Sunday, December 22, 2013

21st Century Conversation

I’ve mentioned “21st century conversations”, a term Sam Harris coined. This talk is one of those. I’ll provide a few notes on it.

Sam knows religion and has practiced Buddhism. In this video he discusses, among other things, that many Buddhists are open to empirical inquiry. The Dalai Lama has said that if principles of Buddhism are shown to be incorrect, then he will accept that.

Sam contrasts this with the current debate going on within Christianity about the use of contraception. If the Catholic Church makes it official that a married couple can use a condom when one partner has AIDS, this will not be an example of religion leading the way to a healthier world. The same could be said about the controversy over homosexuality. Religion has not led the way to accepting that two people are allowed to express their love for one another, psychiatry and modern science have.

We can fixate ourselves in earlier centuries, as late as the 6th if you include Islam, or much earlier if you go back to the Axial Age, or we can include all the wisdom of the world. We have effectively jettisoned much of the old dogma. Very few people defend the 600 some laws in Leviticus. The New Testament made a few improvements to slavery but did not lead directly to abolition. We have slowly moved toward treating scripture equally to modern philosophy but we have some big steps yet to take.

One of our big hang-ups seems to be the issue of respect. People are deeply hurt when their religions are attacked or even questioned. Even pointing out their central tenets, like the Golden Rule are equally represented in other religions, can be a sore point. The problem is when respecting a culture means respecting their abuse of women or their violence toward other cultures. When that line of violence is crossed, there is more agreement, but what lies and manipulation led up to that violence? Is there something inherent in religion that allows for it?

As Sam says, when it comes to something like physics, we don’t ask for beliefs to be respected, we ask for reasons to be evaluated. What I like about Sam is that he is usually careful to state the other influences on people and the degree to which each is important. He highlights the issue of the double standard for religion. No other discipline would be accepted as justification for the types of irrational behavior that are promoted by religion. Somehow religion gets a pass.

Sam is very good at asking the right questions. He notes that Tibetan Buddhists come out of years of torture in prison and do not turn into suicidal terrorists. This can be explained partially by their approach to their religious practice. The political considerations are very similar, so we need to ask why Muslims choose the actions they do. Counter examples can be found on either side, there are many peaceful Muslims and a few militant Buddhists, but we need to focus on the real societal problems and their sources.

Scott Atran is shown in this video, but his parts are cut off. He provides some counter balance. If I find it, I’ll do a part 2 for this. Scott has studied influences on individual terrorists with some very interesting results. But I’m not sure why he has so much trouble with what Sam is saying.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Those old cliches

I’m seeing more and more articles by churches that talk about why people are leaving the church and what should be done about it. It appears to me that the only lessons learned in the past few decades is that simply changing the music or discussing current events in the sermons is not enough. This formula has actually worked in suburban areas, but it only gets praises for drawing people in, not for being theologically innovative or for improving the image of Christianity overall.

Common reasons for lower attendance are; failure to recognize that people have gay friends or maybe even gay parents so you better not exclude them, not offering any active solutions, not offering any thoughtful answers to complex modern problems and generally being associated with a conservative agenda. Inevitably, in the comments section of articles like these, someone claims that their church supplies all those needs and they are following Jesus correctly. But if there is a right way to do it, and some have figured it out, why don’t we see a trend toward those churches?

Recently I saw this article that had some interesting takes on the subject, but missed the same points that all of them do. My personal conclusion is that if you honestly address the concerns of those who have left the church (or never got there) it will lead to something that is not church. People are looking for community, and traditionally that has been found at churches. So like the zombies in Night of the Living Dead, they just go there because they don’t know where else community might be. When they get there, they can identify what they don’t like, but designing a place that nurtures what they want is much more difficult.

The church itself is not structured to build what these people are looking for. There are limits to what they can remove from their celebrations and mission work and still be considered a church. In this article in the Washington Post, Addie Zierman lists 5 of the common suggestions for improvement. Some of her ideas are pretty good, but I’ll show why they can’t work.

