The Baloney Detection Kit: An update to the classic

In 1995, scientist and educator Carl Sagan published a book called The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. I can not recommend this book highly enough. It is a manifesto of clear, rational thinking. If you’re at all interested in understanding the physical world or, more importantly, understanding how to understand the physical world, you really need to read this book.

Seriously. I mean you. Go get a copy.

One of the many brilliant things in The Demon-Haunted World is the Baloney Detection Kit. In a chapter titled The Fine Art of Baloney Detection, Sagan lays out an excellent set of rules for determining whether or not you’re being hoodwinked by pseudoscience–luncheon meat masquerading as knowledge.

I am not and never will be as brilliant as Carl Sagan. However, he lived in a time when pseudoscience, and specifically conspiracy theories about science, were not nearly as endemic in the public discourse as they are today.

So I would modestly like to propose an update to the Baloney Detection Kit.

Here’s the updated version:

  • Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.”
  • Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
  • In science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.
  • Spin more than one hypothesis. If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained.
  • Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours.
  • Quantify. If whatever it is you’re explaining has some numerical quantity attached to it, you’ll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses.
  • If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise).
  • When faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well, choose the simpler.
  • Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.
  • Do not continue to make arguments that have already been discredited.
  • Do not trust a hypothesis that relies on a conspiracy to conceal the truth.
  • Arguments that rely on anecdotal evidence or have not been subject to peer review are not reliable.
  • While scientific consensus is not always correct, a hypothesis that contradicts the general consensus should be treated skeptically.
  • Correlation does not imply causation.
  • Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified.
Click on the image for a (much) embiggened version!

GMohno! Part 3: “Because Monsanto”

It’s an article of faith among certain people that Monsanto, Inc, the American seed company, is inherently and intrinsically evil. And not just evil in the way that you might say any large corporation is “evil,” in that it’s an organization of people with a vested interest in the organization’s survival, but maliciously evil–deliberately and vindictively harmful to others and to society as a whole.

So pervasive is this attitude that it’s accepted even by folks who don’t have a particular problem with GM food or agricultural biotechnology.

I can’t really complain about the folks who accept this idea. I used to be one of them. For many years, my conversations about GM food took the form “I think that genetic modification is a valuable tool for feeding a world of billions, and there is not the slightest evidence whatsoever that GM foods are in any way harmful or dangerous, even though I think Monsanto is evil.”

I couldn’t really put my finger on why I thought they were evil. I just knew they were. It was an idea I’d heard so often and was so pervasive I accepted it as true. (There is a quote that runs “If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it.” It’s often erroneously attributed to propagandist Joseph Goebbels, though there’s no documentation that he ever said it; the idea appears to have been around for quite a while.) I consider myself a skeptic and a rationalist, but I am still not immune to accepting things without evidence merely because I have heard them often enough.

In fact, it was during an effort to prove how evil Monsanto is that I started to realize many of the things I’d believed about the company were wrong. Someone in an online debate had challenged me to support the idea that Monsanto is an evil company, and I’m rarely one to turn away from a challenge to what I believe. “Piece of cake,” I thought. “A few minutes and a half-dozen links ought to be enough. This ought to be about as hard as proving that Moscow is a city in Russia.”

If you Google “Monsanto evil,” you’ll find a vast river of hysterical Web sites that scream Monsanto’s vileness to the heavens, usually accompanied by ridiculous and emotionally manipulative pictures like this:

But this river of Google effluent is about as persuasive as a Flat Earth Society page, and I reasoned that if I wouldn’t find the source credible myself, it would be disingenuous to try to use it to support my argument. Besides, I thought, I didn’t need to cite crap sources like that–there was plenty of legitimate support for Monsanto’s encyclopedic catalog of evil from reputable sources.

So I kept going, past the Googlerrhea of sites like NaturalNews and GMOwatch, looking for the clear and obvious evidence I knew would be there. I had heard all the standard arguments, naturally, and was quite confident they would be easy to support.

It turned out to be not so simple after all. In fact, the deeper I got, the more Monsanto’s supposed “evil” started to look like smoke and mirrors–propaganda fabricated from the flimsiest of cloth by people frightened of agricultural technology.

First, I thought Monsanto was enormous. It’s not. As corporations go, it’s actually not all that big. It’s about the same size as Whole Foods. It’s smaller than Starbucks and The Gap. It’s way smaller than UPS and 7-11. (In fact, I wrote a blog post about that last year.) As of the middle of 2014, Monsanto’s size compared to other corporations looked like this:

In fact, this graph is now out of date; as of the last quarter of 2014, Whole Foods is significantly larger in terms of revenue than Monsanto. (People who believe that little guys like Whole Foods are sticking it to the big bad megacorps like Monsanto likely don’t realize what they’re doing is merely supporting one giant megacorp over another.)

Then I read the company’s history, and learned that when people talk about things like how Monsanto made Agent Orange, they’re showing ignorance of a simple fact I also used to be ignorant of: there are, in a real sense, two Monsantos.

A Tale of Two Companies

The first Monsanto was Monsanto Chemical, a company that manufactured food additives, industrial chemicals, and plastics. This Monsanto no longer exists. In the late 1990s, it developed the drug Celebrex. Pfizer, the pharmaceutical company, bought Monsanto in 2002 because they wanted to capture Celebrex, a profitable and popular drug for treating arthritis.

Pfizer is a pharmaceutical company. As a pharmaceutical company, it’s not especially interested in being in agribusiness. In 1996, Monsanto (the chemical company) had bought an agricultural company, but Pfizer didn’t want to keep the agricultural business. So after the purchase of Monsanto, Pfizer spun off the agricultural business as a new company, which kept the old name Monsanto. This new Monsanto was entirely distinct from the old: new board, new directors, new business model, new bylaws, new incorporation. In what would prove an ill-fated decision, it kept the name “Monsanto,” which Pfizer also wasn’t interested in, to avoid having to rebrand itself. Changing the name, they estimated, would cost $40 million.

Was the old Monsanto evil? A case can be made that Monsanto (the chemical company) was a ruthless competitor. But a lot of the charges levied against it by the “Monsanto is evil” crowd turn out not to be true.

Monsanto invented saccharin? Not so fast

One of the claims I’ve heard many, many times is that Monsanto invented saccharin, the artificial sweetener. This is so far from true it’s “not even wrong,” as the saying goes. Saccharin was invented in 1879 by chemist Constantin Fahlberg of Johns Hopkins University. It was first manufactured in Magdeburg, Germany. Monsanto was one of many saccharin producers until 1972, but the claim they “invented” it is absolutely false.

In fact, these days, “Monsanto invented saccharin” is a litmus test I use in conversations with anti-Monsanto activists. If someone trots out this chestnut, I know he’s a person who can’t be arsed to do even a simple Wikipedia search to support his ideas. He is the sort of person who blindly accepts anything that supports his existing beliefs, and I stop talking to him.

Monsanto and Agent Orange

This is another factoid routinely trotted out to prove Monsanto’s despicable evil. Only an evil company could invent and manufacture so foul a substance as Agent Orange, right?

Well, Monsanto didn’t invent Agent Orange. It was invented by the US Army in 1943–the notion that Monsanto created it is another of those litmus tests I use to determine whether someone is interested in doing even the most rudimentary fact-checking or not.

During the Vietnam War, Monsanto wasn’t even the main contractor that manufactured Agent Orange–that dubious honor belongs to Dow. Monsanto was one of many overflow suppliers the government used when Dow couldn’t make it fast enough; the others included Uniroyal (the tire manufacturer), Thompson-Hayward Chemicals (now Harcros Chemical Co), Hercules (now Ashland Inc), the Diamond Shamrock Corporation (now Valero Energy Corporation), and Thomson Chemical Company.

It’s interesting that folks will tell you “Monsanto is evil because Agent Orange,” but not “don’t buy tires from Uniroyal; they’re evil because Agent Orange.” It is, sadly, a truism that we will use an argument to support a position we already believe even when that argument applies equally well to a premise we aren’t invested in.

Monsanto and glyphosate

The notion that glyphosate is bad is accepted as self-evident by many folks who oppose GMOs, and I’ve often heard a circular argument used in discussions about glyphosate resistance: Monsanto is evil because they make glyphosate, and glyphosate is evil because it’s made by Monsanto.

Monsanto (the chemical company) was only incidentally interested in agribusiness. Monsanto (the chemical company) developed the herbicide glyphosate in 1970. The patent on glyphosate expired in 2000, two years before Pfizer bought Monsanto (the chemical company). Pfizer wasn’t interested in making herbicides, so Monsanto (the seed company) kept the glyphosate business. They still make glyphosate today, but they’re not a huge manufacturer–because the patent has expired, most glyphosate manufacture these days is by other companies in China.

Old Monsanto aside, the new Monsanto is still evil!

So what about Monsanto (the seed company)? I keep reading tons of stories about how evil it is, but when I go to validate those stories, they tend to turn out not to be true.

A lot of folks fear GMOs, for the same reasons a lot of folks fear vaccines–there’s a lot of bad info out there. Some of it (like “GMOs aren’t tested” or “GMOs cause cancer”) is demonstrably false.

Monsanto gets a lot of its bad reputation on the basis that it makes GMOs and people are frightened of GMOs. A lot of other companies also make GMOs, but Monsanto is singled out for special hate, even though it’s not the biggest company in the GMO business (Syngenta, for instance, is bigger).

Another common argument on the “Monsanto is evil” side of the fence is that Monsanto patents seeds. If a corporation can control our seeds they can control our food! That’s clearly evil, right?

I touched on plant patents briefly in part 1 of this series. A lot of folks don’t understand plant patents, but many foods–including organic and conventional produce–is patented. (Yes, you read that right. The 100% organic, all-natural kale you buy at Whole Foods is patented.) Any kind of new seedline–whether GMO, hybrid, conventional, or organic, can be patented. The first plant patents in the world were issued in the 1800s; the first plant patents in the United States were issued in the 1930s…long before GM technology existed.

And not all GM food is patented.

If you want to argue that patenting plants is a bad idea, by all means, make your argument. But don’t get confused. That argument has nothing to do with Monsanto and nothing to do with GM food.

