Hard News by Russell Brown

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Hard News: Clover It

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  • Islander,

    I am fascinated by this discussion, as are other writers (I'm thinking of Atwood, Dyan). I am not a scientist - I am a generalist & a poet. I respect science - per se - as the BEST tool humans have invented since the blade. Nothing human is perfect but some tools come close to 'perfect - for us.'

    The other comment I have is this: to totally tautoko any comment that says, "We know buggerall about us yet baby!"

    We are *so ignorant* about what makes us H.s.saps function (let alone all our links - established since we were a wee tiny tiny insectivorous mammal). I am reluctant to support GE - I want to know more. And I do think we risk ...strange catastrophes...by playing with things we dont know enough about.

    The Greeks called it 'hubris.'

    Big O, Mahitahi, Te Wahi … • Since Feb 2007 • 5643 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha,

    we still pay them less than men when they get a job as a scientist and we don't let them run the institutes.*

    Um, does Helen Anderson (until recently) being head of MoRST - the lead agency - count?

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 19688 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen,

    Um, does Helen Anderson (until recently) being head of MoRST - the lead agency - count?

    Of course. But look at the CEOs of the CRIs and then look at their SETs and then look at the next tier of decision makers. All heavily male dominated and some exclusively male.

    I'm sure there are very good reasons why each of them were chosen. I'm sure there is no conscious bias at all.
    I'm sure I'll win lotto.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 4451 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen,

    And I do think we risk ...strange catastrophes...by playing with things we dont know enough about.

    Of course we don't know everything. Of course we will be continually surprised and amazed by the world. At least we will until we are dead.

    Do we risk strange catastrophes - hell yeah. Every day I do things that may create some unheard of unthought of combination of genes and environment that may end civilisation. No really I do.

    But like all discussions of risk there are two parts, first is how likely is the risk. The risk of a strange catastrophe from what I do day to day is miniscule. With 40 years of "playing" we haven't seen anything remotely like a strange catastrophe with my day to day work or the day to day work of thousands of scientists doing the same stuff as me. So we accept that the risk is so small as to be irrelevant.

    So how big is the risk from GM crops? That's a little harder. We only have 15 years of crops in the field and only 25 years of modified plants in the lab. And fewer people working with them so less data. But based on what we've observed so far and based on everything we can realistically think of ... the risk of strange catastrophe is also miniscule.

    Some argue that the nature of the imagined catastrophe is so unrecoverable that even miniscule is too great. That's a much harder thing to discuss because it's easy to imagine truly catastrophic scenarios. People have come up with world ending scenarios and even the more reasonable environmental disasters proposed are scary. It doesn't take much knowledge to go around scaring the pants off people. But are those scenarios realistic or just scary stories? My opinion of them is pretty obvious.

    But there is a second part of the risk discussion that gets much less air time. And that is the benefit. We all make risk/benefit decisions every day. Did the person going through the door ahead of me have flu and leave viruses behind balanced versus the benefit of staying inside outside in the cold? Is your child going to become an evil genius? Is your 4-wheel driving going to spin out of control and kill everyone at the bus stop?

    The people presenting disaster scenarios are smart enough to also present utopia scenarios. But they don't.

    The reality of the last 15 years is that the very best predictions for the GM crops have been wildly exceeded. At the same time all the disaster scenarios failed to eventuate, no mass poisonings, no bee deaths , no monarch butterfly deaths, no allergic reactions. Those putative disasters were worth watching out for but were not real. The same uncertainty that Dyan is emphasising exists on the good side of the equation. The same unknowns that make it possible for GM salmon to wipe out some other important creature could just as easily result in the restoration of the north atlantic cod.

    Saying "but we don't know enough to be certain" is not a reason to stop and do nothing. It's a reason to sit down and balance risk versus benefit. And most importantly it's a reason to keep monitoring.

    That last bit deserves a paragraph of it's own.

    I absolutely believe we must continue to monitor these new crops over periods of decades. Disasters occur when we look away and stop monitoring. That is part of reasonable oversight.

    But I also absolutely believe that the benefits demonstrated by and the benefits predicted for GM crops are so great that we must embrace the risks and take the opportunity to make progress. We have a very real chance to change the world for the better and I think it's wrong and indeed that it does harm to stand still and do nothing.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 4451 posts Report Reply

  • Matthew Poole,

    Some argue that the nature of the imagined catastrophe is so unrecoverable that even miniscule is too great

    You mean like the folks who tried to have the supercollider in California shut down on the grounds it might create a planet-swallowing black hole?
    Speaking of which, Dyan, what's your position on the LHC and similar devices? Is the risk so enormous and so under-understood that we shouldn't go there?

