Anatomy of Science Denial

In a recent post, I wrote about the similarities between those who deny the legitimacy of global warming science and those who deny the legitimacy of GMO science (specifically, that GMO foods are safe to eat). I could add to this list; denial of the safety of vaccines, denial that evolution occurs, and, most amazingly, denial that the earth is round. To keep it simple, I’ll stick with the first two.

In both cases, pretty much every major scientific organization in the world with recognized authority and expertise in these subjects has made a statement. The globe is warming due to human activities; there are no negative health effects from eating GMO food.

A scientific consensus is a hard barrier to overcome, but if people base a belief on ideology, they will always come up with something they think trumps science. While happily accepting scientific conclusions about, say, geochemistry, this reasonable attitude flies out the window when it comes to their pet ideology-bound subject.

When there is a scientific consensus, the obvious task of the denier is to somehow de-legitimize the science, and explain why it’s wrong for their special subject. Typical strategies:

  1. Claim the consensus doesn’t really exist. They will say, “It’s not true that 97% of climate scientists accept the fact of global warming.” (Change a few words for GMO food safety.) This leaves a problem in explaining why most every scientific board and professional organization in this field of study around the world happens to hold the same view when interpreting the evidence.
  2. Point out studies that contradict the consensus. There are always studies that conflict with the consensus. If there weren’t, you would have to be suspicious that science was even happening. General agreement emerges when all the evidence is weighed by people who know how to fairly evaluated the strengths and weaknesses of research studies and how they balance each other. Citing a few one-off studies that support your view doesn’t cut it. Especially egregious is citing badly designed or underpowered research that may be published in a journal with little or no reputation for serious science. My response to this tactic is, don’t talk to me, talk to the scientific community. When all these organizations that currently support the consensus start to change their mind, I’ll believe you. They are the experts, not me.
  3. Claim that money or another corrupting force is influencing the science. I’ve heard this one before for both of these issues (GMO and climate science): “Those scientists just want to keep their grants going,” or “Lots of those scientists are linked to corporations, so their data is suspect.” Then why do the findings that lead to consensus still hold up over decades? Why do the data keep pointing in the same direction? Maybe you can fool some people some of the time, but a broad area of science in which most every journal and every professional organization has been hoodwinked for 30 years (GMO) or 50-75 years (climate)? They somehow never realized the extent of the subterfuge? Not likely. Oh wait! Maybe they are all in on it. See next bullet point.
  4. There is a conspiracy to hide the truth. This requires literally thousands of people to be in on a secret plot to distort the facts and put one over on the entire world for decades. And no one ever comes forward to expose the nefarious plot. If you accept this, you must also wonder whether a conspiracy exists across the board, and all our knowledge is in doubt. Cue the X-Files theme music.
  5. Move the goalposts. This is the strategy of saying, “O.K. Maybe X is true, but what about Y?” In other words, once you’ve convincingly made a point, it’s suddenly no longer good enough. You must prove more and more and the demands never end. I think that people who move the goalposts usually aren’t acting in good faith. They’ll concede part of the argument for one conversation, but before long they are right back to claiming to the original argument, having conceded nothing. It’s not about getting at the truth, it’s about winning an argument.
  6. The shill. This one is surprisingly common. If someone disagrees with you, they must be getting paid by Big Agriculture, or Big Climate, or Big Pharma, so you can disregard everything that person says. It’s the assumption that there’s no way someone can honestly come to a differing opinion. If true, then where’s my paycheck, damn it?

To sum this up, I need to repeat two things I’ve already said:

Pretty much every major scientific organization in the world that has authority and expertise in these subjects has made a statement. GMO foods are safe. Global warming is happening. And so on for vaccines, evolution, and a round-y world.

When all these organizations start to change their mind, I’ll be persuaded to change. They are the experts. If you know more than they do, if you are a bold rebel that will show us the truth, then get into the game at the level where great ideas are published and debated and hashed out. Do excellent science and don’t make the excuses I’ve listed above.

Advertisements

recent right-wing/racist terrorism and murder, USA

A few days ago I read about a state representative here in Washington State (Matt Shea) who produced a manifesto about a Bible-based war. He wants a war to install a theocracy in the U.S. (because that’s worked out so well in the past, I guess.) The document says that if the enemies of his Christian army refuse to agree to terms of surrender such as “No same-sex marriage,” and “Stop all abortions,” then the solution is to “kill all the males.”

