GMOs and the Dilemma of Bias (by Adam Frank – republished from NPR)

zero-wasteBy Adam Frank (from

For original article see GMOs and the Dilemma of Bias on

We have taken on the issue of science and politics a lot in this blog. As a culture saturated with science, one of the most pressing issues we face is how to evaluate research when its conclusions challenge our world-views. This is certainly the issue with climate change, where Al Gore’s championing the case for climate action galvanized many against it. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) — i.e., genetic engineering of crops — presents its own version of the problem for the environmentally minded. For those with a “green” disposition, the reaction to GMOs tends to one of opposition: GMOs are not safe and should be banned.

But what happens if a careful analysis of the current state of the science points in the opposite direction?

I have the green inclination. But I’ve also spent a life dedicated to that one fundamental principle of science: “Thou shalt change thy mind based on evidence.” It is in that spirit that I’ve followed Nathanael Johnson’s series on GMO’s with great interest (see Nathanial Johnson Blog on GMOs). Johnson, a blogger for the very liberal site Grist, is not someone with a pro-GMO ax to grind. As Andrew Revkin points out in his New York Times article, Johnson dug deep into the science producing “prize-winning journalism by a trusted guide.”

Recently Johnson published an overview of his research on the subject (see Nathanial Johnson – 20 GMO Questions), with breakdowns across a series of subtopics like health, environment, money, etc. Each breakdown comes with its own take-away and its own caveats (and in a subject like this, where the science is still ongoing, knowing the caveats is important). To the all-important question, “What about studies suggesting GMOs are harmful?” Johnson answers:

A couple of those do exist. It’s important to look at them carefully, with an open mind. It’s also important to do the same with the hundreds of studies suggesting that GMOs aren’t harmful. When you consider the evidence in sum, the products out there look pretty darn safe.

Other issues Johnson takes on are equally contentious: Do GMOs hurt poor farmers? (Maybe.) Are GMOs needed to feed the world? (No.) Are GMO patents a problem? (Yes.) But it’s the safety issue that generates the most resistance and that is where his work is most illuminating.
Johnson’s conclusions, and the reactions to them, are noteworthy in ways that go far beyond GMOs.

From drones to big data to climate, we face collective decisions about issues that ONLY exist because we live in a culture that deploys the fruits of science on globally pervasive scales. How, then, do we maintain democratic practices when informed consent often requires absorbing new information at odds with pre-existing values and world views? Andrew Revkin puts it bluntly when he asks: “How will Johnson’s reporting matter to entrenched foes of this [GMO] technology?”

It is, of course, important to understand the difference between science and Science. The claims of a single study published last week cannot be the basis of head-spinning revisions of our commitments. But what happens as evidence mounts? Since all policy decisions are basically bets on the future, when does the evidence revealed through scientific practice become strong enough for us to put money on the table?

There is certainly more to say about GMOs. But Johnson’s work raises a question we all have to ask ourselves. How do we balance our deeply held values and a deeply held commitment to the evidence? When do we reach a point where we see those values transform into bias?

GMOs and the Dilemma of Bias on

Nathanial Johnson Blog on GMOs

Nathanial Johnson – 20 GMO Questions

Andrew Revkin’s NY Times article


You can keep up with more of what Adam Frank is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter … and @AdamFrank4 respectively.

About The Author

Matt Williams has been a resident of Davis/El Macero since 1998. Matt is a past member of the City's Utilities Commission, as well as a former Chair of the Finance and Budget Commission (FBC), former member of the Downtown Plan Advisory Committee (DPAC), former member of the Broadband Advisory Task Force (BATF), as well as Treasurer of Davis Community Network (DCN). He is a past Treasurer of the Senior Citizens of Davis, and past member of the Finance Committee of the Davis Art Center, the Editorial Board of the Davis Vanguard, Yolo County's South Davis General Plan Citizens Advisory Committee, the Davis School District's 7-11 Committee for Nugget Fields, the Yolo County Health Council and the City of Davis Water Advisory Committee and Natural Resources Commission. His undergraduate degree is from Cornell University and his MBA is from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He spent over 30 years planning, developing, delivering and leading bottom-line focused strategies in the management of healthcare practice, healthcare finance, and healthcare technology, as well municipal finance.

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  1. Rich Rifkin

    Re: the issues he points to with GMOs … I heard an interesting story on NPR today about genetically modified apples. These apples have their given enzymes changed such that they won’t turn brown when exposed to oxygen, as all natural apples will in time. That is not an issue for apples you or I buy in a grocery store or produce market. It’s more of an issue with prepared meals, where the apples are cut well in advance and will turn brown if they are not chemically treated.

    There appear to be three benefits to this genetic modification: 1. The obvious, they will appear more appealing to eaters if they don’t turn brown; 2. There is a health benefit, as the enzymatic oxidization of the apples actually is bad for human cell health; and 3. The GMO apples cost much less, because the apple processors will no longer have to spray the apples with chemicals (which I assume are harmless, but I do not know) to keep them from browning.

    Yet, one would have to be terribly naive to not expect the anti-GMO activists to fight this. Another aspect of this story is the GMO developer is Canadian. So apple growers in the U.S. may fight this too, largely for fear that activists tar all apples with the negatives they have attributed to GMO apples.

