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Michael Specter: The danger of science denial

Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives

(tip to Joel)



I think he makes some great points about vaccines. But when he got to the part about "Organic Elites" he lost me.

I buy organic whenever possible because I like to support farmers who don't use pesticides on their crops and who don't use antibiotics and hormones in their meat, poultry and dairy production.

Just ask a frog or fish who is changing its sex because of industrial farming runoff if they would prefer an organic farm upstream.

Ask coffee pickers with an incredibly high rate of cancer if they would prefer to work in a coffee plantation that uses ladybugs instead pesticides for pest control.

I am an organic elite. I pay twice as much for eggs because I like the idea of chickens living free, eating seeds and insects instead of corn and ground beef (no joke - if you pay one or 2 bucks per dozen, that's what you get).

On the rare occasion when I buy a burger, it's always grass fed organic beef -- because conventional ranches feed cows corn and ground animals (feeding cows ground beef has been outlawed because of prions / mad cow disease -- but they can still feed them chicken or pig byproducts -- protein is expensive!)

Read "Fast Food Nation" for some insight into why free-range organic is the way to go...

Industrial ranching says: raise as much product as fast as possible. And to do that, you need hormones and steroids to make them grow faster, and antibiotics because they are in such cramped, shitty conditions -- that they wouldn't make it to the slaughter without them.

I don't buy organic because I'm hoping it's magic, I buy it because I think it is better for people, animals, and our planet.

I'm trying to catch up on the reading and watching and will get to this video later, but I would like to offer up a possibility on the "organic elite" classification.

You've read Fast Food Nation; have you checked out Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma? One of the tricky things about going organic is determining how organic the food you buy and consume really is. Food labeled organic at the store falls under the legal definition of "organic," which is a pretty watered down version of smart farming without the chemical boost. Legally, organic farmers can still produce mono-crop cultures (this saps the soil, although more slowly than fertilizers and pesticides) and their animals need to have only a small area to hang out in the outdoors. "Organic" chickens that are bred and fed to have big breasts are so top heavy they are lucky to be walking at all, let alone running around outdoors.

Thus many people have their hearts in the right place but there stomachs are only a step away from the average U.S eater. Specter may look at the average organic food buyer through this lens.

On the other hand, if you know your grower(s) personally, you can feel more confident that the food you consume is the real deal. I've been buying "organic" for years, but only with a cursory knowledge of what the farmers at the market did. After reading Pollan's book, i went the Des Moines market and engaged farmers in conversations until I could fathom how they ran their business. I did get a few on edge and one close to tears, but I've found a good cadre of growers and have had the good fortune to visit my main food source for a garlic planting party. Nothing like talking to turkeys that you'll be eating after Thanksgiving! Plus I can vouch for free-range grass-fed beef as quite tasty; i honestly had no idea beef was this good!

I'd qualify my home diet as elite in the best sense: I know it's better than what most people consume. I figure I can pay a little more for the food and enjoy good health or buy cheap mass-produced shit and pay the extra in being not as healthy, especially as I age. In terms of restaurants, I don't kid myself; I have little to no idea of the source of the food eaten out. At least some Des Moines chefs make a point of buying locally and developing seasonal menus.

Specter makes some good points, but he's being a little disingenuous or myopic or something when he says he can't understand the resistance to genetically modified crops. Companies like Monsanto aren't being altruistic when they develop this stuff; they are helping their bottom line. Like rBGH, Roundup Ready crops are designed to make industrial farming more profitable -- usually at the expense of small, locally owned farms -- by allowing "farmers" to apply Roundup weed killer more indiscriminately and therefore faster. Moreover, recent studies have linked Monsanto's genetically modifed crops with organ failure. If we are really concerned about people going to bed hungry, we need to address the population explosion and end tax subsidies on corn production and put the arable land currenly being wasted on the production of corn syrup to wiser use. There may be good uses for GMO crops, but, like I said above, Specter is either being dishonest or shockingly myopic when he says he doesn't understand people's concern.

Roundup Ready crops linked to organ failure:

I agree with BigDaddyMalcontent. As I watched (and enjoyed) his talk, it seemed like he was quick to acknowledge all the problems with GMOs but then didn't address any of the problems he just acknowledged. The problems he pointed out are the reasons people are opposed to GMOs, and he did nothing to explain how those problems could be fixed. Probably because they are inherent to GMO and can't be "fixed." Like BigDaddyMalcomment said, Monsanto is a business, they don't help starving people as a charity. They SELL them seeds that expire and can't be reused. They take advantage of the poor more than they help them, from what I've seen. They also actively encourage the planting of monocultures (of their custom seeds), and these GMO seeds spread far and wide (the way nature wants them to), and farmers who never signed up for GMO crops suddenly have their crops contaminated. And of course Monsanto sues the farmers who never bought their seeds in the first place because they're keeping their seeds and re-planting them as they always have, but now they've been contaminated and are someone else's property. In other words it's a clusterfuck. And all to "solve" a problem in a very expensive, proprietary way. There are all kinds of simple solutions to third world hunger (like inexpensive irrigation systems, ladybugs, and so on) that have nothing to do with American corporations hawking patented techno seeds, and would do a lot more to help in the long run.

