Stochastic Terror as a Tool of Conformity

In 1170, King Henry II of England, fed up with his former BFF Thomas Becket (who started criticizing the Crown after becoming Archbishop of Canterbury), declared “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” And, of course, since he was the king, four knights (Reginald Fitz-Urse, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy and Richard le Breton) heard that as a call to action, whereupon they rode to Canterbury and murdered Becket in what is likely the first recorded example of stochastic terrorism.

What is stochastic terrorism? Dictionary.com defines it as:

the public demonization of a person or group resulting in the incitement of a violent act, which is statistically probable but whose specifics cannot be predicted

It’s about inciting people to acts of harassment, bullying, or violence without directly telling them what to do.

I’ve been thinking a lot about stochastic terrorism lately, not just in terms of American politics, but in a more immediate, more personal context.

Stochastic terrorism uses inflammatory language likely to get someone somewhere to commit violence, without quite going so far as to say anything that might be directly construed as incitement to violence. You know, like “I only lost the election because the Democrats cheated and they‘ll go on cheating until we all use our Second Amendment rights to take back our country.”

This isn’t a direct command to a specific person to take a direct action, but it has predictable effects.

But I didn’t come here to talk about Donald Trump.

Stochastic violence is a broad idea, and I think it plays out in a thousand tiny ways we might not think about at first. Thing is, we are all susceptible, to some degree, to indirect incitement; it’s just that different people have different levels of susceptibility and different lines past which they won’t go.

All of us are, in the right circumstances, willing to heed the non-specific but righteous call to take up arms, figuratively or literally speaking, for a noble but non-specific cause. Yes, including you.

Stochastic terrorism is, I think, the extreme end of a continuum, a gradual incline from low-level bullying to premeditative violence. Stochastic bullying is the gateway to stochastic terrorism. And we currently live in a world where this has become normalized, a background of our lives.

Stochastic bullying

Let me let you in on a dirty little secret of the human condition:

People like to bully.

People like to bully. People enjoy it. Take your average random person off the street, no matter his political affiliation, and give them a reason to bully someone—a reason that their peers, the people they care about, would find acceptable and justifiable. Let him loose and odds are good he will bully. You can make a bully of anyone; you need only find some value they care about and convince them that someone has violated that value and Bob’s your uncle.

Add the anonymity of the Internet and the deal is, for way too many people, sealed. People like to bully. Give someone a justification, a rationalization that lets them sleep at night, and give them the anonymity of the Internet, and boom, you can make a bully of almost anyone.

People bully for a lot of reasons, but there is no bully as zealous as the self-righteous bully, the bully who bullies with the pious fervor of one who is defending Truth and Justice. The stochastic bully is the keyboard warrior version of King Henry’s knights: a person who rides into battle harassing and doxxing others because someone he (or she) looks up to has declared a righteous cause.

Let me offer an example. I know this essay is getting long, but bear with me.

The Story

Some time ago, I knew a person who, after a bad breakup, was accused of abuse by their partner. These accusations were long on the pushbutton language in sex positive communities, but short on details.

All communities have rules and norms, signifiers that separate in-group from out-group. In sex-positive spaces, for instance, you’ll see people say things like:

  1. All accusations are always 100% truthful 100% of the time, unless they are made by someone who has been accused of abuse first, in which case they are always, without fail, an attempt to dodge accountability.
  2. Nobody ever lies about abuse. Nobody ever distorts, mis-states, or exaggerates…again, unless they’ve previously been accused of abuse themselves, in which case it is 100% certain that anything they say is a lie, 100% of the time.
  3. The only moral action when confronted by an accusation of abuse is to believe the accusation wholeheartedly. Asking for more details is enabling abuse. Asking followup questions is enabling abuse. Any attempt at fact-finding is enabling abuse, if it doesn’t support the accusations anyway.

It’s easy to see where these ideas come from. For decades—centuries, perhaps—we’ve lived in societies that tolerate and condone abuse, particularly along social power lines. Many people, in a genuine desire to create a more just and equitable society, are beginning to push back against that.

Somewhere along the way, though, these things became virtue signals: designators of who is good and who is bad, who belongs and who doesn’t. And, like all virtue signals, they became markers of who it is and is not okay to bully. Someone accused of abuse: OK to bully.

So, predictably, the person I knew became a target of harassment and bullying…and, of course, being stripped of her social circle made it far easier for bullies to harry and hound her.