It’s the kind of written statement you find in homes of maniacs after they’ve gone on a killing spree. If Shea becomes one of these maniacs in the future, I guess it will be a surprise to no one. He would join a long list of them. Below is a list of wingnut murders and attacks in the U.S. in the last three years and five months.

Yup. Only a few years worth. It doesn’t go back, for example, to 2012, when a white supremacist killed six people at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Or to 1995, when 168 people died in an Oklahoma bombing carried out by two right-wing Christian militia “patriot movement” members. It doesn’t include any of the police killings of unarmed black men. Even for the last few years, this is not a comprehensive list by any means – just what I could find with some web searches.

  • November 2, 2018. A man walked into a Tallahassee yoga studio with a gun and murdered two women before killing himself. He had previously made videos of himself ranting against black people, women, and immigrants. He had been arrested twice for assaulting women.
  • October 26, 2018. A man visited a Pittsburgh synagogue and shot and killed 11 people. He hated Jews and railed against migrant caravan “invaders.”
  • October 25, 2018. After trying to enter a predominately black church in Kentucky, a gunman went to a Kroger store and shot and killed two black women. He told a white bystander: “Whites don’t shoot whites.”
  • October 2018. A man mailed pipe bombs to various liberal politicians and other well-known liberals. Here’s one window in the accused perpetrator’s van:
  • sayocvan
  • February 14, 2018. A man shot and killed 17 people at a Florida high school. His social media posts contained anti-semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-black insults. He had an Instagram account with a photo of a masked person (presumably himself) wearing a Trump MAGA hat. He decorated his backpack with swastikas and also etched swastikas onto the ammunition to brought into the school.
  • January 20, 2018. A university student was found dead in California, stabbed more than 20 times. Two days later a member of a neo-Nazi group (Atomwaffen Division) was arrested and charged with murdering the Jewish, gay student.
  • August 12, 2017. In Charlottesville, Virginia, a man drove his car into a crowd of people who were protesting a neo-Nazi “Unite the Right” rally, and killed one person. He was a Trump supporter who said he also loved Hitler.
  • May 26, 2017. A self-described white nationalist harassed a young Muslim woman on a train in Portland, Oregon. Three men came to her defense and he slashed them in the neck with a knife, killing two of them. Referring to these men, the perpetrator said, “That’s what liberalism gets you.”
  • March 20, 2017. A 66 year-old black man was stabbed to death on the street in New York City. The man arrested for the murder is a white nationalist who told police he had come there from Maryland in order to kill black men. He said he read a lot of alt-right web sites like the Daily Stormer.
  • January 29, 2017. A man killed six worshippers at an Islamic Cultural Center in Quebec City, Canada. He espoused right-wing causes, and in the previous 28 days he had performed internet searches for “Trump” more than 800 times.
  • October 14, 2016 In southwest Kansas, three men were arrested for planning a bomb attack against Somali-Americans. Two of them were vocal Trump supporters, They were all anti-immigrant.
  • November 27, 2015. An armed attacker killed one police officer and two people at Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He was an evangelical Christian and told detectives he was against abortions and “the selling of baby parts,” the latter being a false allegation promoted in deceptive undercover videos released by an anti-abortion group.
  • August 19, 2015. Two Boston men beat a homeless man with a metal pipe and urinated on him. They thought (wrongly) that he was an undocumented immigrant. “Donald Trump was right,” they told police. “Illegals need to be deported.” Trump was a candidate for president at the time. This is just one such attack I came across. There are likely plenty of these non-fatal incidents.
  • July 23, 2015. A man in Lafayette, Louisiana, had been known to praise Adolf Hitler, to advocate for violence against people involved in abortions, and to praise the man who murdered nine blacks in a church the month before. He walked into a theater showing Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck movie and murdered two people with a gun, later killing himself.
  • June 17, 2015. A gunman entered a church in Charleston, South Carolina and murdered nine black people. He was a white nationalist.

What about the man who murdered 58 people in Las Vegas in October, 2017? The officially conclusion is that his motive is unknown. We do have the testimony of someone who met with the killer less than a month before the incident. This man said the murderer was ranting right-wing conspiracies about FEMA camps and gun confiscation.

How long before I make another list like this one, filled with fresh murders? I don’t see any trends right now that would slow it down.

 

Trying to be Objective about Genetically Engineered Crops

papaya-1263062_640

If I get into a disagreement about an evidence-based topic with friends, it often centers on two subjects. If the friend is left of center, the disagreement is about GMOs (or sometimes alternative medicine). If right of center, the conflict is climate change. On both topics, I do my best to follow consensus science instead of ideology or gut feelings.

