Evolution doesn’t require all species to change all the time

we did not evolve from apes but we share a common ancestor with themIn this post, I want to deal with what is arguably one of the most common misconceptions about the theory of evolution. Namely, the notion that it requires all species and populations to constantly be undergoing radical changes. You can see this misconception play out in many creationist arguments. For example, creationists often cite living fossils (i.e., organisms that appear essentially the same today as they did in the fossil record) as evidence that evolution is wrong. Indeed, there are entire Facebook pages devoted to presenting examples of organisms that, at least superficially, don’t appear to have changed over millions of years. Similarly, this faulty line of reasoning is on full display in the well-worn creationist trope, “if we evolved from apes, why are there still apes?” The reality is that these arguments are straw men, and the theory of evolution does not require or predict that all populations of all species will constantly be undergoing massive changes. Indeed, there are many well-known reasons why some populations remain stable for long periods of time, and I want to spend this post talking about them.

Several evolutionary mechanisms

At the outset, we need to clarify our terms and specify exactly what we are talking about. Evolution itself is simply a change in the allele frequencies (i.e., genetic makeup) of a population from one generation to the next, but there are several different mechanisms that can cause that change. I previously devoted a whole series of posts to these mechanisms, so I will be brief here.

First, we have mutations. These randomly produce new genetic information for the other evolutionary mechanisms to act on. Usually they are neutral, but sometimes they are harmful (in which case selection removes them) and sometimes they are beneficial (in which case selection increases their frequency).

Next, we have genetic drift. This mechanism acts on the existing variation (mutations) in a population, but it is random (i.e., it randomly increases or decreases the frequency of a genetic trait). As a result, it can be harmful because it can remove beneficial traits. In very small populations, it can even swamp selection and cause harmful traits to rise to prominence.

Gene flow simply alters the genetic frequencies of a population by bringing genetic material in from a neighboring population. This is often good, because it can provide new genetic material to a population, but it can also be bad, because it can bring in traits that are not adaptive for the local environment. Like genetic drift, high rates of gene flow combined with small populations can even swamp selection.

Finally, we have natural selection. All of these mechanisms are important, but selection tends to be the major one that drives dramatic changes. It is simply a mathematical inevitably of two conditions:

  1. There is heritable (genetic) variation for traits.
  2. Those traits affect organisms’ genetic fitness (i.e., their ability to get genetic material into the next generation).

Any time that those two conditions are met, selection will occur and the population will evolve. In other words, if some individuals have a genetic trait that lets them produce more offspring than individuals who don’t have that trait, the individuals with the trait will produce more offspring, pass the trait on to their offspring, and, as a result, that trait will be more common in the next generation. That’s all that natural selection is (sexual selection is best thought of as a special case of natural selection).

Now that you understand the mechanisms that drive evolution, you should be able to easily think of situations in which evolution won’t occur, or, at least won’t cause substantial changes. Imagine, for example, a large, isolated population (thus limited genetic drift and no gene flow), that is at equilibrium with the environment (thus no selection). Mutations will still occur, but most of them will be neutral, and if the population is already well adapted, majorly beneficial ones are unlikely. Thus, lo and behold, we have a population that undergoes very little evolution. I realize that probably isn’t very convincing to many people, so let’s flesh this out further.

Selection adapts to the current environment.

It is crucially important to understand the that selection simply adapts organisms to their current environment. It doesn’t give them what they “need,” it’s not working towards some ultimate endpoint, it doesn’t have foresight, and it’s not trying to perfect organisms. It simply acts on the current variation in a population and adapts it to the current environment. We often sum this up with the simple phrase, “evolution is blind.”

This concept is important, because it means that once a population is well adapted to its current environment, there is little left for selection to do. In other words, selection is limited to the available genetic material, so unless a new mutation arises that makes organisms even better suited to the environment, it has nothing to act on. Thus, it simply maintains the traits that are currently beneficial (via stabilizing selection) rather than evolving the population in a new direction.

To be clear, it’s certainly possible for a beneficial mutation to arise, but keep in mind that mutations are random and are not influenced by what would help an organism. Further, most of them are neutral, and many of them get lost to genetic drift before selection can act on them. Similarly, new genetic material could come from neighboring populations, but populations are often isolated.

A population like this would be described as being in a state of stasis or equilibrium with its environment, and for populations in stasis, only a relatively small amount of evolution occurs. There will pretty much always be some selection occurring just as there will always be some low level of genetic drift and mutations, but populations that have reached an equilibrium like this can persist largely unchanged for millions of years and basically just wobble around a mean value rather than moving in a consistent direction. In other words, some small changes will constantly be taking place, but they tend not to accumulate or form the type of grandiose changes that would be obvious in fossils.

Indeed, this is well supported in the fossil record, with species often persisting largely unchanged for millions of years. Nevertheless, various factors can shift a population out of stasis and cause it to undergo rapid change. For example, if there is a dramatic change in the environment, or if a population colonizes a new environment, then selection can act again, because the population will no longer be adapted to the local environment. Thus, a change in the environment can cause rapid evolution, whereas a stable environment can keep a population in stasis (there are lots of other factors that affect whether populations stay in stasis, but for sake of simplicity, I’ll leave it there).

What I have been describing here is the concept known as punctuated equilibrium (proposed by Eldredge and Gould), and it is a favorite creationist straw man, so let me briefly set a couple of points straight. First, creationists sometimes portray this as the, “hopeful monster hypothesis,” where rapid changes happen essentially overnight. Indeed, I have seen children’s’ books by Answers in Genesis with silly cartoons, such as a drawing of a pair of puzzled-looking T-rex staring at a hatched egg that has a chicken poking out of it. That is not, however, at all what punctuated equilibrium actually states, and if a creationist presents it to you in that manner, they are either ignorant about basic evolutionary concepts or they are deliberately lying. Either way, you shouldn’t be getting information from them. In reality, when a species shifts out of stasis, selection still goes through its normal steps, with each generation gradually accumulating more and more differences from the original one, and the process still takes thousands or even millions of years to produce dramatic changes. So, the evolution is only “rapid” when you put it in the context of the grand geological time scale of the entirety of earth’s history.

Second, creationists often present punctuated equilibrium as a problem for evolution and claim that Darwin was fundamentally wrong, but that is another straw man. Darwin wasn’t really wrong, he was just incomplete. He was absolutely correct about the mechanisms that drive evolution, he just didn’t realize that there are situations in which those mechanisms don’t occur (or, more correctly, don’t accumulate changes). This is very analogous to Newtonian physics vs special relativity. Newton wasn’t wrong, he was just incomplete. His math was spot on and is still taught in every physics course around the world. He simply didn’t realize that there are special cases where his math doesn’t directly apply and other math is needed. Indeed, it would obviously be insane to say that relativity is a problem for physics and discredits the whole field, yet that is exactly what creationists do when they present punctuated equilibrium as a problem for evolution. It is in no way shape or form a problem for the theory of evolution. We understand what causes large evolutionary changes to occur, and if those causes aren’t happening, then of course large evolutionary changes  won’t occur. Indeed, punctuated equilibrium does not say that evolution by natural selection doesn’t occur, nor does it say that evolution by natural selection isn’t the primary cause of the diversity of life on planet earth. All that it says is that there are periods of stasis in which little evolution occurs, and those periods of stasis end abruptly when things like habitat changes or invasion into a new area cause rapid, large-scale evolution. That is simply an expansion of our understanding of evolution, not a refutation of it.

To simplify that, Darwin was right about how and why evolution takes place, he was just incomplete regarding its rate. In other words, there are lots of periods where changes accumulate gradually just like Darwin proposed, but there are also periods where few changes accumulate, which is the piece that he was missing.

Low diversity

Reaching a point of equilibrium with the environment likely accounts for most of the long periods with seemingly little evolution, but there are other things that can limit evolution as well. For example, low genetic diversity can seriously limit a population’s ability to adapt. Remember, selection and genetic drift simply act on the existing genetic variation, but if there is very little genetic variation, then there is very little for them to act on. Indeed, this is one of the key reasons why conservation efforts for threatened and endangered species often focus on maintaining high genetic diversity. Species with low diversity can’t adapt to environmental changes, new predators, etc. because there is no diversity for selection to act on. Again, this is not a problem for the theory of evolution, because the theory stipulates that selection occurs when there is heritable variation. From that, it also follows that selection will not occur when there is no variation.

Some populations can evolve while others don’t

The finally point that I want to make is that not all populations of a species have to evolve simultaneously. Remember, selection acts on populations, and it adapts them to their current environment. Thus, two populations can both remain stable if they are in similar environments, or one can adapt while the other remains stable if one is in a changing environment and the other is in a stable environment, or they can both adapt in different directions if they are both in environments that are changing in different directions, etc. Thus, there is absolutely no reason why the evolution of a new species requires the loss of the original species.

Let me give you an example. Imagine that we have a population of butterflies living on the coast, and one day, a large storm blows a bunch of them out to an offshore island that has a very different environment from the mainland. That population on the island will quickly adapt to the island, and if it continues to be isolated form the mainland, it will eventually undergo speciation (i.e., it will split off from the original species and become a new species). Meanwhile, if the environment on the mainland remains fairly stable, the population there can persist in stasis and retain its original form. Thus, you have the evolution of a new species, without the loss of the original.

On the left you have a creationist meme arguing that Pikaia gracilens is the same as a modern eel. In reality, it is very different from a modern eel, and as is depicted on the right, there were many other lineages that evolved into our modern animals. The image was made by Here’s The Evolution, a Facebook page devoted to refuting creationists’ non-sense memes.

You should, at this point, be able to think of lots of situations that would cause this, and the problems with creationists’ arguments should now be obvious. For example, in response to the question, “if we evolved from apes, why are there still apes,” there is no reason why one lineage couldn’t split off and evolve into us, while another lineage remained largely unchanged (also, we share a common ancestor with modern apes rather than being descended from them, so the premise of the question is also wrong). Indeed, the existence of multiple lineages like this is something that creationists often overlook. In other words, when they present an example of something that “hasn’t evolved” they often ignore the fact that there are usually lots of other branches of its family tree that underwent massive amounts of evolution, and the fact that one lineage remained in stasis is in no way a problem for the theory of evolution.

Conclusion

In short, there is absolutely nothing in the theory of evolution that requires all populations to constantly undergo large-scale evolutionary changes. Natural selection simply acts on the existing variation in a population, and it adapts populations to the current environment. Thus, in situations where the environment is stable, there is little variation, etc. populations may persist largely unchanged for long periods of time. This is not a problem for the theory of evolution. We understand the factors that cause evolution, and if those factors don’t occur, then of course evolution won’t either.

