Tu quoque revisited

by John Quiggin on January 12, 2017

Slightly lost amid the furore over the alleged Trump dossier was the news that Trump had held a meeting with leading antivaxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. As is usual, particularly with the Trump Administration, accounts of the meeting differed, with RFK claiming Trump had asked him to lead an inquiry into vaccine safety and Trump apparatchiks denying any firm decision had been made.

This interested me because, on the strength of sharing his father’s name, RFK Jr was, for many years the poster child for those on the right who wanted to claim that Democrats were just as anti-science as Republicans. (I’ve appended a post from 2014, discussing this.) Now he’s eager to work for Trump.

I pointed out the likely emergence of vaccination as a partisan issue in another post. Lots of commenters were unhappy about it, and it’s true that it’s unfortunate in the same way as is the partisan divide on global warming, evolution and just about any scientific issue that has political or cultural implications. But, whether we like it or not, it’s happening and likely to accelerate. The sudden reversal in Republican views on Putin, Wikileaks and so on illustrates the force of loyalty to Trump. We can only hope that, for once, his team’s denials turn out to be correct.


Tu quoque (repost from 2014)

I’ve written many posts and articles making the point that the political right, in most English speaking countries[^1] has been taken over by a tribalist post-truth politics in which all propositions, including the conclusions of scientific research, are assessed in terms of their consistency or otherwise with tribal prejudices and shibboleths.

Very occasionally, intellectuals affiliated with the political right (conservatives and libertarians) will seek to deny this, arguing that isolated instances are being blown out of proportion, and that the right as a whole is committed to reasoned, fact-based argument and acceptance of “inconvenient truths’ arising from the conclusions of scientific research[2], [3].

But, far more often their response takes the form of a tu quoque or, in the language of the schoolyard, “you’re another”. That is, they seek to argue that the left is just as tribalist and anti-science as the right. Favored examples of alleged left tribalism included any rhetoric directed at rightwing billionaires ( Murdoch, the Kochs and so on). The standard examples of alleged left anti-science are GMOs, nuclear power and anti-vaxerism, but it is also sometimes claimed that US Democrats are just as likely as Republicans to be creationists.

I’ll argue over the fold that these examples don’t work. What’s more important, though, is what the tu quoque argument says about those who deploy it, and their view of politics. The implied claim is that politics is inherently a matter of tribalism and emotion, and that there is no point in complaining about this. The only thing to do is to pick a side and stick to it. What passes for political argument is simply a matter of scoring debating points for your side and demolishing those of the others. So, anyone who uses tu quoque as a defence, rather than seeking to dissuade their own side from tribalist and anti-science rhetoric, deserves no more respect than the tribalists and science deniers themselves, who at least have the defence of ignorance.

Now let’s look at the tu quoque in a bit more detail. First, there’s the claim that the left is just as anti-science as the right. Of the three examples, anti-vaxerism can be dismissed most easily. US presentations of this argument (it’s rarely made in Oz) invariably focus on Robert F. Kennedy Jr, who is indeed an anti-science loon. But the most notable thing about RFK jr is that he happens to share his name with his famous father. He’s never held, or even stood for, elective office of any kind. By contrast, prominent Republican politicians included Michelle Bachmann and Dan Burton have pushed anti-vax rhetoric.

At one time, the generally leftish Huffington Post ran a lot of anti-vax stuff. But they came under sustained pressure from the pro-science left, and have now abandoned this almost entirely. The only recent anti-vax piece I could find came from Lawrence Solomon, a right wing Canadian climate denier (more on this later) And survey evidence suggests that anti-vaxerism, like other conspiracy theories, is more prevalent among Republicans. A PPP poll reports that 26 per cent of Republicans believe that vaccines cause autism, compared to 16 per cent of Democrats.

Next, there’s nuclear power. As we’ve discussed, policy choices regarding nuclear power raise a wide range of issues, few of which can be answered by referring to peer-reviewed scientific evidence. The right wing claim (usually implied rather than spelt out) is that the left is opposed to nuclear power because of unjustified fears about health risks and accidents. The standard straw person here, filling the role of RFK Jr in the antivax debate, is Helen Caldicott. The problems with the right wing claim are numerous

  • First, the left as a whole does not take any unified view on this question. Most obviously, the Obama Administration in the US has promoted nuclear power as part of an “all of the above” approach to climate change, and has received little in the way of pushback from the broader US left (compare the intensity of the campaign against Keystone XL with the handful of desultory protests against nuclear plants currently under construction)
  • Second, while some on the left may have opposed nuclear power for reasons that don’t stand up to scrutiny, they at least got closer to the correct answer on the broader question of whether nuclear power is a sensible solution to our energy problems. It is the political right who have proved immune to evidence on this question. No country in the world has, as yet, managed to sustain cheap and safe nuclear power over any lengthy period, and investors everywhere have abandoned the technology. Yet the belief that nuclear power is a solution to our problems, being blocked only by crazy greenies, remains a cornerstone of rightwing tribal identity.
  • Finally, even on the narrow question of accident risks, it’s hard to reach a conclusive answer. Nuclear meltdowns are rare but extreme events. No one can say for sure that the worst accidents we’ve seen so far (TMI,Chernobyl and Fukushima) encompass the worst that can possibly happen. These are complex engineering questions on which science doesn’t have a lot to say. Alleged experts who claimed to know for sure (notably Barry Brook in relation to Fukushima and the pre-TMI Rasmussen report on nuclear safety in the US) ended up with egg on their faces. My own judgement is that accident risks alone aren’t enough to reject nuclear power, but the cost of the safety precautions required to prevent accidents is part of the reason nuclear power is inefficient.

Evolution and creationism provide an even more interesting case. Until relatively recently, beliefs about evolution were largely uncorrelated with political affiliation. But creationism is now a Republican political issue, and beliefs are lining up accordingly, with Republicans supporting biblical literalism and Democrats mostly supporting theistic evolution[^4]

Finally, there is the question of Genetic Modification (GM) technology. This is the strongest point of the rightwing tu quoque. Greenpeace, for example, is guilty as charged of being anti-science on this issue. But Greenpeace and likeminded groups are only a minority among Greens who are, in turn, only a minority of the Left.

There are a variety of reasons for being concerned about the assertion of corporate ownership over genetic resources of which GM is (a relatively small) part, and for allowing consumers to choose whether or not to consume GM foods (regardless of whether there are objective reasons to prefer non-GM to GM, or vice versa). But outright opposition to GM based on spurious claims about health risks is definitely a minority position.

Turning to tribalism, it is silly to point to criticism of figures like Murdoch and Rinehart as tribalist. They are powerful people who use their power (derived from wealth) to advocate bad policies, and do so in an aggressive and dishonest way. The fact that they then whine about being the subject of counter-attacks, is just further evidence of their dishonesty.

Similarly, there is nothing inherently tribalist in advocating policies that would redistribute income, wealth and power away from the rich for the benefit of society as a whole, any more than in advocating free market policies that would harm some groups and benefit others. Such policies should, be advocated on the basis that they will make society as a whole better off, and not on the basis that the winners are the right kinds of people and the losers the wrong kind,

Tribalism involves attacks designed to mobilise one group against another on the basis of perceived identity. It is easy to point to a long list of groups perceived as tribal enemies by the right: environmentalists, public sector workers, unionists, gays, scientists, cultural ‘elitists’, refugees, welfare recipients (except age pensioners), ethnic and indigenous ‘lobbies’ and so on: in fact, just about any group that is seen as supporting the left or centre-left, is attacked in these terms.

By contrast, most of the groups that form the base of the political right (for example: small business, farmers, the military, self-funded retirees, mainstream churches) are treated with solicitous respect by the centre-left parties. The most notable example of a group commonly treated as a tribal enemy is that of fundamentalist Christians, and even here, there have been plenty of attempts at engagement, for example, on the idea of environmental stewardship.

To sum up, even when true, the tu quoque argument is an implicit admission of error. When it isn’t true, as in the case of the claims that the left and right are equally guilty of tribalism and anti-scientific thinking, it amounts to an intellectual coverup.

[^1]: Almost entirely in the US, Canada and Australia. To a slightly lesser extent in UK and NZ.
[^2]: By contrast, this is the normal response when instances of racism or corruption are pointed out. The primary defence is that these instances are unrepresentative. A tu quoque if offered, is usually of the form “there are similar instances on the left”, but no one on that side would concede that they are unrepresentative.
[^3]: Here’s an attempt, which relies on the ludicrous claim that among Congressional Republicans ” the vast majority do not reject the underlying science of global warming” (There’s also a big load of tu quoque)
[^4]: Some have tried to argue that this position is just as inconsistent with science as is Young Earth Creationism. But in reality, anyone who believes both in God (in the usual senses of this term) and evolution must believe that God guided evolution, just as they must believe that God was responsible for the Big Bang and the evolution of the universe. More generally, they must believe that religion is consistent with the findings of science. Whether or not this is a logically defensible position, it isn’t anti-science.

