TP readers may be interested in my new IAI piece, on utopia as an aim and/or as a term of criticism: https://iainews.iai.tv/articles/the-new-utopianism-auid-763?_ga=1.20540411.2109446285.1439398122
Author Archives: Rupert Read
My first-ever piece in RADICAL PHILOSOPHY, just out: A sympathetic but tough ecologically-based critique of Piketty’s mega-tome, ‘CAPITAL IN THE 21ST CENTURY’: http://www.radicalphilosophy.com/commentary/green-economics-versus-growth-economics
Philosophers! I have a proposition to put to you. Nowadays, we would-be rational members of the public, the intellectually-minded, many citizens, are too in love with the concept of evidence.
Perhaps this surprises you. Maybe you’re thinking: if only! If only enough attention were paid to the massive evidence that dangerous climate change is happening, and that it’s human-triggered. Or: if only the epidemiological evidence marshalled by Wilkinson and Pickett — that more inequality makes society worse in almost every conceivable way — were acted upon.
But actually, even in cases like these, I think that my proposition is still true. Take human-triggered climate-change. Yes, the evidence is strong; but a ‘sceptic’ can always ask for more/better evidence, and thus delay action. There is something stronger than evidence: the concept of precaution.
A sceptic, unconvinced by climate-models, ought to be more cautious than the rest of us about bunging unprecedented amounts of potential-pollutants into the atmosphere! For any uncertainty over the evidence increases our exposure to risk, our fragility.
The climate-sceptics exploit any scientific uncertainty to seek to undermine our confidence in the evidence at our disposal. So far as it goes, this move is correct. But: our exposure to risk is higher, the greater the uncertainty in the science. Uncertainty undermines evidence, but it doesn’t undermine the need for precaution: it underscores it! For remember how high the stakes are.
Think back to the great precedent for the climate issue: the issue of smoking and cancer. For decades, tobacco companies prevaricated against action being taken to stop the epidemic of lung cancer. How? They demanded incontrovertible evidence that smoking caused cancer, and they claimed that until we had such evidence there was nothing to be said against smoking, health-wise. They deliberately evaded the employment of the precautionary principle: which would have warned that, in the absence of such evidence, it was still unsafe to pump your lungs full of smoke and associated chemicals, day in day out, in a manner without natural precedent.
We ought to have relied more on precaution and less on evidence in relation to the smoking-cancer connection. The same goes for climate. (Only: the stakes are much higher, and so the case for precaution is much stronger still.)
And for inequality: Wilkinson and Pickett are merely confirming what we all already ought to have known anyway: that it’s reckless to raise inequality to unprecedented levels, and so to fragilise society itself (for how can one have a society at all, when levels of trust and of commingling are ever-decreasing?).
The same goes for advertising targeted at children: It’s outrageous to demand evidence that dumping potential-toxins into the mental environment actually is dangerous; we just need to exercise precautious care with regard to our children’s fragile, malleable minds.
And for geo-engineering: There’s no evidence at all that geoengineering does any harm, because (thankfully!) it hasn’t been carried out yet: in this case we must be precautious, or risk nemesis, for by the time any evidence was in, it would be too late.
The same goes for GM crops: There is little evidence of harm, to date, from GM, but evidence is the wrong place to look (http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=8071 ): one ought to focus on the generation of new uncertainties and of untold exposures to grave risk that is inevitably consequent upon taking genes from fish and putting them into tomatoes, or on creating ‘terminator’ genes, etc. . The absence of evidence that GM is harmful must not be confused with evidence of absence of potential harm from GM. We lack the latter, and thus we are direly exposed to the risk of what my philosophical colleague Nassim Taleb (see http://www.fooledbyrandomness.com/pp2.pdf for our joint work in this area) calls a ‘black swan’ event. A massive known or even unknown unknown.
Our love-affair with science, that I’ve criticised previously on this blog (see e.g. http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=8071 ), is at the root of this. Science-worship, scientism, is responsible for the extreme privileging of evidence over other things that are often even more important. So: let’s end our irrational, dogmatic love-affair with evidence. Yes, being ‘evidence-based’ is usually (though not always!) better than nothing. But there’s usually, when the stakes are highest, something better still: being precautious. (And what’s more: being precautious makes it easier to win, and quicker.)
To end with, here are a couple of my favourite quotes from Wittgenstein, on topic:
1) Science: enrichment and impoverishment. The one method elbows all others aside. Compared with this they all seem paltry, preliminary stages at best. [Wittgenstein, Culture and Value p.69]
2) “Our craving for generality has [as one key] source … our preoccupation with the method of science. I mean the method of reducing the explanation of natural phenomena to the smallest possible number of primitive natural laws; and, in mathematics, of unifying the treatment of different topics by using a generalization. Philosophers constantly see the method of science before their eyes, and are irresistibly tempted to ask and answer in the way science does. This tendency is the real source of metaphysics, and leads the philosopher into complete darkness. I want to say here that it can never be our job to reduce anything to anything, or to explain anything. Philosophy really is “purely descriptive.”” – Wittgenstein, Blue and Brown Books p.23.
