Sunday, 13 November 2016

Politics and Science

or "Garbage in, Garbage Out"

This post bears on the "reality based" part of my "reality based approach to life in the age of scarcity". I am a fairly odd (and rare) bird in that my position is midway between two extremes —Business as Usual and Crunchiness. I spoke about this at some length in a series of posts that starts here. But in brief, I think that the business as usual world is headed straight for a collision with the material limits of the finite planet we are living on. Our system is fundamentally flawed and the attempts we are making to fix it are doomed to failure —it's going to gradually fall apart over the next few decades. At the same time I believe that the material world we live in is all there is and the scientific method is our best tool for understanding how it works. I think that the current scientific consensus is valid and the alternative ideas subscribed to by so many Crunchies are little more than nonsense. So I am neither a techno-optimist nor a technophobe, but somewhere in between.

If you happen to share this viewpoint, drop me a note in the comments. It would be heartening to know that I am not alone.

But back to the subject of this post —politics and science. I keep hearing people complaining that science doesn't give us the information we need to make political decisions. Then, practically in the same breath, they trot out some supposed "scientific facts" to support their ideas. It very often turns out that those facts run counter to the current scientific consensus. So it seems that what science really doesn't provide is "facts" to support their position, so it has to be replaced with pseudoscience that will deliver the necessary "facts".

The trouble with this is that the old computer programming adage —garbage in, garbage out —applies to politics. If political decisions are based on convenient lies, then the results will not be good.

I have to admit that this post is primarily written as a negative response to some things that John Michael Greer (one of my favourite bloggers) said in one of his recent posts. He's been blogging for over 10 years and I've only caught him in a small handful of what I consider to be errors. In most areas we pretty much agree, so what I am doing here is far from a wholesale debunking of Greer. But it does illustrate what I have said before: that people are not all of one piece —each of us holds some opinions that are rock solid and others that are complete nonsense. The trick is to keep the latter to a minimum by letting go of them as soon as you realize what they are.

I'll get back to Greer in a bit, but first let me say a little about the roles of science and pseudoscience in politics.

First we need to understand the term "scientific consensus" and along with it a bit about how science works.

Science does not prove things in the strict sense that mathematics does, nor does it offer absolute truths in the sense that religion claims to. A scientific consensus is not something you get by polling scientists to see what the majority opinion is. Rather a scientific consensus is a consensus of evidence and tells us what is likely to be true based on that evidence.

A scientist forms a hypothesis (has an idea) about how some aspect of the world works. He then gathers evidence which may support or oppose his idea and more importantly, suggests how he might refine it to better reflect reality. This might result in the idea being thrown out altogether or, hopefully, in gathering more evidence and making more revisions until the idea is so well supported by the evidence that it becomes an accepted theory, and eventually "scientific fact". It is then part of the scientific consensus. Even then, further evidence may well be found calling for further refinements.

Many people are unsatisfied with the provisional nature of scientific knowledge. But it provides the best information we can get to make decisions about the real world, and it is completely honest about how accurate (or inaccurate) that information is. So I don't think science is the problem.

The trouble is that there is so much misinformation going around these days that people regularly get away with using whatever sort of nonsense they like to support their positions. Huge controversies rage on, about issues where the science has been clear for years, but special interest groups keep pushing a non-evidence-based agenda. But for those who understand that science, many political decisions follow more or less obviously from the facts.

Of course it is true that political decisions are usually based mainly on interests and values. Interests are simply who benefits from a decision and who get stuck paying for it. Many people are involved in politics solely because they want to make sure their interests are taken care of. Values are about moral judgments, what's good for society, the rights that people should have and so forth. And again, many people are involved in politics because they'd like to further their values.

But objective reality also matters —you can't determine what will best serve your interests, or advance your values, without a firm grip on that reality. There may have been a time in the past when any well educated person had an adequate grasp of the facts to make good political decisions. But in our more complex modern world a solid grounding in science and technology is needed as well. Sadly, many people don't have that and end up being fooled by smooth talking salesmen and politicians.

