4.26.2005

the sad state of science. the sadder state of science journalism.

Let me publicly thank John for sending me this article. Now let me publicly express my disdain for said article. At first I thought, "whoa. This isn't good! Human genes in rice.... will we never learn." But then I thought, "That's such a typical response. Why should I respond that way?" Is it because putting human genes in rice is an immoral or unethical thing? Maybe. But I don't think that's why I was somewhat alarmed about the article at first. And I think the key to my initial reaction is the reaction reported to be expressed by the UK group against genetically modified (GM) foods. Namely that we're muddling around with things we barely understand and that's bad. But now that I really reflect on that, my reaction was typical of the worst kind of response in the face of these types of events. Let me see if I can break down why I think this reaction is the wrong one. (1) First and foremost, the Frankenstein/playing God response is ineffective. If you want to get scientists to stop doing these sorts of things, you can't use polemics like this. I'd venture a guess that most scientists working in this area (perhaps all areas of biology) assume two things: (a) that they are doing research that is value-neutral and (2) that the general public and even the special interest watchdog groups are mainly comprised of stupid people who have stupid opinions about smart science that they just don't understand. To be more specific, scientists don't see themselves as unethical. They merely think that science, when done properly is ethically neutral. Science deals with facts, they think, and facts are independent of morality, ethics, etc. Facts correspond with Truth about the World and the only people that want to stop science from getting at the Truth are ignorant people or evil people (evangelical Christians have been known to use this type of rhetoric from time to time, but I can't get into that here). I don't have time or space to get into the reasons why the opinion that science is value-neutral is just plain wrong. But I will say that we privilege science way too much in the western world. We have for nearly 300 years. And one of the ways that we privilege it is by assuming that facts exist "out there" to be "discovered" by a community of scientists who follow the empirical (a.k.a. hypothetico-deductive) method. All that aside, the fear-laden prognostications about how science is acting Frankensteinian or playing God is playing right into the prejudices of scientists who already believe that they are the only ones qualified to judge whether or not science is doing what it should be doing. If they can find sufficient evidence to support their prejudices about the stupidity of the public, science will continue to retreat into the domain of the specialist--the technocrat who is disinterested in what society thinks that it wants because the specialist knows better than society what is good for it. The "this is bad for the market" quote from one of the other UK people is similarly banal. Scientists are infrequently persuaded about "playing God" talk. "Market reaction" talk is probably even less persuasive to a "rational" scientist. (2) Secondly, the reaction about human genes is misinformed. Admittedly, it is tough to know what goes on in a scientific lab. Things are made much much worse by reporting. Reporters, despite ardent claims to the contrary, are not most highly concerned about "fair and balanced" reporting. Likely, they are most highly concerned about compelling reporting. They want to make a story that "grabs." If that means the story is slightly skewed, oh well. The good ones probably don't even notice that their reporting is not balanced because it's so compelling. And in this case, what would it mean to have fair and balanced reporting? Would it be fairer to have two sides, diametrically opposed shouting at each other? That's not far from what we do have in the case of genetically modified foods. But this isn't really fair (even if it is balanced in some sense) because it doesn't present all sides--only the loudest polemics have a distinct voice. The grey-zone in the middle, which is where most of the debate about this stuff resides, has no place in the news media. It barely has a place in professional or academic journals. Here's what's in some of that grey area: the concept of "gene" that both sides are working from is flawed. Both the pro-GMO industrial scientists and the anti-GMO non-profit interest groups operate from the assumption that genes control destiny. That genes somehow provide the essential ingredients of what makes a thing turn out the way it does. They assume that the genotype (the genetic material of an organism) equates or (in the fairest rendering) approximates the phenotype (the external traits--eye color, behavior, body shape, etc.). What they "bracket"--leave un- or under-studied and unaccounted for--are the effects of embryonic development and environmental impact on the phenotype of that individual. Scientists in biochemistry/chemical agriculture/agro-biology, etc. do their work in laboratories. Laboratory work is designed to control as many variables as possible--control meaning "eliminate from consideration." Good experiments have tight controls, meaning the researchers assume that they can attribute a certain physiological effect to only one cause. In a lab, this is still very difficult, but it can be approximated statistically. In the wild, this is freaking impossible. And that, of course, is what the real problem with GMOs is. Once they get out in a field, there's no telling what they can do. An Ohio State biochemist(?) won a major NSF award just a few years ago for detailing the environmental disaster caused by genetically modified (Bt) corn. I won't go into the details here, but basically the corn was proven "safe" in the lab. According to genetics, it was impossible that anything could go wrong with it and so it was deployed in fields out west. Over a few years, the corn mutated and became exceedingly dangerous to nearly all surrounding ecological life. Humans weren't directly impacted