Who’s afraid of the big bad GMO?

I don’t get it.

I really don’t get the opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMOs). We’re all genetically modified organisms — the only difference between us and the ‘objectionable’ ones is the mechanism, whether the molecular novelty was inserted by intent or inserted by chance. Much of the dissent with GMOs is based either on ignorance, or is misdirected.

From Biofortified, an excellent blog on agriculture, genetics, and molecular biology, here is a good video on the subject.

Watch Next Meal: Engineering Food on PBS. See more from QUEST.

Yet there is established policy in many countries and states to prohibit use of GMO crops. When a small patch of GMO wheat was found in Oregon, Japan responded by shutting down all wheat imports from Oregon. That’s nothing but fear based in ignorance. All of our crops, everyone’s crops, are heavily modified genetically. Wild strawberries are tiny little things. Corn is a hybrid monster shaped by centuries of selection, twisted from a seedy little grass into this weird elaborate conglomeration. Wheat and barley and rye are the product of thousands of years of genetic reshuffling and selection. Walk into the produce section of your grocery store — do you really think all those fruits and vegetables are unshaped by human hands?

This strange unfounded fear of GMOs is unfortunately most strongly expressed in the political left. It’s embarrassing that political progressives are being made to look bad by raging superstition and unscientific claims.

I was interested to see in the link above that this fear is traced back to the magic word “natural”, and specifically that awful website full of woo, Natural News. “Natural” is nonsense: everything is natural. “Natural” is a non-specific modifier attached to anything a crackpot things is good, in opposition to new-fangled technology that is different from what their grandparents did. If it helps, modern genetic modification techniques are simply directed versions of horizontal gene transfer, a process that happens “naturally”, without human assistance. We’re just doing it faster and more efficiently and selecting the genes we want to move around. The current controversial crop of genetically modified wheat simply takes a natural enzyme from a natural bacterium and transfers it to the genome of a natural grass. There’s nothing supernatural about any of it.

You want to complain about something, aim a little more accurately and target real problems in modern agribusiness.

  • The ongoing concentration of control of agricultural products into the hands of just a few corporations. These corporations lock up their products and are intent on retaining control…and this isn’t just GMOs. Hybrid seed produced by standard genetic techniques has also been a tool.

  • The corporatization of farms. The family farm is fading, it’s all giant conglomerates — and the economies of scale depend on ignoring the environmental costs of the megafarm.

  • The blandness of monocultures. Try driving through my part of the world — the old, biologically diverse prairie has been almost totally replaced by endless fields of corn and soybeans, nothing but corn and soybeans.

  • The industrialization of food. What’s being done with most of that corn? It’s being processed into high fructose corn syrup and ethanol. We take food which is rich and complex and process the heck out of it to reduce it to something more convenient for industry.

Sometimes I wonder if the GMO controversy isn’t just a giant red herring thrown into the debate about the future of agriculture just to distract us from what should be real concerns.

Malls and mosques

Turkey has erupted in demonstrations and protests over the last few days. The precipitating event was an effort to demolish an historic town square to build commercial properties, but it seems to be an expression of long resentment over a corrupt and autocratic leadership, and the growing tension within a country that was founded as a secular nation but is facing a rising Islamist faction. What happens when you try to mix capitalism and theocracy, modernism with traditionalism? We’re finding out.

The scenes carried the symbolic weight of specific grievances: people held beers in the air, a rebuke to the recently passed law banning alcohol in public spaces; young men smashed the windshields of the bulldozers that had begun razing Taksim Square; and a red flag bearing the face of modern Turkey’s secular founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, was draped over a destroyed police vehicle.


The people are more than a little annoyed with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Many of the protesters, some of whom voted for Mr. Erdogan, said his leadership had become increasingly dictatorial. In a Twitter message late Saturday, Mr. Erdogan appeared to mock the protesters, saying he could mobilize a million people to support him in Taksim Square, while putting the number of protesters at 100,000.

“When he first came to power, he was a good persuader and a good speaker,” said Serder Cilik, 32, who was sitting at a tea shop watching the chaos unfold. Mr. Cilik said he had voted for Mr. Erdogan but would never do so again.

