Neil deGrasse Tyson on liberal science denial and GMOs

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By Dan Arel

 

Science denial is a major epidemic in the US, public policy is suffering while the Republican Party refuses to accept climate change, religious groups are fighting to inject creationism into the classroom all the while the countries scientific literacy falls behind the rest of the industrialized world.

However, we are wrong to say that science denial is a problem only coming from the right, or so says astrophysicist and host of the popular Cosmos series, Neil deGrasse Tyson, who sat down with me for a one-on-one interview, and when asked about the Rights constant denial of science and how we can address it, he brought up a different issue:

“It’s wrong to simply attack the right for science denial. Liberals cannot claim to fully embrace science, there is plenty of science denial from the left.”

What Tyson is talking about is the anti-vaccine movement, which is made up of a lot of liberals, or as the daily show called them, the climate denying nutjobs of the left, who at the same time deny things like modern medicine and seek alternative medicines that have either never been confirmed by science or fully debunked and let’s not forget that the debate over genetically modified foods is almost completely run by the left.

45 COMMENTS

  1. He just had to get that last bit in in defense of liberals!

    To hell with all political ideologies!

    I never know which creationism, secular or religious, is most damaging to teaching of the theory of evolution by natural selection. I do know that dichotomous ideologies ( with us or against us ) must be tempered with rationality.

    ( how many will home in on the GMO section alone? )

    • I think at least part of the issue with GMOs is Monsanto (who also brought Agent Orange to the world), and people want to loathe everything they do. The bottom line is that GMOs help feed the world, saved (continue to save) bananas, etc. I don’t like the lawsuits against midwest and great plains farmers who through no fault of their own end up getting GMO corn growing on their land. It’s the lawyers in all of it that belong at the bottom of the bottom of the ocean (old joke).

      The psychiatrists and neuropsychiatrists and psychologists involved in revising the DSM failed to add an additional personality disorder – the one that applies to ALL politicians regardless of their ideological side of the aisle. (And no, mixed pd doesn’t quite cover the features prevalent in every single politician in DC and beyond). There can be no rationality when the personality is so deeply and fundamentally flawed.

      Tyson’s right. That’s the bottom line. One side can’t claim the scientific high ground when yes, evolution = good, but vaccine = bad and GMO = bad.

  2. I guess I’m “homing in on the GMO section” :-)

    I only have one question to Neil with regard to GMO :
    “Would you be fine with labeling the foods that contain GMO’s, so that people can decide for themselves whether to use them or not”

    In fact, I would really like an article or a video where he explains his views on this in detail. I haven’t found it yet, has anyone else ?

    • Hi kenny77

      I’m not Neil deGrasse Tyson – sorry about that.

      Surely Dr. deGrass Tyson has already told us as much as we need to hear, in order to understand his position? He charges anti-GMO campaigners with using dogma rather than following the science.

      I understand that people’s fears over new methods of cultivation need to be addressed, and if there were identified risks to any fraction of the population then it would be essential to label foods that are GMOs.

      That said, I’m not aware of any risks to health?

      Given that the Chinese and others have been consuming GMOs for years now – with no signs of health risks – a better plan would seem to be that we need better education, in order to understand the available information on GMOs that says that it’s safe.

      In the absence of any clear health risk, more food = less hungry people using less land. Sounds good to me and, even if there are other potential negative outcomes, labelling food would appear to be an ineffective remedy.

      I worry, it’s a part of who I am. I do have concerns over the potential bio-diversity effects of GMOs but the only way we’ll understand if that’s a real threat is through continued study. There may be long-term health risks associated with GMOs [e.g. digestion processes we don’t understand, as with corn syrup], but the only way to know that is to actually eat some and, as with corn syrup, if it isn’t visible now any problem identified in the future is likely to be a subtle change that we can reverse.

      In short: What could you possibly hope to gain by asking a scientist not involved in studying GMOs whether they support the labelling of GMO foods? It seems to me you can learn nothing about truth. All you can do is back somebody with a public profile into a political corner, and that appears to be revealing about your motives and your own position.

      I would be happy to hear that I have misunderstood.

