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 »

Rationality could keep us from extinction

5 01 2011

I was inspired to write this when I saw a video of Dan Dennett discussing the possible future of religion and it really made me think and hope.

The gist of Dennett’s comments were that, as has happened throughout recorded history, people become better and better educated. As this happens, organized religions are forced to update their positions on various issues. Religions and information do not mix well. The recent flood of information to the entire world, via the internet and other media, has informed people of the larger world and all its people and beliefs. In the modern world, it is exceedingly difficult to shut this out and shield your children from it.

Here’s where my thoughts and hopes come in. If more parents would accept the information age for what it is and allow their children to explore, analyze, and find their own answers, we would be better off. I am not, however, advocating a completely hands-off approach to parenting. Parents should expose their children to science in depth and allow them to investigate competing religions to their own.

We live in a time when humanity could snuff itself out in a week or a generation. Things like war, unmoderated pollution, and unpreparedness for natural disasters could prove ultimately fatal for our species. The key to avoiding extinction and providing for humanity’s long-term survival is to have a generation of well-educated, reasonable, and rational people making decisions and solving problems. Education and an decrease in indoctrination from religious parents will not just make the Earth a better place to live, it could save our species.

Uncertainty is not an excuse for ignorance

20 10 2010

It would be arrogant to say that science has had its heyday and that all the big discoveries are behind us. The universe is as complex as it is large. The need for good science will never go away.

Imagine if we had stopped physics research after Newton had worked out calculus and classical physics. Imagine if we had stopped biology research after Henry Gray published his text book on human anatomy.

Isaac Newton was a brilliant person. He figured out the motions of the planets and worked out his now well-known three laws of motion. He discovered that the planets do not revolve around the sun but the planets and the sun all orbit around a common center of mass. In the process of doing this, he had to come up with differential and integral calculus.

However, Newton was confounded by something. He and other astronomers kept detailed logs of the planets’ motion in the sky. They indicated that the planets’ orbits were not constant; they were constantly being perturbed by the gravitational pull of the other planets and other objects. According to all the math he had done up to that point, he found that the planets should be knocked out of their relatively stable orbits. Rather than try to solve the problem, he supposed that there was a divine hand in keeping the planets in the proper places in the sky.

The is the tragedy of Isaac Newton’s life. He was undoubtedly smart enough to figure out this perturbation problem but he did not. It was another 200 years before a comprehensive description for perturbation theory was established.

Because we might be amazed at what we have discovered or that we do not know what we will discover in the future, that does not mean that we should not expect to discover anything. The universe is huge and our understanding of it is anything but complete. Until we are absolutely certain of everything, then scientific advance has to continue on.

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.