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Scientific Paternalism.

28 April 2015

This isn’t about GMOs. My opinion on GMO crops is that they are safe, and should be widely adopted for the many, many benefits they bring. Humans have been adapting crops and animals to their needs for millennia, and now we have some new ways to do it. I have come to this opinion based on talking to many fine biologists and biochemists, who do this work. Who understand it thoroughly and have oversight. GMOs are safe, and valuable. They are a solution to food security in a world that desperately needs food security. This isn’t about GMOs. But I’m going to discuss labeling of GMO containing products in order to talk about the culture of paternalism in science.

I don’t have a problem with the idea of labeling GMO products. I think it’s a little silly. I think there’s a risk that labeling them will make people think they’re risky. I don’t know where the public stands on the labeling issue, but I know that there is a significant portion (perhaps a majority?) of the public who would like to see these products labeled. If that interested group is successful in lobbying lawmakers to label GMOs as GMO, I won’t lament it, even though I don’t see that it’s a necessary label from a health or safety perspective.

The argument against labeling GMO products is essentially that the labels do harm, because they make a product seem to be risky when it isn’t. And that that injects mistrust into the relationship between food scientists, and by extension all scientists, and the public. Therefore, many (perhaps most) scientists oppose the labeling of GMO products because they believe that it is both bad for public perception of science, and maybe for the public health if GMO products are unnecessarily rejected.

I don’t really accept that argument. Or rather, I’m not sure that that argument is being made entirely in good faith. Scientists today remind me of physicians not too long ago: highly educated, and often indignant that people will not take their word unquestioningly. Just as physicians used to conceal patients’ diagnoses, just as they used to prescribe treatments in secrecy, many scientists today seem to feel that the public should just take their word for it when it comes to science, and accept that because scientists have extraordinarily advanced training, they understand what’s good for the public. Explaining everything is complex, and may be fruitless. Some things simply cannot be communicated in detail to people without specific education.

Scientists are deeply concerned with the erosion of public trust in science. We worry that if people don’t accept what we say, there will be terrible consequences with regard to things like food security. Climate change. Vaccination. And on that there is some truth: we are facing terrible consequences on those fronts.

But I see the battles we fight on the issues, vaccination, GMOs, climate science, as somewhat distracting. The core problem is not that the public doesn’t trust us on these issues. It’s that the public doesn’t trust us. And that gets assigned to anything that the scientific community starts to be concerned about. And the reason the public doesn’t trust us, I think, is that we as a group have a record of being untrustworthy.

Science has grown by leaps and bounds in the past half century with regard to ethics. Part of the reason for that is that a lot of horrifying things were done in the name of science. Whole ethical apparatuses had to be constructed to protect people from scientists, and physicians, who I think usually truly believed they were acting in the public interest. The perpetrators of the Tuskegee atrocity probably thought they were advancing the cause of relieving human suffering. But scientists, like any other group, are capable of rationalizing vile things when they believe that the ends justify the means. And because we’re smart and educated, we tend to tell the public, “Trust us.”

Scientists, in addition to the rare moments of true horrific evil, like Tuskegee, have a nice long record of just being wrong. Arguably, science is simply a long, evolutionary process of being less and less wrong. Many times, things that we believed to be harmless have turned out to be harmful. Especially in chronic exposure to low, acutely non-toxic substances. Medicines that help one thing but cause slow, stealthy harm in another arena, only discovered by longitudinal analysis years later.

The way GMO research is conducted, and the way foods are produced using genetic modification, I think that this risk is incredibly low. And there is already an oversight process in place. But it isn’t zero. The risk of any human endeavor is not zero. And even if there are risks, the benefits of GMO, I think, clearly outweigh any potential harms, which are likely to be vanishingly rare. But I don’t think that this means that we should reflexively oppose labeling GMO foods as GMO.

I think one reason for the core distrust of scientists among the public is our paternalism. Or insistence that we know everything. Our condescension to them to not worry their pretty little heads about it. No need for a label. We promise it’s all ok. We reject this attitude in medicine now. Patients have the right to share decision-making with their physicians. Why should consumers not have the right to share decision-making with scientists?

That’s where we need to start the discussion. There needs to be an incredibly compelling argument to conceal information from the public. We despise it in politics. We despise it in medicine. Scientists despise it in each other, with the increasing movement towards open data, methodological transparency. If you’re not sharing all the information, it’s reasonable to distrust your methods and your motives; so say the open science advocates.

And yet we turn around and tell the public: we’re not going to divulge which food products have been genetically engineered in a laboratory. Just trust us. It’s totally fine. The FDA looked at it and everything.

