Shill for Monsanto, Shill for Big Oil

My last couple of posts were exploring the terms “denialism” and “skeptic” as used by the environmentalist Left in connection with climate change, and asking the question, why does climate change appear to be an exception amongst environmentalists in terms of being science-based?

This was in response to a post by Keith Kloor on the Seralini rat-feeding study which claims to demonstrate that Monsanto’s Round-up, and its genetically engineered corn can cause cancer in rats.

Kloor’s take down of the rat study was masterful, yet the premise of his piece- that anti-GMO activists are the “climate skeptics of the Left”- seems self-contradictory.

The reason is this: it is not an exception. The Green/Left’s stance on climate change is just as anti-science as it is on other issues like GE crops and nuclear power. The thread that links all these issues together and runs through the whole environmental movement is not rational evidence-based science, but alarmism. Equally, the charge of “skeptic” and “denier” is not really to do with the science, but more just a way of marginalising political opposition from the (frequently just as “anti-science”, for sure) Right.

In its extreme form, this has been turned into a pseudo-scientific pathologizing of those who ask questions, of those who engage in normal scientific skepticism, something to send shivers down your back as it is more reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984 or Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest.

When I set out to discover the true meanings of “skeptic” and “denier”- a journey Kloor himself has previously embarked on, only to find himself going around in circles- the closest I came to any kind of definition was that denier referred, not to any specific “anti-science” position per se, but more likely was used to describe those on the Right who make exaggerated or un-scientific claims to attack the Left and influence policy; while skeptic refers to a minority position that questions the presumed “consensus” science, in a reasonable and scientific way, without deliberately “denying” or misrepresenting the actual evidence. At least some people appear to see this as a reasonable, acceptable, if perhaps misguided position to hold.

So why aren’t we all skeptics then? Surely that is in any case the “scientific” position that we should all properly hold anyway: science is naturally skeptical. Why all the derision and contempt from the Left at this noble stance? And why, if this is also how Kloor defines the word, roughly speaking (perhaps he doesnt- but he claims to see problems with use of the term ‘denier” so chose the lesser damnation as the title of his piece) can he not see that anti-GMO activists- who hold a clearly “denial” stance in terms of the evidence on GMO safety- are clearly NOT equivalent to the very reasonable climate skeptics.

I’ve argued that this may partly be because the scientific issues of say testing the health effects of GE corn on lab rats- a straightforward testable and verifiable process that has been done hundreds of times- as opposed to the use of supercomputers that are assumed to be able to accurately predict the climate decades into the future – are treated as being essentially the same, when in fact they are quite different.

The scare-mongering of the Left isn’t a peculiar anomaly, a generally on-message science-based Left going off the rails on GMOs; it’s normal, more of the same, it’s exactly what we have come to expect. This should be obvious to anyone who compares the kind of anti-GMO scare-mongering reports with things like this on climate change.

The villain is the same in both cases: Big business’ like Monsanto in the case of GMOs, and Big Oil in the case of climate change, and in both cases, capitalism in general. The agenda is the same in both instances, based on “limits to Growth” thinking: roll back modern society, reduce impacts on Gaia, don’t play God with the building blocks of life, don’t let Growth and indistrialisation continue, cut back on resource use and energy consumption.

Rather, it is the left-leaning science and science writing community, which appears to have broken ranks with its natural allies on GMOs- which is a fundamentally  anti-capitalist cause -who have gone badly off the rails on climate change, aligning themselves with concocted NGO “studies” and Greenpeace press releases which they would normally chew up for breakfast were the topic GMOs.

This is why anyone pro-GMO (or at least “pro-evidence” on GMOs) gets called a shill: to be in bed with Monsanto, even by several degrees of separation, is as bad as being in bed with Big Oil. There is an almost-impossible-to-shift assumption from activists that since the home gardener cannot produce GMOs themselves, so the technology must be evil, enslaving the poor gardener into having, horror of horrors, to go to the shop and buy seeds from capitalists.

Yet the climate change issue is framed in exactly the same way: any dissent is funded by Big Oil. The only reason we have not yet moved to clean energy is the corruption by Big Oil. Any study or research that questions the consensus science on the imminent climate apocalypse is funded by Big Oil. What about that loony denialist blogger Skepteco going on about climate change being maybe not as important as solving world poverty? yep, that’s right, he’s a shill for Big Oil too.

This reduction of complex policy issues to a simplistic black-and-white good guys vs. the bad guys scenario happens, it seems to me, in exactly the same fashion on climate change as on GMOs, vs:

-we don’t need GMOs, we can save our own heirloom varieties and feed the world with organics; therefore the only reason GMOs exist is because they support the private interests of evil capitalists who want control of the word’s food supply. There is no possibility of admission that industrial agriculture in general, as with GMOs in particular, actually benefit people and society, including their opponents;

-we don’t need dirty fossil fuels, we can just switch to clean wind and solar- the only reason this doesn’t happen is because of greedy evil capitalists who have enslaved us all to be oil junkies. Again, no admission into the debate at all that fossil fuels have brought enormous benefits to us all, and that replacing them will be really very, very difficult indeed.

