My (further) response to Novella on GMOs

I promise, this is the last round concerning this particular discussion, at the least on my part. To recap: Danny Hakim, an investigative reporter for the New York Times, published a critical piece on certain aspects of GMO technology; my friend and fellow skeptic Steve Novella responded; I commented critically on Steve’s response; and he responded to my criticism. The current post, however, isn’t going to be yet another blow-by-blow affair, for a few reasons: i) it would be even longer than the last installment, which I fear would severely test readers’ patience; ii) there is a diminishing return to going deeper and deeper and insert more and more qualifications to any argument; and iii) it seems to me that most of what Steve and I wanted to say has been said already.

So let me try to zoom the discussion out a little, shifting attention to what I think are some background issues of which this exchange has been a particular instantiation.

To begin with, I’m afraid Steve and I are talking past each other. We both agree that issues such as GMOs are “complicated,” and we are both sufficiently experienced and nuanced thinkers to appreciate that. We both know that the industry has repeatedly forced the hand in economic and legislative terms (for instance by spending millions to lobby against regulation and labeling); we also both know that more or less naive environmentalists have repeatedly ignored the facts on the ground to pursue their own political and ideological agendas. And yet, somehow we disagree. On what exactly?

Ultimately, on the very role of skepticism and on what it means to be a “skeptic.” This goes back to Steve’s harsh reaction to John Hogan’s invited talk at the latest North East Conference on Science and Skepticism. Steve is one of the co-organizers, and I have participated a number of times. Indeed, I was the one who suggested inviting Hogan to begin with.

(I know, this may seem a distraction from the topic of the post, but bear with me for a little while longer.)

In a nutshell, Hogan has criticized the skeptic movement for focusing on easy targets and shying away from real and socially relevant controversies, as well as for being a rather uncritical supporter of science and especially of a small number of high-profile scientists and science popularizers. Steve took Horgan to task on the details, and he was right in doing so, but missed, I think, the big picture — which is that the skeptic movement does need more than a bit of self-reflection and soul-searching.

Something similar has unfolded in this latest round. While Steve certainly makes good points about Hakim’s original NYT article, as well as my own criticism of his rebuttal, I need to explain what brought the whole thing to my attention to begin with.

He opens his piece on Hakim in this way: “It is unfortunate that so many journalists begin with a narrative and then back fill the facts and points necessary to tell their narrative.” And ends it this way: “In my opinion Hakim’s article in the Times was a hack piece with a biased narrative that is nothing more than a rehash of tired anti-GMO tropes that have already been widely deconstructed.”

It is a very unfortunate approach, one that reveals Steve’s own biases and showcases his heavy-handed rhetorical style. The Hakim article is most definitely not a hack piece, no matter how much one may disagree with the details; and there is no evidence that Hakim “buys” into any pre-determined narrative. He is an experienced investigative journalist, working for the premiere newspaper in the world. I think it is reasonable to assume that he knows how to do his job. Constructive criticism is not the sort of thing that begins with poisoning the well (“It is unfortunate that so many journalists…”) and ends with an ad hominem (“a hack piece with a biased narrative”).

One thing that doesn’t surface in Steve’s response is a fear that he brought up to me in direct correspondence (I cannot quote his email directly for privacy reasons, but I don’t think he will deny this, he’s an honest writer): you see, articles like the one in the New York Times give ammunitions to the irrational side of the debate. To substantiate his fear, Steve sent me the link to this article in Mother Jones, which sure enough does build on Hakim’s NYT piece and runs with it.

So yes, such fears are perfectly reasonable, and all too often come true. But wait a minute, I thought that as skeptics we were after the truth, not pushing a particular political or ideological position, however well-intentioned it may be. Was I mistaken?

Let me give you another example, concerning my own writings and how they have been and continue to be misused. I am one of the main promoters of what is referred to as the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis, a new version of the “standard model” in evolutionary theory. In doing so, I have commented on rather unorthodox ideas in evolutionary biology, such as epigenetic inheritance, niche construction, and so-called facilitated variation (a mechanism that makes natural selection’s jobs in generating complex structures much easier). Well, what do you know, the Discovery Institute — the creationist think tank based in Seattle — has had a field day with my writings, which they took (predictably, and mistakenly) to be points in their favor. (Here is just one example, from a few days ago, building on my recent critique of Andreas Wagner’s biological Platonism.) So be it. I do have a duty to write clearly and as precisely as possible. But I do not control the misinformation, willful or not, that others spread by making ill-use of what I write.