      Peace.

      • The only thing I’m asking is that he explains his position, which he clearly has, or he wouldn’t be expressing it.

        I just want to learn his arguments, to educate myself, and to correct my position if the arguments are convincing enough.

        I see someone else posted a link with his arguments, I’ll look into that.

      • Hm.

        I don’t think that cotton picked by African Americans makes for worse cloth than that picked by WASPs.

        (Nor do racists seem to think it, btw – they systematically used African American labour power to pick cotton, after all. Their beef seems to have been whether those people should be paid for that labour.)

        But the chemical composition of products is relevant. Are you against labeling products that contain asbestos, for instance? Or batteries that contain cadmium?

        Similarly the genetic composition of products seems to be relevant. After all, the reason why we eat a few species of plants and not most of them is that they are genetically different, isn’t it?

        • Objections based on the unhealthiness of GM foods are prejudice pure and simple. There is no scientific basis for health objections to GM foods. You want labeling which will accommodate your prejudice. You don’t deserve it anymore than anti-Semites deserve labeling of products made by Jews. If you want non-GM foods, you can encourage non-GM food companies to say non-GM on their packaging. Drugs or tobacco products which have been scientifically proven to have side-effects or deleterious effects on health should and do carry warnings on their packaging.

          • Everyone is overlooking the Precautionary Principle, which errs on the side of safety. No one has proven GMOs safe and it is not the public’s responsibility to prove them unsafe. GMO technology is a major genetic intervention involving DNA and cross species mixing. It is not your old fashioned artificial selection which selects individuals with desirable traits or cross breeds varieties of the same species. Suspicion of GMOs is entirely different from rejection of vaccines, which have a proven record and whose
            risks and benefits are well known. Furthermore the ecological impact of breeding GMO crops may well be even more disastrous as traditional varieties are edged out despite their proven adaptation to local climates and soil conditions. Opposing GMOs is highly rational and not the domain of counterculture New Age kooks. As a strong defender of science, rationality and the scientific method, I oppose the growing and use of GMO crops and I believe that transgenics is counterevolutionary in its essence, sidestepping natural selection and evolution and putting the power of selection in the hands of fallible or malign humans. Labelling should be required but this is not enough. GMOs should be banned from all food crops.

          • prietenul Aug 30, 2014 at 8:43 am

            Objections based on the unhealthiness of GM foods are prejudice pure and simple. There is no scientific basis for health objections to GM foods. You want labeling which will accommodate your prejudice.

            In subjects like Round-Up Resistant cereals where the GM is to accommodate increased use of herbicides, that is simply no true. There is a long history of companies marketing insecticides and herbicides making false claims about their safety to both humans and ecosystems while pretending critics are “anti-science” or “anti-progress”.

            The world is already suffering massive biological and ecological problems from the geographical relocation of natural invasive species, without any more unregulated profiteers inventing new ones!

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invasive_species#Costs
            Economic costs from invasive species can be separated into direct costs through production loss in agriculture and forestry, and management costs. Estimated damage and control cost of invasive species in the U.S. alone amount to more than $138 billion annually.

            GM covers a multitude of issues which must be properly dealt with by individual testing on their merits.

            LornaS Sep 14, 2014 at 6:37 pm

            Everyone is overlooking the Precautionary Principle, which errs on the side of safety. No one has proven GMOs safe and it is not the public’s responsibility to prove them unsafe.

            That is indeed the case, with Europe setting much higher testing standards than the company-dominated USA and the “couldn’t give a damn 3rd world governments”, whose populations sufferer from regular pollution and health risks.

            http://io9.com/5833022/10-of-the-worlds-worst-invasive-species

            https://www.ec.gc.ca/eee-ias/default.asp?lang=En&n=4612AC81-1

    • “Would you be fine with labeling the foods that contain GMO’s, so that
      people can decide for themselves whether to use them or not”

      And I have just one question for you:
      Do you really mean choice, or is this really a tactic to force supermarkets not to stock such products, and in fact take choice away from those who disagree with you?

      Because I support GMO, and I don’t like ignorant hysterical fools forcing their counter-factual nonsense on other people.

