I have been working on this post for a long time. Here in the snowy quiet and peace of Alaska I have finally finished it. I tremble to publish it; I may lose friends and readers. A news story about a measles epidemic in England brought about because so many children are no longer being vaccinated gave me the push to publish. I don’t mean to tread on feelings. The things I am writing about here should be talked about without emotional baggage. This is a sort of advance apology; but here it is for what it’s worth. I still love all my friends on the left (where I mostly am), and those on the right as well.
I was trained as a scientist, and I spent many years of my life doing scientific research and writing scientific papers. I didn’t like the work much, but it structured the way I think about the world.
The other day I was chatting with a friend, a lovely woman, intelligent and wonderfully creative. We were talking about pills we take and I mentioned that I may stop taking statins because I am having problems with muscle cramps and pain. I read some of the reports in scientific journals that I know are reliably peer reviewed. There is some good experimental evidence that this is a commom side effect of statins. Another side effect apparently is impaired short term memory, something I certainly don’t need. Since I do not have heart disease (although I do have high cholesterol) I may not really need to take statins. My friend said, “There is a natural product that you can take. It comes from plants. It’s like a statin but it’s natural. I take it..” I asked how she knows it won’t have the same kind of side effects if it’s like a statin. She replied that she’s sure it won’t have side effects because she has friends who take it and they have had no problems.
This “natural” statin-like substance comes in the form of a pill — or perhaps an elixir — and is sold in a bottle or box that can be found in a shop that has various “health” products. The pill or fluid in that bottle or box has been extracted in a factory, by some chemical process, and packaged. The method of extraction is not known to the buyer, and the resulting product is minimally regulated by any agency so long as it is classified as a “food”. It is almost certainly not a single substance, but is a mixture of molecules of different kinds found in the plant or plants it was extracted from. When a person swallows it he is ingesting something (processed and packaged by other people) of uncertain effect and components. These bottles always come with disclaimers on them (required by law) that basically say, “We don’t really know what this does, but it might be good for you.”
I wonder why it is called natural. I do know that there are a lot of things out in the woods, not changed by human beings, that it is better not to eat.
I don’t know why one would assume that it’s safer to take an unregulated substance than to take a drug that has a known molecular structure, has no unknown contaminants, has been tested for purity, tested on animals for toxicity, tested on humans when it is deemed to be safe, and monitered when it is being used by the public to make sure that its use continues to be safe and effective. It is true that some drugs, after they have been approved, with long term use have been found to have unforseen side effects and all drugs have some side effects. Sometimes scientists that work for drug companies, governments and other institutions fake results; sometimes mistakes are made. It’s an imperfect world. These relatively rare instances get publicised and some people conclude that all drugs are dangerous and no scientist can be trusted.
A post on a friend’s facebook site showed a young man asking for money to finance the making of a video “proving” that green smoothies enhance athletic performance. The young man who wants to make this vidoe says he has everything he needs to make it (except money). He is an experienced film maker, has the necessary equipment, has doctors lined up to do blood work, has amazing athletes to cooperate — presumably to consume green smoothies. All he needs to prove his hypothesis — that green smoothies enhance athletic performance — is money. I think he needs something else. He needs to know something about how science is done.
Perhaps green smoothies do enhance athletic performance. It’s likely that a good diet in general would have a beneficial effect on performance and a poor diet would have the opposite effect. Green smoothies (the exact contents are not specified) might be included in a good diet, but whatever their effect, one could probably achieve the same benefit with a variety of foods and preparations. To actually test the effect of any dietary component one would need to carefully control everything the test subjects consumed, their physical condition at the outset of the experiment, and have a control group of other test subjects with all the same attributes and treatment except the consumption of green smoothies. And most important, one would begin, not with a hypothesis that green smoothies enhance athletic performance, but a hypothesis that green smoothies have no effect on athletic performance. If the experimenter is unable to prove this (the null hypothesis) with a careful statistical analysis, then he can reasonably conclude that green smoothies probably enhance athletic performance. But to raise the level of certainty the experiment should be repeated by different experimenters and obtain the same or similar results.
There has been lately more than usual chatter in the media about GMO foods. It was stirred up by an amendment to a bill in the US Senate which activists against GMO foods call the “Monsanto amendment”. It’s basic provision protects farmers for a few months (until the first harvest) from law suits for planting newly marketed GMO seeds. The opponents of this amendment particularly attacked Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland. She has been a long time darling of the left because she promoted a great variety of progressive legislation and causes. But now one commenter on my Facebook feed said she should be arrested and put in jail for sponsoring this amendment. Mikulski has since said that she opposes the amendment.
