Scientific thinking is really not casual, though you may discover things you want to subject to scientific rigor by casual thinking and observation. My husband who has a much more disciplined mind and is much more comfortable with scientific rigor posed some questions about my last blog post. I've responded to them below. His comments and questions are in regular type, my answers are in italics. Please feel free to join the discussion!
Not everyone knows what GMO stands for, GMO stands for genetically modified organism.
In paragraph 1 you say HMO. Should that be GMO? It definitely should be GMO. I tried to correct this several times, but it turned up again and again as HMO. I gave up.
Anti-sciencers like anti-vaxers, are likely to view using science to evaluate GMO's as a vicious circle, not to be considered valid because, after all, science itself it the problem. This is true except that "anti-sciencers" tend to think their thinking is MORE reasonable than that of scientists. One said to me, "I've read so much on the topic that I´m sure know what I'm talking about and no scientist could tell me different.
To me science is independent of left/right and I find it curious that left/right tend to polarize in different directions with regard to lots of science, GMOs or otherwise. Yes indeed. It is very important to emphasize that pure science has no political bias. What is proven should have nothing to do with politics or personal bias. Since it is humans doing the science, it is really important to shore up the efforts to remove politics and self-interest from scientific processes.
"It leads to testable predictions" this is very important and to me it seems you don't emphasize it enough. I will emphasize it here. Scientific discoveries and conclusions MUST BE VERIFIED AND VERIFIABLE. Thus, if you claim to have demonstrated that the earth goes around the sun, other people must be able to verify the same thing. If you claim that GMOs cause disease, you must be able to give your own evidence and people whom you don't know must be able to also provide testable predictions. ASSERTION is NOT credible evidence. You should not believe something because six, sixty or six hundred people insist without testable predictions that it is. Similarly, you should not believe the results of poorly constructed experiments just because their designers claim they are experiments.
Five years of observing that the sun rises it the east would not prove it. A better thing would be some theory that would explain why the sun rises in the east (rotation of earth in a certain way ...).This one confuses me. Wouldn't it be fine, after five thousand sun-in-the-east mornings to say that it does and then submit it to a "null hypothesis" kind of test?
Unfortunately, your example
"For instance, if all organisms are made of cells and humans are made of cells, then humans are organisms."
is false reasoning. Compare with this, with the following which has exactly the same pattern:
If all dogs have 4 legs and deer have 4 legs, then deer are dogs. Maybe a better example would be "Only living things are made of cells. Humans are made of cells so humans are living organisms?
GMOs are the product of biotechnology, but it was the science of biology that made them possible. It is a scientific approach which can help us examine how GMOs work, whether their use should be better controlled,or whether they should be used just the way other seeds and plants are used. It can shed light on some possible consequences of their use. A good scientific approach can help us understand their risks as well as their benefits. It can also help us to refine what we are looking for. This may all seem obvious, but it's altogether too easy to forget in the flames of hysteria which surround the HMO issue as well as a lot of other hot button topics.
It's easy to forget the importance of using science to evaluate arguments and hard to remember to, because to do so means we can't just throw out slogans and side with our friends and political allies. It means we can't just assume that the people on the right and the arguments on one side are ipso facto stupid, ignorant, racist, whatever, or that the people on the left are communists, godless, smart asses who manipulate data for their own ends.
And the media leads the band in presenting most things as if there are only two sides to an issue and that the two sides are polar opposites.
In the face of my own ignorance, I decided I'd better learn some stuff and review other stuff before I started telling you folks what I think we need. I have to say that for non-science types like me, it's close to impossible to understand well or thoroughly what goes on with GMOs. I am trying. As an important part of my effort, I decided to (re)educate myself with some kind of review of biology. I looked up college biology texts. where else but on Google and decided that I might be able to cope with Campbell Biology, a well-regarded college text book, as a much needed aid. I have to tell you, biology has sure changed since I took my last course in high school (gulp) 55 years ago (that's no typo.) It has changed since I struggled through botany in college where I discovered some chemistry had crept into it; it was no longer just classifying and describing things and drawing pretty specimens (I'm exaggerating).