Funny, that. Throughout history, it has always, always been true that depriving someone of their social support is the #1 tool of abusers. And so it is in many sex-positive communities, which say “Beware anyone who tries to separate people from their social support, that’s what abusers do…oh, so-and-so has been accused of something by someone? SHUN! SHUN”

You abused me by refusing to give me what I wanted

This person’s accuser was shy on details, and when I and someone else asked for those details, we eventually got something that was…distinctly not abuse, and in fact was reasonable and healthy boundary-setting. But the thing is, those details were never part of the accusation, and somewhere along the way, in many sex-positive circles, it became evil to ask for followup information when someone says “I was abused.”

I naively believed once the details of the accusation were known, the harassment and bullying would stop. I was wrong.

I was surprised at the time. I’m not any more. In fact, nowadays, it’s exactly what I would expect. It turns out that people who are logical and rational, who make reasoned decisions, who see themselves as genuinely good people, regularly—routinely, even—support and enable bullies and abusers.

And guess what? That’s a completely rational response.

The Bank Robber’s Gun

Picture the scene: It’s the middle of the afternoon. A bank robber bursts into a crowded lobby waving a pistol. He says “This is a stickup! Everybody down!” Chaos, panic, confusion. Maybe the security guard jumps at him and gets shot or something.

Now, there are 20 or 30 people in the bank. The robber is holding a revolver. It’s got six shots, or maybe five; and if he’s just taken a shot at the security guard, that leaves him with five, maybe four. If all the customers rush him, he cannot win. He can’t reload fast enough.

No rational person would rush him. Each of the 20-30 people in the bank will make the same calculation and come to the same conclusion: The first person to rush him is getting shot. I’m not going to let that be me. And so, nobody rushes him.

So he takes everyone hostage, and ties them all up, and now if things go sideways he can kill them all at his leisure. What was a situation where he could not possibly hope to win becomes a situation where he is certain to win, all because rational people made a reasonable decision in their own self-interest…a decision made by everyone else, that dooms everyone.

Classic example from history: the McCarthy Communist hunts. Anyone who is accused is assumed guilty. People on the sidelines who know a particular target of the McCarthyists is innocent sure as hell aren’t going to say so, because anyone who does, becomes the next target too. Silence becomes self-preservation.

So imagine some person in a subcommunity facing a situation like the one my acquaintance was in:

  1. He knows they’ve been accused of something bad.
  2. He knows they’ve being bullied and harassed.
  3. Beyond that, he knows them only as a vague blur, a face in the crowd. He has no connection with her other than that.

Of course he’s going to shun them. Of course it doesn’t matter if the accusations have merit. Of course it doesn’t matter if he even believes them or not. It would be stupid to expect anything else.

He would, in a purely rational sense, be a complete moron to do anything but shun them. Anyone who doesn’t go along with the shunning ends up on the wrong side of the in-group/out-group signaling, and becomes the target of the same people who are bullying her. If he lets her back in, he puts himself .

What rational person would stick up for someone, put himself in the line of fire for someone who is essentially a stranger?

That’s how stochastic bullying works.

And so, entire communities become held hostage by small numbers of bullies.

Virtue Signaling: Believing the Unbelievable

There’s an absolutely fascinating essay over on Slate Star Codex called The Toxoplasma of Rage. In it, the author makes an interesting observation:

But in the more general case, people can use moral decisions to signal how moral they are. In this case, they choose a disastrous decision based on some moral principle. The more suffering and destruction they support, and the more obscure a principle it is, the more obviously it shows their commitment to following their moral principles absolutely. For example, Immanuel Kant claims that if an axe murderer asks you where your best friend is, obviously intending to murder her when he finds her, you should tell the axe murderer the full truth, because lying is wrong. This is effective at showing how moral a person you are – no one would ever doubt your commitment to honesty after that – but it’s sure not a very good result for your friend.

The larger lesson here is this:

Virtue signaling is most effective when you signal some virtue that other people don’t necessarily agree with. You can’t make a useful virtue signal from something everyone always agrees with, like “serial killers are bad” or you shouldn’t eat babies.” The more dramatic, controversial, and absolute a virtual signal is, the more power it has.

And this causes values and moral principles—even generally sound moral principles, like “honesty is generally good”—to become completely decoupled from real-world consequences.

But of course, holding a nuanced view of the world—considering every situation on its own merits, thinking about edge cases, looking at your moral values with an eye toward seeing how well they fit in each individual circumstance…that takes work. Who has that kind of time?

Especially when it might put you in the crosshairs of someone who enjoys bullying people, and does so with the fire of zeal to purge the heretic and the unbeliever?