Anyway, I don't think anyone seriously questions that the scientific method is the most powerful tool we have for understanding the material world. Indeed this is why misinformation is regularly dressed up in pseudoscientific drag to give it credibility.

There is a great deal of difference, though, between a scientist surveying the literature looking for direction in his research and an ideologue cherry picking bits of evidence from that literature to support his position. I think it's very important to understand just what that difference is.

The scientist works in a very competitive environment and knows that whatever he publishes will be exposed to rigorous examination and criticism by other scientists who are well informed about the state of the art. If his research can't stand up to that criticism his career is in jeopardy. So he is looking not just for confirmation of what he already believes, but also needs to be keenly aware of whatever runs counter to it.

The ideologue is looking for information which supports his position. He most certainly will ignore evidence that does not do so. Further, he is quite willing to distort the evidence and to take it out of context if that's what is necessary. He may well be willing to outright lie. He is aware that the general public, who are his audience, don't have the skills or the depth of knowledge to catch him out in this. He also knows that if some scientist calls him out, he can accuse that scientist of being biased —a shill for the industry —and the public will be only too eager to accept those accusations.

It is also important to bear in mind that many of the people who I'm calling "ideologues" have something to sell beyond just an idea. Maybe they'd like to charge you a stiff fee for a speaking engagement or sell you a copy of their book. Go to their website and check if there is a "store". If they are offering medical or dietary advice, it's likely that the heart of their idea comes down to you buying their products or services.

Under these conditions, the proliferation of pseudoscience is rampant. A lie, as they say, is half way around the world before the truth gets its shoes tied. And in the process, the lie has probably made somebody of lot of money.

But let's back up a minute. Isn't it also true that scientists, being human, do occasionally engage in unethical behaviour? Yes, of course it is. There are also times when they are just plain wrong and very stubborn about admitting it. And on occasion the other scientists who are supposed to be checking on them are asleep at the switch and bad research slips through and gets published.

Sometime later this comes to light and it does nothings for the public's confidence in science. But I would draw your attention to who it is that is uncovering these scandals —other scientists, who in the normal process of reviewing research or trying to duplicate it, find that there is something wrong. That is very much the way that it is supposed to work, and to me, quite reassuring.

Now it also happen that new evidence, or an improved interpretation of the old evidence, causes a drastic change in the scientific consensus. To the public this looks very suspicious, but it is in fact completely legitimate and exactly the kind of thing that we want to happen.

But let's get down to specifics. A while back, a group of Nobel Prize winning scientists wrote this letter:

To the Leaders of Greenpeace, the United Nations and Governments around the world

The United Nations Food & Agriculture Program has noted that global production of food, feed and fiber will need approximately to double by 2050 to meet the demands of a growing global population. Organizations opposed to modern plant breeding, with Greenpeace at their lead, have repeatedly denied these facts and opposed biotechnological innovations in agriculture. They have misrepresented their risks, benefits, and impacts, and supported the criminal destruction of approved field trials and research projects.

We urge Greenpeace and its supporters to re-examine the experience of farmers and consumers worldwide with crops and foods improved through biotechnology, recognize the findings of authoritative scientific bodies and regulatory agencies, and abandon their campaign against "GMOs" in general and Golden Rice in particular.

Scientific and regulatory agencies around the world have repeatedly and consistently found crops and foods improved through biotechnology to be as safe as, if not safer than those derived from any other method of production. There has never been a single confirmed case of a negative health outcome for humans or animals from their consumption. Their environmental impacts have been shown repeatedly to be less damaging to the environment, and a boon to global biodiversity.

Greenpeace has spearheaded opposition to Golden Rice, which has the potential to reduce or eliminate much of the death and disease caused by a vitamin A deficiency (VAD), which has the greatest impact on the poorest people in Africa and Southeast Asia.

