Taleb on GMOs: An Advocate Hiding in an Intellectual's Clothes
On a wide range of contentious issues, academics and researchers publish work that pretends to offer objective evidence, but which on closer inspection turns out to be advocacy masquerading behind intellectualisms, scientific methodology, footnotes and citations, and erudite language. A recent example is a paper by Nassim Nicholas Taleb and colleagues arguing that genetically modified foods pose such a risk to life on Earth that agricultural biotechnology should be banned under a strict application of the Precautionary Principle.
The noted Nassim Nicholas Taleb and colleagues published some thoughts late last year about why the Precautionary Principle should be applied to agricultural biotechnology, more commonly known as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Their argument appears thoughtful and erudite, but more closely examined, it reveals itself to be anti-GMO advocacy masquerading as intellectual argument, based on fears of the technology that have no basis in fact and which deny basic evolutionary biology.
The Precautionary Principle (with application to the Genetic Modification of Organisms) suggests that GMOs pose a “ruin” problem, “in which a system is at risk of total failure.” Taleb and colleagues believe that the risks from GMOs, even if small, can mount up and spread because our agricultural and natural systems are globally connected. So even though each risk may be “small and reasonable,” they “accumulate inevitably to certain irreversible harm.” Taleb et.al. say these potential threats pose the “risk of global harm.” Not just local harm, which we can live with, but global.
They argue that these characteristics warrant a strong Precautionary Principle approach, essentially a ban on GMOs, at least while much more research is done.
We believe that the PP should be evoked only in extreme situations: when the potential harm is systemic (rather than localized) and the consequences can involve total irreversible ruin, such as the extinction of human beings or all life on the planet.
Their description of the potential harm from GMOs varies; “irreversible and widespread damage,” “total ruin,” an “ecocide" causing “an irreversible termination of life at some scale, which could be planetwide.” Elsewhere, their language backs off the key element of irreversibility, saying the PP should be used in cases of potential "catastrophic harm for society as a whole,” or “potential global harm,” which is bad, but significantly less than the permanent “ruin” with which they begin.
But you get the picture. GMOs could cause such major damage that they should be banned, at least until we know more. Intellectually, that makes perfect sense. (Of course it also makes sense for other globally interconnected systems where small risks can spiral into major catastrophes, like the global financial system, or international air travel and the risk of the global spread of pandemic fatal disease. One wonders, why target GMOs?)
But when a reader looks for evidence that GMOs potentially portend “total irreversible ruin,” such as the “extinction of human beings or all life on the planet” or “an irreversible termination of life at some scale, which could be planetwide,” the evidence that actually shows up for such hyperbolic claims is merely evidence of advocacy masquerading as objective argument.
Beyond their speculative warning that some catastrophic harm could arise that we just don’t know about — an intellectually thin claim that unknown risks are always out there, a catchall which is true of just about anything — there isn’t much. They do cite a few studies suggesting that GMOs might do harm, but nothing that portends the cataclysms of their dire warnings. And among the research studies they cite are papers by the widely discredited anti-GMO advocate Gilles-Éric Séralini, including one paper that has been withdrawn from the journal that published it because of shoddy data.
That's the clearest evidence that this paper is advocacy masked in erudite intellectualism. But there's much more:
1. The authors warn ominously, as do opponents of GMOs, that “foods derived from GMOs are not tested in humans before they are marketed.” This is just silly. Beyond drugs for human consumption, which undergo extensive animal tests before humans are exposed to them, we don’t test any potentially toxic substances in humans. So by this standard we’d have to ban most of what is in commerce. Suspiciously, the authors fail to note that GM foods do undergo in vivo toxicological testing on animals, in vitro testing on cells, and extensive environmental testing in field trials. Nor do they note that the scientific consensus that nearly two decades of such research has found no evidence of harm to humans is more solid than the consensus on climate change.
2. The authors argue that
“Human experience over generations has chosen the biological organisms that are relatively safe for consumption,” and “while there are claims that all organisms include transgenic materials, those genetic transfers that are currently present were subject to selection over long times and survived.”
This suggestion — that we have slowly tested our foods and come up with a safe diet that evolved naturally over long times, and that GMOs are sudden and therefore fraught with unique peril — is common among GMO opponents who speculate about dire harms from agricultural biotechnology, but it is just ignorant of basic facts. Many of the foods we eat are species that were created in just the last few decades by blasting the entire genomes of their parent plants with radiological or chemical mutagens.
