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Tackling the GMO problem. Part 5. What the heck is a Genetic Modification anyway?

There are three general types of Genetic Modification as I define them, and will be discussing them as follows:

Artificial Selection (can be facilitated by radiation or mutagens.)


Direct Genetic modification (Via gene insertions, deletions, and controlled mutations)

Now, I’m not going it get down into the nitty gritty of how to do all these things. I’m just going to talk generally about how they work and what they mean for the genome of the resulting organism.

One important idea we need to understand about genetic modification (GM) is that GM is a tool. Genetically modified organisms are the final results. It’s very important we do not confuse the tool with the product: just like a hammer and saw is not a cabinet, GM is not a GMO. And like any tool it has it’s positives and negatives, and can be misused, but the process of modern Direct GM is difficult and time consuming and require a lot of resources, expertise, and knowledge before you can commence with creating a GMO that will do anything at all, let alone something useful. Hybridization and artificial selection (selective breeding) are both in turn much simpler and much more time consuming. Modern wheat, before any genetic tinkering in the lab, has had thousands of years of GM done to it already via selective breeding. The modern wheat in our bread does not closely resemble the wild wheat cultivated by early farmers many thousands of years ago. Though wheat isn’t necessarily the best example…

…Since wheat is a hybrid of two different grains that, from what I can tell, don’t exist anymore, but we’ll get back to hybrids soon enough.

Artificial selection. This is maybe how we did it, and when I say that I mean artificial selection could be thought as one of the keys to human success. This is ultimately how we made agriculture work for us for the last 10’000 years. Artificial selection alone is responsible for historic agriculture and is still relevant today.  So what is artificial selection? Well it harnessing evolution by natural selection and bending that selection to the whims of humanity.

For those of you who are not familiar with the scientific theory of evolution via natural selection (there are other selection pressures, but you don’t need to know them to understand this), well first that’s a minor tragedy, but no worries, there is no shortage of good information out there for you, here’s a bare bones basic run down. (Disclaimer this is by no means complete, but it enough for this post)

  • You have population of living things.
  • There is an amount of generic variation in the population.
  • This variation lead to different morphological, and or behavioral traits.
  • Members of this population can reproduce with one another (they are the same species)
  • Some traits give an advantage or disadvantage to the individuals that possess them. (if no traits give those advantages or disadvantages then natural selection does not occur)
  • Over time individuals with advantageous traits will produce more offspring while individuals with less advantageous traits produce less offspring (offspring is best thought of in terms of how many grand children). Over many hundreds or thousands of generations this will gradually change the morphology/behaviors of the entire population. Some times to an extent that it no longer resembles it’s ancient ancestors.

So how does this relate back to artificial selection? Well instead of an unaided gradual change as some individuals do slightly better than others, in artificial selection the breed can exert much greater control. For example if you have individual with undesirable traits, like wheat with 6 foot tall stalks (as a historical example) then you only breed those wheat plants which have shorter stalks, and do not save the grain (sell it or what not) of the longer stemmed wheat plants. This ability to quickly remove undesirable traits speeds the process of changes from thousand or millions of years to decades or centuries.

Now that said, you only have so much control with artificial selection, prior to knowledge of genes let alone gene sequencing, you could only select individuals based on detectable traits. Like hair length, colour, and thickness. And if an undesirable trait is a repressive gene you can’t actually remove it 100% from the breeding population with out blind luck, and heterozygous individuals (individuals with an allele for both the recessive and dominate trait) will often look/behave just like homozygous dominate (having both alleles for the dominate trait) individuals.

Also when you using artificial selection you can’t simplely choose one trait. I apologize it I didn’t make this clear before. When your breeding an organism your getting the whole genome, so you can’t just choose one trait and cross only that trait. you have to cross all the traits in the organism and hope you get a good combination. If you do this over and over eventually you’ll eventually get many, though not necessarily all, the traits you where after.