      1. Tia Will

        Thanks to both Matt for opening the conversation and Rich for the NPR link which I think brings up an important point. That point is fear based on a lack of knowledge along with promotion of one’s own economic gain are a dangerous combination.

        “The non-browning trait was created by inserting extra copies of genes that the apple already possessed.”

        This sentence especially caught my eye. Not all genetic engineering is created equal. Some, such as this enhancement of a gene already present in the apple, will be, on the benefit to harm ratio, far on the benefit side. However what will get triggered in the minds of many who have a knee jerk negative reaction to GMO’s will be horrific thoughts of turning apples into some alien species with “heaven’s knows what effects on us” if we eat them.

        These folks will start stirring the pot of public fears and this combined with the actions of very powerful industrial fruit growers who have no desire to see any competition introduced will attempt to block what could be a benefit, in this case in terms of the cost and “shelf” longevity of a healthy food.

        I have seen these actions and reactions in play in the field of medicine over a number of years. Treatments and medications that would be of benefit to many if used judiciously have been demonized by the fearful or those standing to lose money, or simply those with an axe to grind. Their stories are picked up and inflated by the media, and seemingly overnight women who would clearly benefit are too afraid to try a medication that is clearly demonstrated to be both safe and effective. The clearest example of this in my field is the ongoing controversy over the use of “hormones”. There is one particular combination of hormones, that when used for greater than five years, has been associated with a less than 1 percent per year increase in the risk of breast cancer. This has been interpreted by many women to mean that all hormones cause a huge increase in breast cancer risk immediately and thus will not use any hormone or combination thereof. This lack of understanding and simplistic thinking causes many to eschew treatments that would clearly help them.

        On the individual level, this is a reasonable choice since it affects on the single patient herself. It is quite a different matter when we, as a society, allow our options to be limited by the irrational fears and potential for monetary gain of a few.

  2. Rich Rifkin

    I am a supporter–with no money in it–of GMO agriculture in general. I believe they have the potential to greatly reduce the amount of harmful chemicals (used for pesticides and herbicides) which are used in traditional agriculture without the cost problems of purely organic agriculture. I also think, in some cases, they can help farmers make a living where their soil may have become overly salty (from irrigation) or where a farmer lacks water, as genetic engineers develop crop varieties which can grow in bad soil or with less water. A third possible category of benefit may come as climate change makes traditional crops more difficult to grow. That is, a GMO alternative could be developed to deal with the new environmental conditions. And most importantly, GMOs have the potential of greatly increasing crop yields the world over–a very important benefit in a planet which will add 4 to 5 billion more mouths to feed in the next 50 yeats.

    However, I do think GMO agriculture needs to be heavily regulated and there is good sense in going slowly.

    I think these sorts of crops could be designed to solve a specific problem for one farmer who uses them and potentially create another for a neighbor who is growing something else. Like with any market activity, it’s important to not let Person A impose his costs on Person B. To my mind, this is similar to regulating a chemical factory. You don’t want its effluent fouling up the neighbor’s air or water supply.

    A second worry with GMOs is that they can have the same long-run problems that we see in traditional agriculture, where they start out as effective and lose that beneficence over time. For example, the idea of raising corn (or other grains) with Round-up ready genes is to REDUCE the cost and quantity of herbicides. But, as has been reported, farmers are finding that, after using so much Round-up, new forms of weeds have evolved in ways to survive the herbicide. So the great benefit of this tact is reducing itself–much has happens with conventional chemical treatments (or as Tia know, much as often happens with antibiotics). I don’t think this is a reason to not grow GMO corn or whatever. But, it’s a reason to be cautious, that we don’t become overly dependent on fewer and fewer varieties. That does seem to be a tendency with genetic modification that does not exist as much without it.

    As to employing the genes of organisms which are unnatural to the host crop, I don’t believe that should be a worry, unless it somehow makes it more likely to spread in ways that the farmers who choose to grow these crops cannot control. If that is the case, it’s a form of the first type of problem–externalizing costs. Mostly I think the fear of unnatural genetic components in food varieties is based on ignorance and prejudice. That might be well combatted with education. But, for ideologues, there’s nothing that can be done. Hopefully they never have the political power (here) to impose their prejudice on our laws. In Europe, they have won that war.

  3. Elizabeth Bowler

    Canadian geneticist Dr. David Suzuki has warned about the dangers of these lateral genetic manipulations, even when they sound benign, such as the addition of extra genes that are already present in the organism. The long term effects of this technology are completely unknown. The concerns about this technology are not based on “ignorance and prejudice” as stated above but on legitimate safety concerns that are being raised by renowned scientists around the world.

  4. Alan Miller

    >It is, of course, important to understand the difference between science and Science

    It is also important to understand the difference between bullS**t and bulls**t.

    This debate is similar to fluoridation, i.e. who has the “s” and who has the “S”, and is “S” really “S”?

    The only bumper sticker on my car is for the Washington State anti-G.M.O. initiative. I am a firm believer in science, and a firm believer in the limitations of scientific thinking.

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