    Auckland • Since Mar 2007 • 4097 posts Report Reply

  • Tim Hannah,

    Thanks Bart, appreciate your perspective.

    Wellington • Since Jan 2007 • 228 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson,

    I think it's also a symptom of people being educated in either the arts or science, with little crossover in between. Most BA grads would have read or at least encountered the arguments of Chomsky, Foucault and so on, and encountered science through the politics of science. A smaller proportion would have post sixth form statistics, or have read scientific papers and be able to make informed judgements independently. And fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

    I'm not so sure. I'm one of those people whose formal training was a crossover, Undergraduate Arts, Graduate computer science. But I don't think I've got any better place in this discussion, just a different perspective. People who sit between disciplines are limited in how far they can go with either one. So they end up lacking all credibility with both of the disciplines they straddle. I know very little university level science, basically no chemistry or biology at all, and very limited physics, and reasonable mathematics. I also don't have a wide Arts background either, there's not too much history or literature, social sciences, etc. Just a lot of philosophy, for whatever that is worth. Well, it's plain to me what it's worth, actually - I'm extremely well paid, because I can understand technical stuff, and then explain it to laymen. I would put at least half of my success in selling software to people down to the selling rather than the writing. But I can't sell it to specialists - they are able to form their own opinions and they value the detailed complexity of what is uttered much more than the simple way it is uttered.

    Which brings me ultimately to an opinion on the impossibility of agreement in this discussion. Everyone is some kind of specialist - there is absolutely no person who can claim to be a real generalist - they're just specialized in having lesser knowledge of more fields. The GM scientist can claim to know more than anyone else about the mechanics of the process, but they have to leave it to others to fully assess the total environmental impact. Others might be better able to judge the ethical balances (I don't actually think so, but certainly other people might be better trained at articulating the balances, to facilitating the discussion). Then there is the final and impossible balance to agree on - risk.

    Statisticians have often argued that people don't understand risk properly with simple examples. Most people can see mathematically that a 99% shot at 10 million dollars has a much higher average payout than a 100% shot at 1 million dollars. But an awful lot of people would prefer the 100% shot because the 1% chance of losing the lot bothers them much more than the 9 million they will certainly lose the other way. I don't think the statisticians are right when they suggest this is "irrational", though. It fails to take into account what risk means to different people. For Bill Gates it would be a no-brainer bet. He wouldn't really be too bugged about dropping a million bucks. For me, if I could have had a million, took the gamble on 10 million, and lost, I could imagine a lifetime of rue.

    I see this as highly analogous to the GM debate, because GM does give us the shot at a big payout. Really big. But, as Bart says, if a massive environmental disaster is even theoretically possible, even without any examples at all in the history of the science, that will always lead a lot of people to think the risks are too great.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 10641 posts Report Reply

  • B Jones,

    Fair enough, jack of all trades and master of none, etc. I'm looking at it from a non-involved public debate perspective, of the sort one has on the internet, or as a vox pop on the news, or in your mind when you're deciding who to vote for. I wonder what the numbers of arts graduates vs science graduates are.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 976 posts Report Reply

  • Peter Ashby,

    @Dyan Campbell

    Well I am 44 so I am not sure what your age has to do with anything. Secondly

    And my point is, why do we as consumers have to embrace every part of technology as if it were some kind of double-dog-dare?

    Who says you do? who makes you buy a TV or a radio? We still have an old fashioned cathode ray TV. It still works just fine so I see no need thereby to spend money to 'upgrade' it.

    And why should consumers who overwhelmingly don't want a product have that product foisted on them? Whether it does harm or not?

    I find this funny, as informed consumers my wife and I bought two tins of flavr savr tomato paste when it first appeared on supermarket shelves here in the UK. Then our choice as consumers to buy and eat this technology was taken away from us by hysterical new age greenies who threatened all sorts action against the supermarkets if they continued to stock this, suitably labelled product (terrrorism by any definition) and not only did the supermarkets cave in but the government did not hunt these people down and charge them with threatening behaviour and blackmail.

    So for you from a position as a consumer to reply to me that about consumer choice wrt GM/GE is deeply funny. Can you read a label? IIMU that NZ has GE labelling requirements just like the UK has. So unless you are illiterate or stupid or too lazy to read a label I fail to see how or in what way you are being 'forced' as a consumer to eat GE? Any more than food regulations on the maximum amount of insect parts your chocolate can contain force you to eat them. Oh you didn't know about that? Which category are you in from the above then?

    This is the information age, your cry of impotence is absurd and pathetic.