So a reasonable, completely supportable moral virtue, like “honesty is generally good,“ becomes an absolutist value.

What? You lied to the killer who asked where your girlfriend was??! You despicable person! I thought you agreed that honesty is good! And now to find out you’e nothing but a disgusting liar, someone who will throw away honesty whenever you find it convenient…what is wrong with you? How can anyone ever trust anything you say? Why should we believe a single word from you, you liar?

This plays out in sex-positive circles with the “believe survivors” trope.

Bumper Sticker Morality

“Believe survivors,” like “honesty is good,” is a fair, decent moral value. We live in societies that have spent far too long not believing when people talk about abuse they’ve suffered, harm they’ve experienced, particularly from people and institutions in power. I mean, great example: Catholic Church. Hell, even law enforcement institutions have a long and revolting history of refusing to take, for example, rape reports seriously.

But somewhere along the way, all moral values must confront the fact that no moral situation is absolute.

“Honesty is good” does not, therefore, mean “do not lie tell your friend’s murderous ex where she’s hiding, even though you know he wants to kill her, because dishonesty is wrong.”

When you reach the point where some moral value becomes more important as a bumper-sticker-sized signal of your virtue than as a guideline for treating others well—Honesty is always good, regardless of circumstance! Dishonesty is bad!—it ceases to be a moral value, instead serving as a justification to bully others (“You lying sack of shit, how dare you show your face among decent, honest folks when you’re such a mewling, festering liar you told a lie to an enraged murderer about where he could find the person he was looking to bury his hatchet in!”).

Any reasonable person will, at least in private, say there’s no such thing as a class of people who should always be believed under all circumstances. “Believe survivors,” like “honesty is good,” is an excellent general moral guideline—as long as you’re alert to the fact that no moral value is ever 100% true in 100% of circumstances. Human beings are messy, and when you create entire classes of people who are never to be doubted, you open the door to someone somewhere exploiting that for gain. “Always believe survivors” is exactly the same as “never believe survivors”—a way to avoid having to do the hard, messy work of evaluating individual people and individual situations. (Who has that kind of time, amirite?)

Stochastic Bullying, Stochastic Terrorism: Power Without Responsibility

As a tool for, you know, living a life that’s respectful of others, zealously defending bumper-sticker morality that brooks no exception, no nuance, no edge cases is a bit rubbish. But where stochastic bullying really shines is as a way of enforcing conformity and obedience to in-group/out-group borders.

Not long ago, I wrote about a bizarre, Twilight-Zone situation where some Internet personalities somehow decided I was running, or profiting from, or organizing, or something, a conference in London. I still have no clue where this notion came from, but someone got it in their head, and wrote about it online, in a This Will Not Stand kind of way, and the next thing you know, the conference organizers were receiving hate mail and threats. It got so bad, the organizers suspended the conference.

Now, this is serious “Jewish space lasers” territory. We’re so far past rationality here, we’ve looped all the way around Bizarro World and ended up in “Democrats secretly run a sex trafficking ring from the basement of a pizza shop that doesn’t have a basement” land. It shouldn’t really be too hard for someone who hears this story to say ‘hang on, a dude in Portland secretly runs a conference in London that’s been going on for years and how does that work exactly?’

But that’s the thing: Virtue signaling becomes more powerful as it becomes more outlandish. Sure, anyone can say they believe in QAnon, but believing that a secret trafficking ring works from the basement of a building that doesn’t even have a basement shows true commitment to the cause.

And the thing is, the person who started spreading rumors that I secretly run this conference in London never actually said ‘and therefore, you, specifically, should send death threats to the conference organizers.’ That’s how it works.

Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?

Will no one do something about this conference?

It is power without responsibility. It’s a way to accumulate control in a community, enforce boundaries between who’s in and who’s out, and let people know: Don’t be the hero. Charge me and you’ll get shot. Keep your head down and do as I say.

Nobody can take power this way in a subcommunity without everyone else being complicit. It’s hackneyed to say this, but all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for people of principle to do nothing.

But when you feel you have to keep your head down, because stepping out of line targets you for bullying and attack from quarters you cannot anticipate, it becomes a rational choice.

And we all lose.

The Evolutionary Root of the Internet Hate Machine

Your Rage is a Commodity

Faces in the Crowd: Tampa, Florida, late 1990s (photo by author)

You do not love all humankind.