{ 57 comments }

1

Glen Tomkins 01.12.17 at 2:30 pm

Look, if you’ve set yourself the task of assembling the Seven Most Evil Men in the Kingdom, you have to set aside narrow partisan blinkers and open up a big tent.

2

Omega Centauri 01.12.17 at 3:29 pm

It seems to me that rightist anti-vax could very easily fit into the left/right schism. Via herd immunity and its effect on epidemiology, vaccination has important social benefits. And the right always stresses individual freedom (to reject vax for their kids) over a diffuse social good, lower disease rates in the general population. This could very easily evolve into a left/right political issue.

3

Pavel 01.12.17 at 4:01 pm

Once Trump guts the CDC’s ability to collect data (I can envision this policy when they begin to warn him that anti-vax policies are terrible), we won’t even be able to confirm that rates of disease have increased (which they will, as seen in other countries where vaccinations have been downplayed). His basic approach so far has been to not only undermine the agencies that perform a specific task, but also the destroy the ability of said or related agencies to collect data on the outcome of the policy in question (i.e. NASA’s extensive ability to monitor global warming). This is the new cult of ignorance.

4

Kate 01.12.17 at 7:01 pm

“we won’t even be able to confirm that rates of disease have increased”

Yeah, the US already seems to need election observers. Next they’ll have MSF putting out fires as well. World power? hah!
That’s my real fear: that a Trump presidency will be so laughably bad, so humiliating to the US on the world stage that Mr. Thin Skin will CHOOSE to destroy everything lest any records be written or tongues tell of his shame.

But I prefer to think that an NGO parallel to the CDC (if not already existing) will arise and individual doctors generally concerned for the health of their patients will voluntarily disclose cases of vaccine-eradicated diseases to them. And Canadian health authorities will be vigilant with respect to cross-border cases. Necessary but not sufficient is kinda my best case scenario.

5

delazeur 01.12.17 at 7:29 pm

A couple of comments on the 2014 post:

(1) I think it’s worth noting that Three Mile Island gets the amount of attention that it does less because of the actual seriousness of the accident and more because it happens to be the most serious accident to occur in the United States. Nuclear accidents are ranked on a scale of 0-7 (least to most serious); on that scale, TMI is a 5. There have been two level 7 accidents (Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi) and one level 6 accident (Kyshtym). I don’t have an exhaustive list of level 5 accidents, but there have been at least half a dozen.

(2) I agree that people who believe GMOs pose a health risk are an increasingly small fringe on the left, but I think it was a much more widely held belief not too long ago. Circa 2010-2012ish I ran into a lot of people who thought that GMOs would give them cancer. A study came out around that time supporting the idea and it got a lot of traction on the left, but the scientific community quickly became very vocal about glaring flaws in the study’s methodology and all of a sudden anti-GMO leftists started talking about IP concerns and environmental impacts instead of carcinogenicity. (That’s not to say that IP and environmental concerns aren’t serious; I’ve been worried about those issues for a long time.)

6

Omega Centauri 01.12.17 at 11:35 pm

Pavel,
I think the real way reduced vax rates will play out is that when a herd immunity threshold is crossed and then the average case of infections results in more than one new infection, and you very rapidly get an epidemic on your hands. Large numbers of people getting ill will be hard to conceal.

7

faustusnotes 01.13.17 at 12:32 am

delazeur, leftish complaints about IP concerns and environmental impacts of GMO have been a thing since the 1990s at least. The rhetoric of “mainly” health concerns is a right-wing furphy.

I’ve long argued that anti-vax ideas aren’t a primarily left wing mistake; Dan Cohen’s research backs me up on this. I think John is right that anti-vax is now also becoming a politically codified position – it’s consistent with all the personal liberty bullshit on the modern right, and obviously a big deal to home schoolers (who are mostly right wing). It’s also inevitable that a political movement that can’t accept basic science in other areas of medicine (e.g. stem cells) and obviously AGW is going to eventually cave in to all the other fringe anti-science ideas.

8

Ebenezer Scrooge 01.13.17 at 12:56 am

I think John is letting the left off easy on tribalism. Of course center-left parties are solicitous on almost all issues. To the extent they are centrists, what else would they be? Pols don’t like to offend anybody if they can help it. Center-right parties are similar, to the extent they exist, in countries like Germany.

But if you look at medium-left voters, you get lots of tribalism. Bankers? Eeevil! CEOs (for non-tech firms)? Eeeevil! People with moral reservations about abortion? Misogynists! Gun people? Castration anxiety! Non-mainstream Christianity? Sex-crazed bigots!

I’ll grant John that the left is much less bad than the right on tribalism: universalism is part of our Enlightenment credo, even if we don’t always live up to it. And we’re much much much better on science. But even we’re tribalistic animals. Some of the readers of this blog support sports teams–they know what I mean.

9

derrida derider 01.13.17 at 12:57 am

I dunno – its hard to absolve the Left of tribalism just 2 posts above Belle’s where there is plenty of such tribalism evident in the discussion. We are all prone to assume the enemy of my enemy is not merely my friend, but must be justified in their enmity.

While it is certainly true the political downsides of postmodern antirationalism are these days even more evident on the Right than the Left, it remains true that if you believe that scientific truth is a social construct then you are going to believe that such truth always lies with your preferred socially constructed group.

10

Lenoxus 01.13.17 at 3:24 am

You can rail all you want against Republicans who rely on tu quoque as the sole defense of their president-elect’s actions, something we’ve seen before and I’m sure we’ll see many times again. (E.g., pointing to the Clinton Foundation’s troubles as the sole answer to concerns about conflicts of interest.)

But what about the many Democrats who do the same thing? (E.g., that it’s fair to discuss the unconfirmed new rumors about Trump because of his own many forays into the wildest of conspiracy theories.)

Hmmmm?

(Disclaimer: that was sarcasm. Although I’ve had issues with the left from time to time, I don’t think its dishonesty problems are equal to the right. But the joke obviously had to be made.)

Regarding why anti-vax appeals to Trump, here may be one component: http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Crank_magnetism

11

John Quiggin 01.13.17 at 5:08 am

DD “If you believe that scientific truth is a social construct then you are going to believe that such truth always lies with your preferred socially constructed group.”

My impression is that the Science and Technology Studies movement has been backing away from the strong version of this claim at least since Latour’s mea culpa back in 2004, and is now trying to salvage the part of it that is true (science is a social activity, and must be understood in this light) from the false implication that any social construction for seeking truth is as good as any other.

On the right, although a handful of people have tried the postmodernist approach (Phillip(?) Johnson and Steve Fuller come to mind), the general line has been commonsensical anti-intellectualism, as exemplified by Andrew Bolt.

12

faustusnotes 01.13.17 at 5:49 am

Ebenezer, there’s a difference between insulting stupid people who disagree with you, and tribalism.

13

J-D 01.13.17 at 6:17 am

Phillip(?) Johnson
Wikipedia records several different people called variously Philip Johnson, Phillip Johnson, Philip Johnston, and Phillip Johnston, but I surmise the one you have in mind is Phillip E Johnson, formerly a professor of law at UC Berkeley and known as founder of the ‘intelligent design’ movement and creator of the ‘wedge’ strategy.

14

Pavel 01.13.17 at 6:34 am

@Kate
The only thing Americans hate more than their gub’mint trying to tell them what’s good for them is someone else’s gub’mint (or “shadowy” NGO) trying to do the same. Don’t expect this data to have a lot of penetration given the source.

@Omega Centauri
I agree. You can also probably spot it by the resurgence of ancient diseases like Polio. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/06/health/world-health-organization-polio-health-emergency.html

@derrida derider
” it remains true that if you believe that scientific truth is a social construct then you are going to believe that such truth always lies with your preferred socially constructed group.”

I think that thesis is more or less dust outside of certain philosophy departments (and scientists largely don’t care about what they think, given how little the philosophy of science has actually contributed to the work of scientists, Popper aside). What is true is that science is a social project, meaning that both the kinds of questions that scientists ask and the frameworks in which they interpret the results are influenced by social processes (especially when results are ambiguous, unclear or the systems they are studying are complicated). This does have somewhat of a gradation effect. It’s less likely in hard sciences like physics and chemistry (you can’t really gender the spin of a quark), more likely as you move towards the soft sciences like biology and psych (humans R’ hard). However, the scientists making the greatest impact on social policy are the ones more likely to work in the soft sciences, and therefore we should be more cognizant of the kinds of biases and contexts in which they perform their functions.