An older man standing nearby, overhearing the conversation, yelled, “Dictator!”

Mr. Cilik, who is unemployed, continued: “He brainwashed people with religion, and that’s how he got the votes. He fooled us. He’s a liar and a dictator.”

Now it’s tear gas and bullets and angry mobs swarming the streets.



I think I love these people. 90 demonstrations in 48 cities, hundreds injured or arrested, two have been killed, all in the face of extreme police action, and they keep on fighting for what is right. They are actually standing against an increasingly authoritarian, conservative, and religious government.

I wish we Americans had that kind of courage.

Oh no! Equality! Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling! Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes… The dead rising from the grave! Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!

Recent surveys have shown that 4 out of 10 American households are headed by a woman. Wanna watch four pampered men lose their shit over this fact? Here you go.

Juan Williams is angry — having women as the primary breadwinner heralds the disintegration of the family and something is terribly wrong with the country!

Professional Racist Lou Dobbs chimes in with some non-sequitur about abortions. Women are working and not having babies! Alert the police! Catastrophe and disaster! The social order is being undermined!

Oh, but smug jerk Erick Erickson takes the cake.

I’m so used to liberals telling conservatives that they’re anti-science, but this is liberals who defend this and say it is not a bad thing are very anti-science. When you look at biology, when you look at the natural world, the roles of a male and a female in society and in other animals, the male typically is the dominant role. The female, it’s not antithesis, or it’s not competing, it’s a complimentary role.

We as people in a smart society have lost the ability to have complimentary relationships in nuclear families, and it is tearing us apart.


I’m used to conservatives mangling science and telling us that their lies are true, and Erickson does not disappoint. Listening to that I turned purple and tried to blurt out four sentences simultaneously, and then my larynx exploded and my brains geysered out my ears.

  • It’s not true! Many species exhibit different patterns of dominance, and some have no system of dominance at all. It’s quite common for females to be larger than males, for instance. Erickson is claiming that something common in primates is a universal.


  • You don’t get to spend your pundit career blithering about human (and American) exceptionalism and then turn around when it’s convenient to your argument to point to some monkey over there and say, “See? That’s the natural order!”

  • Erick Erickson is one hella confused dingleberry. Why does anyone listen to a biblical literalist pontificating about science?

Here’s the deal, Fox News. The world is changing. It’s not getting worse, it’s getting different, and I know that’s the kind of thing that makes bitter, cranky old conservatives weep into their scotch and water, but deal with it. Besides, you’ll be dead soon and won’t care any more.

And it’s not just getting different, it’s getting better — those women in the workforce are more independent, more free, and living more fulfilling lives that matter. Welcome it. And hey, how about getting off your privileged butts and making sure that they get paid the same as men, so those families and children you’re so fucking concerned about can get by?

Maybe they’ll run for president in the next election

The Republicans are giving me some hope. They have quite the pair running for governor in Virginia: Cuccinelli and Jackson.

Here are some of the comments from Republican women in Virginia:

Waddell called “the worst ticket ever”, adding that she was “completely embarrassed and mortified by the Republican ticket of Cuccinelli and Jackson.”

Jan Schar told Blue Virginia that although she’s been a Republican for years, “I simply cannot support them,” as they would “end a woman’s right to make her own health care choices, including access to birth control.”

Schar was disturbed by the Republican ticket’s attack on Planned Parenthood, “which does so much good for women in Virginia…. to call them a racist group is simply beyond the pale and hopefully will frighten Virginians from voting for them. This team of three would take us back to their ideology.” Schar concluded, “I know so many Republicans who just can’t support [this ticket].”

Waddell (I/R) called Cuccinelli “extreme”, according to Blue Virigina, due in part to his “dangerous… anti-woman health agenda.” Reacting to the ticket’s charges against Planned Parenthood, she pointed out that it made “absolutely no sense to accuse Planned Parenthood of being a racist organization; it’s an organization which brings much needed health care to many.”

But that’s nothing. You should listen to Phyllis Schlafly’s latest remarks.

…in an interview this week with conservative radio program Focus Today, Schlafly just came right out and said it. Calling the GOP’s need to reach out to Latinos a “great myth,” Schlafly said that “the people the Republicans should reach out to are the white votes, the white voters who didn’t vote in the last election.” Schlafly accused the Republican “establishment” of nominating “a series of losers…who don’t connect with the grassroots.”

