Golden Rice and the abuse of Science

After a fruitless discussion with Paul Kingsnorth last week on my post Rape of the Earth the venerable Deep Ecologist, anti-humanist and anarcho-primitivist author went into meltdown this morning, firing off ten irate tweets at me – and then blocking me.
I cannot embed them as I am blocked, so I have copied some of them here:

@Skepteco Obviously I won’t be reading your latest stream of drivel. But I’ve come to some conclusions about your politics.

@Skepteco Your refusal to engage, your dishonesty and your deliberate manipulation of facts give the lie to your claim to be a ‘pragmatist.’

@Skepteco I think you’re actually a nihilist. You’ve nothing to offer but self-righteous bile and intolerance.

@Skepteco In that respect, you’re a fascist too – you want to eliminate everyone who doesn’t conform to your narrow worldview.

@Skepteco Of course, fascism is a sign of insecurity. I wonder what you’re running from?

@Skepteco But whatever it is, it’s not my business. Good luck with your campaign to liquidate the deviants. I’m off to write a novel.

In the comments on my post Kingsnorth takes me to task for my “silly ‘science versus ideology’ confection” :

this is one of the weirdest and most sinister aspects of the neo-green approach. It begins by (rightly) criticising green pseudo-science but very quickly segues into a claim that the ONLY valid approach to green issues is a scientific one. This effectively excludes morality, ethics, epistemology, culture and politics from the debate – conveniently for you, because those things are complex, value-laden and often subjective. There are no numbers attached to them. But they are the stuff of life.

At the same time though he quotes his own “proper” scientists, not to contradict any specific scientific issue but to claim authority for the argument that what I am presenting as “science” is really ideology.

In this he shares a lot of common ground with Chris Smaje who I took to task on Lynas’ Oxford speech on GMOs.

Like Kingsnorth, Smaje’s main gripe is with “scientism”: an ideological stance that presumes Science and its High Priests the Scientists to have complete ownership of the Truth, ruling over the ignorant minions to further the Cause of Progress and Technology.

Smaje now has a new post out in which he says of Lynas

his talk had very little to do with actual science, and a lot to do with invoking the word “science” as a kind of religious incantation to justify his views….

I was prompted to post on Lynas’s talk because of how blatantly rhetorical his appeal to the concept of “science” was. But as a social scientist like Lynas, I don’t have the biological background always to be able to sort the scientific wheat from the chaff in everything I read about GM. One might think that there should be public institutions employing disinterested scientists to do this on behalf of laymen like me. But that would turn scientists into priests (ironically something of a problem in contemporary society, as demonstrated in Lynas’s lecture) – and many of the questions about GM are not scientific ones anyway.

Is this true? Well, certainly Lynas makes “discovering science” the core reason for his conversion; but there is no doubt what he is talking about:

I’d assumed that GM benefited only the big companies. It turned out that billions of dollars of benefits were accruing to farmers needing fewer inputs.

I’d assumed that Terminator Technology was robbing farmers of the right to save seed. It turned out that hybrids did that long ago, and that Terminator never happened.

I’d assumed that no-one wanted GM. Actually what happened was that Bt cotton was pirated into India and roundup ready soya into Brazil because farmers were so eager to use them.

I’d assumed that GM was dangerous. It turned out that it was safer and more precise than conventional breeding using mutagenesis for example; GM just moves a couple of genes, whereas conventional breeding mucks about with the entire genome in a trial and error way.

But what about mixing genes between unrelated species? The fish and the tomato? Turns out viruses do that all the time, as do plants and insects and even us – it’s called gene flow.

But this was still only the beginning. So in my third book The God Species I junked all the environmentalist orthodoxy at the outset and tried to look at the bigger picture on a planetary scale.

All these issues are testable hypotheses; they are what “science” with a small “s” is really good at: and they are all issues where it is easy to find examples of where activists abuse the evidence, use junk studies etc.. This is all well known and par for the course.

“Science” with a big “S” on the other hand is what Smaje and Kingsnorth are complaining about- a slavish following of Science as dogma, or obeisance to the authority of scientific establishments even when the issue is more one of policy than verifiable evidence; and along with this, a religious faith in the benefits of Progress that Science is supposed to deliver.