That should go for Steve and other skeptics too. It shouldn’t matter if an article or book can be misused by “the other side.” What matters is whether that article or book is accurate or not. If it isn’t, let’s correct it. But we shouldn’t help ourselves to rhetorical smears in order to circle whatever wagons we think we have a duty to defend.

An additional issue here is presented by the political positions of the people involved in the debate. Steve makes a point of not revealing publicly what his ideological leanings are, and I both understand and respect that. But of course that doesn’t make him immune from bias, it only hides from public view a potential source of bias. I make no beef in letting it known that I am a progressive liberal, what in Europe is known as a social democrat. Of course that biases my view of certain issues, for instance I tend to be instinctively skeptical of anything any big corporation says. This, however, doesn’t make what I say immediately wrong. Just like it didn’t make Pen Gillette’s and Michael Shermer’s original denial of climate change, probably fueled by their libertarianism, inherently wrong (they were plainly and simply wrong). Not only “bias” is inevitable, as much recent work in social psychology has shown, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing either.

Let me explain. In the early part of the 20th century philosophers of science were looking for ways to explain why science is an objective enterprise. Think the logical positivists, or Karl Popper. Then came the so-called “historicist” turn, with Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend, and philosophers finally realized that science is not, in fact, intrinsically objective at all. (Many scientists haven’t matured to that point yet.) Does that mean that science is, then, just another social construction? That knowledge and truth are inevitably relative to one’s tribe and worldview? No, and the best answer to this challenge is that of so-called “perspectivism,” articulated for instance by Ronald Giere. The idea is that science advances in a spectacular, if imperfect, fashion, not because individual scientists are somehow less biased or more objective than anyone else, but because there is a healthy confrontation of ideas advanced by people with a variety of perspectives, backgrounds and, yes, “biases” (i.e., preferences, values, personal experiences, etc.).

So I would actually urge my fellow skeptics to declare their biases, rather than keeping them close to their chest, precisely in order to advance a frank discussion about the issues.

Finally, Steve not surprisingly rejects my suggestion that there is a degree of groupthink within the skeptic community. And yet he has been to plenty of skeptic conferences where certain positions seem to be more or less sacred, being pro-GMOs is just one of them. Witness, for instance, the incredibly harsh and childish reaction the above mentioned talk by John Horgan at the latest NECSS got from the MC, simply because John had dared criticize Skepticism(TM). So much for open inquiry and critical discourse. Or witness the worshiping of a number of scientists or science popularizers whom I’ve repeatedly taken to task for their willful ignorance of philosophy (that includes Lawrence Krauss, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Bill Nye). I’ve actually seen people walking away from my talks at NECSS on the ground that “philosophy is useless anyway” (apparently forgetting that I’m also a scientist, oh well).

What does much of the above have to do with GMOs? As I said, both Steve and I have explained our positions on that particular issue, but I was drawn to his post by his opening and closing comments, which I saw as symptomatic of the sort of broader problems with the skeptic community that I am most concerned with. Steve is by far one of the least offenders here, but the fact that even his normally level-headed demeanor gave way to that outburst made me worry.

Of course, all of the above matters much less now that the United States has elected a fascist to the Presidency and given absolute control of power to a bunch of regressive sexists and homophobes. (Sorry, I just had to get that off my chest.) But that, obviously, is an entirely different story.

29 thoughts on “My (further) response to Novella on GMOs

  1. Coel

    Hi Massimo,

    … there is no evidence that Hakim “buys” into any pre-determined narrative. He is an experienced investigative journalist, working for the premiere newspaper in the world. I think it is reasonable to assume that he knows how to do his job.

    First, there is indeed evidence, within the article itself. And second, I don’t think that that argument from authority amounts to much. Novella is entitled to judge the piece on its merits.

    The evidence of biased narrative is there in the NYT article. As a quick summary of one aspect of that: (1) the highlighted pointing to children-damaging insecticides in a way that tends to give the impression that GMOs are associated with greater use of these. (2) The un-obvious (unless one is paying close attention) statement that use of such insecticides has actually decreased with GMOs. (3) The comparison to insecticide use in non-GMO France, but without any discussion at all of the reasons for that, or of whether France is a typical example, or whether it is cherry-picked. Without that, the relevance to GMOs is unclear, and thus — in this context — the highlighting of the children-damaging insecticides (and the mentions of Sarin and the Nazis) is poisoning the well.

