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Magical thinking is not limited to Fundamentalist Christians:apostates on the left

Derek Lowe at In the Pipeline found this confession of  former anti-GMO activist Mark Lynas:

I want to start with some apologies. For the record, here and upfront, I apologise for having spent several years ripping up GM crops. I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid 1990s, and that I thereby assisted in demonising an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment.

As an environmentalist, and someone who believes that everyone in this world has a right to a healthy and nutritious diet of their choosing, I could not have chosen a more counter-productive path. I now regret it completely.

. . .(This was) explicitly an anti-science movement. We employed a lot of imagery about scientists in their labs cackling demonically as they tinkered with the very building blocks of life. Hence the Frankenstein food tag – this absolutely was about deep-seated fears of scientific powers being used secretly for unnatural ends. What we didn’t realise at the time was that the real Frankenstein’s monster was not GM technology, but our reaction against it. . .

. . .desperately-needed agricultural innovation is being strangled by a suffocating avalanche of regulations which are not based on any rational scientific assessment of risk. The risk today is not that anyone will be harmed by GM food, but that millions will be harmed by not having enough food, because a vocal minority of people in rich countries want their meals to be what they consider natural.


Lynas concludes that people who want to stick with organic are entitled to—but they should not stand in the way of others who would use science to find more efficient ways to feed billions. “[T]he  GM debate is over. It is finished. We no longer need to discuss whether or not it is safe. … You are more likely to get hit by an asteroid than to get hurt by GM food,” he says.

Now, I don’t think Lynas is advocating that we just give GMO stuff a pass and never test it or monitor its effects, because that would be reckless.  But Lynas does seem to have taken the time to understand what the heck he was talking about and once he understood GMO, he lost his irrational fear of it.  It’s still ok to have rational fear.

He’s also had a change of heart about nuclear energy and now believes that it may be one of the most sensible solutions to global warming.

Lynas: It’s blindingly obvious, actually, and I don’t know why it took me so long. The current deployment of nuclear power worldwide of 430 reactors reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 2 billion tons per year. And that really is the beginning and the end of the argument if you’re in the slightest bit concerned about global warming. And all of the oft-stated green objections to nuclear power are either urban myths or an order of magnitude less important than global climate change.

Does that mean he’s onboard with all nuclear power plants built willy-nilly in any configuration on any active fault?  No.  It means he is open to the idea of modern nuclear power using new technologies and to a rigorous regulatory process.  Rigorous does not mean strangulation.

As you can imagine, he’s not popular with some of the left’s most ardent activists.  Apostates rarely are.  Apostates have moved beyond faith to inquiry and evidence.

As someone who grew up in one of the least rational religious cults out there, I can see a lot of similarities between the anti-GMO, anti-nuke, anti-vacc crew and the glassy eyed, Watchtower bearing door knockers.  I can’t take either set seriously.  It’s hard to reason with people who are committed to a point of view regardless of the evidence or the damage they are doing to their own cause.  It would be great if more people on the left would follow Lynas’ example because right now, it’s easy to ignore the lefty activists.  They’re not doing environmentalism any good.  To some of us on the left, such as myself, the anti-GMO, anti-nuclear energy crowd is as embarrassing, nutty and non-productive as the Tea Partiers are to the right.  It’s one of the reasons I will never vote Green.

I’m sure this post will bring offend many people who are adamant about their beliefs and have a bunch of silly papers to prove it but up until now, I’ve found them unconvincing.  You are entitled to your own beliefs but not your own facts.  But there are people on the left who have made a career and an industry out of belief based environmentalism just like there are televangelists hawking their latest faith healing.  You might as well be trying to prove the existence of Noah’s ark in the mountains of Turkey.

23 Responses

  1. I submit this from professor of comparative education, Trey Menefee:

    During my undergraduate studies I met a religious philosophy scholar that I clicked with instantly. We would often chat after class and I remember telling him the history of my own faith: that I was once deeply religious, but it was a conspiratorial and anti-intellectual strain of Christianity, and when I came to disbelieve I went completely in the other direction and became a militant atheist. It took a few years to nuance that path to where I now consider myself almost militantly agnostic – going from absolutely knowing that God did or did not exist to clearer understanding of the limits and abilities of reason and science, which offer no real answers to those questions. He nodded his head and said, “the opposite of shallow is still shallow.”