“The propagandists are leading us down the wrong path,” she said. “There’s not any evidence at all that these Hispanics coming in from Mexico will vote Republican.”

Yay! Please please please, Republican party, quit pretending and just admit that you are the Wealthy White Man Party! Come right out with it in the next election, court the KKK, announce that you want to amend the Constitution to prohibit women from voting, sneer at all our citizens who are of Central and South American descent, campaign on a platform of banning contraception and evolution, and just be yourselves! I’ll enjoy it.

Unless they get elected, that is.

Bye-bye Bachmann

And Minnesota smiles in relief (we’re very reserved, so no loud cheers). Michele Bachmann will not be running for office again. You should watch her “I am not a crook!” video.

She tries to claim that the decision is solely because she has a principled belief in term limits. It’s not because she only squeaked by in the last election, oh no: she could beat any candidate, she claims. It’s not because her slackness with campaign funds has her under an ethics investigation. Then she rambles on with far right wing talking points — we have to stop oppressing the banks with crippling regulation, we have to hunt down the Muslim jihadists, yay Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, etc. She closes by promising to be willing to jump in and serve the country (please, right wing think tanks, hire me!) and deploring the fact that she’s sure the liberal media will distort her motivations.

And of course the final bit is glurge for god.

You should know that Bachmann is the biggest liar in congress. Use that fact in assessing her statements.

Also, keep in mind that her chances of winning any political office are now dead. Her secret to success was to run in the wackiest, most conservative, most ridiculously gerrymandered district in the state — she’s not electable any place else, and she’s just announced that she’s abandoning her electorate. Goodbye and good riddance!

Oh, how interesting. Bachmann claims she’s leaving the race because she believes in term limits, but it’s not true: she’s said the opposite before. Even when she’s leaving, she can’t help but throw out one more big lie.

CFI’s Michael De Dora

Some people have considered the recent criticisms of the CEO of the Center for Inquiry to be a wholesale attack on the organization (well, “some people” meaning “freakin’ loons”). Nothing could be further from the truth. I’m a supporter; I think many of their causes are essential; I appreciate the work of many of the people there. Let’s not forget that the whole of the organization is not the brain of the CEO, whether it’s Paul Kurtz or Ron Lindsay, both of whom have also done good work. We have to trust in the quality of the group to overcome the flaws of the individual.

So I thought I might throw out an occasional post to let you know about a few of the commendable efforts of CFI — you know, try a little positive reinforcement in addition to my usual spiked bludgeon of criticism.

CFI has an Office of Public Policy.

The Office of Public Policy (OPP) is the Washington, D.C. political arm of the Center for Inquiry. Our mandate is to advocate for public policy based on reason, science, and secular values. This includes lobbying at all levels of government — Congress, the Administration, and the international community, including the United Nations — to promote and defend separation of church and state, the role of scientific evidence and secular ethics in policymaking, and basic civil and human rights. 

This is the unit that lobbies the government directly for secular causes — if there is something that pisses you off about public policy, this is an effective place to ask for assistance. The director of the OPP is Michael De Dora, who has been working his butt off to get things done. He’s also their representative to the UN.

He meets with the State Department on issues of international concern for secularists, and as we all know there have been a number of those lately, with atheists being persecuted in several countries. He lobbies to keep religion and politics out of science, and has fought against the corruption of our educational system.

He’s also stood up for women’s issues, opposing restrictions on emergency contraception and abortion. You can find a good summary of his position in his speech at the Unite Women rally.

If CFI had really felt it necessary to tap a high-ranking man to give an introduction at the Women in Secularism conference, it would have been a good choice to delegate it to De Dora, who has a solid record on women’s issues and would definitely have been politic enough to avoid throwing a few rhetorical grenades into the crowd. In the past I’ve said some rude things about a few remarks he made about creationism, but…he got better. I’ve met with him a few times, and I’m confident in his abilities in his job — and he’s one of a lot of faces at CFI who do great work.

