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.