Jan 13 2014

The GMO Narrative and Abstinence Only Farming

Nathaniel Johnson over at Grist has written a series of articles on genetically modified organisms (GMO). As an investigative journalist he decided to do what I call a “deep dive” on this one issue to try to sort out fact from fiction, and which side (anti or pro) has the better arguments. He acknowledges that this was a journey of discovery and he was learning as he went along.

His most recent article, I think, is the most interesting: What I learned from six months of GMO research: None of it matters. In this latest installment he discusses the meta-lessons he learned in his journey through GMO – which seem to me like core skeptical principles. His article is an eloquent discussion of these principles, worth a read in its entirety, but I will further discuss here.

The main thing that Johnson learned is that people generally do not arrive at and defend positions based upon a careful analysis of the facts. Rather they have a narrative that fits their world view, and they defend that narrative despite the facts. This, of course, is familiar territory for skeptics.

In fact, regarding GMO he reasonably argues that the stakes are rather low. The risks of GMO are generally low and mixed (some benefit here, some downside there). The benefits of GMO are likewise highly variable, but none of them are transformative. With or without GMO technology, the agricultural industry will look and behave pretty much the same, and our food supply will be pretty much the same.

This is not to say they make no difference, but in the grand scheme of things the stakes are far lower than one would guess by the emotional intensity of the debate. Why the disconnect?

He further notes the folly of discussing GMO as a monolithic entity, and dings both sides of the debate for this fallacy. Each GM organism must be examined on its own merits. I would extend this point by saying that GMO technology itself includes a range of interventions. For example, transplanting genes from a closely related variety should be considered a significantly different intervention than transplanting a gene from a different kingdom of life.

Also, different GMO crops have different purposes – resisting pests, resisting herbicide, and improving nutritional content, for example. Assessing the net environmental impact of Roundup ready crops is a very different thing from assessing the nutritional advantage of golden rice. Conflating these into one argument is absurd.

Why, then, do people generally discuss GMO as one entity? Johnson had to confront the many-headed beast of comments to his articles on a controversial topic. This experience appears to have given him some insight into the answer, and I think he does put his finger on it exactly.

Johnson realized that people generally do not form scientifically nuanced opinions based upon the best science and evidence. Rather, they have a narrative, and they see everything through the lens of that narrative. Again – this is very old news to skeptics. Johnson writes:

When Dan Charles was researching his (terrific) book, Lords of the Harvest, he bumped up against some of the same quandaries I encountered, and concluded that the importance of these narratives was tantamount.

“The dispute over genetic engineering involves facts, to be sure,” he wrote. “But its parties disagree far more passionately over the story. They quarrel over the nature of the characters, the plot, and over the editing. They also feud over the unknowable: the ending.”

The debate isn’t about actual genetically modified organisms — if it was we’d be debating the individual plants, not GMOs as a whole — it’s about the stories we’ve attached to them.

GMO critics dislike GMO because they dislike the corporate agricultural complex it represents. That is why, in my opinion, Monsanto has been so demonized. GMO = Monsanto = Corporate Greed and Malfeasance. When discussing the facts regarding GMO it is very common to be labeled as a “Monsanto apologist” or “shill.”

Johnson makes a very apt analogy to abstinence only sex education. The religious right dislikes promoting the use of condoms as a way to mitigate the risks of premarital sex (unwanted pregnancy and spread of disease) because it supports a moral position they dislike. Similarly, anti-GMO activists dislike golden rice because is supports an agricultural industrial complex they dislike, not because of the specific risks and benefit of golden rice.

In other words, it is not about the facts. It is about the narrative. This is further driven by our need for simplicity – the narrative is clean and simple, and washes over a great deal of complexity and nuance.

On the flip side, pro-GMO advocates have their own narrative – the triumph of human technology and ingenuity, or perhaps the power of the free market.

Skeptics, of course, have their own GMO narrative – fallacious vs science-based thinking. Both extremes are wrong because they base their thinking on simplistic notions (like the naturalistic fallacy or the pristine power of the free market) rather than a fact-based individual assessment of each GM product. Johnson has simultaneously noticed that people largely base their opinions on narratives rather than facts, and moved himself into the skeptical narrative.

I am not criticizing Johnson’s evaluation (it’s spot on) just extending it a bit. People are variable and complex, and in the real world I find people spread throughout the entire spectrum, incorporating every permutation of valid and invalid arguments. While there is a valid and very useful insight in the notion that opinions are largely narrative-based, don’t fall into the false dichotomy of splitting the world into competing narratives. For every exemplar there will be those who break the mold or fall in-between.

It is the skeptical narrative that I find challenges me the most. There is utility in identifying patterns of argument that represent iconic positions. The pitfall for skeptics, however, is falling into the trap of dealing with individual people as if they were the iconic position they represent – treating individuals as labels.

To some extent this is unavoidable. When discussing issues I need to break them down into the basic positions that most people take. It is simply unwieldy to account for every possible individual variation on these themes. Further, we are social creatures and we have culture. Therefore we have group narratives that are reinforced by subcultures, and this does tend to produce legions of cookie-cutter opinions.

But I think it is important to  focus on individual arguments and individual pieces of evidence, rather than treating a position as a package. Further, when discussing an individual person, address their position, not the label you have attached to them.

So while many people generally fall into the pro-GMO or anti-GMO camp, and these camps do tend to share a common and self-reinforcing narrative, also be alert to and open to the individual variations that people will bring to these narratives.  Also, don’t define one group by the narrative of their opponents. That tends to produce cardboard caricatures.

Unfortunately, I think we need to embrace the complexity, as much hard work as this is. But on a bright note, this approach also can provide clarity. The GMO issue really should emphasize the best scientific evidence and arguments. The politics will still involve value judgments, but at least we can identify them and know when we are discussing the science and when we are discussing values and opinion. Confusing the two is a source of much mischief.

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