This opacity that science has, its complexity, its vastly greater store of knowledge does make it extremely hard for lay people like me to try to understand what's going on in any number of areas: global climate change is a biggy. How much easier it is just to jump on the band wagon that denies global warming or on the one that paints doomsday scenarios that lie just around the corner. Why are we so eager to be extremists?
So from Cambell Biology I've drawn out the basics of what science is. I am trying to use these basics to understand what GMOs are, how they are brought about, and how they may be the same or different from other forms of plant modification. I'll condense and share my findings with you and hope that you read what I say with a critical eye. Don't give up!
So what is written below is drawn from Cambell, at times word for word, pages 18-24.
The word SCIENCE comes from the Latin verb TO KNOW. Science is an approach to understanding the natural world which developed because people are by nature curious and strive to understand the world around them.
INQUIRY is at the heart of science. Inquiries are the questions we ask as we search for information and explanation. The search for information often focuses on specific questions. For Charles Darwin, for instance, the main question was how species adapted to their environment. Evolution lies at the heart of modern biology, by the way. No getting around it.
So how do you go around inquiring in a scientific way?
You make observations
You form logical hypotheses
You test your hypothesis thoroughly. If observations don't support a hypothesis, perhaps the hypothesis needs to be modified or thrown out.
You hope with each go-round you get closer and closer to the truth: to the laws that govern nature.
According to Campbell, in biology, scientists are looking to describe natural structures and processes as accurately as they can.
Today a lot of biology involves studying things on a micro scale. GENOMICS for instance is the analysis to help us understand biological unity and diversity at a molecular level.GMOs are created on a molecular level though the results we see can be on a macro level.
As we read in Campbell Biology, Science is much less structured than people realize, and there is no single "scientific method" with a rule book that researchers must follow. There is no fixed formula for successful inquiry though many of us remember being taught that there was. On the other hand, the looser approach to the scientific method definitely does not mean a looser approach to testing hypotheses, retesting them,and opening oneself up to evaluation by others.
Campbell points out that what is important to the search for scientific knowledge are reasoning, planning, creativity, cooperation, competition, patience, persistence, and the ability to withstand setbacks. Withstanding setbacks means to me being able to face the truthl: to not falsify data because of pride or laziness or looming deadlines or the desire for money or fear of academic standing. Today, our society has a problem with being able to accept scientific data not because we are troglodytes (although we may be that, too) but because false data has been presented to us by supposedly reputable scientific sources a little too often. And it's just technically too hard for untrained people to investigate for ourselves claims that might look a bit odd. Untrained doesn't mean ignorant: it means that understanding very complex microscopic processes is not an ability to be picked up by quickly reading a book or taking a course. We have to depend on people being honorable.
Scientists should be aiming to describe natural structures and processes as accurately they can after observing and analyzing their observations. The stuff they get from their observations is DATA.
There is quantitative and qualitative data. Quantitative is data that is counted, basically, that aims to prove something with quantities of information. Qualitative data is gathered from observation of a single or a few subjects. For instance, you might say that a certain medicine is useful for treating measles because it has had successful results in 500 cases of measles and did not have success in 6 cases. Qualitative data might be to look at, say, an insect and note his physical characteristics, his environment, his diet, etc. The scientist might want to ask what happens when the insect is exposed to a toxin.
Some DATA might lead you to form a hypothesis which would be asking what causes something or/and what explains it. A HYPOTHESIS is a tentative answer to a well-framed question. It is testing whether the explanation you have is true. It can be considered a "rational accounting of a set of observations." It leads to testable predictions.
Reasoning can be INDUCTIVE: You generalize from a large number of specific observations. For instance, you've observed the sun rises in the east. You could decide to prove that by observation over a period of time, maybe five years of observations. You'd then analyze the data and finally make the generalization your data warranted. Hopefully, the generalization would be that the sun rises in the east. (I know, I know, the sun does't really rise. But it appears in the east every morning.)
Deductive reasoning is generally used after a hypothesis has been developed. It involves logic developed from the general to the specific.From general premises, you extrapolate to specific results.For instance, if all organisms are made of cells and humans are made of cells, then humans are organisms. This is "if....then" reasoning.
Here are some important characteristics of hypotheses:
No amount of experimental testing can prove a hypothesis beyond a shadow of a doubt. It is impossible to test all alternative hypotheses.