Similarly, there is no reason why all populations of a given species have to evolve simultaneously. If one population is in a stable environment while the other is in a changing environment, then the latter will evolve to adapt to the changing environment, while the former remains in stasis in the stable environment. Eventually, the adapting population will accumulate enough changes that they speciate (i.e., split into separate species). Thus, a new species will form, while the original was retained. Again, this is completely consistent with our understanding of evolution, and it is not at all a problem for the theory.

Finally, I want to conclude by pointing out one of the things that I find most frustrating about creationists. Namely, their intellectual dishonesty and complete lack of curiosity. The things that I have been describing in the post are basic, fundamental concepts about evolutionary theory that you would learn in an introductory course on evolution, yet creationists are willfully ignorant of them. Most creationists have no desire to learn what evolution actually says and would rather plow forward with their straw men arguments. To be fair, there are some who eschew these arguments, but they appear to be the minority, and that is tremendously disappointing, because evolution is truly fascinating. Studying it is enthralling, but rather than bask in the glorious glow of enlightenment, creationists cling to their misconceptions and refuse to acknowledge that they have no clue what they are talking about.

Note: As always, I want to clarify that I am not making any religious arguments in this post. Evolution is a scientific fact, and I am simply explaining the evidence. There are Christians who both accept evolution as fact and believe in god.

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When can correlation equal causation?

“Correlation does not equal causation.” It is a phrase that everyone has probably heard, but many people seem to ignore or misunderstand it. Indeed, although useful, the phrase itself can be misleading because it often leads to the misconception that correlation can never equal causation, when in reality, there are situations in which you can use correlation to infer causation. I’ve written about this topic before, but it is really important, so I want to revisit it and explain why correlation does not automatically equal causation as well as the situations in which it does indicate causation.

Why correlation doesn’t always equal causation

First, we need to deal with what correlation is and why it does not inherently signal causation. When two things are correlated, it simply means that there is a relationship between them. This relationship can either be positive (i.e., they both increase together) or negative (i.e., one increases while the other decreases). To put that in a more technical way, we could say that when two variables are correlated, the variance (variation) in one variable explains or predicts the variation in the other variable (or at least part of the variation, assuming that the correlation isn’t perfect). Thus, if variable X and Y are positively correlated, then when X increases, Y should increase as well (on average); whereas if they are negatively correlated, then as X increases, Y should decrease.

Now, when X and Y are correlated (we’ll say positively correlated in this case), why can’t we automatically assume that the change in X is causing the change in Y? After all, if every time that X goes up, Y goes up as well, doesn’t that indicate that the change in X is causing the change in Y? Actually, no, it doesn’t. There are essentially four possible explanations for why X and Y would change together (see note at the end):

  1. X is causing Y to change
  2. Y is causing X to change
  3. A third variable (Z) is causing both of them to change
  4. The relationship isn’t real and is being caused by chance

As you can hopefully now see, there are multiple possibilities and you can’t jump to the conclusion that X is causing Y. Further, in most cases, these four possibilities can’t be disentangled.

Nevertheless, there are some helpful examples where the spurious nature of the correlation is pretty clear, and those examples are useful for illustrating why correlation doesn’t automatically equal causation. One of my personal favorites is the correlation between ice cream sales and drowning. As ice cream sales increase, so do drowning accidents. Does that mean that eating ice cream is causing people to drown? Of course not. When you scrutinize the data, it quickly becomes clear that a third variable (time of year/temperature) is driving both the drowning accidents and the ice cream sales (i.e., people both swim more often and eat more ice cream when it is hot, resulting in a correlation between drowning and eating ice cream that is not at all causal).

Additionally, sometimes two things really do correlate tightly just by chance. The website tylervigen.com has collected a bunch of these, such as the comical correlation between the number of films that Nicholas Cage stars in and the number of drowning accidents in a given year (everything correlates with drowning for some reason).

organic food autism corrleation logical fallacy

Correlation does not equal causation. Organic food sales and autism rates are tightly correlated, but that does not mean that organic food causes autism. Image via the Genetic Literacy Project

Examples like that are pretty funny and obvious, but when it comes to pushing an agenda, people often forget just how easy it is for spurious correlations to arise. For example, the anti-vaccine movement likes to cite a correlation between the “rise” in autism rates (see note at end) and increases in the number of vaccines that children receive. The problem is, of course, that this relationship could exist entirely by chance. Indeed, anything that has increased in recent years will correlate with increased autism rates. Thus, things like cell phone use, time spent in front of a screen, etc. will also correlate. Indeed, even things like the sale of organic food correlate with autism.

I singled out autism and anti-vaccers here, but these types of spurious correlations pervade the anti-science movement, and you can find them for anti-fluoride arguments, anti-GMO arguments, etc. As you can hopefully now see, however, those correlations may be completely spurious. Simply saying that X and Y are correlated tells you nothing about whether X is causing Y, unless, of course, you have extra information like I will talk about below.

 Correlation can equal causation

Now that we have gone over why correlation does not automatically mean causation, we can talk about the situations where correlation can indicate causation. You see, essentially all scientific tests rely on correlation, so if there was no way to use it to assign causation, science would be in serious trouble. Fortunately, there is a way to go from correlation to causation: controlled experiments. If, for example, a scientist does a large, double-blind, randomized controlled trial of a new drug (X) and finds that people who take it have increased levels of Y, we could then say that taking X is correlated with increased levels of Y, but we could also say that taking X causes increased levels of Y. The key difference between a situation like this and the situations that we talked about previously is that in this case, we controlled all of the other possibilities such that only X and Y changed. In other words, we eliminated the possibilities other than causation.

To illustrate this further, let’s go back to the correlation between autism rates and organic food sales, but this time let’s say that someone was actually testing the notion that organic food causes autism (obviously it doesn’t, but just go with it for the example). Therefore, they select a large group of young children of similar age, sex, ethnicity, medication use, etc. They randomly assign half of them to a treatment group that will eat only organic food, and they randomly assign the other half to a control group that will eat only non-organic food. Further, they blind the study so that none of the doctors, parents, or children know what group they are in. Then, they record whether or not the children develop autism.

Now, for the sake of example, let’s say that at the end, they find that the children who ate only organic food have significantly higher autism rates than those who ate non-organic food. As with the drug example earlier, it would be accurate to say that autism and organic food are correlated, but it would also be fair to say that organic food causes autism (again, it doesn’t, it’s just an example). So, how is this different than the previous example where we simply showed that, over time, organic food sales and autism rates are correlated? Quite simply, the key difference is that this time, we controlled the confounding factors so that the only differences between the groups were the food (X). Therefore, we have good reason to think that the food (X) was actually causing the autism (Y), because nothing else changed.

Let’s walk through this step by step, starting with the general correlation between organic food sales (X) and autism rates (Y) and looking at each of the four possibilities I talked about earlier.

  1. Could organic food be causing autism? Yes
  2. Could autism be causing people to buy more organic food? Yes (perhaps families with an autistic family member become more concerned about health and, therefore, buy organic food [note: organic food isn’t actually healthier])
    Could a third variable be causing both of them? Maybe, though I have difficulty coming up with a plausible mechanism in this particular case.
  3. Could the relationship be from chance? Absolutely. Indeed, this is the most likely answer.

Now, let’s do the same thing, but with the controlled experiment.

  1. Could the organic diet be causing autism? Yes
  2. Could autism be causing the diet? No, because diet was the experimental variable (i.e., the thing we were manipulating), thus changes in it preceded changes in the response variable (autism).
  3. Could it be caused by a third variable? No, because we randomized and controlled for confounding variables. This is critically important. To assign causation, you must ensure that the X and Y variables are the only things that are changing/differ among your groups.
  4. Could the relationship be from chance? Technically yes, but statistically unlikely.

Is the difference clear now? In the controlled experiment, we could assign causation because changes in X preceded changes in Y (thus Y couldn’t be causing X) and nothing other than X and Y changed. Therefore, X was most likely causing the changes in Y.

That “most likely” clause is an important one that I want to spend a few moments on. Science does not deal in proof, nor does it provide conclusions that we are 100% certain of. Rather, it tells us what is most likely true given the current evidence. It is always possible that a result arose by chance. Therefore, even when scientists make statements like, “X causes Y” what they really mean is, “based on the current evidence, the most likely conclusion is that X causes Y.” Indeed, science operates on probabilities, and when we do statistical tests, we are usually seeing how likely it is that we could get a result like the one that we observed just by chance. We then use those statistical methods to put confidence intervals around our conclusions, rather than stating something with 100% confidence. Importantly, however, the fact that science does not give us absolute certainty does not mean that it is unreliable. Science clearly works, and the ability to assign probabilities and confidence intervals to our conclusions is a vast improvement over the utter guesswork that we have without it. Further, for well-established conclusions, numerous studies have all converged on the same answer, and it is extremely unlikely that all of them picked up the same false associations just by chance.

Note: I have written multiple posts about statistics, probabilities, and how chance results sometimes arise, so I suggest that you read them if this topic interests you (for example, here and here).

 Before I end this section, I want to make one final point. I talked specifically about randomized controlled trials in this section, and they are generally our most powerful tool, but there are other methods (such as cohort studies) that can also control confounding factors and assign causation. Further, in some cases, cohort studies can even be more powerful than randomized controlled trials, so you should not fall into the trap of thinking that anything less than a randomized controlled trial is unacceptable (I talked more about the different types of studies, their strengths and weaknesses, and which ones can and cannot assign causation here).

 Assigning specific causation when general causation has already been established

Next, I want to talk about causes where you can use a correlation between X and Y as evidence of causation based on an existing knowledge of causal relationships between X and Y. In other words, if it is already known that X causes Y, then you can look at specific instances where X and Y are increasing together (if it is a positive relationship) and say, “X is causing at least part of that change in Y” (or, more accurately, “probably causing”).

graph correlation smoking cancer

Smoking and lung/bronchial cancer rates (data via the CDC). P < 0.0001

Let me use an example that I have used before to illustrate this. Look at the data to the right on smoking rates and lung cancer in the US. There is a clear correlation (lung cancer decreases as smoking rates decrease), and I don’t think that anyone would take issue with me saying that the decrease in smoking was probably at least partially the cause for the decrease in lung cancer rates. Now, why can I make that claim? After all, if we run this through our previous four possibilities, surely we can come up with other explanations. So, why can I say, with a high degree of confidence, that the smoking rate is probably contributing to the decrease? Quite simply, because a causal relationship between smoking and lung cancer has already been established. In other words, we already know from previous studies that smoking (X) causes lung cancer (Y). Therefore, we already know that an increase in smoking will cause an increase in lung cancer and a decrease in smoking will cause a decrease in lung cancer. Therefore, when we look at situations like this, we can conclude that the decrease in smoking is contributing to the decrease in cancer rates because causation has already been established. To be clear, other factors might be at play as well, and, ideally, we would measure those and determine how much each one is contributing, but even with those other factors, our prior knowledge tells us that smoking should be a causal factor.