This is a fact. It’s written into your biology. There is a limit, coded into the size and structure of your brain, on the number of people you can form close, personal connections to, or even remember as individuals before they start to blur into faces in a crowd. That is, I think, is one of the things that makes the online world so toxic, though perhaps not in the way you might think.

Before I get into why social media is so toxic, let’s talk about that limit. It’s called Dunbar‘s Number, named after anthropologist Robin Dunbar. The basic idea is there’s a specific, quantifiable number on the close interpersonal connections—not passing acquaintances, not faces in a crowd, but meaningful social interconnections—you can make. People debate exactly what this number is (and some anthropologists have questioned the validity of research that extrapolates from other primates to humans), but the most commonly accepted figure is in the neighborhood of 150 people or so—which tracks nicely with the size of early hunter/gatherer tribes.

That means we all have emotional space for somewhere around 150 people in our inner orbits. Again, these aren’t acquaintances—they’re your family, your friends, your lovers, your confidantes, the people you have a genuinely close connection to. Above this number, people tend to become faces in a crowd. You don’t fundamentally connect with people outside your inner orbit the way you do with people inside your inner orbit. You can’t. Regardless of whether your own personal limit is, 150 people or 200 people or 147 people or whatever, at some point you lose the ability to form independent, differentiable emotional connections. With eight billion humans on the planet, you can’t even remember everyone’s name!

That worked fine when we all lived in small tribes of a couple hundred people at most. Things started getting a little weird when human social groups got bigger than that. We had to invent surrogates for those close personal connections: governments, religions, structures that could impose boundaries on our behavior…because make no mistake, we hold very different standards for how it’s acceptable to treat people inside our personal spheres and outside them.

And that sorta worked for a long time, though at a cost. When you replace individual connections to people you know with abstract bonds with members of your religion or your city-state or your nation—in other words, with a group of people you’ve mostly never met—it becomes easy for people to hijack that apparatus and tell you who to love and who to hate. Instead of your tribe being defined by personal connections, it becomes directed for you from the top down: your in-group and out-group are defined not by people you personally know and trust, but by the hierarchy that directs these abstract groups.

Remember how you’re hard-wired to behave differently toward people within your personal sphere and outside it? Yeah, that. If someone convinces you that all members of your religion or your city-state are inside your sphere and everyone else is outside it, then getting you to trust people you shouldn’t trust, or commit acts of atrocity against people who’ve done you no harm, gets a whole lot easier.

It doesn’t help, too, that when you start dealing with people outside your inner circle, you have to make hasty group generalizations, which means you start judging entire groups of people based on superficial characteristics. So there’s that.

Being Human in an Age of Social Media

If our evolutionary heritage didn’t prepare us for living in groups bigger than a couple hundred people or so, it definitely didn’t prepare us for social media.

There are eight billion of us sharing space on this planet. Eight billion. That’s a number of people literally, not figuratively, impossible to grasp emotionally. We cannot really even imagine eight billion people.

Most of us live in enormous societies several orders of magnitude larger than the hundred and fifty to two hundred our brains evolved to cope with, so we create our own little subcommunities, social circles, networks of family and friends.

Social media gives us an easy, low-friction way to interact with other people. Problem is, interactions on social media feel like in-person interactions, but they aren’t. You’re presenting, and interacting with, carefully curated personas. Social media makes it much easier to curate these personas than it is in person—we choose what we show and what we share. And, importantly, it’s easy for us to hide things.

So we end up feeling like we have genuine connections with people we don’t actually know. We know only a carefully constructed facade, but to our emotional selves, to the parts of us that define our family, our tribe, these connections seem genuine.

Psychologists have a name for this: parasocial relationships. We become invested in people on social media, people who might not actually share a connection with us, who might not even know us at all except as a name on a follower list.

The thing about parasocial relationships is they occupy a slot in our inner sphere, even though they are not, in fact, genuine close relationships.

And that, I think, is a huge part of why the Internet is such a hate machine.

Mass-Produced Synthetic Rage

The Internet is a hate machine, fine-tuned to manufacture outrage in industrial quantities. Part of that is deliberate engineering, of course. Engagement drives revenue. Waving pitchforks and screaming for the heads of the heathens is “engagement.” Outrage sells, so Adam Smith’s ruthless invisible hand has shaped social media into high-efficiency outrage generation machines.

Early pioneers wanted to use the power of this globe-spanning, always-on communications network to bring people together. Looking back, that seems charmingly naïve, though in fairness it wasn’t obvious back then that anger would be more profitable. Who knew?

