How do you decide which side is scientifically valid?
So I guess we should start of with something very basic: how do we judge if something is scientifically valid, and how do we make scientifically valid arguments? The most obvious answer is to look at the research.
But for someone who never took a science class after high school, how do you know what to look for? Well you look at a number of things. For one, the study should be relatively recent (ideally within ten years). But when evaluating a scientific study the first thing I look for is the journal it was published in. The journal should at least be peer reviewed, where leaders in the field evaluate the research's methodology, analysis, and conclusions for holes and errors. If the research passes the peer review process then it is worthy for publication. Not all journals are peer reviewed, and I don't spend a lot of time on those studies that are published in such journals.
Now it is very difficult to wade through all that research on your own. That is what review articles and meta-analyses are for. You should look for such articles in peer reviewed journals as well. They will give an overview of the research on a topic, and often times perform a statistical analysis of compiled data spanning the studies.
A good tool that I used when I was in school for finding such studies and articles is PubMed, which is a search engine of sorts for scientific research. Just running a quick search myself I found this recent review which showed no health hazards for GMO products.
Now how do you decide what is right after researching a scientific topic? Well whatever side has the preponderance of studies supporting its position is generally considered the scientifically valid position to hold. Certainly there will be some studies supporting the other side, but if you base your position on a minority of studies because of your preconceived opinion then that is confirmation bias.
What is not a valid way to make a scientific argument is to make appeals to authority rather than research. Because some European political bodies, Senator Merkley, or even a scientist you hold in high esteem espouse an opinion doesn't mean a damn thing unless there is scientific evidence to back it up.
And certainly science could be wrong, but probability wise if there is a well-supported scientific theory and one or multiple anti-science theories the theory with the greatest probability of being right is the scientific theory. And this is why public policy should rest on science. Science may not be right all the time, but it gives you the greatest odds of establishing the correct policy.
Dispelling myths regarding GMO
In this section I hope to dispel some myths and frankly bad logic justifying the hatred of GMO pushed by GMO truthers.
Claim: European scientists think GMO is bad
This is not remotely true. European scientists have disagreed vigorously with European politicians and political bodies over their ignorant and self-destructive actions on this subject (link, link). More importantly there is very little research coming from European scientists that show a negative impact of GMO.
Claim: GMO causes cancer, autism, diabetes, allergies, etc.
The GMO truther movement was born out of the Natural Movement, which is promoted by the Natural News website. This movement has pushed every crackpot theory you can think of from fluoride-in-the-water to AIDS/HIV conspiracies. Some of their nonsense like anti-vaxer conspiracies have taken root among some in the left (i.e. Bill Maher). Because of this many of the GMO truther claims are strikingly similar to anti-vaxer crap. You now even have some GMO truthers claiming that GMO causes autism and diabetes. However, there is little to no scientific support for any of this (see here and here).
Recently, GMO truthers have jumped on a study from France that show rats get cancer from being fed GMO corn. However, it has been widely panned by the scientific community for poor methodology, statistical fishing, and its results have not been replicated by another study. If you want to read a detailed explanation of the problems with this study go here. This situation actually reminds me of the Andrew Wakefield debacle, which is just another parallel between the GMO truther and anti-vaxer movements.
Claim: GMO puts toxins into your foods
Genetic Modification in itself does not put toxins in anything. Could it? Yes. Theoretically you could make a plant that spits out cyanide gas, but genetic modification is just a tool. GM is also used to produce plants that add nutrition to our food. GM is just a tool or a process. You can smelt metals to make good things or you can smelt metals to make weapons. This doesn't mean we should ban smelting.
If you want to ban something ban the product, but banning the technology itself is idiotic and counter-productive because it can be used to make any number of things.
Claim: GMO may or may not be harmful but forcing companies to label their products helps educate consumers
There has been a movement afoot to force companies to label GMO food. Their argument is whether or not you think GMO is harmful (it is most definitely not) consumers have a right to be informed about what they are eating. But the problem is labeling GMO foods would only misinform consumers and hurt small farmers who want to use GMO. Any label would connote something negative, when in fact there is no scientific basis for this. The government shouldn't force companies to do something that could potentially hurt their brand and has no scientific basis simply to indulge people's ignorant beliefs about an issue.
Public policy needs to be based on science. If a company like Whole Foods wants to profit off people's ignorance, well that is their right. But the government shouldn't force companies to do something that has no scientific basis and could only make consumers more confused.
And if you don't want chemicals in your food we already have a label for that: Organic.
Basically there is valuable knowledge to be gained from knowing the fat content, sugar content, and the ingredients of your food. There is nothing valuable to be gained from knowing that your food was in part made from GM. GM is not an ingredient. It is a process/technology. There is just as much scientific basis for labeling GM produced food as labeling food made with a certain brand of tractor: none.
Claim: All of these scientists are Monsanto shills
This is just ridiculous conspiracy theory nonsense. The industry does fund some science, but not all of it. This claim is on its face absurd and not worth my time.
Claim: GMO hurts small farmers
Like I said before GM is a technology. GM in itself doesn't hurt small farmers. If anything hurts small farmers it is our nations patent laws. Companies like Monsanto may abuse the patent system, but so do millions of other companies in completely unrelated industries. A better thing for Progressives to do would be focusing our energies on reforming our nation's patent laws, but like many things with the GMO issue this gets conflated with the technology itself by GMO truthers.
On the flip side, many small farmers want to plant GMO crops, but unnecessary and scientifically baseless regulatory restrictions placed on GMO products could hurt them as well. So it cuts both ways.
These are only some of the myths pushed by GMO truthers. I could list countless others, but I don't want to turn this diary into an encyclopedia. Simply put the science is clear: GM in itself is perfectly safe. Furthermore, GM could become one of our best tools to alleviate world hunger and malnutrition, but that is only if well-fed Westerners abandon their ignorant fears and get out of science's way.