Anti-GMO Activists Are the Ones Practicing Tobacco Science

GMOs and Tobacco Science
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GMOs and Tobacco Science

My friend, the Credible Hulk has a great short piece on GMOs and Tobacco Science. His argument has to do with the fallacious use of “tobacco science” as an excuse by Anti-GMO activists and other denialists as an excuse to dismiss the scientific consensus on the safety and efficacy of biotech crops.

One of the fatal problems with this argument, of which there are many, is that the scientific consensus never was in favor of cigarette safety to begin with. In fact, it was known as far back as the 1930s that epidemiological data suggested a connection between smoking and lung cancer, and other detrimental health effects were documented as far back as 250 years ago.

… Looking back, the thinly veiled obfuscation attempts by the tobacco companies seem conspicuous now because the dangers of smoking had already been established (and were continuing to be further established) by independent research, while the tobacco sponsored researchers were simultaneously attempting to formulate alternative explanations for the increased cancer risk and other health problems correlated with smoking. The tobacco companies never controlled the science of the matter and never really had scientific consensus on their side. What they had was a good PR department and enough cash to bankroll a few scientists and doctors of questionable ethics into speaking positively about smoking tobacco despite the preponderance of evidence against them.

… On the other hand, the safety of genetically engineered foods does have a strong scientific consensus behind it, and there aren’t really any credible studies from any source showing any damage to animals or people attributable to any of the currently used transgenic crops.

So far so good. He then concludes:

So, the reality is that there is no analogy between GMOs and tobacco.

I would actually argue that there is a strong analogy between GMOs and Tobacco Science. What obscures the analogy is that the roles are reversed in ways that obscure the parallels. With “tobacco science” we had big business twisting, cherry-picking and manipulating the science in an attempt to confuse the public and provide cover for policy makers they have in their pocket. What we see today with GMOs is similar twisting, cherry-picking and manipulating of the science relating to biotech crops in order to confuse the public and drive policy-making.

Role reversal

Except that instead of Big Ag, the source of misinformation and misconceptions is environmental and public interest watchdog groups. For those of us used to turning to these groups to make sense of scientific research and let us know the policy implications, this can be disorienting to say the least. If you are an environmentalist or any sort of liberal/lefty it can really throw you off your bearings to realize that they guys you thought were wearing the white hats are the ones blowing smoke, muddying the waters, and sowing confusion.

I can’t say that I fully understand what’s going on here. I understand that we all tend to rationalize the facts to fit what we want to believe more often than we follow the evidence as the basis for our opinions. That better explains why people with casual interest in a subject cling to just so stories. I have a harder time understanding how someone who does policy work can stay so stubbornly ensconced in a bubble for years and years on a subject that they work on.  It would seem that after a while of working in the field; naive, knee jerk anti-corporate  attitudes and the desire to return to a pastoral fantasy of agriculture that never existed would eventually give way to reality.

With groups like Food and Water Watch and the Environmental Working Group, I’ve long been disabused of the thought that they based their agenda on the facts. Their facts are almost invariably retro-fitted to their agenda.

In cases like that it seems less about the need for just so stories and more along the lines Upton Sinclair’s observation:

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

That seems to apply whether Big Tobacco is paying your salary or you need to conform to what your funders and constituents want from you and what’s going to fire up the next fund raising appeal.

Read More:
• Can we leave the GMO discussion Clown Car behind?
• (Practically) Nobody is Anti-Science
• About Those Industry Funded GMO Studies . . .


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2 Comments

  1. It’s even more apparent if you show their rhetorical games. Jeffrey Smith’s “Seeds of Doubt” http://www.seedsofdoubtconference.com/ Isn’t the whole point of this to sow doubt–just like, “Doubt is our product”?

    How about Greenpeace? “Growing Doubt” campaign: http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/campaigns/agriculture/problem/genetic-engineering/Growing-Doubt1/

    This is just a couple of obvious parallels. But all of their books also have “deception” in the name for the same purpose.

    • That’s why it is called FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt). These groups specialize in creating FUD.

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