For once, I’d like to see the scientific community embrace openness and transparency before the public. I’d like to see us drop the reflexive defensiveness we have that the public might dare to question our skills, our motives, and our assertions. I’d like to see us say: “These labels are unnecessary. But maybe it’s not really about us.” Maybe it’s about the public’s right to have information it wants, even if that information isn’t really all that informative.

The scientific and academic community is rightly dismantling paternal and patriarchal systems throughout the conduct and development of science and knowledge. And yet we are fiercely paternal when it comes to non-scientists accepting what we tell them. It’s unbecoming. I fall on the side of letting the public decide what information it wants. I don’t support the labeling of GMOs. I don’t think it’s necessary. But I don’t oppose it. Because it’s not really about the science. It’s about the right to empower the public to make its own decisions.

Maybe relenting on our paternalism will help the public decide that we’re partners in societal progress, rather than self-styled philosopher kings.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. 28 April 2015 08:14

    It’s a good case for labeling every single breeding technique. Why wouldn’t the public want to know what chemical mutagenesis, physical mutagenesis, artificial polyploidy and cytoplasmic male sterility are ?

    • 28 April 2015 08:20

      That misses the entirety of the point, and is a great example of exactly what I’m saying is paternal and condescending. Throw out a bunch of jargon designed to prove the public can’t understand, as a way to say there’s no good reason give them any information.

      • 28 April 2015 08:28

        I never said the public can’t understand. Regarding the words I used, public might not be able to understand them because they were never as publicized as GMOs. I would say scientific paternalism occurs when somebody chooses to inform the public regarding one technique (GMOs) but discards related techniques. Why do you assume the public doesn’t want to know about these other techniques also ?

      • 28 April 2015 08:34

        (Sorry I can’t edit my message) I think that informing the public on the whole process of breeding in general is the exact opposite of scientific paternalism, to give them the tools to understand how their food is design and I don’t think you should label GMO without doing this. That was the point of my first message.

  2. 28 April 2015 09:41

    The problem a lot of scientists have with labeling GMOs is that GM is a process, not a product. A label that says “GMO: Bt, roundup-ready” for instance is at least more informative. Or “GMO: Papaya Ringspot Virus Resistance”. I could see a label like that, but as constituted now, the clear agenda of most labeling proponents is that GM is bad, in all cases, no matter the modification made. And yes, scientists push back against this (ideally through trying to inform/educate, not a blanket “Trust us”– in fact don’t…go find that many independent voices have come to the same conclusion that at least current generation GMOs are safe; or go do your own tests if you have the means to do so). I could also see a system where anyone that wants to know what’s GM or not could go to a state/government run database that lists products containing GMOs (maybe accessible on products via QR code or something like that; this could also include all sorts of information about any food item, point of origin, farming practice, etc.). I’m in favor of dialog, but one that acknowledges someone’s expertise in an area.

    Scientists can be wrong (in fact, individual scientists are often wrong) and have been in the past, but ideally as a community, we get less wrong over time. And with GM, a consensus has emerged that is on the level of the scientific consensus on climate change. Scientists rightly get dismayed when scientific issues we consider resolved get so much pushback. Creationism being another prime example. All I can really say to an ardent creationist is “you’re wrong, but don’t take my word for it, go look it up for yourself”. People seem inherently distrustful if they can’t find a substantive oppositional view to something; in the case of evolution, climate change, and yes, current GM, those credible oppositional views don’t exist; though in the case of GM, it’s possible that a new product will come along that will be problematic. It really does need to be case-by-case.

    The GM label laws proposed only apply to plants too..not bacteria (eg. where we get insulin and rennet used to make cheese; that yes, ends up in the cheese). It was just discovered that all domesticated varieties of sweet potatoes are naturally transgenic/GM; does that require a label too (we actually don’t fully understand the function/mechanism of action of some of the genes encoded in the natural transgene…which is not the case with an intentionally designed GM product)?

    In fact, the distrust of GM is often not even about the technology. It’s about the businesses (Monsanto) that make them and the fact that people don’t like big companies. Even though there are GMOs created through public funding efforts as well.

    And on the flip side, do supposedly organic products need labels? Honeycrisp apples: U of Minnesota breeding program (patented), or Rubyred grapefruit: Gamma-ray mutagenized.

    So if a member of the public comes to me saying “Label GM now!”…I’ll start asking questions like I have above to really get at what the consumer wants to know, exactly in a label. It gets complicated quickly. I’ll listen. And hopefully bring up points they may not have considered. A law/requirement has to be put into something tangible and that’s not always easy.

    Unfortunately, it’s not just a simple issue of label it and done. I agree, just declaring “trust us” is problematic too.

    • 28 April 2015 11:06

      This is perfectly reasonable. I like your idea of the website. Perhaps a single uniform indicator: “Info on GM producst is available here.”

