Category Archives: Rationality

How can we understand the anti-GMO movement?


Should deep anti-GMO ideology be considered a form of religious belief? In a secular Western society, religion is protected but its influence limited. Maybe that is exactly what is needed?

“So should GMO supporters go all the way and label anti-GMO activists as members of a pseudo-scientific lunatic fringe? No. Not all GMO skeptics are lunatics. Also, that approach stops all discussion:  for a science-based person, there can be no compromise with pseudoscience. ….     But what if anti-GMO ideology were classified as a religious belief, rather than pseudo-science? I would argue — though I may be completely wrong — that there is actually more room for compromise then. ….      I don’t believe this could ever work as a social policy. However, it could work as a way for individual people to understand why the “other side” is like it is. Understanding what makes a person tick is better than nothing.”

The environmentalist Mark Lynas (home page, Wikipedia page) has made a public “conversion” from a strong opponent of genetically modified organisms (GMO) to a strong supporter. He feels that GMO will be needed to feed the world’s population, and above all that there are no valid scientific reasons to oppose GMO.  (See Slate article for a summary, and preferably the unofficial transcript for the long full text).

I am in the environmentalist camp, yet Lymas’ text resonates heavily with me. It has started a thought process that probably offends everyone and satisfies no one. Yet it might raise thoughts.

From Lymas’ transcript: “So my message to the anti-GM lobby, from the ranks of the British aristocrats and celebrity chefs to the US foodies to the peasant groups of India is this. You are entitled to your views. But you must know by now that they are not supported by science. We are coming to a crunch point, and for the sake of both people and the planet, now is the time for you to get out of the way and let the rest of us get on with feeding the world sustainably.”

Elsewhere Lymas calls for “peaceful co-existence” between the camps, but he doesn’t make it easy. He calls anti-GMO activists anti-science, even comparing them  to climate change denialists. Neither group, he says, is willing to listen to scientific facts, and there is now overwhelming scientific evidence that GMO is safe in every conceivable way.

Lymas does not really probe the motivations of the anti-GMO group. He considers them ill-informed and irrational.  To my eye, he almost seems baffled by them (even though — or perhaps — it is the group he comes from).

Would the best explanation — and a possible solution — be to consider deep anti-GMO ideology a form of religious belief? In a secular Western society, religion is protected but its influence limited. Maybe that is exactly what is needed?

On what issues is the anti-GMO group right?

It sounds like Lymas has had very much of an epiphany (some might even say quasi-religious conversion experience). There is nothing wrong with that. But it does make one liable to denigrate the beliefs one had earlier. Every movement has some rationale behind it; so does the anti-GMO movement.

For the environmentalist movement in general, a key rationale is the precautionary principle: if a technology has even a tiny risk of causing unknown catastrophic and irreversible damage to the environment or human health, don’t use it.  This is not a bad principle.

However, if only zero risk is allowed, it becomes asphyxiating. It is impossible to prove that something is completely risk-free. Certainly GMO crops may have risks that we have not identified yet. However, this applies to anything new. In fact it applies to anything old as well. It is natural evolution that creates diseases such as Ebola. The world is a risky place.

Even without the precautionary principle, some political and ecological arguments against GMO do make eminent sense. I analyze them in more detail in the Appendix. Summary: GMO skeptics are not the idiots Lymas paints them to be. There are valid reasons to be pragmatically skeptical.

However, there are no good reasons to be dogmatically opposed. When the GMO opposition turns ideological, to be honest, I simply do not understand the arguments.  A vocal faction of the environmentalist movement will never accept GMO, since it is “unnatural” and “can be used wrong”.

I don’t really see why conventional breeding of crops is significantly more “natural”. And conventionally bred crops are already being used “wrong” by replacing traditional varied crops with monocultures, making whole countries potentially vulnerable to single pests or diseases.

I agree that the potential for doing wrong is larger with GMO. However, it is a matter of degree only.  I simply cannot see why GMO should be demonized, compared to conventional breeding.

On what issues is Lymas right?

