Home > Boneheaded stupidity, Science > Vaccination a partisan issue in the US? (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

Vaccination a partisan issue in the US? (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

February 9th, 2015

Some recent statements by Chris Christie and Rand Paul[^1] have raised the prospect that vaccination, or, more precisely, policies that impose costs on parents who don’t vaccinate their kids, may become a partisan issue, with Republicans on the anti-vax (or, if you prefer, pro-freedom) side and Democrats pushing a pro-vaccine, pro-science line. Christie and Paul took a lot of flak from other Republicans and even Fox News, and tried to walk their statements back, so it seems as if it won’t happen just yet.

But there are some obvious reasons to think that such a divide might emerge in the future, and that Christie and Paul just jumped the gun. The outline of the debate can be seen in the ferocious response to Reason magazine’s endorsement of mandatory vaccination. And, while Reason was on the right side this time, they’ve continually cherrypicked the evidence on climate change and other issues to try to bring reality in line with libertarian wishes.

The logic of the issue is pretty much identical to that of climate change, gun control, and other policies disliked by the Republican/schmibertarian base. People want to be free to do as they please, even when there’s an obvious risk to others and don’t want to hear experts pointing out those risks.[^2] So, they find bogus experts who will tell them what they want to hear, or announce that they are “skeptics” who will make up their own minds. An obvious illustration of the parallels is this anti-vax piece in the Huffington Post by Lawrence Solomon, rightwing author of The Deniers, a supportive account of climate denial[^3].

As long as libertarians and Republicans continue to embrace conspiracy theories on issues like climate science, taking a pro-science viewpoint on vaccination just makes them “cafeteria crazy”. The consistent anti-science position of people like Solomon is, at least intellectually, more attractive.

Note Another issue that fits the same frame is speeding. Anti-science ibertarians in Australia and the UK are strongly pro-speeding, but I get the impression that this isn’t such a partisan issue in the US, the reverse of the usual pattern where tribalist patterns are strongest in the US.

[^1]: Christie was just pandering clumsily, but Paul’s statement reflects the dominance of anti-vax views among his base and that of his father (take a look at dailypaul.com).
[^2]: Of course, the situation is totally different in cases like Ebola and (non-rightwing) terrorism, where it’s the “others” who pose the risk.
[^3]: The Huffington Post used to be full of leftish anti-vaxers. But the criticisms of Seth Mnookin and others produced a big shift – Solomon’s was the only recent example I could find. Similarly, having given equivocal statements back in 2008, Obama and Clinton are now firmly on the pro-vaccine side.

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  1. Jim Rose
    February 9th, 2015 at 09:36 | #1

    Hi John, I think you’re a bit quick off the mark here.

    This linked article to Mother Jones is a rather fair roundup of who is suspicious of vaccines and who is not with a link to a very good journal article.

    The anti-vaccination movement is pretty evenly spread across the political spectrum.

  2. Jim Rose
    February 9th, 2015 at 09:38 | #2

    John, see too The culturally polarizing effect of the “anti-science trope” on vaccine risk perceptions at http://www.culturalcognition.net/blog/2014/1/31/the-culturally-polarizing-effect-of-the-anti-science-trope-o.html

  3. The White Mouse
    February 9th, 2015 at 10:11 | #3

    This post is in part disingenuous. If you want to see anti-science, go read the rabble who gather at left wing environment sites like Grist or Mother Jones savage anyone who doesn’t buy into the left’s conspiracy theories on vaccines, gm food, fluoride and the magical virtue of organic food.

    As to vaccines, I wish I had a dollar for every comment from a left winger who derides vax as a Big Pharma conspiracy.

    Moreover, Reason’s chief environment reporter excepts the mainstream scientific position on climate change.

  4. Newtownian
    February 9th, 2015 at 10:18 | #4

    Working in an area of risk science I have to say I’m a lot more sanguine about this mess than you John.

    This problem of ‘tolerable risk’ of course isnt unique to the vaccination story. Well known substitute topics I personally am ambivalent about include as well as the vaccination stuff:
    – GM foods and GM generally
    – Recycled wastewater – remember Toowoomba
    – Motor vehicle safety
    – Nuclear power
    – Use of pesticides

    As result of this I note the following problems in respect to vaccination and these other risk related controversies.

    – Scientists and health authorities haven’t traditionally informed the public well on the nature of risk and where the numbers come from. One reason is that risk estimation is a pretty specialized area of science which takes a long while to understand. Scientists. Also big pronouncements on risk mainly come from bureaucrats and politicians who are now greatly distrusted because of past glitches and have to make a decision where while the majority will benefit and minority will lose out. So lack of trust in the science sadly is a given.
    – Its anyway never completely cut and dry with risk in time space population affected. For example chlorination of water has saved many lives and fluoridation many teeth. But both have downsides. Chlorination generates nasty disinfection byproducts. Fluoridation doses in water are pretty close to the safe toxicity level. Now while I still drink tap water I can see why people might worry as with the vaccination story.
    – In respect to water recycling while the technology is very effective there remain many unknowns which its difficult to address e.g. that there are maybe 100,000 chemicals out there in commercial use while we only have explicit risk benchmarks for a few hundred which might be tipped down the sewer leaving a bit uncertainty gap.
    – Some people do seem to be more allergic and this gives rise to a belief they are ‘more sensitive to chemicals’ which they may well be on a case by case basis. I know of one such case.

    Finally returning to my sanguinity list above to illustrate the answers are not so cut and dry:

    – GM foods and GM generally – regrettably the way applied science often works is not to do a risk assessment and then pursue a technology but rather pursue a technology, rationalize its safety later when noisy dissidents object and hope for the best, ignoring issues that arise until there have been multiple systemic failures which force at time over-reaction?. Consider the story of Love Canal (toxic waste site recycled for housing now a dead zone a bit like the Chernobyl environs.
    – Recycled wastewater – see above
    – Motor vehicle safety – it is claimed peak organisations are on our side and certainly great advances have been made with vehicle safety. But then a converse development occurs such as the mass introduction of urban road trains – B doubles – for commercial reasons. Perhaps on the stats these juggernauts are safe. But then you get companies cutting corners and out of control trucks in NSW. Is it any wonder people feel at risk.
    – Nuclear power – an issue its proponents consistently sidestep is the facilitation of nuclear weapons through the provision of expertise, materials, technical infrastructure. Much is made of safeguards but these have been shown to be a failure in a world with maybe 400 reactors. For the moment things seem peaceful but who knows in the future. Another interesting issue is what should be the stated risk management policy for when accidents do occur and mass areas get contaminated as with Fukushima. One response is ‘Shit happens’ which of course risk science agrees with..leading to the idea some people must dies so the rest can have electricity. But as yet we really have no rational way for humanely balancing the majority benefits with the impacts on the unfortunate minority.
    – Use of pesticides – this has improved but the fact is where profit is the driver overuse and hence higher unknown risk is likely. For example a few years ago I dealt with a commercial cowboy we christened “The Termitinator’. He assured us the Oz standard was the way to go and that was the ‘barrier method’ – 3 L of concentrated chlorpyrophos into the soil every 30 cm around our house boundary -every year or two! Subsequently the termites came back and we moved to a bait system which cost much less. But my point is the technologies we are asked to trust in in respect to risk do not inspire confidence.

    The anti vaccination movement is just the latest in this. Interestingly it will probably cause the Republicans grief as their sponsors probably also include big Pharma who will not like confidence in their products being undermined.