Saving Seeds and Monsanto Lawsuits

Once you get through the clearly false claims about saccharin and Agent Orange and patents, you start encountering the second wave of arguments for Monsanto’s evil evilness of evil, which usually ride into battle under one of two banners: “Monsanto doesn’t let farmers save seeds!” and “Monsanto sues farmers for accidental contamination!”

Here is where I believed I would find some real meat–some genuine, clear-cut evidence that Monsanto is bad news.

That evidence turned out to be a mirage–I saw it glittering on the horizon, but when I got close, there was nothing there but sand.

Now, it is true that farmers can’t save seeds from patented crops. This isn’t a GM issue; farmers also can’t save seeds from patented organic or conventional crops either. They also can’t save seeds from hybrid crops (seeds from hybrid crops don’t tend to breed the desired traits reliably, as I talked about in part 1). But I grew up in a farm town, and I’ve never met a farmer who wants to save seeds. It’s bad for business. Seeds are one of the cheapest parts of running a farm. Farmers who save seeds have to dry, process, and store them. Farmers who buy seeds get a guarantee that the seeds will grow; if they don’t, the seed company will pay them.

As for the idea that Monsanto is evil because they sue farmers for accidental contamination of their fields. I looked, but I couldn’t find any court cases of this. I did find court cases where farmers denied stealing seeds and said it must be contamination, but in all those cases, a jury or the court found they were lying. (Protip: If someone inspects your field and 98% of the plants growing on it are a patented variety, that’s not accidental contamination.)

Monsanto neonicotinoid GMO dead bees!

There is a lot of confusion and misinformation about GM plants. And, unfortunately, that confusion tends to lead to a lot of conflation about entirely unrelated issues.

One complaint I’ve heard many times, including in the comments on an earlier part of this series, is Monsanto is evil because their GMO seeds are coated in neonicotinoid insecticides that kill bees.

It’s hard, at first glance, to tell where to begin to untangle this snarl, because it confuses entirely unrelated things into a tangled mess of misinformation and error.

I mean, yes, neonics might be harmful to bees, possibly, but…er, um…

…that technology was developed by Bayer, not Monsanto.

And it has nothing to do with GMOs. Neonics are insecticides, not herbicides. They are not poisonous to plants; you don’t need to engineer plants to resist them. (In fact, they are derived from nicotine, a natural insecticide made by plants. The name “neonicotinoid” literally means “new nicotine.”) Neonicotinoids are seed coatings–they’re applied to seeds after the seeds are collected, not produced by the seeds themselves.

Of course, all this information is irrelevant in the face of the final, last-ditch argument put forward by Monsanto’s detractors…

It’s all a conspiracy, man

The conspiracy theory is the final sanctuary of the person with no arguments. It’s an attempt to discredit an argument without looking at the argument directly, and also poison the well, by claiming that anyone who supports the dies of some debate you don’t support is in league with a sinister and all-encompassing evil.

I’ve received emails–many emails–from my blog posts about GM foods, asking me how much money Monsanto is paying me to write them.

The idea Monsanto has paid off all the world’s scientists to engage in a vast conspiracy to say GMOs are safe when they’re really not is so absurd as to be farcical. Look, ExxonMobil is enormous compared to Monsanto, and with their vast piles of money they can’t pay off all the world’s scientists to say global warming isn’t a thing! If ExxonMobil can’t afford to pay off scientists, how can a company that makes less money than Whole Foods?

So after looking into it, I was forced to change my mind and conclude that Monsanto (the seed company) isn’t particularly evil, at least not in a way that other corporations aren’t. ConAgra might be more evil, if you look at biotech companies. But Monsanto (the seed company)? Not so much.

Now if you’ll excise me, I’m off to buy another Lamborghini with the shill bucks Monsanto just paid me.

Note: This blog post is part of a series.
Part 0 is here.
Part 0.5 is here.
Part 1 is here.
Part 2 is here.
Part 3 is here.

Some thoughts on porn, coercion, and the Fundamental Reconstruction Error

If you spend any time in any forums where people talk about sex, it is a truth as inevitable as night following day that, sooner or later, someone is going to talk about porn.

And as soon as someone starts to talk about porn, a certain predictable conversation will come up.

“Porn performers are coerced and trafficked,” someone will say. “Porn is bad because women are forced into it. It is a terrible meat-grinder industry. We need to rescue all the victims of porn.”

The same narrative comes up around sex work as well. Sex workers, according to a certain kind of person, are victims, people there because they have been forced, threatened, or tricked into it.

The people who make these arguments, in my experience, almost certainly don’t know any porn performers or sex workers. They will cite “studies” they read on the Internet, like the rather dreadful study that claims legal prostitution in the Netherlands has resulted in a huge increase in trafficking in that country. (I’ve read that study. Buried in the fine print: the study’s authors define a “traffick victim” as any person who for any reason crosses national boundaries and then ends up working in any capacity in the sex trade. So a person who immigrates legally and voluntarily goes to work as a sex worker is a “trafficking victim” according to the study.)

A particularly pernicious variant on this “women-as-victims” narrative is circulating amongst folks who are generally politically liberal and see themselves as allies of women, but still face discomfort about porn and sex work: Well, yes, women can and do freely choose to go into porn or sex work, but, you see, not abuse porn like what you see at Those women go into normal mainstream porn, and then they get “groomed” to do abusive porn.

I’ve seen variants on this narrative turning up in places where people are otherwise open to the notion that not all sex workers or performers are victims–sure, “mainstream” porn (whatever that is–I would say there really isn’t any such thing as “mainstream” porn; porn is, by its nature, niche) isn’t inherently exploitive, but that kinky stuff? Man, just look at it! Sometimes the performers cry! That’s clearly abuse!–and for a long time, I’ve simply chalked it up to standard, ordinary squicks about exchanging money for sex, cultural taboos about sex, ideas about what is “normal” or “not normal” around sex. You know, the ordinary soup of preconceptions, emotions, and cultural norms that oozes through the public discourse on sex.

But lately, I’ve started thinking there’s something else at work, too. Something that lies rooted in a tacit assumption that those who hold these ideas about porn and sex work hold, but don’t directly articulate, and an assumption that sex-positive folks who support the right of people to choose porn and sex work don’t directly address: the starvation model of sex work.

The starvation model of sex work starts with the assumption that it is hard to find people who want to do porn or sex work. A reasonable person wouldn’t make that choice, except through coercion or the most dire of necessity. Therefore, to feed the demand for sex workers and porn performers, there must be coercion and abuse.

In places where porn and sex work are criminalized, that makes sense. Production of porn and sex work becomes a criminal enterprise. The pool of people willing to work in criminal enterprises is small.

In places where these things are not criminalized, the equation is different. I personally know many porn performers and sex workers (yes, including performers for They report they enjoy what they do and choose to do it freely. I have no reason to doubt them.

And yet, whenever I ask the folks who criticize the porn and sex work industries, or cast sex workers as victims, if they’ve ever talked to sex workers, the answer is almost always “no.” And when I say the people I know choose what they do, the response is almost always incredulity.

If we assume that it is true nobody would voluntarily choose to do porn or sex work, then it makes sense to think the folks who are doing it, aren’t there by choice, and to look for coercion. If we assume there are lots of people who are willing to do porn or sex work, but nobody would choose to do “abusive” sex work, then the same thing holds–the folks who appear in Kink photo shoots must be being groomed, tricked, manipulated, or coerced.

If, on the other hand, we assume that there are actually quite a lot of folks who are totally okay with porn and sex work, the narrative falls apart. Why would I, as a porn producer, risk my business (and prison) forcing women to perform when I can simply put out a call that I’m looking for performers, and people will come to me voluntarily? Why would we assume that every sex worker is a trafficking victim, given that there are people who like the idea of doing sex work?

For the women-as-victims narrative to hold true, a necessary prerequisite is women wouldn’t choose to do this voluntarily. But that premise is rarely stated explicitly.

So why would people make that assumption?

I spent some time asking questions of people who promote the sex-worker-as-victim narrative, and discovered something interesting.

Psychologists often talk about a quirk of human psychology called the fundamental attribution error. It’s a bug in our firmware; we, as human beings, are prone to explaining our own actions in terms of our circumstance, but the actions of other people in terms of their character. The standard go-to example of the fundamental attribution error I use is the traffic example: “That guy just cut me off because he’s a reckless, inconsiderate asshole who doesn’t know how to drive. I just cut that car off because the sun was in my eyes and there was so much glare on the windshield I didn’t see it.”

We do this All. The. Time. We do it without being aware we’re doing it. We do it countless times per day, in ways large and small.

The penny dropped for me that something similar was going on in discussions about sex work during a different conversation–not about sex work but about polyamory. There was a guy who was railing, and I mean railing, about polyamory. Nobody, he said, would ever truly be okay with it–not really. No guy would ever willingly share a woman with another guy. Sure, poly folks say they are okay with it, but that’s just because they think it’s the only way they can keep the one they love. You give any poly person the magical power to have absolutely anything they wanted, he declared, and nobody would choose to share a partner.

Now, this is a load of bollocks, of course. I would, in a perfect world, still be poly, and still not have any desire to have my partners be sexually fidelitous to me.

When I told him that, he flipped out. That’s disgusting, he said. No man–no man, no man ever–would be okay with it. No man. If someone says otherwise, there’s something wrong with him.

We see the same line of reasoning used in other arenas. No man would be okay with having sex with another man–if a guy fancies other men, there must be some kind of damage or trauma, as one example.

And then it clicked.

I would like to propose that there is another bug in the operating firmware of humanity, similar to the fundamental attribution error. Call it the fundamental construction error, if you will. We as human beings re-construct the world in our own image, assigning our own values, ideas, squicks, taboos, likes, and dislikes to the great mass of humanity as a whole. “Nobody likes,” “everybody wants,” “nobody would,” “everybody thinks”–all statements of this class can most properly be understood to mean “I don’t like,” “I want,” “I wouldn’t,” and “I think.”

“You must be damaged in order to be gay” really means “nobody would want to be gay,” which really means “I wouldn’t want to be gay.”

“All sex workers are victims” really means “nobody would want to be a sex worker,” which really means “I wouldn’t want to be a sex worker.”

The fundamental reconstruction error makes it extremely difficult to realize that other people can be, on a very deep level, not like us. We assume that others are like us. This tacit assumption is the foundation of most of the models we build of the social world around us. It doesn’t get explicitly mentioned because it’s wired so deep it doesn’t even get noticed.