I’ll be elaborating on these quotes, and on the case made here, in opening and closing plenaries at a Conference in Oxford this Saturday, in case anyone happens to be in the area… http://www.stx.ox.ac.uk/happ/events/wittgenstein-and-physics-one-day-conference
Meanwhile, thanks for your attention…
Can one justify, as an environmentally-minded philosopher, flying to conferences on environmental philosophy?
First, let me make clear that the issue of whether or not one takes individual actions, such as not flying, to ‘do one’s bit’ to help stop dangerous climate change, is of secondary importance. The primary issue is political: collective action is what is really needed if we are to do enough to stop manmade climate change. If I choose not to fly, the actual positive impact on the climate resulting from my decision may be less than small: it may even be zero (if it sends a tiny price signal, by reducing demand for fuel, that others then burn up more readily because it is slightly cheaper than it would otherwise have been). Whereas, if I get involved in a successful collective effort to rein in emissions (e.g. a successful international climate treaty), that effort will have a very large impact, a guaranteed impact that cannot be bypassed by others’ short-term self-interested economic behaviour.
The issue of whether or not one takes individual actions, such as not flying, to ‘do one’s bit’ to stop dangerous climate change, is then of secondary importance; but secondary importance is still a kind of importance. Furthermore, as an environmentally-minded philosopher, one needs to take a lead. Just as it was nauseating and self-defeating to see the world’s leaders flying into Copenhagen for that big famous failure of a climate conference, so the credibility of environmental philosophers is just inevitably somewhat tarnished if they turn up to their conferences by air.
And we need to show that another world is possible: we need to model doing things differently. (E.g. insisting on video-conferencing more, as I increasingly do; and helping to make this work.)
Which brings us back, and now directly, to the question that prompts this article: To fly, or not to fly?
One starting point for me, in relation to this difficult question, is to recall the Latin phrase Primum non nocere, “First, do no harm”, associated with the Hippocratic Oath. This dictum, as well as the moral prescriptions behind it, is taught to many doctors in medical school. The injunction of course does not bar them from (say) doing surgery. It certainly does bar them from doing unnecessary surgery. The thing that environmental philosophers need to ask themselves, if they are serious about fighting the war on dangerous climate change, is this: Is your journey really necessary?
There is a tremendous risk of self-deception here. It is so easy for human beings to think that what they are doing is very important, more so than what others are doing. One needs to ask oneself whether one can really be an environmental leader, and a morally self-respecting person, if one sends enough CO2 into the atmosphere to potentially injure or kill a present or future person. I am thinking here of the ground-breaking study by Craig Simmons et al laid out in the early chapters of The Zed Book, a study which should be much better-known than it is. It indicates that for every person currently living a high-carbon lifestyle, including flights etc, on average about 10 future people will suffer from manmade ‘natural’ disasters.
Environmental philosophy might change the world. The choices we as a civilization make really could depend on what wisdom we manage to achieve about ourselves and our place in the world. Does the end justify the means? Well, it certainly doesn’t if there is virtually no prospect of wisdom being achieved.
So those of us contemplating jetting off to a philosophy conference abroad really do need to ask ourselves how much good we would really be doing by going, and whether we can justify the harm that we are certainly responsible for if we go.
I do not say any of this lightly. I love conferences. I can’t do my job as a philosopher properly without going to some, even occasionally by air, although not as many and not as often as in the past. Conferences on climate and the environment could be of huge importance to our dwindling chances of saving ourselves as a civilisation. What’s needed is wisdom, and if philosophers lack the wisdom to help sustain our civilisation, then who has it?
But it does seem to me an extraordinary sign of the level of denial in relation to the climate crisis that hardly anyone seems to take the question of flying to conferences seriously
Let me give some examples. A few years ago, I said to the organisers of a conference in Florida on ‘Climate Philosophy’ that I wasn’t willing to fly to it. I hoped that we could organise my ‘giving’ my talk there via video-conference. They couldn’t manage this. To their credit, they did set up an audio-link for me to take questions, after someone else read my paper out.
Two summers ago I had a more discouraging experience. A Scandinavian environmental philosophy event later this year, ‘Climate Existence,’ was not even willing to consider my attending by remote means. It is depressing, when the organisers of a conference designed to look explicitly at how to stop ourselves climatically obliterating ourselves is not willing to consider how to minimise its own destructive impacts.