15

Will Boisvert 01.13.17 at 6:58 am

Hmm,

1. “The right wing claim (usually implied rather than spelt out) is that the left is opposed to nuclear power because of unjustified fears about health risks and accidents. The standard straw person here, filling the role of RFK Jr in the antivax debate, is Helen Caldicott….the left as a whole does not take any unified view on this question.”

It’s not just Helen Caldicott who wants to ban nukes, it’s Bernie Sanders, Ralph Nader, all the Green Parties in Europe (including some in ruling coalitions), the Labor Party in Australia, most Big Green NGOs, etc. Nuclear eliminationism is a very prominent strain of left ideology that has been enacted into law in many places, so the right has a strong point here.

2. “No country in the world has, as yet, managed to sustain cheap and safe nuclear power over any lengthy period.”

Huh? France has gotten three quarters of its electricity from nuclear power for over 30 years, at prices that are close to the cheapest in Europe. The US gets 19 percent of its power from nuclear for the last 30 years at pretty cheap prices (plants are going broke now because of dirt cheap natural gas.) China’s nuclear build is going strong. South Korea gets about 23 percent of its power from nuclear after a 30-year construction program and is building many more reactors; nuclear power there is cheaper than coal, far cheaper than renewables. Slovakia, Romania, Hungary, Britain, Sweden, the list goes on….

Cheap, safe, sustained nuclear power is the rule, not the exception.

“…and investors everywhere have abandoned the technology.”

Then why are investors buying the bonds that Southern Company and South Carolina Gas and Electric are selling on the bond market to finance the US AP1000 builds? (And who cares what “investors” think anyway? Are you saying that investors should be in charge of our energy policies? Jeez, that’s neoliberal!)

16

Will Boisvert 01.13.17 at 6:59 am

1. “No one can say for sure that the worst accidents we’ve seen so far (TMI,Chernobyl and Fukushima) encompass the worst that can possibly happen. These are complex engineering questions on which science doesn’t have a lot to say…. My own judgement is that accident risks alone aren’t enough to reject nuclear power, but the cost of the safety precautions required to prevent accidents is part of the reason nuclear power is inefficient.”

This style of handwaving alarmism just won’t do.

Science has a lot to say about nuclear safety and accident risks. The scientific consensus is that nuclear accidents have little to no public health impact. Even high-end estimates of Chernobyl accident fatalities by anti-nuclear activists, some 27,000 in total spread over many decades, indicate that the “risk” is 500 or so deaths per year on average from that spew of radioactive pollution, a number far too small to discern in statistics. Add in 20 deaths per year from Fukushima fallout, according to anti-nukes. Compare that to the yearly toll from coal-plant pollution, about 150,000 per year.

So even if nuclear risk were orders of magnitude riskier, it would still be benign compared to our dominant energy technologies, and to some renewable nostrums like biomass.

Worse, when risk alarmism succeeds in closing reactors or piling on onerous safety precautions that price nuclear out of the market (as you recommend), coal use is increased and prolonged, killing many people. (To say nothing of the damage to the climate.) Kharecha and Hansen estimated that the world’s nuclear sector has saved 1.8 million lives by abating coal pollution. We can be thankful that the anxieties you invoke here did not prevail in previous decades when nuclear plants were built; if they had, millions of lives would have been shortened.

Talk of vast and nebulous horrors, “the worst that can possibly happen,” may sound prudent and reasonable, but it’s really just demagoguery. It’s the same thing Republicans do when they issue apocalyptic warnings about terrorists or Saddam’s WMDs or Muslim immigrants—panicking people into a witch-hunt, or worse. If you’re going to write about nuclear risk, please take the subject seriously: study the literature, quantify the risks and set them in context with other energy-related health risks, so that readers have some basis besides terror-talk for understanding the issue.

2. John, I’m rehashing all this because I like to but also because it exposes a lack of self-awareness in your argument. Honestly, your writing on nuclear power is biased, ill-informed and radically at odds with the science. You’re a smart and well-intentioned man, so I’m guessing these lapses stem from a visceral allegiance to the left’s tribal anti-nuclear animus, which is so powerful that it distorts your perspective even when you think it doesn’t. You yourself are evidence that an irrational left science-denialism runs deeper than you allow. Time to pluck the log from your own eye.

17

delazeur 01.13.17 at 7:12 am

faustusnotes @ 7:

You’re right, it wasn’t quite right for me to say that “all of a sudden anti-GMO leftists started talking about IP concerns and environmental impacts instead of carcinogenicity.” More accurately, the anti-GMO leftists who *had been* talking about carcinogenicity all of a sudden started talking about IP and environmental issues instead.

That said, I don’t agree that the rhetoric of “mainly” health concerns is a right-wing furphy. Pre-2012 I encountered it very regularly from lay people, definitely more often than IP concerns and at least as often as environmental concerns. The right-wing furphy is the idea that health concerns *continue* to be the primary motivator of GMO skepticism.

18

dr ngo 01.13.17 at 8:19 am

Omega Centauri: Large numbers of people getting ill will be hard to conceal.

One would think so, but the early reactions to the AIDS epidemic are hardly encouraging in this regard. First not recognizing the problem at all, and then – for several years – mischaracterizing its nature and ignoring its implications. If you haven’t read (or seen) And The Band Played On I recommend it highly.

book

TV movie

In the age of the Internet, and given the fact that we’re primarily dealing here with known, rather than unknown, diseases, the potential parallel may not hold, but in the current climate I’m not too sanguine about the inevitability of ANY truth prevailing.

19

Andrew Brown 01.13.17 at 8:37 am

On a rather cynical note, I’d say the difference was that Left tribalism tends to be just as intense, but with a much narrower appeal. The outgroups don’t leave enough to the imagination. The one exception would be “religious”, a phrase which is as toxic to the Left as “liberal” is to the Right.

To the extent that tribalism is what gets things done, or what forms and preserves coalitions that get shit done, this is regrettable.

20

Chris "merian" W. 01.13.17 at 10:19 am

I think that John’s text lays out a pretty good argument overall. But I’m wary of self-congratulatory attitudes — even if there is an imbalance in how the tribal mode of thinking and acting is expressed on the left vs. on the right, it’s not something to rest on. A culture of openness in which policy approaches are adapted in response to to evidence, argument and experience needs building up and maintaining. I have three areas of concern.

First, and most harmlessly, I do think that there are some left-marked tribal certitudes, though John got the big ones, and I agree with his assessment. Beyond those, I wish educational policy was less ideological on both sides; and among mostly-white urban and suburban liberals there can be a terrible Michael-Pollan-aromatherapy hodgepodge around food and “natural” living. And then there are pretty nasty educated liberal middle-class shibboleths around the ability to use spelling and grammar correctly; I’m thinking of the ridiculous Bushims industry, and there’s no doubt we’ll get a new edition given the linguistic limitations (and stylistic choices) of the PEOTUS. The rest that comes to mind is small and mostly self-limiting.

Second, filter bubbles (left or right) and the accompanying ignorance are a breeding ground for tribal identification. I’d especially like to stick my oar in for better knowledge and appreciation of rural matters. For starters, you can’t do climate change adaptation, stewardship of the land, agriculture or environmental policy without knowing how these areas work. It’s helpful for other topics too. The most interesting and substantive gun control discussions I’m seeing happen between my neihgbours — where everyone, be it the pro gun control liberals (usually voting center-left or Democrat) and the from-my-cold-and-dead-hands people (usually either Libertarians or Republicans), are likely to own firearms (now or in the past). (I don’t quite follow Ebenezer Scrooge, btw, who I think is painting a caricature. For example, pretty much every single one in my ideological vicinity is perfectly able to make the difference between advocating for a restrictive policy on abortion and having a personal moral judgement about abortion.)