Why are porn performers and sex workers victims? Because nobody would do these things voluntarily. Why would nobody do these things voluntarily? Because I wouldn’t do these things voluntarily. Ergo, it must be–it follows inevitably that it has to be–that people who do these things are damaged, broken, victimized, or have no other choice.

And since it follows that these people are damaged, broken, victimized, or have no other choice, then the stories of people who work in the sex industry voluntarily can be discarded–because they are the words of someone who is damaged, broken, victimized, or has no other choice.

I would like, therefore, to propose a radical idea:

The world is made of lots of people. Some of those people are different from you, and have different ideas about what they want, what turns them on, what is and is not acceptable for them, and what they would like to do.

Some of those ideas are alien, maybe even incomprehensible, to you.

Accept that it is true. Start from the assumption that even if something sounds weird, distasteful, or even disgusting to you, it may not be so to others–and that fact alone does not prove those other folks have something wrong with them. If someone tells you they like something, and you have no compelling evidence that they’re lying, believe them–even if you don’t understand why.

How do you do it?

Awareness of the fact that your cognitive impulses are buggy is a good place to start. I started looking at myself any time I caught myself saying “oh, that driver is an asshole” or “oh, that person is obviously an inconsiderate jerkoff”–I would stop and say “huh. Have I ever done that? Is this an example of the fundamental attribution error?”

Doing the same thing when you find yourself assuming that all X are Y, especially if it’s “all X are victims” or “all X are damaged goods,” is probably a good mechanism for sorting out the fundamental reconstruction error. Is that really true, or are you just re-creating the world in your own image?

GMohno! Part 2: Food safety

It’s much too early in the morning. You stumble blearily out of bed and put on the hot water for a nice cup of tea, or perhaps flip on the percolator to brew some coffee. Unfortunately, your morning beverage is laced with a poisonous chemical that keeps the crop from being eaten by insects–an insecticide that is toxic not only to bugs, but to humans too.

You go out to lunch. The server recommends the rainbow salad, which unknown to you, also contains a number of insect-killing chemicals. Your workmate from across the hall–you know, the one who always plays the stereo too loud and makes that weird snorting sound when he laughs–skips the salad in favor of a nice, healthy ginger tofu with peanut sauce. Sounds healthy? It, too, contains pesticide chemicals, even though there’s a little “organic” sticker on the menu right next to it.

Sound scary? We’ll come back to that in a bit.

One of the objections that people have about GM food is the idea that it’s intrinsically less healthy than normal or organic food. Fears about health and food safety are sometimes hysterical, as when Zambian president Levy Patrick Mwanawasa banned all GM food imports and destroyed donated food over GM fears in 2002, even though his country was facing a famine and millions were at risk of starvation, and sometimes more muted, as when people try to link GM food to cancer.

Food safety is absolutely a legitimate and valid concern. Imagine, for instance, what people might reasonably say if a strain of genetically modified zucchini were linked to widespread cases of illness. In our hypothetical example, if it were shown that something intrinsic to the zucchini–not an insecticide or herbicide the zucchini had been modified to resist, but a compound actually produced by this strain of zucchini itself–sickened people, we might expect that folks would voice some concerns about the safety of genetic modification.

And that would be a perfectly reasonable thing to do.

This hypothetical case isn’t actually hypothetical. In 2003, a number of people in New Zealand were hospitalized by an outbreak of food poisoning linked to zucchini. Environmentalists jumped on the story, quick to point out the dangers of untested genetic engineering of food.

Problem was, it turned out the zucchini in question wasn’t genetically modified. In fact, it was organic–a fact that quickly caused the environmental groups to fall silent.

Plants are complex factories that produce staggering numbers of chemicals. Because plants can’t run away from hungry insects, they have evolved a formidable arsenal of chemical weapons designed to kill insects that try to feed on them.

In 2003, New Zealand experienced a severe aphid infestation. Conventional farmers who controlled the bugs with synthetic pesticides grew crops that were unaffected by the infestation. Organic growers, however, didn’t deal effectively with the aphids. The organic zucchini that survived the infestation produced large quantities of cucurbitacin, a toxic chemical zucchinis and other plants (like pumpkins and gourds) use to defend themselves from pests. The organic zucchini with elevated levels of cucurbitacin contained so much of the chemical it was toxic to humans as well, hospitalizing people who ate it.

Something similar happened in the 1960s. Farmers using conventional breeding techniques bred the Lenape potato, cultivated to fry without burning and make perfect potato chips. Unfortunately, potatoes belong to the same family as deadly nightshade, and like nightshade, they are toxic. Potatoes produce a glycoalkaloid poison called solanine, which is extremely toxic to humans–quantities as small as 3 mg per kg of body weight can be fatal. (That’s crazy poisonous, by the way.)

All potatoes produce this toxin. The potato root contains solanine, but not usually enough of it to cause health problems–it’s the dose that makes the poison, after all. But the Lenape potato had elevated levels of solanine–enough to sicken people who ate it.

And it wasn’t GMO. It was an ordinary hybrid bred through conventional agriculture.

So, back to the beginning of this post. When you drink tea or coffee, you are consuming a toxic chemical that belongs to a class of chemicals called cyclic alkaloids. This toxin, evolved as a defense against marauding insects, is a neurotoxin called 1,3,7-Trimethylxanthine, or more commonly, “caffeine.”

And your lunch? The peppers in it contain capsaicin, a toxin that gives peppers their characteristic burning (and are also linked to cancer in animal studies). Such compounds exist all over nature–the wonderful aromatic smell of ginger, the sulfur compounds that flavor onions and leeks (and also make your eyes burn when you chop them)–all toxic chemicals that exist for their pesticide properties.

People who object to GMOs on food safety grounds tend to ignore the fact that any food potentially carries risks. Proponents of GMOs do not claim that GM food is always absolutely safe under all conditions; such a claim would be very silly indeed. GM food simply isn’t inherently any more dangerous than organic or conventional agriculture, that’s all. (In fact, if you judge strictly by cases of food recalls and documented foodborne illnesses, organic food is arguably the most dangerous of all broad classifications of food; it’s disproportionately represented in FDA food recalls for potentially health-threatening contamination, for example.)

One of the many organic foods recalled in the last 60 days because of potentially life-threatening contamination.

What makes GM food so much more frightening than other food, even when we know other types of food are more prone to dangerous contamination?

A lot of it is the same kind of fear that makes flying seem more scary than driving, even though the reality is exactly the opposite. We feel more familiar with driving. We feel more in control. Few people understand basic biology; fewer still understand agricultural science. Scientists overwhelmingly believe GM food is safe; laypeople don’t. Indeed, ignorance of basic science is so common in the US that many people don’t know what DNA is, and at least one poll has suggested that there are large numbers of folks who think that genes are only found in genetically modified food!

That ignorance leads to a common cognitive error called the appeal to nature–the notion that genetically modified food is “unnatural” and therefore intrinsically worse than organic or conventional food, which is more “natural.”

This cognitive error is inevitably on parade in almost any argument against GM food:

Not all objections are quite that uninformed, of course. Of the arguments that don’t boil down to “unnatural=bad, natural=good,” many of the health concerns about GMOs center around two things:

1. Concerns about pesticides such as glyphosate; and
2. Concerns about allergens.

A great deal of noisy press has been generated by the WHO’s classification of glyphosate as “possibly carcinogenic.” This classification is based on a study that shows that people who handle large amounts of glyphosate, a key ingredient in Roundup, might be at greater risk of a form of cancer called non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Strangely, the same study showed such people to be at lower risk of many other forms of cancer. Here’s the experimental data:

So what should we make of this? That Roundup causes some cancer and cures other cancer?

It’s not that simple. there’s a good writeup over here, but the TL;DR version is: The data make no attempt to control for confounding factors. These are “case control” studies (studies that compare people who have cancer with people who don’t, and look for differences between the groups) rather than “cohort” studies (studies that track people for long periods of time, note and isolate potential risk factors, and then observe the relative incidence of cancer).

Another issue is that food isn’t like, say cigarettes. We can eliminate cigarettes; I’ve never smoked in my life. We can not, however, stop eating. So we can’t look at an isolated risk factor for some kind of food production technique without comparing it to the risk of other food production techniques, because we all have to eat!

And when we do that, we discover that there’s not only no increased risk with GMO food, but in fact organic and conventional agriculture often uses more dangerous chemicals and more risky growing techniques. As I noted in Part 0 of this series, for instance, many people wrongly think that organic food is grown without pesticides. In fact, organic food is grown with pesticides, and those pesticides are often more toxic than synthetic pesticides.

One pesticide used by organic farmers is rotenone. It’s strongly linked to Parkinson’s disease, and its use is banned in California. It should be noted that the same WHO body that classified glyphosate as a possible carcinogen also classifies rotenone as a moderate toxin–a more severe classification than glyphosate. In 2006, the FDA revoked approval for use of rotenone on food. In 2007, under lobbying pressure from organic growers, the FDA allowed use of rotenone as a pesticide in food production. Rotenone and other “natural” pesticides are often found in high concentrations in organic foods, especially organic olives and olive oil.

There’s something really interesting going on here. If the FDA had revoked permission to use a synthetic herbicide like glyphosate, then reversed direction under lobbying from Monsanto a year later, it’s quite likely that anti-GMO activists would be quite upset and vocal about it. Strangely, they’re silent about it when it’s an “organic” pesticide, even though it’s linked to human health hazards and residues are found in organic foods.

This is similar to the lack of reaction when organic zucchini were found to be hospitalizing people, even while environmentalists made quite a lot of noise when they wrongly believed the zucchini in question was genetically modified.

To my mind, this demonstrates conclusively that it’s not evidence of harm that’s the motivating factor in resistance to GMOs. Opponents aren’t motivated by analysis of evidence; they ignore things that apply to conventional or organic agriculture that they use as arguments to oppose GMOs. So the arguments themselves are validations, but aren’t the real reason for the opposition.

The other argument often used against GMOs is the allergy argument. GMOs are genetically modified to express proteins that aren’t found in the unmodified plant, the reasoning goes. Novel proteins in plants can potentially be allergens. Therefore, GMOs might provoke dangerous allergic responses.

