Anti-GMO activists are the ones practicing “tobacco science”.

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My friend, the Credible Hulk has a great short piece on 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. What obscures the analogy is that the roles are reversed in ways that obscure the parallels. Instead of big business twisting, cherrypicking and manipulating the science relating to tobacco to confuse the public and provide cover for policy makers, what we see today is the twisting, cherrypicking and manipulating the science relating to biotech crops in order to confuse the public and drive policymaking.

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 sift through the scientific research and make sense of it, let us know the policy implications can be disorienting to say the least. If you are an environmentalist or any sort of liberal or 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, 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.


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