  5. Uncle Milton
    February 9th, 2015 at 10:23 | #5

    @The White Mouse
    “Moreover, Reason’s chief environment reporter excepts the mainstream scientific position on climate change.”

    Excepts it from what?

  6. bjb
    February 9th, 2015 at 10:26 | #6

    Not entirely on topic – an oldie but a goody: http://www.gocomics.com/doonesbury/2005/12/18

  7. Ken_L
    February 9th, 2015 at 10:48 | #7

    I agree with others that anti-vaccination sentiment is just as common on the left as anywhere else – perhaps more so – and conservatives will shy away from making common cause with anyone on the left about anything.

  8. The White Mouse
    February 9th, 2015 at 11:53 | #8

    Thanks Uncle Milton, meant accept

  9. Nathan
    February 9th, 2015 at 11:59 | #9

    @The White Mouse

    I’ll grant you organic/GM food, but in terms of elected and/or senior party officials I think these recent outbursts show that anti-vaccination is becoming primarily a delusion of the Right. As for fluoridation, certainly here in QLD it has almost always been rural conservative councils that have fought against it.

  10. February 9th, 2015 at 12:01 | #10

    Coincidentally John I wrote a post about this the other day. While I agree with others here that anti-vax is an ideology that crosses the political spectrum, I do see a real risk that it will creep into mainstream Republican politics.

    We have stoushed before about the use of the term “anti-science,” which i don’t think is productive and I think it’s particularly unproductive in this case, as others have noted. In this case however, putting that issue aside, I think the causes of anti-vax ideology are very different to AGW denialism. I don’t think we should treat all the things you see as “anti-science” equally when they stem from very different root causes. Anti-vax ideas are as old as vaccinations, they cross the political spectrum and in many ways predate modern political divisions. I think therefore they should not be viewed through the same angotological lens as AGW denialism.

  11. MartinK
    February 9th, 2015 at 12:17 | #11

    @The White Mouse
    “This post is in part disingenuous. If you want to see anti-science, go read the rabble who gather at left wing environment sites …”
    JQ is not talking about people who post on right wing sites, he is talking about leading figures in the Republican party.

  12. The White Mouse
    February 9th, 2015 at 12:20 | #12

    thanks Nathan. I just did a quick google and found stories like this:

    greens mayor in byron bay Simon Richardson votes to stop fluoridation because it is unsafe “mass medicine”. Quiggin’s own posts sit cheek by jowl with anti-fluoride posts on the apparently popular left wing Can Do Better website, I am sad to report.

  13. February 9th, 2015 at 13:51 | #13

    From Jim Rose’s link, this is what Dan Kahan has to say about the “anti-science trope” often employed here:

    The “anti-science trope,” in sum, is not just contrary to fact. It is contrary to the tremendous stake that the public has in keeping its vaccine science communication environment free of reason-effacing forms of pollution.

    It is “reason-effacing” and “contrary to fact.”

  14. Neil
    February 9th, 2015 at 15:53 | #14

    I live in Washington State (the one with Seattle) which is a pretty interesting microcosm of US politics. Generally the western part is very progressive (sometimes to a crazy extreme) and votes Democrat, while eastern part is very conservative (sometimes to a crazy extreme) and votes Republican. When looking at incomplete vaccination rates by county in Washington State, the two most left wing counties in the state are first and third and the rest of the top 5 are made up of hardcore right wing counties in the east. So, at the grass level I would say the anti-vaxxers are not split along typical political lines.

    With the political parties it is different – the Republicans are definitely blathering on about this more than Democrats (“freedom not to vaccinate” kind of shite) but that’s because – IMHO – right wing lunatics are very active in politics and thus incredibly important in the primaries, whereas the left-wing lunatics tend to withdraw from politics (or are too fractured against each other), hence have no impact in the primaries. Christie and Paul know that they need to pander to the loonies until they have the primary sown up so are saying stupid stuff now. Actually, come to think of it, Christie is pandering but Paul is one of the loonies (and completely unelectable…).

  15. jungney
    February 9th, 2015 at 15:58 | #15

    I note Hermit’s list of technologies, industries and products about which he is ambivalent. I share some of those and point out that being opposed to nuclear waste because of the apparently intractable problem of the waste is not anti-science. Nor is reasonable concern about GM crops necessarily anti-scientific if it draws on substantial bodies of evidence and research that focus on the relations of production surrounding the product. The global food production industry doesn’t usually look too good on scrutiny for equity, justice and ecological prudence.

    I also reckon that Hermit is correct in pointing to pesticide use as one form of generalized petrochemical pollution of the soil, seas and waters of the planet. I think Commoner was the first noted objector to the petrochemical experiment, in the early sixties. Nothing has changed between then and now especially in relation to the lack of transparency and the outright secrecy with which these industries conduct themselves.

    It is a matter of record that CSG drilling companies do not disclose the contents of their fracking solutions; this places all environmental water quality tests on the back foot because they are looking for undisclosed substances. Of course, then you get the discovery of BTEX chemicals in flowback water (Gloucester). It cannot be said to be anti-science to disbelieve assurances, given by scientists, as to the safety of the operation. Nor can it be anti-science to use scientific evidence of potential harm.

    It is not, however, ignoring the science to assert that the politics of the situation is more determinate of outcomes than science itself. Thus, for example, in NSW, an-ex cop turned crisis manger for the mining industry has just been appointed to head up a Department of Resources and Energy’s probe of the AGL’s coal-seam gas operations and BETX contamination.
    See, common sense would ban fracking in a water catchment for tens of thousands of people but there are scientists around who seem to think that the hazards can be minimised. There’s the politics, right there – who gave these people authority to determine what level of hazard is acceptable? There’s no science in that kind of thinking.

  16. The White Mouse
    February 9th, 2015 at 17:03 | #16

    what r the “relations of production” around gm crops, jungney?

    What explains the Big Ag scare stories that one reads in numpty left wing publications like Mother Jones and which become ever more deceptive as food safety and security become ever more secure thanks to industrial agriculture?

    Why do we have hundreds of fraudulent left wing scientists like Seralini churning out junk science that then gets picked by Greenpeace and the Guardian?

    Why do so many green tinged left wingers perpetrate the lie that organic farming is safer and can feed the world?

    I would like to Prof Quiggin, who has agricultural economic experience , take on this issue rather than taking easy shots at crazy Republicans. Why has John failed to take on the lefts bizarre agrarian fantasies after 10 years of blogging and thousands of blog posts?

    Is it tribal loyalty?

  17. February 9th, 2015 at 17:09 | #17

    white mouse, I remember John taking on the anti-GMO crowd repeatedly.

  18. The White Mouse
    February 9th, 2015 at 17:16 | #18

    Yes I know but there is a comprehensive progressive pro-science argument pertaining to agriculture that can be made that goes way beyond criticising the worst excesses of Greenpeace.

  19. John Quiggin
    February 9th, 2015 at 17:28 | #19

    Is this what you mean by tribal loyalty, White Mouse?


  20. MartinK
    February 9th, 2015 at 17:31 | #20

    @The White Mouse
    Oh for goodness sake, there is very little risk that organic farming is going to be forced onto us but there is some risk that the very serious consequences of non vaccination will be, more so in the US.
    In fact that it is already happening in some suburbs at levels high enough to be of concern, whereas the push for organic farming has had very little influence at all, especially as far as increasing the cost of food to the worlds poor.
    It seems to be you are more worried about a noisy rabble than another bunch of equally mad people who have very serious influence and backing.