The third area is the hardest, and I’m quite unsure about it, but… is the visceral collective rejection of something you have good arguments against a noxious tribal attitude? I’m speaking about drawing a line at racism, islamophobia, anti-immigrant sentiments and the like. I’m not sure. Sometimes things are extreme enough for me to draw a line and give up on persuasion or engagement, for example when it comes down to a choice of being disloyal to my people (my cultural family, and more importantly those that are under attack by the other side) and being disloyal to the ethos of listening and figuring out how the other side got there, at the very least. There shouldn’t be much problematic about not tolerating intolerance except when I look at how this looks from, say, the US mainstream conservative side. To give an example: If I eavesdrop on forums that I know to be frequented by conservatives — not gamergate trolls, but my pro-Tea Party neighbours, say — it is clear that things that I value, such as inclusiveness and diversity, are considered a liberal scam there. Not because they don’t think one should be inclusive, but because they don’t feel included. OTOH, it’s easy to see why they wouldn’t be included — there’s a lot of quite racist attitudes floating around, and fear and paranoia about, say, traveling to Europe, which they seem to consider being a hell-hole wrecked by “migrants”. So. Not much common ground here, so is tribal enmity a necessary given?

===

Tacking this on here: derrida derider, I hope we’re a little beyond your caricature of post-modern relativism. It’s a given for me that scientific truth is quite obviously a social construct, but just as obviously very far from this free-floating arbitrary thing. What gets discovered, what gets accepted and how long it takes, who gets to be an authority, what evidence is considered persuasive — all these are negotiated within a social enterprise whose parameters determine the answer to these questions. Not that there isn’t, unfortunately, earnestly and sincerely produced partisan research.

21

Chris "merian" W. 01.13.17 at 4:32 pm

Will Boisvert, I’m not sure how helpful it is to try to re-litigate nuclear power on the merits. What you are missing is that taking a strong position on a matter of policy does not equate higher levels of tribalism. The two aren’t uncorrelated, but mostly the other way around: tribalism usually implies intransigent positions. (Secondarily, what is also missing is the recognition that opponents of a strong position seem to always try to paint that position as irrational and unscientific. It’s a shame.)

In itself, eliminating nuclear power isn’t any more tribal as taking a strong stance on eliminating coal, abolishing the death penalty, getting rid of poverty, or eliminating nuclear weapons. Now to be fair I’ve certainly seen groups, especially within European Greens, where eliminating nuclear power wasn’t only an ideological given along the same lines as opposition to the death penalty, but any attempt to examine the arguments was met with suspicion and conspiracy theories about being a paid shill for the nuclear power industry. (Not that these don’t exist, of course.) However, as far as I can tell the tribal character of the anti-nuclear power movement is much weakened by the acceptance of the principle that decisions should be made by fairly presenting a winning argument, and therefore the willingness to engage on facts and the whole of the economic context. Even where eliminating nuclear power has become policy I haven’t seen anything like Trumpian cries of “build a wall” or “lock them/her/him up”, but the overall decisive argument could be paraphrased as: “Even though we’ve tried, we don’t know how to store nuclear waste in the long-term in a way that is safe against what human history may bring over the time scales that are needed. This is therefore not something we should be handing down to future generations. And the prospect of dealing with a Fukushima/Chernobyl every 30 years isn’t acceptable to us.” Disagreeing with this is fine, but tribal it is not.

22

delazeur 01.13.17 at 8:04 pm

Chris @ 21:

“Even where eliminating nuclear power has become policy I haven’t seen anything like Trumpian cries of ‘build a wall’ or ‘lock them/her/him up,’ but the overall decisive argument could be paraphrased as: ‘Even though we’ve tried, we don’t know how to store nuclear waste in the long-term in a way that is safe against what human history may bring over the time scales that are needed. This is therefore not something we should be handing down to future generations. And the prospect of dealing with a Fukushima/Chernobyl every 30 years isn’t acceptable to us.’ Disagreeing with this is fine, but tribal it is not.”

Yes, that’s a reasonable argument, and reasonable people can disagree with it but should not consider it tribal. However, while I think it is representative of the average wonk who opposes nuclear power, I’m not sure that it is actually representative of the average person who opposes nuclear power. The average person’s view doesn’t rise to the level of Trumpian slogans and threats, but a big part of that has to with the different shibboleths leftists and rightists have about expressing themselves.

23

anymouse 01.13.17 at 11:15 pm

Could happen.

But let me suggest a little salt. Garlic would be my recommendation.

Gallup results overall belief no party break down.

http://www.gallup.com/poll/181844/percentage-saying-vaccines-vital-dips-slightly.aspx

6% believe.

A possible theory.

If ask people a series of silly questions, you might get a series of silly answers, that might or might not reflect what they actually believe.

Also

Do you believe there is a link between childhood vaccines and autism, or not?

From the data at the link.

Obama Voters 19%
Romney Voters 22%
Other Voters 12%

Very Liberal 12%
Somewhat Liberal 18%
Mod 23%
Somewhat Conservative 19%
Very Conservative 22%

Democrat 16%
Republican 26%
I/O 18%

So it looks like belief that vaccines cause autism is very prevalent among Republicans who voted for Obama or other.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_presidential_election,_2012

By source and my match fully 57% of them believe that vaccines cause autism.

24

anymouse 01.13.17 at 11:22 pm

It is also relatively popular with Democrats who did not vote for Obama with 38% of them
believing that vaccines cause autism.

Salt. Large amounts of salt.

25

ZM 01.14.17 at 1:19 am

There was an article in Scientific American in January 2017 that covered this issue, How To Convince Someone When Facts Fail: Why World View Threats Undermine Evidence.

The recommendations are at the end:

“If corrective facts only make matters worse, what can we do to convince people of the error of their beliefs? From my experience,

1. keep emotions out of the exchange,

2. discuss, don’t attack (no ad hominem and no ad Hitlerum),

3. listen carefully and try to articulate the other position accurately,

4. show respect, 5. acknowledge that you understand why someone might hold that opinion, and

6. try to show how changing facts does not necessarily mean changing worldviews.

These strategies may not always work to change people’s minds, but now that the nation has just been put through a political fact-check wringer, they may help reduce unnecessary divisiveness.”

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-to-convince-someone-when-facts-fail/?WT.mc_id=SA_FB_MB_OP

26

ZM 01.14.17 at 1:20 am

(I meant Worldview, should have proof read…)

27

Will Boisvert 01.14.17 at 2:07 am

Chris Merian W 21,

1. “ And the prospect of dealing with a Fukushima/Chernobyl every 30 years isn’t acceptable to us.”

Well, that’s a perfect example of a tribal shibboleth—an arbitrary assertion of belief serving as group self-definition. It doesn’t “fairly present a winning argument” or “engage on facts.” It just asserts, without argument or evidence, that if you are willing to countenance the possibility of nuclear accidents then you are not part of our tribe.

The obvious response is, “Hey, coal plants are killing the equivalent of five Chernobyls plus five more Fukushimas every single year. We could eliminate those deaths with a rapid buildout of nuclear plants to displace coal plants, and the lives we save that way would outnumber by orders of magnitude the number lost to nuclear accidents. Why is that unacceptable to you?”

But that oft-voiced rationalist retort has gotten nowhere with left anti-nukes. Their animus has nothing to do with facts or science or even coherent moral reasoning. It’s a tribal taboo, exactly like the right-wing tribal beliefs that the OP critiques.

2. Likewise with the argument against nuclear waste that you cited. The consensus among geologists is that stable, safe nuclear waste repositories are very feasible. The further consensus, borne out by experience, is that just letting the waste sit around in pools and casks is plenty safe.

And, actually, nuclear waste is exactly the sort of thing we should hand down to future generations. It gets less radioactive over time, and their much more advanced technologies will handle it even better than we can. The more waste we leave for our descendants, the better off they will be—because we will have decarbonized our energy supply in the bargain.

The left anxiety about nuclear waste is, quite precisely, a purity taboo, not a coherent reaction to an objective risk.

28

Faustusnotes 01.14.17 at 2:07 am

No delazeur, hat would be wrong too. Environmental and IP concerns have been big from the start – I was involved in the animal rights and environmental movement in the 1990s, I remember the pamphlets and rhetoric, and you’re just wrong on the history. Sorry. Certainly in the late 1980s and early 1990s when GMO was still completely new there were all kinds of knee jerk reactions but they came from every direction of the political compass and were more the flavor of the current fears about kids and screentime – suspicions and worries before the evidence has even begun to be studied. Once coherent positions formed (in the mid 1990s) the primary left wing/ environmentalist objection concerned environmental risks, pesticide overuse, further entrenchment of inequality and greater corporate control. The primary right wing defense of the products was that they would solve world hunger, which is a joke. Now there is a conglomerate of us universities studying the spread of herbicide and pesticide resistance in GMO crops, confirming the early fears of environmentalists. You can look it up if you don’t believe me (I have a few blogposts about the history too I think but can’t be bothered finding them now).