On the plus side, I will soon be ‘attending’ by video-conferencing facilities a conference in Copenhagen (yes, the very same Copenhagen!) where I will be giving a talk on environmental governance, just as 2 years ago I spoke ‘at’ a Conference in Australia on ‘Changing the climate: Utopia, dystopia and catastrophe’ (though on that occasion the skype malfunctioned and we were reduced to a video-link). And last year, I organised a very successful multiple-person video-link with a Conference at UEA, and an equally-successful Skype lecture beamed into UEA by Hilary Putnam.
The most surprising experience I had recently was arranging my attendance two years back at an EU event in Brussels on intellectual perspectives on biodiversity. The travel form assumed that I would be coming by plane! Of course, I went to that event by Eurostar. (If one can conveniently go to an environmental philosophy conference by train, then there is no excuse for plane-ing it.) What hope is there, if the organisers of an event on biodiversity – massively threatened by rising, dangerous emissions – do not even consider the possibility that international participants will come by means other than plane?
There is hope. Through technologies such as Skype and Oovoo, more and more people are getting used to video-conferencing as an effective way of interacting. I am hopeful that within a few years conference-organisers will be thinking of this, and it won’t be an awkward bolt from the blue when I say to them that I am keen to be there but preferably in electronic form.
To sum up, then. There are, of course, real losses if one chooses not to attend international conferences. Even if one does attend an event by means of new technology, there is no way of recreating by videoconference the feel, the informality, the networking opportunities that come from people being together in a place. As Jeremy Rifkin argues in his recent book, The Empathic Civilisation, the unprecedented dilemma that we face as a civilisation is how to expand our mutual empathy and concern, while reducing our entropic and environmentally-catastrophic impacts.
But certainly I think at least this: If philosophers do not ask themselves whether they can justify travelling to conferences by air, then who will?
My purpose in writing this piece would be served, if each reader were to ask themselves seriously the various questions that I have raised in the course of it. I close by briefly indicating the way that I try to answer them.
Aware of the above-mentioned tendency to self-deception, I endeavour to ask myself whether the benefit – I mean, a foreseen benefit in terms of philosophical advancement that may itself help people — for me and others of my attending a given conference by air are worth the down-side of the possible negative effect on future people of my doing so. I perform, in other words, a crude and rather imprecise utilitarian calculation, using the study by Simmons et al as an aide-memoire for the reality of the stakes. As noted above, the result of this is that I have drastically reduced my flying. Rather than being a habit and a norm, it has become a rare exception.
[[This is an updated version of a piece that appeared in THE PHILOSOPHER’S MAGAZINE a couple of years ago.]]
Colleagues may find this article of mine, co-authored with Nassim Taleb, of interest. Suitably-provocative, perhaps, for philosophers, who are often inclined to think that religion is for morons, and that we are outgrowing it. Our case is that religion is probably on balance helpful to all of us (even philosophers: it is an absurd rationalistic delusion, an utter fantasy, to suppose that everything ought to be thought through from the beginning on every occasion, as some philosophers seem to suppose is an ideal), and that it might well be essential for species-survival / for the avoidance of ruin.
(I address the standard criticism – that lots of religion has been bad – here: http://http://www.arsdisputandi.org/publish/articles/000394/article.pdf , and in my book PHILOSOPHY FOR LIFE.)
[This article was co-authored by Phil Hutchinson myself. It appeared earlier this summer in THE PHILOSOPHER’S MAGAZINE. For those of you who missed it in print, here it is belatedly online.
Note: in the forthcoming issue of the magazine, there are what might be described as ‘follow-up’ articles by myself and (in a looser sense) by Nassim Taleb. Articles on precaution and uncertainty. [Advt.]]
We’ve moved on from “Frankenfood” scare stories. Haven’t we? Indeed, might we talk of GM food having its “Nuclear Power moment”? Just as prominent environmentalists such as Monbiot and Lynas took a decision to move from principled opposition to nuclear power to, along with Lovelock, promote the technology on pragmatic grounds, leaving their former activist fellow travellers feeling somewhat bewildered, and in some cases betrayed, one might be forgiven for believing that the same is now happening with GM crops. We will not here say anything further on the nuclear issue, though one might ultimately generate a position on this from what we propose below. However, on GM crops, Mark Lynas has certainly been very vocal in championing the GMO cause over the past year, both in the promotion of proposed new trials and in the criticism of those who oppose these. The rationale can appear, on the face of it, to be similarly pragmatic: population growth and climate-change related reductions in harvest yields will lead to increasing food shortages and food price-rises. Higher-yielding crops and crops with enhanced nutritional value are one, obvious, way to respond to such problems, and if GM crops might deliver higher yields and enhanced nutritional value, then it would seem sensible to forego principled, or certainly ‘knee-jerk’, objection to them and explore their potential. Right?