and so it wasn't seen as a big deal. But the point is that once you get an experiment out of the lab, variables that were once "controlled" now are not. One of the reasons these variables cannot be controlled is because development and environmental effects are much more powerful and invasive in the genotype to phenotype translation than we've ever thought. In fact, our whole theory of DNA up until about 20 years ago was based on a controlled laboratory environment where the information flowed only one way, from DNA to RNA to protein to phenotype. Genetics did not consider, even philosophically, that there was any other way of viewing the process. As it turns out, that old view--called by James Watson the "Central Dogma" of DNA--was flat-out wrong. Not wrong in "special cases" as Watson still likes to pretend, but wrong all up and down the line. Simply put, the variables of development and environment cannot be extricated from the existence and performance of DNA itself. And if even DNA is permeable, then we have a real problem on our hands if we try to isolate "genes" and build new things with them. We cannot know whether or not we've built a "chimera"--a thing that does not exist in nature and/or could not exist--until we release it into nature and see what happens. But given the ramifications of "try and see" science, this is something that should never be done. This last point is the one bio-ethicists have been using to criticize things like GMOs for a few years. Science cannot account for every unintended consequence in the wild. We do not have an exhaustive grasp on the very small, tightly circumscribed world of genetics. Not to mention biology as a whole. We used to think that we were only seeing the tip on the iceberg of biological knowledge. Now it should more accurately be described as seeing a few bucketsfull of sand on a few beaches out of all the sand on all the beaches in the world. We know a lot. But we don't know what the relations are between many of our isolated facts. Given this ignorance, ethicists insist, we should proceed with extreme caution. There's a lot more I want to say about this, but this is a blog entry and not a full-fledged article. Let me leave you with this: the argument that we "shouldn't play God" is a silly one because, unless your view of God is ridiculously different than the one portrayed in Christianity and most other religions, we can't play God. No one, as far as I can tell has ever been able to take non-living, non-biological particles and fashion a living thing. The tests during the 1950s and 60s to create life from the "first conditions" of earth were a flop. They took some carbon and hydrogen and nitrogen, shot it through with electricity and made some badly denatured synthetic variant of an amino acid--light years away from creating something actually biological let alone an auto-catalytic (self-replicating and self-managing) system like a bacteria or a virus. Even if someone were to create something alive and self-sustaining, it doesn't mean that we've become any more "like God" than we were proclaimed to be by the serpent in Eden. "Like God" seems to be, according to tradition and scripture, a spiritual state unable to be reproduced from carbon atoms and electricity. So by building our own Frankenstein we may be endangering ourselves and the entire planet, but I'm not sure we're in danger of acting like God, replacing God, making God redundant, or making it any more likely that he'll bring judgment upon us. My guess is that sin hasn't really evolved or devolved with our ability to manipulate things biologically. On the other hand, aside from this strange theological argument, I think GMOs are by and large a negative thing. But I think that the potentially bad impact of GMOs can only be mitigated by speaking the language of the scientists and--most importantly--their funding sources. Let's be honest, if someone could sell you a years worth of potatoes that would never go bad, would prevent the common cold, contained no bad carbohydrates, and cost the same as normal potatoes, why wouldn't you buy them? The problem is less the temptation of Frankenstein science and more our enslavement to a capitalistic ethos that drives the kind of science we fear. Let me say this plainly--to myself as well as anyone else patient enough to reach this point--if we bought organically grown food, supported co-ops that weren't owned by industrialized agricultural consortiums, and didn't mind paying higher prices for foods that spoiled more quickly thereby making our trips to the grocery store more frequent and potentially less convenient, the problem of GMOs would become a much smaller issue. Seriously. Why would they be trying to produce rice that produced liver enzymes unless they thought someone would buy it?!? What I'm trying to say is that science is f%&*ed up. But science is, on this count at least, merely a reflection of the f#@!ed up-ness of our political and economic system. Your greatest power as an individual in this system is at the ballot box and in the check-out line. So the next time that you read an article like this, go ahead and emote in whatever way seems appropriate to you. But then stop and think, what does this mean really. Does it mean that we've stepped over some line drawn in the heavens? Does it mean that our depravity knows no bounds? Does it mean that Monsanto will probably target some other third-world country with genetically hopped-up staple foods that will cause the citizens to become grossly in debt to it. Yes, it probably means all of those things. But it also means that we as consumers in what remains of our representative democracy have not found this a sufficiently pressing issue to actually go out and do anything about it with our own lifestyles. If it were really that important to us, perhaps we should shop differently. At least we can start with that. (Then we can re-order the way that science is funded so it won't be so elitist and teach science journalists how to actually give a fair rendering of a story for once.) So what are you waiting for? Organic milk tastes just as good as the big lumpy plastic gallon of factory milk.

