Contrast these two debates

Previously, I engaged in a discussion with someone who helped put on an anti-evolution event in Florida. He came on displaying classic trollish behavior, and as soon as I pointed him out on that, he laid out some of his arguments. Following that, I responded to the arguments in kind. The discussion trailed off, and at least one thing was resolved. A couple people chimed into what was primarily a debate between John and myself.

Contrast it to this recent discussion, just finished, between Bonnie (and Walter) at The Ethicurean and myself. As I mentioned previously, Bonnie posted an interview with anti-GE activist and lawyer, Claire Hope Cummings. I immediately responded by pointing out that the interview was riddled with factual errors and one glaring logical fallacy employing a form of linguistic bias. How did this one turn out?

First, my writing was being compared to The Arrogant Scientist™ who says that,

“you’re too dumb to understand this science so should just trust us that it’s safe.”

to which I responded,

I am not the kind of person who ever says “you’re too dumb to understand this science so should just trust us that it’s safe.” I am, however, the kind of person who will spend hours talking or writing to people to help them understand the scientific details, which I will in subsequent responses. As you’ll quickly notice, I’m the kind of person who says “This information you have been given is false or incomplete. Here’s how, and here’s how we know.”

A fellow named Walter Jeffries tried to derail the debate by contesting one of my claims. Specifically, I pointed out that Claire Hope Cummings was incorrect in stating that non-GE cotton seeds are “simply not offered.” It is an anti-GE canard that is several years old now. The claim is that seed companies are forcing GE seeds on their customers, who would really rather buy conventional seed. I showed by a simple link that there was at least one company, Delta and Pine, that sells non-GE seed. (The argument is a choice between two competing dead-end arguments, either claim that all the farmers are stupid for choosing to buy the seed, or claim that the seed companies are forcing the farmers to buy them.) Here’s how Walter attempted to derail it.

Inoculated Mind, apparently you are not aware of the fact that Monsanto owns Deltapine.

More power to my point. Not even Monsanto, the big bad evil GMO giant, has stopped offering non-GE seed. So I hit it home.

That doesn’t change the fact that non-engineered seeds are available. So basically, I catch the author spreading false information and you dismiss my comments.

Walter continues to avoid the point, and calls me defensive. I suppose Walter may not have understood that I was talking about non-GE seed, and maybe he was thinking that I was talking about non-Monsanto seed. If that is the case, then some people really cannot tell the difference between GMOs and Monsanto. One is a technology, one is a company (amongst many, and many universities too) that uses it.

And then Bonnie chimes on on that distraction,

I mean really, do you think an author listed as a public-health attorney for 20 years including for the USDA, and an organic farmer, has never picked up a seed catalog?

Apparently, yes. But this is where it gets strange. Rather than address my multi-point comment point by point, Bonnie and Walter focused on the cotton seed claim, defending the author, Cummings. And then Bonnie turns around and says:

Inoculated Mind: It is a well-known rhetorical tactic to focus on a small claim and ride it into the ground at the expense of the truth of the larger picture. I think it’s pretty clear who’s being deliberately obtuse here.

Isn’t that a weird thing to say? (Of course, she had to bounce my comment to Walter back to me – it’s formulaic.) If this minute point was so unimportant to focus on, then why did they waste half of the conversation trying to defend it?

Refusing to remain on that small point, I continued on, addressing in more detail Bonnie’s other comments to me. She appreantly liked my takedown of the moral fallacy. But, it seems, she continued it herself and added a mystical Nature as benevolent Deity flavor to it.

Nature quite happily allows genes from varieties of the same species to commingle and the resulting organism to then live or die based on its evolutionary adaptability.  But there would be absolutely no way for nature to get a bacterial gene (ie, Bt) into a plant’s RNA without our interference.  And that interference not only involves crossing species boundaries — which I can’t help but think exist in nature for a very good reason that we may not understand yet…

I made two lengthy comments, posted today, addressing these and other comments. (Abridged)

You are suggesting here that there is a sort of ultimate reason for “species boundaries” – which is not a real scientific concept at all. Species do not have clear boundaries, indeed, a whole matrix of data is sometimes required to determine if two organisms are the same species or not. Plant breeders have been crossing these “boundaries” for a long time, so the whole field of plant genetics is going against that idea, long before genetic engineering came along.