Would that it were so straightforward!
There are a wealth of considerations which should feed into our judgment on the proposed/alleged pragmatism of adopting GM crops. It is these, here, that we wish to focus on, and in particular those on which philosophy can shed some light. So, we will not here dwell, for instance, on the corporate dominance of most GM-research: on the profit-motive impelling the likes of Monsanto to gamble with our commons inheritance. There are powerful political arguments against GM, in connections such as this; we will largely leave these aside, in the present piece. We will divide the considerations that we shall focus on here into three categories: Framing, Evidence and Precaution.
Here’s the problem:
Global population growth + human-influenced climate-change-related lowering of crop yields = food crisis.
Framed this way it seems obvious: To solve the conundrum, we need to change the equation, so as to elicit a different outcome. We need to restrict population growth or reverse the crop yield decline such that it will compensate for the population growth.
But do we need to accept the equation? We would argue not. Indeed, it is the propensity to simplify the problem in a manner akin to this equation that is a key part of the problem. The equation prejudices one’s view of the problem by framing it in a particular way, because, while the global population does continue to grow, that population’s eating habits are also changing, becoming more western and meat-based. This is significant driver of food scarcity: feeding a cow maize and eating the cow is a very inefficient use of land, maize and water. The more meat we eat the more planets we require to provide our food, and extra, suitable planets are hard to find… . Moreover, while human-influenced climate change will affect crop yields, we can take steps to slow down that change rather than simply thinking in terms of adapting to the change as if it were inevitable.
The way ‘our’ equation frames the issue, if invoked to justify a pragmatic argument in favour of GM food, implies a false dichotomy: it implies that there are no other ways to enhance crop yields, rationalise food markets and supply-chains, radically reduce food waste, and rationalise consumption habits. Put another way, the proposed GMO solution to our problem can seem obvious and natural, or the most pragmatic one, because of basic liberal and individualist assumptions about the undesirability of seeking to change people’s (individuals) eating habits (desires, such as the desire to eat more meat). People have a right to eat what they want. Don’t they?
We can, and should, challenge the frames. At the very least, we should be cognisant of the way in which the argument tends to be framed, so that we might then subject that framing to rational scrutiny: is it obvious that when there is increased food stress, we should be handing more and more crop-worthy land (and food crops) over to beef production, all because we respect the ‘rights’ of consumers to buy more steak (or we respect the ‘market’)? Should we hand over more land for the growing of biofuels, because we (incorrectly) believe that will help us meet carbon targets and achieve energy security without infringing on the ‘rights’ of drivers as we allegedly would if we were to cap fuel/carbon emissions or to allow fuel prices to continue to escalate?
One of Lynas’s refrains, when pushed in a certain direction on these issues, is to respond to his disputant that they are advocating veganism; this response, delivered with a tacit sneer or an explicit chuckle, is sometimes accompanied by him ‘wishing them luck’ with that project. Changing eating habits, or simply trying to reverse recent global trends in eating habits, is just not seen as worth considering. We want our cake and we want to eat it, even if that means it is made with GM wheat.
Our response is to move beyond the hegemony of liberalism as a political philosophy. We urge that, at this point in history, it is particularly vital to challenge the cultural dominance of the idea of the ‘individual-as-consumer’ (home economicus), and of the alleged sacrosanctness of their choices and of choice itself.
In short: We need new frames. Only their illicitly-presumed absence can make GM look like a no-brainer.
Our second category is evidence. We are all now becoming familiar with the mantra, in policy circles at least, that one’s proposals be evidence-based.
Quite right. But “what counts as evidence?” is an important question to be asked. And “what, in addition to the evidence, are also important factors in our deliberations?” is equally crucial.
So, you might see our section on Precaution, below, where we argue that precaution should always accompany evidence in the policy decision-making process. And we would also suggest that one beware of “evidence” being used as a buzzword or as Unspeak . Like “Freedom” and “Democracy”, “Evidence” is a “Hooray word”. Surely no one would/can be against evidence! But here’s the rub; if a word is so unremittingly good then people will use it to cover-up the bad, or to pass-off the not so good as good. German Democratic Republic anyone? (i.e. democracy that involves very few recognisably democratic institutions; where the _demos_, the people, have no role in policy). Cato Institute style Freedom anyone? (i.e. freedom that transpires to be the freedom of corporations to deny freedom to all kinds of non-corporate groups.).
