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Links With Your Coffee - Tuesday

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A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.

There's no shortage of stupidity in the world. And, alas, it comes in many, many different kinds. Among the ones that bug me, pretty much the worst is the stupidity that comes from believing that you know something that you don't.

A study comparing bird bills provides the most substantial evidence yet supporting the idea that animals in cold climates evolved to have shorter appendages.

This is good: The FDA recommends stop sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics in food animals but keep therapeutic use.

I’m getting weary of Elaine Ecklund’s frenetic framing. As you may remember, Ecklund did a study on the religious views of American scientists, a study that showed, by and large, that those scientists are far more atheistic than is the American public at large. Her research, which of course was funded by the Templeton Foundation, was published as a book, Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think.

Author Chris Mooney has a provocative piece up at the Washington Post today. He argues that scientists are misunderstanding the dynamics of science-policy debates. Because, he argues, ideology often trumps scientific fact in the minds of the public, we (scientists) need to work harder to engage the public to win their hearts before we win their minds (please forgive me, Chris, if I didn't get this quite spot on).

On the 6th of April 2009, an earthquake registering 5.8 on the richter scale hit the town of L’Aquila in Abruzzo, Italy. This was a tragedy, and hundreds of people died. It would be great if we could have firm predictions about every risk whose rare but tragic outcome cannot be accurately predicted, whether it is a flu outbreak, a murder, an illness, or an earthquake. Most of us recognise that this is impossible.

But some find it harder to accept. The L’Aquila Prosecutor’s office have now leapt into action. They have a Commissione Grandi Rischi, after all – a “Commission on Big Risks” – and it’s full of seismologists. If these people can’t predict an earthquake, then what’s the point of them? And so these seismologists are now being indicted and investigated for manslaughter, on account of their failure to warn the population that an earthquake was coming.


 

Comments

Re. Vaccines

Norm, I'm a little annoyed at you here as I think you're a culprit in the process Chris Mooney identifies.

On a couple of occasions I've made similar points - specifically the necessity to engage with parents worried about autism, and to point out that the political and economic arguments against GM foods are not completely without weight - to find you absolutely slagging me off left right and center as if I'm some sort of young earth creationist.

Aggressive defense of science is justified in many areas. Flat earthers and creationists because they're just wrong, climate denialists because they're extremely dangerous and are promoting virtual non-concerns such as "government control".

But autism is a serious and debilitating disease and corporate control over the food chain has a very direct effect on peoples well-being. Expression of doubts and concerns in those areas does not deserve anything like the same level of scorn and derision.

And as Mooney points out, it doesn't win any debates. He calls it "listening" but I'd say that refraining from abusing parents of autistic children as "buffoons and idiots" was simply good manners (as well as being the bare minimum of empathy) while treating the ancillary concerns of the anti-GM crowd with at least some respect is a first step to constructive argument.

I think you're a culprit in the process Chris Mooney identifies On a couple of occasions I've made similar points - specifically the necessity to engage with parents worried about autism, and to point out that the political and economic arguments against GM foods are not completely without weight.

Certainly one should engage in parents worried about autism, and science does. We all have friends and relatives with children suffering from it. The scorn for the anti-vaccers is well placed for they are doing real damage. They are making false promises. They are selling snake-oil. Engaging parents about autism is about showing empathy for the the suffering and we do, and at the same time providing them with the best answers that science has to offer. Sometimes that means saying we don't know. Creating false hope, is the cruelest thing we could do, and that is exactly what the leaders of the anti-vacinnation movement are doing, and for that they deserve our scorn.

When you talk about political and economic arguments against GM foods you are totally missing the point, there are no GM Foods, genetic engineering is a method not a product, and criticism against products produced using genetic engineering are the same arguments that apply to any food produced by corporations.

"The scorn for the anti-vaccers is well placed for they are doing real damage."

Agreed, but there is a distinction. Flat-earthers and creationists "combat" no existing or known problem while they're causing their damage. Arguing against them with scorn amounts to saying "what the hell [sic] are you worried about? There's no real concern here."

Using the same scorn against anti-vaccers is essentially saying the same thing "there's no real concern here", which communicates a dreadful lack of empathy because there IS a real concern (sick children).

That's why I think scorn is a guaranteed losing strategy. Now saying "we don't know" is on the other hand a perfectly good strategy, BUT that is not what you (and others such as Phil Plait) have done in the past.

There is a demonstrated and considerable (and entirely deserved) contempt for anti-vaccers amongst many in the blogosphere which is almost entirely unbalanced by any similar demonstrations of concern for the children and parents involved.

Rather there is often nothing more than a few platitudes that appear (and often are) not much more than tokens.