GMO — genetic modification organisms — refers to a method. It is a way of changing the genetic makeup of an organism. It is specific, in that it inserts one or more specific genes into an organism. Genetic changes produced by this sophisticated method are more predictable that those produced by other older ways of changing the genetic make-up of an organism, such as hybridization, selective breeding, radiation or chemical mutagens. Unless you are a hunter and gatherer of wilderness foods, your diet is almost entirely made up of things that have been genetically changed from their original form. And if you live in the 21st Century much of what you eat every day has GMO components, particularly if you eat any processed foods like flour, sugar, corn or soy products.
Gazillions of meals containing GMO’s are eaten every day in this country and many others. Even you hunter-gatherers probably consume some — stuff blows around. Nobody has become ill or died yet from eating them.
GMO’s are here, and they are not going away. They are as safe to eat as any other food. The science on that score is just as certain as the science on climate change. That does not mean that there are no problems associated with the widespread growing of GMO’s. What is does mean is that trying to stop farmers from growing GMO crops is a windmill jousting operation. There are a lot of things wrong with agri-business and Monsanto, the company that supplies it, but opposing all use of GMO’s will not fix those things.
Growing GMO’s changes the environmental challenges the world faces in trying to feed its huge and growing population. Yields per acre are greatly increased with GMO’s. Less pesticide is being used because GMO crops have been developed that resist insect damage. More herbicides are used because GMO crops resistant to herbicides allow farmers to use them to kill weeds without having to use machinery or other mechanical means. The sad decline of monarch butterflies is a well publicised result of this increased use of weed killers, but whole habitats are being destroyed by the indiscriminate use of roundup, so that many other less colorful and visible species are also affected. This problem will not be solved by scaring the public about the safety of eating GMO foods, or attacking scientists who develop new and better varieties using this method. If the problem is to be solved it will be by limiting and changing the ways herbicides are used.
The saddest incident resulting from the assault on the science of GMO’s, principally by Greenpeace, is the story of yellow rice. Children all over east Asia die because of a deficiency of vitamin A. The rice grown now, which is the staple food for most people there, has no vitamin A. Using GMO methods a rice was developed which contained vitamin A. It is a lovely yellow color — it looks like saffron rice. It had nothing to do with Monsanto. Monsanto did not develop the methods of GMO. It did not develop or market the modified rice. The yellow rice went through various tests for safety. When it was determined that it was safe for human consumption a group of children in China were selected to eat the yellow rice to determine whether it would raise their levels of vitamin A to a healthy point. Greenpeace began a campaigne claiming that Chinese children were being used as “guinea pigs” for dangerous experiments. Yellow rice was withdrawn from the market and the Chinese scientists who worked on it were fired, their careers ended. Children in Asia continue to die unnecessarily from vitamin A deficiency.
Science has been under attack all over the world by religious groups. The teaching of evolution, the foundation of all biological science has been prevented in many places in the United States. Science has been under attack by right wing politicians here and in other countries. The science behind climate change has been characterized by some right wing politicians as a sceintific hoax. In places like China science that might cause people to criticise the government is suppressed. Science is being attacked from the left as well. People on the left oppose things like the advances made by GMO methods to increase crop yields, and some oppose the immunizations of children. Many people are more willing to trust the unregulated companies that make “health” products than the US Food and Drug Administration. Drug company scientists, Monsanto, government scientists and university scientists are all suspected of engageing in conspiracies to harm the public.
Why is this, I wonder. It seems to me to be more widespread than it used to be, and there in an increasing anti-intellectualism in the United States and other parts of the world. Scientists are suspected, college professors are ridiculed, school teachers are underpaid and regarded as failures in life because they have to teach. Religious fundamentalism is another enemy of rational thinking, and Christians, Muslims and Jews all have fundamentalist sects that promote anti-scientific dogmas. That, plus the constant barrage of criticism of mainstream science from political groups, undermines the public trust in institutions and investigators with training and credentials and encourages people to take up various”alternatives” thought up by people with no real training or expertise. Word of mouth is considered more reliable than laboratory data.
What I think is needed — so much is needed — begins in early education and continues through the years that young minds are learning to evaluate the today’s avalanche of information. Children should be encouraged to admire intellictual achievment. They should understand how facts are collected by science and how these facts are organized and analysed. They should learn to question, to be skeptical, to suspect anecdotal reports. They should understand proof and have the tools to be able to distunguish it from myth, rumor and lies.
This won’t happen in my lifetime. I hope it happens in the lifetime of my great-grandchildren. That’s important if the world is to survive.