    It is not tribalism of someone won’t back your pet causes.

  21. The White Mouse
    February 9th, 2015 at 17:42 | #21

    That post is not the robust defence of science based industrial agriculture that I am referring to, John. You have never made such a post and I assume you’re well aware that if you did you’d face a tribal revolt.

  22. The White Mouse
    February 9th, 2015 at 17:51 | #22

    Martin K, that claim is false. Almost certainly due to the actions of left wing groups, many Africans including educated people in positions of power and influence live in fear of being sterilised or otherwise harmed by wicked gm crops. This prevents development and must ultimately contribute to hunger. But you might not read about it in George Moonbat’s Guardian.

  23. February 9th, 2015 at 18:13 | #23

    I wonder how many anti-vaxers there were when the polio vaccine first became available?

    All it takes is a few short years, and the memory fades.

    Mind you, I had measles, mumps and chicken pox, and survived them all.

    But the left has its share of anti-vaxers, accompanied by distrust of modern science and big business.

  24. February 9th, 2015 at 18:19 | #24

    John Brookes, my understanding is that anti-vaxxers have been around a long time – see e.g. this poster from the 19th century. There have been objections to vaccinations since smallpox. THis is very different to AGW denialism and GMO denialism (both new), and I think is part of the reason that anti-vax cuts across all parts of the political spectrum – it’s had a long time to spread, and there is no vaccine against it!

  25. jungney
    February 9th, 2015 at 18:37 | #25

    @The White Mouse
    The evidence trail begins with critique of the Green Revolution in India and snakes its way forward from there. Speaking generally, the industrialisation of food production, actively promoted through aid money for almost half a century, has displaced and ruptured local economies of production, which were as substantially social as they were economic, and trashethem in favour of the sort of economic and (non)-social relations of production that Austrlian f+v growers currently enjoy with Coles, WW and Wesfarmers. In other words, with a neo-feudalist set of relations without them ever having had the advantage of the long transition from feudalism to capitalism.

    I’ll take it easy on you and, instead of referring you to the vast literature on the subject, suggest you read ‘The Cost of Living’ by Arundhati Roy, ehich small edition is of two of the best political essays I’ve ever read. One counts the cost of nuclear power in India; the other counts the cost of the construction of big dams in India.

    The construction of which are driven by the demands for energy and water imposed by GM crops marketed and sold by the usual suspects.

    Political economy, hey, who would have thought?

  26. The White Mouse
    February 9th, 2015 at 18:43 | #26

    Well no, the right and the left usually deploy different arguments against vax: the right distrust mass socialised medicine and government programs and or talk up personal sovereignty whereas the left anti-vaxers distrust big pharma (profits are wicked) on the green side often prefer “natural” medicine.

    Of course Americans left and right like to invoke the constitution 🙂

  27. John Quiggin
    February 9th, 2015 at 19:03 | #27

    @The White Mouse

    I was going to cite chapter and verse, but then I thought, why bother. You’re in the anti-science tribe, you’re uncomfortable about it, and you’re trolling. Put up a comment with your position on climate science and I might have something more to say about GMOs.

  28. The White Mouse
    February 9th, 2015 at 19:03 | #28

    Oh you don’t need to take it easy on me, jungney, I am very well acquainted with such arguments just as I am well aware that Indian farmers have voted with their wallets whenever they are able to escape the extreme poverty, ignorance and famines of the old agricultural order.

    If Marx were alive today he would smile verily at Norman Borlaug and others who have helped alleviate the idiocy of rural life, while passing wind in the general direction of agrarian romantics.

  29. Megan
    February 9th, 2015 at 19:08 | #29


    hundreds of fraudulent left wing scientists

  30. jungney
    February 9th, 2015 at 19:12 | #30

    @John Brookes

    But the left has its share of anti-vaxers, accompanied by distrust of modern science and big business.

    Geez, is ‘distrust’ what unifies your view of the left? In which case you must treat all kinds of distrust of science, big business and pharmaceutical companies as evidence of left wing thinking. And all pouring from the same font, presumably. Is that what we have in common? A distrust of authority? Against history, you rate our distrust of authority as what? A foible?

    The rational left, which is synonymous with the cultural left, those who are cultural producers, is distinct from the sub-proletarian ‘left’ that rejects science because, ya’ know, those in power won’t legalise cannabis and therefore all of those in power are guilty of persecuting us for our choice of lifestyle.

    A crude attempt to tar with the same brush.

  31. The White Mouse
    February 9th, 2015 at 19:13 | #31

    sorry, above is on the wrong thread.

    John, I’ve only ever voted labor or Democrats when they existed.. I’m mostly a moderately progressive centrist. Of course l support urgent action on climate change as it is the most prudent thing to do and not prohibitively expensive. Conservatives are being radical and reckless when they argue otherwise.

  32. February 9th, 2015 at 20:49 | #32

    I would like to see cites for the hundreds of fraudulent scientists and scared African leaders.

  33. Megan
    February 9th, 2015 at 21:45 | #33

    And while we’re at it – evidence for the allegation that Seralini is fraudulent.

  34. February 9th, 2015 at 21:48 | #34


    You misunderstand Jungney. I said that the left has its fair share. They aren’t the majority by any means. Most of the left is perfectly sensible (take me, for example), but it serves no purpose to ignore the realities of life. There is a type of lefty who is likely to be anti-vax.

  35. February 9th, 2015 at 21:51 | #35


    My point, I guess, was that polio had been such a devastating epidemic that I doubt any other than the most ferally loony would not have welcomed the vaccine. I imagine that the longer you’ve gone since a serious outbreak of disease, the more likely you are to question the necessity of vaccines.

  36. February 9th, 2015 at 22:00 | #36

    “Now you’ve got me doing it :

    His Lordship sat back in his library chair behind the Ikea desk purchased by his father in the days when he , like his father before him was just plain Mr. Monckton- no peer he, and not a coronation chair to sit in . Still, his Lordship looked with contentment on the slim magazine…”

    Hah, just caught up with this!

    Immensely flattering to be channelled and improved upon, and good to see the John Peel sessions are accessible, that was my first exposure to the darkly whimsical and linguisticaly florid Rawlisonian universe.

    I agree that the Ikea desk would be more genealogically credible and it is good to get in Moncktons very Nouveau status as a member of the nobility. I would say in defence that the character in the story is a pastiche amalgam of Monckton/Rawlinson, and Rawlinson would have had his ancestors desk.

    But there is another element. Something I have observed, and is detailed is literature, is the different attitudes to antique furniture, and the trappings of nobility, by the ancient aristocratic families and the newly ennobled. The arriviste Aristocrats put much more store in the ancient trappings, they will buy the stately homes of the old aristocracy who have fallen into debt and refurnish them with all the ‘correct; original features. A classic Chippendale desk displayed proudly in the beautifully restored Robert Adams Drawing room.

    The Really old Aristocratic families also have a original Chippendale desk, bought new by one of the ancestors, and it is still in the house, but stuck in a corner of the Kitchen amongst the new Ikea breakfast table and chairs with all the household accounts pile on top. It is part of the utile infrastructure for the old aristocracy, not a signifier of their status as it tends to be fetishised by the newly promoted.
    This effect can take several generations to wear off.