The Bible clearly says…
Addie suggests that pastors can gain more trust by admitting that there are different interpretations and competing ideas, not clear answers that work consistently in all cases. No kidding. She just defined the shift in thinking that occurred sometime between the 10th and 15th centuries and led to the scientific revolution and The Enlightenment.

Religion survived just fine while it was discussing Torah in the midrash, or the Koran in the Hadiths and on through the Reformation. People love to discuss where the universe might have come from or what consciousness is. The difference today is, you can’t ignore that people outside of your chosen group have an opinion. One person can’t stand up in front of any room full of people and tell them what is true without at least a few of them knowing it is not.

Many pastors would love to pursue a more rational line of discussion, but the problem comes with taking it to its logical conclusion. That is, pastors aren’t trained in history or physics or neuroscience. They can’t address these questions as well as someone sitting in the pew with a smart phone and a college education.

Most people can’t argue exactly why creationism is definitely wrong, nor do they know exactly which parts of the Bible are historically accurate, or even when Jesus is telling a parable vs a “fact” about the Kingdom. If they really want an answer to those questions, they might ask their pastor first, but they are also likely to do some fact checking.

Perhaps most important is the question of did Jesus atone for our sins. The Bible itself does not provide a clear mechanism for just how salvation works. Ask two Christians and you’ll get three answers. It is somehow “through” Jesus, but exactly how is not clear. It might be faith, or their may be specific actions required to demonstrate that faith. Belief seems to be important, but how do you test for that? It seems we can only know in our hearts. So any sermon that ends with Jesus being the answer is no answer at all.

“God will never give you more than you can handle”
If people claiming to be in your support group can’t get it that you have problems, then they don’t belong in your support group. This gets to the question of just what a community is. If I go to a club for people who like hiking, I expect to be supported in finding places to hike and people to hike with. Once I get to know others there, I might share some intimate details of my miserable life.

If I go to a place for people looking for answers to the big questions in life, I expect to find support for that. I don’t expect to be told that I’m not doing it right if I have doubts or questions. Religion has always had that as it’s ultimate answer. Even at the highest levels, there is nothing that can be done but to keep seeking. At some point, there is nothing left to do but read your Bible and pray.

Love on
Wow, Addie understands that love is a back and forth proposition. Good for her. I don’t mean that sarcastically. Not for Addie anyway. I assume she really understands that loving someone does not mean feeling sorry for them because they can’t accept Jesus into their heart, or holding some kind of space for them while they are mad at God because their sister just died of cancer, or even supplying a happy and joyful experience so people will see what God does. If I sound sarcastic it’s because she has to write this in her article and explain it to Christian leaders.

“Believer, Unbeliever, Backsliding”
The problem with these terms has always been; knowing what they mean. When there were few choices, either in small towns or as a child, the problem was figuring out how to fit in, or what you could get away with. Now it’s just finding a church that fits what you believe anyway. That is a form of community, but it doesn’t say much about church being able to offer something real.

True believers don’t much care for labels like “fundamentalist” and liberal Christians will go to great lengths to explain what sets them apart. None of them seem to get that “unbelievers” have the same aversion to being labeled. We all have a world view that was developed over a lifetime. Wouldn’t sharing our strengths and weaknesses be a better strategy than trying to create a franchise for one particular view?

God is in control
In this one, Addie uses the now tired phrase, “we like Jesus but not the church”, and tries to explain it. I guess I’ll never get that. She says, “the Jesus we read about enters into the pain of humanity where so often the church people seem to want to float above it.” My guess is she is cherry picking. She likes the passages about compassionate Jesus and ignores the Jesus who says, “I don’t know you”.

The mythology of a God who didn’t just come to earth and take human form, but became completely like us and even died like a human, is somewhat unique. There are other dying and rising gods but they tend to be pretty cardboard characters. They don’t try to work out moral dilemmas, or suggest we do things like love our enemies. They don’t defend women who have had affairs against an angry mob.