It is important to clarify which is which because they can often get mixed up. But in terms of ideology, the converse is also true- a suspicion of both science and Science- which comes from mixing them up- and a conviction that the kind of solutions offered by science is not the right one can also be ideological.

Take the case of Golden Rice. In his Oxford talk, Lynas slates Greenpeace for their latest scare-mongering campaign over the children who they claimed were “human guinea-pigs” – despite no harm came to them in trials to test the effectiveness of the vitamin-D enhancement. Greenpeace have been opposed to Golden Rice since at least 2001. As Norm Benson points out, Dr. Ingo Potrykus said to Greenpeace in that year, “If you plan to destroy test fields to prevent responsible testing and development of Golden Rice for humanitarian purposes, you will be accused of contributing to a crime against humanity. Your actions will be carefully registered and you will, hopefully, have the opportunity to defend your illegal and immoral actions in front of an international court.”

Smaje argues that Golden Rice has not been tested in the field, it is not cost-effective, there are better alternatives, no-one can be sure that the traits will remain stable over time- in other words, he takes the Greenpeace story hook line and sinker. But he refuses to condemn them for their tactics in China because:

I won’t be posting anything that singles out Greenpeace for criticism because if I were to draw up an indictment sheet of organisations that are culpable for inflicting global misery Greenpeace would still come pretty low down on my list.

So why is he singling Lynas out for criticism rather than the IMF or the WTO himself? Instead, he gives Greenpeace a free pass on their manipulative tactics, and claims that “on the question of moral repugnance my feeling is that you’re using the emotive issue of children’s deaths to spin your own particular line on GM”- even though it is clearly Greenpeace who played on the emotive issue of children being used as guinea-pigs- and there really is evidence and good reason to believe that delaying and withholding this technology has cost lives.

Meanwhile, according to Jon Entine

While Golden Rice was developed over ten years at the miniscule total cost of $2.6 million, in an extraordinary public-private partnership using funds donated by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Swiss Federation, the National Science Foundation, and the European Union, Greenpeace International alone annually spends about $270 million annually, and upwards of $7 million each year specifically dedicated to burying Golden Rice and any other food or crop developed using biotechnology.

So much for “cost-benefit”- the people screaming loudest about this pouring vast sums and energy into trying to bury Golden Rice. The campaigners and the activists and the petition-signers who support them are not achieving the amelioration of VAD by other means; in fact the only reason it is even an issue is because it is GMO. If there was rice fortification by some other breeding method no-one would be paying a blind bit of notice. This is about one thing and one thing only: banning or hindering GMOs for political reasons.

(Lynas interviewed Professor Federoff on his blog recently who had this to say on the matter: “The simple answer to this is that the continued GM activism against “golden rice,” especially the recent efforts to discredit the trials that were being carried in China, is a humanitarian abomination.”)

All Smaje’s arguments amounts to is a distrust of science and an appeal to the Precautionary Principle. We cannot know for absolute certain how effective Golden Rice will be so let’s put all our energy into stopping it. The ideology comes first; if it is found to be “cost-efficient” something else will be found wrong.

So this is not really about countering the High Priests of Science- both Kingsnorth and Smaje both invoke their own High Priests, just as homeopaths are fond of decrying science as “just another way of knowing” and then popping out their own cherry-picked bogus study themselves.

What is really interesting is that this mistrust of scientific institutions is shared by another group who my protagonists on the Golden Rice issue would probably prefer not to feel aligned with: climate skeptics.

One of the main objections to the way climate science is translated into policy is that it is done to serve a political and ideological agenda, including of course massively increasing the power and funding of those scientific institutions. This is why I think it is a mistake for Lynas to equate climate skepticism with anti-GMO activism. While Smaje and Kingsnorth confuse Science with science on GMOs, most climate skeptics do not take issue with CO2 as a greenhouse gas, or that warming has been happening, but with the policies that are proposed to deal with the issue, often backed by incorrigible scare-mongering of exactly the same end-of-the-word kind that Greenpeace and other anti-GMO groups indulge in.