    • The above is a quote from a must read essay on the meaning of the morphing of Mark; the mercurial marauder:

    • Truth is truth, whether you find it shallow or not.
      True believers often have a hard time with apostates for obvious reasons. But it should come as no surprise that a person who passionately advocated for one side should argue just as passionately for the other side when they have been proven wrong. Sometimes, they feel guilty about what they have done and where they have lead people and they feel they need to make amends. This doesn’t make them shallow. It just means they have a conscience.

      • To borrow the words attributed to an ancient Roman official of some notoriety, “What is truth?” 🙄

      • “Truth is truth, whether you find it shallow or not.”

        I would invite you to read my full response to Mr. Lynas’s lecture.

        I think you’d find, on reflection, that being pro-GMO doesn’t equal “the truth.” In fact, what social policy can you think of that can simply stop at saying, “it’s the truth”? Is anything in the social policy sector (which GMO advocation is) that settled? Or is it not all terribly nuanced, especially the heroic tales we like to tell ourselves about the ascendency of technological innovation to fix our most pressing problems?

        It’s precisely this coating of social policy debate positions with the veneer of scientific “truth” that I found most repulsive about his lecture – which came part and parcel with the accusation that those who disagree with him do not have science on their side. There is no shortage of scholarly work pointing to a host of problems associated with GMO crops. Mr Lynas ignores it to prothelytize, just has he previously ignored all scholarly work discussing the possible benefits of GMO research in an earlier era. The opposite of shallow is still shallow…

        My core position is that a scientifically-informed stance is neither pro-GMO (as Mr. Lynas is today) or anti-GMO (as Mr. Lynas was before). It makes no more sense than saying one is pro- or anti-war. It ought to depend a lot on the war, shouldn’t it? Similarly I’m not pro- or anti-GMO. I’m pro C4 rice research, but hugely disfavor the use of Roundup Ready maize. The “truth” is that there’s more nuance in this paragraph than there was in the entirety of his keynote talk.

        • Not buying it.
          But I do understand Lynas’ POV. The reason is that once you actually understand the molecular biology behind GMO and talk to people in the industry about the regulatory process, you soon find out that it’s simply a method of doing in the lab what humans have been doing for tens of thousands of years.
          That is something that the anti-GMO crowd doesn’t bother to do. They fear what they do not understand. And that lack of understanding is painfully obvious to those of us who should be on their side. That is the point.
          Now, are there better GMO technologies than there were 20 years ago? Yes, undoubtably. Does it look bad to own patents on this technology? Yep, but the research is expensive and so far, I haven’t heard anyone on the left propose a reasonable compensation system that doesn’t emanate from righteous indignation. Could we do better? I certainly hope so but we are only beginning to understand how to do things with subtlety.
          But these are things that can be fixed. GMO is not going away so we’d be better off learning to live with it in addition to all the other methods we have. Diversity is good and we don’t want GMO to be the only thing out there. But you’re not making a very good case for diversity by fighting this way.

          • I’m not sure which point you’re not “buying.” My main point is that having a simplistic pro/anti stance on specific technologies is a shallow position. A thirty minute talk on a topic that is 100% positive towards a technology and 100% negative towards criticism of it isn’t analysis, it’s propaganda. That seems pretty irrefutable.

            “That is something that the anti-GMO crowd doesn’t bother to do. They fear what they do not understand. And that lack of understanding is painfully obvious to those of us who should be on their side.”

            I spent two months conducting research in a national agricultural research center last year that was working on “golden rice.” I’m wrapping up research right now on farmer field school curriculum – which is dealing with diffusion of these and other technologies. I do understand the biology and I’ve spent quite a bit of time interviewing the researchers and directors. I’m not sold, not even a little bit, that their research is about what their PR campaigns say it is (this is not to question their intentions as individuals).

            “it’s simply a method of doing in the lab what humans have been doing for tens of thousands of years.”

            This is both right and wrong. A big difference is that human selection in the past has been biased towards diversity. There are at least 40,000 known strains of rice – each bred for a specific soil, climate, and taste. Historically, farmers would plant several varieties as a time to hedge against incremental weather and pests. Part of the shift towards super-seeds has been a dramatic loss in this diversity and often a chemical over-compensation to deal with it. One of the realistic fears of a lot of people on my side of the fence have is that we’re going to narrow this down to a handful of strains. That’s problematic from both a political economy perspective (even moreso if these strains are have intellectual property claims on them) and from an ecological resilience perspective.