  37. February 9th, 2015 at 22:14 | #37

    Sorry, the above post SHOULD have been as a reply in the return of the wrinkled retainer thread, in fact I though it was.

    What in the WordPress does this software do at times… sigh!

  38. February 9th, 2015 at 22:18 | #38

    John Brookes, that poster I linked to includes quotes from people who survived Smallpox. I have seen older documents than that – the anti-smallpox vax people came out pretty much as soon as the vaccine was invented. It’s something in the human condition to find vaccines disturbing, and also something in the human condition to object to being forced to take a drug (as e.g. the libertarian anti-vaxxers do).

  39. The White Mouse
    February 9th, 2015 at 22:19 | #39

    “evidence for the allegation that Seralini is fraudulent”

    Houston, I think I just found a live one.

  40. February 9th, 2015 at 22:34 | #40

    You know white mouse, people might think that making claims without supporting evidence is not very rational. Unscientific, even.

  41. February 9th, 2015 at 22:42 | #41

    Some thoughts on the subject at hand, rather than the off-topic accidental cross-post that hopefully our moderator has cleared.

    The left-wing anti-vax trope goes back to George Benard Shaw and the Fabians. It links up with a common theme of neo-romantic Natural purity concepts that are rooted in religion, but also became the New-age Woo of the Edwardian era and German ‘spiritual’ beliefs.

    It is one of the clearest examples of the conflict between liberty and fraternity to take two of the revolutionary enlightenment foundational ideas.
    Herd immunity needs to reach a definable level for effective general protection. That percentage is NOT adjustable according to prevailing cultural preferences or Hulme-type notions of social credibility. The cases of disease are either virtually non-existent, or you get pocket outbreaks which risk the immunised as well as the unprotected because of the 5% failure rate of the vaccine.

    So you HAVE to have an imposed, mandated, central constraint on individual freedom to ensure that vaccination will work. The laws of Nature make the percentage vaccinated required for it to work unalterable. And failure to comply risks far more harm to others than failure to wear a seat belt or bike helmet.

    The big Pharma/profits argument against Vaccines is rather undermined by the fact they are NOT a major priority for big Pharma, because they cure and do not lead to continued sales. The history of vaccine production has been driven by scientists who saw the public-need-public benefits of the work, not the greed for profits of a pharmaceutical firm. See the story of Maurice Hilleman for more.

  42. plaasmatron
    February 9th, 2015 at 22:46 | #42

    All this shows that people are confused and distrustful of MSM and politics. Science (and economics) is used as confirmation that government policies are correct. The problem is that so many “scientific” studies are incomplete (especially in medicine and biotechnology) or pre-determined to show a certain bias. Politicians can then cherry pick their desired scientific report (or economic report) to validate their agenda.

    The people are sick of it. Your average man or woman doesn’t know what to believe anymore. This is fertile ground for extremists (left and right) to come in and rally the masses to their cause. The Pegida rallies in Germany recently (especially in Dresden) were portrayed by the MSM as being purely anti-islamic. The English media had a field day with the “racist Germans”. True, calling your movement “against the islamicisation (sp?) of the “abendland”” is not helpful, but many of the participants were protesting broader discontent.

    The level of distrust of the MSM and politicians is so high that people grasp onto conspiracy theories because it grounds them to something they can believe in. God is dead. The cult of the individual has peaked. Humans, at the core of their existance, need to believe… in something! Where will our next messiah come from? (Tony Abbott is not the chosen one).

    Science has done itself a great disservice by becoming a career super-highway when it is really an artistic endeavour.

  43. February 9th, 2015 at 22:59 | #43

    I don’t think science is a career super-highway, and if there are any post-docs reading this, being forced to work 60 hour weeks and move around the world every two years without hope of settling or forming enduring relationships, or scientists who are working yearly-renewed jobs with no future because of the insecurity of grant funding, I assume they’ll stomp on that statement pretty quickly.

  44. Megan
    February 10th, 2015 at 00:50 | #44

    @The White Mouse

    That’s it? “Houston, I think I found a live one”?

    Seralini was not fraudulent.

    However, he did win a libel case against a pro-GM (GM-funded) slanderer.

    Whether or not the pro-GM trolls are paid, they do not do their cause any justice with their method of argumentation.

  45. paul walter
    February 10th, 2015 at 01:03 | #45

    Yes, it is TeaParty Fundmentalist nonsense from the USA, like contrarianism, hard veganism, survivalism or home schooling..

    It has infeeds fom the counter culture movemets of thirty or forty years ago, but the Right has got hold of genuine suspicions of Big Pharma and corporate chemicals of the Dow/Monsanto sort and bent that scepticism to create suspicion of progressive government agendas, rathe r than the original target, conservative capitalism.

  46. Neil
    February 10th, 2015 at 02:20 | #46


    That’s correct, Seralini’s paper was withdrawn from Food and Chemical Toxicology because it was inconclusive. No fraud was proven (unlike Andrew Wakefield). It was just a major overreach to make the claims that he made. That makes him either a Paul Rand “true believer” type or a cynical Chris Christie-style opportunist. Take your pick.

    And for the record: I’m not pro-GM, I’m anti-anti-GM. And I’m not paid to comment here.

  47. plaasmatron
    February 10th, 2015 at 02:30 | #47

    faustusnotes :
    I assume they’ll stomp on that statement pretty quickly.

    I am one of those post docs moving around the world with no job security (15 years, 4 continents, 5 contracts, plenty of publications, lots of fun, zero prospects). What I meant by career super highway is that science is now so competitive it has become full of careerists. It is no longer accepted to work toward a goal that interests you, or that you truly believe will make a difference. There are good jobs out there, no doubt about it. But you have to behave like a news-corp employee these days to secure one. As in most other professions, the employment structure is very top heavy.

  48. Neil
    February 10th, 2015 at 03:24 | #48

    Bill Maher had something timely (and stupid) to say on this issue:


    friends like these, huh…

  49. Socrates
    February 10th, 2015 at 06:25 | #49

    I think I would prefer the anti-vax group to be called the pro-stupidity group. Freedom comes with responsibility. These people are irresponsible. We do not call drink drivers pro-freedom, we call them bloody idiots.

  50. The White Mouse
    February 10th, 2015 at 08:53 | #50

    Seralini is a fraud because he has a track record of misusing science to find what he wants to see. He has been at this through out his whole undistinguished career during which cursory inspection his claims always melt away. If Seralini was honest, he would not be such a laughing stock, but he does provide sustenance for Megan and others who see the world through a conspiratorial lense.

    And no Megan, it is the anti-gm, anti-vax and climate change denialists who are the trolls. You need to rise above your Can Do Better inclinations.

  51. John Quiggin
    February 10th, 2015 at 09:48 | #51


    I can’t see why Bill Maher should be classed as a friend.

  52. The White Mouse
    February 10th, 2015 at 10:31 | #52

    OK, so you’re yet another sock for Mel.

    I observe that in your last incarnation you were running two socks at once, both doing enough to get banned.

    That’s it. From now on, anything posted by you will be deleted, disemvowelled or edited to give what I regard as the true meaning. – JQ

  53. February 10th, 2015 at 11:23 | #53

    This thread is another classic trainwreck. An interesting post with the possibility of discussion about how best to communicate science and improve the public response to important controversies derailed by partisan accusations that all and sundry are anti-science. Links to one of the experts on science communication that discuss how counter-productive and fact-free the “anti-science” accusation is have been ignored in favour of a stoush over who is more anti-science.