This same line of reasoning is what lets us look at things like the correlation between climate change and CO2 and conclude that the CO2 is causing the change. We already know from other studies that CO2 traps heat and drives the earth’s climate. Indeed, we already know that increases in CO2 cause the climate to warm. Therefore, just like in our smoking example, we can conclude that CO2 is a causal factor in the current warming. Further, in this case, we have also measured all of the other potential contributors and determined that CO2 is the primary one (I explained the evidence in detail with citations to the relevant studies here, here, and here, so please read those before arguing with me in the comments).

The same thing applies to the correlation between vaccines and the decline in childhood diseases. Multiple studies have already established a causal relationship (i.e., vaccines reduce diseases), therefore we know that vaccines were a major contributor to the reduction in childhood diseases (more details and sources here).

Argument from ignorance fallacies

Finally, I want to talk about a common, and invalid, argument that people often use when presenting a correlation as evidence of causation (here I am talking about examples like in the first section where the results aren’t from controlled studies and causation has not previously been established). I often find that people defend their assertions of causation with arguments like, “well what else could it be?” or “prove that it was something else.” For example, an anti-vaccer who is claiming that vaccines cause autism because of the correlation between autism rates and vaccine rates might defend their argument by insisting that unless a skeptic can prove that something else is causing the supposed increase in autism rates, it is valid to conclude that vaccines are the cause.

There are two closely related logical problems that are occurring here. The first is known as shifting the burden of proof. The person who is making a claim is always responsible for providing evidence to back up their claim, and shifting the burden happens when, rather than providing evidence in support of their position, the person making the claim simply insists that their opponent has to disprove the claim. That’s not how logic works. You have to back up your own position, and your opponent is not obligated to refute your position until you have provided actual evidence in support of it.

The second problem is a logical fallacy known as an argument from ignorance fallacy. This happens when you use a gap in our knowledge as evidence of the thing that you are arguing for. A good example of this would be someone who says, “well you can’t prove that aliens aren’t visiting earth, therefore, they are” or, at the very least, “therefore my belief that they are is justified.” Do you see how that works? An absence of evidence is just that: a lack of knowledge. You can’t use that lack of knowledge as evidence of something else. Nevertheless, that is exactly what is happening in situations like the example of our anti-vaccer above. That is what is occurring when someone says something like, “well, you can’t prove that something other than vaccines is causing the increase in autism rates, therefore I am justified in arguing that the correlation is evidence that vaccines are the cause.” It is an argument from ignorance fallacy and it is not logically permissible.

Conclusion

In short, correlation is not automatically evidence of causation because there are many other factors that could be at play. X could be causing Y, Y could be causing X, some third variable could be causing X and Y, etc. Nevertheless, if you can control for all of those other factors and ensure that the changes in X precede the changes in Y and only X and Y are changing, then you can establish causation within the confidence limits of your statistics. Additionally, once a general causal relationship between X and Y has been established, you can use that relationship to assign causation to particular instances of correlation.

Note: If you want to be really technical, you could argue that there are more than four possibilities to explain correlation, but they are all really just special cases of the four major ones I described. For example, you could argue that rather than a single third variable causing both X and Y, there is actually a complicated web of causal relationships involving multiple other variables that ultimately results in changes in both X and Y. That is, however, just a more convoluted way of stating my third option, and the point is the same: something else is causing both changes.

Note: The reported increase in autism rates is at least largely due to changes in diagnostic criteria, rather than an actual increase in autism rates. In other words, people who wouldn’t have been considered autistic 20 years ago are considered autistic today, resulting in the illusion of an increase in autism rates. More details and sources here.

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In defense of skeptical blogs/Facebook pages

When I started this blog a few years ago, I fully expected that I would make a lot of people upset. I anticipated the hordes of angry anti-vaccers, climate change deniers, creationists, etc. What I didn’t predict, however, was the push-back that I often receive from other skeptics who argue that, at best, my efforts (and the efforts of public skeptics more generally) are a waste of time, and, at worst, are actually harmful. Nevertheless, I frequently receive these comments admonishing me to halt my efforts. I find this both frustrating and concerning, because if these people are right and sites like mine actually do more harm than good, then I agree that I should stop (it would, after all, save me a great deal of time). Therefore, I want to take a few minutes to talk about these criticisms and explain why I don’t think that they have any merit.

The core premise of these arguments is the claim that those who are already entrenched in pseudoscience will never change their minds no matter what evidence or logic you present. From this, they argue that, at the very least, efforts to persuade them are a waste of time, and, in many cases, will simply cause them to dig their heals in deeper and resent science even more. There are, however, a few key problems with this premise that I want to discuss. As I will elaborate on, I don’t think that all die-hards are lost causes (though many certainly are), and, this argument is a bit of a straw man fallacy, because the die-hards aren’t actually my target audience.

Some people can be persuaded

At the outset, I disagree with the notion that debating committed anti-scientists is never fruitful, and I say that because, as I have previously explained, I used to be one of them, and public skeptics helped me to realize just how wrong I was. To be clear, there was no one debate in which I declared the skeptics victorious and instantly rejected my ridiculous views. Indeed, I was just as stubborn as most science deniers, and in every debate, I was the infamous chess-playing pigeon who simply knocked over the pieces, then declared victory. Nevertheless, those debates made me think, they exposed me to evidence, and they gradually wore me down. Further, once I got to the point that I was really willing to question, skeptic websites were invaluable to me. They were extremely useful tools that directed me towards actual scientific evidence and helped me to see the flaws in my logic. So I, for one, am extremely thankful for the existence of skeptic blogs/websites, and I am very glad that skeptics chose to engage with me rather than writing me off as a lost cause.

Having said that, I do fully admit that I am an outlier. There certainly are others like me who have transitioned from science denier to skeptic (and I have met many such people through my blog), but I obviously don’t have any actual statistics to show that there are a substantial number of us, and I suspect that most (but not all) science deniers are indeed lost causes who will never accept any evidence that doesn’t fit their world view. Nevertheless, I think that the fight is worth it for the few who are willing to change their views. However, as I will explain below, those people are not actually my primary targets, and I don’t think that persuading them is the best motivation for writing/sharing pro-science posts, memes, etc.

It’s all about the fence-sitters

Because most anti-scientists will probably never change their position, they are not the ones that I generally have in mind when I write posts. Rather, my target audience is usually the fence-sitters. There are plenty of people out there who just want information and aren’t yet fully committed to one position. They may be leaning strongly in one direction, but if they haven’t gone full anti-scientist yet, then there is hope. So, when I write a post, I try as hard as possible to make it factually accurate, to cite my sources, and to explain the problems with the anti-science arguments thoroughly enough that any fence-sitters reading the post will be able to clearly see the evidence and why the scientific position is correct.

Similarly, when I debate people in the comments sections, my goal is rarely to persuade the person that I am actually debating. Rather, my goal is to make sure that when anyone else reads that thread and sees the anti-science comments, they will also immediately see pro-science comments explaining why the anti-science comments are nonsense. Indeed, a recent study found that the comments sections on posts actually had a large impact on what views people held after reading the post/comments (Witteman et al. 2016). So, people clearly are influenced by those debates, which means that the efforts aren’t futile.

What about the backfire effect?

At this point, people usually bring up the backfire effect. This is the phenomenon where explaining to someone why they are wrong just makes them hold that incorrect view more closely. In other words, it reinforces their misconceptions. I have several responses to that. First, the backfire effect is actually not all that well established in the literature. There are several studies supporting it, but there are also studies that have found that people’s views are pliable and will sometimes adjust to new information. Indeed, a recent study suggested that the backfire effect may actually only apply to a limited number of topics (Wood and Porter 2016). So, at this point I’d say that the jury is out, and we really need more studies before placing too much weight on it (there is a good interview with the authors of the 2016 paper here).

Second, assuming that it is a real and widespread issue, it is not at all clear to me that it causes negative reactions among fence-sitters, which are, once again, my primary targets. In other words, maybe my blog is making die-hard anti-vaccers even more convinced that vaccines are dangerous, but that doesn’t bother me much, because they were already die-hard anti-vaccers before reading my blog. Thus, my blog hasn’t really make the situation substantively worse. For those who are on the fence, however, the backfire effect should not occur (or should at least be minimized) because they aren’t already entrenched in a position. In other words, they don’t already have a core belief that they are desperately trying to defend, which means that they should be more receptive to new information. So, the way I see it, making some anti-scientists even more convinced of their delusions is a small price to pay for preventing others from joining their ranks.

Finally, even with a backfire effect, I would argue that a world with active skeptics is clearly better than one without them. This is a really important point, so I actually want to devote a whole subsection to it below.

What’s the alternative?

This is the key question that those who belittle public skeptics never seem to consider. What would the world be like without us? You would still have tons of anti-science groups, pages, memes, etc., but you would no longer have easily accessible information explaining why those groups are wrong, and that strikes me as a bad thing.

Really think about this. Right now, if you Google “vaccines cause autism,” you are going to find several scientific studies that most people either don’t read or don’t understand, you’ll find lots of anti-vaccine pages like Natural News, Green Med Info, etc. claiming that vaccines do cause autism, and you’ll find lots of pro-science pages like the Skeptical Raptor, I Speak of Dreams, Doc Bastard, and mine talking about the problems with the anti-vaccine position and explaining the scientific studies in a way that most people can understand. Now, imagine the alternative. Imagine a world in which all of the public skeptics gave up and closed down their sites. Then, when people Googled “vaccines cause autism,” they would still find page after page after page claiming that vaccines do cause autism, but they would no longer find the evidence-based pages explaining why we know that vaccines don’t cause autism. That seems, at least to me, to clearly be a worse situation, even with the backfire effect.

