“Golden Rice Opponents Should Be Held Accountable for Health Problems Linked to Vitamain A Deficiency”

Except for the regulatory approval process, Golden Rice was ready to start saving millions of lives and preventing tens of millions of cases of blindness in people around the world who suffer from Vitamin A deficiency.

It’s still not in use anywhere, however, because of the opposition to GM technology.
via Scientific American

Sure – we can arrest people for interfering with scientists’ right to save the world, because scientists are so expert that they know what they’re doing and can absolutely guarantee that everything will work as promised…so that means if they’re wrong, they can be held liable for manslaughter if anyone dies, right?


Whaddya mean “that’s not how science works”?

Baby born to a mother who had taken thalidomide while pregnant. Image via wikipedia.

Baby born to a mother who had taken thalidomide while pregnant. Image via Wikipedia.

Authority means accountability. If scientists want the one, they should be ready to accept the other.

And that doesn’t even touch the issue of whether they are taking too much license with the environment we all share. I hate saying that, because I am not at all a fan of environmentalists, and I hate sounding like them. To me the question is not environment vs. science, but rather the correct way to handle risk. The history of science is full of projects that crashed first and only learned to fly after examining what went wrong the first three or seven or fifty times. Scientists don’t own the environment. We all do. That is why the correct way to win debates over whether or not there is such a thing as “genetic pollution” or whether cross-pollination issues are potentially of concern is by persuading the voters – not by punishing thoughtcrimes, as this writer advocates, by making people criminally liable for invented crimes just because those people and their hard-to-rebut arguments happen to be politically inconvenient.

…or just because the scientific community doesn’t know how to effectively rebut a valid point?

…or just because the scientific community doesn’t want to even try, because they think people should just obey?

Maybe if scientists want to go back to the good old days – when people still trusted them – they could start with an apologize for their own past lack of accountability (which is why people stopped trusting them, after all). Blind obedience hasn’t worked out very well for too many of us.

Milgram Experiment advertisement. Image via Wikipedia.

Milgram Experiment advertisement. Volunteers were treated unethically. Image via Wikipedia.

The history of science is littered with experiments that were supposed to be safe but wemt wrong. A disturbing number of these science-gone-wrong stories have occurred in the third world. Scientists have a long and ugly history of using developing-world populations as their personal guinea pigs. For example, most people have heard of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment – but how many people know that after it was exposed and shut down, the scientists moved it overseas?

The Commission confirms that despite knowledge that it was unethical, US government medical scientists PURPOSELY infected  “at least 1,300 who were exposed to the sexually transmitted diseases syphilis, gonorrhea and chancroid” to study the effects of penicillin. At least 83 subjects died.”

Reading this article, it seems that wanting to experiment on third world populations is what this is all about. Poverty isn’t caused by lack of resources. It’s caused by corruption and other political problems. We already have more than enough food to feed the world. So don’t fall for the guy using Third World poverty-stricken people as meat shields: this is not about solving the problems of the poor. It’s about the question of whether scientists promising awesome things have the right to bypass that part of the political process where they have to prove their awesome products are safe and worthwhile – to our satisfaction, not their own.

In other words, it’s about self-governance (as opposed to top-down experts telling us what to want, think, feel, need, desire, use, and not use).

And the people who want the right to override our political processes – because they are quote-unquote ‘experts’ – have a history of being ethically stunted people who view the developing world as their own personal sandbox for exploitative experimentation.

But medical ethicists say that even if today’s research is not as egregious as the Guatemala experiment, American companies are still testing drugs on poor, sometimes unknowing populations in the developing world.

Many, like Markel, note that experimenting with AIDS drugs in Africa and other pharmaceutical trials in Third World countries, “goes on every day.”

“It’s not good enough, in my opinion, to protect only people who live in the developed world — but all human beings,” he said.

via ABC

Scientists have relied on bullying to artificially manipulate outcomes – in the case of GMO foods, they have forced people to falsely equate GMO foods with lower-risk foods. Yes, lower risk. There is a risk in GMO foods, and the scientists want us to behave as if there isn’t. That’s the heart of the matter right there – that is what they want, but they are not willing to do what they have to do to earn the outcome; they want to manipulate the outcome dishonestly. They want to deny the existence of real issues that could or do exist. They want to skip the part where they have to persuade us, and their preferred method for doing this is to replace self-governance with top-down bullying – using the three-step “impending doom” song-and-dance beloved of “progressives” everywhere:

  1. Make optimistic promises about how great the results of the proposed policy will be, then treat those promises as if they’re fact. (How could you be against ending world hunger?)
  2. Make dire predictions of impending doom if the policy is not implemented, and act as if criticizing (or even evaluating) the policy equals wanting that horrible doom to fall. (You don’t just want to end world hunger, but you want everyone to starve and die!)
  3. Ignore or, if necessary, deny the consequences if these grossly exaggerated and highly improbable predictions are incorrect.