Hypotheses gain credibility by surviving multiple attempts to falsify them.
Hypotheses gain strength as alternative hypotheses are eliminated.
A hypothesis MUST be testable. There has to be some way to check the validity of an idea.
A hypothesis must be falsifiable. Huh??? This confuses me, too. So let's see if I can explain it. While there is no ultimate way to prove the truth of something, you should be able to create a NULL HYPOTHESIS which if proven would absolutely prove the original hypothesis false. A common example: If I hypothesize that "all swans are white", we would have to find every last swan and see that they are all white to prove the hypothesis absolutely true. A null hypothesis might be: There is at least one black swan. So if you come up with a black swan, then you have absolutely disproved the original hypothesis.
SCIENCE's hypotheses are actually not a bunch of absolutes. Nothing scientists propose and prove is absolute. BUT the proofs of hypotheses must be replicable by INDEPENDENT efforts. You don't have to and should not accept someone saying you should accept something because I or the Bible or God's prophet says you should.
Scientific research has become so technical, so dependent on stuff I didn't even know existed, that I have to depend not on evaluating the science so much as evaluating the articles I read. And this is also a challenge. But as you plough through research papers, you'll get a feel for what makes for a good research article. But who has the time? Ideally we'd have research paper groups the way we have book groups so we could read articles and then discuss them and then challenge each other.
Anyway, a very good article on evaluating research papers and articles can be found here. This is on a blog called The Skeptical Raptor (skeptical raptor.com) which is a chatty, easy to read site dealing with scientific research.
The take-away from all of this is that laypeople are kind of up a creek when it comes to understanding the science of GMOs and a lot of other things. But here are a few quick and dirty hints: articles should appear in well-established journals. How do you decide? Who writes for the journal? Are the articles in the journal peer-reviewed? This means the research article should have been read by at least three independent scholars/experts. Reviewers and authors should be anonymous to each other. Then you can find out how often the article has been cited and by whom. And....
Now I can say no more. I have to walk the dog, fortunately.
*This is a famous quote from Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense under George Bush 2 and not a scientist.
It's Friday. First, we took two dogs on one walk and the other three on another. Rita who is 17 1/2 years old had been languishing without a walk for a couple of weeks. She looks old now with her fur without luster and seeming to grow in mats, But she is still cheerful and eager and loyal. We took Jocko, too, and just went up as far as the park and walked around it and then went back the way we'd come. Both dogs seemed satisfied.
The next walk with Hank, Happy and Lil Guy was longer. The neighbors were surprised to see us a second time. It was hot and dusty. Hank got in two swims and the other two wet their feet in the rio where it crosses the road and Paul Barber's property. Paul is the English gardener who is a naturalized Mexican. He was clearing an area up near the road for more garden space.
I heard thunder. I hate being outside in thunder. It's one of the few things that still strikes fear in me. I don't mind it if I'm inside. I like storms as long as I'm inside.
As we turned to retrace our steps home, the heat seemed to reach a peak. The air was still. Dark clouds gathered as if at a starting gate, waiting for some signal. There was a puff of wind, just a puff to stir the leaves. Clouds poured down from Cofre de Perote into the valley just beyond us. Suddenly leaves whipped against each other in a strong gust. The sky blackened, ominous. We quickened our steps back into the village. But we got no rain then or later that night.
In and around our Colonia people still use horses and mules for transporting crops and firewood and long poles and themselves. We saw quite a number of horses today, some with dogs running along side. One had a boy and a load of grass for forage on its back. The boy looked as if he had fallen asleep. Maybe he had. He was wearing shocking pink rubber shoes. Those rubber shoes are quite popular and quite useful for working and walking on dirt that turns quickly to mud when it does rain.
There are lots of kids in our neighborhood. I wish our grandchildren would come and stay long enough to make friends with some of them and learn a bit of Spanish. When we walk by with our dogs, a lot of them call out, "Hello!" in English and ask us a bunch of questions. "How do you say my name in English," or "Which dog is Jocko?" Some of the kids and I have developed extravagant arm motions for greetings. They can go on for awhile, kind of as if they were choreographed.