So keep on criticizing where criticizing needs to be done — it’s how the organization gets better. But let’s not forget that CFI also does invaluable work on our behalf.

Michael De Dora

Michael De Dora of CFI addressing the Unite Women rally

Spare me this ‘deficit model’ nonsense

Maybe it’s something in the air: Spring brings out the sociological criticisms of science, or something. But for some reason, this week people have been talking at me about the “deficit model” repeatedly, and it is really beginning to annoy me. The latest source is Alice Bell in the Guardian, who says some sensible things (don’t treat scientists as a priesthood!) and then gets all mushy-mouthed over the myth of the deficit model. How nice of her, though, to define it for us.

It’s the critique of the so-called “deficit model” many of us have been dancing to for decades. The deficit model, if you’re lucky enough not to have come across the term, assumes science has the knowledge the public are deficient in, and that many of our social ills will be solved if we all listened to the experts. It’d be a nice idea maybe if science, the media, policy or people were that simple, but they’re not (I talked about similar issues in my Radio Four piece on scientific literacy last year).

Oh, no…it brings back cranky memories of those annoying rounds of argument with Mooney and Nisbet, who loved to slam us with sneering rebukes that we’re true believers in the Deficit Model, and don’t you know, everybody rejects that model nowadays.

And I’d just, what, say what, I what? I’m right here, why are you arguing with that caricature? Look, I’ve spent decades battling creationists, giving them the actual facts in the face of their distortions, and I know they heard me, and I know they’re not so stupid they couldn’t comprehend what I was saying, and yet they’ll be back the next week saying the same lies. I know that there’s more to getting people on the side of reason then calmly stating the evidence while equipped with a Ph.D. I don’t know anyone who subscribes to this “deficit model” of which you speak.

Here’s the model I actually accept; let’s call it the Obstacle Model. Everyone has a whole collection, to varying degrees, of obstacles that interfere with effective progress: for instance, there’s poverty, and racism, and sexism, and religion, and authoritarianism, and ignorance. Focusing on just one without paying any attention to the others means you won’t get very far. Every good educator knows that teaching is a multi-dimensional problem.

Correcting ignorance has a rather critical role to play in the solution. I think the other factors I listed are more important in giving people the will and capability to make decisions, but addressing an intellectual deficit is essential in giving them the power to decide how to decide; without it, you’ve got a blundering herd of enthusiastic incompetents.

But ignorance also has a special place because it’s the one thing teachers are commissioned to address, so if you’re interested in deprecating expertise, finding a straw man like the “deficit model” to set on fire is a handy tool to knock those scientists and educators down a peg. It’s also a useful bludgeon if you’re a sociologist and want to assert your authority over those puffed-up boffins (not that I think most sociologists have an inferiority complex, but some of the dumbest things ever said about science come out of the mouths of sociologists).

You want examples? Alice Bell continues by citing sociological analyses of the scientific establishment.

The deficit model sticks around partly because it feeds scientists’ social status, implicitly underlining their powerful position as people who get to define what counts as important, true, reliable knowledge. Stephen Hilgartner put it well back in 1990, saying such top down approaches implicitly provide the scientific establishment with the epistemological right to print money. Something we don’t appreciate enough though is that also serves the handmaidens of the deficit model – science communication professionals, less powerful scientists, many science “fans” – offering them some social status by association. Play into a game of hierarchies, and even if you don’t get to the top, you get to climb a bit. Pierre Bourdieu, in his classic sociology of the university campus, Homo Academicus, talks about the way students are happy to submit to the idea that they are inferior to senior academics because doing so earns them subsequent admittance to a distinguished club of graduates. I think we can see similar patterns at work in terms of the way academic ideas are shared outside of universities too.

O My Fellow Scientists, do you feel like you have the right to print money? Here we are in an occupation with relatively limited recompense — we tend to be solidly middle class, which is very nice, but not much more — and we had to spend much of our youth in training, which from a purely economic point of view, represented a tremendous loss in earning potential. Deferring getting an entry level job because you spent a decade in graduate school and post-doctoral positions isn’t sound financial sense. Are these critics even aware of how many scientists get thrown into the churn of the unending provisional appointments? Somehow, though, we always get this criticism from creationists and other outsiders that we’re in it for the big bucks, as if we’re investment bankers or oil company executives.