But no matter how many great ideas you have, if you tell me I have to follow the laws of Moses to gain your favor, you’re still a bully. If you can’t take the time to sort out just what those rules are, then you are just setting standards that no one can attain and threatening to punish me for not meeting them. I’ll listen to your advice and consider it, but you have no right to demand anything of me. I don’t care who your father is.

And if you are only representing this mythological character who speaks to you through the interpretation of multiple languages and multiple variations of the current language, you have considerably less rights to tell me anything about how to live my life. People used to want to go somewhere where someone “floated above” the pains of daily life and told them everything was going to be alright. If through some miracle, that message had actually made things alright, then they could have kept doing that. But we know what those priests were up to all those centuries, and it had little to do with making a better world.

The improvements in the lives of 98% of the people in the world came through hard work by dedicated people who believed that the laws of the universe could be figured out. They came by people who stopped listening to those who said revelation is just as good as reason. They came from people who asked questions of the people next to them, not the ones who sought simple answers from someone standing over them. 

Wednesday, October 30, 2013


Nadia Bolz-Weber has become my favorite progressive pastor to pick on. Maybe I’m jealous of her success, or maybe I’m frightened by it. It appears to be the same old tricks from the 15th century dressed up in tattoos and comedy. This week she has some fun with a parable that ends with a bit of a paradox.

The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else,Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
When understanding this parable, it’s good to know that tax collectors in the New Testament were not like IRS Agents working for a legitimate government in a comfortable job. They took the job because no one else would. They didn’t need accounting skills. They had probably lost whatever work they really wanted to do.

They could only carry out their duties because the Roman army backed them up, but the army and the government didn’t want any trouble from them either. The system was full of corruption. They had few friends. They “stood at a distance” in the temple, because that’s what you did when you were of such a low caste.

So is this passage telling us to be humble? How should we approach it?

Nadia consistently points out the problem of approaches to scripture that have been implemented in the past, and I always enjoy her sarcasm, but her solutions almost always point back to an alternative that has also failed in the past and holds no hope for the future.

The failure she points out in this case is what happens when you approach a parable with the intention of finding an item to put on your righteousness to-do list. Simply looking at the words, then rearranging them to say, “I will always be [fill in the blank]”, doesn’t work. In this case, the blank is filled with “humble”. I was in my early teens when I got the joke, “It’s hard to be humble when you’re as great as me.” In case you haven’t heard that yet, she explains the trap:

So I guess that rather than the moral of the story being “try harder to be righteous”, the moral of the story is “try harder to be humble” right? And there it is.

Either way, you are trying to be something only because it will make you look better. There are several ways out of this, but she provides the absolutely worst one. She sends us right back into old theology, where the answer is always the place from whence the question came. Jesus spoke in parables, leaving us to interpret them, but if you have any trouble with that, just trust that Jesus will make it all right. For Bolz-Weber, the way out is to not think about it at all.

She unsets all the traps, but leaves us with no trap detection skills of our own. It even appears she does it by circumventing the Biblical lesson itself. To put it very simply, humility is better than righteousness. And the parable says, if you humble yourself, you’ll be exalted. But Nadia disagrees,

If there is some kind of promise here then it’s not that we can use our humility to become righteous before God, the promise is not in what the ones hearing the parable can do to become justified.”

I don't know what Bible Nadia reads, but mine makes promises like that all the time and I know many people who keep repeating them. She follows this statement with a couple paragraphs about the cross, God entering flesh, we’re all sinners, and other random Christian statements that have summarized sermons for 2,000 years. They only have meaning if Christ is actually active in our lives right now. They do not help us with paradoxical statements like “intolerance will not be tolerated” and “humble people are better” or any of the dilemmas we find in this world of causes and affects, unintended or otherwise.