3. The authors make claims from the anti-GMO playbook that GMOs lead to increased use of pesticides. In many applications, just the opposite is true. Indeed the whole idea of giving a plant the ability to fight off pests is to reduce the need for pesticides to do that job. It’s one of the reasons farmers love the technology. A recent meta analysis (published after the Taleb paper) of 147 studies on pesticide application pre- and post-GMO crop adoption found that agricultural biotechnology reduced pesticide use 37 percent.
And besides being wrong, what does the argument about pesticide use have to do with the author’s argument for a PP to avert potential “catastrophic harm for society as a whole”? Nothing. It’s just anti-GMO advocacy.
4. There is a lengthy section debunking claims that GMOs can help provide food security, specifically targeting the one promising application, Golden Rice. That is logically inconsistent with what Taleb et.al argue early in their paper, that even if there are benefits from GMOs, they shouldn’t preclude a PP when there is the chance for irreversible catastrophic harm. If that is the case, then why go out of their way to debunk potential benefits of Golden Rice... if not simply to strengthen their anti-GMO case?
5. There is criticism of testing of GM rice on Chinese subjects who were not fully informed about what they’d be eating. Which was horrible, but has nothing to do with the PP argument and everything to do with opposition to agricultural biotechnology.
6. There is criticism of agribusiness and its profit motive. And of course there is specific attention paid to Monsanto...
A rational consumer should say: We do not wish to pay — or have our descendants pay — for errors made by executives of Monsanto, who are financially incentivized to focus on quarterly profits rather than long-term global impacts.
... which is also irrelevant to the basic argument the paper claims to make, and straight out of the anti-GMO playbook.
There are many other flaws in the piece. Taleb argues that only a probabilist like himself has the expertise to make the probabilistic argument that systemic risks build toward a likelihood of one. Knowledge of biology, he argues, is unnecessary. Maybe for the math part, but not if you are then going to suggest biological processes leading to ruin. You need to have something of a clue about such things, and Taleb et.al. demonstrate in several ways they don’t. At one point they say the global risk of GMOs is different from natural catastrophes that can’t spread because they are bounded by oceans or mountains, etc. To make this point they say:
Among the largest propagation events we commonly observe are forest fires, but even these are bounded in their impacts compared to a global scale.
A reasonably well-informed high school science student would know how ignorant that is. Mt. Pinatubo, a small volcanic eruption in the Philippines, lowered global average temperatures 0.5°c for two years. So it is fair to ask how much credence to give an argument speculating about potential global biological risk, if the authors don’t seem to have a grasp on basic science in this area. Great math built on flimsy foundations, tainted with all sorts of advocacy language, is not reliable as intellectually honest.
And there is this argumentative language (for which Taleb is well-known):
That proponents (of GMOs) dismiss the very existence of risk, attests to their poor understanding or blind extrinsically motivated advocacy.
This one is intriguing. Change the words slightly and it reads, “That opponents exaggerate the potential risk attests to their poor understanding or blind extrinsically motivated advocacy.” Pick up a mirror, Taleb et.al.
We need honest conversation about agricultural biotechnology, both about the facts regarding its health and environmental risks and benefits, and also about how this technology fits or conflicts with our values about large-scale monoculture farming and big companies having too much influence and about the harm that some modern technologies certainly do to the natural world. Sadly, the essay by Taleb et.al. poses as objective argument, but is clearly advocacy trying to hide in a rationalist’s clothing. It doesn’t hide very well, and in its deceit only further polarizes discussion of an important risk issue we do have to analyze carefully, objectively, and honestly.
An earlier version of this essay was posted on Medium. It prompted Taleb and supporters to raise personal questions about my motivations, but to date, no response on the merits of the criticism.
Image from Wikipedia
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- Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
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- Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Great ideas in philosophy often come in dense packages. Then there is where the work of Marcus Aurelius.
- Meditations is a collection of the philosophical ideas of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
- Written as a series of notes to himself, the book is much more readable than the dry philosophy most people are used to.
- The advice he gave to himself 2,000 years ago is increasingly applicable in our hectic, stressed-out lives.
Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.
- New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
- Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
- The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.
Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".
Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.
The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.
The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.
Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.
"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."
University of Colorado Boulder
This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.
Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.
The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.
Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.
What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.
"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."
Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.
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