"are the same arguments that apply to any food produced by corporations"

Agreed regarding corporate foods. But otherwise no. GM foods are patented, "natural" foods are not.

Those "intellectual property rights" give corporations much, much more leverage than they can possibly exercise over (say) bananas - which in the case of bananas extends no further than branding the things with stickers and tying up the supply chain with import restrictions (bad enough as they are).

A corporation cannot prevent me from growing my own bananas, with a GM crop they can.

Agreed regarding corporate foods. But otherwise no. GM foods are patented, "natural" foods are not. Those "intellectual property rights" give corporations much, much more leverage than they can possibly exercise over (say) bananas - which in the case of bananas extends no further than branding the things with stickers and tying up the supply chain with import restrictions (bad enough as they are). A corporation cannot prevent me from growing my own bananas, with a GM crop they can.

GE foods are not patented, it's the seeds used to produce the crop from which the food is made, and you're perfectly capable of using a non-GE. A tractor a farmer uses may be protected by any number of patents that doesn't make the crop he produces using it patented. Genetic engineering is a tool like other tools. Furthermore, no one is forced to use genetically engineered seeds, they use them because they provide advantages over conventional seeds. In the past the advantages were mainly to the farmer, but now there are products beginning to be produced that will provide nutritional advantages. Additionally corporations are not the only ones producing genetically engineered seeds, and in a number of cases the technology is given away for free.

user-pic

it's the seeds used to produce the crop from which the food is made,

This is a distinction without a difference. My teenage son is the same biological individual he was when he was born. When he grows to be an adult, he is still the same person.

and you're perfectly capable of using a non-GE.

Not when you have cross-pollination and the corporate comes after you and prosecutes you for violating their "rights" (which has happened). When that happens you no longer have the ability to fully exercise your choice independent of your neighbouring farmers.

mutagenesis

Irrelevant. You're pretending that because the force of gravity is used to to stabalise a bridge it is ok if the bridge falls down (sometimes). Let me amplify, gravity is neutral in this circumstance, but it is not a justification for bad design or engineering.

The outcomes of genetically engineering a plant are predictable in the same sense as predicting the outcome of other engineered products.

No they're not predictable. You missed the bit about quantification and mitigation of risk. Genetic "engineers" can do neither and are by definition not engineers.

it's the seeds used to produce the crop from which the food is made, This is a distinction without a difference. My teenage son is the same biological individual he was when he was born. When he grows to be an adult, he is still the same person.

Do you even read what you write, really your son is the same biological individual? If his cells mutate and he gets cancer is he the same individual? Pray tell, how the inevitable biological changes in him as he goes through life are essentially different from a plant. He does and will have impact on his neighbors and his environment that rival anything a plant might do. And taken as a whole the biological unit called human harms the environment far more that a plant ever will.

Not when you have cross-pollination and the corporate comes after you and prosecutes you for violating their "rights" (which has happened). When that happens you no longer have the ability to fully exercise your choice independent of your neighbouring farmers.

Oh you mean like Percy Schmeiser the poster boy for how big bad corporations attacked him. Have you read the court case?

…tests revealed that 95 to 98 percent of this 1,000 acres of canola crop was made up of Roundup Ready plants. …The trial judge found that “none of the suggested sources [proposed by Schmeiser] could reasonably explain the concentration or extent of Roundup Ready canola of a commercial quality” ultimately present in Schmeiser’s crop.

There is no question in my mind that Monsanto has done some bullying in some cases, but much of what you see in the various documentaries about their tactics is hyperbole. It certainly hasn't made it impossible for farmers who want to plant other seeds to plant them. Your facts are simply wrong. The reason they plant the seeds is because they make more money, not that they don't have alternatives.

No they're not predictable

They are as predictable as many other engineered products.

user-pic

No I hadn't seen the result of that case, but thanks for pointing it out, and thanks also for acknowledging that companies such as Monsanto are engaging in what you call "bullying" and which I would characterize somewhat differently.

However, let me cut to the chase on your last sentence:

They are as predictable as many other engineered products.

How? Really how?

If I design a bridge I can specify the conditions under which it will stand up and beyond which it will fall down.

On the other hand, can you point to a single, one tiny little instance, of where a genetic product has been engineered from the design phase to have a particular effect.

I'm being very particular about that concept of "from the design phase" because there is a difference between trying something several hundred different ways and fortuitously finding something that works, and being able to predict the outcome of a single attempt (at least within a quantifiable measure of certainty).

There must be thousands of examples of engineered products that haven't met their specifications. For example I see recalls of automobiles that fail to live up to their specifications.