O My Fellow Scientists, do you feel like you have high social status? I certainly don’t. Scientists are not particularly well-regarded in the communities I live in, except among ourselves; I follow politics, and scientists certainly don’t play much of a role there. Except when they’re trying to fill knowledge deficits (which is constantly trivialized by these critics of the deficit model), scientists are treated as awkward nerds with no social skills at all — the archetype we see flaunted on shows like The Big Bang Theory. You’re very confused if you think Sheldon is regarded as having high social status. He’s a pretentious clown.

O My Fellow Scientists, do you scorn your students and think of them as your inferiors? Maybe some do; I certainly don’t. I’m in this teaching position because I respect and enjoy the company of students. I identify with my students.

And here’s the thing: that hierarchy? Definitely a mixed bag. I remember being a student, and my professors were pretty much just like me, except with added obligations. Graduate school was wonderful — they had to order me to wrap up and get the thesis done. I tried to keep my post-docs going as long as I could stretch them out, because every step up the academic ladder meant less playing in the lab, more uncertainty (where am I going to get a job?), and more teaching and administrative responsibilities. If I had my druthers, I’d still be a grad student.

Even now, I’m dragging my heels about getting promoted to full professor, despite the nudges from my unit head. Promotion would mean a little more money (but I’m not in this job for the money!) and additional responsibilities in campus-wide governance. Why should I do that? Because I’m a good citizen of my university, not because I have some illusion that it will let me lord my superiority over others.

But OK, Bell does salvage the article in the end.

Less cynically, top down models also stick around because scientists do, genuinely, have special ideas and information to share. We pool our resources to allow a few people to cut themselves off and become experts in particular subjects. We do this so that they might feed back their knowledge and we can, collectively, try to make a better world. We should listen to them. As David Dickson wrote in 2005, factual reporting of science can be socially empowering for audiences. It’s worth remembering this. Political systems of scientific advice in government are built partly for this reason too, to make best use of scientific expertise. I don’t want to throw the baby out with bathwater, and lazy critique of science is not just silly, it can be dangerous (if you’ve never read Merchants of Doubt, do).

Yes, that is the way it works. I’m glad to see a realistic perspective on the matter — now if only everyone would realize that most scientists share this same view, and that this deficit model crap is a sociological contrivance intended to take a back-handed slap at expertise.

The scarlet crayon of atheism


I’ve been trying to understand how people — not just people, but self-declared “leaders of the atheist movement” — can claim that atheism is only the lack of belief in any gods, and further, that absence of god-belief entails no other significant consequences. It’s been difficult, because that way of thinking is alien to me; atheism for me is all tangled up in naturalism and scientific thinking, and it’s not just a single, simple cause but has a whole cascade of meaning. But I’m trying, and I think I’m beginning to get it. There is a reasonable way to regard atheism as important while at the same time limiting its import.

Think of atheism as something like having a favorite color in a world with a set of cultural mores that dictate the value of colors. You’re five years old, and in kindergarten, and the teacher asks you to draw a picture of your mommy in your favorite color. You proudly go for the big red crayon in your box, and you start to draw, and everyone in the class turns to look at you strangely…and every single one of them is holding a blue crayon. “Everyone knows your favorite color is supposed to be blue,” they say, “You’re weird.” The teacher helpfully takes your red crayon away and gives you a blue one instead.

You might be a little resentful. You might think this is an infringement of your rights and an attempt to police your thoughts, and you’d be right. That would be a terrible thing to do to children. And then, what if you grew up and discovered that enshrined in your country’s constitution was a clause that specifically said the government did not have the right to dictate the citizenry’s favorite color? Why, you might become a crayon activist, fighting for the right of everyone to choose their own color, and you’d go to meetings where everyone would wave red crayons in the air and draw slogans on signs in red.

You might even be angry with other militant red crayon activists who tried to explain why red was the best color — that smacks too much of the blue crayonists who spent your childhood nagging at you why blue was the best. No, your cause is simply to let everyone have the right to choose their own color — it’s all about individual liberty and freedom of conscience. The crayon has no meaning beyond personal expression, and you don’t believe these stories that it has further implications, and you certainly don’t want to discuss why you liked red the best. It just is.

