Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Smoking causes cancer, GMO's are harmless. What is hard to understand about that.

We didn't always know that smoking was bad for you.  It used to be viewed as perfectly healthy.  Over the years, the scientific evidence from many studies accumulated, and the consensus came around to the view that smoking does indeed cause cancer.

The tobacco industry fought this view.  They conducted their own studies, which of course showed no link between smoking and cancer.

When you have studies that point in opposite directions like this, how do you know what to believe?  Do we simply reject the studies done by the tobacco industry because we know they have a stake in the game?


We look at the studies they did.  We try to replicate the results.  We treat them as we would any scientific study, and let them stand or fall on their merits, not on the basis of who is funding them.

Fortunately, when we do this, we find that the studies that show the link between smoking and cancer are stronger by far than the studies showing no link.  We update our beliefs on the basis of the evidence we have available.

Could GMO's be like smoking?  Could it be that we find out down the line that they are very very bad, but for now Monsanto and others are preventing us from seeing the truth?

Maybe, but it's very unlikely.

Why so unlikely?

There have been studies done that make claims that fall on both sides of the issue, and what we see is the exact opposite of what we saw in the case of smoking above.  The strongest studies show no evidence of harm caused by GMO's and the studies which show harm are weak and poorly designed.  This could change in the future, but as of now we have no indication that it will change, and the best evidence out there says we have nothing to worry about.

Great, but why is this important?

Recently, Green Peace activists trashed a field of a special genetically modified form of rice.  It was meant to be given to children in areas where vitamin C deficiency is a large cause of death.  The rice had been modified to supply vitamin C.  See where I'm going with this one.  Because certain groups are out to demonize a product that is most likely harmless, children in developing countries aren't getting the nutrients they need to survive.  The bottom line is that science denial causes real harm in the world.  Even assuming that GMOs are harmful, I would rather my kid live to see adulthood than die of malnutrition.

Here's a link to a meta-study regarding the safety of GMOs compared with traditional methods:

Here's a link to the infamous Seralini rat study claiming that GMOs cause tumors:

Saturday, September 7, 2013

An Analogy on the Project of Naturalism

I wrote this back in April in a discussion I was having.  I think it's a decent analogy for the human condition, but as always, an analogy shouldn't be overstretched.

I imagine that I am in a tiny submarine with no doors, drifting in a giant ocean. All that I know about the ocean comes to me through the various screens and microphones situated in my cockpit. I have no way of knowing whether those are giving me an accurate portrayal of the world, but it is all I have.
How could I go about gaining knowledge of the ocean? I can't just go outside and experience it directly. I can just give up, and just navigate using what works, not worrying about whether I am right. That doesn't seem like the best route though. I am curious about the ocean, and I think it worthwhile to understand it. Plus, I don't want to run into something unknown that will rupture my hull. I have both practical and theoretical reasons to try to understand, despite my limitations being stuck in the ship.
Everybody else is in a similar ship, though I can't know how their screens and microphones are working. I try to get knowledge from them in those areas of the ocean I have yet to explore.
It will be impossible for me to ever know if I am totally right as to the nature of the ocean, but that doesn't mean I can't try. There are plenty of times that I find out I am wrong, and these can serve as guide posts as we go along. The more wrong ideas I get rid of, the closer I am getting to the truth. Though it is certainly possible that there is really nothing outside of my sub, that seems a flat, uninteresting, and implausible explanation for the richness of what I experience through my portals.

It appears to me that something like this is the case.  We have no way of independently verifying our senses.  It could be argued that we are simply the submarine and not the pilot, but I don't think that subtlety is a big issue here.

The take away points for me here are the following:

  1. There is no answer key or users guide for life.  We all do the best we can with the faculties we have, and there are no guarantees.
  2. It is always possible we are vastly mistaken, even in our most deeply held beliefs.  
  3. Even with no guarantees or certainties, we should still try to do our best to develop good ways to eliminate false beliefs and maintain true beliefs. 
  4. We can't get outside of ourselves to see the world from an "objective" viewpoint.  It isn't even clear if such a viewpoint is even coherent.
Obviously, these are just starting points from the position of epistemology.  They say nothing of values, or how we should act if such a view is correct.  What I suggest is simply that these points be kept in mind when we reason about things that are beyond the mundane.