Now, you may try to counter that by arguing that anti-vaccers will never take the pro-science pages seriously anyway, in which case I would direct you back to my first two sub-sections and remind you that a small minority will and, more importantly, there are lots of people who aren’t committed anti-vaccers and are just looking for information. When people like that get on Google, I want them to see at least one scientifically accurate post for every pseudoscience post.

What about memes

Sometimes, I encounter people who aren’t necessarily opposed to actual articles, blog posts, etc., but they do vehemently take issue with memes and argue that they are entirely worthless and often harmful. I would respond to that by first saying that memes are tricky because it is admittedly difficult to accurately convey information in such a terse format without over-simplifying. Nevertheless, I do think that they are useful for many of the same reasons listed above. I have, for example, personally encountered several very well-crafted memes that made me stop and really think about a political or philosophical position that I held. That is, admittedly, a personal anecdote, and perhaps I am the only person in the entire world who has had a meme make them stop and think, but I highly doubt it.

Further, the internet is going to be flooded with anti-science memes one way or the other, and it is well known that when people are see or hear a statement over and over again, they are more likely to think that it is true (Lewandowsky 2012). Thus, much like my example of articles about autism and vaccines, I don’t want people to only see anti-science memes. Rather, at the very least, I want their news feeds to contain as many pro-science memes as anti-science memes. To put that another way, an individual meme is probably not very persuasive, but when someone sees their friends and family members repeatedly assert that science works, vaccines are safe, etc. that should have an impact.

Additionally, memes have a huge advantage over articles in that they go viral much more easily and when they show up in people’s news feeds, they are often read, rather than ignored. So, in an ideal world, I would certainly prefer it if people read my lengthy, citation heavy articles on climate change, for example, but I realize that most won’t. In contrast, I can put a few key points into a meme that many people will actually see and read. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than nothing.

Finally, memes have one other huge benefit. Namely (and, honestly, probably most importantly) they drive traffic to skeptic pages. The vast majority of traffic to my Facebook page comes from memes, and posting new memes always results in a spike in my followers, and that gives me a bigger audience when I post actual articles. In other words, perhaps the memes themselves do nothing to influence people, but even if that is true, they help to give me a platform from which I can disseminate actual articles. So, if nothing else, they are useful as a means to an end.

The importance of civility

Finally, I have encountered many who are not necessarily opposed to the concept of skeptical blogs, memes, etc., but they take issue with their execution and argue that they are often too confrontational and belittle their opponents rather than truly educating. On that point, I actually largely agree. I do frequently see people simply bash their opponents and call them idiots rather than actually dealing with the arguments or, even if they do present evidence and arguments, they also take the time to berate their opponents for being stupid. I don’t think that is a particularly helpful approach and would encourage everyone to be civil when dealing with anti-scientists. Again, this largely comes back to the onlookers. Your opponent probably won’t change their view regardless of whether you mock them, but I suspect that someone who is questioning or looking for information will be far more likely to take an argument seriously if it is presented in a calm logical way, rather than as part of a shouting match (I am admittedly speculating here, so if you have evidence that I am wrong about this, by all means show me).

Having said that, I would also stipulate that some people are way too uptight about this. Sarcasm and humour certainly have their place, and lightly pocking fun at a position can often be a useful way of getting people to engage with an issue and see the problems in a position. Also, saying that we should not cruelly mock our opponents is not the same thing as saying that we should be tolerant of ignorant nonsense. Factually incorrect statements should be called out, and there is nothing wrong with explaining to people why they are wrong, but that explanation should be presented in a civil manner (in my opinion).

Summary

In short, I strongly disagree with those who think that skeptical blogs/Facebook pages are damaging or even just a waste of time. Although it is true that many people who are entrenched in pseudoscience will never change their minds, there are some who will, and, more importantly, there are many who are not yet entrenched who can be saved from that fate. Therefore, I think that public skeptics do a tremendous service, and I’m not just talking about bloggers and page admins here. I think that everyone who shares memes and posts, makes rational, evidence based comments on posts, etc. is contributing, and I, for one, appreciate your efforts.

Citations

  • Lewandowsky 2012. Misinformation and its correction: continued influence and successful debiasing. Psychological Science in the Public Interest 13:106–131.
  • Witteman et al. 2016. One-sided social media comments influenced opinions and intentions about home birth: an experimental study. Health Affairs 35:726–733.
  • Wood and Porter 2016. The elusive backfired effect: Mass attitudes’ steadfast factual adherenece.
Posted in Uncategorized | 23 Comments

Is “clean coal” a scam or a legitimate solution?

“Clean coal” has once again become a hot topic, but most people don’t seem to know what it actually is or if it is even a real solution rather than just a marketing gimmick. Therefore, I want to talk about what it is, whether it delivers on its promises, and whether it is economically viable. This is often a politically charged topic, so let me make it clear upfront that I am not going to be discussing politics. I will not talk about policies, specific politicians, etc. I am just going to talk about the facts regarding coal power plants and the concept of “clean coal.” You can use facts to make a political argument, but the facts themselves are not political. They are just statements of reality.

coal mine clean coal

The problems with coal

Before I can talk about what “clean coal” is it is important to understand the problems with our current use of coal. Otherwise, you don’t have the context or frame of reference to evaluate “clean coal.”Probably the most well-known problem with burning coal for energy is that it releases carbon dioxide (CO2), which is a major contributor to anthropogenic climate change (a.k.a. global warming). For the sake of this post, I am not going to debate climate change (and would ask you to refrain from doing so in the comments), but I will briefly state that is in fact occurring, it has not paused, and we are very confident that we are causing it, because we have tested all of the natural drivers of climate change and they cannot explain the current warming by themselves, but including our greenhouse gas emissions in the analyses does explain the warming (more details and sources here). Additionally, it is a myth that volcanoes produce more CO2 than us, and although it is technically true that all natural sources combined produce more CO2 than us, prior to us nature was in balance, with equal amounts of CO2 being produced and removed; whereas, now we produce excess CO2 that accumulates rather than being removed (more details and sources here).

Nevertheless, many people reading this probably don’t accept anthropogenic climate change, but even if you don’t there are plenty of other issues with coal that you should be concerned about. For example, burning coal also releases mercury, nitrous oxides, sulfur oxides, and various other potentially harmful gases. These pollutants cause smog, acid rain, respiratory problems, and a host of other issues. Indeed, several studies have found that living close to coal power plants greatly increases your risk for asthma, lung cancer, laryngeal cancer, etc. (Garcia-Perez et al. 2008; Liu et al. 2012). Further, in countries with really dense populations, coal power plants cause a significant number of mortalities annually. For example, in India, it is estimated that between 2010–2011 there were 80,000–115,000 deaths as well as 20 million cases of asthma because of the pollution from coal power plants (Guttikunda and Jawahar. 2014). To be fair, that is an extreme example, but it nevertheless illustrates just how much of a problem this can be, and mortalities do occur in first-world countries as well (Garcia-Perez et al. 2008).

To be fair, I should point out that in the USA this situation has gotten better. Several pieces of legislation forced many power plants to install things like scrubbers to help curb their emissions (specifically emissions of nitrogen and sulfur). Nevertheless, these technologies have not been implemented in all coal power plants, and even in the ones that use them, they only remove up to 90% of the nitrous and sulfur oxides. To be clear, removing 90% of those emissions is certainly better than allowing them all to enter the environment, but that 10% that still gets released adds up to a lot of emissions when you multiply it across all of the coal power plants in the USA.

Additionally, burning the coal is only half the story. You see, the process of getting the coal is also fraught with problems. Many reviews and books have been written on this topic, so I will just briefly hit the highlights. First, all mining practices result in some level of deforestation and habitat loss. This is particularly pronounced for the practice of “mountain top removal” where very large sections of land are clear-cut and dug up (thus literally removing the tops of mountains). Anytime that you have deforestation, you have a loss of habitat for plants and animals, increased soil erosion, an increase in pollutants entering water ways, and often flash floods (trees slow water, hold the soil in place, and help to filter potentially harmful chemicals), but mining processes exacerbate that, because mining can make the land itself unstable, resulting in landslides (Younger. 2004). In a particularly devastating example known as the Aberfan disaster, 144 people were killed by a landslide that resulted from coal mining (Younger. 2004). Once again, that is admittedly an extreme case, and, fortunately, modern legislation has greatly improved conditions in most first-world countries, but fatal accidents still happen occassionally, and are still common in third-world countries.

In addition to landslides, coal mines discharge large amounts of sulfuric acid, copper, lead, and mercury, which often enter the water supply (Mishra et al. 2008; Zhengfu et al. 2010). Indeed, in the USA, it is estimated that 9,000 miles of our waterways have been polluted by coal mining. That is a huge problem for the plants and animals that live in those streams or get their water from them, but it is also a problem economically. Ecotourism and fishing are both huge industries, and they both benefit from clean water. Further, even if you don’t care about wildlife, fishing, or the economy, you still need to drink clean water, so it is a topic that affects everyone.

In addition to all of that, it is not uncommon for fires to occur at coal mines. This causes all of the aforementioned problems with burning coal, but there obviously aren’t any sulfur or nitrogen scrubbers controlling the emissions, so large amounts of those gases get pumped into the atmosphere (Zhengfu et al. 2010). Also, even without fires, coal mines release a number of air pollutants, and lung and cardiovascular diseases are disproportionately high among people living near coal mines (Hendry and Ahern 2008).

When you sum all of this up, there is a high cost to mining and burning coal, even if you don’t care about the environment. Indeed, one study estimated that when you combine all of these problems, using coal costs America around 345.3 billion dollars annually (the range for that estimate is 175–523.3 billion; Epstein et al. 2011). So even if all that you care about is money, there are serious problems associated with coal.

Environmental impacts of “clean coal”

Now that you understand the problems with coal, let’s talk about “clean coal.” There is, unfortunately, no one exact definition of this term. Sometimes, it is used very broadly to refer to things that are now fairly standard practices in modern power plants, such as washing coal to remove dirt and chemical impurities, as well as scrubbers like the nitrogen and sulfur scrubbers that I talked about earlier. By that definition, however, “clean coal” is anything but clean, because it still has the environmental problems that I talked about earlier. Yes, the emissions of some (but not all) potentially dangerous gases are reduced, but those emissions aren’t fully eliminated, all of the harmful mining practices are still in place, and massive amounts of CO2 are still released. So, that usage of the term is really just a scam by politicians and companies to make their product sound benign when it is actually still quite harmful. Yes, those plants are better than ones that don’t use any scrubbers, but they are still a far cry from anything worthy of the title “clean.”