            Where you’re right is that one could say the same thing about nuclear weapons, right? And it’s quite analogous. We’ve been innovating new ways to kill each other for tens of thousands of years – what’s so different about making a bomb that can level a city in seconds? And then building enough to wipe the human race out several times over? It’s the same trajectory we’ve always been on, right?

            Which leads to a larger point: science is agnostic about GMO. While science might be used in the production and development of GMO, it tells us very little about what we should or shouldn’t do with it.The same goes for nuclear weapons. Science offers us nothing about the rightness or wrongness of Hiroshima. These are social and ethical debates, and talk of just being “science” is to misunderstand what science is. GMO is just as much “science” as nuclear weapons are, and science is mute on how and if we should use them.

            “Diversity is good and we don’t want GMO to be the only thing out there. But you’re not making a very good case for diversity by fighting this way.”

            In general, anyone who wants more diversity should have a highly skeptical attitude towards most Green Revolution technologies and methods. They’ve been a huge part of our ‘epidemic of sameness’ (http://goo.gl/lQgL). In the places I did my research, the land has had a major transformation over the past fifty years from diverse cropping and livestock mini-ecosystems to horizon-to-horizon rice monocultures supported by chemical inputs and draining rivers and wells.

          • First, my ex is AG research. Has been for more than 25 years. I’ve heard all about the regulatory side of AG.
            Second, I spent my last year of work in a crystallography lab making my own protein from E. coli and insect cells.
            The genie is out of the bottle. If someone wanted to make GMO plants in their backyard greenhouse, it’s perfectly doable. All you need to do is order a synthetic gene, pick a transfection vector and add water and sunlight.
            You can’t stop this. But I would rather that the research is regulated than not.
            You’re tilting at windmills. The time to stop and ask if we should came up around 11000 years ago.

          • I have noted the factual existence of non-crossability between sufficiently unrelated species in these threads before. I have noted that it has been referred to as “the species barrier”. The statement that GMOing is just doing in the lab what we have done outside the lab for tens of thousands of years remains just as entirely false after a hundred repetitions as it was when made the first time. The whole purpose of GMOtech is to introduce genebits from one species which canNOT be introduced into another species genome by any outside-the-lab methods. To refer back to your own hypothetical example from many months ago . . . daffodil deer-repellency in green bean plants. Just try and get any daffodil genebits into any greenbean plant with any crosspollination method you can think of. The species barrier between daffodil and greenbean is impassible both ways. That’s why it would take the entirely novel GMO labtechnology to cross such genebits over. If someone does it, they need to subject it to safety testing before releasing it.

          • It makes no difference to the plant what kind of gene you insert. It either kills the plant, and that’s the end of that experiment, or the plant starts to make the desired material.
            What am I missing here?? Why is this so scary?
            Let’s take your dear repellent daffodil protein in green beans example.
            1.) wild natural selection: if the beans get attacked by deer every year and the deer do no propagate the beans by excretion, then the beans will become extinct. If they don’t become extinct, if may be that a few plants already have the mutation for expressing the daffodil repellent protein. Eventually, all bean plants will carry this mutation. It may take a million years or it might happen more quickly as the result of chronic stress.
            2.) acquired natural selection: the genome is scanned for the daffodil protein gene, the sucker is popped into a transfection vector, the vector infects the plant, the plants that express the desired protein are bred. Voile! Same result without thT millions of intervening years.
            As I’ve said, the plant does not know that the gene came from a daffodil. It could just as easily generated the gene on its own after years of selective pressure. All a plant sees is a bunch of nucleotides. It’s doesn’t see a bunch of nucleotides from a daffodil.
            Now, why haven’t beans developed resistance to deer thus far? I have no fucking idea but it might have to do with where beans grow naturally or the fact that the are legumes and nitrogen fixing and deer like that or that the bean just gets pooped out by the deer to grow somewhere else.
            On the other hand, where do daffodils grow? Daffodils grow best on the edges of clearings under trees. I know because the ex used to naturalize them and that’s their territory. Coincidentally, that’s also where deer like to hang out. At some point in the distant past, some daffodils were endangered by being munched before their bulbs had enough time to store energy but a mutant gene was expressed by one or a few of them that made them unpalatable to deer and now the deer and daffodil coexist peacefully together on the edge of the clearing and everyone is singing kumbaya.
            There’s no reason why a bean couldn’t do that but it hasn’t. Who knows, it may be that the gene would make the bean unpalatable to humans. Maybe that’s why we don’t eat daffodils.
            But a gene is just a gene. The plant doesn’t care.

