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.