    A real contribution to science communication.

  54. paul walter
    February 10th, 2015 at 11:59 | #54

    No, no.. am fairly sure I know who the purple vole is and also”Tony”.. they are of the Madigan tribe.

    They participate, but although they know better they are bit like culties, tied to a sort of party line that precludes deviation. One of them in particular has good brains, but therefore consequently lives in constant fear of what could happen if you add one and one.

  55. Nathan
    February 10th, 2015 at 12:08 | #55

    @The White Mouse
    Shame you didn’t keep googling and find things like:

    “On 29 November 2012 the Queensland Parliament, with a Liberal National Party government, reversed the previous Labor government’s mandate requiring certain public potable water supplies to add fluoride to the water.”

  56. Donald Oats
    February 10th, 2015 at 12:32 | #56

    An interesting example, as it reveals—once again—the LNP fixation with people having the freedom to choose something, in this case that being whether to provide their children with fluoride tablets or not. Furthermore, the general observation is that where fluoridised water is available, tooth decay among children (and adults) is much, much lower, and incidences of the really horrible effects of losing multiple teeth and gum disease are much fewer. As we all know, busy people tend to take the easy way out, especially when the damaging consequences are statistical in nature, not absolutely 100% going to happen. With tooth decay, some fortunate few are relatively impervious; with failing to vaccinate and catching measles, most don’t develop life-threatening complications, but 10% is hardly an insignificant minority if it is your child at risk.

    People are woefully poor at picking the genuine easiest way, which in the case of vaccination is to get your kids vaccinated, whether one at a time or multi-vaxx, just do it. In the case of tooth decay and fluoridation of water supply, another possible approach is to provide bottled water which is fluoridised, and the kids could drink that—not perfect, but probably better than relying on parents giving fluoride tablets to their kids regularly. Personally, I think a government info campaign on providing fluoride to kids to avoid dental caries, loss of permanent teeth to gum disease, etc, would be money well spent. Except in Qld: the people have spoken there and don’t want it 🙁

  57. Jim Rose
    February 10th, 2015 at 13:51 | #57

    A NZ Green MP a few months ago endorsed homoeopathic solutions to Ebola. The party leadership immediately disassociated itself from his statement and claimed their approach is science based.

    The New Zealand Greens nonetheless have no position as a party on vaccines.

    When one of their candidates was expressing reservations about them, I sent a graph in a tweet showing how polio disappeared immediately after the vaccine became available.

    The Green party health spokesman retweeted my tweet immediately and in a middle of the election campaign to show he was not willing to be associated with the anti-vaccination movement in his own party. That is a stand on principle that is to be admired. Never back down ever on science based public health policy.

    The New Zealand Greens supports the right of local government choice over fluoridation.

    The desire of the NZ Green party that natural medicines not be subject to the regulation that regular medicines are subject to is well known. The Greens believe in a free market for quackery and charlatans but heavy regulation and long delays on the availability of life-saving medicines.

  58. Mr T
    February 10th, 2015 at 14:14 | #58

    I think the piece of satire below sums up my views on Libertarian argument:

  59. Julie Thomas
    February 10th, 2015 at 15:48 | #59

    @Jim Rose

    ” the right of local government choice over fluoridation.”

    Fair enough if that is what the people who vote for the council, people like me and my neighbours really do want the council to do, when we are aware of all the facts.

    Being aware of all the information is the only way people can make a good choice. This is called ‘informed consent’; it’s a psych term and all reputable practitioners need to ensure that people choosing then for therapy understand all the risks as well as the possible benefits so they can provide informed consent.

    So if the local council took responsibility for providing all of the taxpayers with a ‘scientific’ report and provided a community health person to talk to people this would work for me and I’d trust my neighbours to make a good choices and allow flouride in the water but if they didn’t want it I’d advise all the young mums I know to use tablets like I did when my kids were young and living in an unflouridated area.

    I think then we would find that some people are motived in their by a desire to make a good choice and that some other people – they could be something like you – are motived to see things in accordance with their belief in economic man and that old fashioned economic theory that nobody believes in any more. Not my neighbours anyway.

    The problem with economic man is he only exists in your fevered imagination; it is social women and men who are expected to make these choices without knowing the rules of the game you are forcing us to play.

  60. February 10th, 2015 at 17:27 | #60

    The NZ conservatives also oppose water fluoridation. Maybe a little less grandstanding and a little more intelligent debate would help this thread a little?

  61. paul walter
    February 10th, 2015 at 19:23 | #61

    You know, I mocked the white rodent and tony a bit, but after learnng today that the ALP had colluded with the Tories to suppress FTA details, may be they are not such fools, or I so smart.

  62. February 10th, 2015 at 19:58 | #62

    According to the opponents of fluoridation in NZ, the Greens, Labour and the Internet Party have broadly similar policies about basing their policy on evidence.

    It’s remarkable what you can learn if you dig around a bit and actually try to assess positions on the evidence …

  63. Fran Barlow
    February 10th, 2015 at 20:12 | #63

    I’m happy to pay a substantial premium to get certified organic food. I know of no compelling evidence that says it is better for me personally, but I strongly believe that it is better for the environment, and that alone is a sufficient reason to support those who raise organic crops.

    I also believe it tastes better than non-organic. That may be confirmation bias at work but in practice, that doesn’t matter to me. It might simply be that the chain of handling is better because the produce is harvested when ripe and not stored for a long time.

  64. Ikonoclast
    February 10th, 2015 at 22:34 | #64

    Before vaccination was an established and effective reality there was of course no selection pressure one way or the other re vaccination and possible attitudes connected thereto. Now that vaccination is an established reality with survival value attached, this picture might have changed a little. Some selection pressure might now apply no matter how small. Connect the dots and you will figure out what I am saying.

  65. Jim Rose
    February 11th, 2015 at 09:01 | #65

    As we blog, the New Zealand Greens are hosting a conference of GE deniers at Parliament house led by the Green MP who thinks homoeopathic solutions are useful for treating Ebola.

    As the commentator in the link observed:

    But let’s imagine if this wasn’t the Greens, but ACT. And ACT hosted a conference at Parliament of half a dozen climate change sceptics preaching against the scientific consensus.

    They would be denounced by a dozen lobby groups as being anti-science and abusing their position as a parliamentary party by allowing parliamentary facilities to be used in such a way. The Greens would be the ones most loudly decrying ACT.

    So it is a useful reminder that the Greens devotion to scientific consensus is cherry picked to only apply when it backs their world view.

  66. Julie Thomas
    February 11th, 2015 at 09:16 | #66

    @Jim Rose

    Did somebody claim that teh Greens were the very model of a perfectly rational human being?

    I think this silly assumption you seem to be making is another product of your fevered – no it’s not fevered is it? it is programmatic and rigid cognitive style.

  67. Nevil Kingston-Brown
    February 11th, 2015 at 09:45 | #67

    Most probably anti-vax belief appears across the political spectrum because autism happens to children of parents across the political spectrum. Enough of those parents will fall to the correlation/causation fallacy (because vaccines are delivered at about the same time that autistic tendencies become apparent) to believe that vaccines caused their child to become autistic, whatever their previous political stance. Other issues like climate change and GMOs do not distribute their consequences so evenly and randomly.

