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One of the most annoying things about our current arguments about science and technology, is the persistent myth that people who question technology are anti-science. Science is a system of data collection and analysis. Technology is stuff we do. They are not the same things, as I will try to explain below.

In current discussions of the "objectivity of science", it is amusing to note that it is precisely the inherent objectivity of science that allows us to critique the lack of objectivity with which most of our scientific knowledge is implemented. It is science, after all, which shows us that we are destabilizing the biome of the planet even as it shows us how to do it. Science is so objective, that it does not distinguish between that which we can and can't really handle; Like the Tree of Knowledge, or perhaps as the tree of knowledge, it tells us everything it can, good or evil, and it doesn't guarantee complete answers, either.

Another problem with the discourse on science is the failure to distinguish between the container and the thing contained. Just because science is objective doesn't mean that scientists will be. The problem is that scientists are like the rest of us: they can't afford to be objective because they need jobs. Most jobs, especially the good paying ones, are distributed by powerful and influential persons. People get in powerful and influential positions primarily by being aggressive and skilled at forming interpersonal alliances. This should not be surprising; science shows that aggression and forming interpersonal alliances are means used for social dominance in most great apes and science has shown us that we are just another form of great ape, albeit an unusually intelligent one.

You also can't discuss the undermining of objectivity in science without discussing economics. The root of the word "economics" is "oikos", Greek for "house". "Economics" used to be a term for "taking care of household business". At some point in prehistory, money was invented to form a symbolic system to represent, stream line and formalize the exchange of goods and services for household business. Unfortunately, money is just a symbolic system, a virtual reality, a projection of one system - all the material and people in the world - onto an entirely different substrate: little pieces of metal or paper. Monetary economics is a game that resembles real economics, but has its own rules, forms and potential for accumulation that have nothing to do with meeting the needs of households.

Monetary economics is a game whose rules are constantly re-written by the people who acquire enough money to write them, and the rules of the game subordinate science to the game. After all, we know that our politicians are elected by those who have money. But why do they bother? Because they want to use the politicians to tweak the rules, through legislation, tax codes, subsidies, regulation, etc., etc., etc. In this way, the games of monetary economics are "improved", in exactly the same way the rules of black jack have been re-written by the casinos to guarantee that you can't beat the house. Our choices of technologies are not made by scientifically objective principles, or even according to real economic needs, but by the rulers of the money game, those aggressive, deal making apes I mentioned earlier.

Technology is where the rubber of political corruption hits the road, and until we directly address this connection, our long term prospects as a civilization are pretty dim. By placing the cart, industry and technology, before the horse, science, we proceed bass ackwards with scientifically measurable disastrous results.

For many millennia, human technology has tended to result in “unintended consequences”. We get the beginning of the understanding of something, just enough to do it, and then we do it until the consequences become clear. Then we either stop doing it or figure out how to deal with the consequences. This is how human technology worked up until very recently, but that could change, thanks to Science.

Science is basically a body of data with rules which allow us to manipulate the data in order to make predictions. The way science grows, is that you have a phenomenon. You gather some basic data and patterns in it point you to guesses about the phenomenon. Then, you realize that you don’t have the data you need. You cast your guess as a “theory” and figure out what data you do need to test it. Then you go out and collect that data and it either supports your theorem or it doesn't. That, or it does neither and you realize you need to gather some more data. Answering one question about something usually raises other questions which in turn require more data, some of which may reveal problems with data collected for former theorem, and so on ad infinitum. I say that for a reason.

The ancient Greeks had a paradox they used to like to think about. They didn’t know how to smoke pot, so they killed time by thinking about things like the paradox of Achilles. In the paradox, Achilles is in a race with a turtle. With each step he travels half the distance to the turtle. Can he catch up with the turtle? The answer, of course, is no, he’ll never get more than half way there. Science is like Achilles, always lagging behind phenomenon. This is why scientists tend to equivocate and get things wrong. That Science is always refining its knowledge, however, does not mean that it is a pointless exercise. Achilles may not catch up with the turtle, but he does get close enough to reach down and pick it up. That’s Science. It always has farther to go, but we are getting to the point with Science that we know a really amazing amount of stuff. This body of knowledge allows us to do amazing stuff, to implement technologies that were formerly unimaginable. At the same time, our Scientific knowledge is allowing us to predict the consequences of our technological choices.

