To change anti-science activists’ minds, go beyond science

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The ABC recently reported that 400 people in the Philippines trampled vitamin-enriched “golden rice” trial crops because of fears to human health and biodiversity. A Greenpeace representative in Manila was quoted as saying they will not be apologising.

Broken link in the read more fixed (/admin)

It’s very easy to see this as the mindless actions of ill-informed ideologues and anti-science luddites. And make no mistake, I am appalled by what they did, just as I was when it happened at aCSIRO lab in Canberra in 2011.

But as my rage subsided, my brain came back online.

This is not about GM food

The pros and cons of GM food are not what’s at issue here. For those interested in pros and cons, see herehere, and here for a variety of perspectives.

What’s at issue here is people, and understanding what’s happening when people disagree. Reading the many outraged responses by people in the scientific community – for example here and here – it seems clear to me that “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate”.

The proponents of GM rice and its benefits clearly have positive intentions, and they are understandably upset. Some of the pieces decrying the acts of the crop vandals explicitly refer to these activists as being “anti-science”.

Written By: Rod Lamberts
continue to source article at theconversation.com

27 COMMENTS

  1. So long as there is christianity, there will be confusion. You are saying that people do not understand that matter. & that is nearly the case globally in any matter. People are being played fools by some one or another. & why is it so easy to fool people? Because of the bible. Humanity has a curse over it that destroys our intellect severely. We believe, because of the bible, that we are not supposed to really do anything whatsoever ourselves. Think, work, act, live, the list is endless. & for that reason we are in fact unable absolutely to do for ourselves. Without the bible we would be able to think & do. With the bible, there is just decay & confusion.

  2. A protest against golden rice is most likely not about golden rice in particular, but about Monstanto’s morality and the safety mechanisms in general. I am opposed to GMO, and I am anything but a Luddite. I have explained my objections many times, but you Monstanto lobby lobbyists just ignore them and repeat your ad hominem attacks.

    • In reply to #2 by Roedy:

      A protest against golden rice is most likely not about golden rice in particular, but about Monstanto’s morality and the safety mechanisms in general. I am opposed to GMO, and I am anything but a Luddite.

      It is irrational to ignore their reputation. Therefor, Monsanto is an enemy of science, probably doing more harm than any Luddite/anti-civilizationists. The agents and representatives of science must behave morally, and Monsanto is an out of control, non-human mechanism. Monsanto is does the work of Luddites, fulfills the propaganda image of science as an uncaring, malevolent monster.

    • In reply to #2 by Roedy:

      but you Monstanto lobby lobbyists just ignore them and repeat your ad hominem attacks.

      damn! there goes another ironymeter. i hope my bosses at monsanto don’t take it out of my loyalty pay

    • In reply to #2 by Roedy:

      A protest against golden rice is most likely not about golden rice in particular, but about Monstanto’s morality and the safety mechanisms in general. I am opposed to GMO, and I am anything but a Luddite. I have explained my objections many times, but you Monstanto lobby lobbyists just ignore..

      I think what is needed is a clear distinction to be made between science and captialitsm and the profits and behaviour of large companies. I am not suspicious of the science behind vaccinations because it is good, clear science with no huge profit motive.

      I am less accepting of GMO because thus far it has been tied in with large companies like Monsanto who I do not trust not to put profits before good science.

      Science is neutral and only gives results, the users of science are not and they can manipulate results or science to suit.

  3. You have Monsanto et all to blame for that. If you don’t know why poor farmers across the globe are scared of Monsanto, you probably have to climb down your tax payer funded ivory tower of what ever university you are in and visit some of those countries where Monsanto have their nasty hold on farmers!

    Unless the supporters of GMO clearly distance themselves from companies like Monsanto and Cargill, they would have hard time convincing the people. Here is what we know about golden rice,

    The grain known as golden rice was developed with the support of the Rocker-feller Foundation and others over several years by Dr Peter Beyer of the University of Freiburg in Germany and Professor Ingo Potrykus of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich. The technology involves modifying the DNA of the commonest rice plant, Oryza sativa, by adding bacterial and daffodil genes to produce rice cells capable of making betacarotene using certain methods patented by the life sciences company Monsanto. Monsanto have now agreed to provide royalty-free licenses for its technologies to help fast-track the further development and distribution of the rice.