It’s a legitimate concern, and contrary to common isperception, GM food is rigorously screened for potential allergens and development is discontinued if a new allergen is discovered. While any food can potentially cause an allergic response, novel allergens are taken very seriously by agricultural researchers.

Organic and conventional agriculture is not screened for potential new allergens. The development of hybrids and the use of mutagenesis, both of which are common in conventional agricultures, certainly can create novel proteins and novel allergens–yet only GM food is tested, conventional and organic food is not.

But the assumption that a GM food must contain some new protein, like the assumption that GMOs are any foods that contain DNA from a different species, is based on a profound misunderstanding of what a GMO is.

Some GMOs contain nothing new, either from another species or from anywhere else. The Arctic apple, for instance, is an example of a GMO made by turning off an existing gene, rather than adding a new gene.

Arctic apples are a breed of apples that don’t turn brown when they’re cut. There’s a natural breed of grapes called Sultana grapes, which are used to make golden raisins. These grapes don’t oxidize on exposure to air. Researchers noticed they had a natural mutation that silenced a gene–one of the same genes that Apples have. So, they reasoned, switching off that same gene in an apple might cause the apple not to turn brown. And they were correct.

The tearless onion is another example of a gene-silenced modification. Onions naturally produce various sulfur compounds to poison insects. One of these creates sulphuric acid–battery acid–on contact with water. When you cut an onion, this chemical is released into the air; when it comes in contact with your eyes or nose, it produces acid, which results in the pain and tears you feel. No-tear onions have the gene that produces this chemical turned off. It’s difficult to understand the objection to this kind of genetic modification. There’s no rational mechanism for harm caused by turning a gene off.

The fact is, we’ve now been eating GM food for a very long time, with no evidence whatsoever of harm. Proposed mechanisms of harm that aren’t based on the appeal to nature are similar, and in some cases greater, than organic and conventional agriculture, yet GMOs are singled out for special fear. That fear is difficult to overcome, because you can’t reason someone out of a position they did not reason themselves into.

Note: This blog post is part of a series.
Part 0 is here.
Part 0.5 is here.
Part 1 is here.
Part 2 is here.
Part 3 is here.

Intermission: How Not to be a Dumbass on the Internet

A few days ago, on my various wanderings through the wretched hive of scum and villainy known as the Internet, I came across an image that made a…rather startling claim. This image showed a beach full of dead starfish accompanied by the headline “Fukushima radiation hits California, millions of starfish dead.”

I found that wildly improbable, for a number of reasons (the radiation from Fukushima was not great enough to cause mass die-offs–indeed, the scientists who installed monitoring equipment to measure it didn’t even bother to wear protective gear; the radiation was so dilute by the time it crossed the ocean it’s a testament to how exquisitely sensitive modern radiation detection gear is that it was even measurable at all; and most of the radionucleotides, like iodine-131, have very short half-lives measured in days), so I did some research. It turns out that–surprise!–the image meme is a hoax.

So in the spirit of public service, I’d like to present to you:

Franklin’s Guide to Not Being a Dumbass on the Internet

It’s my hope that by following a simple 2-minute procedure, you can help prevent yourself from looking like a fool when you venture online. Ready, kids? Here we go!

Okay, so here’s the image:

It turns out that this is not a mass starfish die-off caused by radiation, the photo dates from nearly two years before the Fukushima accident, and on top of that, it’s not in California. The actual photo shows a mass of starfish on Holkham Beach in Norfolk, Britain.

Here’s the real image:

So what magical wizardry did I use to research the actual source of the image? What deep magic uncovered the fraud? Well, it took about 35 seconds with Google.

You see, Google has this feature that lets you search for images rather than words. If you use Google Chrome as your Web browser, this feature is built right in! Simply right-click on any image on any site, Mac or PC, and you’ll see this popup menu item:

If you don’t use Chrome, fear not! Just surf to and you can drag an image from just about anywhere (your hard drive, another Web site, whatever) onto the Search bar to search for that image.

Seriously, it’s that easy. When you do this to image memes, especially alarmist memes that try to scare you, it’s astonishing how often they turn out to be frauds.

Let’s look at another example from Fukushima. This image was making the rounds a while ago, with the claim that it shows how “radioactive contamination” from the Fukushima power plants has crossed the ocean.

A Google image search for this image turns up this Snopes page. This image doesn’t show radiation. It doesn’t have anything to do with radiation. It shows the wave height of the tsunami that hit Japan after the earthquake, with red areas corresponding to higher ocean levels.

Of course, a close look at the image should clue in a wise person that something’s amiss if this is a radiation map, because radiation isn’t normally measured in centimeters:


It’s not just Fukushima. All kinds of images can be subject to this in-depth, detailed, 30-second scrutiny. For instance, right after police officer Darren Wilson shot black teen Michael Brown, an image purporting to show a badly-beaten Wilson in the hospital was getting shares and favorites all over conservative parts of the Internet.

Problem is, the image wasn’t Darren Wilson. It wasn’t even close. A Google image search quickly revealed it was a 2006 photo of motocross rider Jim McNeil who had been hospitalized following a motorcycle accident.

So there you have it. This one weird trick called “fact checking” can save you from countless hours of embarrassment online. The next time you want to share that image that, like, totally proves some political feeling you have, stop and check! Google is your friend, folks.

Here endeth the lesson.

GMohno! Part 1: “Because Society”

This is part 1 of a series about GMO foods. The previous two parts of this series can be found at GMohno! Part 0: What It Is, which talks about what GMO actually means; and GMohno! Part 0.5: How to Tell when you’re Being Emotionally Manipulated, which talks about some of the techniques of emotional manipulation frequently encountered in any discussion about GMOs.

The remaining parts of this series are this one, which looks at the legal, political, and social consequences of GMOs; the next one, which addresses health and safety issues; and the third, which looks at the “evil corporate malfeasance” arguments.

So, let’s begin!

Imagine this scenario: You’re a farmer. Your parents and grandparents were farmers. Your family has worked the same field with the same techniques for generations.

But now, you’re offered new seeds. These new seeds, you’re told, will make your farm more productive. But there’s a catch. The seeds are patented by a seed company; in order to plant them, you must pay a patent licensing fee. Also, if you plant these seeds and then, at harvest, try to keep some of the seeds the plants produce so you can plant them next year, the seeds you save won’t produce well. You will have to buy new seeds from the seed company next year, and the year after that, and the year after that.

Is this the way big agribusiness uses GMO technology to control your farm and make more profit from you? Well, maybe.

It might also be the consequence of buying patented organic hybrid seeds for an organic farm.

In conversations about GMOs, it’s very common for someone to raise the point that GMO foods are often protected by patent law. This patent protection means that farmers must pay patent licensing royalties to the seed producer in order to plant the seeds. Many seed companies also prohibit saving and re-planting seeds, which can create a dependence on the seed company for annual resupplies of seed stock.

This might seem to be a pretty compelling argument against GMOs, particularly in the developing world. But it ignores some information, and it’s based on misconceptions and ignorance about plant patents and seed licensing.

Let’s talk first about the economics of using patented seeds. In the US and Western countries, the genes of a plant are often the limiting factor on the maximum yield per acre. Modern Western farms are heavily mechanized and use irrigation, fertilizers and pest management to provide nearly optimal growing conditions for the plants, so the limiting factor on production is how good the plants themselves are.

Anti-GMO activists often talk about seed companies such as Monsanto “forcing” farmers into seed purchase and non-reuse contracts. This argument infantilizes farmers; farmers have a choice, and are not forced to use GMO seed if they don’t want to. There’s no contract that says “you have to buy our seed every year from now on.” The contracts instead say “if you use this seed, you can’t save seeds for next season and you agree to pay a per-acre fee to license the patent.” If the deal isn’t beneficial to farmers, next year they choose a different seed; there’s quite a lot out there to choose from.

Most US farmers–and I’ve talked to quite a few–really don’t mind not saving seeds. Indeed, they generally don’t want to save seeds. For one thing, on a modern US farm, the cost of seed is a very small part of the yearly cost of a farm; it might typically be anywhere from 5% to 7% of a farmer’s annual expenses, depending on the type of crop and the type of seed. In exchange, the farmer is getting seeds that have been dried and treated to maximize germination rates. It’s important to consider that saving seed is not free; the seed, once it’s saved, must be processed, dried, and stored, and the storage not only isn’t free but also brings pest management issues with it. On large-scale Western farms, the cost of seeds is worth it. It saves work, increases germination, and in many cases comes with written guarantees from the seed company.

Similarly, licensing fees for GMO seeds are modest. They have to be, or the farmers wouldn’t use them. For example, Monsanto’s GMO soy license fees are typically about $17 an acre. DuPont charges about $40 an acre for GMO alfalfa. On average, DuPont alfalfa produces about a thousand pounds more per year per acre of alfalfa over similar non-GMO alfalfa varieties. As of mid-year this year, alfalfa was selling for about $280 a ton, meaning that thousand pounds returns $120 per acre per year to the farmer, three times the DuPont licensing fee.

If this is what your farm looks like, patents aren’t a big deal

So in the US, where farm yield is bound by plant genetics and the licensing fees for GMO patents are more than offset by increasing yields, the economics of plant patents makes sense.

But what about in developing nations, where farms may not be running close to the theoretical maximum yields, and plant patent restrictions are more costly in terms of total percentage of outlays on farming?

That’s a more complicated issue, and addressing it will require a brief digression into a technique often used to lie with statistics: the problem of excluded information.

“But patents!” people say. “We shouldn’t be allowing seed companies to patent GMO seeds. Seed patents give corporations control over our food supply!”

I’v heard a lot of folks say this. I think there’s room to debate whether or not basic food stock should be patentable.

But here’s the missing bit: Organic and conventional crops are also patented. I never really understood the objection about GMO crops being protected by patents until I finally figured out that most people simply don’t know that plant patents apply to all kinds of plants, not just GMOs.

The first plant patents were issued in the 1800s. Natural mutations of crops can be patented. So can hybrids. Plants created by mutagenesis can be patented.

There is an excellent overview on the Johnny Seed Company’s Web site that talks about plant patents, which I highly recommend reading.