It takes a little science to figure out how to do something, a little more to do it well, and a massive amount to predict the consequences.

Science is like a person who walks into a meeting and says, "I have some good news and some bad news, which do you want first?" The people who called the meeting say, "Good news first!" Science says, "Well, I've figured out how to do such and such. I haven't had time to figure out all the consequences, however, although I can say that…" At this point the people who look to Science to fill their pockets say, "Whoa, there! Time is money, this meeting has lasted long enough! Now, go and don't come back until you can provide us with a free lunch, and don't forget to make our omelet without breaking any eggs. Good thing we own that Sacred Cow, Science!"

Basic result is that many scientists are employed trying to distort science in order to implement technologies that are the equivalent of trying to jump over ones own knees. For example, one of the first principles you learn in biology, a principle known to the ancients, is that a large population of genetically similar organisms is going to be subject to a population crash due to disease or predators sooner or later. The longer the population is in one location, the more likely that the disease or predator will find it and, once it is found, the density and uniformity of the prey organisms will allow the predator to spread like wildfire. If the prey population has some innate resistance to the predator, the size and uniformity of the prey population will give the predator many opportunities to figure out a way around the resistance, so the larger the population of prey, the sooner the predator will find a way to eat it. Then the population of the prey animal crashes and you have lost your crop again. In nature, the prey organism may have opportunities to adapt, but in a farmer’s field, you are just screwed; ask the Irish.

Nowadays, scientists are being pressured to use cloning to produce uniform forests of trees and uniform herds of animals, organisms that must live for more than a year or even decades until maturity. This is considered the height of scientific advancement, although a first year biology student should be able to explain to you why it is a lousy idea. However, I have listened to a tenured professor talk about grafting whole forests of "disease resistant super trees". He knows that the disease of today is not going to be the disease of tomorrow, that micro-organisms and insects will adapt to overcome disease resistance and that genetic uniformity in the prey organism will speed up this process, but he is also trying to make a career out of the science of grafting, so he goes along to get along.

Giant uniform fields of annual crops are the reason that we must struggle ever harder to manage disease in agriculture. The most scientifically logical solution to this problem in terms of energetic expenditure vs. result, is to keep fields diverse, practice crop rotation and avoid genetic uniformity. None the less, the business men who run the dominant agricultural operations are not really concerned with scientific fact, they are more concerned with monetary economics, which demands a large production of uniform units at minimal. As a result, scientists, who should, and frequently do know better, are engaged in trying to produce ever larger populations of genetically uniform organisms and protecting them from ever more aggressive and adaptive predators and diseases with ever more exotic blends of chemicals and cultivation practices, mostly based on petroleum, a substance whose "economics" have been more aggressively tweaked than the rules of black jack.

I have to grit my teeth when people say, "But technology will come up with a way to fix that problem!" Passive and active solar, small scale, labor intensive agriculture, simple, durable cars with good gas mileage, the technologies already exist or have existed long enough that they would have solved a lot of our problems if we had implemented them. The problem is that we just don't have the sense to use them! Instead, we allow monetary economics and the personality types who excel at that game to choose for us.