    • I like that… “the opposite of shallow is shallow”….

  2. I think your simplistic characterization of those of us identified as leftists, who raise questions regarding GMOs is unworthy of of a scientist such as yourself. Anyhoo, it’se your Blog

    I would again urge you to read the essay linked above, for it provides a review of concerns I share about GMOs; and at the risk of introducing yet another “silly paper” into the dialog. I think the issue of seed diversity as it relates to our survival is unsilly.

    This from some other scientist:

    “With the advent of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), seed sovereignty is threatened by patents defending seeds as intellectual property

    Without a strong base of diverse seeds, food production is threatened by disease and climate change. Promoting the use of diverse seed types enhances food security and promotes the preservation of traditional cultural practices and values. Seed security can come from preserving seeds in an underground bunker, but at a more pervasive level seed security comes from seed sovereignty and the right to use and exchange seeds freely within a community. With the advent of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), seed sovereignty is threatened by patents defending seeds as intellectual property…”

    Read more if you like:

    • As a matter of fact, I did read the post you linked to and I remain unconvinced.
      And as a researcher who has read many papers in my lifetime, I think I can say with some certainty what constitutes a good paper and what doesn’t. Just because you can find scientists who will buy into your beliefs doesn’t mean they’re right. They have to convince me.
      I’m sorry that you’re distressed to have your beliefs challenged but it’s not my responsibility to validate them just because you are part of a loud crowd on the left. I would like for politicians and the media to take the left’s environmental concerns seriously but that’s not going to happen as long as we allow fear, paranoia and irrational beliefs about scientists to run the show. It’s time to cleanup our act, dress business casual and read real papers on real molecular biology. If you can’t do that, the fact that I can’t take you seriously is the least of our problems.

  3. Great post. As a nonscientist I can say I have little fear of science itself, just the perversion of both effect and intent. I have a little sermon I do on genetic engineering wherein I point out to the students that my Akita, American Bulldog, and Corgis are all the same species, but they certainly don’t appear very similar. And how did they get that way? Answer: us. We’ve being modifying creatures and crops for thousands of years.

    • Yes. Now . . . if you could insert bits of horseshoe crab DNA into the DNA of your AkitAmerBullCor dogs, and get their progeny to keep passing on those bits of horseshoe crab DNA . . . THAT would be what genetic engineering is and does. Those dogs with inserted bits of horseshoe crab DNA would be what are factually and honestly referred to as GMOrganisms. They could be “good”, they could be “bad”. Testing would reveal the answer.

  4. I am at the publik liberry right now at computers with near-zero capability beyond reading and typing comments. Tomorrow I will be back at work.

    I stand behind everything I ever wrote on these threads about the anti-social goals of the One Percenter GMO Hustler companies like Monsanto who use gene-engineering strictly and only in pursuit of their monopoly-building rent-seeking/extortion practicing behavior. That is a separate issue from the inherent goods or bads of GMOing as a technology.

    I look forward to the GMO-insertioning of chestnut blight immunity genes from the Chinese chestnut into the American chestnut if classical breeding/crossbreeding methods are not able to get the job all the way done. I doubt that the predatory rent-seeking entity known as “Monsanto” will ever bother itself to perform that insertion. Maybe nonprofit public Land Grant University researchers might perform that very insertion some day. If they do, I would like to see it tested for problems, and if it proves as problem-free as I think it CAN be; I would like to see it rolled out to restore the Great Chestnut Forest of pre-blight times. Those chestnuts were “the buffalo of the hills” , the “cod of the mountains”.

  5. Separately, about nuclear power . . . it won’t affect global warming the least bit because the same social class which owns the nuclear power plants is the same social class which owns the coal, gas, and oil. And they will make very sure that coal, gas, and oil are all dug up and burned regardless of how much nuclear power is rolled out at the same time.

    By the way . . . has anyone ever done a cradle to grave carbon output audit of every step and product and process nequired to make all the ingredients involved in nuclear power? And then decommission a nuclear power plant and secure the remains?

    If nuclear power is a good deal, lets force it to compete unsubsidized by repealing the Price Anderson Act. Should gun-owners be forced to pay all the insurance costs involved in what “could go wrong” with their guns? Very well. Nuclear power owners should be forced to pay all the insurance costs of what “could go wrong” with their nuclear power. And of course they will pass those costs on to the consumer. They will and they should. Let the consumer pay all the costs involved in their use of nuclear power.