This is an example of the problem of excluded information. When a person says “GMO seeds are bad because they are patented and patenting seeds gives the seed companies too much power,” that person is, intentionally or unintentionally, excluding information that undermines the argument: conventional, hybrid, and organic seeds are also patented. When you include this information, the argument against GMO seeds becomes far less compelling.

The argument that GMO seeds often can’t be saved also rests on excluded information. Most folks may not be aware that hybrid seeds also can’t be saved.

A hybrid seed is a seed from two different plant lines whose genetics are stable enough that they produce a particular trait generation after generation. Let’s say, for hypothetical example, that you have two lines of some fruit. One line is highly resistant to drought, and survives well with little water…but it produces small, bitter fruit. The other produces plump, tasty fruit, but is fragile; it dies without lots of water.

It may be possible to cross-pollinate these two lines and get something that produces tasty fruit but also is quite hardy. This is an “F1 cross“–a first-generation cross between two lines that tend to consistently express the same trait.

The problem is the desired qualities of the hybrid may not be stable. That is, if you save the seeds from the F1 cross and re-plant them, you may end up with only half your plants able to resist drought, and only half your plants producing tasty fruit…so only a quarter of your crop has the traits you want, robustness and good fruit. The characteristics of a hybrid are not necessarily stable, and only the first generation may have the traits you want! If you want to be sure to get both traits, you have to go back to your original two lines and cross them again. Only the F1 crosses will consistently have both.

That means the seed companies that produced the cross must maintain fields of the original robust but inedible variety and the fragile but tasty variety, so they can go back to those lines and hybridize them each year. That means farmers who want to use that hybrid must buy new seed each year. They’re legally allowed to save seed, if they choose to–but the seed they save may not be any good! Hence the example that started this article–a farmer buying hybrid seeds but not being able to save seeds from his harvest. Hybrid seeds can be patented, and hybrid seeds generally can’t be saved.

So the “but patents!” and “but saving seeds!” arguments both rest on missing information: non-GMO crops are also patented, and non-GMO crops also prevent farmers from saving seeds.

In extreme cases, missing information in an argument can actually lead to a conclusion that is exactly the opposite of the truth. That’s why it’s important to evaluate any claim in the context of the environment in which the claim is made.

For example, a couple of years ago there was a surge of news reports of suicides in the Foxconn factories where Dell laptops, Apple iPhones, Microsoft mice, and other consumer electronics are made. People blamed poor working conditions and long hours for causing suicides among factory workers.

What’s the missing information in these claims? We don’t know if people at Foxconn factories are committing suicide at high rates because we don’t know the normal rates of suicide for the areas where the factories are located.

The Foxconn factories employ about 400,000 people. In any group of 400,000 people, there will be some incidence of suicide.

The base rate of suicide in China is 7.9 suicides per 100,000 people per year. The base rate of suicide among Foxconn’s employees is 14 people per year, or about 3.5 suicides per 100,000 people per year. That is, the rate of suicide at Foxconn factories is unusually low–Foxconn employees are less likely, not more likely, to kill themselves. In isolation, “14 suicides at this factory!” sounds high; in context, the reverse is true. (By way of comparison, the base rate of suicide in the United States is 12 suicides per 100,000 people per year.)

An argument made by anti-GMO activists follows this exact model. Many folks have claimed that farmer suicides in India surged when GMO cotton (specifically, Bt cotton, a variant resistant to insect pests) was introduced. In fact, the rate of suicide among farmers in India has been flat for decades and showed no measurable increase after the introduction of Bt cotton. The reports linking GMO cotton to farmer suicide relied on omitted information: the base rate of suicide before the introduction of Bt cotton.

So back to the issue of farms in the developing world. It’s a complicated one, and there are a lot of factors at play…which virtually guarantees that there will be a lot of arguments on the Internet that distort and oversimplify the issues to the point of absurdity.

Is it advantageous for farmers in the developing world to use GMO crops? It depends on the kind of farm, the kind of crop, the place, and a lot more.

White Westerners tend to have a view of the developing world that’s both overly homogenized and overly primitive. When we think of a farm in the developing world, a lot of people probably have a mental image that looks something like this:

On the other hand, we tend to think First World farms look more like this:

In fact, that first picture is from Oregon; the second is from Africa. The reality isn’t as simple as the pictures we have in our head.

When pro-GMO folks say “GMOs are good for the developing world” and anti-GMO activists say “GMOs are terrible for Third World farmers,” they’re both wrong, or both right, depending on which specific farm in which specific part of the developing world you’re talking about.

It also depends on which specific GMO crop you’re talking about. You see, there’s yet another piece of missing information in the “GMOs are bad for farmers because of patents” argument: Not all GMOs are patented.

Plant patents are complicated. Some plants that are not GMO are protected by patents. Some GMOs are not patented. Some GMO licensing terms forbid saving seeds. Some organic hybrid crops prevent saving seeds. Some GMO crops permit saving seeds.

For example, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation finances research and development on GM crops, and any GM technology financed by their foundation must allow farmers to save seeds (note: link is a PDF).

Is it beneficial for farmers in developing countries to plant GM crop? If the farm’s productivity is bound by plant genetics, or the farm is facing a specific problem (for example, poor water or pests) for which a GM-resistant crop exists, then probably yes, depending on the cost and licensing terms, if any, of the GM crop. If productivity isn’t bound by plant genetics and there’s not a compelling reason to use a particular GM variety, then maybe not. That’s one of the key points to remember about GM food: it’s not a cure-all or a magic technology. It’s simply one tool among many in the toolkit. It’s a powerful tool, but not the only tool…and it’s just as silly to think it will solve all the world’s problems as it is to think we shouldn’t ever use it.

So let’s talk about Golden Rice.

This is golden rice. It’s a strain of GMO rice that has a gene to produce beta carotene, which is used by the body to produce Vitamin A. In parts of the world where rice is a staple crop, vitamin A deficiency is a leading source of blindness and death.

Golden rice was not invented by a huge multinational corporation; it was developed by university research supported by a charitable grant. It is not encumbered by patent restrictions; it is public-domain and open-source, freely available to whoever wants it. It requires few pesticides, reducing pesticide exposure by farmers who plant it. And yet, distribution of golden rice has been effectively blocked by anti-GMO activists–primarily wealthy Westerners who don’t have to contend with vitamin deficiency–who have destroyed fields and worked hard to create fear and doubt around it. According to an article published in Environment and Development Economics,The economic power of the Golden Rice opposition,” the fact that golden rice has not been distributed has has cost 1,424,000 life years since 2002, the year it was, arguably, first ready for commercial planting. This accounts not only for death but for loss of life due to debilitating disease…and, most tragically, the majority of human beings affected have been children.

This is one of the most insidious costs of irrational hysteria. When people fear vaccination, it’s most often children who are sickened or killed. With fear of GMOs, it’s most often children who suffer.

The people who oppose GMOs rarely seem to consider the human cost, and even when they do, it tends to be in a shallow and superficial way. (On one online forum I read, an opponent of golden rice said, and I quote, “why can’t those people just plant carrots?”) Golden rice is intended to be used in parts of the world where rice is already a staple crop. It’s resistant to flooding (which carrots aren’t), it can be used as a staple food (which carrots can’t), it requires no new investment in infrastructure or farming technology (which carrots don’t). It is, in fact, precisely the kind of solution that self-described “environmentalists” claim to want: openly available, not controlled by big for-profit Western corporations, able to be used in farms that already exist, and without creating reliance on Western companies.

There is often an irony in movements based on fear. When environmental activists succeeded in creating widespread fear of nuclear power, power utilities started investing in more coal-fired plants, which are far more dangerous. Coal kills about 10,000 people a year in the United States, mostly from complications from air pollution. In China, where coal is less regulated and even more widespread, coal kills about 300,000 a year. And coal power is, of course, a huge source of greenhouse gas. So in creating fear of nuclear power, environmentalists pushed the world to greater use of coal, which has killed far more people than even the worst-case nuclear power scenarios, and has created a global threat. If every coal plant were replaced with a nuclear plant, and as a result there was a Chernobyl-sized disaster every six months, nuclear would STILL kill fewer people than coal! Opposition to nuclear power created exactly the opposite of what the opponents claim to have wanted.

With GMOs, the reactionary opposition to GM food has, in the case of golden rice, created exactly what the activists claim they want to avoid: greater dependence on Westerners in the developing world.

UNICEF distributes vitamin A to children in need. In 2012, they celebrated a milestone: reaching 70% of the kids in the developing world who would otherwise have suffered from vitamin A deficiencies. It’s a commendable achievement, but when we consider the billions of people who live in developing nations, I’m not sure a C+ grade is sufficient. And aid organizations distributing vitamin A pills doesn’t help ensure food security or sovereignty. What’s the endgame, a never-ending program of aid distribution?

So what are the objections to golden rice? Well, here’s a sample:

If you read Part 0.5 of this essay series, you’ll probably be able to spot the various types of emotional manipulation going on in this argument. The argument doesn’t make sense on a number of levels (Monsanto doesn’t have anything to do with golden rice, golden rice has no magical powers to ‘contaminate’ any other rice strain, farmers can make choices about whether or not to grow it, and so on), but ultimately those shortcomings aren’t relevant because information, by itself, almost never changes attitudes. The objection to golden rice is primary emotional; knocking down the objections is as unlikely to change ideas as farting into a hurricane is to change the trajectory of the storm.

I live in the liberal side of Oregon, where for a while it was trendy to oppose vaccination. The antivax movement is beginning to sputter, thanks in part to measles and whooping cough making a comeback in Oregon. Kids in the antivaxers’ back yards–sometimes, kids in the antivaxers’ families–are dying, and that changes attitudes right quick.

Unfortunately, with vitamin A deficiency, the kids who are dying aren’t in our families or neighborhoods. They’re in far-flung corners of the globe where we as white wealthy Westerners seldom see them. They’re in places where white wealthy Westerners expect kids to die. One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic. The anti-GMO movement, which predicates many of its arguments on the idea that GM technology will take food sovereignty out of the hands of people in the developing world and concentrate it in the hands of rich Western corporations, play the opposite tune with golden rice: the solution to vitamin A deficiency is not a food that helps provide vitamin A, it’s aid organizations handing out pills, now and tomorrow and next week and next year.