I think will is right that anti nuclear is a primarily left wing concern and we should be embarrassed by it. Fear of the health risks is unscientific- although without a healthy fear of those risks nuclear power would be very dangerous. I think will is wrong about nuclear being cheap or a viable solution to global warming but that’s a public policy debate not an issue of scientific tribalism. I think the environmental movement has been prescient on a lot of things and is almost always with listening to about the major threats, but has been sadly atrociously wrong about nuclear. However, with the price of renewables dropping fast and the growth of battery storage, the debate is fast becoming irrelevant.

It’s also worth noting that the two major anti-nuke actions that will make a genuine dent on our response to global warming – the shutdown of nuclear plants in Japan and Germany- were a right wing response to a major nuclear accident, and had very little of anything to do with left wing activism.

29

John Quiggin 01.14.17 at 3:53 am

Will B

“No country in the world has, as yet, managed to sustain cheap and safe nuclear power over any lengthy period.”

You’re misinterpreting me, and, given our lengthy past interactions, I think you must be aware what I meant here. No country has managed to sustain a cheap and safe program of nuclear construction over any lengthy period. As we are both aware, the cost of new nuclear construction in France (your lead candidate) has risen steadily and it is now uneconomic. Ditto for the US. Maybe China or South Korea will do better, but they don’t qualify as having shown success over a lengthy period.

In any case, I request no further discussion of nuclear power on this thread, which is rapidly being derailed. I’ll probably post on the topic on my own blog soon, and you can have your say (again) there.

30

delazeur 01.14.17 at 3:59 am

Faustusnotes, I’m talking about the opinions of everday leftists on GMOs, not the wonks. Of course the wonks are mostly interested in the environmental and IP issues and always have been, it’s practically tautological that theirs is the reasonable position.

However, pre-2012, most of the leftists I met “in the wild,” as it were, and whom I talked to about GMOs were primarily concerned with health impacts. The leftists I met in technical settings were not, but such people are a small minority in the world. Your recollections are interesting but don’t match my experiences at all.

31

faustusnotes 01.14.17 at 6:02 am

Now that I’m at a computer, here is my post discussing how anti-vax ideology is not a left-wing thing, and referencing supporting work by Dan Kahan (not Cohen as I erroneously wrote above).

32

John 01.14.17 at 10:34 am

It seems to me that this outfit provides the necessary information to seriously question the claims of the very powerful and mega-rich pro GMO-“foods” industry, the leading player of which is of course Monsanto which is probably the worlds most hated corporation – and rightly so.
http://www.i-sis.org.uk/menu.php
Would you put your future, and the future of the worlds food supply in the hands of Monsanto and similar outfits. Which by the way is about to happen when the mooted merger of the dominant players is approved by the relevant “authorities” which of course will have government/industry (and therefore pro-industry) revolving doors hacks making the decision.
And why not follow the mega-bucks money trail of the various talking heads and outfits that promote GMO-“foods”, including the presence of the said revolving door hacks.
How long have GMO “foods” and organisms been around?
Two or three decades at most. Such is hardly a long enough time line with which to assess that they definitely safe.
Why isn’t it completely obvious that sooner or later something seriously wrong will emerge from this experiment.
The ISA outfit claims and even perhaps proves that such evidence is already emerging.
And when it does occur there will be no way to put the genie back in the box again. It could even cause a melt down in our food supply. Who knows.
Doesn’t anyone find that it is fundamentally grotesque implanting non plant based genetic material into plant based genes?
Why not do a search on the topic of the problems associated with genetically engineered trees and forests.
By the way I am quite sympathetic with the rest of the “quackery” that this website promotes including its advocacy of homeopathy of which I am a life-long confirmed user.
Why not check out the title/topic The Secret Life of Water by Masaru Emoto who has proven by remarkable photographic evidence that the structure of water crystals responds to prayers. Water is of course a remarkable substance which contains and transmits subtle energies – it has memory.
The human body is of course approximately 70% water.
I am a green-leftie.

It is interesting to note that in his 1972 book The Pentagon of Power Lewis Mumford cautioned us about the inherent hubris of trying to control life at the primary genetic level.

33

Brett Dunbar 01.14.17 at 11:31 am

The position of parts of the left on GMOs is deeply irrational, as faustusnotes demonstrates.

The IP is exactly the same as applies to non-GMO seeds, basically the large up front development costs require that the seed company have a patent so that they have a period in which to recover their expenses. It is not in any way a GMO issue. Most commercial seeds are F1 hybrids where the restrictions are self enforcing as they don’t breed true. Others such as potatoes are bought new as a disease control measure, kept potatoes have a much higher level of disease than the seed bought in seed potatoes.

Pesticide resistance is a consequence of natural selection and again is obviously nothing to do with whether the crop is GMO or not. It is simply due to the use of the pesticide creating an environment in which pesticide resistance is advantageous.

Some GM crops have increased productivity, Bt-cotton is the most notable example. Farmers actions led to the collapse of the ban on GMOs in India as the Bt-cotton was massively superior.

GMOs are likely safer than applying mutagenesis as the genetic changes are focused and based on adding well understood traits. While mutagenesis produces large numbers of uncontrolled changes which may include harmful ones. Mutagenesis is a major part of conventional breeding.

GMO and nuclear power are both examples of a tribal opposition leading to imposing safety restrictions far more severe than is applied to other comparable technologies. This kills people, as far more deadly alternatives are chosen. The evacuation after Fukushima killed more than 1,600 people the radiation level, while elevated, was still lower than the background rate in Finland.

Then opponents use problems caused by imposing grossly excessive costs to argue that the technology itself is bad. Imposing far higher disposal costs for radioactive material compared to similarly unpleasant chemical toxicity. Requiring far more extensive testing of GM crops compared to conventional crops with novel genetic traits produced by mutagenesis. This has meant that the main cases where a GMO has got through licencing are those which offer the seed company the most profit. Such as Glyphosate resistance. Golden rice has been stuck as although rice which produces beta carotene would reduce blindness in poor people there isn’t much money in it. The crop exists and while the initial golden rice was a relatively unproductive variety it can be crossed with more productive varieties. The various seed firms have agreed to allow poor farmers to use several patented traits free of charge. More rational regulation would make it far easier to make a business case for investment in things with a smaller expected return, such as disease resistance in bananas.

34

Layman 01.14.17 at 12:28 pm

“These strategies may not always work to change people’s minds…”

First nomination for Biggest Understatement of the Year.

35

nastywoman 01.14.17 at 1:49 pm

– there is this rumor that when Trump said:
“But I want smaller doses over a longer period of time. Same exact amount, but you take this little beautiful baby, and you pump – I mean, it looks just like it’s meant for a horse, not for a child, and we’ve had so many instances, people that work for me. … [in which] a child, a beautiful child went to have the vaccine, and came back and a week later had a tremendous fever, got very, very sick, now is autistic.” –
he was (like always?) speaking about a very personal believe – that ‘a beautiful child went to have the vaccine, and came back and a week later had a tremendous fever, got very, very sick and now is autistic.”
And probably this type of a very personal believe can’t be taken more seriously -than believing that Meryl Streep is “one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood”?

Which still might not be as crazy as the believe that ‘the more waste we leave for our descendants, the better off they will be’

That’s not a good joke anymore!

36

delazeur 01.14.17 at 9:48 pm

John, thanks for coming around and giving us all such an excellent example of leftist paranoia about GMOs. You touch on a fascinating piece of the puzzle here:

“Doesn’t anyone find that it is fundamentally grotesque implanting non plant based genetic material into plant based genes?”

As with vaccines, fluoridation, organic food (admitted a bit of an odd one out in this list), juice cleansing, etc., bodily purity turns out to be a huge part of what motivates this stuff! In a lot of cases it seems almost religious, like requiring ritual cleansing before entering certain places of worship.

Really, though, what’s the big deal with having rat genes in your tomatoes, for example? It’s not like you are literally eating a rat.

37

Brett Dunbar 01.14.17 at 10:54 pm

I inadvertently omitted part of the argument in the first paragraph. Soya beans are a little unusual in that the commercial varieties breed true so seed patents have to be enforced or there would be no incentive to invest in developing improved varities.

I’m not sure if John is serious or taking the piss.

38

John Quiggin 01.14.17 at 10:55 pm

@Brett Dunbar: It’s true that nuclear power is subject to tighter safety standards than coal. But for real craziness in power safety you need to go to the anti-wind lobby, already dominant on the right in Australia and the UK (dominant in UKIP and a powerful minority of Tories) and now has Trump on side. Totally bogus claims about infrasound are being used as the basis for policy.

39

J-D 01.14.17 at 11:17 pm

John

Why not check out the title/topic The Secret Life of Water by Masaru Emoto who has proven by remarkable photographic evidence that the structure of water crystals responds to prayers.