  68. Ikonoclast
    February 11th, 2015 at 10:07 | #68

    With regard to the GMO and AGW issues, it is consistent to apply the precautionary principle to both.

    In the AGW debate, a key group opposing the AGW thesis is a group of rich corporations and their lobbyists and backers. In the GMO debate a key group proposing the GMO thesis is a group of rich corporations and their lobbyists and backers. Thus, sectional monied interests are against the AGW thesis but in favour of the GMO thesis. This ought to alert us to possible concerns about sectional monied interests distorting the debate against CO2e amelioration action and in favour of GMO adoption. As these rich monied interests demonstrably and repeatedly operate dishonestly, in bad faith and against the interests of the majority of people, then a high degree of suspicion about their motives and goals is warranted.

    The precautionary principle indicates for AGW that we should radically slow emissions given the high probability that unrestrained emissions will lead to something like a 5 degrees C hotter world. This latter would do immense damage to humans, human society and current ecology. The precautionary principle for GMO also indicates that we should proceed much more slowly and with much more caution. There are clearly safer ways to assure world food security in the next several decades. Stopping human climate change forcing would be a key step. Improving storage, transport and distribution of food along with improving aid responses would be a second key step. Shifting expenditure from pointless adventurist, even imperialist, wars would be a third key step.

    Calling the application of the precautionary principle to GMO “anti-science” is a most untenable claim. Indeed, a proper understanding of biology and ecology indicates these are extremely complex arenas where the unforeseen effects of powerful techonolgy can be insidious and far-reaching. Indeed, it is pro-science to advocate proceeding with greater caution. Persons with a proper and profound understanding of the complexity of the natural world and the scientific investigations which attempt to understand it will realise this whereas persons with a simplistic, reductionist and deterministic understanding of science will be these who advocate rushing ahead as if everything were simple and cut and dried.

    There is no rush scientifically or existentially (meaning survival issues) to do this research. It could and should be done at a cautious pace. The only rush is the unseemly and indeed reckless and dangerous rush by rich corporations to make more money quickly without taking proper precautions and before doing proper long-term research and studies.

  69. David Irving (no relation)
    February 11th, 2015 at 10:55 | #69

    I doubt it’ll work quickly enough to help, unfortunately.

  70. February 11th, 2015 at 11:24 | #70

    So maybe a little bit of anti-vax feeling is a desire not to “play God”? A feeling of guilt at interfering with the natural order of the universe…

    With the topics of vaccination, GMO, fluoridation etc, last nights Catalyst was instructive. They looked at lead, and its removal from petrol, as a way to explain crime trends in the 20th century in America. I thought the case made was reasonably compelling, and suggest that we may owe a debt of gratitude to those who fought for unleaded petrol. I suspect that such a fight would have started in the 1970’s, a highly “environmental” decade.

    From my own experience, I can offer the following observation. I was at uni in the second half of the 70’s. We were a noisy and ill behaved lot. We used to throw paper planes in class, and consider it a success if we hit an unsuspecting lecturer. The children of my generation are now at uni. They are quiet and well behaved. They do not throw paper planes. They are polite and pleasant. I had previously come up with a couple of different hypotheses to explain this deviant behaviour, but I’ve thrown them out the window now. I reckon that reduced childhood exposure to lead is the likely cause. As a new father in the early 90’s, I remember that parents were made very aware of the dangers of lead, particularly from renovating old properties, at that time.

  71. February 11th, 2015 at 11:54 | #71

    Jim Rose, in my experience the pro-GM crowd are just as “anti-science,” by our host’s crappy definition, as you claim the anti-GM crowd are. Specifically, they never address the distributional issues in the food system or explain how GMOs will magically solve this problem. For a good example of this irrational underpants-gnome style thinking, see the comments on this post on my blog, where I attempt to calmly explain why Golden Rice is not the panacaea that its backers claim, with data and scientific evidence, only to be ignored and scolded for my ignorance.

    It seems to me that if GMOs were around during the Irish potato famine their supporters would be claiming the were the magic solution to the problem and all talk of corn laws or colonialism was just anti-scientific Chartist rabble-rousing. Things are no different today.

    A little deeper thought about whether these people are anti-scientific, or misguided, or building a weak scientific defense around a fundamentally solid political and economic analysis, might be a good idea. Because the notion that GMOs are going to solve hunger in the developing world is really, really shallow.

  72. February 11th, 2015 at 12:09 | #72

    Also, again, it’s good to assess the objective data on what we know about this stuff. Dan Kahan reports here that the American public is not polarized on GMOs, and both left-wing and right-wing people have similar views on the risks.

  73. Jim Birch
    February 11th, 2015 at 13:14 | #73

    Hasn’t the precautionary principle actually been applied to GM already? There has been several decades of use of GM products with AFAIK no significant negative impacts, with the exception of pollution of “GM-free” production zones which is arguably a fashion issue rather than a biological problem. From a biological perspective, we would expect and find plant strains that are bred to improve their human nutrient component to perform less well in a natural environment. This is true whether plant strains are developed by GM or conventional breeding. (Production of the components that become food for other species requires physiological resources so is anti-adaptive, except where there is a specific requirement to co-opt other species for seed dispersal or pollination. This is why maintaining crops generally requires effort. They are preferentially eaten and otherwise out-competed.) While testing any food is a good idea, up to a point, the opposition to GM is clearly tribal and religious, not science-based. Opposing GM is pretty much like opposing vaccination: sure, we can think up things that might go wrong, but where is the evidence?

    While you might be upset about corporations making profits from GM products you might equally be upset about the negative effects of avoiding GM for religious reasons. The appalling Golden Rice story is a simple example but there are plenty of other significant benefits that can potentially flow from GM technology. Golden Rice potentially provides an almost ideal – in-situ, profit-free, socially appropriate – means of relieving vitamin A deficiency in some poor populations but it has in effect been outlawed globally by first world Green groups. Imagine how the reaction if there were thousands of blind Pakistani girls produced by the actions of a corporation! However, because the same effect is achieved by the actions of green groups it is mysteriously ok. I support a lot of green objectives but they have completely lost me on this one.

  74. February 11th, 2015 at 13:38 | #74

    Jim, Golden Rice won’t solve any problems. Not only that, but the problem it’s designed to solve was being rapidly solved anyway, and there are already GMO products on the market (golden mustard) that have failed to make a dent in vitamin a deficiency.

    I have also provided you a link to a well-respected scientist who has shown that opposition to GMs is not tribal.

    I don’t understand how people can consistently ignore the evidence presented about these issues, make claims with no basis in fact, and then accuse the people they disagree with of being anti-science. Please pay attention to the information that is available on the topic before you claim others are anti-science.

  75. Donald Oats
    February 11th, 2015 at 15:00 | #75

    Even conventional crops have shown a decline in nutrient content over time. Several scientific examinations have been carried out, using data collected recently through to several decades ago.

    Rotating crops, using manure fertiliser, multi-crop in single field, and other techniques can help to increase the nutrient content of crops, although the labour needs can be higher. The GM crops which attempt to address vitamin deficiencies are always at risk of conventional farming practices being modified and increasing the nutrient content dramatically enough to make the GM crop uncompetitive.