When we consider any technology, whether it’s agricultural or power generation or whatever, we have to look at its risks not in isolation, but in comparison to what the alternatives are. When people opposed nuclear power without thinking of the alternatives, we ended up with coal…and people died. When people reject GM technology out of hand without thinking of the alternatives, we get aid communities celebrating the 70% of kids they are able to supply with vitamin pills…but who’s mourning the 30% they are not?

These are not abstract ideological crusades. They’re real problems with real consequences. We tend to run with what we’re afraid might be true, even when our fears are not substantiated, but decline responsibility for the consequences of our choices. You will never meet those kids; what problem is it of yours?

While we’re on the subject of unintended consequences, let’s talk monoculture.

Let’s backtrack for a moment to the late 1950s. The developing world was on the edge of mass starvation. India, Mexico, and Pakistan could not feed their populations. Norman Borlaug, an American biologist, dedicated his entire life to finding ways to feed a hungry population.

By the time he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, Borlaug was credited, personally, with saving the lives of a billion human beings. In a world that more often remembers people who commit murder on a massive scale, that’s an amazing feat. He spent ten years in Mexico, crossing thousands of wheat varieties to develop a strain of high-yield, disease-resistant wheat. From there he traveled to Pakistan, which was facing a famine so acute that even emergency food aid in the form of millions of tons of US wheat couldn’t feed everyone. In five years, he doubled Pakistan’s food production. By 1974, India became self-sufficient in food, no longer requiring foreign aid to feed its population (something which, just for the record, many of Borlaug’s contemporaries flatly dismissed as ‘impossible’).

Norman Borlaug saved a billion human lives, but there was a downside. The high-yield, resilient, drought and disease resistant crops he developed became very widespread, because they survived and thrived and fed a lot of folks. Now, enormous parts of the world rely on only a handful of crop species for their food.

This is a “monoculture,” a practice of growing a single strain of a single crop on large areas of land. Monocultures can be bred for toughness and resistance to pests, but if a pest or a disease should affect them, the consequences are potentially huge.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has a statement on their Web site that dismisses current large-scale agriculture as “a dead end, a mistaken application to living systems of approaches better suited for making jet fighters and refrigerators.” Which sounds smug and patronizing when you consider that “dead end” saved a billion lives. Oh, but pish-posh, they’re just brown people, right? So it saved a billion Mexicans and Indians and Pakistanis…dead end.

Today, one of the arguments against GMO technology is the “but it will create crop monocultures!” argument. The anti-GMO activist GMO Journal says “Since genetically modified crops (a.k.a. GMOs) reinforce genetic homogeneity and promote large scale monocultures, they contribute to the decline in biodiversity and increase vulnerability of crops to climate change, pests and diseases.”

There’s an incredible, and probably unintentional, irony here.

Monocultures are fragile. Everyone knows this. Everyone has always known this. When you’re faced with a billion human beings dying right now, you (well, if you’re a decent person, anyway) solve that problem first, then deal with solving more far-off problems like crop monocultures. If you think Norman Borlaug shouldn’t have developed his crop strains that saved all those people because you think crop monocultures are a bigger problem than a billion human deaths, you’re a special kind of evil and I don’t want to talk to you.

Now, about GMOs.

As I said, everyone knows crop monocultures are problematic. I think it’s callous in the extreme to dismiss large-scale agriculture as a “dead end” as if the lives of the people it saved don’t matter, but I also think that, yes, monocultures are inherently fragile. They represent a problem that needs to be solved.

Here’s the unintended irony part: The development of GM technology was seen as a way to solve the problem of crop monocultures.

Prior to GM technology, developing new strains of crops was incredibly difficult and labor-intensive. There were two approaches: hybridization (crossing thousands and thousands of strains of plant to look for hybrids that have desirable traits, then back-crossing those to try to get a strain that breeds true) and mutagenesis (taking seeds and bombarding them with chemicals or radiation to deliberately disrupt their DNA, in the hopes that some of the seeds will then by random chance end up with desirable traits…then back-crossing those to try to get a strain that breeds true).

GM technology is precisely targeted. When we find a plant with a gene we want (say, immunity to a plant virus, or drought resistance, or whatever), we can introduce just that gene in a controlled way. We don’t need to do large-scale, random reshuffling of tens or hundreds of thousands of genes. We don’t need massive disruption of DNA in a spray-and-pray fashion. We can get just the strain with just the traits we want.

This was hailed, at first, as a way to custom-tailor specific plant strains to exactly the growing conditions and needs of farmers. No more giving every farmer the exact same strain; farmers could choose from a wide variety of different crop strains with different genes, selecting just the traits they needed. GM technology, in other words, was developed partly as a solution to the problem of monocultures.

Anti-GMO activists complaining that GMOs promote monoculture is a bit like religious Fundamentalists saying that homosexuality MUST be bad, because look at how many gay teenagers commit suicide! The problem is one of their own creation. Fundamentalists start with the idea that homosexuality is bad, and bully, harass, and intimidate kids based on real or perceived sexual orientation…then when those kids kill themselves because they’re being bullied and harassed, the Fundamentalists say “see? Look how bad it is to be gay!”

Similarly, the anti-GMO activists create a culture of hostility and fear around food technology, that creates an environment where it’s almost impossible to produce new GM strains and get them approved. Then they point and say “see? There are only a handful of GM crop strains out there! GMO technology leads to monoculture!” And, like the environmentalists whose effort led to the proliferation of dirty coal-burning power plants, they create an outcome exactly at odds with their professed goals.

The next part of this series will deal with another big area of fear around GMO foods: food safety. Stay tuned!

Note: This blog post is part of a series.
Part 0 is here.
Part 0.5 is here.
Part 1 is here.
Part 2 is here.
Part 3 is here.

GMohno! Part 0: What is it, anyway?

Earlier his week, Oregon rejected a measure to label GMO food by a paper-thin margin. A similar measure was rejected by Colorado voters, by a much wider margin.

There are a lot of hot feelings about GMOs, and like any issue where there are a lot of hot feelings, there’s a lot of misinformation and confusion on the subject. This is the first part of what will probably be several blog posts about GMOs, what they are, and why people fear them.

When people hear “GMO,” this is often the kind of image they have in their heads–someone injecting plants with foreign materials to alter them. It’s a vivid image, that brings up all kinds of uneasy emotions and questions about food purity and safety. We will get back to this picture in a minute.

When I talk to folks about GMO food, I hear a lot of different reasons why people don’t like them. Some of these reasons have to do with fear of the food itself–is it safe? Does it cause tumors? Is it natural? Is it poisonous? Does it create ‘superweed’? Some of them have to do with concerns over companies that make it: are they ethical? Do they control too much of the food market? Are they abusing farmers? Some of it has to do with society: Is it right to patent foods? Does it take freedom away from farmers? Does it encourage poverty in Third World countries? And some of it is just…well, loopy. Did Ebola come from GMO food? Is GMO food a conspiracy to control the world population? Are scientists trying to eliminate people in Third World countries? (Don’t laugh; those last ones are actual arguments people sincerely seem to believe.)

I tend to categorize the arguments I hear against GMOs into four broad categories: “because health,” “because patents,” “because Monsanto,” and “because garwharbl something something Ebola”. The last category is kind of the third rail of GMO discussion; a person who believes that Ebola, a disease first characterized in 1976, four years before the first experimental transgenic DNA modification was successful and eleven years before the first engineered produce was developed, came from GMO food without the use of a time machine isn’t someone who will be reached by discussion.

What I would like to do is a series of blog posts addressing the “because health,” “because patents,” and “because Monsanto” arguments.

But first, let’s talk about what GMOs are, because it’s helpful to know that before we can talk about them.

What are GMOs?

I’ve asked this question of a lot of people. Sadly, I’ve found very few people who can answer it. Here are some of the answers I’ve heard:

– I don’t know, but I know they’re bad for you.
– They are plants that have unnatural genes injected into them.
– GMOs are what you get when you take genes from one species and put them into another species in ways that can never happen in nature.
– They are food with artificial DNA.
– They are plants made by combining DNA from animals or humans.
– GMOs are plants that are artificially modified to produce poison.
– GMOs are plants that are artificially modified so you can spray poison on them without killing them.

Consumers Union, the parent company of Consumer Reports magazine, says Genetically modified organisms are created by deliberately changing the genetic makeup of a plant or animal in ways that could never occur in nature. And Whole Foods has this up on the wall:

There’s just one problem. All these definitions are wrong.

What are GMOs?

GMO stands for “genetically modified organism.” A GMO is any organism–plant, animal, bacterium, fungus, yeast, whatever–that has been modified by genetic engineering techniques. There are lots of these techniques, and lots of ways to modify an organism. Some GMOs have new genes added; some do not (for example, some GMO techniques involve either silencing or removing a gene). New genes can be placed into a cell in a number of different ways.

The point is, when people focus on things like “GMOs are organisms that have genes from another species introduced into them,” like Whole Foods does, they don’t know that’s only one type of GMO. It’s like saying “clothing is a small, closed, tube-shaped piece of fabric worn on the foot under a shoe.” No, that’s one type of clothing–there are many others.

Similarly, when people talk about modification “that can never happen in nature,” like Consumers Union does, that’s incorrect. Many kinds of mutation can and do happen in nature. Organisms experience changes in their DNA all the time. You are a mutant; there are somewhere around 100 to 160 differences between your DNA and your parents’. It is completely possible for a change introduced by genetic engineering to happen by random chance in nature.

An important thing to remember here is there is no such thing as ‘fish’ DNA or ‘human’ DNA or ‘corn’ DNA. DNA is just sequences of molecules called nucleotides. DNA is made up of very, very, very long strings of the nucleotides adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine, which are represented by the letters A, C, G, and T. When someone “sequences” DNA, they’re reading these long long lists of nucleotides. A bit of sequenced DNA might look like AAGATACAGGTACGTTATTACGTCA. Now, looking at that: is that human, mouse, virus, or pig DNA?

One way to think about it is to think about a computer program. A computer program is made up of long lists of numbers that are instructions to a computer. These numbers can be represented by statements in a programming language. Let’s say you see something that looks like this:

buffer = (char*) malloc (i+1);
if (buffer==NULL) exit (1);

Is this “word processing code,” “music player code,” “database code,” or “spreadsheet code”? Well, something like this probably exists in nearly all programs. If you see this in a word processor and you place it in a music player, have you inserted “word processor code” into your music player?

