Can We Trust Our Scientists?

A few weeks ago while looking at the changes in the latest dietary guidelines, I asked whether we could trust our experts. In his latest post, The View From Outside, John Michael Greer asks a similar question about the  scientific community as a whole:

Within the community of researchers, the conclusions of the moment are, at least in theory, open to constant challenge — but only from within the scientific community.

The general public is not invited to take part in those challenges. Quite the contrary, it’s supposed to treat the latest authoritative pronouncement as truth pure and simple, even when that contradicts the authoritative pronouncements of six months before. …

Especially but not only in those branches of science concerned with medicine, pharmacology, and nutrition, the prostitution of the scientific process by business interests has become an open scandal. When a scientist gets behind a podium and makes a statement about the safety or efficacy of a drug, a medical treatment, or what have you, the first question asked by an ever-increasing number of people outside the scientific community these days is “Who’s paying him?”

Tom Whipple takes energy depletion very seriously. In addition to his briefs for ASPO, Whipple has been posting a series called The Peak Oil Crisis in his hometown paper, the Falls Church News Press. In his latest installment, The Mother of All Black Swans, he once again reports that unlimited energy is the only “way out.”

Coming down the road are a pair of technologies that will produce nearly unlimited amounts of cheap, pollution-free energy, and have the potential to change life-as-we-know-it.

I am talking about the twin technologies of cold fusion and hydrinos, each of which, when widely deployed, will constitute a revolution in the history of mankind fully equivalent to the discovery of fire, the wheel, the agricultural revolution, or the industrial revolution. Both of these technologies are based on turning the hydrogen found in water into virtually unlimited amounts of energy at very low cost and without any harmful pollution. …

So where are these technologies and when can we expect to hear and read about them in the mainstream media, especially if they are getting close to becoming commercial products? The answer to this is simple. Both these technologies are based on science that is beyond that generally accepted by scientific community, especially those who have never looked into the results of the experiments. While those few scientists who have tested and are familiar with the details of these technologies tell us that they are for real, the bulk are waiting for irrefutable proof that they actually produce large amounts of cheap energy before they are willing to accept that our knowledge of nature may not be as complete as we like to think and that some scientific theories may be wrong.

Proponents of Cold Fusion, or Low Energy Nuclear Reactions (LENR) persistently claim that mainstream scientists ignore them, but when mainstream scientists do take the trouble to debunk their claims, LENR enthusiasts have an almost endless list of additional links to supposedly irrefutable evidence that LENR is just around the corner. They also cite oblique indications that NASA or some private firm is funding LENR research as proof that we will all soon be drawing almost free kilowatts of electricity from cold fusion devices in our basements.

Many mainstream scientists are more impressed with controlled ‘hot’ fusion, which has been just around the corner since the H bomb tests, and characterize any doubts about the fusion research at ITER as anti-science. They cite news releases that Lockheed-Martin’s SkunkWorks has a new design for a compact fusion reactor to support their belief that we will all soon be drawing almost free kilowatts of electricity from compact nuclear fusion devices just down the street.

Yet other mainstream scientists still hold forth that some configuration of fission reactor will be inherently safer, cleaner and more efficient than the ones we have built so far. They cite news releases about Thorium-MOX reactors to support their belief that we will all soon be drawing almost free kilowatts of electricity from nuclear fission plants a few miles upwind.

Nuclear power is not the only technology that is supposed to save us, though. When environmentalists express concern about crops of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), some scientists insist that only GMOs promise to produce enough food for the increasing world population. They’ve been promising that for almost as long as the fusion camp.

On ScienceBlogs, Greg Laden linked to an Atheist Radio interview of “GMO expert” Dr Anastasia Bodnar. Laden will also interview Dr Bodnar, but the comments of a plant evolutionary biologist, going by Laurent, echo Greer:

… pro-GMOs advocates are too often a bit naively scientistic in their approach of the issue, and quick and prone to label any less optimistic contender with an anti-science stamp that is just plain unfair. I understand this is because they are not used to meet with “resistance” or “lesser optimism” from people that understand GMO technology correctly, since most of the time this is about stumping onto not-so-knowledgeable tech-deniers. But still.

When I read in your comment that golden rice’s failure has directly its roots from people trying to prevent its production, I really wonder if you’re not dismissive of the fact that part of the issue is also adoption by local producers of the new technology / variety. This step is often overlooked, even though there are strong cultural and economic constraints to change. Hypertechnophiles tend to view real world change as a logical and self fulfilling prophecy, and that’s where they are bound to fail. GMO’s don’t escape this, because some subtleties are not even considered of importance. (And in the golden rice case, rice colour was itself a troubling matter for people that would have benefitted from the product).

Beside, GMO’s will be an important convenience tool for the industry and the potent industrial agriculture occuring in the temperate western world, but one cannot assume that it will take over more complex agricultural spaces, especially in the tropics. We should stop arguing that it will put an end to starvation or local agricultural deficiencies, because their causes are way beyond the rather limited scope of gene-technology and involve many aspects of ecology, economy and culture that are actually far from understood.

GMO’s are an oversold technology, and should reasonnably be put back at their place (important, but not miraculous). First, researchers should be more carefull to not mimicking industry narratives as to how this tech will solve major societal issues. Yes, there’s some interesting potential, but no, we are not exactly filling the full bragged promises.

I remember as a youngie (that’s the previous millenium I realise), private industry breeders took scientists to the field trials for transgenic potatoes supposedly resistant to mildew in my homecountry. And guess what? GMO clones were the only diseased plants. Of course, we then discovered about gene silencing processes. We then discovered about RNA interference. We then discovered about small RNAi and transcriptional dynamics. All this knowledge came out thanks to transgene-tech. But on the other hand, there’s something quite disappointing: the discourse to promote GMO has never changed a iota over the first (and basic) failures, and never had any pro-GMO acknowledged these. Even you, you are saying words I’ve heard about twenty years ago already. To me, an unbalanced immutable narrative is not the sign of healthy or mature discourse.

Same happened when transgenes were not supposed to cross species boundaries, were not supposed to create environment selective for weed or insect resistance or lead to further the need for increased herbicide weed control, were not supposed to break free in human food tracks while supposed to stay in cattle grains and the list is still going on.

Of course, none of these documented events were that bad and catastrophic. But as the list was growing in the previous decades, it should have induced at minima a change in the narrative, so as to adjust to all the potential prescriptive bad luck events that had been correctly predicted by evolutionary biologists.

When you promise gold, people expect gold, not golden rocks. Frankly, while I completely understand how one is exasperated by anti-GMO bad arguments, I cannot despise the “anti”-crowd for thinking transgene tech is sort of a snake-oil. Because it sort of looks like it is.

Which lead to a question worth posing: in times of dire research funding, how much grant monney is diverted from potentially efficient alternatives to fuel biotech only approaches because of its inner narrative of miraculous solution?

I ask that, because it looks like conventional breeding has improved yield potential at a much larger scale, and GMO builds upon a success without acknowledging that part coming from hard blind genetics, taking gratification for a success it doesn’t compare to yet.

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