But otherwise, yeah, I enjoyed his talk.

Specter sounds ignorant on agricultural issues. Why is funding for agriculture down? Because companies like Mansanto don't want the competition. If they can develop a product and put it on market then they make money, they don't make anything when a university creates a new product and gives it out for free.

The largest consumers of GM foods are in the first world, not the developing world. Perhaps consumers don't want the bland food from mass agriculture. Sure strawberries are huge but they are bland compared to the tiny ones grown in gardens.

Why the ignorant towards organic? Perhaps Specter thinks dead zones in the seas are a good thing, certainly fishermen aren't pleased they have to go farther and farther out to get their catch quotas. Perhaps consumers don't like to ingest harmful pesticides, and the destruction of avian life through pesticides isn't terribly great either. And what good does it do for America when we sterilize our land with chemicals and nothing will grow unless we inject nitrogen and chemicals into the ground? Does Specter realize fertilizer is made with fossil fuels and those fuels are in limited supply?

Sounds like Specter is just another one of those libertarian elitists who are more likely to follow their political views than scientific facts. Specter should listen to himself, he's entitled to his own opinions, but not his own facts.

I have no sound at the moment. But given the responses, I thinkk he falls into this trap that because science is the best answers we have to many questions, that the corporations using science are comming up with the best decisions about things like producing food and structuring our food production economy.

To quote Terry Pratchett; "It's not that pigs' trotters are a peasant delicacy. It's that some rich bastard got off with the good bits of the pig." The answer to that is NOT to re-engineer more nutritious pigs trotters. But inasmuch as science is only offering us that answer, it is rightly scorned. Science can do better, but this needs political leadership to decide there are better priorities than GM peasant food.

I agree with the other comments - Spector's general assertions are sound, and need to be endorsed by the larger audience. The problem is that as long as there's profit in denying science, it will be denied.

For broadly accessible information on the growth of industrial monoculture farming at the expense of family farming and biodiversity, I recommend the film "The Future of Food", available for streaming on Hulu.

Aside form the allergic reactions to GMOs, and lack of proper tasting and oversight to maximize profits, there's the problem that GMO food may in fact be undermining the advances in medicine - producing drug-resistant diseases, in turn nullyfing our vaccines anyway.

Progress is grand, so long as we step cautiously into the void.

I on the other hand, tend to agree with this guy.

Yeah, that rat study is not very convincing anyway.

That guy is full of shit. Even if the rat study is flawed (He doesn't provide any evidence that it's flawed; he just says it is.), there are still valid reasons for concern regarding GMO crops. As with most things, GMO crops can be used for good. But if history is a guide, they will be used to enhance corporate profits, not feed the poor. Time will tell, I guess, but I will bet you anything that there will still be people going to bed hungry 50 years from now, after Monsanto's lobbyists have foisted GMO foods upon us.

BigDaddyMalcontent = True Believer

The Evidence:

GMO crops can be used for good. But Time will tell, I guess, but

That's it? The argument that corporations are greedy fucks, the argument that people will still go to bed hungry, these are not arguments against GMO foods. They are the sorts of arguments true believers focus on.

Specter's preamble to his paean to GMO crops was that (can't remember the number he used) of people go to bed hungry each night, implying that GMO crops can reduce that number. In some fantasy world where companies like Monsanto don't control everything, that's probably true, but here in reality, it isn't. Who's the true believer?

Moreover, as I stated in my initial comment, if hungry people are the true concern, we can address that without GMO crops by increasing birth control and wiser use of arable land.

Here's an analogy: In the 1950s, the Eisenhower administration financed the construction of interstate superhighways (through the DOD, mind you) using the excuse that they would come in handy in the event of a nuclear attack so that cities could be evacuated quickly. In reality, the reason was to provide a venue where General Motors' products could be used. Eisenhower's Secretary of Defense was former GM CEO, Charles Wilson, who famously opined that "what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa." I think it's safe to say that the vice versa part turned out not to be true.

Moreover, as I stated in my initial comment, if hungry people are the true concern, we can address that without GMO crops by increasing birth control and wiser use of arable land.