    Even the faintest association with any Anglo-American conglomerate is going to scare the poor farmers across the globe. Relentless corporate greed and the colonial/imperialist history is to be blamed here.

    • Yes, Monsanto being behind this is like, for the Right, Al Gore talking about global warming – you end up not trusting the outcome based on the source! On the negative, Monsanto has a history of providing seeds, and then when the next crop is ready, you need to purchase a series of items to maintain it (special herbicides, etc) or purchase a series of licenses that Monsanto owns to patents on in order to produce the product. On the plus side, Monsanto has announced that it was waiving the normal fees in this case, but, again, it is Monsanto!

      http://news.sciencemag.org/2000/08/monsanto-waives-fees-golden-rice

      So I don’t think that this is as much of a religious issue as much as an issue of mis-trust. If it were just about GMO’s, then, yes, I would call it silly since we eat tons of them (such as the modern yellow banana, and tomatoes that are tough enough to be picked by machine), and the vitamin A would be of benefit.

      In reply to #3 by soulreaver:

      You have Monsanto et all to blame for that. If you don’t know why poor farmers across the globe are scared of Monsanto, you probably have to climb down your tax payer funded ivory tower of what ever university you are in and visit some of those countries where Monsanto have their nasty hold on farme…

  4. GMO does not kill.
    That claim is as ridiculous as the claim that GMO is safe to release into the environment without proper testing. Testing which should be done where its genes cannot leak into other species.

    • In reply to #5 by Alan4discussion:

      GMO does not kill.
      That claim is as ridiculous as the claim that GMO is safe to release into the environment without proper testing. Testing which should be done where its genes cannot leak into other species.

      As shorthand it is accurate. As a reference it means more than the acronym. ‘GMO’=GMO as it exists. GMO is an icon for the business practices and societal impacts. GMO could be shorthand for limitless food, stability, global equality, and good health, but it represents the worst, most avaricious and irresponsible components of our system… which do in fact kill. Opponents make the argument that GMO is the fine point, the most intimate violation of a reckless system. They are fighting to defend their precious bodily fluids, their purity of essence… Mandrake!

  5. As much as I like and respect science I’m sceptical of most large corporations. Profits at any cost. Look at the Midwest and the corn factory it’s become. As for this “golden rice” I would support safe testing as long as it could be done in such a way to prevent cross pollination. Sadly I’ve read in various other articles that it already has cross pollinated.

  6. GMO food is safe. Those who say otherwise ARE BEING UNSCIENTIFIC. Nothing will change the mind of an anti-GMO true believer. There is no need to soft-peddle our criticism of the unscientific, just like there is no reason to soft-peddle our criticism of religion. That approach is called accommodationism. People will die because of these unscientific claims against GMO (in the case of the yellow rice). There is no reason to accommodate willful stupidity and the deaths that will result.

  7. Whether or not this rice is sufficiently no-seeds-for-you,-buy-us-again Monsanto-y or eat-pesticides-sucker-ish to deserve some kind of opposition (though not, I should point out, this food-destroying vandalism), the author starts from “OK, science doesn’t support what protesters do”, after which he tries to defend certain views. If I agree with his starting point, I agree with nothing that follows.

    To change anti-science activists’ minds, go beyond science

    So to refute fallacious reasoning I should use fallacies of my own? How else do I go “beyond” science?

    You can’t combat a point of view based on values with arguments based on science

    Define “combat”. Maybe I can’t change the person’s mind, but people can rarely change each other’s minds anyway. What you should do is persuade fence-sitters in the “audience”, be it a debate audience, other people in the conversation, your readers etc.

    It’s very easy to see this as the mindless actions of ill-informed ideologues and anti-science luddites

    Because it’s true! (Prove me wrong.)

    This is not about GM food

    Yes it is. People wouldn’t trample GM food if they didn’t doubt its safety.

    For those interested in pros and cons, see here, here, and here for a variety of perspectives.

    The point is moot anyway; we’d have to leave billions more of the world’s people unfed, resulting in countless deaths, if we didn’t use GM.