You speak as if engineering was a strictly theoretical pursuit. Don't engineers test different components to see how they work together, it is a part of the design process.

In the case of genetic engineering of plants. You find a plant that has a trait you desire. You identify the snippet of DNA that is responsible for that trait, and you insert that snippet into a plant that has desirable traits that you also want to keep, and then you test the resulting product to see if your design works. Sounds like a fair definition of engineering to me.

Furthermore, no one is forced to use genetically engineered seeds

That's not really true, practically speaking. While farmers aren't FORCED, per se, to buy genetically engineered seeds, market conditions make it really, really difficult to avoid buying genetically engineered seeds profitably, especially where corn & soybeans are concerned. 95 percent of the soy grown in the United States is GMO, and it's around 80 percent for corn. Moreover, Monsanto has used its patents on such seeds to drive smaller seed companies out of business. And on top of that, many bank loans to farmers come with provisions that they purchase from specific seed distributors, effectively mandating the use of GMOs.

So, while your assertion may be technically accurate, in practical terms, it isn't. It's like this: While your right to give a cop the finger might technically be protected by the First Amendment, if you actually do it, you're in for a beating or a tasering and probably a night or two in jail.

You keep viewing the GMO debate in theoretical terms as if we live in a country where things are fair and purely scientific and a noun and a verb and golden rice and yada yada, blah blah blah. But I look at in here in reality, where corporate feudal masters like Monsanto and Syngenta and DuPont, etc. are fighting each other for control of the serfs. Saying anti-GMO is anti-science is like saying anti-Likud is anti-Jew.

The reason for the high percentage of genetically engineered corn and soybean is that the farmers make more money using them. If smaller seed companies are going out of business it's because no one is buying their seeds.

I might also note that organic farmers have no trouble getting seeds. There is nothing to stop conventional farmers from doing the same thing expect getting an inferior seed.

If a bank loan (how about a citation here) is really contingent on using GE seeds I suspect it would be because the bank was basing their loan on the costs associated with the crop including yield and trying to gauge if the farmer was going to make enough profit to pay it back .

1.) As the article I linked to notes, smaller seed companies aren't going out of business simply because "no one is buying there (sic) seeds."

"One contract provision likely helped Monsanto buy 24 independent seed companies throughout the Farm Belt over the last few years: that corn seed agreement says that if a smaller company changes ownership, its inventory with Monsanto’s traits 'shall be destroyed immediately.' Another provision from contracts earlier this decade - regarding rebates — also help explain Monsanto’s rapid growth as it rolled out new products."

So it's not simply a matter of bank loans being contingent on using GE seeds (no citation needed), it's a matter of there being fewer and fewer seed companies from which to choose, and the ones that are available are either owned or controlled by Monsanto. So the contingency is by default, not by directive.

2.) Organic farmers are motivated by their desire to be organic. Conventional family farmers simply want to turn a profit, or at least not go bankrupt. If, like organic farmers, they wanted to pay more to achieve a goal separate from simply running a business, they obviously could. But what they want to do, in most cases, is to continue buying from the same seed company they have been using for years, only now that seed company is owned or controlled by Monsanto.

3.) You're correct that farmers benefit from using GMOs, at least in the short term, just like you benefit from using an ATM in the short term. But after the bank starts charging $3.00 to use the ATM -- or Monsanto raises seed prices by 4% per year -- the benefits start diminishing. Plus, I think it's fairly clear by now that many farmers didn't know what they were getting into when they made the switch to GMOs. For example, I don't think very many farmers realized that they would'nt be allowed to engage in the centuries old practice of saving seeds, or that Monsanto would use video surveillance to drag them into court and so forth.

As usual you've hijacked a thread to go off on your corporate rant. The question wasn't if corporations use questionable methods to generate greater profits, they do, but if the case of genetically modified plants was somehow different, it's not.

For example, I don't think very many farmers realized that they would'nt be allowed to engage in the centuries old practice of saving seeds, or that Monsanto would use video surveillance to drag them into court and so forth.

What the hell are you talking about, they signed fucking contracts agreeing that they wouldn't save the Monsanto seeds.