    Then came the so-called “historicist” turn, with Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend, and philosophers finally realized that science is not, in fact, intrinsically objective at all. (Many scientists haven’t matured to that point yet.)

    Oooh, argumentative! And many scientists got there before the philosophers of science, and many scientists have a more sensible and mature understanding of the nature of science than many philosophers of science. And many philosophers of science have a very naive view of how scientists tend to think!

    Or witness the worshiping of a number of scientists or science popularizers whom I’ve repeatedly taken to task for their willful ignorance of philosophy …

    “Worshipping”? Oooh! Absolutely no ad hominem there! Isn’t this sort of writing: “… a very unfortunate approach, one that reveals [Massimo’s] own biases and showcases his heavy-handed rhetorical style”?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Massimo Post author


    You obviously have no idea of the facts on the ground. “Worshipping” is an accurate description of what goes on in certain quarters of the skeptical movement, as I’ve seen plenty of time, firsthand. I assure you it isn’t rhetorical hype. It is, however, ironic, since the same skeptics would then sneer at anything that they perceive as worshipping when it is done by their targets.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Coel

    Hi Massimo, well I’m more first-hand familiar with what goes on in the British component of the sceptical movement, and Americans do tend to do everything with a touch more surface emotion.

    But are you sure you’re not close to anti-worship? The sheer number of your articles where you manage to steer the subject round to a mention of such as Lawrence Krauss or Neil de Grasse Tyson, however tangential to the topic in hand, is rather strikingly high.

    [Not to mention the de rigueur mentioning of the D-named person in ways where he can be made out to be wrong, as exemplified by a recent post.]

    Given that your own writing style is rather agenda-driven and rhetorical rather than detached and dispassionate — and there’s nothing at all wrong with that, indeed it makes for interesting writing, and certainly provides me with plenty of opportunities to disagree 🙂 — it’s a bit surprising that you would object to the same from Steve Novella and others.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Manfred Krieg

    I would like too read more skepical papers about “economic science”, a domain that singulary pass outside their accurate sight as it got massive prentention to be taken as an hard science.

    Because a science that cannnot be replicated, reproduced or predicted is a bit curious to pretend to the scientifc label. Econometric science makes a massive use of individual and mass psychology, push abstract mathematical models to factual reality and its axiomas are so opposite and confused between writers and thinkers.

    And OGM is not only a matter of personnal consuming but also its general place in wild nature, foreign country agriculture struggles between big company and small peasents unions, patents on seeds and chemicals obligations on it etc. I dunno exactly how the debate is grounded in the US but around the world it’s not that much genetics in cause but economics and enviroment around it. Today some intellectual circle are more worried about industrial use of nanotech :

    Sadly I understand how it can be mixed with anti-vax or any magical thinking, but rationalists should ask themselves how, in the country where technical science is so powerfull, why people (and many of the educated upper class) fall into it ? My opinion is because of the agressive (non-) metaphysic of the technocracy. A human without metaphysic does not exist (no more), it’s an homo sapiens, and we are homo sapiens-sapiens now. So a metaphysicless human is a corps, a cadaver, a undead, a zombie.

    Metaphysic can be found in animism, christianism, space exploration, propsective about what’s behind curtains of the Plank’s wall, politics, mysticisms, arts, sports, what do you want – even stoicism 😛 But we need that as fresh air, water and food. Starving of it means depression… or irrational thinking. And the pretention and means of the “technical science”, where engineering is confused with science, has taken so much power on our life, for the best and the worst that a reject of it (based on rationnal observation : polution, cancer, over-medicalization of children, women and aged people taken as pure marketing target) conduct to a naive reject, But hey, I do not have to choose between an astrologist and Joseph Mengele or Dow Chemical : between them there is Louis Pasteur.

    So when Stephen Hawkins denie philosphy to exist in our times, it’s ironic because physicians spend their time to turn around metaphysics. Black hole are metaphysical objects, of course we are 99.98% sure of their existence based on our models, but the 0.1% is the small step and the risk we take between the border and the edge of our knowledge, imagination and prospective. Blake Hole does not not exist in fact, only models and proofs around a metaphysical concept scientificaly formed, as Spinoza try to explain the existence of God/Nature with geometry.

    your dear engrish (twitter) reader, greetings from Geneva, Swiss!


  5. SocraticGadfly

    Massimo, thanks for the “framing” issue. I’ve been thinking Horgan’s speech all along; part of why I tagged him on Twitter with your original.