But let us here consider the evidence in a recent widely-reported and high-profile case. A GM company in Hertfordshire, Rothamsted Research, made a press release in late January 2014. They were all over the British media, from an early morning slot on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on January 24th, where they talked-up the health benefits to humans of Omega 3 enhanced crops, to reports in all the newspapers and on TV news bulletins. Mark Lynas joined the party, and promoted their press release via Twitter, while also working as a kind of tweet-tag-team with the Rothamsted publicity department.
There were two stories wrapped up in one: one was a story about Omega 3 camelina; the other was a kind of meta-story about this being an obviously good-news and game-changing story about GM; one that even the most dyed-in-the-(non-GM)-wool Monsanto-haters would see was good news. The Today programme pushed both angles. Rothamsted must have been pleased.
See how the second story kinda shows how the Rothamsted press release was just swallowed by the same media, as if it were an easy to swallow Omega 3 fish oil capsule? Should journalists not rather have subjected the press release to some scrutiny?
Well, what’s not to like? Everyone knows that Omega 3 is a wonder-oil, which prevents all kinds of health problems. Health gurus, magazine covers, newspaper articles, food packaging, even some medically trained celebrity doctors, have all been telling us for over a decade now that Omega 3 oil is important: it prevents cancer, heart disease, and both increases and decreases the aggression of prostate cancer (no, really). It increases intelligence, both in a person eating it and in a foetus through a mother ingesting it while pregnant, though we assume the claim is that it increases intelligence later in life, since foetus-intelligence is a young science. Moreover, Omega 3 has been claimed to prevent all kinds of behavioural conditions in children and adolescents, and make school boys and prison inmates less aggressive. You can even polish the screen of your widescreen LED TV with it and thereby increase your popularity with all the neighbourhood cats. Yet not everyone has a taste for, or can afford, to eat the oily fish in which it is most readily found. If we cannot grow fish on trees, then how about the next best thing: grow fish genes inside a plant. Eureka. Meow.
Well, what’s the evidence? We mean: surely we’re not here basing our enthusiasm on over a decade of food industry and supplement purveyors’ propaganda about Omega 3 rather than well founded data, are we..? Well yes, it does seem that we might be. One might, for example, read the chapter of Ben Goldacre’s book Bad Science, where he discusses claims made for Omega 3. One might even conduct one’s own survey of RCTs, and even some meta-analyses of RCTs, on the claimed and widely assumed health benefits of Omega 3 oil supplements. Use Pub Med, etc. What one will find is the following:
a. There is NO conclusive evidence for health-related benefits of Omega 3 fish oil, which demonstrate it as beneficial when consumed separately from the fish, i.e. as a supplement.
b. Indeed, the evidence for it being beneficial when consumed as part of the fish is barely conclusive. Study after study notes something akin to the following: it is difficult to discern whether the good health of those studied emerges from the consumption of oily fish or from the overall diet and lifestyles enjoyed by those people who tend to eat a diet containing large amounts of oily fish.
c. There is NO evidence that we need fish oil omega 3 (EPA & DHA) over and above that which our bodies already convert from vegetable-based ALA Omega 3, which can be gained from things like flax, hemp, chia and green leafy vegetables, if we have a healthy diet.
In short: The past decade of Omega 3 hype has been market-driven, not evidence-driven.
Repeatedly, one finds there are good evidence-based reasons which count against GM-hype. Such reasons need to be developed specifically, in each case.
GM’s defenders will respond that there is at least scant evidence of harm from GM (unlike nuclear). This takes us to our next and final category of consideration. Absence of evidence of harm, even when genuine, is not evidence of absence of harm:
Taking a gene from a fish and sticking it in a vegetable is reckless. It is to act in a way radically without natural precedent. Now, defenders of GM sometimes say that nevertheless there is an absence of evidence of harm from GM. But: Even if this is true, it is not good enough. The burden of proof is on them, the GM engineers, to provide evidence of absence of harm from GM. And that is what we don’t have, and what will be very difficult ever to get without taking an unconscionable risk. Because field trials expose the entire environment to the risk of contamination. They are not like controlled indoor laboratory trials.
There are powerful forces in our world today seeking to shift the burden of proof. These forces – which include the US and UK Governments — wish us to have to provide an ‘evidence-base’ against (e.g.) GM, an evidence-base of actual harm, before we act precautiously in respect of it. They wish, in effect, to abolish the Precautionary Principle and to replace it with a purely backward-looking methodology of ‘evidence-based’ interventions. Such an ‘evidence-based’ approach is valid when the stakes are not that high and when we can learn from tinkering and from study of the results. It is not valid when we may face ruin as a consequence. As is the case with GM (and also with geo-engineering, the next gamble that we will all soon be invited to embrace, on the extraordinary basis that there is as yet no evidence of harm from it!). One is cautious when one has reason to be so; when one has reason to believe there is a danger or a threat. The logic of precaution, we suggest, should be understood as follows: when what we do now has unpredictable though potentially catastrophic future consequences then we should exercise precaution. We are not exercising caution based on a perceived threat, but exercising precaution because we do not have good reason to believe there is an absence of threat, while also having reason to surmise that where a threat might materialise it would be significant.