There is always risk in science – that is why we don’t hold scientists accountable for the deaths their mistakes cause, even though science has caused a steady stream of death and mutilation. We know that science is frequently wrong. The flip side of this is acknowledging that scientists don’t really know, and aren’t honestly in a position to guarantee safety or certainty. Some of the worst atrocities in the history of science come from scientists losing their objectivity – forgetting that they don’t really know. Getting carried away.

It is accurate and correct to perceive GMO products as risky – potentially very risky – to both health and the environment. It isn’t “anti-science” to point out that risk warrants caution. We don’t actually know they’re safe. Note that the people insisting that we should accept they are safe are people who want all the profits while we are stuck with all the risk. (Normally risk and reward go together, but of course it’s always nicer if you can keep the reward and give some other poor slob the risk.)

The honest way to handle it would be to admit that consumers have good reason to prefer non-manipulated foods – and to price GMO foods less, accordingly. But they don’t want to do that. They want to make it so that you can’t tell if a food is GMO or not. They want to replace non-GMO foods with GMO foods.They want to own the food supply.

And, no, the fact that they’re willing to forego profits doesn’t mean anything – not when you’re talking about a product with the power to foster dependency and create market dominance. Remember when Nestle gave away baby formula? WHOOPS!

If their real goal were to prevent vitamin A deficiency, it wouldn’t be hard to dispense vitamin A to all at-risk populations without forcing farmers into accepting crops that may be wonderful or may cause serious problems.

Science As Faith-Based System

More evidence suggesting that humanism functions as a religion, not merely an ideology:

When feeling stress, or faced with existential angst, there are benefits to being a believer. A comprehensive way of making sense of the world, and our place in it, can provide consolation when it’s needed most.

For many people, of course, that belief system is religious faith. But new research suggests others have found a different source of solace: science.

“Our findings suggest that belief in science may help non-religious people deal with adverse conditions,” reports a research team led by University of Oxford psychologist Miguel Farias. “Despite their different methods, both science and religion offer powerful explanations of the world,” the researchers write in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, “which may work at an intuitive level to provide comfort and assurance.

As Farias and his colleagues note, many studies have shown the psychological benefits of religious faith, while others suggest that such secular belief systems as humanism, or even faith in human progress, can play a similar role as a source of meaning and motivation.

They hypothesized that the same needs could be met through a “belief in science,” which they describe as seeing science “as a superior, even exclusive, guide to reality, and as possessing a unique and central value.” But would people with that conviction lean on it in tough situations, as the devout do with religious faith?

Those who had thought about their own deaths reported a “significantly greater belief in science” than those who had not.

Two experiments suggest the answer is “yes.”

(emphasis mine).

What is religion? Does it have to involve a God? If so, then why do we recognize so many God-free religions (Buddhism, Confucianism*, Taoism – and even humanism, which is recognized as a religion in the US under the name “Unitarian Universalism“)?

Unitarian Universalism (UU) is a theologically liberal religion characterized by a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning”**

Humanism is a group of philosophies and ethical perspectives which emphasize the value and agency of human beings, individually, and collectively, and generally prefers individual thought and evidence (rationalism, empiricism) over established doctrine or faith (fideism).

What do we mean when we say “belief in science”?

Science is not something you “believe” in. It is a method. “Believing” in science is like “believing” in making egg salad – the statement is nonsensical unless you understand something unspoken (unwritten) about just what there is to “believe” in:

  • That it carries a particular meaning?
  • That it will end with or lead to a particular result?
  • That it has some sort of transformative power?

It appears to me that when people say they “believe” in science, what they really mean is that they believe that science both can and will deliver “the truth” (as in The One Real And Only Truth) about the universe & our place within that universe.

The problem with this is that it’s inherently illogical – science starts off with certain assumptions about the universe, and if you use an assumption to prove itself, your argument is tautological. It means nothing to say “A is true, therefore A is true.” (Everyone readily recognizes this problem when religious people try to use the Bible to prove there is a God; it’s also known as “begging the question“).

It is important to recognize that the scientific method was never supposed to be able to work with metaphysical truths, values, beliefs, opinons, subjective or faith-based questions.

The scientific method takes certain assumptions as a given. Two of these assumptions are particularly problematic for the idea that science is capable of answering questions outside of its domain:

1. The inherently material nature of the universe it is dealing with (which was never supposed to be “the” universe – just “a” universe).

  • This is another way of saying that we are starting from the assumption that all the relevant variables are going to have answers that are both physical and demonstrable.
  • The history of science shows that this assumption frequently leads to inadequate solutions when applied to human systems (for example, the materialist assumption led scientists to undervalue questions of human worth, dignity, emotional experience, and quality of life concerns throughout the 20th century – especially in the first part of the 20th century, when scientists aggressively discounted moral concerns on the basis of scientific assumptions).