I’m not a food safety specialist; and I’m not an atmospheric scientist, so I go with the experts in those fields. Science is messy and there are always conflicting results. But science also works its way to reliable answers over time. When there are decades of research, as with these topics, it not too hard to find a real signal in all the noise.

For genetically engineered plants (and to a smaller extent, some issues about glyphosate), I’m taking some claims one by one, and, as I said, doing my best to discern expert opinion.

Claims about GEs causing damage

Food from GE plants harm the people or animals that eat them. The current scientific consensus is that GE foods are safe to eat. I have read material by anti-GE groups denying this consensus and listing the research showing negative effects. Some of those negative studies were badly designed (Seralini, Leblanc), but good or bad design aside, the evidence for safety is pretty overwhelming. There have been more than 3,000 studies of GE food safety over 25 years, much of it by independent non-industry groups. The overall case is so clear that the following organizations have examined the evidence and said GE food is safe:

  • US National Academies of Sciences
  • The American Association for the Advancement of Science
  • The European Commission
  • The National Academy of Sciences
  • The World Health Organization
  • The Royal Society of Medicine (UK)
  • Food Standards, Australia and New Zealand
  • The French Academy of Science
  • The Union of German Academics and Sciences and Humanities

This list goes on – there are many, many more groups (botany, toxicology, phytopathology) that could be mentioned. However, to some anti-GE people, every one of these scientific organizations spanning the globe has got the science wrong, or else they’ve been bamboozled or bribed – amounting to a worldwide conspiracy encompassing thousands of scientists and hundreds of organizations. This is an actual argument I get from climate change denialists — just swap GE science with climate science and it reads the same.

GE crops use more insecticide than other crops. False. The plants bred to resist pests use less. That’s one of the reasons farmers choose them. (GEs are also associated with smaller carbon emissions.) https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/21645698.2018.1476792 See the next entry for more confirmation of less pesticide.

GE crops use more herbicide. Sometimes true. According the following study, GEs use less pesticide, but GE soybeans (Roundup Ready) use more herbicide now because some weeds are growing resistant to glyphosate. https://phys.org/news/2016-09-largest-ever-reveals-environmental-impact-genetically.html The resistance problem occurs with any herbicide used regularly. That’s why farmers should vary their methods and rotate their crops. GEs are just one item in a farmer’s toolbox. There are some plants that are “naturally” bred for herbicide resistance, rather than engineered, and they can have the same issue. Note: weeds that grow resistant to an herbicide are not science fiction super weeds that will conquer the earth – they are just resistant to an herbicide.

GEs don’t have a higher yield. False. This is another reason farmers choose GEs – higher yields. Here’s a meta-analysis of 21 years worth of data showing higher yields with corn. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-21284-2 And another meta-analysis of 147 studies shows a 37% decrease in pesticide use and 22% increase in crop yields (and 68% increase in profits). http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0111629. Again, you can find studies that show otherwise, but the evidence in the other direction, as well as the fact that farmers choose them, is much more substantial.

Farmer suicides in India. The introduction of GE crops in India has been blamed for economic damage resulting in as many as 17,000+ farmer suicides in a single year in India. This is a science issue insofar that it directly contradicts data you can easily look up. There were 16,000+ farmer suicides happening annually in India before GEs were even introduced there in 2002, so how does this correlation even make sense? It’s a myth, and a pretty outrageous one at that. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/NDA-UPA-failed-to-curb-farmer-suicides/articleshow/39501676.cms

Putting a patent on seeds is bad or immoral and so is having to buy them each year. This is less about science and more about hypocrisy. Many of the seeds that farmers use in the U.S. are patented hybrid seeds that are purchased new each year (we’re talking about non-GE seeds.) It has been this way for decades. So why is this being framed as a GE issue? Why aren’t people denouncing patented hybrids? By the way, patents expire eventually. The patent for first-generation Roundup Ready soybean seeds expired in 2015 and some farmers are now using generic GE seeds. https://www.technologyreview.com/s/539746/as-patents-expire-farmers-plant-generic-gmos/ It’s worth noting here, by the way, that farmers are not helpless dupes who are forced or conned into buying a particular type of seed.