The World Health Organization estimates that 250 million people suffer from VAD, including 40 percent of the children under five in the developing world. Based on UNICEF statistics, a total of one to two million preventable deaths occur annually as a result of VAD, because it compromises the immune system, putting babies and children at great risk. VAD itself is the leading cause of childhood blindness globally affecting 250,000 - 500,000 children each year. Half die within 12 months of losing their eyesight.

WE CALL UPON GREENPEACE to cease and desist in its campaign against Golden Rice specifically, and crops and foods improved through biotechnology in general;

WE CALL UPON GOVERNMENTS OF THE WORLD to reject Greenpeace's campaign against Golden Rice specifically, and crops and foods improved through biotechnology in general; and to do everything in their power to oppose Greenpeace's actions and accelerate the access of farmers to all the tools of modern biology, especially seeds improved through biotechnology. Opposition based on emotion and dogma contradicted by data must be stopped.

How many poor people in the world must die before we consider this a "crime against humanity"?

Click here for a full list of signatories...

There are currently 121 names of famous and respected scientists on the list but of course that does not make it a scientific consensus. It is evident, though, that the people on the list are well aware of the scientific consensus on genetic engineering, and I'd say they've done a good job of putting it across.

This letter prompted John Michael Geer to write a post entitled "Scientific Education as a Cause of Political Stupidity". After re-reading Greer's post, I have to say it is even worse than I remembered, but I'll concentrate here on a few particularly significant parts.

What he has to say is based first on some of the most ridiculous stereotypes of engineers and scientists, and second, on some of the unfortunate misinformation that is circulating about genetic engineering.

Those stereotypes would have us believe that engineers and scientists are bumbling geeks, brilliant in their own narrow and focused area of expertise, but woefully lacking in social skills or political acumen. Greer offers some amusing anecdotes to support these stereotypes, but no real evidence in any scientific sense. My experience runs very much counter to what Greer is saying about such people, but I won't insult your intelligence by offering anecdotes as proof.

Greer also spends quite a bit of time talking about the role of interests and values in politics, but it seems to me that he really doesn't get that thing about objective reality mattering. He is big on history, but I would say that since history is about past events in the real world it should, in the widest sense, be seen as a type of scientific consensus.

Anyway, Greer then goes on to dismiss the thoughts of those Nobel Laureates on the value of Golden Rice:

There are, as it happens, serious questions of value and interest surrounding the genetically engineered rice under discussion. It’s been modified so that it produces vitamin A, which other strains of rice don’t have, and thus will help prevent certain kinds of blindness —that’s one side of the conflict of values. On the other side, most seed rice in the Third World is saved from the previous year’s crop, not purchased from seed suppliers, and the marketing of the GMO rice thus represents yet another means for a big multinational corporation to pump money out of the pockets of some of the poorest people on earth to enrich stockholders in the industrial world. There are many other ways to get vitamin A to people in the Third World, but you won’t find those being discussed by Nobel laureates —nor, of course, are any of the open letter’s signatories leading a campaign to raise enough money to buy the patent for the GMO rice and donate it to the United Nations, let’s say, so poor Third World farmers can benefit from the rice without having to spend money they don’t have in order to pay for it.

I have to give Greer full credit for being honest enough to admit the plain fact that golden rice can help prevent Vitamin A deficiency (VAD), which is a major cause of blindness in poor people for whom rice is a staple. He is wrong that Golden Rice produces Vitamin A — it actually produces beta carotene, which is turned into Vitamin A in our bodies.

But he proceeds to go much further astray than that —I suspect because he has been listening to the standard anti-GMO party line without checking out the facts for himself. If he had done so, and it is not hard to do, he would have found that the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board has the right to sublicense breeding institutions in developing countries free of charge. And Golden Rice breeds true, so those who wish to save seed from this year's crop to plant next year's will be free to do so at no extra expense and without fear of any legal battles. There is no need to buy the patent as Greer suggests. Those "nasty biotech companies" who owned the various patents involved voluntarily made them available for humanitarian reasons.

