Stick to Physics

xjrf95-neil-degrasse-tyson-cosmos-gif-gbfaThe stranger promises to return. They both know they’ll never see each other again. Alone now, and before he puts out the lamp, [Jorge Luis Borges’s] Paracelsus scoops up the ashes and utters a single word in a low voice. And in his hands the rose springs back to life.Roberto Bolaño (2004)

Neil deGrasse Tyson has parlayed his sudden Cosmos fame into succinct and biting critiques of anti-intellectualisms of a variety of stars and stripes.

On creationist notions of the age of the universe,

If the universe were only 6,500 years old, how could we see the light from anything more distant than the Crab Nebula? We couldn’t. There wouldn’t have been enough time for the light to get to Earth from anywhere farther away than 6,500 light years in any direction. That’s just enough time for light to travel a tiny portion of our Milky Way galaxy.

On climate denialism,

Abe Lincoln would turn in his grave if he knew that his descendants, his political descendants — if I remember correctly, Abe Lincoln was Republican — were cherry-picking scientific results. I don’t know what he would say. I’m pretty sure he’d be disappointed.

But recently the astrophysicist may have bitten off more than he can chew, taking critics of genetically modified organisms to task,

I’m amazed how much objection genetically modified foods are receiving from the public. It smacks of the fear factor that exists at every new emergent science, where people don’t fully understand it or don’t fully know or embrace its consequences, and therefore reject it. What most people don’t know, but they should, is that practically every food you buy in a store for consumption by humans is genetically modified food.

There are no wild seedless watermelons; there’s no wild cows; there’s no long-stem roses growing in the wild — although we don’t eat roses. You list all the fruit, and all the vegetables, and ask yourself: Is there a wild counterpart to this? If there is, it’s not as large, it’s not as sweet, it’s not as juicy, and it has way more seeds in it.

We have systematically genetically modified all the foods, the vegetables and animals, that we have eaten ever since we cultivated them. It’s called “artificial selection.” That’s how we genetically modify them. So now that we can do it in a lab, all of a sudden you’re going to complain?

If you’re the complainer type, go back and eat the apples that grow wild. You know something? They’re this big, and they’re tart. They’re not sweet, like Red Delicious apples. We manufactured those. That’s a genetic modification.

Do you realize silk cannot be produced in the wild? The silkworm, as we cultivate it, has no wild counterpart because it would die in the wild. So there’s not even any silk anymore. So we are creating and modifying the biology of the world to serve our needs. I don’t have a problem with that, cause we’ve been doing that for tens of thousands of years. So chill out.

Tyson engages in the kind of historical reification we critiqued here, in this case as an inverse of the appeal to nature. The problems of yesteryear’s agriculture do not serve as a rationale for the failures of today’s. Nor, in an era of bis(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate and pentachloronitrobenzene, is all that is “natural” by definition bad (and all things anthropogenic good).

It’s a condescending scientism making the rounds. According to the boosterist editors of Scientific American,

We have been tinkering with our food’s DNA since the dawn of agriculture. By selectively breeding pants and animals with the most desirable traits, our predecessors transformed organisms’ genomes, turning a scraggly grass into plump-kerneled corn, for example.

The false equivalence across regimes of cultivation also misses the lengths to which capitalist agriculture sacrifices use value for surplus value. The agribusiness sector increasingly changes its commodities–living, breathing organisms–to suit quarterly margins regardless of the resulting damage to consumer physiology and the greater ecology in which we are all embedded.

An alarming array of processed food passes more for self-medicating stress than as nutrition. And the global spread of metabolic disorders such as morbid obesity and diabetes has been increasingly linked to industrial foods.

The regulatory agencies tasked with protecting the public’s health and safety are rendered impotent by targeted budget cuts. The Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture are staffed by way of a revolving door with the industries they ostensibly regulate.

The resulting modes of failure, oft-executed to perfection, extend to genetically modified organisms.

Early this year Mother Jones’s Tom Philpott wrote of a reversal the USDA took on a new Dow Agrosciences seed. With Roundup selecting for weed resistance across the American Midwest and South, Dow introduced corn and soy that can now withstand Roundup and 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, an older and toxic herbicide (and an ingredient in Dow’s Agent Orange).

After vehement criticism from environmental groups worried about the 2,4-D’s effects on land and waterways alike, the USDA slowed down its initial green light of the chemical’s use on grown crops, only to issue a draft environmental impact statement recommending it.

“Why did the USDA switch,” Philpott writes,

from “may significantly affect the quality of the human environment” to a meek call for deregulation? As the USDA itself admits in its Friday press release, the department ultimately assesses new GMO crops through an extremely narrow lens: whether or not they act as a “pest” to other plants—that is, they’ll withhold approval only if the crops themselves, and not the herbicide tsunami and upsurge in resistant weeds they seem set to bring forth, pose a threat to other plants.

If by its Talmudic sophistry not the government, perhaps other scientists can double-check biotech?

As an earlier and more circumspect Scientific American editorial contradicted, flagging the mag’s more recent reversal, agribusinesses long blocked independent health assessments of new GMO variants,

[I]t is impossible to verify that genetically modified crops perform as advertised. That is because agritech companies have given themselves veto power over the work of independent researchers.