Life spills onto the street. Three men sit on chairs under an overhang and gossip, I imagine. One of them doesn't think we understand any Spanish at all and gestures to us without making a sound. I thought that he might perhaps be mute, but when I passed closer to him and his friends, I could here him clearly. A group of kids, boys and girls of different ages suddenly form into street soccer teams. Dogs weave in and out and bark at our dogs menacingly but don't come close. A line of people waits outside the community DIF store waiting for the free fluorescent bulbs the electric company is giving out if you bring a regular, working old fashioned one and two paid receipts from bills. A couple of old women pass by, piles of neatly arranged leña, firewood, on their heads. One of our neighbors swirls past on his motorcycle: he is letting his younger brother sit in front and drive it. Two or three people clip-clop on horseback. A young woman trudges past with bags from the supermarket, Chedraui, though she probably bought her stuff here in the Colonia. A burro is tied up at someone's front door. A couple wave. They sit and watch their little black dog play with a rag or something similar. If it's not raining, if it's not very cold, if it's not late at night, the streets are busy. A guy with a cart attached to the front of a bike attracts people with the smell of the guisado cooking in a pot in the cart. Bottles of salsa line the rim. People lean in doorways and look out of windows, their elbows resting on the sills. We reach our gate and bring the dogs inside.
A couple of headlines in La Jornada some months ago caught my attention. One warned that approved crops created and grown which were genetically modified organisms (GMOs) tolerated a component of Agent Orange which, if you remember, the US used during the Vietnam War. The other headline warned that the Mexican department of agriculture had approved over 100 lines of agricultural products grown from transgenic seeds for import from the US. The two US companies involved were Dow and of course Monsanto. Now I admit that I have few if any good feelings about industrial behemoths making their millions in agriculture, especially, Monsanto and Dow.
As we all know, the US is not prone to having advocacy groups that deal in subtlety and compromise. Right out of the gate, people are spewing junk at us which seems designed to arouse what some call our lizard brains. There’s no middle group, no group talking quietly, it seems, no group really interested in, what shall I say, the truth even if it is mushy gray rather than black or white. Much of our internet and TV news keeps us aroused. Media seems, in fact, determined to prevent any reasonable thinking. On the internet, the left can be as loud and vitriolic and ignorant as the right and use just as many cheap tricks. But the two sides are not equal, and the tendency to see all issues in terms of left and right makes it almost impossible to actually understand them.
I hadn’t thought much about GMOs before I saw the two articles in La Jornada, but it was clear at least for Mexico that there were issues that had to be dealt with. As I became more aware of the subject’s presence in the press, I decided I’d look into GMOs to see if I could come up with a reasonable understanding of the seeds and crops and their effects on the environment and on people, especially in Mexico.
I started out trying to find an overview, if you will. I read, and as I read, I realized (surprise, surprise) that this was no simple issue. For instance, I found that I didn’t think the concept of genetic modification by means of the introduction of a piece of a gene from one species into a gene of the other inherently bad or good. But what do I know? It is certainly an interesting process. I also was not aware of how many areas and crops GMOs could be found in around the world, and especially in the US. And of course it seemed pretty clear that mega corporations should not be doing the research into risks and benefits of their own seeds and plants. Their coziness with government, both here in Mexico and in the US does not work in our interest but rather in the interest of corporate money. I don’t think we can escape the awful consequences of that alliance unless citizens can become involved in a more fruitful way than they currently are.
And, finally, there are so many issues related to the biological, environmental and social costs of GMOs and their use. For these, I am still unravelling possible answers. I make absolutely no claim to certainty. For the science questions, I will try to use science as my guide. This, of course, means I have to explain what I mean by “science.” Science as science has also become controversial, its basic tenets challenged. Some of this is for the good, but some is just terrible and terribly destructive.
But let’s start at the beginning, or where I began.
The journey was rather like following a string that led me through a very complicated maze. I am still not out of it.
I know people here where we live who go to great lengths to avoid even the slightest possibility that there might be a genetically modified organism in what they are eating. They pull back in horror if you say, as I have, that I’m not sure that in and of themselves GMOs are bad. Literally in horror. I imagine that in their minds soy, say, grown from GMO seed throbs a bright, ugly red that only true believers can see. In the United States, it would be hard to avoid GMO corn. Something like 88% of corn acreage is planted with gmo seed.