Although she spends most of the sermon dismissing the idea that you should try to be humble and pointing out that you can’t do it in any honest way, she does end with an acknowledgment of it’s value,

“So in the end, humility is not a virtue that makes us righteous.  But it’s not unimportant either, because humility is just admitting the truth of being human…humility is the naked state in which we stand before a righteous God who sees us as we are – sees every jealous inclination, every racist thought, every selfish desire every good deed done for the wrong reason and God sees all of it through the lens of the cross and says to us you are free. “

But she already buried this in theology so deep, it’s difficult to get the actual lesson back out. Unless you really have a direct line to the divine, the closest the rest of us get to the type of vision she is talking about is our personal thoughts. We see ourselves naked, not everybody else. We see our own thoughts and desires. We know that others have similar thoughts through poetry, literature, intimate conversations with friends, and religion. Of those, only religion is designed to judge us for being human. It sets the trap; Trust religion, and it tells us we’ll be free to be a flawed human. Don’t trust religion, and religion tells you that you are imprisoned. Religion is either ambiguous about what will happen to you or grotesquely specific about what bad will come of not putting all your faith in it.

If I shared some personal thoughts with a friend, that I was afraid of someone based on the color of their skin, or that I judged someone who had stolen food rather than go hungry, or that I judged someone for being judgmental, and that friend said I had a problem and I should go to a meeting and confess my problem, I would doubt the friendship. If however, they acknowledged I was a mere human, that my thoughts showed that I wanted to be better, but like everyone everywhere always, I am not perfect, then I would be reminded why I have friends.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

GMOs - the debate goes on

Ground Rules for this discussion
Previous post in the series

Okay, let’s wrap this up. I doubt I’ve changed any minds here, but hopefully given you a reason to think about it. What I want to interrupt is the constant repetition of the same old stories. Genetic modification is here, and will only get easier and more common. What will continue is the same stories about Percy Schmeiser and cancerous rats, repeated as if they are new findings.  It can be hard to find competent journalism and good scientific responses, because those responses only come once, then they consider their job done. It is not their job to comment on every website that repeats them without balancing them with the response.  That’s your job.

And, don’t get me wrong, I am not about to sign off on saying GMOs are safe. I did find a few studies that are not so easy to dismiss. 

And we do need to consider traditions. An interesting case occurred here in Minnesota where the University was testing engineered wild rice. The natives, who have harvested wild rice for centuries, were not too happy about that. At first they were dismissed, but when the GE rice genes were found in the wild, the University stopped their experiments. This was only the usual 1% or so infestation, but in this case, 1% was too much. Here’s the story

As with many issues, science has a marketing problem when it comes to GMOs. I hope this changes, but for now we can only rely on the occasional interview. 

Friday, July 26, 2013

Vandana Shiva and Bill Moyers

Next, and possibly last in my GMO series of blogposts:
Ground rules for the discussion
Previous GMO post

Here’s another defender of the people; Vandana Shiva. She is an organizer and advocate for people in India and elsewhere. Moyers introduces her story and includes the usual statements about Monsanto suing farmers and mentions something about farmers committing suicide. She is quite animated. Can’t really fault her for that. Moyers uses the language of a reporter, saying what each side “claims” without saying who is ultimately correct.

But what does she really say? She starts with a quote from Krishna, then some twisting of her training in physics and a rewriting of the history of the scientific revolution, claiming it denied the connections in nature. While denigrating corporations, she slips in a piece of data to defend her small farming ethic. She says small farming produces 80% of the food in the world. This would seem unsupportive of her claims that Monsanto is taking over.

Moyers is respectful of her, but laughs a little when she calls modern science patriarchal. He then challenges her with the idea that globalization is “interconnectedness” just like small farming and quantum physics. But it’s not the type of interconnectedness she is talking about it. She knows of the land wars and water wars that come from greed. She sees how globalization leads to divisions. She wants to reclaim our common humanity and our recognition that we are Earth’s citizens. She doesn’t say where this was before the corporations allegedly took it. Aside from some isolated scriptures that claim a connection to the earth, history is mostly a story of conquerors. The idea of a common humanity and citizens of the Earth is a 20th century one.  