To purchase genetically modified seeds, a customer must sign an agreement that limits what can be done with them. (If you have installed software recently, you will recognize the concept of the end-user agreement.) Agreements are considered necessary to protect a company’s intellectual property, and they justifiably preclude the replication of the genetic enhancements that make the seeds unique. But agritech companies such as Monsanto, Pioneer and Syngenta go further. For a decade their user agreements have explicitly forbidden the use of the seeds for any independent research. Under the threat of litigation, scientists cannot test a seed to explore the different conditions under which it thrives or fails. They cannot compare seeds from one company against those from another company. And perhaps most important, they cannot examine whether the genetically modified crops lead to unintended environmental side effects.

Research on genetically modified seeds is still published, of course. But only studies that the seed companies have approved ever see the light of a peer-reviewed journal.

More recently, opportunities to study GMOs have been opened, or from another vantage limited, to vetted researchers whose home institutions submit to an additional licensing agreement–at present only a handful of land-grant universities that have largely abandoned smallholders for agribusiness R&D.

In the course of crushing shotgun geneticist Craig Venter on golden rice, Farming Pathogen frenemy Nassim Taleb–no green hippie–put the failures to characterize such possible health effects, structurally embedded in the present system, as favoring alternatives with controlled and known side effects,

Now, for mathematical reasons (a mechanism called the “Lindy Effect”), linked to the relationship between time and fragility, mother nature is vastly “wiser” so to speak than humans, as time has a lot of value in detecting what is breakable and what is not. Time is also a bullshit detector. Nothing humans have introduced in modern times has made us unconditionally better without unpredictable side effects, and ones that are usually detected with considerable delays (transfats, steroids, tobacco, Thalidomide, etc.)

[GMO] risk is not local. Invoking the risk of “famine” is a poor strategy, no different from urging people to play Russian roulette in order to get out of poverty. And calling the GMO approach “scientific” betrays a very poor — indeed warped — understanding of probabilistic payoffs and risk management.

In effect, the alarmist Natural News pseudoscience against which Tyson appears to be reacting doesn’t tuck in GMOs’ own margins of error, which are left dangling by a failure of the due diligence Cosmos argued differentiates science from competing metaphysics.

Indeed, if GMOs are being used primarily for selling pesticides and boxing smallholders out of crop markets, circumstances neither healthy nor safe, nor related to food per se, rejecting such biotechnologies as a class turns into an eminently defensible position. We can refuse them regardless of these technologies’ potential applications in a socialist republic that as yet doesn’t exist.

In contrast, and in the face of his assurances ‘it’s about the science,’ Tyson errs in favor of GMOs as a matter of economic principle,

In a free market capitalist society, which we have all “bought” into here in America, if somebody invents something that has market value, they ought to be able to make as much money as they can selling it, provided they do not infringe the rights of others. I see no reason why food should not be included in this concept.

We needn’t snark Tyson should stick to physics. We shouldn’t. It’s great he’s upholding the kinds of social engagement few scientists in an era of shrinking funding are able, or choose, to partake. Here’s Tyson at a Center for Inquiry panel addressing a question about Clintonite and former Harvard president Larry Summers’ remarks on women in science.

But if evolutionary biologist and Tyson’s fellow panelist Richard Dawkins’s trajectory couldn’t make it clearer, the notion an era-specific scientific methodology is framework enough to explain the world is a dubious contention.

“Date rape is bad,” Dawkins recently tweeted, 140 characters he claims spooling right out of deepest neopositivist empiricism,

Stranger rape at knifepoint is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of date rape, go away and learn how to think.

UPDATE. We’ve long been Neil deGrasse Tyson fans here, faithfully posting links to his missives on the FP Facebook page. But this GMO kerfuffle knocks him down a peg or two. His “nuanced” follow-up clarification days later–“Everything I said is factual”–is as flippantly patronizing as the original vid.

Indeed, Tyson’s elaboration sums up to a defense of capitalist agriculture, a conflation of historical eras and agricultural regimens, an equivocation on non-perennial seed stock, a refusal to acknowledge the FDA’s capture, and in demanding opponents separate GMO biology from its societal origins–in actuality they are a composite object–an attempt to segregate the practice of science from society. 

As developmental biologist Kamil Ahsan describes it, Tyson’s is a telling botch of broad implication,

[I]t is astonishing when defenders of science lump together global-warming-denying conservatives, anti-GMO activists, and grassroots environmental activists, treating each as disturbingly anti-science. This simplistic analysis is rooted in the arrogant assumption that science is somehow above criticism — indeed, that it’s above politics entirely.

Call it the “New Scientism,” in which discussions of science policy consist of pundits vaguely pointing to “a body of research” instead of engaging the broader public, in which calling into question conflicts of interest inimical to scientific inquiry is treated, perversely, as anti-science.

4 Responses to “Stick to Physics”

  1. Reblogged this on Serendipity: Life is a Garden and commented:
    Excellent piece on flawed arguments GMO biotech proponents use against GMO critics.

  2. Reblogged this on AgroEcoPeople and commented:
    Excellent analysis of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s recent foray into commenting on GMOs.

  3. […] “Stick to Physics”, on how Neil deGrasse Tyson’s comments misunderstand the nature GMOs, by evolutionary biologist Rob Wallace: […]

  4. […] Monsanto. Even the ostensibly neutral arbiters —Tyson and Nye — have already become well-known as boosters for biotech solutions to food […]

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