That broad definition is, however, probably not the most common modern usage of the term “clean coal.” The more common and technical usage generally refers to “carbon capture and storage” (CCS) methods. There are a variety of CCS methods used, and I won’t bore you with the details, but the basic concept is simply that you trap the carbon dioxide from the coal, and you store it somewhere (usually buried deep in the ground) rather than allowing it to be released into the atmosphere. This sounds great, but as you have probably guessed, there are a lot of problems with it.

This shows the increase in environmental problems other than CO2 when CSS (aka “clean coal”) is implemented. It shows several different coal technologies. This figure is a copy of Figure 5 from Viebahn et al. 2007 (I added the colored boxes).

First, it only deals with the carbon dioxide that is produced by burning the coal. So, all of those other problems that I talked about still exist. All the erosion, stream pollution, lung cancer, etc., is still there. In fact, those problems become even worse! You see, CCS methods are not energy efficient. As a result, using them requires anywhere from 16–41% more fuel (depending on the type of CCS) than a regular coal plant uses to produce the same amount of power (Rubin et al. 2007; Rubin et al. 2015). That means more mining, as well as more emissions for gases other than CO2. As a result, environmental issues other than CO2 are worse with CCS than with regular coal power plants (Viebahn et al. 2007; Cuellar-Franca and Azapagic. 2015).

This shows the greenhouse gas emissions of CCS (aka “clean coal”) compared to regular coal, solar, and wind power. It shows several different coal technologies. This figure is a copy of Figure 4 from Viebahn et al. 2007 (I added the colored boxes).

In addition to all of that, CCS technology only removes 90% of the carbon (Rubin et al. 2007). Much like the nitrogen and carbon scrubbers I mentioned earlier, that’s good, but that 10% is still a lot of CO2, and, just to be clear, it is a lot more CO2 than we produce from renewable energy sources like solar or wind (i.e., it’s more than the carbon footprints from things like constructing renewable energy sources; Viebahn et al. 2007). Further, once the carbon has been trapped, it has to be transported to wherever it is going to be stored, which also uses energy and releases CO2. Plus, extra fossil fuels are required to mine the extra coal that we need since CCS plants are less efficient. So the net reduction in CO2 drops from 90% to 86–88% (Rubin et al. 2015). Additionally, although the extra CO2 is buried underground, some of it still slowly leaches out of the ground and enters the atmosphere (Viebahn et al. 2007). So, when it’s all said and done, CCS plants produce less CO2 than regular coal plants, but they still don’t even approach being truly clean, they still have a much bigger carbon footprint than renewable energy sources, and there are still tons of other environmental and safety problems. Indeed, “clean coal” makes those problems worse, not better.

Economics of “clean coal”

Beyond the environmental issues, there is another massive problem with “clean coal.” It’s freaking expensive. In addition to the cost of installing the CCS technology, you need more coal to produce the same amount of energy, and, once you’ve trapped the CO2, you have to pay to transport and store it. As a result, CCS plants are 39–78% more expensive than traditional coal power plants (depending on the type of CSS). Indeed, “clean coal” is so expensive that there are currently only 21 operating CCS power plants in the entire world, even though we have had this technology for decades (to be fair, several other plants are currently under development).

In the interest of fairness, I should make two caveats here. First, some people are experimenting with carbon capture and utilization (CCU) systems, where the carbon is used, rather than stored. This does reduce the cost, but probably not by enough to be meaningful because production of CO2 is expected to far exceed demand (Dowell et al. 2017). Second, like with any technology, the cost will come down with more research and widespread use. However, it needs to come down a lot for it to be economical, and the price tag for that research and development is quite high. Indeed, it’s estimated that we would need to invest $100 billion annually to get this technology where it needs to be.

“Cleaner coal”

Before ending this post, I do need to acknowledge one other group of technologies that are sometimes referred to as “clean coal.” These are technologies that focus on burning coal in more efficient ways that reduce the amount of emissions that are produced, rather than technologies that capture the CO2 after it has been released (for example, the DICE project in Australia). These projects still aren’t really “clean coal” though. “Cleaner” perhaps, but not clean. They still produce lots of CO2, and they still have all the issues with mining that I already talked about, as well as issues with emissions other than CO2.

Conclusion

A recent issue of Popular Mechanics may have said it best when it refereed to “clean coal” as, “a political pipe dream.” It is far more expensive than regular coal, and it’s not even clean! It does reduce the amount of CO2 that is released into the atmosphere, but it does not eliminate the release of CO2, and it is less efficient than regular coal plants. As a result, it requires more coal to produce the same amount of energy, which means that we have to mine even more coal, and coal mining causes a wide range of environmental and health problems including water pollution, deforestation, lung cancer, etc. So when you add all of that up, “clean coal” is an expensive misnomer, not a viable solution. It’s not clean, and it’s not economically practical.

I promised that I wouldn’t get political, but I do want to leave you with a question to ponder. Namely, if we are going to invest money into cleaner energy technologies (as we need to do), then wouldn’t it make sense to invest that money into the technologies with the fewest impacts on the environment and human health?

Note: Invariably, someone is going to respond with a host of supposed problems with renewable energy, so let me pre-emptively say a few things. First, that doesn’t change the truth of anything that I said about coal. Second, many of the arguments against renewables are myths or, at the very least, gross exaggerations. So please fact check carefully. Third, having said that, renewable energies certainly aren’t without their problems, and they do have an impact on the environment. However, when you add up all of the environmental costs (as well as costs to human health and the economy), the impact is much lower than fossil fuels.

 Literature Cited

  • Cuellar-Franca and Azapagic. 2015. Carbon capture, storage and utilisation technologies: A critical analysis and comparison of their life cycle environmental impacts. Journal of CO2 Utilization 9:82–102.
  • Dowell et al. 2017. The role of CO2 capture and utilization in mitigating climate change. Nature Climate Change 7:243–249.
  • Epstein et al. 2011. Full cost accounting for the life cycle of a coal. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 219:73–98.
  • Garcia-Perez et al. 2008. Mortality due to lung, laryngeal and bladder cancer in towns lying in the vicinity of combustion installations. Science of the Total Environment 407:2593–2602.
  • Guttikunda and Jawahar. 2014. Atmospheric emissions and pollution from the coal-
  • fired thermal power plants in India. Atmospheric Environment 92:449–460.
  • Hendry and Ahern. 2008. Relations between health indicators and residential proximity to coal mining in West Virginia. American Journal of Public Health 98:669–671.
    Liu et al. 2012. Association between residential proximity to fuel-fired power plants and hospitalization rate for respiratory diseases. Environmental Health Perspectives 120:807–810.
  • Mishra et al. 2008. Concentrations of heavy metals and aquatic macrophytes of Govind Ballabh Pant Sagar an anthropogenic lake affected by coal mining effluent. Environmental Monitoring and Assessment 141:49–58.
  • Rubin et al. 2015. The cost of CO2 capture and storage. International Journal of Greenhouse Gas Control 40:378–400.
  • Viebahn et al. 2007. Comparison of carbon capture and storage with renewable energy technologies regarding structural, economic, and ecological aspects in Germany. International Journal of Greenhouse Gas Control 1:121–133.
  • Younger. 2004. Environmental impacts of coal mining and associated wastes: a geochemical perspective. Energy, Waste, and the Environment: A Geochemical Perspective 236:169–209.
  • Zhengfu et al. 2010. Environmental issues from coal mining and their solutions. Mining Science and Technology 20:0215–0223.
Posted in Global Warming | Tagged , | 5 Comments

What is a species?

Alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii)

Before you read any further, I want you to take a minute and try to answer the question in the title. Go ahead and write down (or at least think about) the definition that scientists use to determine whether or not two organisms are members of the same species. Now that you have hopefully done that, I am going to burst your bubble and tell you that if you wrote down a definition, then no matter what definition you wrote, you’re wrong, or at the very least, incomplete. You see, there is no one universally agreed upon definition of a species. Rather, there are numerous “species concepts” and scientists debate endlessly about what constitutes a species. Further, taxonomic revisions happen constantly and it is extremely common for one “species” to get split up into multiple “species” while other “species” get lumped together into a single “species.” For example, the alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii) was historically thought of as a single species, but in 2014, Thomas et al. proposed that it should be split into three species: M. temminckii, M. apalachicolae, and M. suwanniensis. Then, in 2015, Folt and Guyer argued that M. apalachicolae and M. suwanniensis were not actually different enough to be considered distinct species and should, therefore, be lumped back together, resulting in just two species of alligator snapping turtle (M. temminckii and M. suwanniensis).

These types of revisions happen frequently, and scientists routinely disagree about how to separate species. Indeed, when you get right down to it, the whole concept of distinct species is an artificial one that we use to categorize things. It is not an actual property of nature, which is why it is so amorphous. Nevertheless, discussions about what constitutes a species are important, and they have strong implications for topics like GMOs and evolution. Therefore, I want to discuss several of the more common species concepts, how scientists go about deciding what to call a species, and why the concept of a species is artificial and ultimately somewhat arbitrary.

The biological species concept

Let’s start with what is probably the most well-known species concept: the biological species concept. This concept defines species based on the inability of different groups to breed with each other. In other words, if two natural groups of organisms can interbreed, then, according to this concept, they are the same species, whereas if they can’t interbreed, they are considered to be members of different species. Unfortunately, this is probably the concept that you learned in high school, and I say “unfortunately,” because this is a pretty terrible species concept, and scientists don’t really use it much anymore.

One of the most obvious problems is simply that it cannot deal with asexual species (i.e., species where a single individual can clone itself rather than relying on a mate). Asexual species are actually pretty common in nature, and even occur in various groups of vertebrates (e.g., some lizards), but according to this concept, every single asexual individual should be its own species because it cannot interbreed with other individuals, or, at best, this concept simply has no way to define asexual species.

The second problem is that hybrids are extremely common in nature, even among organisms that everyone agrees represent different species. Plants are infamous for their ability to hybridize across species (this happens in nature, not just in horticulture) but animals frequently do it as well. For example, consider the Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos). This is the ubiquitous green-headed duck that you can find at ponds, lakes, and rivers throughout the US. Everyone agrees that it is its own species, but it can hybridize with multiple other species of duck (e.g., American Black Ducks [Anas rubrics], Pacific Black Ducks [Anas superciliosa], Northern Pintails [Anas acuta], etc.). Further, in many cases, those hybrid offspring are not sterile and can reproduce (as can their descendants). Thus, according to the biological species concept all of those ducks should be one species, but based on every other species concept, they should be different species, and no scientist (or birder) in the world would suggest that we should lump them all together. Finally, I need to emphasize that this is not an isolated example. Hybrids are everywhere in nature, and I could show you examples of hybrids in other birds, snakes, lizards, frogs, turtles, fish, mammals, etc. This is a very common phenomenon.