    I have no great issue with GM one way or the other, I see the scientific application of GM as simply another tool we can wield. The way in which corporations currently try to exploit GM proprietary knowledge is the burning issue. Personally, I think GM—in the manner used currently—will have its fifteen minutes of fame, and then sink back to niche applications. Plants are so adaptable that it can pay (as a farmer) to do some simple experiments with the other factors affecting plant nutrient density and composition, yield, and so on, for those factors contribute more (generally speaking, exceptions do apply) than GM is likely to in the foreseeable future. One day, but not today, GM may have real significance.

  76. Ikonoclast
    February 11th, 2015 at 17:13 | #76

    @Jim Birch

    The precautionary principle is or ought to be a continuous policy. It’s not a use-once-and-throw-away policy. Therfore, each new application of a GMO product needs to be thoroughly tested on a case by case basis by independent, disinterested state/academic research as well as by interested private enterprise research.

    Where is your evidence that golden rice “has in effect been outlawed globally by first world Green groups”. Surely this is a hyperbolic statement. Do these Green groups run governments and rule the globe?

    Look up the 10 foods naturally highest in beta carotene or Hunger Math for foods high in vitamin A. The plants (and animals) these foods come from can be cultivated/raised in most zones of the world or at least some can in each zone. Why go for the high tech solution when in some cases multiple, simple and low tech solutions already exist and will suffice? I will tell you. It’s because these simple, low-tech solutions are not integrated or even not well “integratable” into the centrally owned food production systems of corporate capital. That is really why they are rejected.

  77. February 11th, 2015 at 20:02 | #77

    Funny, those green groups that effectively “outlawed” golden rice have missed the boat on Golden Mustard, which has been trialed as an intervention for vitamin A deficiency and found to be five times as costly as traditional supplementation. Those who think golden rice is the be-all and end-all of vitamin a deficiency elimination should read paragraph 3 of the linked paper.

    Why is it that advocates of GMO as a solution to the problems of world hunger and blind Pakistani children never actually manage to present any evidence that their magic crops will do what they say? Isn’t this the essence of science?

  78. chrisl
    February 11th, 2015 at 20:41 | #78

    lol fns study actually endorsed golden mustard.

  79. jungney
    February 11th, 2015 at 21:10 | #79

    Just a drive by … I really don’t ‘get’ arguments about food production when the data about food distribution is so clear. All over the world indigenous and localized modes of food production, or local distribution, are being displaced by globally uniform relations of production designed by corporations and reinforced by assassination and corporate terrorism. Starvation usually follows. In the meantime, so far as I can see, scientists are engaging in a scientific squabble which relieves them of the burden of moral and ethical consideration.

  80. February 11th, 2015 at 21:11 | #80

    Indeed it did chrisl – as the most expensive alternative to standard supplementation. I present this study as evidence against the claim that these GMOs have been shut down by green activists. The real reason they aren’t in use and remain vapourware is that they are too expensive and there are lots of reasons to think they won’t work.

    The introduction of that paper points out that much VAD occurs in areas where rice is not commonly eaten, that VAD has been declining rapidly, and that it occurs mostly in the poorest sectors of society who are suffering from other forms of under-nutrition. I am yet to see any evidence presented by pro-GMO people that their technology will magically undo these problems of maldistribution and inequality. Advocating for an expensive technology over a proven, cheap technology without evidence that it will work is not scientific, correct?

  81. chrisl
    February 11th, 2015 at 21:37 | #81

    you should read more widely bud. vit a fortified plantains r already in trial and were developed by QUT. Other gm fortified irons r also in the fire. i checked Google Scholar and found plenty of endorsement s apart from your cite which is already a powerful endorsement.

  82. February 11th, 2015 at 22:10 | #82

    Making my point, chrisl, that activism has not hindered the roll out of these strategies. But are they worth it? VAD has been declining rapidly, cost-effectiveness of interventions is highly dependent on how mortality is handled, and existing supplementation strategies are a well-known cheap and effective strategy.

    Why are people spending a lot of money on developing GMO solutions to a problem that has a known, simple and cheap intervention, when the existing intervention is not always able to be successfully implemented? Do you think this is the best use of health development money?

  83. chrisl
    February 11th, 2015 at 22:17 | #83

    lol your own says supplements only get to 34% of the target group in India. effective my tooshie. anyway your mind is made up so i”ll leave you be

  84. February 11th, 2015 at 22:24 | #84

    So, an intervention that has not yet been subject to practical trials is assessed on the basis of its putative effectiveness (100%): that’s okay. An actual intervention is instead assessed on its actual observed coverage (34%): it’s terrible. Good thing you’re not in charge of any development programs.

    When these Vitamin A enriched plantains are rolled out, do you think there is any possibility that they will also fail to reach 100% coverage? Do you think it is possible that when they do, poor people will sell them to wealthier people, and use the money to buy cheaper food plus cooking oil? In a society where people suffer from iron deficiency anaemia and protein energy malnutrition due to lack of sufficient nourishment, how are GMOs going to solve nutritional deficiencies where standard food does not? Are you advocating giving away food? If so, what role does GMO play vs. say, an adequate diet? If not, why do you think GMOs will be successful where existing cheaper alternatives have failed? How will GMOs affect nutritional deficiencies (like vitamin A and iron) that are partly associated with inadequate breastfeeding? In areas where food is plentiful but diarrhoea is a major cause of malnutrition and stunting, how will GMOs help?

    It’s as if there have been 40 years of green revolution, and yet people are still starving. I wonder if there is some reason other than lack of GMOs that might explain this?

  85. Jim Rose
    February 12th, 2015 at 08:08 | #85

    Another form of left-wing crankiness that deserves a mention is radiation from cell towers and now from smart meters.

    The former green MP who, while in Parliament spoke against vaccinations and worried about their linked to autism, switched power companies because the new smart meter was going to get her with radiation.

    That particular green MP was a safe food campaigner.

    When the trans-Tasman medical regulation system was been introduced, the green party campaigned against it because it was going to apply to natural medicines.

    Naturally, the precautionary principle does not apply to finding out what is in all those natural medicines to see if they safe.

  86. chrisl
    February 12th, 2015 at 09:41 | #86

    wessler and Zilberman in environment and dev economics say 1.4 million life years lost in India over 10 yrs thx to obstruction of golden rice rollout. green activists kill brown people

  87. February 12th, 2015 at 11:01 | #87

    @Jim Rose

    Yes, possibly thanks to nuclear weapons, all sorts of radiation get a bad rap. Do you remember the 80’s when Telecom word processor operators were convinced that their high rate of miscarriage (they were of course all female) was due to radiation from the monitors they used? To me, their case was rather sad. They had a high rate of miscarriage, and rather than looking at what caused it, jumped in and blamed radiation.

    I imagine that sitting still for long periods of time was most likely the cause, rather than any radiation. Better work practices, mainly to avoid RSI probably fixed the problem.

  88. Jim Birch
    February 12th, 2015 at 11:13 | #88

    AFAIKS your argument is rhetorical or crazy. If GM will or won’t solve problems then that will demonstrated out there in the world. If it works it will be used. If it doesn’t it won’t. QED. It should be allowed to be tested without a smokescreen of anti-science emotive propaganda and manipulation.

    Normally, things can be improved, but not perfected. GM is not a universal panacea but has and will provide significant real benefits. Issues with corporate control of GM strains are similar. Sure, it is a serious problem (which I would support action on) but this isn’t any kind of reason to generically oppose GM. Baby and bathwater. Golden rice ticked all the boxes: it did not have a rent-seeking corporate owner, it was adequately tested, it was close to the ideal for this kind of intervention, it would have significantly enhanced the lives of some of the world’s poor people, but, it was opposed intensively.