    Dundee, Scotland • Since May 2007 • 425 posts Report Reply

  • Peter Ashby,

    BTW insects are highly nutritious. It is only that Britain does not host sufficient numbers of large edible insects that eating them is not culturally part of our diets, here or in NZ. Since they are all arthropods if you would eat a shrimp or a prawn you should not turn your nose up at a cricket. It's a pity wetas are not much more common in fact.

    Dundee, Scotland • Since May 2007 • 425 posts Report Reply

  • Danielle,

    Since they are all arthropods if you would eat a shrimp or a prawn you should not turn your nose up at a cricket.

    Peter, have you ever considered auditioning for Fear Factor?

    Charo World. Cuchi-cuchi!… • Since Nov 2006 • 3828 posts Report Reply

  • giovanni tiso,

    Then our choice as consumers to buy and eat this technology was taken away from us by hysterical new age greenies who threatened all sorts action against the supermarkets if they continued to stock this, suitably labelled product (terrrorism by any definition)

    Terrorism by any definition given by someone who doesn't have a clue what terrorism is, I think you'll find.

    Although it could make for a good slogan: if you don't buy this tomato paste, the terrorists win.

    Wellington • Since Jun 2007 • 7473 posts Report Reply

  • Ian Dalziel,

    BTW insects are highly nutritious.

    I hadn't truly realised this until I saw the protein packed midge patties made from the huge swarms that emerge monthly on Lake Victoria in Africa
    - I think, (as seen on the Super Swarms doco
    this past week).
    a veritable biomassacre... :- )

    Christchurch • Since Dec 2006 • 7889 posts Report Reply

  • Islander,

    Ah, entomophagy - one of my favourite subjects...
    Insects formerly eaten in ANZ:
    *mokoroa (huhu grub)
    *tutaeruru (grassgrub)
    *kiriwai-manuka (the little green manuka beetle, mixed with raupo pollen & umukai-steamed)
    *kihikihikai (cicada nymphs)
    *the caterpillars of the spynx moth, puriri moth, and at least 2 leaf-tying caterpillars.
    At least 2, large, species of earthworms were relished also.
    Insects still eaten:
    well, I've tried mokoroa (delicious), kiriwai-manuka (a bit gritty, but quite satisfying) and cicada nymphs (both fatty & crunchy), and reccomend all 3 (where they are not endangered.)

    Big O, Mahitahi, Te Wahi … • Since Feb 2007 • 5643 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha,

    NZ has GE labelling requirements just like the UK has.

    No it doesn't - which hardly enhances trust in those who profit from its introduction into our food and environment.

    Let's have the public conversation about the likelihood, impact and reversibility of harms and benefits - and to whom they accrue. Clue: it's not scientists.

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 19688 posts Report Reply

  • dyan campbell,

    BTW insects are highly nutritious. It is only that Britain does not host sufficient numbers of large edible insects that eating them is not culturally part of our diets, here or in NZ.

    Are you kidding me??

    I'm not from NZ, I'm from Vancouver. Half of my family grew up eating this stuff. Some of them took it in their lunchboxes to school, until fellow students put them off.

    Chinese Delicacies

    Not just the Chinese... I've eaten curried grasshoppers - they were made by a friend from Kenya.

    I've already said here - twice - that I don't mind eating GM food.

    I mind having corporations foist this technology on consumers who overwhelmingly don't want it. I mind that people who don't want to consume these products have no right to demand it be labeled. Not all of us live in the UK or NZ.

    I mind genes being patented by corporations. I mind having companies bypass specific legislation controlling the use of this technology and releasing organisms (in Canada) that have not even complied with what regulations are already in existence.

    See the David Suzuki quote a page back.

    @Dyan Campbell
    Well I am 44 so I am not sure what your age has to do with anything.

    I was being flippant in reply to your assertion that "you happen to have met the man" rather than dispute my use of Lewis Wolpert's quote.

    When you said "I happen to have met the man" and I interpreted this as a game of social one up-manship.

    Isn't it?

    I made reference to my age because saying "so there" seemed the proper way to end my part of that conversation, what with me winning that particular - utterly irrelevant - contest.

    But this sort of exchange is laughable and better left on the playground. Which is why I said, being so old and all, I would leave off the "so there".

    My phrase "Aw, big whoop" was suitably in a 10 year old's vernacular. It was my attempt as a mocking kind of joke, but including myself in the mockery.

    Not that any of this - how well either of us knows Lewis - has anything to do with the discussion at hand.