Now allow me to give another example. Say you have two breeds of apple tree one is a common baking apple and another is a half wild crab apple which produces a compound which you find gives the apple a delicious after taste, though the whole apple is not very tasty and is very small.  So you try breeding the two lines together, and low and behold the resulting apples have none of the traits you where after, they are all small and sour with out the nice after taste you where after. However you expected this to happen so you cross that second generation with itself, and this time you get a more interesting mix, some trees have big apples and a sour taste, and some are small and sweet, and some have that after taste. You select those trees with traits closest you what you want and cross them, and do this six or so more times. Then you die. Because remember apple trees take a long time to grow and you got old, but don’t fret! Your grand child takes up your apple tree hobby and does a few more crosses and finally the Holy Grail of apples is born! Big, Tasty, and with your magic after taste! To bad you didn’t just isolate the trait and insert it into baking apples genome. Then you might of had the chance to enjoy it yourself… Now on to hybrids.

There are two terms you’ll need to understand if you look up more about hybrids: interspecific and intraspecific hybridization. Interspecific hybridization is the kind I’m talking about here and is between different species (generally closely related, although evolutionarily diverged to a significant degree, often to the point that they can’t normally reproduce in the wild). Intraspecific hybridization is hybridization within the same species and falls under general selective breeding above or just the natural crossing within the same species.

Hybridization is, in my opinion, the most uncontrollable, and therefore most problematic tool in the genetic modification tool box. Then again it is pretty safe as well, but the Africanized honey bees, killer bees, are an intraspecific hybrid species of the African honey bee and one of a number of the other subspecies of the western (European) honey bee. Hybrid plants are quite safe overall only posing environmental risks if they out compete native species, and I’m not currently aware of hybrid plant running amuck, it’s more that hybrid animals pose direct risks. Though, fun fact: there are a number of gentle Africanized honey bees which are now useable by bee keepers, and there is a move to try to make all Africanized honey bees gentled, though that’s a long ways off yet.

Why do I find hybridization more problematic? Well, because you have whole genomes, and your mixing them together and seeing what you get before selectively breeding in the conventional sense. This leaves the very real opportunity for unexpected events to occur since you are less able to control which genes will be crossed with which. While generally this effect is muted by the fact that only very similar organisms are able to be crossed, generally sub species or sister taxa are the limit of successful and fertile hybrid crosses. Though so long as two organisms are in the general area of the tree of life, fill similar niches, and have the same or close to the same number of chromosomes, you might be able to get a hybrid, but there is not clear cut rules for what will work, so some very odd combination might be possible. Plants are much easier to work with compared to animals, since you can keep a line going even if it’s infertile through numerous asexual mechanisms, such as runners cutting, or the artificial method of taking plant cells (normally from apical meristem or an embryo from a seed) and growing them in vitro to produce a large number of genetically identical plants from a single source.

Finally, we have genetic manipulation on the gene level. This is the most complex method in its totality, but actually producing the plants is not that difficult once you’ve isolated the gene(s) in question. The first step in adding or taking away a gene or genes is to identify what your after. Identifying a gene is not a simple task and requires much work, to such an extent that to adequately inform you all would be a series in itself. So rather than give a good explanation I’ll give a basic run down of one common type of method used in plants:

To identify a gene, researcher will often attempt to “shut it off” or disable the gene by mutating plant seeds and looking at the morphology of the mature plant and seeing if the desired traits have been lost or altered. If they have, the genes of those plant will be sequenced and comparing to a linage which has not been mutated.

Once the comparisons are made, the mutated genes are located and can be produced and inserted into bacteria, yeast or viruses for further testing. You need to test more since you only know which genes were mutated at this point, not which one(s) effect the trait your interested in. So you see what each of the genes do, and which proteins they are responsible for. This too is no simple task, but for the sake of brevity I won’t go into it further.

So now we have the gene(s) in question, and now it is time to put them into the plant you want. There are two main ways of to do this: Agrobacterium and Gene guns.