Indeed, sugar cane is a cross between two species (and a duplication of its own chromosomes as well), Rutabaga’s are a polyploid with all the chromosomes of two other species, namely Kohlrabi and Turnips, wheat is a combination of three species into one. Triticale has all the DNA of four species combined into one plant!

So you can see, the “species barrier” doesn’t exist. There are indeed barriers to reproduction, such as incompatibility of certain receptors on the surfaces of eggs and sperm, different shapes of reproductive organs and flowering times of plants, to name a few. But in nature, genes slip past all these barriers and introgress themselves into other species. Viruses are also believed to be a big part of how genes transfer between less-related species, dragging some host genes along with their own. There’s a term for it, called Horizontal Gene Transfer, and as we sequence more and more genomes, we’re finding more and more evidence of it. Apparently, nature does not respect Nature’s boundaries.

To say that because it happens in nature, does not mean that any instance of it is safe. That’s not what I’m saying, however, it seems to be what you are implying. Nature is not a benevolent deity with us in mind. I would like to suggest that you’re making an implicit philosophical assumption about what is right and wrong based upon this idea or a vague idea that is very similar to it.”Nature’s a bitch” as the saying goes. Saying that something is natural is not a shortcut to finding out whether it is right or wrong, or dangerous or safe.

The next comment of hers that I responded to was a continuation of The Arrogant Scientist™ theme with the added antiscientific flavor of Blind Science-Worshipper®.

Next, I would like to respond to your suggestion that I “blindly follow science.”

That is pure nonsense. Science is itself the antithesis of blindness. It is the “Candle in the Dark” as Carl Sagan momentously described it. Put simply, science is a systematic way of making observations about our natural world that can be tested, verified, and used to make predictions that can be falsified. Essentially, you are saying that my beliefs, and the course that our society should take should not be guided by such a systematic method?

It is difficult for me to get offended by such a suggestion, because it usually stems from either a lack of understanding about what science is, or an ideological position that is being protected out of fear that science will undermine it. If you choose to believe, for example, that Nature has a “purpose” or a “very good reason” for the way things are, that is your own personal belief, and I have no desire to change it. But that belief, it seems is crossing over into making claims of fact that are false, as I have outlined above.

Science is not a religion, and it makes no sense to talk about it as if it was something to “blindly follow.” Because science gives us models with certainty parameters, and when you use established scientific theories and models you guide your view of the world, you have a better chance of being right than by shooting from the hip. Certain ideas that are more on the ‘cutting edge’ of science shouldn’t be trusted the same way as things in the established center, naturally because by the nature of the cutting edge the details are less certain.

In some senses, genetic engineering is on the cutting edge. For example, complex traits such as drought tolerance are hard to get working, and even more complex traits are just getting started. I have seen promising results for these things, both in papers and in person. So even these are rapidly progressing from the edge.

But many other aspects of GE crops are not on the cutting edge, but are well-established. We’ve been introducing new genes into crops for the longest time, even inadvertently selecting for new genes that are the result of genomic rearrangements. (I can point you to references for each of these points) The lack of allergenicity of commercialized GE crops is also well-established, and the safety of Bt proteins on mammals. There are also several papers establishing that antibiotic-resistant markers used in the transformation process (By the way, these are for antibiotics that have no medical importance) do not transfer to bacteria or other organisms in the soil, and besides, the primary cause of the evolution of resistance to medically-important antibiotics in pathogens is the overuse and misuse of medical antibiotics. Again, I can provide references if you want to read the papers. This isn’t about blindly following some sort of vague power structure, this is about informing ourselves about the material reality we live in and allowing those facts to guide our decisions.