Okay, so you've got this farmer, right? In 1980, he got his crop going either by driving down to the local seed-n-feed and picking up a few bags of seed or by using the seeds he had saved from the previous year's crop, or a combination of both. In 1981, he did the same thing. Also, in 1982, and so forth up until, say, 1996 or whenever. This time, the guy at the seed-n-feed tells him he has to sign a contract, but hey, this seed will produce more yield and this and that on account of this fancy new thing called GMO. The farmer says, boy howdy, them scientists keep thinking up new stuff. Maybe this year I'll actually make some decent money instead of just scraping by. So he signs the contract, one of many he has signed over the years to keep his business afloat but that he hasn't really fully understood because he's not a lawyer and he can't afford to hire one. At some point during the growing season, one of his neighbors warns him that he can't save seeds like normal because when he, the neighbor, did it, Monsanto threatened him with a lawsuit. The neighbor instructs him to read the contract he signed, which prohibits the saving of seeds. But the seeds weren't any more expensive than the ones he used to buy, and they do seem to be yielding more, so maybe it's still a good deal. (Or maybe his neighbor didn't warn him and he became one of the 500 or so farmers that Monsanto sues every year.) The following year, he had to buy ALL of his seed instead of using some left over from last year, and not only than, but the price went up a little. But it's still okay, because the yield did indeed turn out to be greater, plus it was a good year, so maybe this method will work better. It's a different guy at the Seed-n-Feed now, wich is no longer called Seed-n-Feed, but Drop-em-and-Spread-em, but the new guy seems like a nice enough fella and time's a wastin, where's that contract? And so forth for ten years or so until the price of seed has gone up to the point that there's no longer a financial benefit, but all the other seed stores are either gone or owned by the same feller what owns this one and half his farming buddies are bankrupt and the local bank is now a Chase, etc. etc. etc.

If you would stop taking this intentionally obtuse, pie-in-the-sky view of GMOs, then I would stop "highjacking threads" to remind you that we live in a corporate feudal state and not a scientific meritocracy.

You are painting farmers as if they're a bunch of ignorant yokels who can't read a contract, of course that fits well with your corporations are all bad and individuals are all good, talk about pie in the sky. I frankly give farmers more credit than you do.

It would be nice if you got at least some of your facts straight. Farmers also buy hybrid seeds not genetically modified that they purchase year after year because they lose the traits that make them beneficial over time, and since the discussion is about the differences between corporate behavior in agriculture specifically genetically modified seeds as opposed to other agricultural .

I frankly give farmers more credit than you do.

You're giving me conditions as to when you'll stop hijacking threads. Hell, I missed the bit where you make the rules here. Stay on topic. If you have something you want to rant about you can take it to the forum. If that doesn't suit you take it somewhere else.

You wrote: "Furthermore, no one is forced to use genetically engineered seeds..."

Then I responded to what you wrote, even including what you wrote in my response, so I don't see how I'm "hijacking" this thread, unless by "hijacking," you mean, "making a valid point."

My depiction of the farmer as a yokel was done for the purpose of irony. As the "yokel" in this 2005 article states, "My daddy saved seed. I saved seed."

The article goes on to note that "Since 1997, Monsanto has filed similar lawsuits 90 times in 25 states against 147 farmers and 39 agriculture companies, according to a report issued Thursday by The Center for Food Safety, a biotechnology foe."

Were all of those 147 farmers and 39 agriculture companies yokels, or were they ordinary business people who didn't expect buying seed to land them in court?

Were all of those 147 farmers and 39 agriculture companies yokels, or were they ordinary business people who didn't expect buying seed to land them in court?

No, some of them like Percy Schmeiser were guilty. They were simply dishonest got caught at it and deserved to get sued. Percy as you may remember lost his appeal all the way to the Canadian Supreme Court. Have you read that decision, Percy comes off looking like a crook, a devious man who tried to pull one and who got caught. Watch many of the propaganda pieces that pass for documentaries on the subject and you'd think he was a fucking hero. To be fair he later filed a lawsuit against Monsanto on seed contamination and won a small settlement. That's what the courts do they examine the evidence and resolve disputes that the parties are unable to resolve.

The total number of lawsuits is irrelevant. The facts in each case are what matter. When you actually do some research you may find that many of the suits were justified. Just because you're the little guy doesn't make you honest.

I'm in no way apologizing for Monsanto corporate abuses they also exist and should be punished. It's the truth that matters, unless you have an agenda that identifies everything corporate as rotten and every individual or small business as a good, and yes that's what I'm accusing you of doing.

I can tell you in my business dealings with individual and other businesses. I'm more often screwed by the little guy than my any big corporation.

there are no GM Foods, genetic engineering is a method not a product

I also take issue with this as it's a false distinction. The question is not the method, the question is the product that is produced.

Basically it's unevolved. There are two points here:-

a.) we don't know if the genes introduced will have unintended effects because they have not been "tested" in the biosphere

b.) we do know that once introduced into the biosphere that they DO evolve. Any process that can't predict the outcome can in no sense be called engineering.

Please note that when you take these two points together I am necessarily talking about the entire process - from gene manipulation to introduction into the food chain.