Gene guns? Yep you can shoot genes into a cell! Generally how this is done is a large number of plant cells are cultivated in the same manner I mentioned in the part of this post about hybrids. And then microscopically small gold pellets coated in the gene in question are fired in to the plant cells using a high powered air gun/microscope thingy called a gene gun. Some of those genes will enter some of the cell nuclei. From there you grow those cell into mature plants and pick out those plants which have the traits you want (most of them will be unsuccessful and will be unchanged). Then you sequence those plants and select those which have taken up the gene best, and then breed them into an existing line for several generations to produce a seed stock.

Agrobacterium works similarly to a gene gun, but instead uses the mechanism of the Agrobacterium to insert the genes in question. Otherwise it is basically identical.

All this work and you get one highly control change in a plant, with many inbuilt checks and controls, plus all of what happens above can be contained 100% in lab, and much of it has to happen in the lab, so the escape of seeds is exceedingly unlikely.

So that’s a bare bones run down of the three basic forms of genetic modification, and why Genetic insertion and deletion are not scary, but a very precise tool, which gives us a scalpel to broad strokes of Hybridization and artificial selection.


Tackling GMO’s Part 4. G.E. Séralini case. Why it is both pivotal and pointless.

It’s about time I got back into this, here we go!

If you’re digging through the facts about GMO food, especially if you’re going from the popular media, eventually you’ll be brought back to one report. This report, headed by one Gilles-Eric Séralini, can be found here. Now, this report has since be redacted, and, if you look below the main article, you will see that the article itself has been heavily criticized within the journal itself.

I’ve already stated before that I am pro GMO (over all, it isn’t perfect, but those problems almost exclusively fall into farming practices, not the GMO’s themselves). The data that exists overwhelmingly shows that as far as food crops go there is no significant harm to humans or even the environment in making or using GMO’s. However, the above paper, redacted or not, is still being used as a source to “prove” that GMO’s are toxic. There is numerous reasons why that is not the case and I’ll be going through some of those reasons.

I’d like to redirect to my previous post about statistical significance here before we go further for a refresher on what that means for those readers unfamiliar with the concept.

The first thing I will point out is the redaction of the paper. Redactions are rare in science. Generally they only occur when there is some form of scientific misconduct. From what I’ve gathered from the back and forth posts, Séralini has not been accused of any misconduct, however, the Journal’s representative indicated that the redaction is due to pushing from the scientific community, and because the article itself was inconclusive and couldn’t accurately draw the conclusions made by the research team.

This is my major complaint with the paper, and the most telling, although it isn’t the sort of stratifying headline that gets people’s attention. “Anti-GMO paper found statistically irrelevant, says Journal representative.” Just doesn’t have a nice ring to it. This lack of statistical significance is why I call it a pointless paper because it really doesn’t say anything, but allow me explain why.

Generally the upper cut off in the biological sciences for a result to be statistically significance is 5% (though it is often only consider accurate when that percentage is much lower). What that means is that there is only a 5% chance that the results are just a fluke that can be explained by random chance. The primary ways of lowering the risk of statistical insignificance are to increase the population or sample size you’re researching and reduce the number of thing you’re studying and testing for (to better make use of your limited sampling population).

So this bring us to back to the Séralini paper. In the post analyst of the paper by researchers who also use rats for toxicity testing (a very routine bit of science) that suggested that the paper would have done much better to have at least over 200 rats, and Séralini and his team only used 100 each of males and females. Why so many rats? Well Séralini wasn’t just testing one factor he was testing the effects of Roundup and a Monsanto corn feed, splitting up by sex. So You have the rats split into 10 equivalent groups a control group and 9 treatment groups for both male rats and female rats. 6 of the control groups contained GM corn feed and the feed was either treated with roundup or not with each group given different level of roundup in their corn feed. the final three treatment groups were fed control (a similar non-gm corn) feed and tap water contaminated with some level of round up. Again all the group had different levels of round-up treatment.

If you’ve done the math that means each group only has 10 individuals in it. That’s a tiny sample size, and while there is some overlap, it’s like the team was trying to do three or four experiment in one, and they definitely did not use the resources they need to pull that off.