    • While I would like to hear Neil deGrasse Tyson’s response as well, all I can do is offer my own. As a molecular plant scientist I am all for the spread of information. Knowledge and truth are what I value. However, the issue of labeling GMOs is a complicated one. The motivation for this is questionable since it is usually called for by people who are adamantly anti-GMO and often not even scientists. All the food from large scale farms is genetically modified. Even the so called non-GMO food is in fact genetically modified with a technique called mutagenesis.

      Plants that have had a direct modification to their genome, whether through GMO or mutagenesis, are extensively studied and their whole genomes are screened. If we are going to use a label it should be: GMO: tested and safe.

      I think misinformation and misunderstanding are to blame for the dislike of GMOs. As I said in the other article on this topic, I would be happy to answer questions on GMOs. More plant scientists should engage the public about this research.

      • It is more complicated than you say and I will raise a few reasons why.

        Firstly, Tyson equates two different things when he compares being anti-GMO with science denial. If the anti-GMO lobby were science deniers in the same sense as “answers in genesis” for instance they would claim that creating a new organism is not possible! This is rarely if ever the case. The anti-GMO lobby have (mostly) other issues to do with risk management, ownership of organisms and morality. These are not issues that can be labelled “science denial” since science has nothing to say about absolute acceptable levels of risk or ownership. These are actually social questions – “what level of risk is society willing to accept” – and characterising those who disagree with you on those levels (regardless of how wrong they are) as science deniers is bad debating form at best.

        I also object deeply to the whole argument that “GMO” is the same as evolution, mutagenesis or breeding. There is clear difference between the accepted (at least in Europe) meaning of GMO and breeding or mutagenesis and that is in the size of the delta in the genetic makeup that is possible. No amount of breeding or exposure to even hard x-rays is going to move large parts of one species DNA into another species. Therefore – by definition – the legal, ethical and risk management framework for GMO MUST be different to those for traditional farming and breeding.

        I know that his arguments are aimed at “back to nature” people and it is true that their arguments and sentiments are wrongly founded. But I would strongly suggest that Tyson (and possibly you) move away from badly formed rhetoric and address the issues directly.

        And to return lastly the the “back to nature” crowd, you are wasting your time anyway. Scientifically based arguments are not going to convince them and you have, in the end regardless of how wrong they are, to acknowledge their basic human right to decide what they eat.

        • I’m a bit confused here; are you replying to my comment specifically or the article in general?

          If you were speaking to me:

          I didn’t say anything about science denial, but your assertion that science denial is a all or nothing mentality is strange. People saying that GMOs cause cancer would be denying the scientific consensus that they don’t. Someone who seems otherwise scientifically literate could deny the science of a topic they don’t agree with or don’t understand and thus be a science denier although they accept other scientific truths.

          Unfortunately, I’ve heard many arguments against GMOs that are directed at the science, not just at risk management, ownership and morality, which I agree would be social issues that need to be sorted out. Maybe I’m misunderstanding you – are you saying that there is no argument against the science of GMOs? That would be contrary to my experience, but it would be welcome.

          No one is saying that GM is the same as evolution, mutagenesis or breeding. My point was that mutagenesis is an alternate method to GMOs, an alternative that I understand to be unpredictable, time-consuming and not as effective. Mutagenesis is much more likely to cause unintended effects than direct GM.

          Without GM technology (or mutagenesis where GM isn’t used) many of our crops would fail and people wouldn’t have the problem of deciding what to eat. Traditional breeding is too slow and ineffective for our large-scale, monoculture farming systems. That’s not to say that many problems couldn’t be fixed by changing the way we farm… but that’s just an idea, not my area of expertise.

        • As a side note that has nothing to do with this topic: it is a natural occurrence for DNA from one species to move into another species. This is called horizontal gene transfer and it is quite common. For example, the human genome contains some DNA of viral origin and different species of bacteria can share genes through horizontal transfer.

        • ‘the legal, ethical and risk management framework for GMO MUST be different to those for traditional farming and breeding.’

          For every human cultivated crop there is at least one unwanted weedy relative, that is to say that ALL Weeds are in effect MAN MADE. Should we stop our entire cultivation practices on this basis?