I sympathize with that perspective, and I think it’s entirely valid. There is a level at which you can fight for atheism in our culture purely on principle — that everyone should have a right to personal beliefs without meddling interference from outsiders, and certainly the government should not be in the business of supporting religion or its absence. There’s also a purely legal component to the argument, since America does have a constitution that plainly says “”Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” — you can be a believer and still support the rights of atheists, just as someone in your kindergarten class could favor blue but still respect your choice of red.

But like all metaphors, this crayon story breaks down.

If religion were a purely personal matter, a case of individual preference (and for many people it is), the analogy would hold up. When we “militant” atheists speak about eradicating religion, that’s really what we mean — not that we’ll close all the churches and force everyone to publicly repudiate their faith, but that it will be reduced to a curious hobby or matter of choice, something that you might feel deeply (BLUE IS THE BESTEST COLOR!), but that you don’t get to impose that view on others, and that on matters of public policy, everyone will approach problems objectively and try to make decisions on the basis of evidence, rather than opinions about angels and ghosts and what’s best for your afterlife. So, yeah, someday I want your choice of religion to have about as much significance as your choice of a favorite color.

But that day is not now.

Religion is not merely a matter of taste. People attach great importance to an irrational explanation for how the universe works, to the degree that they use it to shape government and community decisions. You cannot get elected to high office in most districts in the US without professing a belief in a god — and in most places, it must be a belief in the specific Christian god. They use their irrational beliefs to justify actions that have real effects on thousands or millions of other people: we can pollute the atmosphere because god says we have dominion, and he promised to not ever kill us en masse again; black people and women are destined to servility because the holy book says so; you should punish or ostracize people who do not have sex in the traditional ways of your people.

Religion and atheism are not just different colors in the box of Crayolas.

Some of us are atheists for different reasons than just arbitrariness or thoughtless acceptance of a particular perspective. Among the New Atheists, we’re largely in this position because we reasoned our way to it, or adopted doubt and testing as our philosophical guidelines, or preferred science to faith. Atheism wasn’t a choice at all: we’re naturalists who accept observable reality and the universe around us as the metric for determining the truth of a claim, and every religion fails that test spectacularly, while science struggles honestly to accommodate understanding to the evidence.

I didn’t “choose” atheism. I can’t reject it without paying too high a price, the simultaneous rejection of a vast body of knowledge and a toolset that effectively discovers new knowledge.

Atheism also has implications. It actually makes significant claims about the nature of the universe…you know, that place we live in? The big box of rules and phenomena that determines whether we live or die, and how happy we’ll be during our existence? It’s important. As a science educator, that understanding of our world directly affects my occupation. As a human being, it directly determines how I will live my life.

When I say there is no god, it means that the foundation for a huge number of arguments that currently poison public policy evaporate. God created woman to be a helpmeet to man and to serve him as man serves God? Nope. We’re going to have to actually look at the evidence and determine from observations whether women are inferior (answer so far: no.) Black people were marked with that color as a curse from God and have servile natures? Nope. No god, no curse, no way to claim independent peoples are destined to be master or slave. Two men having sex together is an abomination unto the Lord, and the only fit response by a moral culture is to kill them, or at least abuse them? Nope. Your objective moral standard is a fiction, and perhaps a truly moral culture is one that gives all of its citizens equal respect.

Being an atheist means you can no longer learn your moral code by rote and tradition and obedience to authority*, but have to rely on reason and empathy and greater human goals, and you don’t get to justify actions simply because they “feel” right or good — you have to support them with evidence or recognition that they directly serve a secular purpose. Our atheism, our secularism, our rejection of divinity and ecclesiastical authority determines how we move through our life, and that movement matters. It’s not superficial, it’s not a fashion choice, and the absence of god has meaning.

Thank you to those who are willing to stand up for atheism simply as a matter of choice and principle, but you should know and be warned that we intend to change the world. We are more dangerous than you can even imagine. And apparently, more dangerous than even some atheists can imagine.

*I have to add that many theists also accept a secular morality — they may like their religion, but they also recognize that you must have a better excuse for community action than “god said so.”