Why? Because 10 individual is almost never enough to draw any sort of accurate conclusions. There is simply to much room for mistakes or randomness to dictate the results. And even though there is some overlap in the treatment groups, this can’t help since the control group, which forms the basis of comparison of every other group, still only contains 10 individuals, so any of the inconstancies could easy wind up there. Regardless, you can’t pull off accuracy with such small sample sizes and without a group (the control group) to compare to you can’t actually say anything about it one way or another, since the statistics could be normal, but you can’t be sure since you lack a population to compare too.

Though this isn’t the only issue I have with the paper, besides being a pointless and useless waste of time and resources, because it could never be statistically significant, the treatment of the animals was unethical. If you look at the paper (I won’t share them here as they are pretty gruesome) you’ll see some pictures of 3 rats with massive tumors, though problematically only three of the rats. If you where being unbiased, you’d include the pictures of all rats, though, since the pictures had nothing to do with the results, I suspect they where added only for shock value. And they are shocking. You have three rats who by mass are over 25% tumor. Swollen to the point they problem would have great difficulty moving and be in great pain.

Before you panic, cancer in rats is abnormally common compared to other mammals, and the line of rat used in the paper have the terrible tendency to form these sorts of tumors spontaneously 30-50% of the time no matter what else you might do to them. So it might be the case that the research team picked this group of rats specially because they would form these “showy” tumors spontaneously.  But, more over, they allowed some of the rats to live longer than the average life span of these sort of rats, and probably simply to take those shocking pictures. Though we won’t actually know that for sure as the original data from the experiment was never released, so we don’t know which rats were which or what the original data collected was. This little fact is also damning since it make replication and comparison much more difficult, since you don’t know what all the outcomes actually are.

There is plenty else wrong with the paper: it’s hard to read for a scientific paper, the figures are unclear and overcrowded, and certain other results where ignored in the conclusion (like that one group of male rats which drank round up contaminated water actually had a longer life span then the control group). Though, again, all of these data points are statically irrelevant, so ultimately all of the result are meaningless.

Another damning fact surrounding the paper is that Séralini, while creating a lot of hype before the paper was published (which itself was odd given how poor it is overall), would not allow reporters to read the paper until they sign a legal document to promise that they would not share the document with other people (including trained scientists in the field) until after the paper was finished, so reporters had no means of fact-checking the legitimacy of the paper. And no other scientists were allowed to read the paper prior to publishing. A very odd thing to do unless you know your result are suspect.

So this paper, pivotal to so many anti-GMO arguments, is in fact a pointless bit of research that says nothing about the Monsanto products it was studying, but does speak poorly of those researcher who worked on it. I suggest if you see the name Gilles-Eric Séralini you’d be best to proceed with a healthy dose of skepticism.

There has been no shortage of criticism of this paper, and here is a very thorough tear-down of the paper. It does a better job than I do. Though, after searching through Youtube, this is the only video that accurately address the paper. That is, actually talks about the paper itself rather than working around it or just addressing the criticism. However, after carefully looking around, this is the most thoughtful and, most importantly, thorough I could find. So thanks to Myles Power for being awesome and stuff. I’ll definitely be linking to him more in the future:


Oh and why it the study pivotal? That because it’s the crux of some many GMO arguments, understanding that the science doesn’t support the vast majority of anti-gmo claims particularly this “paper” it key to getting a problem understanding of the issue and tackling this problem people have with GMO’s

Tackling the GMO Problem: Part 3, Statistical significance

We need to talk a little bit about statistical significance and what it is.

In science, when an experiment is done, there is always a chance that any given result was the result of coincidence, poorly thought out methodology, or human error. These false results can only really be compensated for in one meaningful way: quantity. You have to do the experiment over and over, and, in the case of biology, you need to look at dozens of individuals before you can claim the data has any statistical significance. Remember: Significant data is not definitive data! For sets of data to be definitive you don’t need dozens of individuals, you need dozens of experiments, and that often means thousands of individuals.

