Nov 10 2016

One more round with Massimo on GMOs and Skepticism

platoLast week I wrote a response to a NYT article on GMOs. Massimo Pigliucci wrote a critical analysis of my response. I then responded to that piece.
Below is the final round of responses on this issue, one from Massimo and then a final response from me. In this round Massimo changes the focus from GMOs specifically to how the skeptical movement handles such issues.


My (further) response to Novella on GMOs

by Massimo Pigliucci

I promise, this is the last round concerning this particular discussion, at the least on my part. To recap: Danny Hakim, an investigative reporter for the New York Times, published a critical piece on certain aspects of GMO technology; my friend and fellow skeptic Steve Novella responded; I commented critically on Steve’s response; and he responded to my criticism. The current post, however, isn’t going to be yet another blow-by-blow affair, for a few reasons: i) it would be even longer than the last installment, which I fear would severely test readers’ patience; ii) there is a diminishing return to going deeper and deeper and insert more and more qualifications to any argument; and iii) it seems to me that most of what Steve and I wanted to say has been said already.

So let me try to zoom the discussion out a little, shifting attention to what I think are some background issues of which this exchange has been a particular instantiation.

To begin with, I’m afraid Steve and I are talking past each other. We both agree that issues such as GMOs are “complicated,” and we are both sufficiently experienced and nuanced thinkers to appreciate that. We both know that the industry has repeatedly forced the hand in economic and legislative terms (for instance by spending millions to lobby against regulation and labeling); we also both know that more or less naive environmentalists have repeatedly ignored the facts on the ground to pursue their own political and ideological agendas. And yet, somehow we disagree. On what exactly?

Ultimately, on the very role of skepticism and on what it means to be a “skeptic.” This goes back to Steve’s harsh reaction to John Hogan’s invited talk at the latest North East Conference on Science and Skepticism. Steve is one of the co-organizers, and I have participated a number of times. Indeed, I was the one who suggested inviting Hogan to begin with.

(I know, this may seem a distraction from the topic of the post, but bear with me for a little while longer.)

In a nutshell, Hogan has criticized the skeptic movement for focusing on easy targets and shying away from real and socially relevant controversies, as well as for being a rather uncritical supporter of science and especially of a small number of high-profile scientists and science popularizers. Steve took Horgan to task on the details, and he was right in doing so, but missed, I think, the big picture — which is that the skeptic movement does need more than a bit of self-reflection and soul-searching.

Something similar has unfolded in this latest round. While Steve certainly makes good points about Hakim’s original NYT article, as well as my own criticism of his rebuttal, I need to explain what brought the whole thing to my attention to begin with.

He opens his piece on Hakim in this way: “It is unfortunate that so many journalists begin with a narrative and then back fill the facts and points necessary to tell their narrative.” And ends it this way: “In my opinion Hakim’s article in the Times was a hack piece with a biased narrative that is nothing more than a rehash of tired anti-GMO tropes that have already been widely deconstructed.”

It is a very unfortunate approach, one that reveals Steve’s own biases and showcases his heavy-handed rhetorical style. The Hakim article is most definitely not a hack piece, no matter how much one may disagree with the details; and there is no evidence that Hakim “buys” into any pre-determined narrative. He is an experienced investigative journalist, working for the premiere newspaper in the world. I think it is reasonable to assume that he knows how to do his job. Constructive criticism is not the sort of thing that begins with poisoning the well (“It is unfortunate that so many journalists…”) and ends with an ad hominem (“a hack piece with a biased narrative”).

One thing that doesn’t surface in Steve’s response is a fear that he brought up to me in direct correspondence (I cannot quote his email directly for privacy reasons, but I don’t think he will deny this, he’s an honest writer): you see, articles like the one in the New York Times give ammunitions to the irrational side of the debate. To substantiate his fear, Steve sent me the link to this article in Mother Jones, which sure enough does build on Hakim’s NYT piece and runs with it.

So yes, such fears are perfectly reasonable, and all too often come true. But wait a minute, I thought that as skeptics we were after the truth, not pushing a particular political or ideological position, however well-intentioned it may be. Was I mistaken?

