Monday, 16 March 2015

Anti-science labels

Arguments are worth having it there's a chance that reason will prevail over ego. Once that prospect disappears it's time to quit, as I'm sure you'll agree...

Kevin Folta is a pivotal figure on the "pro" side of GMO arguments. Kevin recently reported on a student project to survey: "public opinion about genetic crop improvement.  What are the triggers that excite or scare the public about how crops are changed by breeding, mutagenesis or other genetic techniques?".

What a great topic. I'm not surprised Kevin thought it "brilliant" and helped the student with the project. I'm also thrilled that they scored over 450 responses from random demographics and that the data are "astounding". Insightful student, interesting topic, astounding data. What's not to like here?

Well, apparently Kevin forgot to ensure that the prior strength and direction of respondents' views on GMOs were properly recorded for the 450+ people surveyed. At least that's the only reason I can think of for what happened next, which was that Kevin decided to 
"add an interesting highly biased layer by applying the same survey instrument to traditionally "pro-GMO" audiences and those not as comfortable with ag biotechnology."
Can you see why this must be a second survey? It's going to two different groups that Kevin's going to pick, and also, he's already told us that the student's survey was a success (450+ responses, astounding data).

So then Kevin, knowing he's regarded as the enemy by people "highly biased" against his position, starts inviting those people to complete his survey. Or as he puts it...

We have used social media to do the recruiting. It has been easy to recruit "pro" participation.  
But anti-GMO sentiment is silent. Total crickets. 
What's the deal?  When I put any scientific anything online there are swarms of the anti-biotech that are happy to hammer on me. There is always someone wanting their two cents to shape a conversation.
Where are they now?  Why won't they help a student's efforts?  The survey is anonymous. 
 I posted on Facebook pages of anti-GMO organizations like GMO Inside, Occupy Monsanto, and Moms Across America.  I've included their handles in Twitter feeds and reached out personally to individuals like Nomi from Babes Against Biotech.
The plea to "help a student's efforts" looks emotive when compared with the apparent success of the original project, not to mention Kevin's role in supporting that work. 

Anyway, the thing that caught my eye was this interpretation of Kevin's post
That's a pretty strong label there: anti-science. The impression is that these people are luddites, irrationally opposed to the pure objectivity of the scientific method.

I'd expect a scientist to use the term in a disciplined way, which means excluding other explanations before reaching for this classification. In this case there is one other very obvious explanation, which is that Kevin's enemies don't want to help him because they are his enemies.

I totally get the frustration felt by Kevin and Alison. But anyone claiming another group is "anti-science" really needs a scientific reason for that claim.


  1. Thanks for writing about this John. I hadn't seen this story.

    'They' (whoever that really is) may or may not be his 'enemies'. But as you say, it takes more to win cooperation than haranguing people with name calling (e.g., anti-science) and then expecting them to trust in a process where the name callers hold the power.
    Who really is anti-science? No one I've ever met. Everyone I've met to whom the label has been applied, or not!, has demonstrated a range of appreciation for the scientific method, a range of skills at applying it, and more or less familiarity with how it has been used and abused. The recent polls I've seen say that most folks respect and appreciate scientists. That doesn't mean that everyone agrees with everything any particular scientist said.
    I don't see frustration here, I see another excuse to polarise a single issue by painting people in stereotypes.

  2. Hey, thanks for the post. Maybe I can add another layer. First, the random data are quite nice, as mentioned. It seemed to us after the fact that perhaps when you scoot to the fringes of the technology's acceptability (for/against) that the thresholds would change, and we have great data for the "pro" side.

    Yes, I hate the bins too. I don't think I'm "pro-GMO", I always say "pro-science" as my view on GM is one good experiment from flipping.

    The other issue for me is that I don't consider the anti-GM folks my enemies. They may think that way about me. They are not my enemies, in fact, as a teacher I have a great deal of compassion for those that don't know something. I want to reach out and help those that don't understand the science.

    That's perceived as arrogant and overbearing, but it really is just me being a teacher that understands a topic very well.

    So to me, the almost universal refusal to help my student is kind of strange. The survey is anonymous, nobody is going to say, "Gotcha". If we understand the edge of what truly are the triggers, it helps us design better communication strategies. I'm sad to leave them out.

    It would be nice to have a better descriptor than "anti-science" and I've suggested, "fail to accept consensus", "inconsistent with the scholarly literature", etc. Those are more accurate and I try to use them, but in 140 characters...

    Thanks for the post. It is a good point. Our language should not be divisive if we are ever going to welcome others under the science tent.

  3. ... and please note that in my post I referred to them softly as "those not as comfortable with ag biotechnology", which I think is a fair characterization. These often are just good folks with genuine concerns. I do recognize that and try to reach out.

  4. Kevin and Jack both make very good points here, which is that good folks can have genuine concerns. Name calling is not helpful at all.

    I also suspect there is a conflation in many people's thinking between the GMO per se and its pesticide-intensive cultivation ( This stuff is very much in the eye of the beholder, so unless/until the pesticide regulatory system can actually give assurances to the general public, the polarisation looks likely to continue.