I will go flat out — and lose many friends in the environmentalist community — by agreeing with Lymas on the key issue. GMO foods may be the only realistic way to solve the global food crisis.

Whatever unknown risks GMO might pose, those risks must be balanced against a known catastrophic and irreversible risk: starvation, and the destruction of even more natural habitats to make farmland to avoid that starvation.

Low-efficiency farming will take up more land, leading to loss of biodiversity and negative climate effects. People will feed themselves by whatever means necessary; if that leads to permanent long-term environmental damage, they will still feed themselves. GMO could allow the large-scale damage to be minimized by improving yields.

Even if GMO foods were to cause some health risks to humans, it is up to individual people or nations to decide whether to take those risks or not.  Someone who is underfed and facing a brutal, nasty and short life simply could not care less if a GMO food might theoretically cause a 0.1% increase in the probability of getting cancer thirty years from now. Without the food, he won’t be alive in any case.

Rich Westerners have all the right to be careful about their personal diet and worry about small hypothetical risks. But we do NOT have the right to decide what people on the edge of starvation should do.  And unless agriculture is made dramatically more efficient, a billion or more people will be chronically near that edge.

While Lymas actively celebrates the technology, I am blasè: GMO is a pragmatic way to a pragmatic goal (avoiding starvation). Just as good toilets are a pragmatic way to avoid epidemics. Important, not glamorous.

Is there any way to reconcile the sides?

So should GMO supporters go all the way and label anti-GMO activists as members of a pseudo-scientific lunatic fringe? No. Not all GMO skeptics are lunatics. Also, that approach stops all discussion:  for a science-based person, there can be no compromise with pseudoscience.

But what if anti-GMO ideology were classified as a religious belief, rather than pseudo-science? I would argue — though I may be completely wrong — that there is actually more room for compromise then.

I emphatically do not consider “religion” to be an insulting label. I personally am a practicing Lutheran, and feel little or no shame about it. Equally emphatically, I believe in the principle of the two magisteria. What we do inside our churches/ mosques/ synagogues/ temples is largely our own business; but outside them, we need to run society on secular and rational lines.

There are certainly clear parallels between strong anti-GMO ideology and religious dietary laws such as kosher or halal. Certain things are forbidden, with some room for interpretation but no room for discussion about the ban itself (pork, blood, alcohol, gene modification). Thinking of anti-GMO attitudes in this way actually makes them much less baffling. They simply are what they are, just as kosher or halal laws are what they are.

Many atheists may consider religion to be just a variant of pseudoscience, but religion is still protected by our society (and by the UN Declaration of Human Rights), whether the atheists like it or not. In a sense, “branding” anti-GMO as a religion could protect both sides. Freedom of religion means that people can practice their religious laws within their own community.  It does not, however, mean that those communities can require the whole of society to adopt those laws.

Western society will not voluntarily accept an Islamic ban on pork or alcohol. In the same way, there is no reason why African society should voluntarily accept a Western ban on GMO foods.

Is this a valid compromise?

No.  No side will accept it. Anti-GMO activists have no unifying features that could form a new religion, and in any case would not accept such a status. Nor would the rest of society be likely to grant it to them, if most of the hallmarks of traditional religion are missing. (Many European countries willingly register various kinds of nature-worshipping or pagan religions which look like traditional religions, but are hesitant about groups like Scientology which do not).

I don’t believe this could ever work as a social policy. However, it could work as a way for individual people to understand why the “other side” is like it is. Not accept, any more than an atheist could “accept” kosher dietary laws if pushed on pushed on him. But understanding what makes a person tick is better than nothing.



See e.g. the Wikipedia page on GMO controversies for a balanced summary.  The key to understanding anti-GMO thought is the precautionary principle: if a technology has  even a small risk of causing unknown catastrophic and irreversible damage to the environment or human health, don’t use it.

That is a perfectly valid philosophy, if used in a balanced and reasonable way. I would say that  it is a good thing that it was used in the early stages of GMO research (even if it slowed down that research). It forced scientists to measure and gauge the risks in depth. However, no horrific risks seem to have emerged, and it is now time for the environmentalist movement to reconsider.