(…explanations of other points…)

You have asked for several things, and it seems from your last comment, you are particularly interested in hearing an argument for why something – anything should be genetically engineered. I do not argue that any particular trait should be genetically engineered, per se, but that people who are arguing against the use of the technology are arguing against it for nonscientific reasons, and are allowing their prior commitments (such as about corporations, patents, Nature, and more) to lead them to misrepresent what we know about the process, and conclude that nothing of benefit to them or anyone else (except Monsanto, of course) can come of it. What I do argue is that if something is safe, effective, and benefits the people who grow it and eat it, that that is the primary moral argument. Indeed, if the technology can help people, and there are no credible risks based upon the technology itself that we cannot test for, it then becomes a moral imperative that we pursue it. And finally, I have an overarching argument that people – in general – are benefited by learning more about science and guiding their decisions more based upon what we know, than what we would rather have be true.

Would you like me to focus specifically on the big ‘why’ question itself, or any of the other things I have mentioned? Because if I’m going to write at length about scientific details and lay them out carefully so that everyone can follow along, I’d just like to know which one you think is the most important so I don’t waste my time. I mean, heck, I brought up several things above and all Walter, for example, could talk about is an irrelevant point that doesn’t even disprove anything I said!

I look forward to reading your response.

Then the conversation abruptly ended.

Inoculated Mind: Thanks for your detailed comments, which have now far exceeded the word count of the original Q&A. Since you asked, I do think you’re wasting your time here; no one is actually following along, not even me. So let’s not bother pretending we’re actually going to change each other’s minds with competing peer-reviewed citations and a review of the basic science versus the lack of ethics and oversight councils. I don’t plan to waste any more of my time by answering you. Maybe I can’t, maybe I don’t want to, maybe I’m a technophobic Luddite who wishes Mendel had never crossed a pea plant. Or maybe I secretly hope that you’re right and every risk factor has been adequately considered and everything’s going to be just fine. Pick your reason, have your last word, and then please do go enjoy your farmers market dinner. (Emphasis added)

Note, at no point did I insult Bonnie, but in several places I unraveled her arguments, and asked her to back up her statements. I didn’t think I would change her mind, after all, she was defending an obviously false claim made by the person she interviewed! I’m in it for the people who haven’t made up their minds, or thought they have. Still, this person very abruptly turned off the spigot, closed up shop, and told the world that reason, argument, and science are not welcome.

Perhaps it would have been better to leave shorter comments, more spaced out – I had written the first of the two lengthy comments yesterday, but just had the chance to finish it off before writing the second one. It may have been too much all at once, and being detailed technical comments in response to her technical questions and statements (and mistakes), maybe she guaged that she could only lose face by continuing, with a parting jab trying to say that we’re both closed-minded? Although the debate was conceded, I think I still lost in one sense, and that is that anyone reading would have had the benefit of learning more from a more lengthy discussion. My goal is not to ‘pick fights’ with random people on the internet – here is a blog that I read once a week or so, and they’re posting obviously false information as part of a promotion of a new book that is critical of GE crops – my duty as both a scientist and a journalist is to confront these things directly and show them for what they are – wrong.

Maybe next time I won’t go in with all guns blazing. 🙂

Maybe I can’t, maybe I don’t want to, maybe I’m a technophobic Luddite who wishes Mendel had never crossed a pea plant. Or maybe I secretly hope that you’re right and every risk factor has been adequately considered and everything’s going to be just fine.

Maybe its all of the above.

I did enjoy my dinner, tonight was the first night we could enjoy chard from our own garden. Thank you.
I’m in this for the science, and the human beings that depend on it, even if they wish they weren’t. And thank you Bonnie, for being very open about your mind being closed. Mine’s always open, and so is my blog if you ever want an answer to your questions.

Published by

Karl Haro von Mogel

Karl Haro von Mogel serves as BFI’s Director of Science and Media and as Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. He has a PhD in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics from UW-Madison with a minor in Life Sciences Communication. He is currently a Postdoctoral Scholar researching citrus genetics at UC Riverside.

14 thoughts on “Contrast these two debates”

  1. I read the conversation (wouldn’t call it debate) at ethicurian. I’m interested in reading Ms. Cumming’s book for the simple reason that it will lay out an ethical argument against GM seeds/foods. I’d be just as pleased to read a well-thought out, well-argued book on the ethics and benefits of GM seeds. If such a thing exists, would you be kind enough to recommend one? I’m relatively bright and can wade through and understand a fair bit of science, but I am not a scientist and need more than just study results written for other scientists. I’m looking for rhetoric and interpretation, backed up by science.