The largest population in the developing world who live almost exclusively off rice are not farmers, but the urban poor. If the farmers who grow rice commercially for sale to those folks were growing Golden Rice, it would easily solve the VAD problem and eliminate a great deal of suffering. Without those farmers having to worry about any restrictions on saving seed or paying a premium to buy the special seed.

As Greer says, there are other ways of treating Vitamin A deficiency, but...

Golden Rice has the potential to complement existing efforts that seek to reduce blindness and other VAD induced diseases. Those efforts include industrial fortification of basic foodstuffs with vitamin A, distribution of vitamin supplements, and increasing consumption of other foods rich in vitamin A. Those programs are successful mainly in urban areas but still around 45% of children around the world are not reached by supplementation programs. Moreover, these programs are not economically sustainable. Small countries, like Nepal or Ghana, require about 2 million dollars every year to run the campaigns, in spite of the negligible cost of the vitamin A capsules. A large country like India cannot afford to run country-wide programs, because the costs become prohibitive. There is no guarantee that donors and governments will be able to carry on funding those programs year after year (UNICEF, Micronutrient Initiative). Biofortified crops, like Golden Rice offer a long-term sustainable solution, because they do not require recurrent and complicated logistic arrangements once they have been deployed.

Check out these links for further information:
Vitamin A Deficiency-Related Disorders (VADD),
How white is my rice? Colour: Deterrent or selling argument?

Of particular interest to those of us who expect a collapse of industrial civilization, Golden Rice is a collapse proof solution which will go on working even when the technology it took to develop it is no longer available. And because somebody is sure to bring it up, let us be clear that the initial problem with low yields (compared to regular rice) have been solved.

Greer stops talking about GMOs and golden rice at that point, having completely failed to explain just what it was that those 121 Nobel Laureates said that was so stupid. A clear case here of "garbage in, garbage out", even though John Michael's thinking is usually pretty solid.

Whenever you see pseudoscience being successfully promoted, you can bet the propaganda campaign is being financed by people who stand to lose a lot of money if the scientific facts were accepted by the politicians and the public they represent.

This was shockingly obvious when the tobacco companies tried to convince us that their product was safe, when it had been clear for years that it was a serious health hazard. Anthropogenic climate change is similar —the science has been clear for decades at this point, but the fossil fuel industries and many wealthy industrialist would have us believe otherwise because they stand to lose so much if we quit using fossil fuels. It may not be quite so clear where the anti-vaccine and anti-science-based-medicine movement comes from, but it's much easier to understand once you realize that the multi-billion dollar alternative medicine industry stands to gain a great deal by scaring people away from conventional medicine.

In the case of GMOs, it's the organic foods industry ( a multi-billion dollar a year sector of the economy) who stand to gain if they can scare people away from GMO based food and conventionally grown food in general.

I'm not saying, by the way, that John Michael Greer was paid to say what he said about Golden Rice—far from it. But once a body of misinformation like this gets going it picks up a lot of free support.

Now I imagine many of the crunchier folks reading this are just dying to tell me how I've got it all wrong about "GMOs" and conventional agriculture. Don't even bother to start —I used to agree with you but after a closer examination of the evidence I changed my mind. Now I actually see genetic engineering as a technology with a lot of promise in addressing the challenges we are facing. As for agriculture (both conventional and organic), yes, there are many problems and as yet relatively few answers.

I think it's high time that I spent a post or two discussing those issues....


RobM said...

Hello. I recently found your blog and have been working through your older posts. I am very impressed! I was going to introduce myself after finishing your catalog but you asked for comments so here I am.

We seem to share beliefs and have a common understanding of what is going on in the world and what is likely to happen in the future.