Regarding GMO, we have not been provided with good reason to believe that there will not transpire to be a threat, even from field trials, much less a move to widespread farming, and that such a threat would be, should it transpire, be insignificant and reversible. These are then rational grounds for invoking precaution. While there is no directly-perceived threat to be cited in advance, we have no grounds for believing no threat will emerge, while having reasonable grounds for believing any such threat would be significant and probably irreversible. This is enough to rationally motivate invoking the precautionary principle.
We have a responsibility not to be blinded by science: to combat scientism. We have a responsibility to show the way beyond scientism, and to help science flourish in its true area of application. We have a responsibility to highlight the categorial distinction between science and technology: being pro-science, in its true sense, has no implications for whether one supports the social implementation of one or another particular form of technology or engineering.
We propose a more considered, rational approach, which resists the frenzy around ‘evidence-based’ approaches, when these are proposed separate from their frames and from rational precautionary considerations.
We have a responsibility to support responsible evidence-based methodology, where such methodology is appropriate: we have given an example of this above, vis a vis camelina. Another (not unrelated) genus of examples is the use of EBM to undercut the claim of various pharmaceuticals, as Ben Goldacre has helpfully done.
We have a responsibility to bring thought to bear on issues of framing, in the kind of way practiced by Lakoff, Poole, Crompton, and others. We have a responsibility to challenge conventional wisdom: e.g. the cultural ‘common-sense’ of liberal individualism in the West today. But not to carry such ‘scepticism’ into a deniallism about what science, in its correct area of application, teaches us: As Wittgenstein remarks in Culture and Value, the philosopher must avoid getting into the predicament of an incompetent (would-be) manager, trying to do others’ jobs for them.
Perhaps above all, we have a responsibility to speak truth to power concerning the would-be managerialist and profit-motivated replacement of long-term considerations of precaution with a covertly short-termist rhetoric of being ‘evidence-based’, a rhetoric that is ignorant of the philosophical issues around uncertainty and risk that are present and explored in the recent work of Nassim Taleb, among others (Cf. Read’s co-authored work with Taleb: e.g. http://econjwatch.org/articles/religion-heuristics-and-intergenerational-risk-management & http://www.fooledbyrandomness.com/pp2.pdf). And that underly the attitude of the likes of James Hansen to the climate threat facing our world at present: Philosophers and intellectuals more generally carry a heavy responsibility to not be tricked by rhetorics or ideologies of ‘evidence’ and ‘research’ into waiting to set out crucial warnings until it is too late.
On both evidential grounds, and precautionary grounds, the case for Omega-3 GM camelina is disastrously weak. To generalise: evidence-based thinking can undercut the case for GM, as well as sometimes supporting it. Precautionary thinking, a vital complement to (and more fundamental than) evidence-based thinking, will generally count as a heavy consideration against GM. When one adds in the power of reframing and of reflection on frames, as found initially in the work of Wittgenstein, Kuhn, Lakoff and Johnson, etc, then one has a powerful cocktail indeed in one’s hands. Our recommendation is: to drink it. Or perhaps better: to throw it.
My latest film-as-philosophy effort has just been published, with SEQUENCE:
The news hit the headlines this morning that genetic engineers in Hertfordshire want to trial plants that have been genetically-modified with genes from fish: http://www.farmersguardian.com/home/arable/rothamsted-trialling-gm-omega-3-plants/61696.article .
There are several aspects of the arguments around this that are of philosophical interest. They relate principally to the philosophy of rhetoric, the philosophy of science and technology (epistemology, methodological issues), and the philosophy and ethics of precaution/risk. I will explore these briefly in what follows.
My closest philosophical colleague Phil Hutchinson (@phil_hutchinson) has just had a mini ‘twitter-storm’ with Mark Lynas, over this latest GM business. Phil has been making the argument that the evidence does not support the need for fish genes to be put into plants in order to produce fish oil, because the evidence does not support the claim that doing so is beneficial and necessary.
This ‘mirrors’ the argument that my other current close philosophical colleague Nassim Taleb (@nntaleb) and I (@rupertread) have recently had on twitter with Lynas (Go back to Jan.5 if you want to see this ‘twitter-storm’ from the start). Taleb and I made the argument that (e.g.) taking genes from fish and putting them into plants is reckless, because it is unprecautious: it violates the Precautionary Principle. In other words, our argument was not evidentiary but precautionary.
It seems to me that the ‘evidence’ line against GM combined with the ‘precautionary’ line against it catches GM-apologists such as Lynas in a bind. In a pincer movement.
