Sunday, January 05, 2014

Fear and uncertainty in politics

The New York Times has a long and interesting article about one politicians truth seeking process, when trying to decide what to vote on the issue of a ban on genetically modified crops in Hawaii.

A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops

It is not unreasonable to have some concerns when discussing genetically modified crops, especially related to cross-pollination, patents, and the business practices of the companies providing such crops. All of these things are touched upon in the article, as the politician, Greggor Ilagan, tries to understand the issue, and the science relating to it.

Unfortunately, as Mr. Ilagan, also finds out, there is a lot of FUD (Fear-Uncertainty-Doubt) going on when it comes to G.M.O.s. None of it fact-based, but it sounds just plausible enough that people will believe it (especially when used in connection to phrases like "Frankencrops").

There have been some studies that indicates higher risks of cancer when eating G.M.O.s, but the scientists behind these studies appear to have been ideologically against G.M.O.s, and the studies have been found to flawed and has largely been retracted (including the much spoken about 2012 rat study from France). Indeed, the general consensus among scientists doing research into the subject, is that there is no difference in risks between conventional crops and modified crops - something which is hardly surprising, considering the biology behind it.

In 2010, the European Commission (hardly a strong proponent of G.M.O.s) released their research into the harms from G.M.O. In the press release it was described thus:
In order to help inform debate on genetically modified organisms, the European Commission is publishing today a compendium entitled "A decade of EU-funded GMO research". The book summarizes the results of 50 research projects addressing primarily the safety of GMOs for the environment and for animal and human health. Launched between 2001 and 2010, these projects received funding of €200 million from the EU and form part of a 25-year long research effort on GMOs.
As I said before, the EU and the European Commission can hardly be considered strong proponents of G.M.O.s. Indeed they put off allowing G.M.O.s for a long time, while researching the potential side-effects. This is part of the general principle of caution, under which the EU usually handles these things - in the EU it generally has to be demonstrated that there are no harmful side-effects, before it is allowed, while in the US, the tendency is to demand that a harmful side-effect be proven, before not allowing it.

The summarization of 25 years of research into the potential side-effects of G.M.O.s was summed up thus in the press release:
According to the projects' results, there is, as of today, no scientific evidence associating GMOs with higher risks for the environment or for food and feed safety than conventional plants and organisms.
I highly recommend downloading and reading the book (pdf).

Back to the NY Times article. Mr. Ilagan spent the time necessary, and talked to the people with the proper expertize, in order to get to understand the subject well enough to make an informed vote. He appears to have been alone, or nearly alone, in this, and instead the anti-science ignorance spread by anti-GMO advocates were allowed to carry the day. The ban was approved 6 votes to 3.

Many issues related to science are complex, and it is even harder to get to understand them when there are people actively promoting misinformation, no matter whether they are grassroots organizations or think-tanks.

When politicians face decision making relating to such an issue, they could much worse than try to follow in the footsteps of Mr. Ilagan. As the EC compendium correctly states:
Sound policy, while needing to take account of a wide range of views, must be based on sound science.
All to often, anti-science is allowed to carry the day.

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Blogger Unknown said...

If more people could be like Mr. Ilagan and take the time to explain and inform the public then I feel that a lot of misconceptions people have of science would deteriorate. There is a large amount of public ignorance that no one is addressing and that is contributing to the reasons why people have a anti-science view. I participated in a few protest to make sure that the Texas Education Board would keep only evolution in biology textbooks after they made attempts to dilute evolution and creationism. Like I mentioned in one of my blogs I hope we start to develop an ideology of questioning everything which I feel will help us move to a better future.

January 08, 2014 8:55 AM  

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