We can’t even implement simple things that are well understood, like crop diversity. Thanks to GMO’s we are growing massive monocultures of corn, potatoes, soy and canola which are even more genetically uniform than those crops were before we understood the pitfalls of uniformity. We are told this is all under control, but Roundup Ready soy and canola have already become weeds in farmers’ fields. GMO marked genes are showing up in other people’s crops. Meanwhile, every plant produces a mixed bag of chemicals and science already shows that the Bt toxin, the element added to GMO corn and cotton, is increased in field run off from GMO fields, as well as in river sediments downstream. In other words, we are growing little self-reproducing chemical factories. Science could help us predict the long term consequences of this sort of thing, but the business men who run agriculture aren't about to fund the research and they will try to deny the results of what does get done. That much about science they understand: too much scientific knowledge will take the blush off their roses, so they work to suppress science even as they claim to carry the banner of "scientific objectivity".

The junking of science is another problem. There is a whole industry devoted to picking apart studies that industry doesn’t like. Sometimes, like the criticisms of Seralini’s GMO study, they will ignore the results that have some validity while focusing on those that are less valid, while criticizing methods that are the same that they use in the studies they promote. This is a tactic used by public relations firms for a long time. If you don’t like what someone is saying, find some little problem, or something unsavory about the author and the whole message will be thrown out. Remember that whole brouhaha about Dan Rather publishing letters supposed to be written by George Bush’s commanding officer? What they didn’t report is that the guy came out and said that, although he hadn’t written them, he could have, and they expressed his feelings about George.

It takes a little science to conceive a technology, a bit more to implement it, and a massive amount of science to reveal the long term effects of that technology. Until we are willing to expend that massive quantity of science on our implementation of technology, we will not be able to partake of the objectivity of science. We will just be stuck with the arbitrariness of monetary economics, with some haphazard technology thrown in, and the long term prospect of disrupting the fabric of life on earth.

Ironically, there is an army of people out there who do science for a living and are accustomed to being paid a little more than minimum wage. They are called “grad students”, “post docs” and “lab techs”. Most of them also have ideas about what sort of science they would do if there wasn’t a professor hanging over them all the time.

The science of archaeology shows that climate change tends to disrupt civilizations, throw their economies into a cocked hat and bring their technological progress to a violent halt as the haves  struggle to maintain their hold on what the have nots need. Many of these civilizations are now preserved under the deserts of North Africa and North America. We will have the dubious honor of being the first civilization to know it was responsible for triggering the climate change, but continued to do it. Let us hope that we don't manage to reduce the whole planet to a desert. To close with a quote from Tacitus, placed by him in the mouth of a German terrorist leader, "Ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant." "Where [The Romans] make a desert, they call it 'Peace'".

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (8+ / 0-)

    Cracker(krăk´ẽr ) Someone, usually but not exclusively white, whose world view is primarily formed by consensual validation as opposed to observed fact, hence “cracker” for someone brittle, insubstantial and lacking in nutritive value.

    by outis2 on Mon Aug 11, 2014 at 06:07:18 PM PDT

  •  The Real Reason For the So Called Discussion Is (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    blueoasis, happymisanthropy, RMForbes, Chi

    one more step downstream from science and technology: marketing.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Mon Aug 11, 2014 at 06:58:19 PM PDT

  •  Just out of curiosity (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    What do you consider to be the good parts of the Seralini study, and what do you consider to be the bad parts?

    Vai o tatu-bola escamoso encontrar-me onde estou escondendo? Lembro-me do caminho de ouro, uma pinga de mel, meu amado Parati (-8.75,-8.36)

    by tarkangi on Mon Aug 11, 2014 at 07:09:25 PM PDT

    •  Let's not have this devolve (0+ / 0-)

      into the same old pro/anti GMO argument, but instead consider the point he is making. I'd prefer not to have this discussion hijacked.

      •  I was trying to get a discussion going (0+ / 0-)

        As we all know too well, these diaries tend to dissolve into stupid little slap fights where the same combatants rehearse the same stale talking points over and over again to the profit of no one.

        The Seralini study has traditionally been one of those cudgels, that each side drags out to bash the other.

        My hope was that we might avoid that traffic jam by taking a close look at the study itself, at what it says and what it does not say, so that we could develop a shared understanding of that specific issue.  Maybe we could even generate some mutual respect.

