Category: science

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.

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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.

usa – “let’s abandon leadership, go backwards”

A quick summary of responses to Trump abandoning the Paris Climate Agreement.

Corporate Support for the Paris Climate Agreement

A few companies that support the Paris accords

Ford, GM, Microsoft, PepsiCo, Walmart, Amazon, ExxonMobile, and ConocoPhillips.

Some corporations and CEOs that not only support the Paris agreement but publicly disagree with Trump’s decision

Jeff Immelt, CEO GE, Ben van Beurden, CEO Royal Dutch Shell, David MacLennan, CEO Cargill, Jamie Dimon, CEO JPMorgan Chase, Lloyd Blankfein, CEO Goldman Sachs, Tim Cook, CEO Apple, Mark Zuckerberg CEO Facebook, Mark Benioff, CEO Salesforce, Sundar Pichai, GEO Google, Elon Musk, Tesla, SpaceX – Resigned from White House business advisory council in protest, Bob Iger, Walt Disney – Resigned from White House business advisory council in protest

HP, DuPont, Nike, UnileverAdobe, Intel, Levi, Mars – all signed a letter urging Trump to stay with the Paris agreement

Coal companies that asked Trump to stay with Paris agreement
Cloud Peak Energy and Peabody Energy

Calculate how much of the U.S. economy is represented in the list above. It’s safe to say that these are people who make pragmatic decisions.

Economic Impact of Pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement

Fastest growing occupations: #1 is wind turbine technician, #29 solar photovoltaic installers. Why are we not prioritizing clean energy jobs instead of fossil fuels?

“1.1 million Americans work in electric-power generation through traditional fossil fuels, but renewables follow closely with 880,000 employees.” And guess which one is growing? There are more jobs in solar power than in the coal industry.

“The decision means the U.S. will miss out on some the $1.4 trillion global business opportunity that the global low-carbon economy represents.”

Despite this, Trump has decided to let China and Europe take the lead in clean energy development and leave the U.S. behind in a growing industry.

Trump Continues to Spew Lies on the Topic (no surprise)

http://talkingpointsmemo.com/news/donald-trump-climate-accord-fact-check

Meanwhile in the Reality-Based Universe

Every year it gets harder for denialists to find cover. You have to believe that every major climate science organization across the globe, and almost all climate scientists worldwide, are in error or engaged in a huge conspiracy to cover up the truth. There is no factual support for denialism, just an occasional op-ed in the Wall Street Journal from someone outside the field, or posts by some energy industry funded propaganda outfit. That’s pretty thin gruel. 

Oh, and you must believe that, along with U.S. corporations and science community, the 197 signing governments and 147 ratifiers of the Paris Climate Agreement are all deluded, too. Syria didn’t sign (in the middle of a war) and Nicaragua (thought it was too weak) and now the U.S. (Trump).

Incidental info: The oceans are warming, we hit temperature records each year, wildlife is moving north, etc. etc.   https://climate.nasa.gov/  

It’s encouraging that individual companies, states, and cities in the U.S. are vowing to continue with climate change mitigation. Let’s act like there’s a civilization on earth. Let’s look ahead and plan.

super brain is out to get you

I recently read yet another article about the alleged threat posed by artificial intelligence. I don’t buy it; at least as this story is usually framed. When someone says that the danger lies in self-aware, volitional computer intelligence, I think they are projecting science fiction plots onto reality. When they talk about a runaway recursive loop of smarter-than-human computers creating even smarter computers, and so on unto “singularity,” they are pretending that real life resembles a really cool novel they once read.

When do we get there and where is “there”?

I think it’s so very unlikely and/or so far off, that it would be a wasted effort to worry about it, and even worse to take action on it when there are so many actual serious problems to deal with. Why do I think that? Point me to an example of a self-aware, volitional computer to justify the concern. Show me any non-biological intelligence. As far as I’m aware, examples offered as even the beginnings of this are stretching the definitions of “intelligence” and “self-awareness” to the breaking point.

There is no clear and obvious path from where we are now to a human-like artificial intelligence. People have been working on AI for decades and are no closer. I think it’s possible in principle, and we may get there, but where are the signs that we’re even close? To take one crude example, do you think that something will just “wake up,” given enough processing power? Are there even hints of this happening? Look at the Blue Brain Project, it’s a great thing, but I don’t think anyone involved would say they are even remotely near such an achievement.

Smarter than what?

I think we have another problem, which is even knowing what it means to have a computer that is smarter than humans. Already there are computers that perform calculations much faster than people. Is that it? Most people would say no. They mean a computer that is “super-intelligent,”  as far beyond us as we are beyond a microbe. Again, people tend to mean self-aware machines with desires of their own, but super, and incomprehensible. I think we’re assigning magic to consciousness and intelligence. Just scale up the “smartness” 10 or 100-fold and magic happens. The machines will save us. No, they’ll destroy us. No, they’ll put us all in a simulation. No, we’re already in one.

