Red Herrings


Health, Politics, MyRamblings, Tech, Science

by Maria on 13 Apr 2010 - 21:10  

Herring (Kippered)

I very much enjoyed the TED talk by Michael Specter on the danger of science denial. His main point is that we will continue to do real damage to our planet and our communities, if we continue to ignore what science tells us. His two main examples are the trend to not immunize because of the supposed link between autism and immunizations, and frankofoods, iow, genetically modified foods. I think both of these cases demonstrate the publics tendency to take a scary finding, latch onto the first thing that comes along to blame, and then ignoring science and facts and beat the hell out of the red herring. In the case of the autism and immunizations, study after study has shown there is no link. But the original study, however misguided, did demonstrate that we need to continue to put pressure on manufacturers and the government to ensure that vaccines are safe to use, as some things were brought up that were questionable. We need to learn to accept science and facts when they become undoubtable, stop beating a dead horse, and look to new places for answers. That second point is very important. There is much money and time now being spent trying to convince parents that autism is caused by immunizations, money that should be spent on coming up with the actual causes and cures to autism. Not to mention this misguidedness is causing a crisis in immunization that could cause many diseases that we have not seen in decades to return to the United States. If you are unconvinced that immunizations do not cause autism, check out this pdf from

The second issue, genetically modified foods, is very interesting. In this case, the red herring is GMO's themselves. Although more research is needed, so far, it appears that the insertion of new genes does not, by itself, change the plant in a negative way. In Specter's talk he mentioned the noble ideas about adding vitamin A in rice and adding protein and vitamins in cassava, using genetic modification. He did not mention anything about adding resistance to pesticides or insecticides. These are the truly scary things, the things we should be up in arms about. The movie Monsanto's World is extremely interesting, and brings to mind the things we need to be extremely concerned about. First and foremost, are the ties between government and corporations. Monsanto has become a scary monopoly because the US government let it happen, and, in fact, encouraged it to happen. And, it can, and probably has, happened in other industries as well. It is the ties between industry and government that has caused the scientific data to not be scrutinized as it should be. Check out the wikipedia article about Monsanto, under Public officials formerly employed by Monsanto. Which brings up and interesting question. Who should be in charge of government agencies that oversee industries? In many cases, it seems the government decides that people from industry are the best choice, since they would presumably know the most about that particular industry. But, they also have the hardest time separating themselves from the corporations they use to be a part of, and present a real conflict of interest. Time after time, in many different industries, government has failed to enforce or enact the regulations it should in the interest of public safety, because of the ties with corporations. The other thing that we should be up in arms about is the abuse of patent law by Monsanto. Monsanto has used patent law to bully farmers, so that it now controls most of the U.S. corn and soy seed market, according to the non-profit Center for Food Safety. And there is no doubt that Monsanto and its connections in government have worked hard to suppress scientific evidence that its products are not as harmless as it claims. But, you shouldn't take my word on this, do your research. So, while I agree with Specter about there being good that can come from genetic modification, and while at its root, it is not much different from the modifications we have been making to animals and plants for hundreds of thousands of years by breeding, there is still some very scary stuff going on in the genetic modification industry, and most of it has to do with the corporation that controls a very large portion of the seed market, Monsanto, and allows farmers to completely douse their fields with herbicides and/or insecticides. And regardless of whether the food that has been modified to survive such dowsing is harmful, we already know that dowsing fields with herbicides and/or pesticides is terrible for the soil and the nature/people surrounding the fields. For the most common of these herbicides, Roundup, check out the wikipedia article.

Which brings me to another interesting article I have read recently. In the article Is it okay to ignore results from people you don't trust? by Ben Goldacre on He gives a nice example of industry scientists getting the results you would expect them to want, which was different from what non-industry scientists found. Repeated experiences like this makes it is easy for us to ignore results from people we don't trust. We have come to expect scientists from industry to get results more favorable to their industry (which is why the government should have been more critical of the data from Monsanto), but then he goes on to give an example of researchers you may not normally trust, publishing a study with a result that was both accurate and earlier then any other researchers. So, it appears that it is not enough that the public pay attention to scientific data, the public must learn to think critically about the data that they are given. Consider the source, but also consider the data itself. Ask questions. Be skeptical, but do not reject science simply because you want to believe in voodoo. And above all, do not look for studies to validate your opinion, because you will find them no matter how crazy your opinion is. Instead, look at everything you can find that examines the question with an open mind, consider the sources, the methods, the number of studies, and ask questions until you are satisfied. But when some new piece of evidence comes up, be willing to look anew at the question, and to reconsider your position. Yup, it is a lot of work, but it is so very important to our health and the health of our planet.

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