Category: skeptic

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.

Advertisements

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.

it’s not just a light, it’s tactical

You say you’ve got your bluetooth-enabled speaker embedded in a fidget spinner? You own a fleet of Groot-branded HD camera drones? Toss that crap aside because what you truly deserve is a tactical flashlight, or even better, a tactical lantern

How many times have to said this to yourself:

I need a lantern, but not just any lantern — it must be tactical.

“Tactical” generally means something related to military operations. It can also refer to carefully planning or strategizing to achieve an end. So when you’re using precision and strategy to illuminate a dark place, you want the type of photons that radiate from a tactical light. 

(Be aware that you will also need batteries, or, as I like to call them, “tactical portable electricity cylinders.”)

Below you’ll see two lanterns, one tactical and one not. Study this carefully so you don’t accidentally purchase a non-tactical light. 

Tactical Lantern – plastic – uses 3 AA batteries – collapsible

Non-tactical Lantern – plastic – uses 3 AA batteries – collapsible

Got it? Now it’s time to go out and plan your illumination campaign. Next, we’ll examine hydration systems (sometimes called “water bottles”).

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.

i fell down a youtube comment rabbit hole

I sometimes search Youtube for ambient music to play while I’m working. Recently I came across a recording that some consider to be the greatest new age album ever made. I listened to it as I worked. There were angelic voices, ringing bells, tinkling harps, and sweeping strings — over and over again, in different variations for more than 100 minutes.

Though it did little for me, in the comments people described how they wept with joy and felt enraptured. There were also comments about the accompanying video, which included crystalline mountain streams, sunsets, and geometric shapes.

Rabbit Hole Level 1

One person commented about some shiny gadgets visible at one point in the video. They “seem to represent some device for transfer of light beams … maybe to communicate or even power a craft … I get a sense that they are something real somehow.”

Another commenter left an earnest response about these gadgets. “They are energy transducers.” They are used for “healing and energy transfers to different frequencies of reality.” Well, that clears everything right up. Now we know exactly what they are. The commenter continued, “You know this already from a higher viewpoint. That is why they seem familiar to you.”

The original commenter was ecstatic to learn this, and added, “I also felt that there are giant ones in space that act as a lighthouse of sorts and propel craft through transducing energy currents.” Yes, I feel the truth of this. When you see deeply into reality, it’s all lights, healing, and spaceships.

Down to Rabbit Hole Level 2

I clicked a link on the side of this page and came to another very similar music video. Interestingly, there was a flame war happening among the enlightened beings making comments. One guy was ticked off at a previous comment, and he said, “Ironic that I received your philosophically ill-conceived comment while listening to Pineal Gland opening tones …” (I added the boldface.)

This uncovered a new world for me, the world of sound recordings for pineal glands. Although these glands don’t have ears, the “tones” are somehow channeled through your ears to your pineal gland. I wonder if there are recordings for salivary glands and the sebaceous glands.

Farther into Wonderland: Rabbit Hole Level 3

The problem with pineal glands is that they can become calcified. No worries, though, because you can decalcify one pretty quickly by listening to this person. You also need to “activate” your pineal gland so it functions properly as your third eye. A side link led me to “Crystal Skull Activation,” which included a warning that the video will awaken ancient memories. And on to “The Pleiadan Video that Triggered My Kundalini.” Help! I was swirling down the rabbit hole!

Back to the Surface

Later, I woke up slumped over in my chair, my head fizzing like a carbonated beverage. I’d been burped back up the surface, possibly because my energy was incompatible with ultra-refined consciousness.

If readers want to explore this rabbit hole, have at it. But sweep up your pineal gland calc when you’re done. Don’t leave it lying on this blog.

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

… and let the flying spaghetti monster sort ’em out

In my own corner of the Internet, where skeptics hang out, I’ve been watching sometimes crazed arguments between so-called “social justice warriors” and those opposed to overdone “political correctness.” This little war has played out for a few years now.

For me, awareness of this business started an eternity ago in Internet time, way back with Rebecca Watson’s “elevatorgate.” Yes, I hate that “gate” naming habit, but we’re stuck with it. (We could call the whole trend “gategate,” couldn’t we?). Watson made a moderate, and to my mind reasonable, aside part way through a video. She pointed out something that a man did that made her uncomfortable and said, “Don’t do that guys,” then returned to her topic.

Amazingly, many people responded to that one short bit in a crazed, hyperbolic fashion, with death threats and repellent misogyny at the extreme end. It was like some hillbillies yelling, “We don’t want no advice from no dang woo-man.” Not what I expected from the skeptic crowd, though a hopefully small percent of them.

There have been various wars and “gates” after that, involving different personalities in skeptic as well as atheist social media. Many are about feminism, some are about the limits of free speech or just what is acceptable in public forums. Absurd extremes abound on both sides.

On some sites where skeptics and atheists congregate, there was a ridiculous self-purging of almost all speech that might be construed as offensive. People were booted off sites left and right for the temerity of having a different opinion on one issue or another. For these sites, it seemed like every week another “big name” in the skeptic world was found to have failed a behavior or opinion test and was summarily denounced and shunned.

I found myself ping-ponging between these sides, repelled by the trollish threateners and creeps on one extreme and disgusted by the self-righteous smugness on the other. Sometimes I’d get to the point of thinking, “The hell with all of ’em, and let the Flying Spaghetti Monster sort ’em out.”

Now for a brief detour. Per Wikipedia, the phrase, “Kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out” originated in a Christian crusade in Southern France. An abbot named Arnaud Almaric was said to be speaking to a soldier who was worried about killing true Catholics in the course of the war. Almaric allegedly said, “Kill them. For the Lord knows those that are His own.” Neat way to absolve yourself of blame.

Needless to say, I don’t want anyone to die, but I’m tired of the back and forth and divisions this has created. The best treatment of the issue I’ve heard is Steven Novella’s discussion with Julia Galef on the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast, episode #555. It helped illuminate why I’ve felt sympathy for both sides of the issue. When each side cogently and without bombast provides its best argument, there are reasonable points to be found.

More importantly, as Novella points out, there ought to be a middle ground that doesn’t squash free speech excessively, or allow excessively offensive behavior. Defining that “excessively” is a huge sticking point, of course, and complicated by trolls who only want to incite and inflame.

Don’t know if we’ll ever get there, but working toward a middle ground is worthwhile. Imagine having to grow up and communicate like rational semi-adults. Until then, I ask you to remember who boiled for your sins, and who ought to whack the most antagonistic arguers with a heavy meatball.

Boiled