In modern physics, experiments are run millions of times before they are deemed definitive. Unfortunately, biologists aren’t always able test an experiment millions of times, and, as such, rarely have the level of certainty as physicists have. That said, we are taking about degrees of certainty, and scientists have methods for relating these levels of certainty. In a experiment, the main two factor which determine the likelihood of false results are the number of things being tested and their complexity. As the number of testing factors increases so does your need for test subjects, almost exponentially.

In an experiment, for each factor you’re testing you need a control, and, ideally, you’ll be testing the factor in a number of ways. Let me stop here to define some terms and give some proper examples, otherwise those unfamiliar with scientific experimentation will have a difficult time understanding what’s really going on. A control, or control group, is a group which closely resembles the treatment group in an experiment, they are chosen to act as a comparison group so meaningful analysis can be done. Controls are always necessary due to them being the comparison, without a control group you have no way of knowing if a particular treatment had any affect. For example; if you’re experimenting with the toxicity levels of a given compound, the control group would be treated, raised, and administered to exactly (or as closely as possible) the same as the test subjects, except that they will be given a placebo treatment in place of the potential toxin. If the control group and the test group fail to show enough difference in their health factors, then you cannot make any conclusions one way or the other. These health factors vary from test to test, it could be in life span, % of fatalities in a given time period, weight, fur sheen, presence of cancer, and basically any other sort of test you could imagine. As long as a test is relevant and gives reliable results, then it’s fair game.

What it means to be testable, as I mean it here, is that something is only testable if you’re able to effectively quantify it in a largely unbiased manner. For example, if you’re going to measure something, you must measure each group the same way. Say your measuring pea plants, it would not be correct to measure the control group by pulling up the plant and measuring from the root tip to the tallest tip of the plant, and then measure the tested group from where the stem meets the soil to the tallest tip of the plant. That lack of consistency introduces bias into an experiment. No matter what happens in the experiment above, the control group will seem on paper to be taller compared to the tested group than they actually are. The best methods are those that account for any and all factors that might affect the results, other than those besting tested for.

To keep using the pea plants as an example, if your testing a fertilizer, you need to keep the untested factors the same, so light exposure, water, soil composition, number of individuals per pot, lack or existence of pests damaging the plant, air humidity… I’m sure I’m missing something. And it will depend on the experiment and area you’re able to work in. It’s also important to inform readers if or how methodological problems may have skewed your results.

Another important term I will talk briefly about is double blind trials/experiments. These are experiments where the experimenters do their best to remove any bias in the administering of a treatment, and they don’t even know which test subject will get what treatment, or the tester doesn’t know enough to subconsciously give hints to the test subject. This is accomplished by having two or more groups of experimenters, one which sets up the experiments, in the case of a blind drug trial, they would put the drug in cups for the treatment group and an identical looking placebo in cups for the control group, only labeling names, not which drug is which. The second group would then administer the drug without having any knowledge of which is which. This way both the test subjects and the experimenters who are administering the treatment are unaware of who is getting what. That way no subtle factors like a patient’s knowing that they are on the real drug, or on the placebo, can influence the results (Search placebo effect and Double Blind trails for more).

Begin tangent: Here’s a popular example of bad research from a few years ago. Let’s be careful: I’m not blaming a child for the fear-mongering of adults, just that her experiment could use some work. Here is a link that contains the original experiment and a critique. http://www.snopes.com/science/microwave/plants.asp. Note: neither of these experiments are at all definitive. Just a useful critique of a real scare that still get brought up occasionally by some folks concerned by or outright scared of microwaves. I failed to find a good peer-reviewed source on this, but, since microwaves don’t normally produce ionizing radiation (radiation with the ability to actually change molecules), any potential harm is minimal, and shared with all cooking methods that involving heating your food. End tangent.

I’m doubtless missing many, perhaps hundreds of, important points. Scientific methodology is not something you can effectively cover in a single post, and neither is the sister discipline describing how to look at, interpreted, and draw conclusions from experimental data. It take years to learn these skills and I’ll likely be creating more posts about scientific methods beyond this series. If you have a specific question, I’ll do my best to answer it, and will likely compile them into a more elegant post later on.