The morphological species concept

This is another very old species concept, but it is still sometimes used today. It proposes that species should be defined based on whether or not they can be distinguished morphologically. In other words, if scientists can look at two groups of organisms and visually distinguish them (or distinguish them by their calls) then they are different species, but if they are indistinguishable, then they are the same species. So, for example, all of the ducks that I mentioned earlier can be visually distinguished, thus, based on this concept, they are different species.

This concept sounds good, but it has multiple problems. First, there are quite a few “cryptic species” (reptiles have tons of these). These are species that are impossible (or at least extremely difficult) to distinguish visually or audibly, yet when we look at things like genetics, it is clear that they are very different from each other and represent different groups (i.e. species). It is also worth mentioning that in many cases, we may not be able to distinguish them, but the organisms themselves may be able to distinguish each other based on traits like pheromones that we are pretty bad at picking up.

The other problem with this species concept is that many species have tremendous amounts of variation across their range. Take the Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus), for example. This woodpecker is found all over the US, and in eastern half of the country it has beautiful yellow feathers. In the western half, however, those feathers are red. In other words, there are two morphologically distinct groups of this species, yet we consider it to be a single species. As with the biological species concept, I could give you tons of examples like this, and I would even go as far as saying that regional variations within a species are the norm, not the exception. A good way to think about this problem may be simply to ask the question, “how different do two groups need to be before we consider them to be different species?” There is obviously no objective answer to that, which makes the definition rather arbitrary.

Two color morphs of the Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus): Red-shafted (left) and Yellow-shafted (right). They are morphological distinct, but are still considered to be the same species.
Images are from BioQuick News and Ewebarticle.

The genetic species concept

This concept is in many ways just a modern version of the morphological species concept, but instead of morphology, it uses genetics. Thus, two groups that are genetically distinct are considered to be different species. As with the morphological species concept, however, the key question is, “how different is different enough to be separate species?” Once again, the answer is, “no one knows, and it is arbitrary.” Various levels of genetic similarity have been proposed and applied, but there is no one universally accepted answer. Further, there are frequently disagreements between the morphological species concept and the genetic species concept. As a result, as I mentioned earlier, it is extremely common for scientists to disagree about whether or not two groups are different species, and species frequently get lumped and split. Indeed, I was recently at a conference where one researcher somewhat facetiously suggested that we should start using the terms “gecies” to refer to genetic species, and “mecies” to refer to morphological species.

The phylogenetic species concept

The final species concept that I want to talk about (though there are many of lesser importance that I did not discuss) is basically an extension of the genetic species concept. Once again, it uses genetic patterns, but this time, instead of simply using the degree of difference among groups, it attempts to look at evolutionary history. Thus, a species is a genetically distinct group with a shared evolutionary history that differs from the other groups. This is certainly useful, and is probably the most widely used concept today, but as with the other concepts, it is still largely arbitrary because there are no universally accepted criteria for determining when an evolutionary history is divergent enough to constitute a separate species.

Which concept is correct?

As you’ve hopefully gathered by now, scientists disagree about the answer to this question. In practice, we tend to try to look for a convergence of multiple species concepts, but again, scientists frequently disagree about whether two things are different enough to be considered distinct species, and proposed taxonomic revisions are often highly contested.

To add another layer of complexity to this, scientists often add additionally sub-categories. For example, many species contain multiple “subspecies.” These are geographical subgroups of a species that are different enough to be noteworthy, but similar enough that they don’t merit species status (the two flickers that I mentioned earlier are subspecies). Here again, however, scientists often disagree about the boundary between species and subspecies, and it is common for subspecies to get elevated to full species and for multiple species to get lumped and demoted to subspecies.

In other cases, scientists prefer to talk about “evolutionarily significant units” rather than dwelling on the species/subspecies distinction. These are simply groups (usually populations) that are genetically (usually phylogenically) distinct enough that they need to be discussed and managed separately, regardless of whether you want to label them as separate species. Similarly, in the world of microbiology, it is common to abandon the label “species” altogether and instead use OTUs (operational taxonomic units) which are narrow taxonomic groups that are distinguished by an arbitrary threshold of similarity (97% similarity is often used).

Why isn’t there a universally accepted species concept and how does this relate to evolution and GMOs?

Finally, and I think most importantly, I need to explain why scientists disagree about how to define a species. It’s not simply that scientists are an argumentative and ornery bunch (though that plays into it). Rather it is because there is actually no such thing as a species. The concept of a species in an entirely artificial one that we invented to help us make sense of the world. It is not an actual construct of nature.

You see, as I have explained before, evolution is a spectrum, not a series of distinct blocks. Thus, nature does not immediately form distinct and obvious species. Rather, a group of organisms splits and gradually evolves in separate directions with each generation resulting in more and more differences. At some point, those two groups become different enough that we consider them to be different species, but where we draw that line is arbitrary. It is a judgement call that we are making, rather than an actual property of nature.

Further, it is important to realize that this also applies to other levels of taxonomic classifications (especially genera and families). Like species, it is often not clear how to demarcate these, and taxonomic revisions are common. For example, a few years ago, the frog genus Rana was split into multiple different genera, with most of the ranids in the USA moving into the new genus Lithobates. Also, just like with species, there are subcategories (subfamilies, supergenera, etc.) and scientists often disagree about where to draw the line. Again, this is because these taxonomic divisions are artificial. They are useful tools for us to understand life on planet earth, but evolution produces a spectrum, not distinct blocks, and when we see distinct blocks, they only exist because the rest of that spectrum died out. Imagine, for example, looking at a rainbow and picking the point where the red stops and the yellow begins. You can’t really do it.

In addition to everything that I have said so far, it is also worth noting that nature is kind of a freak, and it does some really weird things that are nigh impossible to categorize. One example that I am quite fond of is the fact that several thousand years ago, sweet potatoes stole DNA from a bacteria and incorporated that DNA into their own genome (thus essentially making them a natural GMO). Similarly, some butterfly species incorporated viral DNA into their genomes (Gasmi et al. 2015). What do you do with that as far as assigning taxonomy? What do you do when a species forms by stealing DNA from a totally different group of organisms?

Further, those examples aren’t even the most extreme. There is, for example, a salamander in the genus Ambystoma that does something known as kleptogenesis (Bogart et al. 2009). This salamander is unisexual (i.e., only has females), but it is not asexual (i.e., it isn’t capable of reproducing on its own). Rather, they take sperm from up to four other Ambystoma species and use that sperm to fertilize their eggs. Thus, each generation is formed by stealing sperm from a different species (sometimes multiple species) and incorporating part of their genome. What do you do with something like that? It defies classification, which brings me back to my central point that taxonomic classifications are simply imperfect constructs for helping us to understand the world, rather than actual properties of nature.

So, what does all of this have to do with evolution and GMOs? Well, when it comes to evolution, I think that the implications are pretty clear. Evolution predicts a spectrum, and that is exactly what we see. I often hear creationists talk about species or families as totally distinct obvious groups, but that’s just not reality. The distinctions are extremely fuzzy and often arbitrary.  For GMOs, the implications are a bit more nuanced, but important nonetheless. Like creationists, anti-GMO activists often make a big deal about species being distinct and find the notion of moving a gene from one species into another to be abhorrent, but as you can hopefully now see, that view makes little sense once you understand how nature actually works. Organisms exist as a spectrum, not as extremely distinct units, and we all share the same DNA. To be clear, something like a fish and a tomato are obviously distinct, but that is only because they are far apart on the spectrum. Go back to the rainbow analogy for a minute. The pure yellow and pure red are clearly distinct from each other, but you’d do yourself a disservice by treating them as if they are totally separate and detached from one another, because they both fall along the same spectrum. Further, as I explained above, nature does not respect the arbitrary labels that we put on things, and it even moves genes between highly divergent groups (e.g., a sweet potatoes and bacteria).

My point in all of this is simple, organisms exist as a spectrum, not distinct blocks, and categories like “species” and “family” are artificial constructs that we created to help us understand the world around us. So before you make a big deal about different families and species for topics like GMOs and evolution, keep in mind that those categories are simply tools that we use, not actual properties of nature.

Note: The GMO tomato with “fish genes” never went to market.

Literature Cited 

  • Bogart et al. 2009. Sex in unisexual salamanders: discovery of a new sperm donor with ancient affinities. Heredity 103:483–493.
  • Folt and Guyer. 2015. Evaluating recent taxonomic changes for alligator snapping turtles (TestudinesL Chelydridae). Zootaxa 3947:447–450.
  • Gasmi et al. 2015. Recurrent domestication by Lepidoptera of gens from their parasites mediated by bracoviruses. Plos Genetics 11:e1005470.
  • Thomas et al.. 2014. Taxonomic assessment of Alligator Snapping Turtles (Chelydridae: Macrochelys), with the description of two new species from the southeastern United States. Zootaxa 3786:141–165.
Posted in GMO, Science of Evolution | Tagged | 22 Comments

Most anti-GMO papers contain serious flaws

Unfortunately, bad papers sometimes get published, and those faulty results often get hailed by members of the anti-science community as evidence for their positions. As a result, it is extremely important to both look at the entire body of literature on a topic and critically examine the papers themselves. More often than not, when you look at the literature for a scientific topic, you will find that most studies have converged on a consistent conclusion, while a few outliers have reached the opposite conclusion, but those outliers are usually riddled with problems and published in minor journals. Thus, it is foolhardy to latch onto the handful of papers that agree with you, while disregarding the vast majority of papers that disagree with you.

This is a prevalent problem and one that I write about frequently (for example, I have previously written about how to evaluate scientific papers, Tenpenny’s cherry-picked “vaccine library,” the supposed lists of papers showing that vaccines cause autism, etc.). In this post, however, I am going to focus on GMOs. I’ve talked about this before, and explained that the anti-GMO position is, in fact, a form of science denial that is based on ideology, not evidence. As with topics like vaccines and climate change, the evidence that GMOs are safe for both humans and the environment is overwhelming, yet activists rally around the tiny subset of papers that agree with them. When you critically examine those papers, however, it quickly becomes clear that they are junk science. Indeed, that was the conclusion of an intriguing new review that was published in the journal Plant Biotechnology Journal, and I want to spend a few minutes talking about it.