You write a lot about the misguided beliefs held by many people. I too am fascinated by this topic but have come at it from a different angle. I subscribe to a theory by Ajit Varki and Danny Brower that the human species was enabled by a rare double mutation for increased brain power and denial of reality. For me this theory provides a plausible explanation for the uniqueness of humans and the insanity I see everywhere.

If you are interested in learning more about evolved denial I write about it here:

As an aside, I agree with your views on GMOs but I also saw an example of denial in the opening sentence of the letter from the 121 scientists you quoted: "The United Nations Food & Agriculture Program has noted that global production of food, feed and fiber will need approximately to double by 2050 to meet the demands of a growing global population."

Life is replicators competing for resources. The population of any species grows until it consumes all of the available resources necessary for its survival. Resources do not grow to support population. Those scientists should know better and should be advocating population reduction instead.

Irv Mills said...

Great to hear from you Rob, both here and on Facebook.
I had a quick look at your blog--looks good, will read more soon.
It seems to me that once you get intelligence, denial is inevitable--a self defense mechanism in some ways.
And I agree that the idea we can double food production by 2050 is bizarre. My gut feeling is that the UN's population predictions are unrealistic (too high), but I don't have any real proof to support that opinion.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Irv, thoughtful as usual. I'm not sure where I stand on the technophobe/technophile axis, so I'll leave that one for now. Re the golden rice thing, and this quote from Greer (whom I regularly read as well):
"Biofortified crops, like Golden Rice offer a long-term sustainable solution, because they do not require recurrent and complicated logistic arrangements once they have been deployed."

Whether you like GMO's or not, I'm surprised that Greer thinks golden rice is sustainable. Surely he knows that if you produce a food item that allows more people to survive (and breed) then you are going to have a population problem and overshoot eventually. Not what I'd call a sustainable solution.

I've thought about the sustainability crisis as it's called and it's my view that all agriculture is unsustainable, because it allows more food to be available than the environment would provide naturally and that will eventually lead to population growth, overshoot and collapse. In other words hunter-gathering was the only sustainable human lifestyle. There seems to be a feeling that because we've got more and more people we need to keep growing more food for them, but that just creates more people. Everything is back-to-front.

Have also had a look at Rob's blog and will enjoy getting further into it.

MargoBisbee said...

Long term Skeptic/collapsnic here. Glad to see you repping Neurologica in some of your older post.

RobM said...

Just to clarify. Varki's theory says something quite different than your understanding. You say denial is inevitable after evolving intelligence. Varki makes a very persuasive case, which I believe to be true, that you cannot have intelligence without simultaneously evolving denial. The double mutation is improbable and explains why no other species has come close to evolving our brain power despite being subject to the same laws and forces of natural selection. It also explains many other things including why the archeological record shows we invented after death stories at the same time we became intelligent. Denial is everywhere you care to look. Denial made us human.

Irv Mills said...

foodnstuff, Greer has made guardedly positive comments about genetic engineering on a number of occasions. This is very much to his credit, from where I stand. Don't know what got into him on the occasion I was going on about in my post.
Not sure if I agree with your take on sustainability. Seems to me culture is the problem, not the technology. And maybe RobM is right about denial, but I think we can replace civilization with something less destructive and find a sustainable way to live on the planet at a "higher" level than that of hunter gatherers. Obviously, "higher" isn't quite the right word there.
But first, of course, we have to get our population down to a fraction of its current level. I don't think we have to worry about figuring how to get people to do this voluntarily. It's going to happen soon and very much be forced upon us by collapse.
Afterwards, nature will recover. And because the fossil fuels will be essentially gone by then, we won't have the opportunity to re-make many of the mistakes we've made in the last couple of centuries. Lots of other mistakes to be made, though. Sigh....

Irv Mills said...

MargoBrisbee, I like "skeptic collapsnik" -- exactly where I am coming from. Steve Novella does good work on Neurologica.