6 Comments:

Blogger lucas said...

good stuff bro, good stuff.

4/26/2005 8:37 AM  
Blogger Joshua said...

a) organic milk does not taste just as good as the lumpy bottle stuff. it tastes frickin awesomely awesomer.

b) you just wasted n screenspace to elucidate what jeff goldblum demonstrated to me in 1993 in probably 1.7 minutes of filmtime with his little "water droplets roll down different sides of the hand" flirty episode with laura dern in jurassic park. we've all been thoroughly vaccinated against this argument. you need to petition spielberg to make "gmo park" if you want people to prick up their ears to this one. get the scientists working *that*.

4/26/2005 11:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i'm not totally against genetic engineering but i think we need to be VERY cautious when we do it, and we shouldn't allow it for profit alone. its been a while since i read it but this article presents an alternative
approach to genetic engineering, it's pretty exciting actually:

http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.05/food.html


-r

4/26/2005 1:58 PM  
Blogger Scott Sloan said...

E, my buddy from work wrote some comments about the article and your thoughts. He is a modernist and believes that science is ethically neutral and has the capacity for progress. Tomorrow we are going to talk about the ethics behind good and evil at lunch.

If money and science is ethically neutral, then is it the ones that apply science and money what makes it good or evil. Newton's law that every action as equal and opposite reaction comes into play here.

I'll let you know how are discussion developes at lunch tomorrow. My buddy is a seeker who at least believes in natural law.

Sorry it took me so long to respond.

4/28/2005 8:12 PM  
Blogger e said...

jnf: organic milk, good. jurassic park, like the special effects. the argument is somewhat different, but the spirit of it's the same. i'm glad i "wasted" that screenspace...but sorry for making you read it :-)

r: good article

scott: let me know how that conversation goes.

it would take/has taken books and books and books and careers worth of work in this area, both on the part of philosophers and sociologists/anthropologists of science to explain it completely and with few exemptions BUT i think it's possible to state definitively that science is NON-neutral. that it is actually impossible for science to screen out the values of scientists and especially funding agencies/companies/governments.

in other words, to talk of value-neutral science is to talk of something that does not and never has existed.

4/28/2005 9:29 PM  
Blogger Seth said...

Thanks for this boys.

Some of the most stimulating reading I've done in a little bit. :)

5/02/2005 7:27 PM  

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