2. Occam’s razor: the assumption that the “most elegant” explanation “should be preferred”. (Notice it does not say “is true” – just that it should be conditionally assumed to be true.)

  • The assumptions embodied in Occam’s razor are, in essence, another way of saying that, for the sake of the argument, we have to assume we have all the information we need to solve the problem contained in our starting data set.
  • It is impossible to both run an experiment while also accounting for the possibility that you might be missing relevant data; you have to choose one or the other.
  • Another way of saying the same thing: for the sake of the argument, you have to assume that lack of evidence equals evidence of lack.
  • It is demonstrably not true that the elegant solution is always the correct one:

Thalidomide … is an anti-nausea and sedative drug that was introduced in the late 1950s to be used as a sleeping pill, and was quickly discovered to help pregnant women with the effects of morning sickness….It was sold from 1957 until 1962, when it was withdrawn after being found to be a teratogen, which caused many different forms of birth defects….

These two assumptions (materialism and Occam’s Razor) are powerful for predicting how the physical world works. Sometimes the initial answer is wrong, but the wrong answer itself provides more data – from which a corrected solution may be constructed.

They have not proved very powerful at proving how anything else works. Despite decades of diligent effort, there’s still little sign that science will ever be capable of delivering on the big promises it made in the 19th century – that science would end poverty, injustice, inequality, etc.

The truth is that we really shouldn’t want science to keep trying – not in its current form – because the scientific method has no moral or ethical mechanism. That moral or ethical mechanism has to come from a tradition that is equipped for the task. Science is like a machine that assumes its goal is the acquisition of knowledge (with the implication that this knowledge is for the benefit of the person conducting the experiment, or his client). To “have faith in science” is like taking those values as the Prime Directive – that humanity exists for the purpose of gaining knowledge, and that this knowledge is the highest form of good, and that it exists for the benefit of the person conducting the experiment (with no protection for anyone else – the rest of us being reduced to potential experimental subjects or victims).

The early 20th century promise – that science would create Utopia – ended not in success, but in the “Utopias” of the 20th century – all of which have this in common: they promised to create a perfected world here on Earth, at the bargain price of a few human liberties here and there, and instead created a new genre of real life fiction.

A dystopia is a community or society, usually fictional, that is in some important way undesirable or frightening. It is the opposite of a utopia. Such societies appear in many works of fiction, particularly in stories set in a speculative future. Dystopias are often characterized by dehumanization,[1] totalitarian governments, environmental disaster,[2] or other characteristics associated with a cataclysmic decline in society.

Dystopian fiction is the opposite: creation of an utterly horrible or degraded society, or dystopia. Many novels combine both, often as a metaphor for the different directions humanity can take in its choices, ending up with one of two possible futures.

*Wikipedia might want to check its Confucianism page for bias – “In other words, Confucian values were used to sugarcoat the harsh Legalist ideas that underlie the Imperial system” does not sound neutral to me….

** Formal Unitarian Universalist publications insist that UU is open to all, but in practice there are multiple reports of congregations struggling over the question of whether and how far Christians should be welcomed or even tolerated within the church, seeing as how their beliefs are fundamentally incompatible with core UU beliefs – including, ironically, “tolerance” and “freedom” (both of which have real limits, apparently).

The problem is both real and demonstrable: both tolerance and freedom sound good in theory, but can only exist in a universe where no zero-sum situations ever exist – a universe that is fundamentally incapable of existing in this world.

In spite of this freedom and diversity, there seem to be some basic theological/philosophical ideas which form a core of UU identity. UUs are often hesitant to articulate these basic beliefs because they don’t want to form or imply a “defacto creed.” However phenomena such as the uncanny accuracy of the Beliefnet religious survey in identifying UUs and potential UUs, and the number of people who call themselves UUs although they do not belong to UU churches suggests that there is a core of belief. Here is one attempt to formulate that:

1. The universe is a beautiful, intricate, complex place, the foundations of which are a Mystery. The “whole truth” is too large, and our minds/knowledge/intuitions are too small to grasp it all. Therefore, we cherish and learn from diversity. 2. If the Universe can be said to have a purpose, its purpose is for us, not against us, and it is for, not against, us all. 3. Given how little we can know for sure, our focus should be on this earth and life; beauty, justice, love. 4. We claim the rational, eschew the irrational, (contrary to reason) and question the non-rational (that which is neither provable nor disprovable by reason alone, i.e. life after death).

(emphasis mine).

What this means in reality is that the UU church embraces the humanist belief that identity should be constructed by cherry-picking from the history of the world, without concern for context (because the beliefs plucked from dead/pagan and living religions is going to be refashioned according to the needs of the real belief system, which is humanism).

In other words, you can believe whatever you like, up to the point where your beliefs threaten or challenge humanist core principles.