Smaje and others like him are suspicious of the scientific bodies who they feel promote GMOs for political reasons, while they would have lot in common with those who call for radical responses to climate change because it suits the same agenda: roll back industrial society, scale back on technological fixes which are only going to make things worse: that is why nuclear is so often opposed as well, despite being an obvious low-carbon alternative to fossil fuels.

Climate change is the penance we get for hurting Gaia and living beyond our means.

The easiest and also the most prominent target for this kind of concern about how far some scientific institutions have lost the run of themselves in over-stepping the boundary between good verifiable science and Science pressed into the service of an ideology has got to be Paul Ehrlich, particularly with his recent adoption as a Fellow of the Royal Society. In fact, when reading through Kingsnorth’s bleak and anti-humanistic dirges he reminds me of noone more than Ehrlich. In other words, the charge of Scientism and fears of unaccountable Scientific institutions gaining too much power and influence is much more applicable to the ideology Kingsnorth would support- the ideology in fact that has made him- than what he fights against.

Kingsnorth was keen to equate me with Delingpole- “I’d suggest you contact the commissioning editor of Telegraph Blogs in the UK. They’d snap you up there and you could foam away in great company – James Delingpole, Brendan O’Neill, Norman Tebbitt – and with a far higher readership.” (anyone from the Telegraph reading this?!)- and accused me of getting my history from “Right-wing Think tanks”- when I was actually referring to Staudenmaier of the Institute for Social Ecology, if anything a Left-wing “Think-tank”. (Lynas also got mixed up when reviewing Delingpole’s book as I pointed out this time last year.)

Yet he and Delingpole have more in common than either of them might be comfortable with. Here is Kingsnorth on windfarms:

I notice that the greenies are now changing their tune on wind farms. Where before the bat-chomping eco crucifixes were spun as a vital part of “energy security”, they are now being repositioned as a kind of carbon-friendly bolt-on which is nice to have around and generally acts as an occasional substitute for fossil fuel when conditions are right.

And here is Delingpole:

The prospect of raping some of our last wild places in order to provide 6% of our energy – profiting large corporations in the process – is not something that anyone daring to call themselves an environmentalist should be supporting. Even if you believe that tackling climate change is such a vital issue that it should override all else, projects like this remain a drop in the ocean in any case, their negative impacts far outweighed by their benefits.

They sound so similar I think it would be entirely forgivable to get them mixed up ;)

Leave a comment


  1. I’m just about to read all this; but meanwhile I discovered recently (after 2 decades of PC use!) that there’s a button on the keyboard called prtscsysrq – often to the right of the F12 key. If you press it, it saves a screen shot of all on the screen at the time. By going into MS publisher you can then paste the image into a blank doc, crop the bit you want and save it as a picture. So if you need to record some tweets, that is one way of doing it. If you have a Mac; no idea!

  2. Will

     /  February 27, 2013

    Kingsnorth’s tweets to you are a wonderful example of psychological projection. You clearly touched a nerve and brought some of his unwanted emotions to the surface. But rather than look at himself he sees you as the source of these unwanted emotions and ascribes a number of unedifying characteristics to you to explain away these feelings.

    For surely it is Kingsnorth who refuses to engage, is self righteous and intolerant, has a narrow worldview and is insecure. If anyone is running away from something it is Kingsnorth.

  3. Graham, you really seem to struggle to understand that there are political and ideological contexts within which scientific research is interpreted, and that neither you nor anyone else are above them – quite surprising for someone who’s studied sociology. I’ve written plenty in the past on the global institutions responsible for poverty and misery, but because of the way that big S ‘science’ is increasingly used by the likes of Lynas and Savage to buttress their political positions, I think it’s important to question it. I’ve looked into the literature on golden rice in a little more detail, and have now posted on this at – I’ve failed to find evidence to back up the stridency of your claims (eg. the article by Savage you cite in your post above doesn’t mention golden rice at all, so far as I can see) but if you can point me to any proper research on this rather than commentariat huffing and puffing then I’d be interested to look at it – the best that I could come up with was an economic evaluation of golden rice in India by Stein et al, which I discuss in my post.


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