Next time I’ll finally get to talk about the G.E. Séralini “affair.”


Tackling the GMO Problem: Part 2, The Organic Push

Clarification: It is not the fault of scientists (Or even many journalist, since it’s really a systemic problem) that science in sensationalized in the news. It’s a byproduct of how news is distributed and produced, or the idea that news has to be flashy or no one will read/watch it.

Last time I tried to validate and begin to disperse the fears people might have about GMO foods. This time I will address some very problematic myths surrounding organic food as well as some of the good.

Now, organic foods are pretty nifty sounding, and when I first heard about them I didn’t have any issue with them. I thought what many pro-organic consumers out there think: that organic food uses little to no pesticide and herbicides, and that they have higher nutritional content. However, to my great displeasure I came to learn that this is not true.

Organic food can be grown using pesticides and fertilizer, and has no significant difference in nutritional content compared to non-organic foods. Though the specifics surrounding pesticide and fertilizer use is highly dependent on the area that you live in.

That’s right, organic foods have pesticides used on them and are fertilized, they are irradiated just like conventional crops. I pulled this off of the Canadian Organic Growers website, so you’ll have to check your local standards for what is and isn’t allowed, but don’t worry about irradiation: it just kills bugs and bacteria in the food, it doesn’t leave anything radioactive in the food. There is some indication that organic food now contain a percentage of GMO crop genes, though there is no research on the topic, so take this with a grain of salt.

I will now send you off once again to Healthcare Triage, who did another excellent video, this one on organic foods where they get into the data. I’d suggest watching this video, since they do an awesome job looking at the research while also staying easy to follow and listen to. Plus it saves me the trouble of having to write all the same stuff here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gl5GXArC134

Welcome back. So I hope that video convinces you that there is no significant difference between the health benefits of organic foods. If you want good healthy food, grow your own or find someone nearby who does and buy some from them. A home grown tomato or carrot is immensely better tasting than something you by at the store, so it will be much easier to convince yourself to eat healthier. Though nutrient levels probably still don’t differ much.

Now there is another problem with organic foods and it’s this: they are just not sustainable or expandable to a massive scale. We need modern fertilizers and pesticides to get the yields we need to feed the billions of mouths that live today, and are yet to be born. Most organic foods use manure as fertilizer, but there just isn’t any way to produce enough from animals (since animals take crops to raise in the first place) to meet that kind of demand. Further more, many organic crops need to use more pesticides that conventional crops because they have not been modified to produce their own, and because some places limit the use of modern pesticides and force the farmers to use old technology. In Canada, for example, some synthetic pesticides are allowed while others are not.

According to one review (a scientific review is a research paper which looks at a large number of other research papers in order to draw a more conclusive conclusion), organics produce 80% of the yield of conventional crops, though the particular crop and field can vary from as much as 59% yield to 101% of a comparable conventional crop. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308521X1100182X

From this meta-data, it looks like organic yields are a great deal less certain than conventional yields, some times far exceeding conventional yields and others having yields lower than 50% of that brought by conventional techniques.

To end on a positive note, there are some notable positives to organic farming, though they are not limited to organic farming, just more prevalent within organic farming. Organic farmers are more likely to avoid monoculture (growing only one type of crop per field), and they are more likely to practice no till growing (not tilling the soil all the time causing soil erosion and soil compactions and nutrient lost). By using mulch and other soil covers they can reduce moister lost and reduce the need for irrigation.

All the above methods can and should be integrated at some level into the conventional farming methods, and, if anything good should be said about organic farming, it is that they have allowed for experimentation into better farming techniques, which is desperately needed in much of the world as resources are stretched further out among more people. Further more, many local farmers in your area are probably practicing sustainable farming while still falling under conventional farming methods.

My take always from looking at organics is, if you want better food go fresh food first, not organic. If you want to support organics, do it because local organic farmers in your area are pushing for better farming techniques and better treatment of workers, not because they don’t use GMO’s, or because it’s healthier (because it’s not). Get to know the regulation is your area before you make any decisions, and support your local farmers, especially those who are doing good for themselves, the community, and the world at large.