Note: This paper was specifically on human health implications, not environmental implications, but the same story holds true when you look at the environmental papers.

The paper in question is titled, “Characterization of scientific studies usually cited as evidence of adverse effects of GM food/feed,” and I encourage you to read the whole thing. It is a very accessible, easy to follow paper. Nevertheless, I will talk about a few highlights. In a nutshell, this study reviewed the literature, identified 35 studies that reported negative health effects associated with GMOs, then it evaluated the quality of those studies and placed them in the context of the wider literature. Unsurprisingly, it found that the quality of most of those 35 studies was quite low, and they often contained blatant flaws.

Small proportion of studies

5% anti-GMO studies health safetyFirst, it is important to note that these 35 studies represent a tiny fraction of the literature (only around 5% of the GMO papers the authors were able to identify). Right of the bat, that is a huge red flag. If the results of those studies were correct, then they should be what the majority of studies are finding, not what a tiny minority are finding. Indeed, because of the way that statistics work, we expect about 5% of experiments to produce false positives just by chance (details here). So even if these studies were flawless, they would still be indistinguishable from statistical noise when you look at the entire body of literature.

Few labs and authors

The next thing to note is that these 35 papers were produced by a handful of researchers. Indeed, one researcher was an author on 11 of those papers. So what you have is a few labs that are repeatedly publishing papers that support the previous findings of those same labs. This is another problem. If their results were real, then other independent scientists from around the world should have found corroborating results, but they haven’t. That strongly suggests that something wrong is happening in these few labs, and, indeed, in some cases, there is clear evidence of fraud (more on that in a minute).

Low ranking journals

When evaluating a paper’s claims, it is always a good idea to consider the quality and reach of the journal that published it (this is often measured by an “impact factor” which is based on how widely cited a journal’s publications are). Whenever you have a really important, novel result, you try to publish it in a high impact journal. In contrast, if you have a fairly uninteresting result that everyone already expects or a result that is very specific to a narrow field, you generally publish it in a low-ranking journal. Thus, if the science is solid for claims like, “GMOs cause cancer” then you expect those papers to appear in very high impact journals, and you should be very suspicious when they show up in tiny journals that no one has ever heard of. Ask yourself, “why wasn’t a result that is this important and interesting published in a high ranking journal?” The answer is usually that it couldn’t pass their more rigorous standards.

So, getting back to this list of 35 papers, what did the authors find? Perhaps unsurprisingly, nearly all of those papers were in minor journals. Indeed, eight of those papers were published in journals that are so minor they don’t even have an impact factor (that is another huge red flag), and an additional six had an impact factor less than one (which is a really low impact factor). In fact, only one of those 35 papers (Ewen and  Pusztai 1999) was published in a high ranking journal. This paper was, however, the source of great controversy. One of its reviewers found that it was flawed and should not be published, and another expressed serious doubts over the paper, but thought that, for the sake of openness, it would be best to publish the paper and let the general scientific community evaluate it, rather than risking the appearance of a conspiracy or cover-up (see the article for more details). I personally disagree with that decision, but it is, nevertheless, evidence that the crazy conspiracy theories about scientists supressing evidence are just as insane as they sound. Additionally, The Lancet (the journal that published it) also published an editorial stating that some of the reviewers took issue with the paper.

Note: It’s worth mentioning that this review was published in a well-respected journal with an impact factor of 7.443.

Conflicts of interest

I’m not personally super concerned over conflicts of interest (e.g., funding sources and employment by companies or activist groups), but it is, nevertheless, worth mentioning them. They found that 21 of the papers (60%) had conflicts of interest, which is higher than than the rate of conflicts of interest in the general body of GMO literature (Sanchez 2015 found that 58.3% of GMO studies had no conflicts of interest, 25.8% had clear conflicts of interest, and the remaining 15.9% could not be assessed [the authors were not linked to companies, but did not declare their funding sources]). The only point that I really want to make here is that this isn’t a situation where all 35 papers are free from conflicts of interest and all the papers saying that GMOs are safe are loaded with conflicts of interest. Rather, you have some of both in each group, which leaves you with 14 anti-GMO papers that have no conflicts of interest and 406 pro-GMO papers that have no conflicts of interest (see original paper for details).

Note: The authors of the review paper did acknowledge that they themselves have conflicts of interest, but that does not invalidate their results, and it does not give you carte blanche to ignore their findings. As always, when a conflict of interest is present, you should apply greater scrutiny, but you should not blindly disregard the study.

 Problems with the papers themselves

Finally, and most importantly, the authors found that problems abounded with the studies themselves. They summarized this nicely in table 1 (as well as providing more details in the text), but the problems included things like, “Flawed statistics (fishing for significance)” (de Vendomois et al. 2009), “No use of non-GM soybean as control” (El-Kholy et al. 2014), “No information on crop source; inadequate sample size” (Yum et al. 2005), “No biological relevance” (Tudisco et al. 2007), etc.

Further, the review talks about some of the more well-known examples of flawed GMO research. For example, there is Seralini’s infamous rat study which was so flawed that it was retracted (Seralini then submitted it to a predatory journal where it is currently published). Similarly, there are multiple papers by Federico Infascelli. If you pay attention to news in science at all, then his name might sound familiar, because last year it was discovered that he had manipulated the data on at least two of his papers, resulting in both of them being retracted. His entire body of work is now under close scrutiny and his reputation has been forever tarnished (more details at Retraction Watch and Science-Based Medicine).

Finally, it is worth mentioning that this is not the first paper to address this issue. A previous study (Panchin and Tuzhikov 2016) also found that anti-GMO papers were full of problems (namely, statistical problems), and that when you used the correct statistical tests, the reported negative effects of GMOs vanished.

Conclusion

So where does this leave us? The answer seems pretty clear: anti-GMO studies represent a tiny portion of the literature, they are usually published in low-quality journals, they are riddled with statistical and methodological problems, several of them have been retracted (sometimes because of scientific fraud), and they are refuted by a vast body of literature. Further, before you baselessly suggest that the pro-GMO papers were all bought off by big companies, please note that less than half of the general body of GMO literature contains conflicts of interest, whereas 60% of the anti-GMO papers contain conflicts of interest. In short, the anti-GMO papers are, at best, statistical noise, and they do not, in any way shape or form represent compelling evidence that GMOs are dangerous. Most of them are junk science and should be rejected as such.

Note: A similar paper on climate change papers reached the same conclusion. Namely, the handful of papers arguing against anthropogenic climate change are filled with problems. (Benestad et al. 2016; the supplemental information is particularly useful)

Literature cited

  • Benestad et al. 2016. Learning from mistakes in climate research. Theoretical and Applied Climatology 126:699–703.
  • de Vendomois et al. 2009. A comparison of the effects of three GM corn varieties on mammalian health. International Journal of Biological Sciences 5:706–726.
  • El-Kholy, et al. 2014. The effect of extra virgin olive oil and soybean on DNA, cytogenicity and some antioxidant enzymes in rats. Nutrients 6:2376–2386.
  • Editors of the Lancet. 1999. Health risks of genetically modified foods. The Lancet 353:1811.
  • Ewen and Pusztai. 1999. Effects of diets containing genetically modified potatoes expressing Galanthus nivalis lectin on rat small intestine. Lancet. 354:1353–1354.
  • Panchin and Tuzhikov 2017. Published GMO studies find no evidence of harm when corrected for multiple comparisons. Critical Reviews in Biotechnology 37:213–217.
  • Sanchez 2015. Conflict of interests and evidence base for GM crops food/feed safety
    research. Nature Biotechnology 33:135-137.

    Sanchez and Parrott 2017. Characterization of scientific studies usually cited as evidence of adverse effects of GM food/feed. Plant Biotechnology Journal.

  • Tudisco et al. 2007. Investigation on genetically modified soybean (Roundup Ready) in goat nutrition: DNA detection in suckling kids. Italian Journal of Animal Science 6:380–382.
  • Yum et al. 2005.  Genetically modified and wild soybeans: and immunological comparison. Allergy and Asthma Proceedings 26:210–216.
Posted in GMO | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

“It’s morally wrong to patent food:” Inconsistent reasoning at its finest

This is one of the most common arguments against GMOs that I encounter (as well as related attacks on Monsanto), and it is frequently accompanied by claims like, “I am not anti-GMO, but…” or “I accept that GMOs are safe, but…” In reality, however, this argument is usually nothing more than an excuse designed to protect people’s ideology, misplaced fears, and, yes, denial of science. This argument is so riddled with problems and so completely inconsistent with how people behave on any other topic that it is difficult to accept that it is truly the reason that people oppose GMOs, and in my experiences debating GMO opponents, it usually turns out that it is just a symptom of an underlying ideology (generally rooted in appeal to nature/emotion fallacies). As I will explain, if you are truly motivated out of ethics and a concern for feeding the hungry, then you should be embracing GMOs, not opposing them (or, at the very least, you should be very selective about which GMOs you oppose). So, if you are someone who frequently uses this argument, then, as always, all that I ask is that you hear me out and rationally consider whether or not you are being logically consistent.

Note: I have been somewhat reluctant to write a post on this because it is not actually an argument about the science. However, I am sick and tired of explaining it to people in comments, and it is such a prevalent argument that it seems worth taking the time to discuss.

Patents aren’t limited to GMOs

First, it is vitally important to realize that the ability to patent crops is not unique to GMOs, nor is it a result of them. In the US, the first piece of legislation that made it legal to patent crops was the Plant Patent Act that was passed in 1930, over half a century before the first GMO crop. Indeed, many of our common crops are patented (or at least where patented when they were first invented; remember patents only protect intellectual material for a certain period of time). For example, seedless grapes were patented in 1934, yet I don’t hear anyone complaining about them.

The organic industry (and yes, it is a multi-billion dollar industry) also patents plants. For example, Vermont Organics owns patents on five different plants. So, if you are outraged over Monsanto patenting plants, then you had better be equally outraged over Vermont Organics doing so. The point is that attacking GMOs because they are patented makes no sense, because most crops are patented, regardless of whether they are GMOs. So, this argument holds GMOs to a different standard than all of the rest of agriculture. Further, as mentioned earlier, patents expire. For example, Round-up read soybeans are no longer protected by patent laws because those patents expired in 2015. Does that mean that anti-GMO activists are going to stop protesting them? I somehow doubt it.