If the outcomes are unpredictable and potentially damaging or counter-productive, and you can't or don't quantify and/or mitigate the risk beforehand, you're not describing engineering, you're describing a crap shoot.

The question is not the method, the question is the product that is produced. Basically it's unevolved. There are two points here:- a.) we don't know if the genes introduced will have unintended effects because they have not been "tested" in the biosphere b.) we do know that once introduced into the biosphere that they DO evolve. Any process that can't predict the outcome can in no sense be called engineering.

You seem to be conflating two things here. First genetically engineered plants are tested all the time in the biosphere. The number of genetic changes in a plant created using traditional breeding is typically greater than those produced using GE. Furthermore there are scores of plants out there that were produced using mutagenesis a process that causes huge genetic changes, now that is a crap shoot and yet products produced using that method have been with us for decades. The outcomes of genetically engineering a plant are predictable in the same sense as predicting the outcome of other engineered products.

I can't remember if I've told you this before, but I edit court transcripts. And I can tell you that there are very few clear cut cases where one party was totally, totally bad, and the other party was totally, totally good. In fact, I cannot think of a single instance where that was the case, although there have been a few where the big, evil company was relatively innocent, whereas the poor, mistreated individual was relatively guilty or vice versa.

It's true that Percy Schmelzer is not as innocent as "The World According to Monsanto" makes him out to be. It's probably also true that at least a few of those 147 individuals thought they wouldn't get caught or "oh, yeah? well, fuck Monsanto" or some such thing.

The main thrust of my argument, though, is that although genetic engineering has the potential, I guess, to at least partially address the looming food crisis, and although genetic engineering may not necessarily be incompatible with organic farming, in a world in which both big, evil corporations, and poor, mistreated farmers, and medium sized seed distributors and banks and tractor companies and mortgage companies and the guy who paints the stripe down the middle of the road are all dishonest and/or lacking in integrity to one degree or another, GMOs are likely to do more harm than good and very, very unlikely to even moderately address the looming food crisis or any aspect of social justice or the advancement of humanity.

If we were a species that could use GMOs responsibly, we wouldn't be facing a global food crisis in the first place.

Norm

I"m a bit dissapointed. BigDaddy hasn't hijacked this thread, all he's done is reinforce the points I wanted to make in a more articulate and knowledgable fashion.

As to your comments re. engineering. You are confusing design and execution. If I build a bridge, I design and refine the design many times. Then I build it once. And it stays up.

In GM/GE/whatever I build it as many times as necessary to get one of the following results:

a.) it's viable, ie. it can reproduce but usually it can't

b.) it does what I thought it would do, but it often doesn't

c.) it does something completely different which is desirable, which occasionly happens

d.) it's viable but does nothing at all which is very common.

If I get something worthwhile I then let it out into the wild and market the hell out it.

That is not engineering.

In engineering I should be able to say to management if I spend this much money, apply these resources and work within these quality constraints I can produce this outcome with this much risk, which we can mitigate by taking these other steps.

GM/GE can't do that. At. All.

In engineering I should be able to say to management if I spend this much money, apply these resources and work within these quality constraints I can produce this outcome with this much risk, which we can mitigate by taking these other steps.

GM/GE can't do that. At. All.

It can and it does do exactly that, you obviously have no knowledge of the topic at all.

There are dozens of example, take one the papaya ringspot virus.
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/15/opinion/15ronald.html

To appreciate the value of genetic engineering, one need only examine the story of papaya. In the early 1990s, Hawaii’s papaya industry was facing disaster because of the deadly papaya ringspot virus. Its single-handed savior was a breed engineered to be resistant to the virus. Without it, the state’s papaya industry would have collapsed. Today, 80 percent of Hawaiian papaya is genetically engineered, and there is still no conventional or organic method to control ringspot virus.

It can and it does do exactly that,

How? This papaya thing was experimental - ie. there was nothing like any certainty it would work - and took quite a few years to get into commercial production.

That's not something management of a commercial enterprise can back, it is no way engineering. The fact that it did succeed is not an argument because you ignore the failures, both for the objective itself and other unrelated cases where success has not been achieved.

there is still no conventional or organic method to control ringspot virus.

This is simply not true. Ringspot virus was controlled for many years in Hawaii and is still controlled in other places by other means. It was only when it got out of control there that the GM variant became a "saviour". And in any case 80% market penetration in a single geographical area - while very impressive - is not the decisive example you represent it as.

Designing a building to stay up, building it once and knowing that it actually will stay up, is. Contrast the trial-n-error methods of medieval cathedral masons or 17th C bridge designers with modern skyscrapers or the mile bridge long spans of today.

GM is at the medieval mason stage.

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