    • The issue I take with labeling products like this, really just proliferates peoples inability to be unreasonable, and in some ways gives them confirmation bias that there are reasons this food should be separated from other food and plays into a naturalistic fallacy, I’ve already seen grocery stores start labeling foods that inherently would never have GMOs because it’s not a candidate, yet I’m sure plenty of people are buying these products over another brand because public opinions that weren’t reached through thoughtful discussion and research of the topic at hand, but rather just following the the loudest voice, make people put GMO in their “always bad” column, the same way that if you started putting “Murder free” labels on meat, some people might buy the meat with the murder free label, even though reasoning would tell us you couldn’t have the end product without ending the creatures life.

      There is also a growing concern regarding the scarcity of food, you won’t see starving third world children debating whether corn is GMO free, local grown organic produce isn’t really a concern, in many ways our options are to increase the worlds food output significantly to feed an always growing population or take to the stars, and option B isn’t looking that great right now given current funding of space exploration.

      I’m not saying that some of the companies don’t use unsavory business practices, but that’s a question of business ethics and corporate litigation, not science.

      • Really – your position is the patronising position that “we should not give people information because they will only use it incorrectly” ?

        And – while I am at it – why is somehow not important that people’s objections to GMO could be ethical or legal (or indeed that the reason for the label could be because of ethical or legal concerns?)

      • Matt Aug 31, 2014 at 3:02 pm

        There is also a growing concern regarding the scarcity of food, you won’t see starving third world children debating whether corn is GMO free, local grown organic produce isn’t really a concern,

        You won’t see thirsty third world children debating whether water is contaminated with toxic chemicals, bacteria, or parasites, but that is hardly an argument for setting standards by a race to reach the lowest level!

        Strawman arguments against green hippies, are just a smoke-screen to hide the real environmental issues. Some GM crops are potentially good agricultural crops. Others are serious environmental or nutritional risks. Each needs to be objectively evaluated on its merits without ill-informed cheerleaders shouting their blind faith for either uncritical acceptance or rejection.

  3. Since we’re never going to pass a law that bans, or requires a “warning” label on, over 80 % of the market’s current foods, and since no law is needed to label the GM-free foods instead (because capitalists will all too willingly boast about it), I don’t understand what law on GM foods anyone realistically thinks is going to be passed. If a specific GM product is shown to be dangerous, by all means ban or label it. But a GM-or-not binary thought process isn’t helpful here. There are maybe a handful of GM foods whose safety is kinda sorta undermined by as yet unreplicated scientific “findings”. The absolute most generous I can be to the anti-GM crowd is to say maybe they could try getting a bill targeting those into law. By the time such a bill is voted on, the science should have either confirmed or refuted the initial doubts about those products.

  4. I think that Tyson is correct in every respect.

    In the seventies I was a “loony lefty”, and I vividly recall the anti science attitudes at that time; especially, for some reason, against Biochemistry; a bit ironic really, since now one of my daughters is a Biochemist.

    But at least I’ve learnt better, unlike some in certain communities, who never seems to learn anything; no names no pack drill.

    And this ignorance is of course very damaging to societies, but it can be combated, and it must be, urgently.

    More in the scientific communities need to stand up and speak out.

  5. What do “liberals” have to do with the left?

    We leftists are staunchly antiliberal.

    And I don’t think leftists oppose mandatory vaccination, at all. At least where I live, I have never seen anything like that (true, I haven’t seen any right wing opposition to vaccination either).

    “Alternative medicine” seems to be a bunch of very different practices, some of which have absolutely no base in reality, while others seem to have some evidence on their behalf. But I see absolutely no relation between this and the left/right divide. It is at most a New-Ageist thing, and the only thing I think the left can be accused of is of not being knee-jerk reflexively against New-Ageists, as a few (but by no means all) right wingers are.