What happens when you fill up slots in your inner sphere with parasocial relationships—with people you genuinely feel a sincere connection to, but you don’t actually know?

You become easy to manipulate.

You feel a bond to a person you don’t know, whose motives you can never be certain of, who has an entire life lived away from social media. This person is part of your inner circle, and part of that evolutionary heritage I was talking about is that you are predisposed to believe things people in your inner circle tell you. You are descended from a long line of ancestors who were part of a tribe. For our early ancestors, losing their tribe meant death. We are descended from people who survived—the ones who did not get expelled from their tribes. Accepting the values, beliefs, and worldview of the people in your inner circle is wired into your genes.

So when someone who is part of your social media inner circle tells you someone else is a bad person, you’re disposed to believe it without question. When your social media tribe tells you who to hate, you do it. Yes, I mean you. You think you’re far more rational and less tribalistic than all those other people. You’re wrong.

Now consider that in the age of COVID over the past few years, more people are getting more of those social needs met online, and consider the digital generation growing up in a world where parasocial interaction is the norm, and, well, things get weird. How could social media become anything but a hate machine?

And, ironically, spaces that consider themselves “loving” and “welcoming” and “safe” are especially prone to this, because a great deal of in-group/out-group policing is done on the basis of feelings of comfort and safety; if someone tells you that someone else says that so-and-so is a bad person, you want to keep your space loving and safe, right? And it can’t be loving and safe if it has bad people in it, right? There’s only one thing for it: we must lovingly band together to drive out the evil among us.

On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a manipulator

The thing about parasocial interactions is your brain really wasn’t meant for them. You tend, when you interact with someone one or two steps removed, to see only a curated version of them—but at the same time, emotionally, the ancient parts of your brain will respond as if this was a person who’s a member of your family, who you can trust implicitly.

Believe me, that creates some really messed-up opportunities for things to go wrong.

The people you see on social media may have an agenda you’re completely unaware of. As a particularly vivid case, I know of one person who attempted to take over a conference that had been running for many years. She simply tried to walk up and start hosting a new conference using the same name, same trademark, everything. (This sort of thing is more common than you think. There comes a point in the normal development of any subculture or subcommunity when a tipping point is reached; once the community grows to a certain size, it’s easier to make a name for yourself by stealing someone else’s work than by doing the work yourself.)

When her attempted hijacking didn’t succeed, and the conference organizers informed her they would defend their trademark legally if necessary, well…Internet hate machine. She started so many rumors and accusations about the existing conference (each one laughably simple to debunk by itself, but quantity has a quality all its own…where there’s smoke, there must be fire, not someone running around with a smoke pot yelling “Fire! Fire!”, right?), the Internet hate machine did what it does best. The internetverse whipped itself into such a frothing frenzy, people unconnected with anyone remotely related to the conference started sending threats of violence to people scheduled to speak at the conference. It got so bad, the organizers had to cancel.

I might say here that if one person you’ve never met in person but know on the Internet tells you that another person you’ve never met but know on the Internet is a bad person and therefore you should send threats of violence to a whole set of other people you’ve never met but know on the Internet, you’ve completely lost the plot…yet here we are. The thing is, the nature of the Internet and your legacy evolutionary heritage makes this kind of thing feel right. It feels natural. It feels righteous and just.

You are a tribal being. We all are. It’s a fact of our biology. Social media is engineered to produce rage, because rage gathers clicks, and emotions like fear and anger make you less rational. Add that to the fact you’re already inclined to accept people into your inner circle you’ve never met because interactions on social media feel convincingly authentic, and it’s a perfect storm. People can manipulate you and make you feel righteous about it.

None of these problems is unique to the internet, of course, but the parasociality inherent in the Internet makes the problem much worse. And, of course, knowing that the Twitter hordes with the torches and pitchforks might turn them on you if you fail to pick up a torch or a pitchfork and rally to the cause when you’re told to, really doesn’t help.

Don’t be a sucker

What’s the solution?

I don’t know. I wish I did. I’d like to say it’s as easy as fact-checking and being aware, but it’s not. Your fact-checking is emotionally biased by in-group/out-group dynamics. Being aware that you can be manipulated doesn’t help as much as you might think, because awareness is so intellectual and manipulation is so emotional. It’s hard to stop and say “hey, wait a minute” when what you’re being told feels right. That feeling is exactly the Achilles’ heel I’m talking about.

So yeah, don’t be a sucker, but that requires constant vigilance, and the ability to go against the grain of the pitchfork-wielding mob. A lot of folks just plain aren’t prepared to do that.