        But we are not going to, if no one can be bothered to start the conversation.

        Vai o tatu-bola escamoso encontrar-me onde estou escondendo? Lembro-me do caminho de ouro, uma pinga de mel, meu amado Parati (-8.75,-8.36)

        by tarkangi on Mon Aug 11, 2014 at 09:28:46 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  Thanks for the opportunity (0+ / 0-)

      The best place is to start with original documents, and I think Seralini makes a good defense of his paper on the ground that the materials and methods are standard and, in some cases, the same as studies done by Monsanto, which are less meaningful because they are sited to prove a negative.

      I found his results, as a preliminary study, startling, especially the results which were not cancer, which are ignored by the study’s detractors. I didn’t actually expect to see much in the way of results, so maybe I was too easily disturbed. He did combine Roundup Resistant potatoes with Round up is some of his groups, and I hope there isn’t that much roundup in a roundup resistant crop, but I don’t know.

      I also got in a stupid discussion with someone who refused to understand that rats are bred to be prone to a disease so that you can test substances that might induce that disease. He kept insisting that the control rats who got cancer proved that the other groups couldn’t have gotten their cancer from the GMO/Roundup. That was fun.

      I’ve seen people saying that the fact that not all the iterations of each group had the same results meant that none of the results were meaningful. You have iterations because you don’t expect them all to be the same and it helps with the statistical analysis.

      Finally, his conckusions were that there should be larger studies but that they only needed to be two year studies because he saw most of his results in the first two years. This is a perfect illustration of my point that most science points to how to do more science.
      original study republished:
      another reply

      Cracker(krăk´ẽr ) Someone, usually but not exclusively white, whose world view is primarily formed by consensual validation as opposed to observed fact, hence “cracker” for someone brittle, insubstantial and lacking in nutritive value.

      by outis2 on Wed Aug 13, 2014 at 02:22:05 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Great: let's get to work (0+ / 0-)

        I just now saw that you had replied to my original post, and it is now the end of the week, the there is a very real chance that the moment for this particular exchange may have passed - but I will be on the lookout for your comments in the future so that we may continue.

        Let me say up front that my big issue with the Seralini paper stems from his presentation style being unlike anything I have encountered before, which makes it difficult to see what precisely his results are.  This is my bad, and the only way to overcome it is to ask for help; with the caveat, though, that a scientist with legitimate results will go to great lengths to ensure that people understand his point while a scientist presenting dodgy work will be less than transparent.

        I must also say that, while I go to great lengths to keep an even temper and to stick to the point, that photograph of the rats with scary tumors and great big GMO ROUNDUP labels can make me very angry when some one slaps it out to make the dishonest insinuation that "GMO" rats get cancer while control rats don't and thus GMOs cause cancer.  I can see that we may have some linguistic issues to hammer out regarding what "causes" cancer in rats that are "predisposed" to developing tumors, but that should be a bit of fun.

        Turning to the paper for which you have so helpfully provided a link, I am looking at Table 2 and specifically at the liver results because they were featured prominently in the introduction.  Having a 2.5 to 5.5 fold increase over the controls in the number of rats with liver damage certainly is an eye-popping result.  However, I don't see that Seralini did a statistical analysis of this particular result (although it may be in there and I simple didn't see it) so I applied a G test to the entire set of ten conditions applied to groups of ten rats, against the null hypothesis H0 = GMO and Roundup have no effect on liver damage:

        So what I find is that if the group is homogeneous, with the Roundup/GMO having no  effect, you would expect to see abnormalities in about five rats in each group with the detailed numbers depending on the fluctuations one expects to see in small sample sizes.  

        And that is exactly what we do see: having a box with two individuals, as seen in the control case, is completely unremarkable in an experiment with this design.  While it looks shocking to see the box of two associated with the control, this result suggests that it is just a fluke and that in a replicate study the control could easily show higher - more normal - rates of liver damage while some other cell might show a low score.  As it is, a naive glance at the data looks like GMO food with Roundup in the drink is protective relative to GMO or Roundup alone, a coincidence according to the non rejected null hypothesis.