I’ve heard some alarmists suggest that if it happens just once – if a smarter-than-human intelligence develops — we’re in trouble. Then it’s too late. The genie is  out of the bottle. How does it get the better of us? Maybe it’s so smart that it uses its super-smart AI silver tongue to talk us into not unplugging it. Or maybe it replicates itself all over the internet, and somehow (magic) gains control of our physical environment and eradicates us. It makes smarter copies of itself, and the smarter it gets, the more magic happens.

Get real

I think a genuine threat is humans giving increasing responsibilities to machines without developing sufficient safeguards. An example would be a self-driving car that can’t handle certain tricky situations on the road. That’s a danger. A malfunctioning gun-wielding military robot that selects its own targets – that’s a danger.  A runaway super-smart AI? Not so much. It’s a gross misuse of resources to spend money combatting evil machines. We have bigger fish to fry like poverty, disease, war, and climate change.

jwst

I’m feeling anxious about it already and it isn’t slated to happen until October 2018. I’m talking about the launch of the long-delayed James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Huge amounts of time and energy (and money) have been funneled into this telescope. It’s a nail-biter unlike other launches because you can’t just turn around and redo this if it fails.

If successful, this telescope will enable some serious science. I read a quote from one astronomer who said that with the JWST, in one day we’ll learn more than everything we currently know about the first galaxies in the universe. It’s designed for viewing the first luminous objects after the Big Bang, and learning how they developed.

Interestingly, another one of its tasks is to directly observe and photograph planets around other stars. Spectroscopy might tell us something about an exoplanet’s weather, color, and maybe even help identify whether there is vegetation.

A few other amazing things I didn’t know:

  • Whereas the Hubble Telescope sits within somewhat easy reach over the earth (550 km up), the JWST will be 1.5 million km away – out at an Earth-Sun Lagrange point. That’s outside the Earth’s orbit but in a gravitationally stable point. No repair missions are possible.
  • One reason it has to be this far away is that an infrared telescope like this needs to be cold. This one must be kept at an incredible -233 C, which is 50 degrees above absolute zero. At the Lagrange point, the JWST will keep one side permanently facing the Earth and Sun. That side has a sunshield “the size of a small tennis court.” It blocks light and heat from the warm side of the spacecraft so the telescope on the cold side can make its observations without interference from the infrared radiation.
  • The main mirror is 6.5 meters in diameter, more than twice as large as the Hubble. It’s made of 18 segments that will unfold after launch.

You see why I’m already worried? There are so many bits and pieces that have to go right, not to mention the launch itself. If it all goes as planned, this will be stupendous. Of course, the Mars rover missions were incredibly complex and they worked, so maybe …

Go to NASA for the whole story. 

8518326751_0757ca9b9a_bNASA.   Full scale model with it’s five-layer sun shield

 

 

ask the universe

The universe – an incomprehensibly large expanse strewn with billions of galaxies, each full of billions of stars. And it’s expanding. Then toss in dark energy and dark matter, even though no one currently knows what that means. Add gravity and stir. 

Maybe, like me, you have heard someone ask the universe for help. They’ll say something like, “I want to live in a tropical paradise, so I’ll put the intention out there and see if the universe supports me.” However, I’m pretty sure that the actual universe doesn’t care if you live or die, let alone where you live. Go ahead, just ask it if it cares. 

Yet some people believe that an invisible force underlying all reality will “support” them if their wish is in cosmic alignment with … universe energy! Or something vague like that. Years ago, I held a similar belief – everything is made of consciousness, so you can do anything. It’s kind of like “the secret,” which says that if you really want something you’ll get it. After all, you create reality, so the world will rearrange itself according to your desires. 

In other words, it’s magic. Some people will make ridiculous claims that quantum physics somehow supports this belief in magic. It doesn’t. Go ahead, ask a quantum physicist at the nearest university physics department. I’ll wait. 

These beliefs are not different than the old “praying for what you want” gambit. If your prayer (intention) comes true, the lord (universe) has granted your desire, and if it doesn’t come true, it wasn’t just part of the deity’s plan (energies not in alignment). 

Ask the universe to send you a bag of dog chow. Tell the universe you want to meet the love of your life. Ask it to resurrect a dead tulip. Best of all, ask it for something really vague, such as to make everything work out according a plan you can’t know about. That’s the universe’s specialty.

And if the actions of the universe are indistinguishable from random chance, well, maybe that’s how it prefers to operate.

universe