Argumentum ad Monsanto

People are often hostile to science. The fruits of the scientific process–new, valid, reliable knowledge about reality–often contradict deeply-held beliefs, and these contradictions can shock the psyche. The mind tries to integrate new information with old. When that information is contradictory, we tend to reject the new information in favor of what’s already integrated, and we sometimes use logical fallacies to justify this rejection.

This self-defense mechanism of the psyche can be very useful. When our existing store of information about the world is built on reliable evidence and sound logic, we are able to spot and reject the patently ridiculous; for example, people with even a rudimentary understanding of chemistry or medicine probably won’t waste their time and money on homeopathic remedies.

On the other hand, if our existing store of knowledge is filled with horsefeathers, poppycock, and other assorted nonsense, we tend to reject information which is evidence-based and logical. And our brains will engage in all sorts of bad behavior to justify the rejection of good information when it contradicts existing bad information.

Take, for example, a certain kind of critic of genetically-modified organisms. You know the type: they’re very vocal about their vegan, gluten-free, organic, locally-sourced, free-range diet, and how “Monsatan” is threatening the very existence of life on earth with genetically-modified foods. They use scary-sounding words like “Frankenfoods” and credulously share on social media stories from sources like NaturalNews.com. Their general worldview, for which they’re relentlessly fervent partisans, seems to be that anything “natural” is good and anything “artificial” is bad. They are, to use the word precisely, zealots.

Perhaps you’ve had the dubious pleasure, as I have, of defending GMOs to these people. If so, it probably went something like this:

Anti-GMO Zealot: “Frankenfoods are untestedunsafe, and should be banned!”

You: “Actually, GMOs are the most tested crops in our food supply. Over 600 peer-reviewed studies have found no evidence that GMOs are more harmful than conventional or organic crops. In fact, organic crops have killed or sickened more people than GMO foods, the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and the BP oil spill combined.”

AZ: “All of those studies were done by Monsanto and other evil corporations who just pay scientists to say whatever they want!”

You: “Well, that’s not really true, and even if it were…”

AZ: “SHUT UP, YOU CORPORATE SHILL! HOW MUCH ARE THEY PAYING YOU TO BLOG ABOUT THIS, ANYWAY?”

This is the essence of the argumentum ad Monsanto, which is really a form of ad hominem attack: because a scientist’s employer has a financial stake in the results of his studies, those results are automatically invalid, or at least heavily suspect.

There’s a certain degree of truth to this, of course. When researchers don’t disclose conflicts of interest, or when they deliberately use invalid methodology to reach a desired result, their employers’ interests can often explain their motives. But simply identifying a conflict of interest does not invalidate a scientific study, particularly when the conflict is disclosed.

After all, who is going to perform these studies, if not experts in agronomy and genetics? And where are experts in agronomy and genetics going to find work? Research universities and regulatory agencies will hire some, to be sure, but the best and brightest will be sought after by private biotech firms that can profit from their research. So of course many (not all) GMO studies are performed by employees of GMO producers; they’re in the best possible position to test them!

A man may stand to gain much by telling his wife he loves her; nevertheless, he may love her sincerely. ~Unknown

It isn’t enough to simply identify a conflict of interest; in order to show that a study is invalid, you must identify some methodological problem with the study. That isn’t hard to do when it comes to GMO studies, actually. Nearly every time some new study purports to show that GMOs are dangerous, the methods turn out to be flawed, often in a manner that had to be deliberate. Just like their close cousins in the vaccine-paranoia industry, the GMO fear-mongers tend to have personal conflicts of interest motivating their scientific malfeasance. But that makes their actions unethical, it does not make their studies invalid. Their invalid methods do that.

There is hope for us, of course, just as there’s hope for all the anti-GMO zealots out there. When you feel compelled to dismiss some scientific work simply because of who funded it, whether in the context of GMOs, vaccines, or global warming, remember that you’re committing a logical fallacy. Look instead to see whether the methods used are valid and reliable. If so, congratulations! You’ve just learned something new, regardless of who paid for it.

Oh, and Monsanto: if you’re listening, I’d really appreciate it if you did start sending me a paycheck for debunking GMO nonsense on the Internet.

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7 thoughts on “Argumentum ad Monsanto

  1. Aside from spotting any logical fallacies, your post of course raises the question of whether GMO foods are really safe. Last week, the New York Times printed an article on “Golden Rice.” The story links to an American Association of the Advancement of Science Statement to demonstrate that there is a “scientific consensus” that GMO foods are indeed safe. Yet some scientists still question this. One of my former students wrote a paper–for this class, actually–based on her meta-analysis of studies examining this very issue. She reached a very different, and disturbing conclusion. Perhaps one’s baseline matters: are we attempting to prove that GMO foods are safe, or that they are not?

    • I think the question needs to be refined. “GMO” is a process, not a product. I don’t know of any scientists–aside from those motivated by ideology like Seralini and Carman–who have evidence that the GMO food crops currently on the market (primarily corn, soy, and canola) are dangerous compared to conventionally-bred or organic crops. On the other hand, there are some GMO crops that do present some dangers; for example, a research team implanted genes from some kind of nut into strawberry DNA, and the resulting strawberries caused allergic reactions in people who were allergic to the nut. The process of rDNA modification is not inherently dangerous any more so than the process of hybridization; in fact, it’s potentially a great deal more certain and less risky than traditional hybridization.

      The problem with meta-analysis is that it’s only as good as the underlying studies. I can’t comment on the previous student’s work without reviewing it, but you might check the references for the studies that were part of the meta-study. If they came from sources like Gilles-Eric Seralini and Judy Carman, they should be checked–not simply because of the interests of their employers, but because they are known frauds.

    • Speaking of meta-analyses, Alessandro Nicolia of the University of Perugia in Italy and a team of scientists recently released a massive one, which reviewed nearly 1,800 publications and took a year to complete. Their conclusion: “The scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazards directly connected with the use of genetically engineered crops.”

      When I shared this story on social media, the very first comment was, predictably enough, an accusation that scientific journals will publish junk science for money–not even the slightest attempt to address the science on its merits.

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  5. great put up, very informative. I’m wondering why
    the opposite specialists of this sector do not notice this.
    You must continue your writing. I’m confident, you have
    a huge readers’ base already!

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