GEs use more water. False. GE plants bred for drought tolerance certainly use less. As for other GEs, I’ve seen a single study out of Brazil claiming that one plant – GE soybean – needs more water. Much more evidence is needed before we should believe this.

Because some GE plants are made to be used with glyphosate, it’s worth taking a quick look at the question of its toxicity.

The IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer), part of the World Health Organization, declared glyphosate to be “probably carcinogenic.”

  1. The IARC did not look at the results of the largest and best study ever done on glyphosate and cancer (50,000 famers and their families). This study showed no correlation between glyphosate and cancer. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-cancer-glyphosate/large-u-s-farm-study-finds-no-cancer-link-to-monsanto-weedkiller-idUSKBN1D916C
  2. The man in charge of the IARC investigation said that the inclusion of this data would have altered the IARC declaration, making the cancer declaration less likely. https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/glyphosate-cancer-data/
  3. Every other scientific panel that examined the evidence concluded there is no correlation between glyphosate and cancer. That includes the EPA, Health Canada, the European Food Safety Authority, the German BfR (Federal Institute for Risk Assessment), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N., the WHO Core Assessment Group, the WHO International Program on Chemical Safety, and more. It’s a pretty high bar to prove them all wrong.

Personally, I’m not inclined the think that any herbicide is going to be harmless, but the cancer claims seem overblown given the weight of evidence against it. There was recently a jury trial that awarded a man who blamed Roundup for his cancer. His lawyers, no doubt aware of the consensus around glyphosate safety, claimed that it must have been a combination of glyphosate and other ingredients in Roundup that caused the harm. There is not solid evidence to back this up, though maybe more research will show a relationship. It’s worth noting that if Roundup is ever pulled from the market, farmers will likely turn to more toxic chemicals.

No, it’s not true that the FDA, the EPA, and Monsanto/Bayer have schemed together to suppress data about alarming amounts of glyphosate in the food supply. https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/monsanto-suppressing-evidence-of-cancerous-herbicide-in-food/

That’s it for my aside about this chemical. Herbicides are poison, so minimize exposure. At the levels that get into the average person’s body, glyphosate is one of the least nasty. Now back to GEs.

Let’s Sum it Up

Say what you will about bad businesses practices of big agriculture and I might well agree with you. For example, I dislike the consolidation of any industry into a handful of mega-corporations. But regarding inherent dangers of GE foods, I will go with expert opinion. You can point to studies that show danger, you can quote scientists who have doubts, but I need the long list of scientific organizations near the top of this post to change their minds. If that happens, I’ll be right there with you. The same goes for insecticide use and yields – when you’ve overturned all the meta-analyses of studies and changed the minds of the preponderance of independent researchers, I’ll be with you there, too.

As noted above, there is an issue with herbicide resistant weeds with some of the glyphosate-ready plants. No surprise. If it becomes a problem, farmers can use other seeds or change-up their methods as desired. Note that this just one particular use of GEs.

Meanwhile, I see anti-GE groups trying to shut down non-profit, open source projects like GE Golden Rice to fight Vitamin A deficiency in third-world countries, and the attempt to save the American Chestnut tree with a blight-resistant variety. The emotional, relatively fact-free arguments against them only do harm. Here’s a good summary from 2015 about the disingenuous and sometimes fraudulent campaigns against GEs: http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2015/07/are_gmos_safe_yes_the_case_against_them_is_full_of_fraud_lies_and_errors.html

Long post. If you read this far, I salute you.

the official voters’ guide greatest hits

I love the King County Voters’ Pamphlet! Join me in an exploration of five of the best statements in the 2018 August primary guide.

1.
Let’s start with a great one. This is part of a candidate statement for a U.S. Senate hopeful:

… stop Seattle emerald degenerate super smart freaking idiot, who bring Seattle to number One Fascist City in America with Nazi Social Democrat Mafia with progressive Gestapo principle. That always choose dirty garbage rats that drink from fat cat toilet and who make your life miserable and brought up to total collapse. Enough is Enough.

There’s a lot to ponder here, as well as handy phrases I might want to use in the future (“super smart freaking idiot”). I know lots of voters are thinking, “I want to elect the dirty garbage rat guy,” but then they get to the part about drinking from the fat cat toilet, and it puts them off. That’s how it went for me. Enough is enough.

2.
For the second example, here’s a different U.S Senate candidate. He lists his policies on various subjects, including this one:

China – Kick Xi jinping’s Ass, by blockading, then Conquering China by firing the necessary number of Tomahawk Cruise Missiles to destroy all Nuclear Targets, all Air Defense Targets, all Military Targets including each and every Chinese ship, submarine and airplane launched from a safe distance with a goal of no loss of American Life and with no US ground troops used until after China’s unconditional surrender.