    What’s at issue here is people, and understanding what’s happening when people disagree.

    What’s happening is someone isn’t engaging with the evidence.

    The proponents of GM rice and its benefits clearly have positive intentions, and they are understandably upset. Some of the pieces decrying the acts of the crop vandals explicitly refer to these activists as being “anti-science”. But to dismiss this, and similar, disagreements as ipso facto reflecting an anti-science mentality is not only simplistic, it’s actively misguided.

    Firstly, it’s not simplistic; these people’s “positive” intentions are motivated by beliefs that don’t comport with science, which means the activists are anti-science. I suspect “mentality” is a general claim about a person’s beliefs rather than an assessment of the handful that are relevant. Yes, that would be excessive; but it’s also not what he’s proving was said with any quotation. The closest the linked article comes is to refer to people as anti-science, which again may sound like a sweeping statement, but it’s justified here because referring to an advocacy group as “the X people” labels them in their capacity as members of that advocacy group, so as to be relevant to the issue at hand. It’s no less appropriate than having a name for members of a political party.

    Secondly, if we’re about to be told the sense in which the policy is misguided is that they would be better persuaded by a worse argument, then bear in mind it’s unethical to sink to someone’s level just to win a battle. As I said before, convincing these people isn’t the only goal here. Will fence-sitters be impressed by an argument that so departs from evidence it sounds like we don’t have it on our side?

    a huge fan of what the CSIRO does in many areas, and particularly on climate change and … yes … but I believe that not all science is equal … this quote suggests hers is patently not an anti-science position

    Au contraire; anyone who thinks they can pick and choose which science they find convincing is scientifically wrong, hence anti-science in the sense I defined above. I’m sick of the suggestion that we can’t call people anti-science if they accept much of science. Pretty much everyone accepts that scientists know how to perform surgery and build working machines and make food grow in quantity. Someone who only concedes that much is not, however, science’s friend; they are “fair weather friends” who take the goods but don’t accept the implications of their functionality, e.g. naturalism, evolution and the accuracy of the findings of data.

    But it is certainly an anti-GM one

    What happened to “This is not about GM food”? Apparently he now concedes – in the same article – that yes, it is about GM. It’s one thing science studies, but he’ll argue that doesn’t make it anti-science. Really? If I was prejudiced against only one nationality on Earth, I’d still be racist, or “anti-racial equality”, as people might say. Sure, I’d accept the equality of 99.6 % of nations, but that’s not enough. Either principles are accepted or they’re not. If you accept only 99.6 % of the implications of an axiom, you don’t accept that axiom; that’s just logic.

    Rejection of some science and the relevant supporting evidence is not, on its own, a rejection of all science.

    Such a straw man, and an evasion of what matters. No-one accuses anti-GM advocates of disbelieving in electrons when they use their gadgets. But if I believed that the French and the French alone were inferior, I would be racist enough to despise, even though I wouldn’t be rejecting all claims of racial equality.

    If the goal of people doing, and promoting, worthy science like this is to help people and encourage uptake, accusations of being anti-science will not help.

    Ah yes, the “lie to be successful” proposal these people always come up with. Remember, if he genuinely felt he’d proven these people aren’t anti-science, he wouldn’t need to play the “it won’t help” card; we’d immediately agree to stop saying it, precisely because we base what we say about others on what we believe about them, which is what he’s complaining about us doing. He’s also forgotten again that there are people worth persuading other than people who commit crimes based on pseudoscience. There are all the people whose opinions have yet to be voiced, who could easily be taken in by any pseudoscientific arguments we don’t refute into ridiculed dust.

    It doesn’t matter if you don’t like the activists’ actions.

    Does it matter if I don’t like their beliefs (I don’t)?

    characterising those hearts and minds as knuckle-dragging, anti-science morons

    It has to be all-or-nothing with this guy, doesn’t it? We’re well aware these people trust in science enough to rely on cars and manufactured clothes and alarm clocks. That’s not the point. The greatest test of your trust in science is your willingness to concede the findings you have a value-based reason to dislike, just as the greatest test of your approval of free speech is your willingness to see things that deeply offend you published. Imagine if Johann Hari wrote an article decrying the characterisation of book burners as anti-free speech just because they accept almost all free speech. Pretty much everyone in the Western world already does.