Why not, indeed? I did check out the topic, and found this:
http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Masaru_Emoto

40

Will Boisvert 01.15.17 at 12:57 am

Thread derail deleted – JQ

41

Will Boisvert 01.15.17 at 12:58 am

Thread derail deleted – JQ

42

John Quiggin 01.15.17 at 1:04 am

J-D @39 I used the example of crystals when I first wrote on this topic back in 2003
http://johnquiggin.com/2003/03/02/science-and-ideology/

Anti-science trends like postmodernism and New Age philosophy, which were once seen as leftwing, have now made their peace with capitalism. New Age crystal fans represent a market like any other and the postmodernist idea that reality is socially constructed naturally appealed to the professionals in the business of reality-construction, the advertising and PR industries.

43

Pavel 01.15.17 at 2:40 am

As someone with a biology background, I don’t oppose GMOs on the basis of the science or the health impacts (most of which are New Age misunderstanding of genetics). Genetic engineering is here to stay and is the most promising path towards transhumanism (I’d also like to note that I’m a transhumanist and support all attempts to deconstruct and rebuild our broken bodies and brains).

However, on the technical side, I’d like to point out that two of the bigger potential issues with GMOs haven’t really been brought up here: i) Genetic Use Restriction Technology or “terminator” genes and ii) horizontal/lateral gene transfer.

i) Terminator genes/GURTs are a technology being explored by corporations like Monsanto that will give them the ability to render plants grown from terminator seeds to be infertile (aka producing sterile seeds) if the farmer fails to spray them with some form of activator (i.e. if the farms fails to pay Monsanto, etc). Terminator seeds have some positive uses (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetic_use_restriction_technology), but for the most part there is justified fear in letting an AgroTech corporation control the very basic reproductive cycle of crops. Of course, Monsanto and the like have framed this as a form of theft deterrence/protection, but in reality it grants an enormous amount of abusable power. All types of GURTs are currently banned by the UN, but since when have UN sanctions applied to the US or other transnationals?

ii) HGT/LGT is where genes transfer between organisms of the same generation rather than vertically, from parent to offspring via reproduction. This is common in bacteria and somewhat less common in higher organisms like plants (usually through a vector like a bacteria or virus) and is also the basis for lots of research on gene therapy. HGT means that wild or cultivated varieties of crops are going to be at some level of risk from automatically acquiring the modified genes on neighbouring GMO plants, which has serious implications for IP and the aforementioned terminator genes.

If you like to think along more apocalyptic lines (like I do!), you can imagine a state where biological warfare consists mainly of vectors introducing modified genes into crops via HGT. It’s a great way to destroy or simply or ransom an entire food supply. Given the limitations of current GMO technology, this is more of a purely theoretical argument, but I don’t doubt that the tech will catch up with our collective nightmares soon enough.

44

J-D 01.15.17 at 6:59 am

I’m not sure if John is serious or taking the piss.
Most of John’s statements I am sure are seriously believed in by some people, and all the rest I suspect are, so it seems simplest to take John at face value in the absence of evidence to the contrary.

45

faustusnotes 01.15.17 at 7:42 am

Brett Dunbar, the relationship between these GMOs and herbicide resistance is a well-established scientific fact – as I said above, there is a conglomerate of American universities running a large research project to work out how to handle it, and you can read some of their material here (the concept is referred to as “Glyphosate stewardship”). Denying that this is a real issue associated with GMOs is a kind of scientific denialism – what John would call “anti-science”. The facts are in.

Calling it just “a consquence of natural selection” is the same kind of rhetorical flourish as “climate change has always happened”. DDT resistance, MDR TB, drug-resistant malaria, anti-microbial resistance and glyphosate-resistance are all consequences of overuse or misuse of a specific chemical which increases the pace of selection. The consequences for malaria of this accelerated selection have been catastrophic. As the Glyphosate Weeds and Crops group say, glyphosate is a precious resource that needs to be carefully preserved and protected, because once resistance is widespread this asset becomes worthless. Releasing GMOs into the environment has been done recklessly in some countries and with serious consequences for agricultural practice – just as opponents of these GMOs predicted.

Golden Rice is a classic example of a high tech solution looking for a problem. Vitamin A Deficiency (VAD) is far from the most serious nutritional deficiency and we have made big progress in fighting it through cheap and effective interventions – exclusive breastfeeding and supplementation. Golden Rice will never be cost-effective compared to exclusive breast-feeding, and won’t protect infants who are too young for rice. There is also already a GMO solution in use (a type of mustard used in South Asia). We already know that this mustard doesn’t always work, and neither does supplementation, and the reasons it doesn’t work (diarrhoea, diversion) will also apply to Golden Rice. The “debate” about Golden Rice has been put about by pro-GMO people for years – and while they cry about how many lives have not been saved because of opponents of their miracle cure, death and disability due to VAD has plummeted (especially in China, which does not use any GMO solutions for this problem).

There are two very simple, very cheap interventions for the full range of childhood nutirtion problems – diarrhoea treatment and exclusive breastfeeding – and there is almost no chance that any high tech solution will ever compete with them for effectiveness or cost. Diverting money from successful programs implementing these interventions towards untested alternatives would be reckless and irresponsible in the extreme. But admitting this requires the pro-GMO crowd to admit that their technology, while it’s very good for agribusiness’s bottom line, is no solution to world’s nutritional problems.

Saying otherwise is simply to be ignorant of the science of GMOs and public health.

46

otpup 01.15.17 at 12:48 pm

One area of this discussion that needs at least a passing nod is the unreliability of scientific, biomedical and/or govermental institutions to always be scientific or make ethically defensible policy given what science is known. Various scientific fields suffer from a lack of reliable evidence (I won’t even get into macroeconomics) and other factors and forces fill the void left by scientific debate. Biomedical science can be prey to this because some types of research needed to confirm pet theories are never done due either to ethical concerns or resource limitations. Examples in nutrition and government food policy abound largely because of the expense of doing the types of studies that would tease causation out of the masses of observational data which seems to be virtually all of what researchers in that field produce.

47

Brett Dunbar 01.15.17 at 4:15 pm

The argument about terminator genes is really bizarre. Monsanto owns a few patents after buying the agricultural division of Dow, they have quite explicitly stated they have no interest in using or developing them. Monsanto wanted some of Dow’s other IP and have simply abandoned the technology. If a plant acquired a terminator gene via horizontal transfer that is self-limiting, the plants with the terminator gene die. I’m not sure how that is supposed to be a problem.

Most commercial crops are F1 hybrids anyway and need to be bought new annually. So farmers are mostly buying new seed each year already and have been doing so for decades in the west. They are of course perfectly entitled to use heritage varieties, they tend to be less productive. Most farmers accept that they need to pay for the service they are getting a handful don’t and get sued. The legal process has been perfectly adequate.

Herbicide resistance in weeds is a consequence of using herbicide. It isn’t anything to do with how the crop plant acquired herbicide resistance. Monsanto has usage guidelines designed to minimise resistance. Such as leaving some areas untreated as a reserve of non-resistant weeds and taking breaks in usage. Glyphosate tolerance is likely to have some metabolic cost so in the absence of Glyphosate the non-resistant weeds outcompete the resistant ones. They also recommend an all or nothing approach so that partially tolerant weeds are still killed.

John Quiggan @38

Nice demonstration of tu quoque there.

48

Cranky Observer 01.15.17 at 5:16 pm

Two things that I observe both as an off-and-on worker in heavy industry and a city mouse who married into a farm family:

1) there is no agreement on externalities and hidden subsidies. When spending time at the farm I mostly listen and speak little, but even the most diffident mention of the role of petroleum in the modern US farm economy elicits violent pushback. Straightforward input/output analysis shows the centrality of diesel fuel to US farming practices, which means the entire process by which the nation acquires and subsidizes oil – including most of the $521 billion/year US military budget and our entire Middle East foreign aid strategy – is inextricably intertwined with “the family farm”. My farm relative are extremely smart about a lot of things and follow, e.g. the twists and turns of the markets on LaSalle Street as well as my friends who work there as traders, but they simply will not think about oil and oil policy. Try to go to a 2nd level to discuss the role of oil in Dick Cheney’s foreign policy and his influence on the Republican Party and you’ll be reminded that in the old days freethinkers were tarred and feathered in this community. Combined with elements of Dominionist thinking I see no way around this.

