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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
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
Scientists find that bursts of gamma rays may exceed the speed of light and cause time-reversibility.
- Astrophysicists propose that gamma-ray bursts may exceed the speed of light.
- The superluminal jets may also be responsible for time-reversibility.
- The finding doesn't go against Einstein's theory because this effect happens in the jet medium not a vacuum.
Jet bursting out of a blazar. Black-hole-powered galaxies called blazars are the most common sources detected by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.
Cosmic death beams: Understanding gamma ray bursts<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="cu2knVEk" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="c6cfd20fdf31c82cb206ade8ce21ba3f"> <div id="botr_cu2knVEk_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/cu2knVEk-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Philosophers have been asking the question for hundreds of years. Now neuroscientists are joining the quest to find out.
- The debate over whether or not humans have free will is centuries old and ongoing. While studies have confirmed that our brains perform many tasks without conscious effort, there remains the question of how much we control and when it matters.
- According to Dr. Uri Maoz, it comes down to what your definition of free will is and to learning more about how we make decisions versus when it is ok for our brain to subconsciously control our actions and movements.
- "If we understand the interplay between conscious and unconscious," says Maoz, "it might help us realize what we can control and what we can't."
Puerto Rico's iconic telescope facilitated important scientific discoveries while inspiring young scientists and the public imagination.
- The Arecibo Observatory's main telescope collapsed on Tuesday morning.
- Although officials had been planning to demolish the telescope, the accident marked an unceremonious end to a beloved astronomical tool.
- The Arecibo radio telescope has facilitated many discoveries in astronomy, including the mapping of near-Earth asteroids and the detection of exoplanets.
Bradley Rivera via twitter.com<p>In 1963, the concave dish was built into a natural sinkhole on the northern coast of Puerto Rico. The location was <a href="https://www.space.com/20984-arecibo-observatory.html" target="_blank">picked because it was near the equator,</a> providing scientists a clear view of planets passing overhead, and also of the ionosphere, which is the uniquely reactive layer of Earth's upper atmosphere where the northern lights form.</p><p>Since its construction, scientists have used the Arecibo telescope to map near-Earth asteroids, detect gravitational waves, study pulsars, detect exoplanets and <a href="https://www.seti.org/goodbye-arecibo" target="_blank">search for alien civilizations</a>, among other projects. Here's a brief look at some of the discoveries and accomplishments made using the Arecibo telescope:</p><ul><li>1964: Astronomer <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Pettengill" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Gordon Pettengill</a> discovers that Mercury's rotation period is 59 days, significantly shorter than the previous prediction of 88 days.</li><li>1974: Physicists Russell Alan Hulse and Joseph Hooton Taylor Jr. discovers the first binary pulsar, for which they won a Nobel Prize in Physics.</li><li>1974: Scientists use the telescope to transmit the "Arecibo message" to <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Globular_Cluster_in_Hercules" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">globular star cluster M13</a>. The message, when translated into image form, contains basic information about humanity and human knowledge: the numbers one to 10, a map of our solar system, an illustration of a human being, and the atomic numbers of certain elements.</li><li>1989: Scientists use the telescope to image an asteroid for the first time.</li><li>1992: Astronomers Alex Wolszczan and Dale Frail become the first to discover exoplanets.</li></ul>
The Google-owned company developed a system that can reliably predict the 3D shapes of proteins.