  3. 28 April 2015 11:50

    Hypothetically, at some point we may create GE/GMO food that triggers a food allergy. Or we remove allergic triggers from a food product. At that point labels will be required! ( I’d love for someone to create peanuts that don’t trigger peanut allergies. Never mind that I don’t know if all people that have peanut allergies are allergic to the same compounds in the peanuts. I would like for my daughter to taste the wonders of a peanut butter cup, or peanut butter filled pretzels. )

    I have to believe that GMO is just beginning. And that we will hit points where for some it is important to distinguish between natural and GMO products. (Think “I can eat GMO peanuts, but not natural ones.” Or “Natural tomatoes are fine for me, but I react badly to GMO ones.”) so why not label them now?

    Right now you have many people who might eat only “organic” to avoid GMO. These folks might stop “going organic” if they could just avoid GMO instead. Regardless of what you think of their reasons.

    When I see “organic” corn chips I wonder if their even is such a thing anymore. I doubt they exist myself.

    Fundamentally I believe if someone is trying to hide something they are probably hiding it for a reason. And I don’t want the contents of my food hidden. People have a “special” relationship with food. Some are pickier eaters than others.

    Most of the reasons given for wanting GMO foods apply to the masses of people. While those wanting labeling are a small minority of mostly white, mostly wealthy, people who aren’t going to starve with or with out the GMOed foods. They also account for such a small amount of food production that they won’t stop GMO from happening. Fretting over the pro-labeling movement is similar to worrying that the organic food movement will stop genetic research in its tracks.

  4. drlongjong permalink
    28 April 2015 11:54

    Totally off point. The problem is GMOs aren’t even a thing, it’s a just a vague and undefined buzzword used to stir up fear and sales of organic labeled foods. What’s a GMO? If you can’t even define it in a logical way, the labeling arguments are pointless.

    Why aren’t there mandatory labels for actual chemicals, like say the different pesticides used on food crops?

    Why aren’t there independent assessments of organic testing companies? Organic labels come from companies that are paid to by producers to certify stuff organic. Sketchy.

  5. aimee permalink
    28 April 2015 16:23

    Okay, without having read the entire post – I am in favor of GMO labeling simply because I believe in the basic principle of informed consent, and transparency. I am certain that GMO’s are not harmful to my health, yet I would choose to avoid them if I could for my own reasons, which have nothing to do with any health risk of ingesting them. What those reasons are is unimportant to the argument – you can probably guess some of them, but even if I wanted to avoid GMO’s because I believe they are an evil plot of space aliens to invade our bodies and ready us for invasion, I ought to have the right to do so. Transparency is a fundamental requirement to living in a free society – there is no freedom of choice when important information is allowed to be hidden.

  6. aimee permalink
    28 April 2015 16:31

    Okay, now having read the rest of your post I see we are pretty much in agreement. The example of Tuskagee was a good one – I also am certain that those scientists believed they were acting for the ultimate benefit of all humanity, and that any risk to the individuals involved was justified by that imagined benefit. When laymen choose to put their trust in a medical specialist, they do so within a specific limited context, which is certainly not the case when talking about GMO foods. There can be few rights more fundamental than the choice of what to eat – it is on a par with freedom of religion and of reproduction. It simply doesn’t matter if my reasons for choosing not to eat food “X” make rational sense or not. I still get to choose. Maybe it will make more sense if you imagine a hypothetical GMO that has a pork gene inserted into a food that would otherwise be kosher. There is no health risk to following a non-kosher (otherwise good) diet – so a Jew’s decision not to eat that GMO may be said to be “irrational,” but I bet there are few who wouldn’t support his right to choose not to.

  7. 29 April 2015 07:10

    Can I come at this at a completely different angle.

    Open Access is a big thing in the UK academic research community right now. The govt have since 2010 been pushing for greater access to the results of publicly funded research. Given most research in the UK happens in state funded universities and most groups receive a large chunk of their research grants from publicly funded research councils there is an argument to say that means actually all research outputs from UK universities – or at least probably north of 80%. Indeed for the next large university research evaluation exercise to be held in 5 years (REF2020) if your paper is not open access within three months of it’s acceptance for publication you won’t be able to submit it for evaluation.

    What’s this got to do with the price of fish or the point of this argument you ask? Roll forward some years, esp towards REF2026 where all output types including monographs and book chapters will have to be open access to be eligible and I suspect the underlying data sets and analysis code you have used in STEM subjects as well by then. This opening up of research the govt believes will fuel a knowledge based economy but also think of the increase in public engagement in research now articles, results and data are not hidden away in libraries, behind a paywall or requiring exorbitant subscriptions.

    I actually do hope that this will increase public confidence, enable greater public engagement and debate and ultimately formulate a higher level of trust and respect between both groups.

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