Tackling the GMO Problem: Part 1, GMO hysteria and your role.

I tried a couple of times before to tackle this issue and have failed to post, since I couldn’t deal with the breadth of this issue to a level I felt was worthy, so this time I will split it up as a series of posts, each time tackling a major issue around GMO’s. I will be linking to videos and the most informative articles that the average person can read, sadly mostly these are Wikipedia articles, but I have gone through them and the ones I post are accurate to my understanding as an undergraduate who has been studying GMO’s and biology in general for about 3 years. Though my focus has been genetics, plants, and genetic engineering techniques and methods.

First before I go about digging into the science I need to validate fears. There is a ton of fear mongering out on the internet and in the general media. It is not the general populations job to understand the nitty gritty of the science, nor does the general public have the education to understand the raw studies which do not come to clean and easy conclusions, if they come to a conclusion at all!

If you are not a scientist, don’t feel bad. It’s okay to be unsure and have conflicting feelings, in fact, if you’re a scientist you should have conflicting feelings on complex and poorly researched issues. Sadly for the non-scientist, science communication is poor and misinformation is more prevalent then good solid information because good science rarely makes for sensational news. These day science reports tends to sound like this: ‘New research shows a possible cure for liver cancer in the form of a new cancer killing drug!’ When an accurate title would be: ‘Researchers have see some success in killing cancer cells in vitro (in Petri dishes) with a new chemical compound.” See the difference? And this happens all the time. Science reporting almost everywhere, except in well reputed science magazines and news providers, over personalizes new research to the point where they are misleading their readers. This is a strong claim, but the fact is, if a news provider is saying that title one is the same thing as title two, then they clearly don’t understand the very real difference between killing cancer in a Petri dish and killing it in a human body. Worse, articles are often just as bad as their titles: drawing conclusions from the research, which have no basis other then the fancy of the journalist, or they don’t actually say anything about the real research paper so you can’t even fact find if you wanted too.

Though journalism isn’t the only problem: the scientific journals charge an outrageous amount of money for access to scientific papers at the tune of $20-$30 per 10-20 page paper, even though the journals do not do the research themselves. So it’s actually pretty damn hard to get a hold of a research paper unless you work at or go to a university, since they tend to have bulk subscriptions to most academic journals. I’m sure if Journals offered research to be purchased for a less outlandish price, the science communication problem wouldn’t be so grievous.

So I get it, unless you have a science or research background, getting information is hard. And most of what we hear in the media is, to be perfectly honest, some level of misinformation. So someone being scared of GMOs in this light makes sense, since the loudest voices are saying “GMO’s are bad! Bad! Bad!”

So here is the first link to a Healthcare Triage video and I will be re-linking to this again, I’m sure, as it’s an amazingly thorough video for being a measly 12 minutes long. Please watch it no matter what stance you have as they handle the facts very effectively, and very thoroughly. He does not say that GMO’s are bad or good, he just tells you the facts, which is admirable, and it’s good science (and in this case healthcare) journalism. I readily recommended any and all Healthcare Triage video’s for their unbiased approach. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gKO9s0zLthU

Let it be clear, I am a proponent for GMOs, not because I want them to be safe, but because I understand how they’re created and have studied this in University. However, I hope it is also clear that, for the layperson, it’s very easy to be drawn into the fear mongering surrounding GMOs, because there lacks good sources of information on them. Really and truly finding them is very difficult, and many are geared towards scientists in the fields of Genetic Engineering, which does not make it any easier for the average person.

In the next post I’ll be looking at what Organic food really is and the fear surrounding the word chemicals.

Why Are the Atheist Books in the Science Section?

This is something that has always confused me. If an atheist writes a book about science, like the many written by Dawkins, then it makes sense to find their books in the science section. But why would someone’s memoir, like Seth Andrews Deconverted, be in the science section? Shouldn’t that be in the memoirs? What about The God Delusion? That is a book specifically aimed at debunking the belief in a god. Shouldn’t that be in the religion section? Or the philosophy section?