    Protestations from the pro-GM side that opposition to their work is simply not supported by the scientific literature shows an understandable, and fervent, devotion to science. But it can also sound detached, indignant, even righteous.

    So apparently even saying science doesn’t support something is too lop-sided an approach to critiquing it. Seriously; at this point there is by definition no personal invective involved, just a discussion of the evidentiary basis of the propositions themselves, but he’s still not happy. He’s anti-science in his own way; to him, you sound indignant for stating a simple fact (that would be uncontroversial if only people were rational), no matter how calmly you do it.

    Righteous indignation, even if unintended, does not persuade well. Expect it to meet a resistance, if not an active opposition, that is proportional to your own passion.

    Firstly, again he’s forgetting that the larger number of people who need persuading aren’t the ones who hear righteous indignation when a scientist dispassionately mentions evidence (which is the behaviour he just mentioned, so we’re no longer discussing more personal jibes). Secondly, these people are already actively opposing us; how much worse does he think it’ll get? Will they somehow organize twice as much rice-trampling? They’re no doubt already working at their maximum capacity.

    That these might not seem scientific rational in theory does not render them any less real in practice.

    Of course they’re real in practice; that’s why they’re causing such lunacy as to need our opposition in the first place. But real doesn’t mean deserving of tolerance, or undeserving of empirical critique.

    We know very well that scientific illiteracy rarely causes rejection of science.

    Not on its own, no. But if children were scientifically literate before creationist preachers got to them, America wouldn’t be over 40 % YECs, and it wouldn’t keep fighting tooth and nail to stop the next generation of students getting a better education than their own. Rejection of science is caused by a combination of evil doing evil and good not doing enough, and this writer is basically arguing for the good to do less.

    He’d no doubt say he wants the good to work smarter, not harder, but never in the whole argument does he convincingly say what should be done instead.$ After all, the claim is we need to engage with anti-GM people’s values. All right; tell me what shared values I can remind them of that will persuade them to change their behaviour and/or beliefs (and I really want the second one, not only because it motivates the first but because it’s genuinely important in the first place; call that a value of mine if you must). Since they’re apparently oh so not anti-science, it should be enough to remind them of their valuing science, shouldn’t it? Except it can’t be, because otherwise they’d not be doing or thinking as they do. This man’s argument is self-defeating.

    $ He eventually says “remind them we want to deal with vitamin A deficiency”, an idea I critique below. He also has four “suggestions” for scientists, all but one of which is “X is true” or “remember X is true”, and the other one is a repeat of the vague position I’ve critiqued above repeatedly, so the vitamin A idea is literally the only specific policy he ever proposes.

    Vitamin A deficiencies are acknowledged as being serious and important by pro and anti-GM groups alike. In seeking to address such deficiencies, they actually want the same thing. Where they differ is how best to address such deficiencies.

    Which means mentioning that value won’t change their mind about policy! They might be touched to learn our GM is motivated by something they care about, but they’re convinced it’s the wrong way to do it anyway. Incidentally, this is a general problem with trying to engage people on values, which many philosophers have previously noted. If people share some values but still don’t agree, either different values – a divide rarely bridged! – or different beliefs about the facts are responsible. He offers no way at all to bridge that divide, and yet a central tenet of his position is we shouldn’t rely on the second approach either exclusively or to the extent we currently do.

    And protestations about saving children, while easy to depict as self-evidently worthy, can be used by both sides.

    No they can’t – not with evidence. GM food harms no children. It’s never been implicated in so much as a stomach ache.

    for scientists I have four suggestions.

    1 is a repeat of what we’ve often heard from him, so I won’t reply again. “Suggestions” may be the wrong word. 2 is a claim about science’s nature rather than a policy suggestion (more on it below). 3 is similarly instead a claim about sociology. 4 is the suggestion to remember a fact (so basically is like 2 and 3) that we all already remember anyway, and it’s irrelevant. Science may know less than everything, but those things which oppose it know nothing additional. And it’s odd he thinks the reason for anti-GM terrorism is the facts science isn’t omniscient, as if they would concede science knows what it does if only it also knew everything else. But as for 2:

    Science practice is not immune from bias and self-interest, nor is scientific research free from cultural influence (consider halal vaccines, for example) .