Moyers then asks what the issue is with Monsanto. Her answer is poetic, about renewing life. She scoffs as she explains that seeds are now intellectual property and then gives some history that led to what she calls a corporate dictatorship. Given her earlier mistakes about history I find this questionable. She only names some players and some agreements made then jumps to her conclusion that corporations are taking over.

She feels strongly about this, enough to file a suit. Moyers points out that this was thrown out of court because it was an attempt to create a controversy where it doesn’t exist. He asks “how are they getting away with it.” She doesn’t really answer that, she only repeats what she thinks they are doing, and makes some accusations about government deals. It is the old song of; these are secret back room deals that we all know about. As part of her evidence, she cites a one-sided documentary, “The World According to Monsanto”.

Shiva says, “President Bush is on record” in this film, asking Monsanto, “What do you want us to do?” They show the clip. It’s Bush meeting with someone from Monsanto in a plant somewhere, filmed by a shaky handheld camera. This looks like a normal political visit of a company, not an official meeting of any kind. The two are talking informally and Bush looks pretty disinterested in the guy. He does make a general comment about “being in the dereg business”, but that the entire Bush/Reagan cadre was pro-deregulation is hardly news.

Bill again presents the other side of the argument, that GMOs produce more. Shiva’s evidence against this is cotton production, pesticides hurting neighboring crops, and the spread of pesticide resistant weeds and pests. Again she misses an opportunity to provide evidence for this while she wasted so much time in the interview quoting Krishna and conspiracy movies. Moyers does not press these issues. Instead he asks for a solution.

She advocates for everyone considering how they play a part, and no one can argue with that. If we ate less junk food, the world would be better off. Farmer’s markets are on the rise and that makes a huge difference. “Healthy food is a right for all”, says Shiva. I couldn’t agree more. So show me exactly how GMOs are unhealthy and I’ll get on board.

She comes back to the suicides by farmers in India and very loosely relates them to Monsanto cotton. These same suicides have been linked to micro-loans by people who against them. Abusing statistics like this, when there are real people behind them is low. The cause of all these suicides has not been established.  A couple breaths later she uses the word “brain-washing” in references to corporations. I wonder how she sleeps.

Vandana Shiva has a message that resonates, and as I point out, much of it is wise. She is however long on ideology and short on facts. She is a great figure head and can create a following, but any movement needs data, evidence and details to back it up. She is not the right person for that, and I’m still not sure that this movement has that anywhere.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

What's Old is New

I prefer talking with people who accept and even applaud those who question existing knowledge, based on evidence, rather than those who claim knowledge with no evidence and attack those who question them.The 13th century Roman Catholic version of this was to burn people at the stake for questioning dogma. The 21st century version is to accuse people of supporting the status quo because they want evidence for a conspiracy theory.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Truth Remains

Truth is much more comforting than any god. Truth does not change based on my feelings. If I am angry at it or if I abandon truth, it waits there, unchanging.

Why do you think they want you to worship once a week? If you don’t, you’ll notice things don’t get any worse or any better. They’ll tell you god is angry or upset. If you stay away long enough, they will change god or make a new god in an attempt to get you back.

After a while god vanishes and only truth remains. 

Monday, June 17, 2013

So Sue Me

Okay, so I admit I’m going for the low hanging fruit. These are also what the major anti-GMO organizations spend a lot of time on, so I’m going for what is out there. The statements I want to address this time are the ones like these,

Monsanto “has sued more than 400 farmers over the last 13 years.”
“Biotech Goliath Monsanto is well-known for its litigious tendencies among farmers, having sued hundreds of them over the years to the tune of over 23 million dollars.”
In its report, called Seed Giants vs US Farmers, the Center for Food Safety said it had tracked numerous law suits that Monsanto had brought against farmers and found some 142 patent infringement suits against 410 farmers and 56 small businesses in more than 27 states. In total the firm has won more than $23m from its targets, the report said.”