Let me give you another example, concerning my own writings and how they have been and continue to be misused. I am one of the main promoters of what is referred to as the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis, a new version of the “standard model” in evolutionary theory. In doing so, I have commented on rather unorthodox ideas in evolutionary biology, such as epigenetic inheritance, niche construction, and so-called facilitated variation (a mechanism that makes natural selection’s jobs in generating complex structures much easier). Well, what do you know, the Discovery Institute — the creationist think tank based in Seattle — has had a field day with my writings, which they took (predictably, and mistakenly) to be points in their favor. (Here is just one example, from a few days ago, building on my recent critique of Andreas Wagner’s biological Platonism.) So be it. I do have a duty to write clearly and as precisely as possible. But I do not control the misinformation, willful or not, that others spread by making ill-use of what I write.

That should go for Steve and other skeptics too. It shouldn’t matter if an article or book can be misused by “the other side.” What matters is whether that article or book is accurate or not. If it isn’t, let’s correct it. But we shouldn’t help ourselves to rhetorical smears in order to circle whatever wagons we think we have a duty to defend.

An additional issue here is presented by the political positions of the people involved in the debate. Steve makes a point of not revealing publicly what his ideological leanings are, and I both understand and respect that. But of course that doesn’t make him immune from bias, it only hides from public view a potential source of bias. I make no beef in letting it known that I am a progressive liberal, what in Europe is known as a social democrat. Of course that biases my view of certain issues, for instance I tend to be instinctively skeptical of anything any big corporation says. This, however, doesn’t make what I say immediately wrong. Just like it didn’t make Pen Gillette’s and Michael Shermer’s original denial of climate change, probably fueled by their libertarianism, inherently wrong (they were plainly and simply wrong). Not only “bias” is inevitable, as much recent work in social psychology has shown, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing either.

Let me explain. In the early part of the 20th century philosophers of science were looking for ways to explain why science is an objective enterprise. Think the logical positivists, or Karl Popper. Then came the so-called “historicist” turn, with Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend, and philosophers finally realized that science is not, in fact, intrinsically objective at all. (Many scientists haven’t matured to that point yet.) Does that mean that science is, then, just another social construction? That knowledge and truth are inevitably relative to one’s tribe and worldview? No, and the best answer to this challenge is that of so-called “perspectivism,” articulated for instance by Ronald Giere. The idea is that science advances in a spectacular, if imperfect, fashion, not because individual scientists are somehow less biased or more objective than anyone else, but because there is a healthy confrontation of ideas advanced by people with a variety of perspectives, backgrounds and, yes, “biases” (i.e., preferences, values, personal experiences, etc.).

So I would actually urge my fellow skeptics to declare their biases, rather than keeping them close to their chest, precisely in order to advance a frank discussion about the issues.

Finally, Steve not surprisingly rejects my suggestion that there is a degree of groupthink within the skeptic community. And yet he has been to plenty of skeptic conferences where certain positions seem to be more or less sacred, being pro-GMOs is just one of them. Witness, for instance, the incredibly harsh and childish reaction the above mentioned talk by John Horgan at the latest NECSS got from the MC, simply because John had dared criticize Skepticism(TM). So much for open inquiry and critical discourse. Or witness the worshiping of a number of scientists or science popularizers whom I’ve repeatedly taken to task for their willful ignorance of philosophy (that includes Lawrence Krauss, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Bill Nye). I’ve actually seen people walking away from my talks at NECSS on the ground that “philosophy is useless anyway” (apparently forgetting that I’m also a scientist, oh well).

What does much of the above have to do with GMOs? As I said, both Steve and I have explained our positions on that particular issue, but I was drawn to his post by his opening and closing comments, which I saw as symptomatic of the sort of broader problems with the skeptic community that I am most concerned with. Steve is by far one of the least offenders here, but the fact that even his normally level-headed demeanor gave way to that outburst made me worry.

Of course, all of the above matters much less now that the United States has elected a fascist to the Presidency and given absolute control of power to a bunch of regressive sexists and homophobes. (Sorry, I just had to get that off my chest.) But that, obviously, is an entirely different story.


My Response

I want to first thank Massimo for this polite and thoughtful exchange. It is refreshing to have a polite discussion with someone with whom I basically agree but where we have a difference of perspective. My overall opinion is that Massimo and I are not far off in our opinions. Our differences are nuanced and a subtle matter of style and context. They are still meaningful and worth exploring, but we should keep them in perspective.

I often find this is the case. It is possible to agree with someone on a basic premise but to disagree with them only on the magnitude of the effect. For example, there are undeniable problems with the institutions of science. I don’t think those problems are fatal, they are improving, and we need to keep them improving. Others will use the same facts, however, to argue that science is broken and cannot be trusted.