    And on the subject of GMO, I don’t think a proper debate on them can be centered on “science”. Rather the problem seems to be with privatisation of property rights over living beings, as well as about what kind of genetical modifications we want (corn that is more resistant to bug infestations, so that we can eat a bigger part of it, or corn that is more resistant to pesticides, so that chemical companies can sell more toxic products so to obtain bigger profits, at the cost of more pollution?). That is, juridical, ethical or pragmatical debates, not “scientific” ones.

    • . What do “liberals” have to do with the left?
      We leftists are staunchly antiliberal.

      Aaagh! This is so confusing for the non-American! To the Australian, ‘ Liberal’ is the name of our Conservative party. When we visited the US we were told that we were ‘bleeding heart liberals’ by our conservative relatives. And now I’m told that liberal is not synonymous with the ‘left’! I feel left out of the loop somehow!
      In addition, I have nothing against GMO foods so far. If they prove to be harmful at a later date, I’ll quickly change my tune.

  6. First time reader of this site… Is there more to this article that I’m missing? Other commenters seem to be responding to paragraphs that I can’t see above. All I can see are: a photo, three paragraphs, and one pullout quote.

  7. I’m surprised the “Superiority Via Hedge Bet” has not been mentioned. The hedge bet in knowledge is a way for a person to come across looking naturally smarter than the professionals at the professionals own game. By hedging that the scientific view point isn’t true the better stands to win great praise as a natural visionary of great intelligence; if the better is proven wrong, they still get to benefit from the professionals discoveries and brag that they were “taken seriously” as demonstrated by all the attention and debates.

    The problem arises when the better is proven wrong but has convinced enough “idiots” to follow them, thus making the better superior enough in their small circle. Denial is about nothing more than men being alpha. Trust me, I do it all the time. When you pull it off, you are a rock star. When you fail, well… of course you failed, they’re the professionals. What the hell did you expect from me? At least I’m trying to do something here.

    It’s all dick and balls, even Jen McCarthy.

    • alf1200 Aug 29, 2014 at 10:03 pm

      Since the foods that are NOT genetically modified are less than GMO foods, how about we label those foods as GMO free?
      Easy……..

      Unfortunately, it is not that easy – which is why organic farmers have been suing people whose nearby GM cereals have contaminated their crops with wind=blown pollen, and lost their crop its organic status!

      Many GM foods are safe, but being reassured they are safe, by companies which have a long track record of lying about the safety of their products, (and politically obstructing regulatory legislation after the style of the tobacco companies), is a good formula for ensuring failure to pick out any which are hazardous to health or to the world’s ecosystems!

      Unfortunately, many of the “cheerleaders for scientific innovation”, have no understanding of medicine or ecosystems, and cannot see beyond, “A bigger crop in this field now this year”!

      Neil deGrasse Tyson is an American astrophysicist, and astronomer. He is currently the Director of the Hayden Planetarium.
      He really should leave the biology and ecology to the biologists!

  8. Much as I admire Proff Tyson, in this case I feel that he is wrong.

    So when asked about labeling campaigns for GMO foods, “I don’t care if
    you want to label GMOs in the grocery story, but do so knowing that
    you will be labeling 80-90% of the food on the shelves, or go ahead
    and tell me you want to remove all GMOs from food, and know that the
    same 80-90% of food will have to be removed.”

    Most of us know that when we refer to GMO foods we (in Europe) are referring to genes modified in a laboratory. The other 80-90% of foods, modified by artificial selection need to be exempt. BECAUSE they have been proven to be save for the rest of the environment. Is it so much to ask that GMO foods (you know what I mean) are labelled accordingly? Furthermore, it is very revealing that the likes of Monsanto, do not want their products to be identifiable in the shops.

  9. Richard Dawkins Foundation, thank you for supporting scientific literacy, especially on the topic of GMOs. I expect readers of this site, due to their hopefully rational nature, can understand the science and benefits of GMOs and see through the anti-GMO propaganda that plagues our society.

    • Solanaceae Aug 31, 2014 at 1:34 pm

      Richard Dawkins Foundation, thank you for supporting scientific literacy, especially on the topic of GMOs. I expect readers of this site, due to their hopefully rational nature, can understand the science and benefits of GMOs and see through the anti-GMO propaganda that plagues our society.

