LETTER: Don’t blindly believe in science

Unfortunately our educational system reserves an understanding of scientific method to quite advanced studies.

I must respond to Nina George’s recent letter purporting to use “Science” to ridicule concerns about the safety of Genetically Engineered crops. Perhaps most importantly, Ms. George, misplaces her respect for science non-specifically on all applications of it.

Unfortunately our educational system reserves an understanding of scientific method to quite advanced studies and there is little incentive for students to take it in. Basic science is about uncertainty. It attempts to move us from hypotheses about how nature functions to theories which are understood to only apply tenuously within specific circumstances.

Applied science is quite different. It asks specific questions with respect to the application of our theories to solve particular problems,without pretending to understand all the links and outcomes. Basic science used to be funded by government, other non-profits and academic institutions themselves. Needless to say there is very little of it left given the “corporatization” of all spheres. When corporations fund research, their interests determine what questions are asked and how broadly they are asked.

For example when you introduce new molecules into living beings it is a huge task to try to track even a majority of “where” the molecules go in the organism and how they are metabolized. This would be more basic than applied science when we are talking about creatures that feed on the crops and would be quite different from crop yields questions, for example.

The earlier broad question which is not generally asked then could give cues as to where to look for impacts, if one’s question were “what are all the molecular effects aside from the one that solves our problem.” The broader basic question about “how it works” is required with pharmaceuticals including to understand their mechanism of action and expected side effects or precautions but even there, if the need they meet is critical enough we accept them for use with incomplete understanding. It is nonetheless part of the initial stages of investigation typically done in rodents usually 5 to 10 years before gaining clearance and much before any even experimental clinical use (e.g. on humans).

Even with pharmaceuticals we have come to recognize a real weakness called “publication bias,” wherein industry has now been “caught” simply not allowing scientists funded by them to submit negative results for publication; so such results had remained unknown to the rest of the scientific community and regulatory authorities.

The crop science industry and entire university departments dependent on it (which no longer receive substantial government support for research) are not held to even a small part of the rigour which remains in pharmaceutical research.

Bottom line: That a review of applied research has not found evidence of harm with the consumption of GMO foods is not in the least the same thing as proof of safety.

We are furthermore even further away from an understanding of the impacts on wild “cousins” of domesticated plants when they are pollinated with engineered genetic material trying to maximize yields, or resistance to herbicides or with terminator genes ensuring that the farmer cannot keep his seeds but has to buy new ones every year.

Blind belief in science in an uninformed way, which loses the “spirit of scientific uncertainty” is exactly the same as blind belief in religious dogma  (losing touch with the spirit of reverence for the great mystery) which the CFI is rightfully skeptical about.


Andre C. Piver MD