  6. I’m just popping in to say that life is keeping my battery completely drained. Nothing horrible, just unrelenting and I don’t want to destroy anyones privacy by bitching about it here.

    To combat the exhaustion, I’ve been knitting rather than being online much. And that seems to help. At least I have something nice to look at while I’m working on it.

    I’ll try to post a knitting post? Maybe tomorrow (unless things go crazy again… as usual)

  7. When I was in Peru last year almost every guide I had proudly mentioned the hundreds and hundreds of types of corn and potatoes they grew in their country, each adapted to specific micro-climates. And the markets displayed such amazing varieties–so many I had never seen before in our country! They clearly felt this diversity was something to celebrate.

    • I think it is a mistake to think that GMO is incompatible with diversity. There is no reason to think that diversity has to disappear. The anti-GMO propagandists have made this a black-white issue when it isn’t.

  8. This is the first time I ever heard of Mark Lynas. I wonder whether the Left isn’t giving itself too much credit for being the only source of GMO skepticism.

    I sometimes go to the annual Acres USA conference. I am one of few, perhaps the only, amateur at these conferences. Many of the attendees are several-hundred-acre farmers. Some of them are thousand-acre-plus operators, hundred-cow-plus dairy farmers, multi-hundred-pig pig growers, etc. Some of them are smaller scale. This last December one of the attendees was a 2,000 acre grower from Mexico. I just hang back and listen respectfully as they talk with eachother or with the presenters. Sometimes I ask a question AFter all the pros have asked THEIR questions first.

    In the issues of the paper ( and at the conferences), I am reading/hearing a rising tide of discontent over GMO’d bulk commodity
    crops. I am hearing/reading of pigs on various GMO corn spontaneously aborting enough to threaten the profitability of pig operations. Cattle(and pigs) refusing to eat GMO based rations if they have any contentional rations to turn to. GMO corn molding in
    storage where conventional corn doesn’t. New diseases emerging in livestock fed on steady GMO-based feed rations.

    Why would I mention this? These are not left wing people. They are not ex-left wing people. One of the harsher critics of GMO-based bulk commodity crops as we currently know them is named Arden Anderson. He ruffled some younger feathers in the audience at his presentation when he referred to the OWS Zucotti protesters as “Marxist derelicts”. Left wing? I think not.

    At the vendor display section I picked up a pamphlet titled Agricultural Rehab (An Approaching Crossroad). It wasn’t targeted to me the amateur. It was targeted to multi-hundred-acre farm operators of the sort these conferences are aimed at. It contains several pages of language like this little snippet . . .

    “Holding the bag and loosing the markets is the average hard-working U.S. farmer, who with trust and belief bought into the new vogue of high tech fix it all crop production schemes. They had very little warning and choice in the beginning. The genetically engineered seeds were the only girls at the dance. The girls of course had a bit of baggage, a kill all perfume of weed eradication. A dance with them
    got you two benefits for the price of entry into the dance. Unfortunately, the farmers did not believe they needed protection.”
    Does this read like left-wing writing for a left-wing audience? I think you should take the “My Eye Cue” challenge . . . the one where you challenged My Eye Cue to visit an OWS event and see for himself. Perhaps you should attend an Acres USA conference and find out what the farmers’ and presenters’ anti-GMO objections are, and see if you can change any minds. If I stop buying sardines in Monsanto soybean oil, Monsanto would just laugh if they even heard about it at all. But if a thousand-acre corn-soy operator stops buying Monsanto seed, Monsanto has an emerging problem. If several, and then many,
    thousand-acre corn-soy operators stop buying Monsanto seed, then Monsanto has a real problem.

    So Mr. Lynas (whom I never even heard of till now) changed his mind? Ooo kayyy. . . Now if Mr. Linas can get Professor Emeritus of Plant Pathology Don Huber of Purdue University to change HIS mind . . . then I’ll be pretty impressed.

  9. Hey, i know some people who don’t believe in Global Climate change because in 2004 Al Gore endorsed Howard Dean during the primaries. Last time I checked, not even having one of the main climate change deniers change his mind, convinced them they might be wrong.
    People are often irrational when deciding what it is they believe and also amazingly lemming-like depending on what group they identify with at the time.

    • I know some people who deny global warming because ” Al Gore lives in a mansion” and “Al Gore is fat.”

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