respect to autism.
One of those prestigious scientific bodies, the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Sciences), has released a statement regarding a GMO scientific consensus (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.
Just to be clear, 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-respected, high impact-factor scientific journal Science.
There are a number of other international scientific bodies that agree with this consensus. This is a fairly solid consensus, any way you examine it.
It’s the same with vaccines. The National Academy of Sciences, probably the most prestigious scientific institution in the world, has written:
Vaccines offer the promise of protection against a variety of infectious diseases. Despite much media attention and strong opinions from many quarters, vaccines remain one of the greatest tools in the public health arsenal. Certainly, some vaccines result in adverse effects that must be acknowledged. But the latest evidence shows that few adverse effects are caused by the vaccines reviewed in this report.
This consensus wasn’t achieved by the aforementioned dinner and wine. It is backed by a massive review of the vaccine literature, where they looked at every possible adverse effect and weighed it against the benefits.
I know, some anti-GMO anti-vaccine activists will like to say that these consensuses are bought off by Big Agra or Big Pharma – but those appeals to conspiracy are worthless. Bring evidence, once again in both the quality and quantity that formed the consensus in the first place, and we can then look at revising the consensus. But it becomes tiresome to read an anti-GMO anti-vaccine screed whereby someone with a degree in art or marketing thinks they have it within themselves to dismiss the whole scientific consensus about vaccines and GMOs. These statements aren’t weak, pathetic thoughts from a few drunk scientists – they are powerful statements that completely contradict what the anti-science activists say.
I cannot repeat this enough. Science deniers are all alike – they think they can pick and choose which science agrees with their beliefs. I know that the anti-GMO anti-vaccine forces will hate this, but they do precisely what the climate change deniers do. Ignore all science that supports the real scientific consensus while cherry picking the worst possible studies as long as it fits in their narrative about the dangers of GMOs and vaccines.
The anti-GMO zealots spent a year (actually more), trying to prove that a study by Gilles-Eric Séralini, poorly designed and analyzed research that didn’t show us that GMO corn caused cancer – but the anti-GMO forces believe it, as a matter of faith, showed the world that GMOs are dangerous. Gasp! Of course, that study was eventually retracted, and ultimately, gave us zero evidence about the safety of GMO articles.
As I mentioned above, there are dozens of high-powered meta reviews and large subject number studies that have examined the impact of GMOs on human health, animal heath and the environment. They sit at the top of the hierarchy of scientific research and provide us with the solid evidence that GMOs are extraordinarily safe.
But if you scan the blogosphere of the anti-GMO world, you will find the same old logical fallacies used by all science deniers (anti-vaccine types included). They’ll find one article and pounce on it. But they fail to examine the article critically, they don’t check the premise, or analyze the plausibility of results, statistics, methods – all things that a real scientist would do. And more often than not, the research that seems to “support” the anti-GMO side is a one-off primary research article that has never been repeated. Or has been retracted.
The same thing happens with our “friends” over on the anti-vaccine side. Late in 2016, a paper was published and retracted by a predatory journal. Just a few weeks ago, that same paper was republished in another predatory journal, and then was almost immediately retracted. The paper (both versions) tried to show that vaccinated children were less healthy than unvaccinated ones. But an analysis of the research, irrespective of whether it was retracted or not, showed us nothing about whether vaccinated children were less healthy than unvaccinated ones. Nothing at all.
Real scientists across the world pointed out how bad the article was – it did not meet even the lowest level of credibility. Yet, the anti-vaccine world, like Sayer Ji, jumped all over the article (even after it was retracted) as proof of the danger of vaccines.
If these were the only cases, maybe the anti-GMO anti-vaccine forces could not be criticized – unfortunately, this happens all of the time. But the larger point is that there is no evidence being published that support their points of view on GMOs and vaccines. Not even close. The best they can do is scan bad journals and cherry pick terrible articles to make it seem like there’s a controversy about GMOs and vaccines. But there simply isn’t, except in the minds of these activists.
Creating straw men
The anti-GMO anti-vaccine science deniers, lacking evidence of any quality, have decided that since there is no evidence, or they have only really bad evidence that supports their beliefs, they have to go on the attack. So they invent ad hominem criticisms about Monsanto, which include conflating GMOs with Monsanto’s Round Up herbicide. glyphosate. They invent stories that GMOs all require glyphosate, because evil Monsanto is trying to poison us.
The facts are that the case against glyphosate, independent of GMOs, is ridiculously weak (and beyond the discussion of the article). But to conflate the two, when most GMO crops have little to nothing to do with glyphosate, is just a method to mischaracterize GMOs as unsafe. There are other strawman arguments used by the GMO deniers, including that Monsanto owns the GMO seeds so they’re trying to destroy agriculture. Or something, the arguments often fall flat.