  2. Hi Esleigh,

    The first book I would recommend is Nina Fedoroff and Nancy Marie Brown’s book, Mendel in the Kitchen. It lays out a lot of good information about genetic engineering, although it doesn’t get into the ethics issue as much as the scientific details, but it is very readable. I’m working on reading and reviewing more books on GE crops, I’m currently reading Tomorrow’s Table by Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak – check the link on my right sidebar which will lead to Pam’s book blog. They take a different look at the GE debate, and conclude that GE crops and Organic Agriculture are natural partners, rather than enemies. One of the next books on my list that I’m considering is Starved for Science, by Robert Paarlberg, which it sounds like will be laying out a largely ethics-based argument in favor of GE crops.

    Also, I’m working on a super-secret project that might be ready within a couple months that might help a lot of people find good information about GE crops, from science to ethics, politics to sociology, philosophy and more.

    I’m also planning to read Cummings’ book, too, although from a book preview I read a few snippets and she seems to have a very… creative perspective on some historical events. For example, she blames the rejection of GE corn as food aid to African countries on genetic engineering, rather than the paternalistic demand from European countries that the African countries reject the food aid or they will cut off imports. Some African nations have worked around this by having the corn ground into flour before they are delivered. But I’ll have a better idea of the totality of Cummings’ arguments after I have the time to read and review it, which I will on my site here.
    Hope this helps!


  3. The interesting angle for me is why people behave like this when confronted with factually honest analytical reasoning?

    Is it lack of training in reasoning?

    Frustration at their own lack of power?

    Cognitive dissonance?

    Subconscious guilt?

    I pose these questions because understand the person may help move the debate forward.

    In some cases the people don’t care for reasoning – they just want to achieve their own convictions and desires, and the conversation is just a waste of your own energy. In those situation I stop at leaving my main message for by-standers to consider.

    GMO Pundit


  4. I think it was a combination of too many simultaneous arguments and I left a window for an easy-out. Moreover, the arguments picked at some philosophical foundations that were not up for reconsideration. I had a pretty good idea that I wouldn’t change either person’s mind, however, putting the information out there, logically laid out, may help people who have not yet made up their minds.


  5. Thanks for posting this Karl. It is reminiscent of some of the blog conversations that I have had recently. It would be excellent to consolidate all these questions and answers.

    Do you still have the dialog between you and Wolfgang (I think that is who it was) that ran in the Aggie a few years ago? That would be fun to repost. You were both so reasonable and polite (which is not typical of these dialogs)


  6. Yes, I not only have the GE crop dueling column, but also the emails they were based on. We pretty much bounced back emails for a few weeks, and then met to string the arguments together. The tipping point for her position, actually, was when she mentioned that she supported your research by name, and I asked her then, why would you want to ban its use? It was a great discussion, because it ended with both of us agreeing with each other in part. I could post it… but apparently the Aggie doesn’t have my old stuff online anymore. I can dig up the file on my computer, but it is the raw version and not the edited one. I should really just get all my old columns online, especially since the Aggie seems to periodically dump its archives.


  7. Karl, your poise is more than can be asked for, and you explain the science beautifully. It’s so sad that it was wasted on people who can’t be bothered to think.

    A similar thing started to happen to me on a post about Food Miles vs Food Choices where the author basically said nuh-uh to a peer-reviewed study that simply said that a diet containing less meat is comparatively better for the environment than a local diet. My comment was (in my opinion) reasonable, but that didn’t stop an Ethicurean from making a very rude (and uneducated) comment toward me, presumably because I threatened their views with science. I’m tempted to give up on them, but I think we (as in scientists and purveyors of logic) need to persevere.

    Are you going to have an interview with Cummings? People like her frustrate me. If we are supposed to respect her thoughts on things like patent law and international trade, she should reciprocate and show some respect for the scientists!


  8. The similarity between creationists and anti-GMO arguments and tactics are striking to me. I don’t mean to be insulting to Bonnie, but she accused you of fact-bombing. The major point I appreciated is the way that you explained that the species is not a fixed barrier, and the public have a hard time grasping that.


