Why GMOs aren’t all bad

18 06 2012

Recently, I have been reading Michael Specter’s book, Denialism. In it, he explores the topic of science denial in first-world countries. He dedicates a chapter to the subject of genetically-modified foods (GMOs.) Reading this book and seeing friends’ anti-GMO posts on Facebook made me really start to think about the application of science and how it should be regarded.

Casava roots

Casava (Source: Wikipedia)

There has been talk that corn and other foods are now toxic because of genetic modifications. These claims have been made and disputed. Unfortunately, the result of all this talk and the lack of noise from the scientific community on this topic has caused people to become fearful of all genetic modification.

I am dubious of the motivations of companies like Monsanto. These are massive biotech companies and they work to make a profit. Profit motive should always elicit some skepticism. I do not doubt that they have professionals who want to wield the awesome power of genetics wisely. Unfortunately, some things are created by these companies that should not have been introduced to world.

When I listen to this conversation, it seems like some have forgotten that many of the foods we would not normally think of as GMOs have been bred by humans for thousands of years.

All of the food we eat, every grain of rice and ear of corn, has been manipulated by man; there is no such thing as food that hasn’t been genetically modified.

Denialism, page 3

GMOs are as old as agriculture. Now, the tools are much more precise and only enhance our ability to engineer food to bring out the desired traits. This could mean an incredible opportunity to reduce famine and malnutrition worldwide.

There is a root vegetable from South America called cassava. It is used to make tapioca. It is very starchy and rich in carbohydrates, but not much else. Cassava grows well in dry, arid environments. It has been imported to Sub-Saharan Africa where it is now a staple. Unfortunately, it cannot meet a person’s dietary needs and it has resulted in malnutrition while keeping people from starving.

It is within our capabilities to make a protein-rich version of this vegetable. It may not be able to completely meet a person’s nutritional needs, but it would be better than what they have now.

I think the point I am trying to make here is that all technology is a double-edged sword and it is not fair to completely reject a technology because of a few abuses or mistakes. I willingly admit that there are many things I do not know about. If you think I am wrong, please say something in the comments. This blog does not get many views, but maybe we could start some kind of a conversation here.

Tales from the Flat Earth Society

1 12 2011

I had to write something about this because I discovered this group to today and I think it is so remarkable, I really had to share it with the world. I write this as an educated American in the year 2011. Despite all of our scientific and social strides forward, this group persists. I speak, of course, of the Flat-Earthers. Yes, in 21st-century America, there still exists a group of people who think the world is as flat as a pancake. Read the rest of this entry »

Can’t teach an old god new tricks

20 06 2011

Life is all about change. This is yet another reason why I do not accept the notion of some omnipotent, omniscient deity overseeing everything, from the grand scale of the universe to the goings-on in bedrooms on this tiny little rock.

Omniscient means you simply cannot teach god anything. It means that the Judeo-Christian notion of god would prevent that god from changing. God would be static, which must be immensely boring and tedious. Worse than that, god would be incapable of understanding his own creation. I don’t just mean humanity; he also can never understand the universe. The cosmos itself is transient. If god is permanent and unchanging, then he has no reference frame. He can only mimic kindness or sympathy.

In other words, screw god. He just doesn’t get us.

Sam Harris on Osama bin Laden (via Almighty God)

2 05 2011

This title on this post might be a bit off. It’s more about the 9/11 hijackers and their motivations. Nonetheless, I think it’s spot-on.

"The men who committed the atrocities of September 11 were certainly not 'cowards,' as they were repeatedly described in the Western media, nor were they lunatics in any ordinary sense. They were men of faith—perfect faith, as it turns out—and this, it must finally be acknowledged, is a terrible thing to be." — Sam Harris (The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason) … Read More

via Almighty God

Teach doubt in school

18 02 2011

I enjoyed my time in high school. I still value that experience a great deal. It helped me start to figure out who I am and where I want to go. In particular, the science programs had a big impact on me. From the Saturday Science program there that I participated in as a 3rd, 4th, and 5th-grader, to the four years of science that I took there, to the scholarship I won from the North Central Science Department at graduation, it was a great place to learn. Looking back, however, there was something missing, a lesson in reason and skepticism.

I did not really get into skepticism – real skepticism – until my junior year in college. Basically all that happens in high school science classes is learning the specific subject in question, be it physics, chemistry, biology, zoology, or some other subject. The scientific method is only briefly glossed over in the first class each year.

I think that in order for science classes to really teach science, they must teach the philosophy behind it, as well as the actual means. This can take a couple of forms. It could be a dedicated course, within the schools’ science curriculum. This course would  give students a firm grounding in rationality, skepticism, and inquiry. It would teach them how to question and test claims. The alternative to this solution would be to include a more in-depth lesson in the scientific method and scientific inquiry that might last a week (5 class sessions) or so.

I would make the argument that while we improve our education system across the country, we should look at where our science curricula might be lacking. We certainly could do with more rational analysis and thought in this country.

The secular movement needs diplomats, not warriors

18 08 2010

I watched a great half-hour talk from Doctor Phil Plait, who was at The Amazing Meeting. In it, he gave his insights for bringing people over to rationality and skepticism. Most if it I agreed with and it changed the way I think about my interactions with non-skeptics.

He sums it up succinctly, “Don’t be a dick.” Whenever you, as a non-believer goes after a believer with ridicule and anger, it instantly turns that person off to your point of view and can cause them to dig in even more deeply on what they believe. Phil cited a recent encounter he had with a young-Earth creationist at a talk in West Virginia. She cited the observation that the moon is moving away from Earth and its rate of recession indicated that the Earth was only a few thousand years old. Instead of calling her out and ridiculing her position, he simply explained that the moon’s recessional rate is not constant and the Earth is indeed 4.5 billion years old. They ended up having a discussion afterwards.

He made more progress by respecting the other’s views than he would have by mocking them. For people who are scientifically literate and have a skeptical mind, it is very easy and tempting to make fun of people who are credulous when it comes to religion, UFOs, homeopathy, the like. To those of us who do not believe those claims, they seem so absurd. However, when trying to convince someone who does not thing they are absurd, diplomacy is key.

To paraphrase Dr. Plait, we need diplomats, not warriors. It may feel like we are fighting a war, but we really are not. We are trying to skew people towards a skeptical method of thinking and analysis.

I would set aside half an hour to watch the talk in its entirety and read the accompanying blog post. It was definitely worth it.