Conquering China is a bold foreign policy. How do we do it? It’s easy! Just disable their entire military before they fire a shot or launch a single nuclear missile. Can’t believe no one thought of that before. But why conquer China? Who needs a reason … maybe we just feel like it. He sounds like our current national security advisor, John Bolton.

3.
Now let’s change the pace completely and get down to a more local level. One candidate for legislative district representative lists his experience, education, and community service record:

Community Service: Long time recycler.

His sacrifice and service are impressive, but how long is “long time,” and does he wash all the peanut butter out of the jar before tossing it into the recycle bin?

4.
Another legislative district representative candidate, says, as part of his statement:

It would be nice to add a state holiday on Good Friday.

Agreed. It would be nice to include these holidays as well: L. Ron Hubbard’s birthday, Arapaho Sun Dance Day, and Mahavir Jayanti.

5.
Finally, there is one legislative district representative who lists his professional experience, and includes this:

“… a member of Cigar Rights of America …

Cigars need rights? No, that’s not it. I looked it up. He’s fighting for the right of citizens to enjoy premium cigars. According to Cigar Rights of American there is pending federal legislation that will “ban walk-in humidors, deface or cover cigar box artwork, and require manufacturers to submit their blends for ‘testing’ before they can be sold.” I’m actually sympathetic to his cause because cigar box artwork is cool, but he’s not in my district.

Cigar_Box

That’s all for this election, except one bonus message from a man running for U.S. Representative. He wants Boeing and NASA to: “harness the universe’s unlimited source of power within Magnetic Propulsion Generation.” He also discusses the beauty of Washington State, which was made by our creator “with his bare hands.”

That’s how I make this blog — bare-handed.

ask the non-believer

It seems like a fair number of people are curious about the non-religious. I wouldn’t have thought there would be many questions, but I’ve hung around Quora for a while, and seen lots of wondering. Here are common questions that I’ve been reading along with my short answers.

What is the philosophy behind atheism and what does it contribute to the world?
It’s not a philosophy. It means not believing in gods. That’s it. If you don’t believe that elves exist, no one asks you about your elf-less philosophy and what it’s contributing to the world.

Why don’t you believe?
Lack of evidence. Keep in mind that what a book says is not evidence, the number of people who believe in gods is not evidence (and neither is how smart some of the people are), the fact that someone had a deep, life-changing experience is not evidence, and neither is “But just look at this amazing world!” Also, deeply studying religious philosophy does not produce evidence. It seems much more plausible that people came up with gods, not vice versa.

What would it take to convince you that the god I believe in exists?
I’m not sure, but if all the starving people in the world were fed immediately, and if all diseased and suffering children were cured and given peace and joy right now, that would be a good start. Of course, the god or gods would need to appear and claim credit. I still wouldn’t know if this was actually the result of a god or some super-technology by aliens, but go ahead and ask your god to do this in case it hasn’t occurred to him/her/it.

How do you know for certain there are no gods?
I don’t know for certain. I put gods in the same category as leprechauns. I can’t say for sure they don’t exist, but assume they don’t. I suppose someone might try to say I’m really an agnostic, but would you say you’re agnostic about leprechauns? I wouldn’t.

Where do your morals come from without religion?
People are born with the capacity for empathy. It’s common in social mammals that have to band together to survive. Good parents encourage it. Innate traits aside, it’s also common sense not to want to live in a society where murder, cheating, and robbery are rampant.

If there’s no god, then where did the universe come from?
I don’t know. If you say a god created it, but you don’t have evidence of that, and you also can’t say where the god came from, then your answer is worse than “I don’t know.”

Why do you want to stamp out religion?
I don’t. I can live peacefully with religious people, and I don’t go door to door asking folks if they’ve heard the good news about the lack of gods. There is a vocal group of religious people who want to  reduce or eliminate many civil rights and to end the separation of church and state. Only those people I will actively oppose.

P.S. That’s just the way I am.
In case this helps round things out, I also doubt the existence of spirits, ghosts, telepathy, reincarnation, and other things we have no evidence to support. No astrology, no homeopathy, and no magic. Life is a fabulous parade of discoveries, facts, experiences, and sheer amazement — no need to add wispy fantasies to the mix.