  9. Hi Anastasia,

    I took a look at the discussion, and I found it interesting that the person who said you don’t “get it” was going on about farming with machines killing animals and “cities” being unsustainable… that person seems to have a more fundamentalist flavor to their point of view. If someone thinks that cities should be abandoned in principle, any debate over details of agriculture that support people living in cities is bound to be missed by them. What’s funny is that they almost assume that you should ‘know’ their position on the basic structure of human societies.

    Changing the opinions of those people would be very hard indeed. When I started getting interested in science communication years ago, my basic argument and goal was to get people to think more scientifically, and almost six years later it still seems that there are a substantial number of people that don’t want anything to do with it when addressing fundamental questions. Using science should ideally be the default, but it seems the first and most important uphill battle will be to encourage people to adopt a scientific approach.

    One of the more eye-opening things I have learned in the past year of grad school related to the topic of GE crops is the incredible amount of genetic mixing and crossing of the “species barrier” that has occurred and continues to occur. I should write a post about all the plants we eat that are mixes of several species. Wheat is an easy one, but how about sugar cane and rutabaga?

    I have noticed, as Bonnie echoed, that there is literally an absolutist position being forwarded amidst the anti-GE arguments – e.g. that genes absolutely cannot cross between species. This is of course incorrect, as incorrect as the anti-evolution statements that creationists make. What sets both points of view apart from other ‘just wrong’ statements is that these beliefs do not come from an analysis of the evidence, but a philosophical point of view that is being protected from science. And in both cases, need not be protected.

    To get eerily and literally similar, both involve reducing the creative power of nature – nature can’t evolve this so my god made it, or nature can’t evolve this so it is morally wrong to make it ourselves. I’ll have to dig up an old Aggie column of mine where I essentially heard both arguments one night in a back-to-back evening of presentations.

    I think I will inquire about an interview with Cummings, I’ve previewed the first few pages of several of the chapters in her book, and for a legal scholar, she has some very ‘creative’ views on ethics of major GE issues. I’ll have to get a hold of a copy of her book to read it in full before that, of course.


  10. Hello Inoculated Mind,
    First of all congratulations for your blog, I really like it. I was recently looking for some american blogs who would bebunk this french movie “the world according to Monsanto” and I found this excellent blog “Genetic Maize”. There was few words on it related to this topic and a link with your blog. I read few posts on your blog and found that particular one. That’s really amazing to me because that the same kind of argument Marie Monique Robin, the author of the movie is using… with the same way to twist the scientific data and misunterpret science in general with this particular skill that allow a very specific selection of publications. I am myself a scientist, post-doc working on Arabidopsis in Germany, and I am one of the guy who “pollute” the blog from MM Robin. I use the word “pollute” because this is how my activity was qualify by this journalist. I, with others, try to defend the truth and exposed what this “journalist” really is. That’s hard job, many people are completly blind by their own conviction and refuse to look at data without twisting what we are showing them because it doesnt fit with their spychotic vision of the world.
    Anyway, I was wondering if you plane to debunk this french documentary. If yes, I can provide you with interresting data. Moreover I would like to advertise for your blog on a quite good french blog which fight against “pseudo sciences”… D you mind?
    Actually I’m french myself (nobody is perfect ;-)) and I would be happy to help since this documentary now reach the US.
    All the best, keep doing a good job
    PS: sorry for the english mistakes.


  11. Hi GFP – awesome protein by the way 🙂

    I didn’t know that Marie Monique Robin had a blog, I might want to check it out (although I bet it is in French). I have watched almost all of “The World According to Monsanto,” and although it uses some clever techniques to connect the audience to information (the Google searches), it is essentially an indirect ad-hominem attack on genetic engineering via an ad hominem attack on Monsanto. I’ve seen about 2/3 of the film, and nowhere in what I have seen does it actually address GE foods!

    I do plan on debunking the film, once I line up the claims and evaluate how true or false they are. But there’s only one good way, I think, to properly address the claims, and that is with a series of video responses. I’m working on some other stuff right now, including learning how to edit video, and that is definitely on the table.

    You might want to stick around, I have an important blog announcement to be made before the end of the month. Thanks for stopping by, and feel free to advertise my blog!


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