Together, this amounts to a naive view from many Greens that we can all live in happy green utopian valleys growing our own food and gently harvesting the wind and not have any problems any more.

But just as there are obvious vested interests with deep pockets who oppose genetic engineering, so there are equally if not more powerful groups who campaign for political controls of carbon emissions, from wind power companies, to carbon-trading financial organisations, to, yes the very same wealthy and powerful NGOs like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth who also campaign against nuclear and GMOs- technologies, remember,that are actually helping to reduce CO2 emissions .

“It’s entirely possible to be convinced by the case about climate change” writes Tim Worstall in Forbes “and yet still believe that what we’re doing about it is even worse than the original problem. It must be possible for that’s the situation I find myself in.” This is the danger inherent in any derogatory use of “skeptic” and “denier” with regard to policy positions on energy: in contrast to the “GE causes cancer” issue, there simply is no clear scientifically validated path on energy policy; if we get it wrong, the lights will go out.

There is a real debate, many debates on many different issues around the “wicked” problem of climate change; and there are huge costs involved in proposed policies that could change the whole course of society. This is simply not the case as regards genetic engineering which science has shown to be safe.

Meanwhile, Roger Pielke Jnr writes this week that “climate spin is rampant”-

The debate over climate change is well known for excesses on all sides. Those who claim that the issue is a hoax actually have a lot in common with those who see climate change in every weather extreme. The logic behind such tactics is apparently that a sufficiently scared public will support the political program of those doing the scaring.

Moreover, the policies specifically being campaigned for are frequently are irrelevant and parochial, ie they are not really to do with climate change at all, since climate change is a global issue and ultimately depends upon Chinese coal use.
Where does the “climate denialism” come from? Clearly, from exactly this kind of climate alarmism. Kloor and others on the left who go after the skeptics in this way are missing the target by a mile.

This is really a great shame because it is so blindingly obvious to anyone paying attention that climate change is routinely exaggerated and scare-mongering is used as a tactic to stifle dissent in exactly the same way as it is used to stifle any dissent against the anti-GMO movement.

The conflict of interest is seen most starkly when you consider the consequences of making the wrong choice: with genetic engineering, its hindrance by the opposition movement may already have cost lives; its abandonment could result in the terminal failure to feed humanity.

The consequences of the wrong energy policy, perhaps as a knee-jerk reaction to alarmist spin- exactly the same as for GE- could have even more dire consequences: if sufficient supplies to meet growing demand are not planned for and installed in the coming decades we could see increasing blackouts and shortages even in developed nations, while the  bottom billion or so yet to benefit from even basic electrification left in the dark forever.

I am not even taking a strong position on climate or energy policy here, just pointing out that there are many issues that absolutely demand debate- something the epithet “denier” is aimed at squashing.

Both positions of alarmism stem from the same root neglect of humanity (perhaps what Martin Durkin calls “posh anti-capitalism”): opposition to GE is part of a wider trend of anti-industrial farming, its downsides emphasized at the neglect of one salient fact: farming feeds people. In the same way, alarmist action on climate change is very much driven by a political attack on Big Oil, Big Gas and Big Coal, evil Capitalists the lot of them- willfully forgetting that billions of souls benefit hugely by access to the cheap energy fossil fuels have provided.

If “denialism” is to be found anywhere, it is surely in these misanthropic reactionary ideologies that deny the benefits of the modern world, that would have us return to an earlier age un-enlightened by either electrification or progressive hard-won values of the Enlightenment itself.

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  1. lucibee

     /  October 14, 2012

    I think it is more the case that people will always see the need to take extreme positions on things in order to get their point across. In this, alarm and denial are logical polar opposites. Although, to complicate things, alarm can in itself be a form of denial, if the problem is not solvable by raising the alert.

    Human beings are experts at denial to enable them to get on with life. We are very good at ignoring difficult problems until they actually start to affect us quite acutely, by which time it is usually a bit too late.

    What we need to do is to quickly move to a state of acceptance, and to get to work on the solutions.

    • What we need to do is to quickly move to a state of acceptance

      but acceptance of what exactly? I think moving too quickly into accepting what the herd mentality of vested interests want us to accpet can cause more problems than it solves; and solutions are not easy to agree on when it comes to wicked problems like climate change.

      • lucibee

         /  October 15, 2012

        Acceptance of our denial ;)

        I agree, huge problems with any solutions because they will inevitably conflict with the world view of someone somewhere. And everyone has a vested interest to protect. We’re probably all doomed. Is that cheery enough?!

    • “On what principle is it that, when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us.” – Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1830 in Edinburgh Review

  2. One evening, during the drearily sodden summer of 1816 (the “little ice age”–how soon we forget), Lord Byron and his friends read Fantasmagoriana, (a French translation of a German book of ghost stories—they were intellectuals after all) in his Villa Diodati in Switzerland (they were rich intellectuals, after all). Afterward, Byron suggested they all write a horror story. Everyone did except Mary, the wife of his friend, Percy. She kept demurring, saying she had not yet thought of anything suitable. Then one night they discussed the rumor that Erasmus Darwin had electrically “galvanized” a piece of a worm; an electric current had made the vermicello twitch. Mary Shelley began writing a moral cautionary tale of what happens when arrogant science meddles with nature: “Frankenstein.”