The same tactics are used by the pseudoscience pushing vaccine deniers. They want us to believe that vaccines are a huge profit center for Big Pharma, so they’re foisting vaccines onto the innocent population of the world. An interesting argument that falls apart with real analysis. Setting aside the inane belief that all employees of Big Pharma are pod-people who all march in lockstep to the demands of the corporation, what would a truly greedy Big Pharma executive really want? Well, vaccines prevent diseases – and there’s nothing more that Big Pharma would want is hospitals filled with critically ill patients who need all kinds of devices, equipment and medication to survive. In fact, Big Pharma clearly would make more profit in a world filled with measles and polio epidemics than they would by selling vaccines.
So, the anti-vaccine activists need to be consistent – is Big Pharma really evil and greedy? If they are, they would shut down every vaccine manufacturing plant, convert it to making hospital beds and IVs, and wait for the millions of sick children. But of course, not a single Big Pharma exec would ever joke about it, because they’re goal is always to create products that save lives, not causing disease.
Can we change minds?
Dr. Daniel Summers asked a rhetorical question in the Washington Post with respect to vaccine denial, “At what point does a body of evidence become massive enough to count as proof? When has a question been answered enough times that it can be put to rest?”
Kavin Senapathy, writing in Forbes, answered:
When it comes to the anti-vaccine and anti-GMO movements, the answer is never. There is absolutely no amount of evidence that will convince them to drop the ideology and distrust in expertise and in the vast weight of evidence. These movements are based in conspiracy theories, plain and simple. A hallmark of conspiracy theories is that they are unfalsifiable—a matter of faith rather than reason—and therefore any opposing information becomes part of the conspiracy theory.
People constantly dismiss real science because they have a political or personal belief system that just dismisses rational scientific evidence. Right wing conservatives, using precisely the same methods and ignorance as the anti-GMO anti-vaccine activists, deny the existence of human caused global warming. Why? Because accepting the science will contradict their tightly held beliefs that coal mining, drilling for oil, and emission standards on cars are all evil political stances of the left.
But the left doesn’t get a pass. I often cross-post these articles to the Daily Kos, a left-leaning website, and I constantly get trolled by science denying liberals who just want to believe that autism is caused by GMOs. Or labelling GMOs isn’t really a science issue. Ironically, I have higher standards for liberals with respect for science, so it is even more despicable when these faux liberals become real-life science deniers, just like their buddies over on the right. What makes the left’s science denying on GMOs and vaccines particularly galling is that by denying it, they hurt those who need it more. Dropping GMOs will only lead to increases in the price of food, especially for those who cannot afford higher prices. And let’s not overlook the fact that the white privileged types who prefer their gluten-free/GMO-free food from Whole Foods think to themselves, “I’m buying better food, and I don’t care about those who have to buy the lower quality food.” Even though that belief is unscientific, so those individuals on “food stamps” are buying the same scientifically sound food as their rich white liberal counterparts.
There’s evidence in California, that the higher clusters of unvaccinated kids occurred mostly in wealthy, white, liberal areas of the state. Those people believe, again without a stitch of scientific evidence, that their precious snowflakes don’t need vaccines because they are protected by crystals, acupuncture, a GMO/gluten free diet, and whatever other new age pseudoscientific nonsense is flying through the community. Maybe some of these white liberals just think they’re genetically superior, I don’t know.
Well, who gets hurt by this? Yeah, once again, it’s those who are least able to protect themselves. Babies who aren’t ready to be vaccinated. Children with immune deficiency. Poor immigrant families who are saving up to get their kids vaccinated.
The science clearly shows us that most of this science denialism is wrong. Very wrong. Yet it exists, even among educated liberals and conservatives. To me, the science is clear. I don’t presume to be Neil deGrasse Tyson, so I’m mostly incapable of explaining astrophysics to you – but I’m smart enough to know when someone like Dr. Tyson has got it all right. But I do presume that I know biomedical science pretty well, I’ve got 40 years of experience – and the overwhelming evidence tells me that vaccines and GMOs are safe. And I’m not cherry picking, I’m doing real science. I look where the science takes me, and it’s damn clear.
If you think that vaccines haven’t saved millions of lives across the world, and still don’t get your kids vaccinated, you need the sign that says “science denier.” If you think that GMOs cannot safely feed the planet and save many countries from regular starvation, then you need that sign again. You are a science denier.
I forgot to mention one important – there are GMO ingredients in vaccines. Uh oh.