It seems to me that the assumption behind your statement is that GMO is bad, and that you've already made up your mind that it is, and now like we all do at times, you seek confirmation for your position.

There is no reason in principle why GMO can't be part of the solution, this isn't an either or question.

Monsanto controls everything? = Hyperbole. You're going to have to take a more science based view if you want to persuade others. It really does sound just like the alt-med crowd. Are you a member of that group too?

I vote that we stick with the science.

Are you a member of that group too? = Strawman.

The only group I'm a member of is the truth group. I agree with Specter that the "alt-med crowd," as you call it, is right to be suspicious of "Big Pharma," as he calls it, but they are wrong to embrace "Big Placebo" (good name for it) as an alternative.

It's not that I've assumed that GMO is bad, per se, it's that GMO's proposed benefits can be met in other ways, while it's evident applications, i.e. Roundup Ready, ARE bad, and demonstrably so.

Again, Monsanto isn't developing GMO crops so they can help starving people; they are doing it to help (and profit from) ConAgra, Cargill & ADM, while simultaneously driving small, family-owned farms out of business, in part by suing them for engaging in the centuries old practice of reusing seeds. This practice, as has already been demonstrated, has the effect of worsening the food crisis, not solving it.

I'll make it as simple as I can for you: GMO = possibly good if used responsibly, but probably bad if used as I strongly suspect it will be.

I'll make it as simple as I can for you: GMO = possibly good if used responsibly, but probably bad if used as I strongly suspect it will be.

Fair enough, but your bias is obvious from your choice of words and how you frame the issue. For instance you seem to use Monsanto (the evil corporate fucks) and GMO interchangeably, a little guilt by association, topped with a some fear mongering. The message you're giving is stay away from GMO because there is a Monsanto in the world.

We seem to have strayed from the original point of this thread. Specter said he couldn't understand the resistance to GMO crops. I'm merely pointing out why such objections are valid, and not anti-science.

To use yet another analogy, rocketry is a cool, fascinating science. Most of they ways in which rocketry has been used, however, have been bad for humanity. It would have been reasonable back in the 1930s for someone to express concern over the emergence of rocket technology. One could argue that it wasn't until Voyager I, 51 years after Robert Goddard launched the first modern rocket, that rocketry was used for purely scientific reasons.

To use yet another analogy, rocketry is a cool, fascinating science. Most of they ways in which rocketry has been used, however, have been bad for humanity.

That the knowledge science provides can be used both for good and for bad has never been a good argument for avoiding the good for fear of the bad. We should do what we can to encourage advances that have benefits and all we can to avoid the dangers that exist. My take on your argument is that you think Monsanto et al are such a danger that we should forgo the benefits GMO may provide.

If you say no to GMO based on abuses by Monsanto and others, you're also saying no to the benefits.

Is it your position that we should forgo GMO because of the dangers you cite?

Thread is getting too narrow. See below.

Well I won't say that study is crap like he did, but it's not very convincing.

Besides that, this lone study has some of the markings of those studies that "prove" global warming is a crock. The hyperbolic sensationalistic media headlines, for starters. And the things Norm also pointed out. Also, it seems the authors themselves admit it's nothing conclusive, only that warrants more investigation, which I agree with.

I agree with Andyo and the guy who says:

Yes and no. Organics is a lot like the alt med of naturopathy but for plants, it mirrors it so well; sure, there is a lot of good advice in there, but that isn't the point of the whole, and the whole is a naturalistic argument, not an evidence based one.

To me the whole point of this talk was summed up at the end when he says "This is nothing to do with science. It's law, it's morality, it's patents". What he's saying is that the discussion about science and the discussion about policy are different conversations.

Science to enhance nutrients, or make crops drought resistant or able to grow more closely together, etc etc... that is just science trying to solve a problem. Policy is a different matter. What Monsanto is doing (or more specifically, what they are being allowed to do) is amoral and extremely dangerous. They are only interested in their bottom line so the engineering they are doing to their food doesn't have any benefit to anyone but themselves, and causes irreparable harm to others. If you haven't seen "The World According To Monsanto" I highly recommend it.

I would have to venture to say there are multiple classes of GMO foods. Maybe it would be beneficial to define where along the spectrum different GMO foods are. That may possibly help in future conversations people are to have about the effects of "GMO". If we first know exactly what they mean when they say "GMO" I'm sure it would clear up a lot of confusion.