    People using science to make the things they want (e.g. halal vaccines) doesn’t bring into even slightly greater doubt the truth of the conclusions of that science; in fact, they have to be broadly correct for the equipment to work. That’s why the science that directly powers our gadgets tends to avoid resistance. And it is true that individual scientists and research projects show biases, and the former have self-interest; but science is designed to stop this misleading us factually as far as is possible, and to some extent these biases cancel out anyway. We can’t play the “human nature sucks so much it drags science down with it, so we should downplay how good science is when it has to fight the even worse parts of human nature that oppose it” card. Again, his argument is self-defeating, because science’s flaws are our fault, not the other way round. Science is the best job we’ve ever done of freeing ourselves from facing the consequences of our shortcomings.

    If scientists genuinely want to take the highest possible moral position (and I believe we should), a broad view of humanity is essential. If we want people to change a position, view or practice, scorching them with righteous fire is not the best way. That’s being as naïve about human nature as your opponents appear to be about science.

    I think he’s naïve about what we want to achieve. Yes, ideally we’d like these people to stop what they do, and even change what they think. But we also care about the far larger number of other people who don’t feel too strongly either way, and could easily go down the wrong path if inadequately educated.

  8. In Brian Cox’s recent documentaries he’s been critical of the proles who are against GM crops.
    Similar Luddites are also against vivisection ; but would imbibe antibiotics to quell an acute infection.
    One wonders if unempirical faith(e.g religion) is a serious backward cultural meme?

  9. Yesterday I went to an open day at CERN. You needed a (free) pre-booked ticket to go on one of the underground tours (I went to see ALICE) but on the surface everything was open and free and young researchers were demonstrating and explaining their work. I played with supercooled magnets (making my own maglev train go around a track) had a guided tour of the model for the new CLIC linear collider and saw how research from CERN has led to improvements in medical imaging and cancer radiation treatments. What most impressed me, though, was the enthusiasm and charm with which young people from all over the world spent their own free time explaining their work to an enthralled audience. I went to a presentation about CERN’s policies on knowledge transfer. Basically, this is to make everything open source unless there is a proved benefit in patenting and licensing. This applies to hardware too and CERN has an open hardware policy. Imagine if GM technology were treated in the same way. What if the technology and the hardware to manipulate it were open source and companies made their money from applications? Monsanto could then make and sell golden rice, but then so could anyone else and to gain market share Monsanto would have to be better competitively, not hiding behind ownership and patents. The people frightened by GMOs are not necessarily ‘anti science’ but often anti the corporate grabbing that comes after the science. And there is nothing irrational about that.

  10. Doesn’t anyone edit the articles posted here? How in the world can you posit that anti-GMO folks are implicitly anti-science? The touts pushing GMO products onto farmers around the world are the same lot that finance the lobbying against climate change and adequate testing of consumer products. If real science were employed to determine the safety of non-natural products, many would be taken off the shelves. But the reason it is not done is money; trials are expensive and in the case of anything involved with the environment, necessarily very long, hence expensive to a power greater than two. There is also the lucre the politicians hoard as “contributions” and the even more disgusting practices in the USA of allowing industry hacks move back and forth from industry to government regulatory agencies in the process hopelessly corrupting the agencies policies and enforcement mechanisms.

    The slime of fundamentalism that taints this website often leads to mistaking technology for science as in this article. It is asinine and folks getting onto this website deserve better.

    • In reply to #18 by Observer:

      Doesn’t anyone edit the articles posted here? How in the world can you posit that anti-GMO folks are implicitly anti-science? The touts pushing GMO products onto farmers around the world are the same lot that finance the lobbying against climate change and adequate testing of consumer products….

      It’s anti-science because the vast body of literature points to the safety of the technology. You’re confusing an ideological point about a company with a scientific process. Science is on the side of the technology’s safety. Anti-GMOers are no different than the anti-climate changers in their shrill, ideological war on facts. If the scientists disagree with them, which most do, then it’s claimed they are bought and paid for. Sounds familiar.