If you see a particular sequence of DNA in a tomato and you copy it into corn, have you put “tomato genes” into the corn? All organisms on this planet share a common genetic heritage. There are stretches of DNA in you that are also in chimpanzees, mice, and carrots. Are those bits of DNA human genes? Or are they mouse genes? Or are they carrot genes? They are just strings of nucleotides, there’s nothing special about them that makes them “belong” to one organism or another. If you rearrange the toy blocks you made your castle out of into a spaceship, you’re not putting “castle blocks” into your spaceship.

All your food is modified

It’s normal for people to fear new things. When pasteurization of milk was first invented, people were terrified of it. A lot of folks complained that it was dangerous to drink the “corpses of dead bacteria.” (Dead bacteria aren’t a problem–it’s the live ones that can harm you.) And the same thing is true of GMOs; we are easily frightened of new things.

But we’ve been modifying food since the beginning of time. A lot of folks think hybridization is different (even when it’s cross-species hybridization, which was the first technology we used to put DNA from one organism into another organism).

During the Green Revolution, which started in the 1940s, we began making huge changes to plant DNA. But we did it at random. We would expose plant seeds to high levels of radiation or soak them in mutagenic chemicals, which would cause thousands of random changes to their DNA. Then we would grow the seeds and see if any of the plants had useful characteristics. Then we’d repeat the process, using more radiation or mutagenic chemicals to do more random changes to DNA, and continue looking for useful traits. If we found them, we would back-cross these mutated plants with regular stock, trying to get the mutations we liked to breed true.

You’ve been eating food with modified DNA your entire life. Even the “organic” food you eat has probably been modified this way. The difference between that kind of modification and GMO technology is that the old way changes thousands or tens of thousands of genes totally at random, without anyone knowing how the plant will be affected, while GMO technology changes one or a few genes in very precise ways that we understand and can predict. Remember, the things changed at random by radiation or mutagenic chemicals are not GMOs.

Kevin Folta has put together this table that shows how we modify plant DNA, how many modifications the techniques cause, and what those modifications are (click to embiggen):

Now, about the picture at the top of this essay. Is that what you think of when you think “GMO”? Actually, it’s a photo of organic squash being cultivated.

Yes, organic. The squash vine is being injected with a natural pesticide called Bt, which kills insects. Bt is one of the many pesticides used in organic farming.

Did you think organic farming was pesticide-free? It’s a common misperception. Organic farming uses insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, and other pesticides; it’s almost impossible to do large-scale farming without it. The difference is that organic farming uses “natural” pesticides rather than “synthetic” pesticides.

Many folks believe that “natural” pesticides are less harmful to humans than “synthetic” ones, on the hypothesis that natural is good and artificial is bad. (This notion conveniently forgets that cyanide, deadly nightshade, smallpox, and arsenic are all 100% natural.) It’s not necessarily true. One of the advantages of GMO farming is we can use pesticides and herbicides that are extremely targeted; Roundup, for example, is highly effective against plants because it interferes with photosynthesis. Humans don’t do photosynthesis, so it’s pretty harmless to us–way less toxic than caffeine, and slightly less toxic than baking soda.

Bt is one of the pesticides approved for use with 100% certified organic food. It’s not toxic to humans, but many other certified organic pesticides are. You can see a list of organic pesticides here. Some of the things on the list, such as pyrethrins, rotenone, and copper sulfate, are really, really toxic to humans–far more poisonous than synthetic pesticides. It is safer for you to eat Roundup than to eat the “natural” insecticide rotenone!

Now that I’ve written a little background about what GMOs are (and touched on what organic food is not), in the next section I’ll start talking about specific objections to GMO technology.

Note: This blog post is part of a series.
Part 0 is here.
Part 0.5 is here.
Part 1 is here.
Part 2 is here.
Part 3 is here.

Some Thoughts on Anti-Intellectualism as a Red Queen Problem

“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else — if you ran very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”
“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run twice as fast as that!”
“I’d rather not try, please!” said Alice. “I’m quite content to stay here — only I am so hot and thirsty!”

— Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

“When we just saw that man, I think it was [biologist P.Z. Myers], talking about how great scientists were, I was thinking to myself the last time any of my relatives saw scientists telling them what to do they were telling them to go to the showers to get gassed … that was horrifying beyond words, and that’s where science – in my opinion, this is just an opinion – that’s where science leads you.”
— Ben Stein, Trinity Broadcasting System interview, 2008

What do spam emails, AIDS denial, conspiracy theories, fear of GM foods, rejection of global warming, antivaccination crusades, and the public school district of Tucson, Arizona banning Shakespeare’s The Tempest have in common?

A typical spam message in my inbox

The answer is anti-intellectualism. Anti-intellectualism–the rejection of scientific study and reason as tools for understanding the physical world, and the derision of people who are perceived as educated or “intellectual”–has deep roots in the soil of American civil discourse. John Cotton, theological leader of the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay, wrote in 1642, “the more learned and witty you bee, the more fit to act for Satan will you bee”–a sentiment many Evangelical Protestants identify with today. (Tammy Faye Bakker, wife of the disgraced former televangelist Jim Bakker, once remarked “it’s possible to educate yourself right out of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”)

It seems weird that such a virulent streak of anti-intellectualism should be present in the world’s only remaining superpower, a position the US achieved largely on the merits of its technological and scientific innovation. Our economic, military, and political position in the world were secured almost entirely by our ability to discover, invent, and innovate…and yet there is a broad swath of American society that despises the intellectualism that makes that innovation possible in the first place.

Liberals in the US tend to deride conservatives as ignorant, anti-intellectual hillbillies. It’s arguably easy to see why; the conservative political party in the US is actively, openly hostile to science and intellectualism. The Republican Party of Texas has written into the party platform a passage opposing the teaching of critical thinking in public school. Liberals scoff at conservatives who deny the science of climate change, teach that the world and everything in it is six thousand years old, and seek to ban the teaching of evolutionary science…all while claiming that GMO foods are dangerous and vaccines cause autism. Anti-intellectualism is an equal-opportunity phenomenon that cuts across the entire American political landscape. The differences in liberal and conservative rejection of science are merely matters of detail.

So why is it such a pervasive part of American cultural dialog? There are a lot of reasons. Anti-intellectualism is built into the foundation of US culture; the Puritans, whose influence casts a very long shadow over the whole of US society, were famously suspicious of any sort of intellectual pursuit. They came to the New World seeking religious freedom, by which they meant the freedom to execute anyone they didn’t like, a practice their European contemporaries were insufficiently appreciative of; and the list of people they didn’t like included any unfortunate person suspected of learning or knowledge. That suspicion lingers; we’ve never succeeded in purging ourselves of it entirely.

Those of a cynical nature like to suggest that anti-intellectualism is politically convenient It’s easier, so the narrative goes, to control a poorly educated populace, especially when that populace lacks even basic reasoning skills. If you’ve ever watched an evening of Fox News, it’s a difficult argument to rebut. One does not need to be all that cynical to suggest a party plank rejecting critical thinking skills is a very convenient thing to a political party that enshrines young-earth Creationism, for instance.

But the historical narrative and the argument from political convenience seem insufficient to explain the breathtaking aggressiveness of anti-intellectualism in the US today, particularly among political progressives and liberals, who are often smugly self-congratulatory about how successfully they have escaped the clutches of tradition and dogma.

I think there’s another factor, and that’s the Red Queen problem.

In evolutionary, biology, the Red Queen hypothesis suggests that organisms in competition with each other must continue to evolve and adapt merely to maintain the status quo. When cheetahs prey on gazelles, the fastest cheetahs will be most successful at catching prey; the fastest gazelles will be most successful at escaping cheetahs. So natural selection favors faster and faster gazelles and cheetahs as each adapts to the other. Parasites evolve and become more efficient at parasitizing their hosts, which develop more efficient defenses against the parasites. I would like to propose that the same hypothesis can help explain anti-intellectualism, at least in part.

As we head into the twenty-first century, the sum total of human knowledge is increasing exponentially. When I was in college in the late 1980s and early 1990s, my neurobiology professors taught me things–adult human brains don’t grow new neurons, we’re all born with all the brain cells we’ll ever have–that we now know not to be true. And that means anyone who wants to be educated needs to keep learning new things all the time, just to stay in one place.

Those who reject science like to say that science is flawed because it changes all the time. How can we trust science, they say, when it keeps changing? In fact, what’s flawed is such critics’ estimation of how complicated the natural world is, and how much there is to know about it. Science keeps changing because we keep shining lights into previously dark areas of understanding.

But it’s really hard to keep up. A person who wants to stay abreast of the state of the art of human understanding has to run faster and faster and faster merely to stay in one place. It’s fatiguing, not just because it means constantly learning new things, but because it means constantly examining things you believed you already knew, re-assessing how new discoveries fit into your mental framework of how the world works.

For those without the time, inclination, tools, and habits to keep up with the state of human understanding, scientists look like priests. We must merely accept what they say, because we don’t have the tools to fact-check them. Their pronouncements seem arbitrary, and worse, inconsistent; why did they say we never grow new brain cells yesterday, only to say the exact opposite today? If two different scientists say two different things, who do you trust?

If you don’t race to keep up with the Red Queen, that’s what it is–trust. You must simply trust what someone else says, because trying to wrap your head around what’s going on is so goddamn fatiguing. And it’s easier to trust people who say the same thing every time than to trust people who say something different today than what they said yesterday. (Or who, worse, yet, tell you “I don’t know” when you ask a question. “I don’t know” is a deeply unsatisfying answer. If a Bronze Age tribesman asks two people “What is the sun?” and one of them gives a fanciful story about a fire-god and a dragon, and the other says “I don’t know,” the answer about the fire-god and the dragon is far more satisfying, even in complete absence of any evidence that fire-gods or dragons actually exist at all.)

Science is comfortable with the notion that models and frameworks change, and science is comfortable with “I don’t know” as an answer. Human beings, rather less so. We don’t want to run and run to keep up with the Red Queen. We also don’t want to hear “I don’t know” as an answer.

So science, then, becomes a kind of trust game, not that much different from the priesthood. We accept the pronouncements of priests and scientists alike when they tell us things they want to hear, and reject them when they don’t. Political conservatives don’t want to hear that our industrial activity is changing the global climate; liberals don’t want to hear that there’s nothing wrong with GMO food. Both sides of the political aisle find common ground in one place: running after the Red Queen is just plain too much work.