As for organics, I agree with most of you guys. Eating organic is less about the nutrition of the food itself and more about the harm that non-organic, large scale farming causes. But it's the current mainstream agricultural model that is flawed, not necessarily the concept itself (i.e. the concept of producing food on a large scale). I purchase the food I purchase in order to support the model I wish to support, that of a more sustainable and local agriculture system. I eat very little meat and when I do I know where it comes from. And the same goes for nearly everything else I purchase. But there is no doubt that the current mainstream model, that is based around profit only, is not going away unless something major happens. People en masse have to stop supporting it. But they have no incentive to do so because the population at large has no idea about it. And we are continuing to raise future generations that way. So as usual, the solution to the problem starts with education.

This is a complicated problem. I think Specter raised a lot of good points. TED talks are not about solving problems or having in depth debates about them. It's just to get people thinking. And I think the whole point of this talk was about not confusing the actual science with the repercussions of the policy surrounding the science.

It's worth noting that Specter only had a few minutes to get his point across. I suspect that if he were in on this discussion, he would agree with our concerns about Monsanto and other irresponsible uses of GMOs. My point is simply that until the benefits of GMOs can be shown to outweigh their probable deficits, we should steer clear.

Put another way, until Monsanto and their minions in the media are held accountable, GMOs will remain a source of legitimate concern -- in practice if not in theory.

I don't think the benefit of GMOs has been demonstrated yet, whereas their misuse has been amply demonstrated. I return to the rBGH example: Science has developed a way to make cows' teats bigger, but there is no useful or necessary purpose for this science, other than to increase corporate profits and further damage our farming industry. Being against rBGH isn't synonymous with being against science.

Why must we argue, Norm? Can you really not see my point? Can you, like Specter, really not understand the objections to GMOs? Do you ever concede a point when debating?

Let me say that until recently I hadn't paid much attention to the GMO debate. I am now, and the more I read the more I think you're wrong. Specter, by the way, understands the objections to GMOs and believes the benefits outweigh the risks. No, I really cannot see your point, you seem to believe that if there is any risk it's not worth doing. The history of advances in science has always been one of taking some risks for a greater good. They are not always right, but in your world, at least as it applies to GMO, they shouldn't even try. I'll continue to study the issue and you can count on some additional posts on the topic. And yes sometimes I change my mind, and yes I sometimes concede a point, but I'm not convinced that we should oppose all GMO as you do. The question is what evidence would you accept as a benefit of GMO that would change your mind? It's a question, do you have an answer?

The evidence I would accept as a benefit of GMO would be a program or realistic proposal wherein the number of people who go to bed hungry each night were significantly reduced as a direct result of GMO crops. This program or proposal would also need to demonstrate that the same objective couldn't be met through other means, i.e., reducing the planet's population and/or more intelligently using arable land. I think I've read that reducing America's meat consumption by around 10% would achieve this goal. (Isn't that what the meat industry's lawsuit agains Oprah Winfrey was about?)

Another benefit would be a demonstrable, peer-reviewed plan to increase nutrition or reduce disease through the use of GMO crops.

Also, these benefits would need to be significant enough to outweigh the obvious detriments of Roundup Ready crops. (I'll concede for the moment the organ failure angle, since that study seems to be in dispute.) Some studies have tentatively linked pesticide use -- and possibly, Roundup Ready crops -- to bee colony collapse disorder. If these studies are accurate, the detriments already outweigh the above stated potential benefits, since bee polination is crucial to the production of lots of crops.

Returning, once again, to the rBGH example, it seems apparent that the motives and effects of genetic engineering are detrimental, not beneficial. Looking at it realistically, just because a particular science or technology CAN be used for good doesn't mean it WILL be used for good. As I stated earlier, if history is a guide, chances are it won't.

Finally, Monsanto (and other evil corporate fucks, as you call them) have demonstrated their willingness and ability to stifle objective reporting on this subject.

Oprah lawsuit:

Monsanto/Fox "News" rBGH story:

I guess the Oprah lawsuit was about Mad Cow Disease, not arable land.

Returning, once again, to the rBGH example, it seems apparent that the motives and effects of genetic engineering are detrimental, not beneficial.

How exactly does it follow that if rBGH is detrimental that ALL genetic engineering is detrimental. I've got to say that I expected better arguments than this from you. Oh and the fallacy is one of composition.

I'll address some of your other points as my time permits, and believe me there is plenty that needs to be addressed.

I answered that question with the two subsequent statements:

"Looking at it realistically, just because a particular science or technology CAN be used for good doesn't mean it WILL be used for good. As I stated earlier, if history is a guide, chances are it won't."

To put it another way, I think Specter is using a best-case-scenario depiction of GMOs to rationalize what evidence shows will probably be a mis-used technology.

Again, he said he couldn't understand the objection to GMOs. I'm trying to explain why those objections are understandable.