[of course, as my late mother-in-law points out the population of her home county peaked in 1895 and that the exodus to cities continues to this day, she herself having escaped to Minneapolis as soon as possible]

2) No agreement on which strategy is appropriate for risk analysis. Do we as a society agree to maximize potential gain for the maximum number of people in the face of some unknown but not zero level of significant negative outcome? Or do we minimize the maximum possible harm, foregoing the use of certain beneficial technologies and causing some percentage of the population some level of deprivation to avoid all possibility of catastrophic harm? Having worked directly with one of the technologies discussed in this thread I can confidently state that the worst possible outcome is far worse than the non-insider proponents of that technology seem to be aware of. Probability of occurrence may be low, but potential harm is high. Which strategy should govern in that case? We have no agreement on that, and the strategies are mutually exclusive.

49

Faustusnotes 01.15.17 at 11:23 pm

Brett, you’re just wrong about herbicide resistance. I put the links to the science up above. This is established fact, and it’s cute to see is “climate has always changed ” style of rhetoric from someone claiming to be busting anti-science bubbles.

50

derrida derider 01.16.17 at 12:47 am

Leaving aside for a moment their substantive merits the long arguments over nuclear power are actually a good illustration of why tribes form over public policy issues (once formed, they are of course maintained by our old insider-outsider urges).

Debates around nuclear power would never have been anywhere near as venomous if nuclear weapons did not exist. The massively exaggerated fear of radiation for example, only makes emotional sense among those who grew up fearing nuclear annihilation.

51

Will Boisvert 01.16.17 at 1:17 am

@ Faustusnotes 45, on GM Golden Rice and Vitamin A deficiency,

1. “Vitamin A Deficiency (VAD) is far from the most serious nutritional deficiency and we have made big progress in fighting it through cheap and effective interventions – exclusive breastfeeding and supplementation.”

UNICEF says that VAD affected one third of all developing-world children in 2013 and is the leading cause of preventable childhood blindness. WHO says hundreds of thousands of children go blind from it each year, and half of them die within a year of losing their sight. Sounds pretty serious.

Promotion of breast-feeding and supplementation have reduced VAD, but they have by no means eradicated it. WHO says this: “However, because breastfeeding is time-limited and the effect of vitamin A supplementation capsules lasts only 4-6 months, they are only initial steps towards ensuring better overall nutrition and not long-term solutions….Food fortification takes over where supplementation leaves off.”

Golden Rice is a vitamin-fortified rice. The only difference between GR and other fortified foods is that, instead of the Vitamin A precursors being mixed into processed food they grow right in the grain at zero cost.

2. “Golden Rice is a classic example of a high tech solution looking for a problem.”

Huh? What’s high-tech about growing and cooking rice? Why is that more high-tech than a supplement pill?

3. “Golden Rice will never be cost-effective compared to exclusive breast-feeding, and won’t protect infants who are too young for rice.”

But it will protect kids who are too old to breast-feed. (Adults too; many of them suffer from Vitamin A deficiency, including lactating moms who thus can’t adequately provide it to their infants.) And what costs? People are already eating rice, so what’s the incremental cost of feeding them more nutritious rice? Golden Rice will be provided to poor farmers with no licensing fees and no restrictions on reusing seeds.

4. “Diverting money from successful programs implementing these interventions towards untested alternatives would be reckless and irresponsible in the extreme.”

No one is proposing to divert money from breast-feeding promotion, infant diarrhea prevention or supplements to fund Golden Rice. (Why would they? Those programs are not “VAD-treatment” programs; they have many different health benefits.) There will be start-up costs to breed local GR varieties and distribute seed, but they will be modest and my guess is that charitable funding by biotech firms will cover a lot of it. And is this a general rule you’re advocating, that no alternative to existing treatments should ever be tried because it might not be as effective?

5. “The “debate” about Golden Rice has been put about by pro-GMO people for years – and while they cry about how many lives have not been saved because of opponents of their miracle cure, death and disability due to VAD has plummeted (especially in China, which does not use any GMO solutions for this problem).”

Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of kids still go blind and die each year in India, Bangladesh, Africa (still some in China)….I’ll admit it, I do cry about children going blind.

6. “Saying otherwise is simply to be ignorant of the science of GMOs and public health.”

So why did 107 Nobel Laureates sign an open letter last June urging Greenpeace and other green groups to drop their opposition to GMOs, especially Golden Rice, and allow the technology to be widely deployed? Are they all just ignorant of the science?

I have no idea whether Golden Rice will help a lot with VAD or not; can’t know for sure until we try it. I do know that the consensus of actual scientists says that it might have large benefits and will definitely not have significant bad effects. Pity that the tribal purity taboos of greens are blocking it.

52

faustusnotes 01.16.17 at 9:03 am

Will these are good questions but sadly we don’t have the answers because the Golden Rice people have been singularly reticent about engaging in the kind of research that is needed to answer them. For example, here is a study of the effect of Golden Cassava which finds only moderate improvement in WHO-recommended endpoints, and limited evidence of reduction of vitamin A deficiency; the conclusion has discussion of some of the reasons why the gmo organism was no better than supplementation. No such study has been done for Golden Rice, and the one study that was tried (a much more limited lab study) seems to have been retracted for ethical reasons. For Golden Rice to be recommended as an intervention (rather than just a boutique Monsanto project) it needs to show safety, efficacy, practicality and cost-effectiveness, and it has shown none of these. Indeed there appears to be some question about whether fortified organisms of this kind work any better than supplementation at all and why they don’t. The likely reason is the usual suite of challenges in micronutrient deficiency – concurrent diarrhoea and protein energy malnutrition, food diversion or misuse, etc.

I would ask you why Monsanto and the other backers of Golden Rice have failed to produce this research? Pubmed has a bunch of studies going back to the early 2000s but none of them are implementation trails; the IRRI has a statement that there are field trials of the rice in the Philippines and Bangladesh but that statement is from 2014, and there have been no robust implementation trials since. I found a study on pubmed of willingness of Philippine rice farmers to use GR and their main concern was yield and marketability (not connected with GM concerns – they didn’t have any) – could it be that the current strains of GR are too low yield for rice farmers to want to try? (They have other costs besides seed, after all). Or could it be that the rice colour is a problem in marketability?

There is so much more to a nutritional intervention than just “it contains the necessary chemicals so it will work.” You always have to consider the role of breast feeding, diarrhoea, protein-energy malnutrition, other micronutrient problems, and feeding practices before you know whether an ostensibly effective intervention will work. The WHO website on VAD says that it costs a few cents a day to supplement a diet, and that this in conjunction with breast feeding and measles vaccination has reduced VAD significantly. The WHO website also points to the need to diversify and strengthen diets generally (not just through supplementation). Before GR can work in place of these existing interventions we need evidence it will do anything at all, be practical, and be cheaper. We don’t have any and despite the product being hyped for years (at least 15!) there are no implementation studies – other golden products, and other non-GMO products, have already been trialed in the field and GR hasn’t.

Has it occurred to you that the reason the product is not in use is, in fact, that the product isn’t good enough?

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ZM 01.16.17 at 10:38 am

This article says that Vitamin A deficiency is so pronounced due to policy makers moving from trying to improve access to more foods meeting nutritional needs, to an approach from 1990 that was in favour of deploying Vitamin A supplements instead of improving access to foods, and for 25 years this supplement approach has been the main approach and it hasn’t worked.

The article concludes:

“Having worked for years with vitamin A and with conventional food fortification, I am convinced that golden rice will never solve any nutrition problem outside of situations in which people are pressured or bribed into using it.

Most people in the world are hesitant to accept even very minor changes in the appearance of rice caused by the less expensive conventional fortification technology (the addition of a small number of cold-extruded grains made from rice flour and nutrients, usually slightly off color).

The enormous investment that would be required to get hundreds of millions of low-income consumers to switch to rice with a bright yellow color could better be spent in poverty alleviation per se!

Perhaps the best example to date of a country that has largely eradicated hunger and malnutrition via government effort (rather than just by making economic progress) is Brazil. Its Fome Zero program of the past decade, among many other approaches, offers a monthly stipend, a conditional cash transfer, to all poor families.

Moving cash into depressed areas works. All the nearby small business owners benefit hugely. The big companies quickly figure out what the poor want to buy and gear up to sell it to them. Even the IMF is starting to realize that recent evidence ”tilt[s] the balance towards the notion that attention to inequality can bring significant longer-run benefits for growth.””

https://www.thesolutionsjournal.com/article/a-solution-for-vitamin-a-deficiency/

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Brett Dunbar 01.16.17 at 3:34 pm

Faustusnotes is demonstrating the exact style of argument used by AGW denailists.