So I don’t necessarily have a solution, but I will leave you with this:

In a world where you can be anything, be kind.

Image: Adam Nemeroff

Hacking as a tool of social disapproval

“The street finds its own uses for things.” —William Gibson, Burning Chrome

Last year, my wife, my co-author, and I launched a new podcast, The Skeptical Pervert. We talk about sex…and more specifically, we talk about sex through a lens of empiricism and rationality.

The Skeptical Pervert’s website runs WordPress. Now, I’ve been around the block a few times when it comes to web security, and I know WordPress tends to be a rather appetizing target for miscreants, so I run hardened WordPress installs, with security plugins, firewalls that are trained on common WordPress attack vectors, and other mitigations I don’t talk about openly.

I run quite a few WordPress installs. My blogs on franklinveaux.com and morethantwo.com run WordPress. So does the Passionate Pantheon blog, where Eunice and I discuss the philosophy of sex in a far-future, post-scarcity society. In addition, I host WordPress blogs for friends, and no, I won’t tell you who they are, for reasons that will soon become clear.

I automatically log hack attacks, including failed login attempts, known WordPress exploits, and malicious scans. I run software that emails me daily and weekly statistics on attacks against all the WordPress sites I own or host. I also subscribe to WordPress-specific infosec mailing lists, so I am aware of the general threat background.

Because WordPress is such a common target—it’s the Microsoft Windows of the self-hosted blog world, with everything that implies—any WordPress site will get a certain low level of constant probes and hack attempts. It’s just part of the background noise of the Internet. (If you run WordPress and you’re not religiously on top of security updates, by the way, you’ve already been pwn3d. I can pretty much guarantee it.)

The fact that I host WordPress sites not connected with me to the outside world gives me a good general baseline reading of this background noise, that I can use to compare to hack attacks against sites that are publicly connected with me.

And the results…well.

In all the years I’ve been on the Web—and I started running my own Web sites in the mid-1990s—I have never seen anything even remotely close to the constant, nonstop barrage of attacks against the Skeptical Pervert site. Joreth and Eunice are probably quite sick of my frequent updates: “Well, the firewall shows over a thousand brute-force hack attempts against the Skeptical Pervert site so far today and it isn’t even noon yet” (seriously, that’s a thing that happened recently).

Here’s a graph showing what I mean. This graph covers one week, from June 13, 2022 to June 20, 2022. The “baseline” in the graph is an average of several WordPress sites I host that aren’t in any way connected to me in the eyes of the Internet at large—I don’t run them, I don’t put content on them, my name isn’t on them, I merely host them.

Note that the attacks don’t scale with traffic; the More Than Two blog has the most traffic, followed by franklinveaux.com, then the Passionate Pantheon blog, then the Skeptical Pervert.

So what to make of this?

Part of it is likely the long-running social media campaign my ex has been running. Attacks on franklinveaux.com and morethantwo.com increased in the wake of her social media posts.

But that doesn’t explain what’s happening with the Skeptical Pervert, which has turned out to be targeted to an extraordinary degree.

Now, I don’t know who’s attacking the site, or why, so this is speculation. It’s hard to escape the idea, though, that when a site and podcast explicitly about sex, co-hosted by two women of color, talking about non-traditional sexual relationships is targeted, at least part of the answer might simply be the same old, same old tired sex-negative misogyny and racism we see…well, everywhere, pretty much. The fact that my ex doesn’t like me (and will say or do anything to get other people not to like me) doesn’t explain what’s happening here.

It’s easy to blame conservative traditionalists, but Eunice reminded me there’s another factor at work as well. The Skeptical Pervert approaches sexuality from a rational, evidence-based, skeptical lens. In the United States, there’s a stubborn streak of misogyny amongst the dudebros of the skeptics community. A podcast with two women that looks at sex from a highly female-focused, feminist point of view taking on the mantle of skepticism? It’s possible there are dudebros who will perceive that as an encroachment into their space.

In short, I don’t think this is about me. I think this is about women talking openly about real-world non-traditional sex, and getting the same pushback that women always get when they dare to do that.

If the podcast were just me, or me with obviously male co-hosts, I don’t think the level of Web attacks would be anywhere near the same.

The street finds its own uses for things. In the hands of people threatened by or frightened of non-traditional voices, the Internet has become a safe, anonymous tool of harassment.

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 Kink.com. 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 Kink.com). 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 https://images.google.com/imghp 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:

Derp.

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.