      Edited to add: Hating GMOs because you hate Monsanto is like hating smart phones because you don’t like Apple’s business practices.

      • In reply to #19 by Skeptic:

        Hating GMOs because you hate Monsanto is like hating smart phones because you don’t like Apple’s business practices.

        Interesting point. Certainly, if you have any reservations about Apple’s business ethics, you’d be a hypocrite to buy their products. Wouldn’t you? Though I don’t know if any other smartphone maker has a better ethical track record. Maybe there is one? What if they’re all evil greedy exploitative bastards? Put your ethics first and abandon the smart phone entirely, going the way of the Amish? Or shove the ethics and go for the cool? One other poster (on another topic) claimed to be avoiding buying anything made in China. How do you do that? I look around and see a HP mouse, and a Microsoft Mouse, both made in China.

        Others here complained of the deliberate confounding of “science” and “technology” (especially as applied by agribusiness). Being anti-GMO-as-it-is-currently-being-promoted is NOT being anti-science, and those who pretend it is have an agenda of their own. And maybe some shares.

        • In reply to #20 by OHooligan:

          In reply to #19 by Skeptic:

          Hating GMOs because you hate Monsanto is like hating smart phones because you don’t like Apple’s business practices.

          Interesting point. Certainly, if you have any reservations about Apple’s business ethics, you’d be a hypocrite to buy their products. Wouldn’t you? Th…

          No, no shares, I just prefer to listen to the scientists and not to my uneducated opinion, just like I do with the climate sciences.

  11. I think accepting certain parts of science and rejecting others on non-scientific grounds is exactly what anti-science is, because you’re not really accepting science. You’re merely accepting any argument that supports/confirms your bias. The article is correct in that the scientific community could benefit from the better understanding of human values, but to recommend that scientists should accept the fact that science doesn’t know everything? Well DUH! I’m not so naive to believe that all scientists accept this, but I’m pretty sure that any scientist worth their salt does. The fact that science doesn’t know everything probably humbles a lot of scientists.

    I do like how the article very subtly insults the anti-GMO crowd, though. Essentially saying they are acting out on their emotions and not acting on the facts/evidence, and that they should be coddled and talked to gently instead of being told straight up. I doubt the insult was intentional, but it was funny.

    • In reply to #23 by Tan:

      I do like how the article very subtly insults the anti-GMO crowd

      Yes, dismiss them as emotional, unreasonable etc.

      We can also insult the other side by calling them greedy self-serving etc.

      And in between, the poor scientists are misunderstood.

      I know GM is not Rocket Science, but remember, the V2 and the Saturn V were both products of Rocket Science. Doesn’t mean Londoners in the 1940s were against sending men to the moon, whatever they may have thought of the makers of the V2.

  12. I think the issue is twofold. Many of us don’t like GMOs not so much because we don’t trust the science as much as we don’t like the corporations behind them. Monsanto has been one of the worst corporate citizens ever; suing farmers over grain that was deposited on their land by the wind and has contaminated non-gmo crops. Suing people for continuing to use their traditional farming methods is not the best way to turn people into supporters.
    They also need to label their products properly so that people can make an informed decision over which products they choose to buy. If the products are so good, why are they so afraid to identify them?
    Some people may be turning to such drastic actions because because they feel powerless against corporate giants with teams of lawyers, pr firms, and lobbyists.

  13. Belief in the scientific method doesn’t necessarily dictate belief in Monsanto’s ability to use the scientific method properly when there is profit to be made. The Anti-GMO controversy is not an Anti-Science controversy. If I was a power-hungry Monsanto executive I would actually pay fundamentalists to look like fools while protesting GMO’s. GMO’s could do amazing awe-inspiring things if they are regulated properly and require international peer-reviewed study.

  14. From the OP

    The proponents of GM rice and its benefits clearly have positive intentions

    That throwaway statement went unchallenged. By “proponents”, does that include profit-oriented corporations notorious for their rapacious business practices ? What exactly then are the “postitive intentions”? Return On Investment?

    In any case, a very one-sided article.

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