    As noted in installment two, I’ve seen groupthink about the U.S. election. And it’s gotten worse, with me even seeing the former director of a skeptic group claiming on FB that he didn’t say Clinton had gotten more popular votes than Obama when he had said exactly that.


    And, yes, people are worshiped, from my POV of never going to these conferences. Shermer would be one. Within his own org and beyond, James Randi would most definitely be another., to the point of others essentially lying on his behalf about what he knew, or not, and when, about his boyfriend’s identity theft and more.


    Nye? IMO, he’s an attention whore as much as anything.


  6. SocraticGadfly

    Sidebar: Do you really think Trump is a fascist, Massimo, in a proper use of the word and not just an epithet? I don’t. I do certainly consider him racist, sexist and homophobic. On the first two, at least, he’s left a lifetime of history attesting to that.

    But, other than some bloviating, I don’t consider him a full-on fascist.


  7. Coel

    I also think there’s some Dunning-Krueger Effect among Skeptics(TM). Reading us today, Mr. Novella?

    Now isn’t that just nasty. Socratic, you never say anything worthwhile, you simply echo what Massimo has said, but less eloquently and with added sneer.


  8. SocraticGadfly

    Having had extended debate with Massimo here on things like subselves, free will and more, you know that I’m not Massimo’s echo chamber, Coel.

    As for the D-K charge, he didn’t make that, it was my own, therefore I can’t be his echo chamber. And, since I see it as true, it may be blunt, whether or not it’s sneering.

    If you choose to engage in motivated reasoning for your personal ends, fine. It’s fact-free, of course.


  9. astrodreamer

    The big idea is that the world will be a much better place if only everyone plants the same seeds which scientists tell them to plant, and well-organized corporations, run by super-responsible individuals, guided by scientific knowledge, control everything. This is a form of faith, a widely-held fundamental belief among scientists, skeptics, and the powers that employ them. Any debate about GMO technology needs to keep that questionable telos in mind. As for Trump, he is of course deplorable, but Hillarism is responsible for the death of millions, so let’s think about that. That so many people feel it is important that the murderer-in-chief be a woman speaks volumes. Personally, I would rather be a gay man under Trump than a Syrian under Clinton.


  10. Coel


    As for the D-K charge, he didn’t make that, it was my own, therefore I can’t be his echo chamber.

    That bit wasn’t the echo, that was the “… and with added sneer”.

    And, since I see it as true …

    Says someone who is anonymous and whose credentials for judging are thus unknown. In contrast to someone like Steven Novella who very capably does a lot of good in the world.


  11. michaelfugate

    Massimo, this parallels my thinking on the issue. Nothing is so obvious that it doesn’t bear repeating. If we aren’t honest, then others will conclude we are hiding something and rightly so. I have been reflecting on things the past two days wondering how we got here. It is pretty clear that labeling those on the other side as evil is not the means to change opinion. I have no idea what will come of this, but I remain optimistic nonetheless.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. ejwinner

    you’ve been around here and SciSal long enough to have learned Socratic’s real name, his profession, where he’s from and what his qualifications are. You’re remark is disingenuous.

    while this is still off-topic, I point out that we are entering an era of a one-party state with a leadership committed ideologically to the ‘purification’ of America and regression to a presumed ‘greater glory.’ That’s not the complete definition of Fascism, but it is certainly part of it.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Massimo Post author

    Coel, Socratic,

    C’mon, I will tolerate a bit of back-and-forth and even somewhat sarcastic comments, but within limits. I think you are both beyond the limit for this round, so please stick to the arguments until the thread closes.


  14. Coel

    Sticking purely to factual matters, Steven Novella has put up a further reply on his blog.

    [And sticking purely to a factual reply to ej: If he used his real name on SS then I’ve forgotten, and my guesses at the rest would be: something to do with newspaper editing, somewhere in America, and — this really would be guessing — most likely on the arts/humanities side rather than anything related to science/technology, but that’s about the extent of my knowledge.]


  15. SocraticGadfly

    At the same time, back to the main thread, and speaking directly to it and my previous comment — D-K can be a driver within some versions of condescension, a subpoint within, “No, we’re Skeptics(TM) and we haven’t gotten one iota of thought on Issue X wrong.” (Usually with a nonverbal pat on the head included.)

    That said, to continue to speak directly to the thread, such a psychology is by no means limited to such skeptics. I’d argue that the election postmortem here in the US by many national Democratic panjandrums (interesting that WordPress doesn’t recognize the word) and mandarins fits a similar mold. (Apologies to those who voted within the left hand of the two major parties’ system.)