This is a really easy one because the data is not refuted. If you go to Monsanto’s own statement you find they say they have filed 145 cases. What they also say, and what I have never seen in any other article, is that only 9 cases have gone through to full trial. They also mention they have over 275,000 customers. Most of them apparently understand what they are buying and do not have a problem with it.

If you put “Monsanto sues farmers” into a search engine, you will get a large number of hits, but notice that the majority are about farmers attempting to sue Monsanto. They sue for the protection to not be sued and they sue for contamination of their organic fields. These cases are usually thrown out.I have never heard of an instance of anything other than isolated fields being contaminated up to 1 or 2 percent by GMO varieties. It is eradicated by simply plowing it under.

It has never been, nor will it be Monsanto policy to exercise its patent rights where trace amounts of our patented seed or traits are present in farmer's fields as a result of inadvertent means.

When they do win a case, the evidence shows that the farmer knew what they were doing and knew they were attempting to scam the system. In the recent case of Bowman vs Monsanto, the farmer purchased GMO seed via a loophole in the law. The seed he purchased was intended for feed, but he suspected it would contain herbicide resistant GMO seed. He continued this practice for 8 years and cross bred plants that had the traits he wanted.

The Monsanto statement also includes declarations that should be framing this debate.

The vast majority of farmers understand and appreciate our research and are willing to pay for our inventions and the value they provide.
This statement gives anyone the opportunity to respond. It is a falsifiable statement. If it is not true, it should be possible to show that it is not true. I have seen nothing but hand waving to refute it.

Percy Schmeiser’s case is a little more cut and dry, but you wouldn’t know that from any of his attempts at self-promotion. If you watch just about any anti-GMO documentary, like Genetic Roulette, you will likely hear of his case. What you won’t hear are the findings during the court trail that he discovered a small patch of RoundUp Ready Canola that had found its way onto his land and he directed a farmhand to harvest it and save the seeds separately. He then used that seed to increase the amount of herbicide resistant Canola in his fields. When he got caught, he claimed ignorance. Really?

This is publicly available information, given under oath and kept in official government records. There is no excuse for not including it when retelling this story or for not being aware of it. Anyone who tells the story or any story about Monsanto being out to get farmers and enforce patents on all farmers and all of nature should be held in very high suspicion. If their source is one of those documentaries, they can be forgiven, once.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Evaluating Cancerous Rats

Principles that I will be using in this discussion.

The GMO debate brings up a lot of issues and strong feelings. It is after all about what we put in our bodies. Unfortunately, how we debate in the 21st century has become unhealthy. Media presents everything as a two sided argument with no resolution. I hope to avoid that type of presentation.

Intelligence is more than just what we can keep in our heads. As a collection of people, social animals that we are, we have expanded our minds through written language. We are all as smart as the accumulation of knowledge that we inherited. Ignorance then becomes not what we are capable of knowing, but what we have access to. For most scientific information, that means you need to be at least enrolled in a university of some kind or that you pay for access to scientific journals. This makes most of us pretty ignorant.

That is not as bad as I make it sound because there are efforts to make that knowledge public, but I wanted to make the point that there is a barrier. There is currently debate about how to fix this situation, but for now, the information that I would really like to use to make my determination about GMOs is behind “pay walls”. Go looking for actual peer-reviewed science and you will find out what those are.

I’m getting to the question of how I have determined that GMOs are not as bad as and The Organic Consumers Association say they are. First an analogy. I can’t know everything. I can’t be an expert in all fields. But I can evaluate experts in other fields. It is as if I saw a woman standing high up on a roof. I can’t see how she got there, but there she is. She then directs me around to the back of the building and I see a series of ladders. I have no interest in climbing those ladders but I understand ladders. I can now see how she got there.