    This distrust of technology has been around for a long, long time. Plato mourned that the new technology of written language would make people less human by taking away a key skill—memory.

    As Daniel Ben-Ami pointed out recently, “The Enlightenment was followed by the romantic reaction of the counter-Enlightenment from the end of the eighteenth century onwards. In broad terms the romantics rejected the possibility of attempting to understand and reshape the world through the application of reason.”

  3. Have you seen this one?: “Pew Climate Change Poll Reveals That Less Than Half Of Americans Make Anthropogenic Connection”(

    I continue to wonder how we get from the (problematic) 97% where the question was ‘do humans contribute to warming’ to the flat out assumption that humans drive the climate and no other possibility (solar variability maybe?) matters.

  4. Mitch W.

     /  October 24, 2012

    Hello Graham;

    I just wanted to say in response to the belief that we need natural gas to make nitrate fertilizers. We actually don’t. We do use NG for fertilizers because it is a good source of hydrogen, for the making of ammonia and it is a source of energy needed for the compression and heating of hydrogen and nitrogen to make that NH3 for use as feedstock for the nitrates. However, any source of hydrogen will do as from H2O electrolysis. So, still using the Haber process, one can use electricity, from any source, to make nitrates.

    In light if that, the end of geologic oil and gas won’t be the end of chemical fertilizers. Which brings me to the seeming belief that peak oil means peak energy and peak mobility. By no means is that certain. That, i think, is the fatal flaw in endeavors such as Transition Towns. The oil and gas will, one day, come to an end, though much later than Transitioners will have you believe. But wind and solar are ramping up for direct electrical generation, nuclear will still provide power, despite Fukushima, and which kills less per MWH than oil, gas, and, especially coal, accidents and all, and new biotech technologies are starting to come online, producing drop in replacements for geologic oil products. Transport is becoming ever more energy efficiient with hybrids, motor and engine advances and even high temperature superconductor wire is coming into its own for electric propulsion in shipping, offering motors and generators that are 70% less in weight, refrigeration equipment and all, while cutting power losses in half !

  5. Mitch W.

     /  October 24, 2012

    It should also be mentioned when it comes to GE’s or GMO’s, Greenpeace is very complicit with the blinding and dying of over 670,000 children and hundreds of thousands more adults per annum from the lack of Vitamin A or beta-carotene. They have held up the Golden Rice project for 20 years with all sorts of inane arguments, such as its a Trojan Horse, it doesn’t work (it does, very well), it has toxins (no genes for pesticides or herbicides, just beta-carotene), it’ll enslave the farmers (they are allowed to use it for free and replant from previous harvests), the list goes on and on and on while the children keep dying and dying and dying.

  6. Calling someone a denier isn’t necessarily just a way of to marginalize opposition. Mark at Denialism blog defines denialism in some detail. He calls it “the employment of rhetorical tactics to give the appearance of argument or legitimate debate, when in actuality there is none.” He lists 5 general tactics are used by denialists:

    They are conspiracy, selectivity (cherry-picking), fake experts, impossible expectations (also known as moving goalposts), and general fallacies of logic.

    He goes into some detail at the link. The point though is that you call someone a denialist if they use denier tactics. ie it describes the form of their arguments.

    • No- you call someone a “denier” if you have already dismissed their argument and no longer want to engage. Now, when it comes to simple classical science issues such as vaccines and homeopathy- stuff that can be readily verified with repeatable lab experiments- I confess to having sympathy for such a position. But in the case of AGW the proponents of the “consensus” are clearly just as ready to use these so-called “denier tactics” themselves, as I show in the post with examples. I scanned your link earlier it wont open at present for some reason, but I dont think he gives any actual examples from AGW debates of skeptics using these tactics (could be wrong honestly cant remember). In particular, “consensus” folks are fond of moving goal-posts. A good example of this is with Trenberth’s recent paper on missing heat

      Global warming has not stopped; it is merely manifested in different ways.

      Skeptics have always questioned the consensus view that surface temperatures will be the outcome of rising CO2; now this is confirmed the goal-posts are moved: apparently there was never any consensus on this we are now told! But we dont know where the missing heat is going (obviously the ocean is a prime contender) and we didnt predict the pause and we dont know if or when surface temps will increase again (presumably they will but the point is we do not know for certain) much less what the impacts will be of any of this etc etc and no, none of this means that global warming has stopped (straw-man- another consensus- side fave) what it means is that there are many real and legitimate scientific debates to be robustly engaged with, not dismissed as “denialism”. This is really really not true of anti-GMO pseudoscience or vaccines or astrology. But it is true of AGW which is a vastly more complex and multi-faceted issue.

    • Some interesting discussion here on the spurious use of the word “denialism”- see links at the end of this article “My posts on the scandal of Nature pretending “denier” is a scientific term” by Jo Nova- ofcourse, you may well be tempted to dismiss my points as just more “denialism” ;) “Orwellian” is the word that comes to mind in that case!


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