However, I do find Lymas to be too flippant about the lack of risks. I continue to see loss of biodiversity as a very potential risk. If the GM organisms are superior, they will eventually mix with the local organisms and either dominate or intermix with them. This will happen whatever artificial safeguards are put in place. The skeptics are in fact right: we do not really know how GM organisms will affect the ecosystem. Most likely the effect will be small; but we just do not know.

Far more problematically: Science and technology do not operate in a vacuum. Politics and business always mix in. Thus, I find it naive to assume that things will be all right as long as the science is “pure”.

GMO crops give awesome power to the patent holders (currently largely Monsanto). Proponents argue that free competition will take care of this issue, that it is possible to put in legal safeguards, and that the situation is as it is because independent researchers have not been able to do research in the area.

I respectfully disagree with this optimism. After researching the Plumpy’Nut case, I have come to the conclusion that if companies can make profit by starving people, they will starve people.

And it is naive to think that universities, for example, would not enforce their patents. For concrete examples in other technology areas, see the example of the University of Wisconsin and the recent case of Marvell vs Carnegie Mellon University. Universities are aggressive about their patents, and trusting the goodwill of “independent” researchers is naive. Hoping that GMO crops would not be patented is also naive. Too much money is at stake.

I do not think any of these risks are clear enough to ban GMO. They would apply to any new technology. However, they are real enough to dampen any naive enthusiasm. We would not really need GMO if we were not overpopulated; we are overpopulated; so we will need GMO; but that is no cause for celebrating GMO. It just is what it is.

Feedbacks and bonuses


When I try to think through some phenomenon or a policy proposal I like to look for feedback loops. Perhaps this is a result of my background, while I’m not an engineer I have been exposed to so much electronics that I sometimes slip into thinking that the world is like an electronic circuit. This is not as bad as it seems, one just needs to remember that a lot of work has been done to make electronic components behave like their theoretical counterparts. Human behavior is usually quite complex and careful consideration is needed when decisions are made based on a simplified model.

A definition for feedback can be found from wikipedia. As an example: picture a large dam made of sand. As long as the water level stays low enough the water stays in the reservoir, but if even  a small trickle starts, it takes some of the sand with it and makes a better channel for the water. This in turn makes the trickle larger, which takes more sand with it. Pretty soon there is a ravine and the water is rushing out. This is positive feedback, the flow is amplified by the feedback (i.e. erosion of the channel). Reaction of the system to a change is to change the system more to the direction of the change. In negative feedback the feedback signal has an opposite polarity compared to the change. This can result in a system that stays close to a value as it tends to return to it after a disturbance.

Money can act as a feedback mechanism. You get paid, you show up at work and usually do what you are told to do. You are promised a bonus and you work hard to earn it. Sounds fairly simple and foolproof. But is it?

I have been lucky enough to work in organizations filled with experts and as is sometimes the case in such organizations, my boss has usually known much less about what I have been doing than I do. In this situation I find it difficult to put much emphasis on verbal praise, after all my boss didn’t really know how hard it was to achieve my targets. So the one feedback mechanism available has been money. Targets are set, I exceed them and I get a fat bonus. Everybody is happy.

But after a few years I realised that I seldom thought about the extra reward when I was working. When extra money was the sole motivator the value of my contributions were “perhaps” smaller compared to situations where I was internally motivated. The feedback loop didn’t close and in practice the money was wasted. This excellent story and this fine clip seem to explain why. According to the video if a task is difficult money is a bad motivator. Apparently this has been proven by many experiments. I blame someone for not telling me.

Being rigorous at being what?


Can the Zygomatica blog serve any useful purpose, when we have made a conscious decision to not focus on anything for any significant periods of time?

I do not speak for the other members of Zygomatica, although they have peer-reviewed this posting (see below). This is my own question, and my own answer.

Most bloggers have no need for such a question. If writing a blog is something that comes naturally and causes real joy, then no question: just do it.  For me, writing does not come naturally and is not a real joy. It is difficult. The Zygomatica team has a policy of internally peer-reviewing every posting, meaning we are lucky to end any given day on speaking terms. What, then, is the point?

