Skepticism Checks Its Coat at the Door of Science

by Lorna Salzman (March 2015)

Skepticism is in short supply these days even, paradoxically, as paranoia and conspiracy theories spread. The eclipse of the trust in science and modern medicine is in full swing. Irrationality, paranormal beliefs and the ingestion of unproven folk medicine have found audiences and consumers around the world, as have all manner of spiritual and quasi-religious movements. 

Much of this stems not only from inadequate education and exposure to scientific thought or from religious fundamentalism but from a violent reaction to the growing dominance of technology, in particular that which is incomprehensible or presents tangible hazards to human health and personal freedom. In this category one would also include technologies whose effects are as yet unknown, which lack a credible scientific consensus of safety, are known to pollute or contaminate human food supplies and which put nonhuman species and ecosystems under stress or threat. 

Of all of these, the most definitive scientific consensus is on the causes and impact of climate change. This consensus* is effectively 100%, if one excludes creationist contrarianism, nervous economists and scientists affiliated with or dependent on the fossil fuel and energy industries, as well as free marketeers who fear, quite rightly, for the future of the capitalist economic growth model. There are legitimate differences between scientists about the impact and timing of climate change but not on the decades-old data and research that fully support the theory of radical anthropogenic climate change from the use of fossil fuels. The debate would have long been over were it not for reactionary forces who have managed to deceive the sorely uninformed mass media while indulging in dirty tricks to discredit the evidence and the reputation of those who have taken strong public positions on the fact of climate change.

(* consensus meaning not the result of a vote but of a preponderance of opinion based on extensive long-term scientific evidence supporting a particular conclusion).

Among the voices for reason, science and skepticism are individuals like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, who take the flak for millions of people in their unapologetic atheism. And there are organizations and publications that have found wide public favor, such as the Center for Inquiry (CFI), whose journal is named Free Inquiry, and its affiliate, Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI, formerly dedicated to debunking paranormal claims).

The CSI and CFI mission statements are quite clear: 

The Center for Inquiry mission statement:

The latest confrontation stems from the uninformed opposition to the use of vaccines. This movement and others like it have been a boon to any number of charlatans, pseudo-doctors and snake oil salesmen, who play on ignorance and fears that usually arise from some personal tragedy such as the death of a child who has received a vaccine. Most of the objections are to the use of the measles vaccine though there is a growing resistance to even the influenza vaccine by many parents. 

These movements never disappear because medicine never disappears. There is a bottomless pool of uninformed people looking for others to boost their suspicions and hatred of modern medicine. Of course these are the same ones who will accept at face value, without scrutiny or clinical evidence, the claims of the new gurus, while categorically rejecting proven medical solutions.

The effect of this is to (wittingly or unwittingly) do the dirty work of Monsanto, which can quietly sit back and not engage in public debate. NECSS (Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism) last year gave a platform to Kevin Folta, one of the leading pro-GMO mouthpieces. This year, CSI and CFI have invited New Yorker staff writer Michael Specter to speak in favor of GMOS at their June conference. But CSI has chosen to ignore scientific critics of GMOs, aligning itself with pro-GMO scientists and attacking skeptics of GMOS as uninformed and ignorant, conflating them with the anti-vaccine movement. 

Specter is not a scientist and his major accomplishment was publishing a vicious attack in the New Yorker last summer against Vandana Shiva, Shiva being not only a PhD. but one of the most outspoken and qualified anti-GMO scientists in the world. This attack was telling. Because Specter lacks scientific credentials, he was forced to resort to ad hominem attack, dredging up small pieces of quite irrelevant information that, he hoped, would discredit Shiva (Shiva being of course globally influential and thus needing to be knocked off her pedestal).

In an article published in February of this year–maybe too late for consideration by Specter–The New York Times reported that 26 corn-insect specialists signed a letter to the EPA complaining that “no truly independent research [on GMOS] can be legally conducted on many critical questions” because the patent-holding companies have so much power over research. From the Times:

The problem, the scientists say, is that farmers and other buyers of genetically engineered seeds have to sign an agreement meant to ensure that growers honor company patent rights and environmental regulations. But the agreements also prohibit growing the crops for research purposes.

Shockingly, “The researchers … withheld their names [from the EPA letter] because they feared being cut off from research by the companies.” Now there’s an example of scientists who are free to pursue the path of truth!

I’d also urge Specter to read a paper by Don Lotter, published early this year in the International Journal of the Sociology of Food and Agriculture. Lotter’s paper, provocatively titled “The Genetic Engineering of Food and The Failure of Science,” shows how the collapse of biology’s “central dogma”–the one-gene, one-trait thesis that fell apart with the mapping of the human genome–exposed GM plant breeding as a rather crude tool. He traces the rise of GMOs, convincingly arguing that political and economic power, not scientific rigor, have driven the technology’s ascent.

So what do we find in these pages? We get a chapter defending the pharmaceutical industry against critics who question its wares—an industry with nearly $ 300 billion in sales in the U.S. alone, and fast-growing markets overseas. Specter’s defense aside, Big Pharma typically vies with ‘oil and mining’ and ‘commercial banks’ for the title of most profitable industry in the United States.

Open Letter from World Scientists to All Governments Concerning Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)

The World Scientists Statement dates from 1999. It was superceded by the Independent Science Panel Report in 2003, and by the most recent report Ban GMOs Now in 2013.

  • The scientists are extremely concerned about the hazards of GMOs to biodiversity, food safety, human and animal health, and demand a moratorium on environmental releases in accordance with the precautionary principle.

  • They are opposed to GM crops that will intensify corporate monopoly, exacerbate inequality and prevent the essential shift to sustainable agriculture that can provide food security and health around the world.

  • They call for a ban on patents of life-forms and living processes which threaten food security, sanction biopiracy of indigenous knowledge and genetic resources and violate basic human rights and dignity.

  • They want more support on research and development of non-corporate, sustainable agriculture that can benefit family farmers all over the world.

Previous versions of this letter were submitted to many governments and international forums including:

  • World Trade Organization Conference in Seattle (November 30 – Dec. 2, 1999)

  • UN Biosafety Protocol Meeting in Montreal (24 – 28, Jan. 2000)

  • UN Commission on Sustainable Development Conference on Sustainable Agriculture in New York (April 24-May 5, 2000)

  • UN Convention on Biological Diversity Conference in Nairobi (May 16-24, 2000)

  • United States Congress (29 June, 2000)

Signed by 815 scientists from 82 different countries, including:

 What evidence, besides New Yorker writer Michael Specter, has convinced CSI and CFI that GMOS are safe?

An editorial in Scientific American of July 20, 2009 said:

IAASTD), a three-year project, convened by the World Bank and the United Nations and completed in 2008, to assess what forms of agriculture would best meet the world’s needs in a time of rapid climate change. Widely compared to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which definitively established a scientific consensus around climate change on its release in 2007, the IAASTD and its 400 scientists from around the globe ended up taking quite a skeptical view of GMOs—so much so that CropLife International, the trade group for the global GMO seed/pesticide industry, denounced it…….. Only 3 of the 57 governments that participated refused to sign the IAASTD: the Bush II-led United States, Canada, and Australia.

The secular/atheist community has come under fire from some feminists for supposed sexism though it is not clear to an outsider whether there is any justification. But the GMO issue stands to damage CSI and CFI in significant ways that will reverberate more widely and, worst of all, give new ammunition to the anti-science gang. We need all the friends we can get to beat back fundamentalist religion, irrationality, conspiracy theorists and the medical charlatans to whom uninformed people entrust their health and sometimes their lives. CSI and CFI need to examine the inconsistency between their actions and their principles, and soon.




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