        For completeness, the p-value of 0.46 is huge.  Contemporary practice is that p greater than 0.05 requires not rejecting the null hypothesis.

        So thanks for replying to my comment.  I had a good time, I learned a few things, and with luck we can keep this going.  I much prefer when people get together to thrash out specific questions, as opposed to defending positions and hurling abuse.

        Vai o tatu-bola escamoso encontrar-me onde estou escondendo? Lembro-me do caminho de ouro, uma pinga de mel, meu amado Parati (-8.75,-8.36)

        by tarkangi on Thu Aug 14, 2014 at 10:54:41 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Thank you, too (0+ / 0-)

          I haven't been watching the Kos for a while, and they didn't note I had a comment replied to. Thanks for the statistical analysis. Now I feel like I should drag out my memory and do the analysis of the other conclusions or at least read some of the criticisms, if I can find one that does as good a job as you did.

          I'm not deeply wedded to the Seralini study, but I hadn't even heard about it until it was banned and the European scientific community consider the banning to be caused by an unprecedented incident of corporate bullying. To say the study is bad is one thing, and certainly happens all the time in science, but to outright withdraw it when the data was not fabricated seems... unscientific. After all, a study like this can be critiqued by exactly the sort of analysis you have done. Since then I have found myself in some weird conversations that have forced me to pay more attention to the study itself. I even tried something like you did to me, to see if I could get a reasonable response. I hope my response to you was better than the one I got!

          As I said before, I look forward to the day when Universities all over the world are making GMOs and haven't seen another really convincing study about health effects from GMOs (or I would have jumped on it). Breeding plants for disease resistant can introduce a bad chemical into someone's diet, but the health problem I see from GMO's is that they are currently designed to make our diet even more narrow and concentrated on fats and starches. Plus they are speeding up the sunset date on Bt toxin and Roundup.

          Cracker(krăk´ẽr ) Someone, usually but not exclusively white, whose world view is primarily formed by consensual validation as opposed to observed fact, hence “cracker” for someone brittle, insubstantial and lacking in nutritive value.

          by outis2 on Thu Aug 21, 2014 at 03:21:20 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  We have been growing crop monocultures for (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    many decades. Long before we started developing GMOs. And as for Rather letters, fake is fake.

    •  We have been using sustainable farming (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Chi, Just Bob

      techniques for thousands of years. Monoculture petrochemical factory farming is not sustainable, it only produces short term gains and depletes the soil.

      Really don't mind if you sit this one out. My words but a whisper -- your deafness a SHOUT. I may make you feel but I can't make you think..Jethro Tull

      by RMForbes on Mon Aug 11, 2014 at 08:43:29 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I love Thick as a Brick (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        Of course I do, being as I am a long time fan of prog rock.  As far as I am concerned the seventies never ended and we are living in the year nineteen hundred seventy forty four.

        Vai o tatu-bola escamoso encontrar-me onde estou escondendo? Lembro-me do caminho de ouro, uma pinga de mel, meu amado Parati (-8.75,-8.36)

        by tarkangi on Mon Aug 11, 2014 at 10:54:38 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  Yeah, we know monocultures are stupid because (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      they've bit us in the ass so often, yet we are doing them on an even larger scale now. That's my point.

      And fake may be fake, but in the context of an election, the candidates track record as an employee is more important than the mistakes of some intern.

      Cracker(krăk´ẽr ) Someone, usually but not exclusively white, whose world view is primarily formed by consensual validation as opposed to observed fact, hence “cracker” for someone brittle, insubstantial and lacking in nutritive value.

      by outis2 on Wed Aug 13, 2014 at 02:30:24 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  In the context of elections if you present (0+ / 0-)

        a document as genuine and it turns out to be fake it tends to come back and bite you on the ass. Even if it's not your fault.