In outline, the full (the two-pronged) case then runs roughly like this (for references to back this up, if desired, see the material on Twitter):
A GM company wants to take genes from fish and put them into a plant: specifically, in today’s furore: they want to produce Omega three GM camelina.
In brief: There is first NO conclusive evidence for heart-related benefits of Omega 3 fish oil, which demonstrate it as beneficial separate from the fish, as a supplement. There is NO evidence that we need fish oil omega 3 over and above that our bodies already convert from vegetable-based ALA Omega 3 from things like flax.
To elaborate somewhat: We’ve had over ten years of hype from food manufacturers and supplement manufacturers about the heart-benefits of fish-sourced Omega 3 oil. But the evidence for benefits is still inconclusive, at best.
Basically there are three types of Omega 3 fatty acids that humans need: ALA (found in plant oils), EPA, and DHA (found in fish oils).
ALA is in flax seeds and hemp seeds as well as other veg (brussels sprouts for example). Our bodies convert ALA in to EPA and DHA.
Over the past decade or so all sorts of wild claims have been made for the benefits of consuming a diet high in EPA and DHA fatty acids. Goldacre has some sport exposing some of the nonsense hereabouts in Bad Science.
However, there are one or two RCTs that do seem to show some benefit of a diet high in EPA and DHA Omega 3 for heart disease, but, and this is important, only when eaten as part of a fresh fish which contains it. There is simply no evidence for EPA and DHA taken as a supplement being beneficial to health. So, the real kicker is, that they cannot say for sure that it is the EPA and GLA and not just the fact that those who eat fresh fish are likely to eat healthier diets in any case and be better off, socio-economically.
So, why would anyone assume that GM camelina with EPA and DHA would work better than the _ineffective_ supplements? No reason whatsoever. Indeed, as noted, while diets high in fish oil do seem to (in a few cases) have benefits, even there it is unclear this is because of some magical properties of the oil, but rather because of other factors that might be related to a diet rich in oily fish.
So, no clear evidence at all that consumption of EPA and DHA as a supplement has health benefits.
When Phil made these points to Lynas and the GM company, they shifted ground away from talking about the alleged health benefits of omega 3 fish oil (to humans) to talking about the health benefits of feeding omega 3 fish oil to fish.
So: there really – clearly — is no clear evidence that we need EPA and DHA in any case, as our bodies convert ALA (from vegetable sources into those). Lynas et al, when pressed, concede this. They then say: this is about improving aquaculture by making fish food. But then we have the same problem: we have no reason to think that even if the GM splicing worked and they could get it into the seeds that this would work for the fish. Oily fish that are high in Omega 3 get it from the krill and shrimps they eat.
This is about salmon-farming! Not, as they tried to mislead us all this morning into thinking, about human health.
Human health would be better served by better balanced diets.
To sum up the case so far: there is no reason to see what the GM wizards are trying to put into the plant from the fish as useful for fish food if there is no evidence for the benefits of Omega 3 fish oil supplements. At this point, when forced into seeing this, the company replied that that’s allegedly why they need to do the research they are seeking to do… Which is close to a concession that there are (few or) no evidentiary grounds for thinking GM fish-omega 3 camelina will be beneficial: But of course, surprise surprise, that is not what their rep said on the Today programme this morning, nor what Lynas were arguing when Phil first responded to him.
The final phase of the argument (at the time of writing) is I think very telling. It runs thus:
Phil Hutchinson @phil_hutchinson
@Rothamsted @mark_lynas consumed as fish. Barely any conc. evidence for supplement benefits. Your version will be akin to consuming a supp.
Kate de Selincourt @Kate_de
But, @Rothamsted & @mark_lynas, since all livestock farming turns more nutrient into less, why not just eat the fish food? @phil_hutchinson
Mark Lynas @mark_lynas
@Kate_de @Rothamsted @phil_hutchinson That’s an argument for veganism. Fine by me, but hardly a realistic way to tackle overfishing.
‘Fine by me’. Lynas has essentially conceded the case. He prefers a problematic techno-fix which lacks evidential support to a behaviourial and political change that is perfectly possible (i.e. for humans to consume less (factory-farmed) fish (from which a profit can be extracted), and find their omega 3 in other ways).
That’s the evidence-based argument against GM (which has to be made in each individual case on grounds specific to that case (in other cases, the argument will be based on poor yield, or on the inputs to the GM-farming being unsustainable, or on alleged damage to human health, or on actual epidemics of superweeds, or on the desperately-problematic political economy of GM; etc etc), and can be made in each individual case I think, with the possible exception of some GM-cotton). The case benefits from a savvy understanding of the nature of evidence-based arguments, obviously, and thus from a sound philosophy of science and technology perspective. But it is essential an ‘empirical’ argument.