The website you cited doesn’t support your claim. It actually supports mine. Herbicide resistance in weeds is a consequence of using the herbicide. It is a case of natural selection and occurs when any herbicide is in widespread use. The fact that the mutation in the crop producing glyphosate tolerance is GM rather than a spontaneous or mutagen induced trait is irrelevant to the spontaneous advantageous mutation in the weed species.

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Will Boisvert 01.17.17 at 4:19 am

@ Faustusnotes 52,

1. The latest varieties of Golden Rice have six times as much b-carotene by weight as the casava in the study you referenced, so they might do better at improving serum retinol concentrations.

The study by Tang et al, “Golden Rice is an Effective Source of Vitamin A” in Am J Clin Nutrition, fed deuterium-labelled GR to volunteers and studied its bioconversion into VA. They found that 100 grams of GR dry weight per day would give an adult 55-70 percent of their VA RDA, so fairly effective as a VA delivery vehicle.

The retracted study you referred to was also by Tang, a similar study in children. It found that a 50 gram per day GR diet would give kids 60 percent of their VA RDA, so again pretty effective. That paper was retracted because the authors failed to get signed consent forms for 2 of the kids, which lapse fell afoul of ethics strictures. (It probably became an issue when parents found out their kids were fed GMO rice and freaked out.) There is no indication that the study’s findings were suspect.

All the special factors you cite could indeed limit the effectiveness of GR in alleviating VAD in some settings. But it might also work quite well among people for whom those factors aren’t limiting; no way to know without large-scale experiments. Why rule it out just because it involves GM?

2. “For Golden Rice to be recommended as an intervention (rather than just a boutique Monsanto project) it needs to show safety, efficacy, practicality and cost-effectiveness, and it has shown none of these.”

FN, it’s a food, not a drug; just a more nutritious variety of rice. All it has to do is be safe and yummy, which it is. (Whether health deparments should urge the public to buy it is a separate question that should wait on studies.)

3. “I would ask you why Monsanto and the other backers of Golden Rice have failed to produce this research?… could it be that the current strains of GR are too low yield for rice farmers to want to try? (They have other costs besides seed, after all). Or could it be that the rice colour is a problem in marketability?”

Yes, the original GR strains are not adapted to conditions in the developing world, so they have bad yields there. IRRI is trying to breed the golden genes into rice varieties adapted to local conditions, and that takes time. Maybe they will succeed, maybe not.

As for color, I don’t know, GR looks kind of pretty to me. I’ve eaten rice dishes that were golden because they were prepared with yellow / orange spices. Didn’t put anyone off their feed. I think people are adaptable and will take up a new food if there’s a good reason, but who knows.

4. “Before GR can work in place of these existing interventions we need evidence it will do anything at all, be practical, and be cheaper.”

Again, this is a non-sequitur. Just because GR is grown doesn’t mean governments stop existing interventions, especially since almost all of them are aimed at general improvements in nutrition and health, of which VAD is just one aspect. The dietary supplements you favor do not displace breast-feeding programs or infant diarrhea treatments, so why would Golden Rice do that?

And no, we don’t need evidence that it will do anything or be practical or be cheaper before we release it. Even if it doesn’t cure VAD, it will still give people a more nutritious meal, likely at the same price as ordinary rice.

5. “Has it occurred to you that the reason the product is not in use is, in fact, that the product isn’t good enough?”

Yes, and the existing GR varieties do need improvement. But I think it’s naïve to imagine that the extreme political controversy surrounding GMOs—protests, vitriolic denunciations from green NGOs, vandalism of test fields—have not impeded GR. One serious barrier, for example, is the near universal ban on GMOs in Europe. Many farmers in the developing world want improved GMO seeds, but don’t have them because their governments worry that Europe will ban food imports from countries that raise GMO crops.

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faustusnotes 01.17.17 at 5:25 am

Will, the results of Tang’s 2009 study are certainly encouraging but, again, simply because a product appears to boost vitamin A in the lab doesn’t mean it will work as an intervention. Now, it’s true that Monsanto could just release the rice for farmers to use as they see fit, but that doesn’t mean the product is going to be recommended as a VAD intervention – to recommend it as a VAD intervention it has to prove it works.

I note now you’re admitting that the GR that pro-GMO folks have been making such a fuss about for the past 15 years is not actually viable. Have you considered that the reason golden rice isn’t widely used in the food chain, while golden mustard and golden cassava are, is that it isn’t good enough for farmers or the people who might want to eat it? Putting aside the fact that many areas affected by VAD don’t eat rice, it’s entirely possible that it’s not a viable crop for farmers to grow even if they get the seeds for free.

(And also, getting the seeds for free is not a viable intervention – it’s not sustainable. Improving food markets so that poor people can afford a decent diet, and improving water and sewage systems so their children don’t get chronic diarrhoea, is sustainable).

I’m willing to accept that the “extreme political controversy” affected GR – but why not also golden mustard and other GM organisms for VAD? I think you need to consider the possibility that this controversy is a very convenient excuse for the failure to develop a quality product.

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Will Boisvert 01.18.17 at 12:22 am

FN 56,

1. “Will, the results of Tang’s 2009 study are certainly encouraging but, again, simply because a product appears to boost vitamin A in the lab doesn’t mean it will work as an intervention.”

But it does mean we should build on the “encouraging” results to see whether we can get a GR version that works in the field.

2.“ Now, it’s true that Monsanto could just release the rice for farmers to use as they see fit, but that doesn’t mean the product is going to be recommended as a VAD intervention – to recommend it as a VAD intervention it has to prove it works….”

Monsanto doesn’t own GR. It’s owned by a non-profit partnered with Syngenta. IRRI says it won’t be released unless it reaches competitive yields (obviously) and until the studies show it helps alleviate VAD, but the latter is a stupid stricture. GR is just a more nutritious variety of rice, period. Why would anyone object to to marketing it for any reason?

3. “I note now you’re admitting that the GR that pro-GMO folks have been making such a fuss about for the past 15 years is not actually viable.”

Not quite, I said (in my first comment) that GR might not pan out; the main obstacle now is crossing the GR genes into varieties adapted to Asian locales. If that goes well then GR could be quite viable.

4. “Have you considered that the reason golden rice isn’t widely used in the food chain, while golden mustard and golden cassava are, is that it isn’t good enough for farmers or the people who might want to eat it?”

Golden cassava has been introduced, but I don’t think it’s a GM cassava; it’s bred conventionally from yellow cassava varieties (as was the cassava in the study you cited). Biofortification by traditional breeding techniques does not spark green political opposition, so it’s easier to introduce it.

I don’t know that “golden mustard” has been widely introduced, if you mean GM carotene-biofortified mustard. Companies are trying to introduce a GM mustard in India, but the press reports make no mention of it being carotene-biofortified. The GM mustard has faced the usual hysterical political opposition, with lawsuits and protests delaying approval and miring it in the courts. No doubt if a carotene-biofortified GM mustard were introduced in India, it would face similar political obstacles.

Yes, golden rice varieties need to be improved so they get yields comparable to existing local varieties; that challenge may or may not be overcome. As for it not being “good enough” for people to eat, nah, I don’t buy it. It would be exactly the same as local varieties except for the nice color, and Asians eat yellow-colored rice dishes all the time.

5. “Putting aside the fact that many areas affected by VAD don’t eat rice…”

…is like putting aside the fact that billions of people in areas affected by VAD eat rice every day.

6. “And also, getting the seeds for free is not a viable intervention – it’s not sustainable. Improving food markets so that poor people can afford a decent diet, and improving water and sewage systems so their children don’t get chronic diarrhoea, is sustainable.”

Farmers won’t get the seeds for free, they will get the *GR genes* for free. They won’t pay any licensing fees for the genes or the IP of companies who own technology used to develop the GR. They will still have to pay the normal market price for the rice. IRRI’s plan is to breed GR into local varieties such that they are identical except for the GR genes; then they will sell the GR seed at the same price the original non-GR seed would fetch. The farmers will then own all rights to the seed and can reuse it as much as they want. Indeed, the IRRI plan would give many farmer sovereignty over their seed inputs, something GM opponents champion.

All the alternatives you suggest are crucial measures, but the notion that they are more “sustainable” than GR is nonsense. Rice cultivation is probably the most sustainable activity humans engage in, as thousands of years of history prove.

7. FN, the basic logic you’re following here is bizarre: GR hasn’t worked well so far, therefore it can’t be made to work well in the future, therefore we should ban it. This string of non-sequiturs isn’t too compelling.

You really should reconsider your position. Regardless of whether GR pans out or not, it’s worth developing it to the fullest to see if it can help (as is GM technology in general). That’s progress; to oppose it is reaction.

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