In Mexico as in the US there are millions of acres of industrial agriculture, that is, huge fields each devoted to a single crop owned by corporations and, I imagine, some very rich individuals. My first memory of these fields comes from a drive we took from Saltillo to Morelia a number of years ago. Huge blankets of crops covered the land from the highway to stony desert mountains which brought them to a sudden stop. El bajio, part of the high flat valley that is central Mexico has the same kinds of fields. They provide huge quantities of food, much of it for export to the US, all of it requiring irrigation which is draining the water tables as do similar farms in the US in dry areas like California. This use of a limited water source I was aware of and alarmed about.
Those fields in the desert gave me the willies: those blankets of brilliant green seemed to be floating, a result not of my imagination but of the many plumes of irrigated water soaking them, creating an engulfing mist. In those days, I imagine they were in the late 1990s or early 2000s, it was water loss and pesticide and artificial fertilizer use that were alarming: the soil was being sterilized as residues poisoned people. My brother-in-law, a bona fide non fringy agronomist said that there was no replenishing the water tables that were being pumped with such abandon. I remembered from God knows how many years earlier learning in school that mono-cropping, sowing seed for a single kind of plant over a vast area was bad farming: it depleted soil of elements that a specific crop sucked out, it lay itself open to decimation by pests that especially liked that crop and could sweep through a field and leave it devastated.
The companies that produce GMO seeds promised that in fact they would cut the use of herbicides and pesticides dramatically. They produced studies to back up their claims, and of course opposition rose up and did the same with opposing claims.
So we enter the maze. There are so many possible routes, it seems, and in this maze, not just one that’ll get you through it, perhaps not so badly battered that you can’t survive.
NEXT at sometime in the (I hope) not too distant future, more on GMOs in Mexico. (I am all too aware that I have started other series which I have failed to conclude.)
Í used to get irritated at people who'd call where we live Paradise. It didn't seem like many of the everyday lives could seem paradaisical, if that's a word. Few people in our colonia appeared rich, maybe, when we first arrived more than nine years ago, none were. The poorer houses had walls of wooden slats the weather could stretch its fingers through to chill the inhabitants. A lot of floors were earthen even in the concrete houses in which most people live. People are careful with using electricity keeping it to a minimum. For light, most use a single bulb hanging from the ceiling. Our house is concrete, but the rooms are airy and the glass doors which stretch across the long south wall look out past our garden to the cascada and Acamalín, the small volcanic mountain straight ahead of us, and on explosions of bambu and huge trees growing up through the blankets of coffee and banana plants. We have a pale tile floor and creamy walls and ceiling lamps which hold not just one bare bulb, but five in candle-like fixtures. I used to think to call this place paradise meant you didn't understand that it wasn't that for a lot of people here. Now I think for me not to acknowledge how rich our lives are here is worse than calling it paradise.
In case you didn't know it, we have five dogs and two cats. They have slowed down our wandering away from home quite a bit. The two biggest dogs, a red-haired golden retriever and a heavy-set (!) Afghan mix don't like each other and have gotten in a couple of very scary fights. So we try our best to keep them separated. We took them on the same walk for almost a year, never letting them off their leashes the way we did the smaller dogs, and we only took walks near our house because lugging them on leashes wasn't so much fun. We not only limited our horizons, we expanded our waistlines. Significantly. So about a month ago we decided to just take one of the grandotes at a time and have more fun. If you don't think dogs can look at you with great, guilt-inducing sadness, come visit our dogs when we tell them it isn't their turn for a walk and see for yourselves.
Anyway, we drove three of the dogs a little less than a mile from our house to a walk along a river, now full of spring rain. (We drove because the road down to where we start is too trafficky for dog safety, even when they are on leashes). Below is a smattering of pictures I took as we wandered. You can click on them to make them larger. I think typepad has mucked around with its picture tools so I can't figure out how to insert text to explain them. If you are one of my facebook friends or one of Jaime Ricardo's, you should go to one of our timeline pages to see Jim's fotos of the walk we took on July 4. They are really outstanding.