        I agree about monocultures but they are more productive than traditional methods. Initially that was all most people cared about. For any alternatives to be universally accepted yields would have to be similar.

        •  It's not just a matter of yields, it is (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          economy of scale, crop subsidies and uniformity of product. If you can buy a field's worth of seed for 25% less than two half fields, you will do it, for example. Plus, farmers are just as subject as anyone to fads. Anyway, you are iterating my point, short term economic decisions trump scientific rationality. We seem to differ in that you accept this, while I hope that things like public policy in a democracy, consumer education, labeling and economic philosophy will reduce this bad practice.

          My Dad grew up to be an economist, but he grew up on a farm and he thought he was going to be a very successful farmer because he could see how the grownups screwed up every year by growing a whole bunch of whatever brought the best price the previous year. Not only were they putting all their eggs in one basket, but if the crop was good they drove the prices down by flooding the market. I took classes in the Ag school at Cornell, and they teach much the same thing, and there is a farming movement to diversify and grow "value added products".

          Cracker(krăk´ẽr ) Someone, usually but not exclusively white, whose world view is primarily formed by consensual validation as opposed to observed fact, hence “cracker” for someone brittle, insubstantial and lacking in nutritive value.

          by outis2 on Thu Aug 14, 2014 at 09:03:19 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  Picking apart the Seralini study... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    tarkangi, Chi

    is science at its best.  It is why science works.

  •  Righteous rant. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    The points you make are so important, and yet so overlooked or ignored...

  •  Science vs Applied Science/500s vs 600s (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Way back in the good old days, as if there really were such a thing, of 1876 a pretty smart feller named Melvil Dewey created a system some of you may have heard of.  It's the Dewey Decimal System which is probably used by your friendly neighborhood library to categorize it's collection of books.  And Yea verily, Dewey decreed those books of pure science should be divided from those of Applied Science and thus you will find your science books in the 500s and your Applied Science (Including engineering and technology) in the 600s.  So you see we've had this figured out for at least 138 so we really do Know the difference.    

    Another way of putting it is:  E=MC2 is science.  KABOOM is Technology or as I was taught Applied Science.

    But wait.  The atomic bomb wasn't built by a cadre of engineers but by the very top physicists of their generation; many of whom were horrified at what they had built and went on to lobby for nuclear disarmament.  Doesn't the real question involve the moral responsibility that scientists have regarding the use of their work?  And isn't that were we most commonly get hung up?      

    A bad idea isn't responsible for those who believe it. ---Stephen Cannell

    by YellerDog on Mon Aug 11, 2014 at 11:32:39 PM PDT

    •  And yet, you have guys like Carl Sagan (0+ / 0-)

      writing whole books about people who resist certain technologies being superstitious morons who don't understand science. Dewey may have had it, but most people out there clearly don't.

      Cracker(krăk´ẽr ) Someone, usually but not exclusively white, whose world view is primarily formed by consensual validation as opposed to observed fact, hence “cracker” for someone brittle, insubstantial and lacking in nutritive value.

      by outis2 on Wed Aug 13, 2014 at 02:33:25 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  The junking of science (0+ / 0-)

    Then there's the corruption of science. I have the most dismal of sciences in mind. In Charles Ferguson's Inside Job, highly respected and influential economists in academia were highly offended when they were asked to reveal sources of income that may have colored their perspective.

    I'm a Vietnam Era vet. I'm also an Erma Bombeck Era vet. When cussing me out and calling me names please indicate which vet you would like to respond to your world changing thoughts.

    by Just Bob on Tue Aug 12, 2014 at 12:26:27 AM PDT

  •  Thanks for this. (0+ / 0-)

    I'm really tired of debating issues of technology run amok with people that think one isolated and disconnected "scientific" factoid makes a conclusive argument against a reality they, apparently, cannot accept, even when facts stare us in the face.

    And worse, those who argue the infallibility of celebrities with TV shows.

    Is it safe to discuss science and technology again here?

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