The same is frequently true of corporations. I agree that they are primarily concerned with their own profits, they frequently do ethically questionable things, they make a deliberately biased case for their own products and services, and they sometime abuse their power (their wealth and resources) to bully people without such resources.

But does this mean that regulations are completely ineffective, that corporate funded science can be ignored, that government is entirely in the pocket of industry, and that they are basically evil entities that do no good? I can agree with someone on objective facts but still disagree with them on the big picture conclusion.

Massimo’s main concern with my original article about the NYT piece was how I bookended it:

He opens his piece on Hakim in this way: “It is unfortunate that so many journalists begin with a narrative and then back fill the facts and points necessary to tell their narrative.” And ends it this way: “In my opinion Hakim’s article in the Times was a hack piece with a biased narrative that is nothing more than a rehash of tired anti-GMO tropes that have already been widely deconstructed.”

He thought this was heavy handed and poisoned the well, reflecting my personal bias on this issue. I agree that these are subjective, just as the examples I gave above are subjective. We might agree on the facts but disagree if the term “hack” is fair. I suspect that this is therefore unresolvable.

I typically try to frame blog posts that are about a specific issue by putting them into some broader context. In this case I thought that Hakim’s piece was an example of journalists following a narrative, rather than telling it like it is. The result was a piece that took at face value anti-GMO tropes that have already been thoroughly criticized. Readers can decide for themselves if I was fair.

Turning to the Skeptical Movement

But this is the main thesis of Massimo’s current response:

In a nutshell, Hogan has criticized the skeptic movement for focusing on easy targets and shying away from real and socially relevant controversies, as well as for being a rather uncritical supporter of science and especially of a small number of high-profile scientists and science popularizers. Steve took Horgan to task on the details, and he was right in doing so, but missed, I think, the big picture — which is that the skeptic movement does need more than a bit of self-reflection and soul-searching.

This is another example of the “Is science broken,” or “Are corporations evil,” debate. We can agree on the facts but disagree on the implications.

Let me start by saying that I don’t think I missed the big picture. I agree that the skeptical movement needs self-reflection. In fact, I have argued frequently that, of all intellectual movements, one that is based on critical analysis needs to be obsessively self-critical.

My disagreement with Horgan was not on the mere fact that he was being critical of the skeptical movement, it was on the details of his criticism, which Massimo agrees I was right to. In the end Horgan criticized a massive straw man and essentially argued that we are doing it wrong because we are not addressing the issues he thinks we should address (which were mainly derived from his own personal political ideology.)

As with the NYT piece on GMOs, if you are going to enter a mature argument over a complex issue, you better have done your homework. Horgan did not, and as a result his criticisms were ultimately way off the mark and self-serving.

Massimo then makes another specific point, that we as skeptics should seek the truth, whatever that is, even if it is abused by some to push an anti-science agenda. Of course I agree with this.

I know it’s not fair to say, “Read my thousands of article to substantiate my point,” but I think regular readers will recognize that this is the approach I take. Our points and positions all have to be valid in-and-of themselves. We have to acknowledge facts and valid arguments, even those that may be inconvenient for our position.

I think Massimo is misunderstanding my position with respect to Hakim’s article, so let me clarify. My premise was that framing a discussion of GMOs as if they are one monolithic thing is an inherently biased frame, and specifically an anti-GMO frame. Hakim used examples of specific genetically modified organisms but framed the discussion as “the more basic problem” with “genetic modification.”

I think I have well established that this is a flawed way to approach the issue. I was simply then trying to further establish that this approach is part of anti-GMO talking points. That is not why it’s wrong, but that is why it is done.

Massimo uses as an example creationists abusing legitimate debate within evolutionary biology (including his own work) as talking points against evolution. I have specifically written about this phenomenon – science deniers use this as a general strategy, confusing debate over details as if they call into question more basic established facts.

But that is not analogous to what I was saying. The analogy would hold if Hakim made a valid point that was being abused. He didn’t. He made an invalid point that is already part of anti-GMO propaganda (I was simply pointing out the latter).

A better analogy would be if a journalist wrote an article about the “missing link” and then creationists played off this silly trope for another round of evolution bashing.

Ideology and Bias

Massimo turns next to an interesting issue:

Steve makes a point of not revealing publicly what his ideological leanings are, and I both understand and respect that. But of course that doesn’t make him immune from bias, it only hides from public view a potential source of bias.

This is a really complex issue with which I continue to struggle, and I welcome the opportunity to clarify my current position. I agree that everyone, including me, has biases. I try to be as transparent as I can about what I perceive as my own biases, and I try to be as aware of my own biases as possible.