      Some of us can also see through the reckless commercial hype of the likes of Monsanto and have studied their track record for decades, along with the toxic pollution spread around by reckless free-market anti-regulation attitudes to sales of pesticides, herbicides, fertilisers and industrial chemicals.

    • Solanaceae Aug 31, 2014 at 1:34 pm

      Richard Dawkins Foundation, thank you for supporting scientific literacy, especially on the topic of GMOs. I expect readers of this site, due to their hopefully rational nature, can understand the science and benefits of GMOs and see through the anti-GMO propaganda that plagues our society.

      Biologists also know the benefits of antibiotics, and have been warning about the dangers to health from antibiotic resistance from their misuse since the 1960s.

      However the US “non-label brigade” have now belatedly agreed for VOLUNTARY GUIDANCE – (50 YEARS TOO LATE), to be put on the antibiotic product labels supplied, for misuse in promoting profits in the meat industries, as an alternative to sanitary housing of livestock.

      http://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/issue-briefs/2014/02/11/new-fda-policies-on-antibiotics-use-in-food-animal-production

      In December 2013, FDA issued two landmark policy documents on the use of medically important antibiotics in food animal production—an important step toward curbing the inappropriate use of antibiotics in this industry:

      Final industry guidance: “Draft Guidance for Industry on New Animal Drugs and New Animal Drug Combination Products Administered in or on Medicated Feed or Drinking Water of Food-Producing Animals: Recommendations for Drug Sponsors for Voluntarily Aligning Product Use Conditions with GFI 209; Guidance 213.”
      Draft rule: “Veterinary Feed Directive.”

      These policy documents, however, have gaps that need to be addressed to slow the growing public health crisis of antibiotic resistance. It is important to note that the guidance is voluntary, meaning companies are not required to follow it.

      If they cannot get a grip on regulating this major antibiotic resistance issue after 50 years of warnings, What trust can anyone place in the supposed safety testing and regulation (most of which has not even been started) of innovative products?

      http://consumerist.com/2013/12/11/fda-politely-asks-drug-companies-to-voluntarily-stop-providing-antibiotics-for-animal-feed/

      In the face of numerous reports indicating that the practice of using medically unnecessary antibiotics to bulk up farm animals is leading to millions of people getting sick each year from drug-resistant pathogens, the Food & Drug Administration drew a line in the sand today and put an end to the practi– oh wait, I meant that the FDA has politely asked drug companies to voluntarily phase out sales of these drugs to farmers.

      After an inexplicably long delay, the FDA finally released its final guidance for industry [PDF] today, in which it sets forth completely voluntary guidelines for how drug companies could phase out the sale of medically unnecessary antibiotics for the sole purpose of encouraging growth in farm animals.

      While the FDA says it is “concerned about the risk that antimicrobial resistance poses to public health from the use of medically important antimicrobial drugs in food-producing animals for production purposes,” and it has the authority to halt this practice, the agency instead chose to leave this matter in the hands of a pharmaceutical industry that makes a huge profit on these drugs, with around 80% of antibiotics in sold in the U.S. going into the feed and water of pigs, cows, and chickens (and then into consumers who eat those animals).

  10. Not supporting the political agenda for correcting what is called global warming does not imply denial of science. In fact many solid supporters of the late, atheistic philosopher and novelist and novelist take this point of view.

    • Robert Sep 1, 2014 at 3:10 pm

      Not supporting the political agenda for correcting what is called global warming does not imply denial of science.

      It is denial of science or ignorance of science. The evidence of greenhouse heat inputs is measurable and undeniable.

  11. I found the numerous references to AGW during his ‘Cosmos’ series really worthwhile. It was treated in the same matter-of-fact way the rest of the science was presented. Not contentious, just a matter of ‘this is the way it is’.

  12. We have seen a spike in wheat allergy. I am affected myself. I did not used have any problem. What is going on?
    Wheat gluten has not changed much, but many other components of wheat have changed drastically. The problem with GMOs is you cannot avoid them. Monsanto and friends insist they not be labelled.

    I LOVE wheat. All my favourite foods include wheat. My only choice is to deny myself everything I crave. A POX on you Monsanto.

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