The opposite of this analogy would be someone who says they can get to the top of that roof but they aren’t going to tell me how. This is much more common.

Debates can carry a lot of information. It is actually a debating technique to overwhelm your opponent with many arguments and then accuse of them not addressing all of them in detail. Debates have time constraints so this technique proves nothing other than the one using the technique is a windbag. Fortunately today we have the Internet, and if we have time, we can find answers to many of those arguments easier than in the past. This may seem overwhelming, but there is a way to go about it.

Most of us probably won’t be in formal debates, but even discussions with friends and colleagues have time constraints, not to mention social constraints. Sometimes, when someone says, “there are just too many questions”, you have to accept that they are uncomfortable with GMOs and you aren’t going to change their mind at that time. You can exit that discussion without conceding that “too many questions” means they are right, it just means that they have questions.

Here’s an example of how to go about finding answers to all these questions:

When I was starting to doubt my negative assessment of GMOs, I saw this horrific picture

Of mice that had been fed GMO corn. That should make you wonder about what you’re putting in your body, right? And the accompanyingarticles had more horrible stuff to say about it.
1 Rats died prematurely
2 Rats had organ failure
3 Rats got tumors.

A couple things popped for me right away however. First, they didn’t just feed the rats GMO corn, they fed them Roundup. These two are tightly bound because the corn is designed to be resistant to Roundup, so farmers can use that Monsanto product to kill weeds, not corn. The problem here is, what are they really testing? In big bold letters at the bottom of the article it says, “GMOs are toxic!” Does this study prove that?

Fortunately this article gives us enough details about the study that we can go looking for ourselves. Often, Facebook posts or emails only show the deformed rats and a few select quotes from the researchers and not much else. The article also has a comments section. These can get pretty heated pretty fast and quickly go off topic, but sometimes they give you just what you need. One of the comments, interestingly not the article itself, links you to the study, and articles like this are definitely not going to link you to any discussion of how well the study was done

  1.        The sample size per group was too small to draw conclusions.
  2.        The strain of rat used is highly prone to developing mammary tumors.
  3.        The authors did not release all of the data from the study. (They say they will publish it later)
That last one concerns me the most. This is the most common problem I see in cases like this. The most extreme case being a sentence that says “studies show” and no further links or information about the study or studies. More complicated examples are studies that are actually reviews of other studies. They can be quite lengthy and contain no real data, only summaries and cherry picked conclusions from sources that are difficult to track down and verify.

Worse than those though, NPR included a comment from another European scientist about Seralini, one of the authors of the study. He said that Seralini has published poor studies in the past, attempting to discredit GMOs. At this point, I could continue to research the other work of Seralini or I could drop this particular line. If you have never looked into this issue before, I could understand your wanting to continue, but since I have spent quite a bit of time with it and have not found anything convincing, I’m done for now.

That may sound like giving up, but it is scientifically sound. Even if I were a researcher of food safety. One study should not bring an end to decades of work. There are other studies, including feeding rats GMO corn, and they have not had results similar to these. Repeating experiments is one of the most important rules of the scientific method. When one repetition has different results, that should lead to questions and to more experimenting but it definitely does not lead to a conclusion. If you accept the results of the French study but don’t accept the results of other studies, then you're making a conclusion then looking for data to support it, that’s the opposite of science.

Earlier studies:

The Mother Jones article starts out with some history that has much to do about why this controversy rages on. In the ‘80s, the FDA gave GMOs “generally regarded as safe” status. This was based more on analysis of the chemical nature of the process rather than any actual testing. That is, they could see no reason why they could be toxic, so they saw no reason to require extensive testing. Also, with the patents in place, independent research is difficult. So, we, the consumers of these products became the test.

But even if we can’t trust our governments or our corporations that is not an excuse for bad science. Bad science just discredits the real concerns that we do have. They may not have the emotional appeal, but if there are political concerns, let’s focus on them and not try to frighten people with pictures of sick rats.