Monsanto: The Gigantic Evil Megacorp (that’s actually kinda a pipsqueak)

Among the left-leaning progressives that make up a substantial part of Portland’s general population, there is a profound fear of GMO food that’s becoming an identity belief–a belief that’s held not because it’s supported by evidence, but because it helps define membership in a group.

It’s frustrating to talk to the anti-GMO crowd, in part because these conversations always involve goalposts whipping around so fast I’m afraid someone will poke my eye out. It generally starts with “I don’t like GMOs because food safety,” but when you start talking about how evidence to support that position is as thin on the ground as snowmen in the Philippines, the goalposts quickly move to “I don’t like GMOs because Monsanto.” Monsanto, if you listen to Portland hippies, is a gigantic, evil mega-corporation that controls the government, buys off all the world’s scientists, intimidates farmers, and rules supreme over the media.

So I got to thinking, How big is Monsanto? Because it takes quite a lot of money to do the things Monsanto is accused of doing–when they can be done at all, that is.

And I started Googling. The neat thing about publicly-traded corporations is they have to post all their financials. A quick Google search will reveal just how big any public company really is.

I expected to learn that Monsanto was big. I was surprised.

As big companies go, Monsanto is a runt. In terms of gross revenue, it is almost exactly the same size as Whole Foods and Starbucks. It’s smaller than The Gap, way smaller than 7-11 and UPS, a tiny fraction of the size of Home Depot, and miniscule compared to Verizon and ExxonMobil. That’s it, way down on the left on this graph I made:

You can’t shake a stick in the anti-GMO crowd without hearing a dozen conspiracy theories, almost all of them centered around Monsanto. Lefties like to sneer at conservative conspiracy theories about global warming, but when it comes to GMOs, they haven’t met a conspiracy theory they don’t love to embrace.

Most of these conspiracy theories talk about how Monsanto, that enormous, hulking brute of a magacorporation, has somehow bought off all the world’s scientists, creating a conspiracy to tell us GMOs are safe when they’re not.

Now, hippie lefties usually aren’t scientists. In fact, anyone who’s ever been part of academia can tell you a conspiracy of scientists saying something that isn’t true is only a little bit more likely than a conspiracy of cats saying tuna is evil. As an essay on Slate put it,

Think of your meanest high school mean girl at her most gleefully, underminingly vicious. Now give her a doctorate in your discipline, and a modicum of power over your future. That’s peer review.

Speaking of conspiracies of scientists, let’s get back to conservatives and their “climate change” scientific conspiracy. Look at the left-hand side of the chart up there, then look at the right-hand side. Look at the left side again. Now look at the right side again.

ExxonMobil makes more than 26 times more money than Monsanto, and has a higher net profit margin, too. Combined, the country’s top 5 oil companies have a gross revenue exceeding $1.3 trillion, more than 87 times Monsanto’s revenue, and yet…

…they still can’t get the world’s scientists to say global warming isn’t a thing.

If the oil companies can’t buy a conspiracy of scientists, how can a pipsqueak like Monsanto manage it?

I’m planning a more in-depth blog post about GMOs and anti-GMO activism later. But the “Monsanto buys off scientists” conspiracy nuttiness needed addressing on its own, because it’s so ridiculous.

It’s easy to root for the underdog. One of the cheapest, most manipulative ways to make an argument is to refer to something you don’t like as “Big” (Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big SCAM as I like to think of the Supplemental, Complementary, and Alternative Medicine community). We are culturally wired to love the underdog; a great deal of left identity is wrapped up in being the ones who root for the common man against Big Whatever.

So the ideology of Monsanto as the Big Enemy has emotional resonance. We like to think of the small guy standing up against Big Monsanto, when the reality is Whole Foods, so beloved of hippies everywhere, is basically the same size big corporation as the oft-hated Monsanto, and both of them are tiny in the shadow of far larger companies like 7-11 and Target.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to head down to Starbucks for a pumpkin spice latte and listen to the hippies rant about how much they hate big corporations like Monsanto.

“I’m not a feminist. I love men!”

If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time, you’ll know I hold very little in common with the Religious Right. I do not, for example, believe that homosexuality is a sin, or that Teh Gayz are all destined for the fires of Hell. I don’t much cotton to the notion that the government of the United States should be replaced with a Christian theocracy. Nor do I believe there is a hidden secret agenda of the Godless to drive this great nation into the ground–I think the anti-intellectualism displayed by so many on the Right is doing that job well enough, thanks.

But there is one thing I admire about the Right, and that is their fearsome, epic ability to frame discussion about any topic they care about by crafting a point and then keeping tenaciously, ferociously on point.

“I’m not a feminist. I love men!”

One of the ways the Right has been brilliantly successful at framing the public discourse is in the way they’ve controlled how we think about women. And by “we” I don’t mean “people on the right,” I mean everyone.

Even folks who ought to know better.

“I’m not a feminist. I love men!”

The areas of the Internet I frequent are not areas where the Right often appear. I tend to spend my time online in forums that talk about non-traditional relationships, progressive social issues, technical and scientific subjects, and skepticism.

And there’s something really striking about all these places. The Right may not be present there, but the ideas of the Right are. Even, interestingly, in people who claim to despise the Right.

“I’m not a feminist. I love men!”

There’s no place this is more obvious than in conversations about the Dread F Word. No, not that Dread F Word, the other Dread F Word.

Find yourself a progressive, generally respectful, tolerant, otherwise with-it person. Man or woman, it doesn’t make much difference. Just find someone who thinks there’s room for a multiplicity of views in the public ideosphere. Someone who, if he or she is religious, doesn’t think God commands converting the heathens at the point of a sword. Someone who thinks that people ought generally to be treated well,and that religion isn’t the basis for the formation of a Western representative government. Someone who will agree that racism is a bad thing, even if it’s not entirely clear what we should do to get rid of it.

Now ask that person a simple question: “What is feminism?”

See that? Something very strange happens. For a brief moment, when that otherwise progressive, generally agreeable person starts talking, it’s as if Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity stuck his hand up your interlocutor’s ass and made his or her lips move. For that brief instant, that person, that otherwise agreeable and not at all racist or sexist person, becomes a meat puppet for Mr. Limbaugh, Mr. Hannity, and his ilk.

Even if that person would be horrified at the thought of listening to their shows.

“I’m not a feminist. I love men!”

Think about what goes through your mind, dear reader, at the word “feminist.” Do you think “shrill”? “Strident”? “Misandrist”? “Humorless”? “Man-hater”? “Feminazi”? Does an image pop into your head of a woman who wants to get ahead by tearing down men, a woman who blames men for her own shortcomings, a woman who wants to cause trouble because she can’t succeed on her own? Do you picture someone who, even if she perhaps has the right intentions, has totally gone overboard, accusing all men of being sexist (or worse, of being rapists)?

Guess where those ideas come from? I’ll give you a hint: Not from actual feminists.

Now, don’t get me wrong: any sufficiently large group of people is going to contain extremists, bad apples, and destructive folks. If you look at doctors in general, you’ll find the occasional cynical lying fraud like Andrew Wakefield–but we don’t say all doctors are frauds who deliberately publish articles they know to be fabricated. There are probably a small number of extremists out there somewhere who hold something that might reasonably be within spitting distance of some of the stereotypes about feminism.

But the idea that this is what most or all feminism is about? Sheer, brilliant, amazing PR by the Right. Where did you get those ideas? You got them from the Right, even if you don’t know it.

You probably think you didn’t get them “from” everywhere. You simply know them to be true. Everyone knows them to be true, right? And that’s the crux of the brilliance: if you repeat an idea often enough, everyone, even folks who ideologically despise you, will come to accept it as just true.

Feminists hate men. Everyone knows it. Because we’ve all heard it, even if we don’t exactly remember where we’ve heard it from.

Are there women who are angry? Oh, yeah, you bet. What’s amazing is not that women are angry, but that more women aren’t more angry. All the dudebros I’ve personally met get a whole lot angrier about things a whole lot more trivial–for instance, the notion that they shouldn’t grope those hot somethingsomethings at that con without, you know, asking them first. (Scientist Hope Jahren actually had a colleague ejaculate in an envelope and leave it in her mailbox when she dared to think that she might be worthy of a spot on a serious scientific research team…and this isn’t even an isolated or extreme example of the kind of shit women deal with every day. And men say women are angry? Seriously, what would we say about women if they thought it was appropriate to protest the presence of a man on a research team by shoving a used tampon into a mailbox? Seriously, it amazes me that every woman on earth does not, at some point, climb a clock tower with a rifle. I guaranfuckingtee you that if the roles of men and women were reversed tomorrow, we’d see a whole lot of dudebros doing exactly that.)

“I’m not a feminist. I love men!”

The idea that feminism means hating men has been so skillfully inserted into the public discourse that it’s accepted as a premise in almost any dialog about men and women. And it’s a corrosive idea. It distorts conversation. If you accept this premise, a whole lot of things that would otherwise seem unreasonable–indeed, even offensive–start to sound reasonable.

What is feminism?

It’s the idea that men and women are both people, equally deserving of agency. That’s it. That’s the whole package.

What separates feminism from humanism, then? Centuries of institutional, systematic inequality, that’s what. Saying “I think men and women are equal” is all fine and dandy, but if you ignore the fact that we live under a system that treats, in a thousand ways, men and women as decidedly unequal, congratulations! You’ve just won a Nobel Prize in Missing The Point, which you will be sharing with approximately two and a half billion other luminaries in point-missing.

If you think women are people, congratulations, you’re a feminist! And if you don’t, well…the alternative, it seems to me, is “asshole.”

If you reject this notion of feminism, because everyone knows it means something else, ask yourself: How do you know? Do you know from actually talking to women, or because you’ve heard of this one person who said this feminist this one time said all men are rapists and should die? And if it’s the latter, ask yourself…how did he know that? And more to the point, who benefits from this particular notion of feminism? (I’ll give you a hint, bro: it ain’t women.)

End note: At this point, I know, I just know, that some of you have fingers already all a-tingle to send me a private email telling me pretending to be a feminist is a great strategt for getting laid. Seriously, don’t bother.