    We need to clip and quote specific passages - then argue the point. People keep attributing my quotes of Lewis Wolpert's, David Suzuki's to me, then setting up straw man arguments. Like this

    Some argue that the nature of the imagined catastrophe is so unrecoverable that even miniscule is too great. That's a much harder thing to discuss because it's easy to imagine truly catastrophic scenarios. People have come up with world ending scenarios and even the more reasonable environmental disasters proposed are scary. It doesn't take much knowledge to go around scaring the pants off people

    Take it up with the Union of Concerned Scientists or the David Suzuki Foundation then. Don't attribute all their arguments to me.

    If we are going to have any kind of coherent discussion, we must pay attention to the specific arguments and confine our responses to those arguments, rather than inventing new, unrelated arguments - straw men.

    NZ has GE labelling requirements just like the UK has. So unless you are illiterate or stupid or too lazy to read a label I fail to see how or in what way you are being 'forced' as a consumer to eat GE?

    I'm Canadian. Please refer to my quote of David Suzuki's in the post above.

    Speaking of which, Dyan, what's your position on the LHC and similar devices? Is the risk so enormous and so under-understood that we shouldn't go there?

    I invariably agree with any consensus reached by members of
    Union of Concerned Scientists because they're scientists, not "people with a science background working with technology", as Lewis Wolpert phrases it, in his book The Unnatural Nature of Science.

    auckland • Since Dec 2006 • 595 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha,

    NZ has GE labelling requirements

    Actually, seems I'm wrong and that's improved since I last heard. I have always been a label reader - maybe I just don't buy enough food that might have GE ingredients? Where was the public awareness campaign about it?

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 19688 posts Report Reply

  • dyan campbell,

    NZ has GE labelling requirements

    Canadian consumers have not been granted the same respect by food producers, though I understand this may change soon.

    The irony here is that the manufacturers will have a much harder time selling what are probably harmless products because consumers are so angry with having had no choice (in the form of labelling) for so long.

    Labelling in Canada

    2008: Private Members Bill defeated: A Private Members Bill to label genetically engineered foods (C-517) introduced by Gilles-A. Perron of Bloc Québécois was defeated in the House of Commons in April 2008.

    auckland • Since Dec 2006 • 595 posts Report Reply

  • Steve Barnes,

    Do you reckon there's something fishy about Genetically Altered Salmon?

    “You don’t get salmon the size of the Hindenburg,” said Ronald L. Stotish, the chief executive of AquaBounty. “You can get to those target weights in a shorter time.”

    Meanwhile, how about some Chicken Wings with breast implants?

    Peria • Since Dec 2006 • 5521 posts Report Reply

  • Peter Ashby,

    I would have no problem with the GE salmon as described in that article. They would end up just the same as for eg winter cabbage or many of our domestic animals that have been selected to grow year round. In this case GE simply short circuits the selection event, instead of screening millions of salmon smoult for a rare mutation you make it happen.

    If we are going to farm salmon as domesticated animals then it would make sense to have animals that grow year round. Any escapees would not survive in the wild being unable to meet their calorie requirements during the winter, which is why wild type salmon stop growing in the winter.

    We can argue about the wisdom and environmental impacts of salmon farming, but if we are going to do it then it would seem sensible to do it as efficiently as possible.

    Dundee, Scotland • Since May 2007 • 425 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown,

    So unless you are illiterate or stupid or too lazy to read a label I fail to see how or in what way you are being 'forced' as a consumer to eat GE?

    I'm none of the above, but age-related eyesight issues do make it a bit hard to read the labels these days. I keep meaning to emulate islander and take a magnifying glass to the superrnarket.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22756 posts Report Reply

  • Kyle Matthews,

    I'm none of the above, but age-related eyesight issues do make it a bit hard to read the labels these days.

    Not an exclusively GE issue though. :)

    Since Nov 2006 • 6243 posts Report Reply

  • Islander,

    Russell, your friendly local optician has cute little credit-card sized magnifying glasses (they go in reading-glasses strengths). They come in discreet patterns and colours (the plastic that the glass is surrounded by...)and have a matching case-

    Big O, Mahitahi, Te Wahi … • Since Feb 2007 • 5643 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha,

    Isn't there an iPhone enlarger app?
    Cooler at teh Countdown..

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 19688 posts Report Reply

  • Peter Ashby,

    Pah, New Scientist keeps promising cute things like scanning barcodes with your phone and getting a screenful of info on it, which you can then either magnify or have your phone speak to you.

    Russ if you are short sighted try taking your glasses off. I take mine off to do close work and have always been able to read a book without them.

    Dundee, Scotland • Since May 2007 • 425 posts Report Reply

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