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.

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