With regard to political ideology and science communication, I currently have two policies. First, I do not advocate for my own politics at the same time I am advocating for science and skepticism. Some skeptical writers choose to do both, and that is their choice (as long as they are transparent about it). We have openly liberal and openly libertarian writers in our community who make no bones about promoting their political ideology along with science and critical thinking. More power to them.

I don’t do that. I think it compromises my ability to be an impartial (and perceived as impartial) broker of critical analysis of scientific issues.

In terms of revealing my own political ideology, it is true that I don’t publicly label myself. There are two good reasons for this. The first is that I think ideological labels have too much baggage. They are likely to prejudice readers and get in the way of my science communication.

But there is actually (and here I am going to reveal something about my politics) a deeper reason I don’t label myself – there is no political label with which I identify. I do not identify with any political party, and I don’t think that any political label describes my political positions with any accuracy.

This is partly because I try to be as non-ideological, evidence based, and fair as possible on each specific issue. As a result my individual political opinions tend to range all over the ideological map.

Instead of applying an inaccurate and loaded ideological label to myself, I have opted for revealing any relevant biases I might have on a case-by-base basis. This includes all biases, not just political. I probably don’t do this as much as I could, but that is my policy.

Skeptics and Groupthink

This is definitely a “science is broken” or “corporations are evil” issue. Even when I agree with someone on specific examples, I can disagree with them on the overall interpretations.

Let me start by saying, of course skeptics, to a degree, are tribal and are prone to the psychology of groups. We are people. We can get defensive, we can close ranks, and we can idolize our standard bearers.

The real discussion is – what is the magnitude of these phenomena within skepticism. My purely subjective sense (there is no objective data of which I am aware) is that they are overall pretty low. I think this is because skeptics tend to be individualistic and contrarian, but also because the whole idea of skepticism is following a valid process.

I think skeptics tend to agree on the easy things, precisely because they are easy. I think Massimo is unfair to characterize such positions as “sacred.” They are not; they are just obvious.

He specifically uses being pro-GMO as an example, but that is a terrible example. My own experience is quite different – that is one of a few scientific issues on which skeptics disagree. I may have a different experience than Massimo in that I have almost 200k listeners of my podcast who will send me e-mails when they disagree with me, and I get more pushback on GMOs than most other issues. I have also publicly lectured to skeptics on GMOs and received more pushback than on most other issues I discuss.

I do think this is shifting, however. As skeptics have been dissecting the anti-GMO propaganda I think we have built a very strong case against it and revealed it to be on the level of anti-vaccine or global warming denial propaganda. The tide is shifting quickly within the skeptical movement, due to evidence and arguments. It is also shifting more slowly in the general population.

I also think that Massimo is being unfair in his overall characterization of our response to criticism. We pushed back against Horgan not because he dared to criticize the skeptical movement, but because the quality of his criticism was horrible.

I will agree that some skeptics engage in hero worship of science celebrities, like the ones Massimo named. But yet again – what is the magnitude of this effect? This probably gets filed under confirmation bias, Massimo and I are looking at the same data but coming to different conclusions. Try posting a meme on Facebook with one of these people, and you will not see universal hero worship.

In fact, I would argue that skeptics love tearing down their idols, pedantically pointing out when they are wrong or make a mistake. Bill Nye has come under extensive criticism for some of his positions. Tyson has been criticized for stepping out of his area of expertise. Michio Kaku has been eviscerated among skeptics for over hyping pop ideas. Don’t even get me started on Krauss.

These people all have their fanboys, to be sure. But they equally have their critics. Skeptics are a tough crowd. Again, I probably have a different overall experience than Massimo.


This has been a fun exchange, partly because I probably agree with Massimo more than any other individual in the skeptical movement. Our common ground dwarfs our nuanced disagreements.

When you drill down to these nuances, even subtle effects can be manifest. Massimo and I occupy different positions in the skeptical movement. We have different careers, and therefore are subject to differing effects of confirmation bias.

Here we are mostly clarifying subtleties of our positions, or discussing differences in subjective perceptions and judgments. It is important to recognize then that is the case, and not pretend you have objective truth on your side.

This is the final installment on this specific exchange, but I am sure the conversation will continue in the comments.


Note: In reprinting Massimo’s article I had to strip out all the formatting. I put back all the critical links but did not have time to put them all back, so see Massimo’s original piece for the full linked version.

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