Finally, it is worth making it explicitly clear that GE companies, organic companies, etc. are not “patenting Mother Nature.” They are patenting unique crops that do not occur in nature and that they invested in developing (see below). As I have previously explained, virtually none of your food is natural, and essentially all of it has been genetically modified, even if it isn’t typically described as a GMO.

Patenting a GMO shouldn’t be different from patenting anything else

Additionally, it is worth talking about why crops can be patented in the first place. Producing a new crop is very expensive, especially for a GMO. It takes millions or even billions of dollars to research and develop a new product, and that is money that company has to invest up front with the expectation that they will be able to turn a profit later. Thus, patents are a way of allowing companies to get a return on their investment. This is true for all patents, and in most areas, people have no problems with that. No one says that Apple is evil because they patent the technology for each new iPhone rather than giving its technology away freely. Similarly, no one complains that Toyota tries to make a profit off its innovations, so why should GMOs be any different? Why should Monsanto and other GE companies be held to a different standard than any other company?

I’m a big believer in the Socratic method, so let me use a series of questions to try to get you to really think about this. If Canon, Nikon, Sony, or any other camera company invested millions of dollars in developing a new camera product, then patented the result and tried to make money from it, would you consider them to be evil for doing that? Would you say that they had done something morally wrong? I’m willing to be that the answer is “no.” Now, what if Monsanto invested millions of dollars in developing a new crop, then patented the result and tried to make money from it, would you consider them to be evil for doing that? A lot of people would answer “no’ to the first question, but “yes” to the second, but that makes no sense. Why should Monsanto be vilified for doing exactly the same thing that every other for profit company does?

Additionally, it is important to realize that a lack of patents would stifle innovation. There are non-profits and independent scientists involved in the development of GMOs (more on that in a minute) but a lot of the breakthroughs come from big companies, and there is a very good reason for that. Namely, research costs money, and big companies are the ones who have money to invest. However, companies are, admittedly, after profit. So they aren’t going to invest millions of dollars into something unless they think that they can turn a profit. To be clear, I am all for independent, non-profit research, and I am actually quite progressive politically and am all for various strategies of wealth redistribution, but having said that, it is undeniable that the free market fuels innovation, and if you want agricultural developments (as you should if your goal is really to feed the hungry), then you should allow companies to make a profit, because that is the only way that they are going to invest heavily in researching agricultural advances.

Not all GMOs are about money

Next it is important to realize that although large companies dominate the development of GMOs, not all GMOs are about money. Golden rice, for example, is being developed entirely for humanitarian purposes. You see, many countries suffer from extreme vitamin A deficiencies, and many of those countries grow primarily rice. Thus, scientists and humanitarians developed golden rice, which is simply rice that produces vitamin A. That way, these countries can grow the same crop that they always have (thus they don’t need to change their agricultural practices) but they will get the vitamin that they so desperately need.

Now, if you are truly concerned about feeding the hungry, and if humanitarian concerns are really the reason that you oppose GMOs, then you should be all for golden rice, GMO bananas, and the other non-profit GMOs, but that almost never seems to be the case. Anti-GMO groups constantly attack these crops (including destroying test fields) and they lump them in with all of the other GMOs. That is why in my opening paragraph I said that this argument strikes me as disingenuous. You can’t claim to oppose GMOs out of humanitarian concerns while simultaneously opposing GMOs that are literally life-saving.

GMOs benefit the poor and the hungry

This is related to the previous point, but it is worth making saying it explicitly: GMOs help to feed the poor. Studies have repeatedly shown that using GMOs increases crop yields and reduces the amount of resources need to grow crops. Consider, for example, this 2014 meta-analysis that found (my emphasis),

“On average, GM technology adoption has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%. Yield gains and pesticide reductions are larger for insect-resistant crops than for herbicide-tolerant crops. Yield and profit gains are higher in developing countries than in developed countries.”

Again, this should be great news if your concern is really feeding the poor. These crops will let impoverished countries greatly increase the amount of food that they can grow, so they are a huge win for fighting world hunger. Really think about this, by opposing GMOs you are trying to force poor countries to grow fewer crops than they could with GMOs. You are literally trying to deny people food. How is that moral?

GMOs benefit farmers

It is also worth mentioning that GMOs are good for farmers (that is why they have adopted them). Anti-GMO activists often try to paint farmers as the victims of evil “Monsatan,” but the reality is that farmers love GMOs, because GMOs allow them to increase their yield and/or decrease the amount of effort/resources that they have to invest. This should be obvious if you just think about it for a second. Why on earth would so many farmers switch to GMOs if they weren’t beneficial? No one is putting a gun to their heads and forcing them to use GMOs. Farmers choose their seeds from catalogues where numerous companies compete for their patronage, and Monsanto doesn’t have a monopoly on the food supply, despite what activists want you to believe. Further, farmers aren’t stupid. They wouldn’t use GMOs if better, cheaper methods were actually available. Farmers have widely adopted GMOs precisely because they are beneficial. So, stop pretending that farmers are the victims. They aren’t.

Bad counterargument 1: “But Monsanto sues farmers!”

In the remainder of this post, I want to deal with some truly awful counter arguments. The most common of which is that Monsanto sues farmers for accidentally using their seeds/cross-pollination. The rebuttal for this one is easy: no they don’t. Monsanto has never sued a farmer for accidentally using their product/cross-pollination (more here).

Having said that, there have been a few cases where Monsanto sued someone for deliberately violating the patent agreement (e.g. selling seeds). That is, however, an entirely different issue from suing a farmer over accidental contamination. A deliberate violation of the patent agreement is a theft of intellectual property, plain and simple. It is a crime. It is no different from selling bootlegged DVDs or CDs. No one complains when a company like Universal brings movie pirates to court, so why should you complain when Monsanto brings seed pirates to court? This goes back to some of my keep points early. Namely, arguments like this hold GE companies to a different standard than any other company. Monsanto invests millions of dollars in R&D, so why shouldn’t it be allowed to protect its intellectual property?

Bad counterargument 2: “But farmers can’t replant the seeds”

Do you know what group of people I almost never hear make this complaint? Farmers. The reality is that in the modern era, most farmers don’t save the seeds regardless of whether or not their crop is a GMO. One of the key reasons for this is simply that doing so results in a lower quality harvest than you would get from buying new seeds (more details here). So, as with so many anti-GMO arguments, this argument is based on a complete lack of understanding about modern agriculture.

Bad argument 3: “The real problem is food waste. If first world countries weren’t so wasteful, there would be plenty of food to feed the world.”

This is what is known as a “nirvana fallacy.” It proposes an extremely unrealistic ideal situation, then claims that any plans that fall short of that standard shouldn’t be used because they aren’t perfect or don’t address the “real” issue. To be clear, food waste is a problem, and I agree with you 100% that we should be limiting it, but limiting it to the point that we could feed the world is an incredibly difficult (probably impossible) thing that is not going to happen in the near future. Meanwhile, there are people suffering from vitamin A deficiencies who could easily be saved by implementing GMOs. People are literally dying while you sit there demanding that we wait for an unrealistic solution.

Further, even if first world countries suddenly majorly cut back their food waste, that solution has several other problems. Most importantly, we have to somehow get that food to the countries that need it (which adds massive transportation costs, increased greenhouse gas emissions, etc.), and it makes those countries entirely dependent on aid from other countries. GMOs solve both of those problems because they can be grown by local farmers in the country where they are needed, thus allowing the country to feed its own citizens without needing constant supplies of food from other countries.

 Bad counterargument 4: “But [insert conspiracy theory]”

There are a plethora of conspiracy theories out there about Monsanto depopulating the world, causing mass suicides, etc. and each one is crazier than the last, so please don’t waste my time or your intellectual integrity on them. Use impartial sources, make sure that you are basing your views on facts, not assumptions or speculation, and demand good evidence before accepting something.

Bad counterargument 5: “We’ll I just don’t think people should profit from food”

The final argument that I want to discuss is this general aversion to the notion of big, money-loving companies being involved in food production. This is important, because I think it is actually a key motivating factor driving everything that I have talked about. As I have shown, the opposition to patents and Monsanto more generally isn’t actually about facts or logic. In some cases it stems from science denial, but in many, I think it stems from this emotional connection to our food, but that is irrational for several reasons.

First, as I explained previously, GMOs benefit the poor, farmers, etc. so this argument is clearly wrong right from the start. Second, this is, once again, inconsistent with how we treat every other company (and even person) on the planet. If, for example, a family that owns a farm tries to make a profit off that farm, no one villainizes them. No one says that they are evil for profiting from the production of food. Indeed, we would applaud their industry and hard work. So if it is fine for them to make a profit off of food, when is it wrong for GMO companies to do that?

Now, you might object to that on the basis that Monsanto is a multi-billion dollar company, but that doesn’t help your inconsistencies one bit for two reasons. First, the initial argument was, “it is wrong to profit from food,” but now you are trying to implement some arbitrary threshold of profit at which it becomes immoral.  Second, organic farming is also a massive, multi-billion dollar industry. Indeed, Whole Foods (a large organic store chain) makes nearly as much money as Monsanto, and is profitable enough that Amazon just paid 13.7 billion dollars for it. So, if making billions of dollars off food makes Monsanto evil, then it must also make Whole Foods evil, but no one thinks that Whole Foods is evil, and many GMO opponents shop there! Also, by extension, it must now make Amazon evil, but I’m betting you’re still going to spend your money there. Do you see how inconsistent that is? You can’t vilify Monsanto for profiting from food, then go shopping at a multi-billion dollar food store.

Finally, this argument is inconsistent not just with organic food chains, but also with how we view companies more generally. Let me break it down this way, at its core, this argument claims that Monsanto and GMOs are evil because they aren’t feeding the hungry, but we could make that same claim about essentially every massive, for profit company. Apple could spend its vast wealth feeding the hungry, yet no one says that they evil for hoarding their wealth. Why should Monsanto be any different? Why should the fact that they are actually involved in food production make their quest for profit any less ethical than any other company’s? Why should the fact that they care more about profit than feeding the hungry make them any more evil than any of the thousands of other companies that care more about profit then feeding the hungry? Again, to be clear, I’m not a huge fan of massive companies, and I do think that they should do more to help the poor, but that reasoning has to be applied consistently rather than singling out Monsanto.

Note: This post was set to automatically go live while I am away with only intermittent internet access. So, my responses to comments will probably take a while and be intermittent. Also, please stay on topic and don’t go off on other GMO topics (e.g., pesticides, safety, etc.). There are other posts for those topics (see Comment Rules for details).

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