  16. Massimo Post author


    I don’t want to dwell on this because the post isn’t about Trump. No worries, we’ll have plenty of occasions over the next four years…

    But yes, I do think he’s a fascist. Notice that I didn’t say a Nazi on purpose. There is a difference. The fascist party was a populist one, and Mussolini was actually a socialist early on (just like Trump used to be definitely far from the Republican zone).

    More to the point, fascism is about bullying, intimidation, and the use of force in the name of law and order. Sounds to me like a lot of what Trump has been doing or talking about.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Robin Herbert

    The new VP has a plan to force children to conform to state approved values by the infliction of pain. The Republicans have a Bill to enable it and control both houses. And Trump will appoint a hard conservative to the Supreme Court. Call that what you want. It isn’t good.


  18. Coel

    The fascist party was a populist one, and Mussolini was actually a socialist early on …

    As indeed were the National Socialist German Workers Party.


  19. marc levesque

    From Novella’s last reply: “My premise was that framing a discussion of GMOs as if they are one monolithic thing is an inherently biased frame, and specifically an anti-GMO frame.”

    I don’t see how he established that. And why is it specifically anti-GMO when industry does it and they’re obviously pro GMO.

    He continues: “Hakim used examples of specific genetically modified organisms but framed the discussion as “the more basic problem” with “genetic modification.” ”

    Again not sure where he got that, Hakim framed it as “GMO promises fall short” or “Doubts About the Promised Bounty of Genetically Modified Crops”.

    Then he goes on: “I think I have well established that this is a flawed way to approach the issue. I was simply then trying to further establish that this approach is part of anti-GMO talking points. That is not why it’s wrong, but that is why it is done.”

    None of that seems to follow, the fact that a lot of anti-GMO people often talk of GMOs as a monolithic thing doesn’t imply it’s flawed to talk of GMOs as a thing, and it certainly doesn’t follow that Hakim was trying to slip in a condemnation of GMOs by the back door.

    Liked by 2 people

  20. marc levesque

    One reason I feel it’s legitimate to talk about past and current marketing of GMOs and how those claims have panned out is because since the beginning GM corporations have spent a considerable amount of money and time promoting GMOs, and though the ‘feel good’ and other aspects of GMO marketing have been reduced they still serve to create an atmosphere propitious to the general acceptance of GMOs, which in turn increases the likelihood that negative aspects will more easily stay in the background or regulatory oversight will be less stringent.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. marc levesque

    And as far as I can tell one problem that’s specific to GMOs are licensing restrictions and even though over the years companies have reduced some restrictions many still remain.

    Overall, I really it if corporations stopped marketing GMOs ‘as a thing’ to the general public, but I would like to try golden rice.


  22. SocraticGadfly

    Astro, of course, that’s arguably just one aspect of Yankee Coca-Colanialism, and pun intended. Coke has, in years past, for example, through local henchmen, allegedly had Columbian union organizers killed.

    And, in turn, on the business side, that is part of my concern over GMOs — it’s a way to attempt to extend Western corporate agricultural hegemony in a way that didn’t really happen with the original Green Revolution.


  23. Massimo Post author


    Yes, the Nazi were also a “workers party,” but there were substantial differences. First, they weren’t really, in fact. The Socialist Party to whom Mussolini originally belonged was an actual, well established, leftist party. Mussolini was the editor of l’Avanti!, their newspaper, which kept publishing decades after WWII.

    Second, the Nazi one was a carefully thought out ideology, with specific Arian roots. Mussolini never wrote anything like Mein Kempf, fascism is more of a (bad!) style of government than an ideology.

    Which is why, to return to the main point, I think Trump is a fascist but not a Nazi. It’s about his style, he doesn’t have an ideology (other than doing whatever suits the best interests of DJT, of course).


  24. astrodreamer

    Socratic, thank you. Of course the goal is the extension of corporate control over world agriculture. That is why the ‘scientific’ arguments are beside the point. Global food security may or may not be achieved through GM technology; scientists and agronomists will continue to debate. One way or the other Monsanto will rake in profits (much hidden from taxation). The idea that Monsanto scientists have the benefit of the world in mind is hard to accept in view of agent orange, napalm and the battery of biological weaponry they still produce. The big question remains — to what extent is science involved in a search for truth, or utility, as opposed to pure bottom line profit?

    Liked by 1 person

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