The point, as I see it, is to maintain and develop my skills of rigorous thinking. It would be exhilarating to create something that people actually enjoy reading, of course. But above all this is an exercise in self-discipline. But self-discipline to what purpose?

A famous paper  (Ericsson et al 1993) notes that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve exceptional proficiency in any task, meaning 10 years of more or less obsessive practice started at childhood.  That is completely excessive though. I have no desire to operate at the “grandmaster level” of thinking. Collegiate level perhaps.

At slightly less obsessive levels, Cal Newport has argued that one should focus tightly on exceeding at one skill at a time, rather than diluting one’s focus. An interesting example is provided by an analysis of the skills of comedian Steve Martin:

“But when you study people like Martin, who really do live remarkable lives, you almost always encounter stretches of years and years dedicated to honing craft.”

Somewhat depressing. I do not have a passion or dedication for any particular craft. On the other hand: neither do I desire to lead a “remarkable life”. Feeding my family, being an passable father and husband, and dying more or less content is enough. But for me a content death requires some intellectual stimulation, which I think requires skill. And even a minimal level of skill does not come easily.

In addition, my idea of fun intellectual stimulation is not exactly shared by normal society. Apparently, I would bore a Vulcan. But a commentary by Cory Doctorow on the concept of “too much time on his hands” warms my heart:

“‘That guy has too much spare time’ is one of the most odious, intellectually dishonest, dismissive things a person can say. It disguises a vicious ad-hominem attack as a lighthearted verbal shrug…..  [T]he slur brooks no possibility that the speaker has failed to appreciate some valuable, fulfilling element of the subject’s hobby.”

I love the attitude. An Asperger-like stubbornness to do what you do and ignore the ridicule is something that I admire and respect very much. Genuinely. But I do not have such a clear-cut hobby. (Nor do I exactly have very much time on my hands).  Coming closer to home, John D. Cook writes optimistically of the concept jack of all trades and a master of none.

“Calling someone a jack of all trades could be a way of saying that you don’t have a mental category to hold what they do.”

The negative connotations might come from the fact that some seemingly unfocused people have skills that are simply not recognized. This is potentially reassuring. In a similar vein, Venkatesh Rao writes on the  “calculus of grit”. A crucial passage:

“So what does the inside view of grit look like?…. It simply feels like mindful learning across a series of increasingly demanding episodes that build on the same strengths.“

I would like to take some comfort from this. My career interests seem to have no coherent pattern at all (space plasmas; memory optimization; temperature sensors; lightning detection; other stuff). But in fact there is a unifying theme. Any problem, literally any problem, can be attacked by the basic tools given by a scientific training — but with a catch.  A perfect metaphor for half my thinking is the study on the fastest lane in the supermarket by Dan Mayer. The following line resonates:

“This problem has obsessed me for years. It’s my DaVinci code. It’s my love for math, for mathematical reasoning, for the relentless deconstruction of something that seems simply intuitive into data, models, and computation.”

I love the quote, but it is only half the truth.  Meaningful real-world phenomena cannot be reduced to simple mathematical/scientific models. You can always prune down the problem until it can be modeled. But at some point the model is too simple to describe the original problem statement. To me, only half the work is done when the math is done. The other half is to evaluate whether the solution actually has any relevance to the problem. As often as not, it does not, and then it is back to the drawing board.

Perhaps that is what makes Zygomatica a meaningful exercise. Using rational methods to skeletonize a seemingly intractable problem into a scientifically solvable one; trying to solve the problem; and then relentlessly and ruthlessly deconstructing whether the solution has any real-life meaning whatsoever. That is actually a skill set that is not taught at university. This is a mindset that I have applied to problem after problem, project after project, year after year. And that plodding is just perhaps what separates Zygomatica from being a mere exercise in dilettantism.

I may be overoptimistic and covering for an inner insecurity. On the other hand, this is where an Asperger-like attitude comes in handy: I really do not care if this sounds ridiculous. It is my thing. And the Zygomatica thing.