I know not all book stores are the same, but I have found this trend in a lot of places. When I was on Goodreads, half of the science section was books on atheism. I’ve found a similar trend on Amazon. When I go to Chapters, I often have to search half the store for a particular atheist book. 

So why does this happen? Why is it just assumed that atheism and science go together?

My Take on Philosophy and Its Place Relative to Science

Withteeth Here, it’s been far too long since I last posted.

After an unfortunate “panel discussion” at Imagine No Religion 4 (INR4) in Kamloops, in which free will was discussed, I’ve become aware of a problematic trend that’s been arising with a number of prominent scientists. I say “panel discussion” because it was more of a beat down on the minority party, a philosopher backing a less disused form of determinism (meaning lack of free will in this setting).

To be fair the moderator was also a PhD in Philosophy, but he did not play a major role and further was defending the same basic position as the two other panelists, both scientists, only one of which had some philosophy backing. However this does not excuse what happened through out the “discussion.” Within 15 minutes of the two hour panel began the ad hominem attacks on the lone Philosopher from the two scientists. To further elaborate the Philosopher was not articulate and for most of the audience I’m sure he made little sense. That said he did make some interesting points, and had the other panelist been for fair in there assessments, and had they been willing to grant some of the definition proposed, the discussion wouldn’t have been the mess it was.

The main problem was not the philosophers inarticulate style, but rather it seemed to both Hessian and I that both of the science panelists had written him off before the discussion even began. The basic, but necessary, respect was not given, so an honest, thoughtful discussion had no chance to bloom. Why did this happen, or at least why do I think this happened? Well as it turned out both of the science panelists where better known and had both had strong words against the field of philosophy. This brings me to the main point of this post. There’s a trend is the science community to write of and disregard philosophy as the old decrepit grandparent of science, and all hail the new king (science).

Now that last line was a bit harsh, as I love science. That and I’m a Botany student. But I’m also minoring in philosophy and have already taken more philosophy courses then I need to because I enjoy it as well. So I’m in a useful position to look at this problem from both sides and address why this dismissal of philosophy is not only wrong headed but I’d even say silly and poorly thought out.

Science was born from philosophy, and was for a long while known as natural philosophy. It is a system of thought and bias reduction which deals with empirically testable claims. Philosophy on the other hand is more a whole series of thought systems devoted to creating even more logical thought systems. This is where I’ve found an analogy very useful: Philosophy is to the sciences and humanities as pure mathematics is to physics.

Both pure mathematics and philosophy are most concerned with creating abstract system of thought, often involving little more then taking a set of assumptions and applying some new or slightly altered logical system to them and seeing what happens. This doesn’t necessarily seem all that useful, but with out this sort of exploration of logic. Many of the greatest discoveries who not have been possible as there wouldn’t have been the mental/logical framework required for the discoverers to work in. More over it has been the case in physics as well as other sciences where a new mathematical model was need to describe a system or theory, and low and behold some Mathematician has already done the work for you and all you need to do is put in the numbers.

Now don’t get me wrong it’s rarely that simple, and there is a grave yard of bad and hopelessly impractical ideas. But both fields, philosophy and mathematics, work with abstracted ideas, working out the flaws and the strengths. Through these process things like Bayesian epistemology are born.

Where Science is the ground work we do to understand the world, Philosophy is the ground work of thought, of how we think about and tackle problems so that we have a fighting chance to figure out everything else.

Dystopian Futures

Today my partner and I went to the new movie Transcendence. After the movie, we began discussing how so many dystopian stories contribute to the fear of science. In Transcendence it’s AI technology, In Divergent it’s mind control, In Hunger Games there is the fear that the elite will control all the technology and use it against the rest of the population. These fears see to follow fears held by the average person. But are these fears right? Or are they simply brought about by a lack of understanding of science and technology? What if there were a dystopian novel/movie that went in the opposite direction? Are there any that already have?

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