The precautionary argument is different. It is philosophical from the get-go. It is an argument about where the burden of proof lies.
This is in my view the deepest argument against GM: a precautionary one which shifts the burden of proof. It’s no longer about one trying to find a particular counter-argument to claims that GM-enthusiasts are making: it’s suggesting that the onus is rather on THEM to establish the safety of the technology that they are puffing.
The precautionary case against GMOs, in brief, runs thus: If we (for example) take a gene from a fish and put it in a plant, a move utterly without precedent in the whole of evolution, we are recklessly fiddling with and unavoidably changing a system we don’t fully understand and doing something novel whose consequences we cannot possibly predict. This is a reckless gamble, stupid in the short- to medium- term, unconscionably short-sighted and selfish in the long term, as we risk imposing a world of new danger on those who are yet even to be born. We are launching a vast uncontrolled natural (sic.) experiment. The consequences for superweeds, for damaging biodiversity, for creating dangerous mutations, and possibly directly for human health, are unforeseeable. There is a strong precautionary argument against GM, or at the very least in favour of keeping some parts of the world (e.g. an island-nation!) GM-free. IF GM could be properly safely researched to determine what bad ‘side effects’ it may have, then I would favour such research, in good empirical fashion. But it mostly can’t – because it can only be properly ‘researched’ in this way outside the laboratory. In this regard, it differs profoundly from most medical advances, for instance.
This is the terrible dilemma of field trials for GM: The more extensive they are, the more they resemble conditions in the real world, the longer-term they are, then the more reliable they are – BUT also, the more dangerous they are. The more likely it is that they will escape their confines, affect the broader ecosystem, produce unexpected and dangerous drift of genetic materials, etc. . One can’t get the evidence one needs to assess GM with without creating vast uncontrolled new risks.
If we in Britain as a nation contaminate our countryside with GMOs, then that can never be undone. Simple caution and commonsense enjoins – overwhelmingly – against such recklessness.
Defenders of GM sometimes say that there is an absence of evidence of harm from GM. Even if this is true, it is not good enough. What the precautionary argument shows is that we need evidence of absence of harm from GM. And that is what we don’t have. And what will be very hard ever to get without taking an unconscionable risk.
That is the point of the precautionary principle.
Until we have ultra-long-term large-scale trials which cannot contaminate the surrounding countryside, then GM must be considered unsafe. Such trials are at present impossible to carry out. They might one day be possible, though I doubt that they ever will be (this is the dilemma expressed above). If they ever were, then, rather than jumping in precipitously to make a quick buck (as is happening at Rothampsted today) we would then need to wait dozens of years for the results.
In other words, I have argued that one current impossibility is to adequately research contamination, possible damage to biodiversity, etc., without actually potentially causing limitless such damage. One somehow needs long-term (generations of ) trials, in the natural environment, but contained. Something like a huge part-permeable dome that somehow lets in what you want to let in (e.g. sun, rain) in an unaltered way without letting out the GM-crops, over an area of many square miles. Good luck with that…
I am sometimes accused of inconsistency, in making this kind of argument. For, as I’ve made clear in previous posts on this site, I am, like any reasonable person, a fan of climate science, which is vital to the survivability of our species, as we breach the limits to growth. So, why not of ‘GM science’? But this alleged parallel with manmade climate change is very weak. That is a matter of science; while GM is a technology.
Of course genetics is science, but genetic engineering, as the name suggests, is not: it is engineering, i.e. technology. GM is a technology, and so we should be very wary of GM-advocates dressing themselves up in the clothing of science. It is not ‘anti-science’ to oppose GM technology. There are strong empirical and precautionary arguments for doing so.
The parallel in relation to climate is with geo-engineering, not with climate science! And I’m no more a fan of genetic engineering than of geo-engineering, which involves perhaps the ultimate hubristic lack of precaution (or of ethics)… That is: It seems to me, as I’ve sketched, that there are profound philosophical reasons not to be a fan of either of these forms of engineering…
[[Big thanks to Phil Hutchinson for contributing very generously to the researching and writing of this piece, and for our ongoing joint work on ‘evidence-based medicine’. Thanks also to Nassim N. Taleb for his influence on my thinking in this area, through the dialogue we are having on it and the arguments we are making against others over it. But responsibility for the piece is mine alone.]]
Colleagues; check out my new blogsite, http://thinkingfilmcollective.blogspot.co.uk/
This is a site for serious film-as-philosophy type stuff. I think a lot of you will like it.
[See also my earlier post there: http://thinkingfilmcollective.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/avatar-transformed-cinema.html]
If you have comments, probably better to leave them there than here.