I believe what he said he didn't understand that objection because as far as he knew no one had ever died eating GMO food.

There are risks in any technological advance and you can never be 100% sure there aren't going to be any problems, that in my opinion is not a reason not to go forward. Thousands die every year in automobiles and we still consider that the benefits outweigh the risks. Hell thousands die every year as the result of the adverse effects of aspirin, and I assume you don't won't to ban those.

You're seeing the glass half empty while I see it half full. I understand the cynicism, Merck and their Vioxx, Monsanto at Bhopal, it was Monsanto wasn't it. The desire for profits SOMETIMES lead to taking shortcuts and people suffer and sometimes die, but it is unfair to generalize to ALL THE TIME.

Looking at it realistically, just because a particular science or technology CAN be used for good doesn't mean it WILL be used for good. As I stated earlier, if history is a guide, chances are it won't.

I think this paragraph of yours defines the problem with your view. One could just as easily say just because a particular science or technology CAN be used for bad doesn't mean it will be used for bad. If history is a guide it will be used for good. But then I would be making the same mistake you make. If history is a guide it will be used both for good and bad, and we need to weigh the potential benefits against potential harm.

It is quite clear that there are substantial benefits available from bio technology as well as some risks, but take no risks and you're standing still, and that may be the greater risk.

Projects such as this one demonstrate the promise of biotechnology. It would be a shame to let fear prevent us from moving forward.

You've painted Michael Specter as quite the scoundrel when it comes to GM Foods, he seems quite reasonable to me. I think this quote puts his views in a proper perspective.

When people say they prefer organic food, what they often seem to mean is they don't want their food tainted with pesticides and their meat shot full of hormones or antibiotics. Many object to the way a few companies -- Monsanto is the most famous of them -- control so many of the seeds we grow.

Those are all legitimate complaints, but none of them have anything to do with science or the way we move genes around in plants to make them grow taller or withstand drought or too much sun. They are issues of politics and law. When we confuse them with issues of science, we threaten the lives of the world's poorest people.

It certainly hasn't been my intention to paint Specter as a scoundrel, and I don't think I have. Indeed, in my first comment on this thread, I stated, "Specter makes some good points, but he's being a little disingenuous or myopic or something when he says he can't understand the resistance to genetically modified crops." I agree with the rest of his talk.

You could be right about my cynical view. Oftentimes, people will sail through twenty green lights and get stopped at one red light and then bitch about the traffic. Still, as far as evil corporate fucks go, I think you and Specter agree that Monsanto is pretty close to the top of the list, and Monsanto is what leaps to mind when people hear the terem "GMO." Your allusion to the benefits of autos is valid, but think how much broader the margin between good and bad would be without, say, the Hummer. It's those damned evil corporate fucks again, befouling everything. Let's learn from the automobile's example and not let the same thing happen with GMOs. Being against the Hummer isn't anti-science or anti-car; it's simply being concious of the irresponsibility that seems to infest human endeavor.

BTW, the Bhopal disaster was caused by Union Carbide, which was recently purchased by Dow.

So I finally watched the video, and I'm mostly on the same page as sarah13.

I have to move on from my comments about the term "organic elite," since my qualifications don't really seem to match with Specter's. Or perhaps they are distantly related. If he would refer to this population as "organic enthusiasts who are misinformed" it would be more accurate but not really roll off the tongue well.

Seedless citrus fruits and GMO foods can be grown responsibly, and can be beneficial to those who are hungry. The business end is the problem, not the science. Agribusinesses of Monsanto's ilk are mostly interested in profit, not helping others. They want to make lots of $ for cheap foods as well as eliminate the competition from smaller scale farmers whose crops happen to catch some of the seeds from the GMO crops. you know, cause those farmers are "stealing" a GMO patent. This is the intolerable cruelty of the GMO industry. How do we prevent this? Beats the hell out of me. Until society changes values on jobs and income, the big corporations are at a decided advantage.

The business end is the problem, not the science.

That's exactly the point, there are some who want to ban all GM Foods because they don't like Monsanto. Almost everyone who sells there products is interested in profit. It is clear that business need to be regulated. There are numerous examples of Genetically modified foods that have provided huge benefits, genetically modified Papaya comes to mind. I think those who are opposed to GMO need to show some evidence that it does more harm than good, and that is not the same question as to whether Monsanto does more harm than good. I'm working at becoming more knowledgeable on the topic, what I've read to date has me coming down on the side of GMO which is not the same thing as siding with Monsanto, though I think even there not everything they do is evil. btCorn seems to me a good thing. If my understanding is correct organic raised corn uses bt as well, but sprays it rather than producing as internally as part of the plant.


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