    Nothing that has been said here or I have read here or elsewhere changes my opinion that the opposition to GM is essentially irrational or more accurately quasi-religious. Just as with climate science denial, creationism, etc, once the irrational jump is made and the emotional lock-in occurs, it is followed with a farrago of cherry picking, generalisation and specious arguments. For me, this is a glass house issue. I can’t oppose climate denialism and yet support or acquiesce to that same sort of whacky arguments against GM.

  89. Megan
    February 12th, 2015 at 12:30 | #89

    @Jim Birch

    I don’t know enough about the subject of Golden Rice to make an argument in either direction.

    I have heard a lot about it, and searching the net shows a lot of fiercely pro and anti sites.

    Nothing that has been said here or I have read here or elsewhere changes my opinion that the opposition to GM is essentially irrational or more accurately quasi-religious.

    That makes me ask: “If – ‘Golden rice ticked all the boxes: it did not have a rent-seeking corporate owner, it was adequately tested, it was close to the ideal for this kind of intervention, it would have significantly enhanced the lives of some of the world’s poor people’ – then what is holding it up?”

    It can’t possibly be the mighty environment lobby, otherwise we wouldn’t be facing climate change as a problem.

    From looking at the “goldenrice.org” website it appears the hold up is regulatory.

    They say, in part:

    It is obvious that no scientist or scientific institution in the public domain has the potential, funding or motivation to perform such lengthy and expensive biosafety experiments. It comes as no surprise then that virtually all transgenic events that have been carried through the deregulatory process so far are – directly or indirectly – in the private sector and are restricted to high-value crops. Humanitarian projects do not fall into this category, even though they would benefit millions of people. There is a lot of goodwill in the public and in the private sectors worldwide to exploit the potential of green biotechnology for the benefit of the poor. However, without a realistic risk assessment approach, funds for public research will not be capable of doing the trick. Scientific progress in the public sector has thus become detached from product development, and the population at large is not benefiting from that progress.

    As I read that, they just want more money to spend on satisfying regulatory requirements. Or, we should relax the regulatory requirements.

    I’d be OK with spending as much as it costs to satisfy safety regulations, but I’d need some convincing that the answer is to lower the regulatory standards.

    Presumably that debate has taken place or is taking place somewhere but it isn’t prominent in search results.

  90. Ikonoclast
    February 12th, 2015 at 12:42 | #90

    @Jim Birch

    Actually, there are fundamental issues about Climate Change compared to GMO which make the two cases quite different. Let us accept the current AGW thesis is correct.The balance of scientific evidence is that it is true to a good degree of confidence. IIRC that degree of confidence is now over 90%. Let us also accept that GMO foods when properly assessed are safe and this degree of confidence is high too.

    To sum up;

    (1) The current scientific consensus AGW thesis is correct with a confidence somewhere in the range of 90% to 100%.

    (2) LThe current scientific consensus GMO thesis is correct with a confidence somewhere in the range of 90% to 100%.

    To over-simplify (to assist investigating the ensuing logic);

    (1) AGW is real.
    (2) GMO is safe.

    If AGW is real and if we ignore that fact (keep burning massive amounts of fossil fuel) then we wreck the climate (5 degrees C plus warming) with all the terrible damage that will follow.

    If GMO is safe but we ignore it or delay it (empirically it is not stopped entirely) then what happens? Nothing particularly terrible happens to the world as a whole. There are actually many other solutions to most of the problems GMO attempts to address.


    (1) AGW action is critical and mandatory.
    (2) GMO action is sub-critical and optional.

    You cannot turn GMO into a critical issue equal in importance to the AGW issue. It simply is not nearly as important to implement.


    (A) The powers of capital, oligarchy and corporatism are (mostly) opposing AGW action.
    (B) The powers of capital, oligarchy and corporatism are (mostly) promoting GMO action.

    The powers of capital, oligarchy and corporatism are the most powerful and effective in policy implementation today. So the mandatory action on AGW is in serious jeopardy but the pushing through of optional GMO is pretty much assured and does in fact continue.

    As other bloggers have noted, there are other issues about GMO which do not directly relate to the safety and science of GMO. These issues relate to corporate control of food security, wider environmental effects and the costs and benefits of GMO versus other approaches to food security.

    It is critical to be concerned that AGW action is too slow (because of the impending damage to the climate). It is important, but not critical, to be concerned that GMO action is too fast because of the other issues mentioned above.

    Thus, even accepting the science in both cases, one can see, if one has a comprehensive understanding that the two cases present different problems overall for the implementation of precautionary and other principles. The cases are not the same just because they both involve arguments of science versus anti-science.

    I can logically say the precautionary principle indicates the need for urgent action on climate change and the need for slow, cautious, well-studied progress on GMOs. I can say this even while I take a pro-science stance in both cases.

  91. Jim Birch
    February 12th, 2015 at 14:33 | #91

    That’s arguably true if you happen to be a well fed person in a rich country. The impact of lowering food production for aesthetic reasons is a matter of dollars. It’s not actually ‘logical’, the argument relies on values. The precautionary principle might say one thing from a plush middle class sofa but would also say that if your family are actually are going hungry, or blind, then do something right now to fix it even if it entails cost and risk.

    I have a further problem. All these “other issues” don’t stack up, either. Corporate controlled food security is actually better than no food security. That is why poor farmers choose to pay a premium for GM seed.

    The environmental impact of GM is generally positive due to adding desirable qualities like higher yields, reduced chemical use, higher food value, disease resistance, lower water requirements, and so on. Obviously there will be exceptions but the general impact will be an environmental plus. There are risks with GM just like everything else and I’m completely in favour of doing real analysis and also the getting an answer. It’s the nebulous reasoning that I don’t like. Is “slow, cautious, well-studied” just code for “never”? What actual GM plant strains do you think have now passed the test? On several decades of real world evidence you could reasonably conclude that GM products are pretty safe. Which is more-or-less what you would expect from biological considerations.

    As for “other approaches” to security, well, bring ’em on. Of course, this isn’t an anti-GM argument at all, it’s just an argument for finding the best options or mix of options. Good.

    I agree that climate change a more serious problem but I don’t get that this makes fluffy thinking on GM ok.

  92. February 12th, 2015 at 16:29 | #92

    @Paul Keating

    Mr Keating, you are exaggerating. As Jungney says, we have no trouble producing enough food, only in getting it to hungry mouths. If you want to blame anything, blame our capitalist system.

  93. John Quiggin
    February 12th, 2015 at 17:32 | #93

    @Jim Rose

    This is the lamest tu quoque I’ve seen in a while. You cite a scare that was around a decade or so ago, promoted by a (now former) Greens MP. (For another example, you have to go to some loon in NZ).

    Against that, I’ll cite the Australian conservative parties in government pushing (among many other pieces of antiscientific nonsense) bogus health scares about wind farms. Unlike the Green MP, your political allies have actually passed NIMBY legislation on this topic

  94. Ikonoclast
    February 12th, 2015 at 20:00 | #94

    @Paul Keating

    The statement “Greens have blood on their hands” (in relation to the implementation or non-implementation of golden rice) is the most ridiculous statement I have heard for a long while.

    If one checks the timeline of golden rice development, one can see that most if not all delays have been due to the unreadiness of the product itself. Quotes below from Wikipedia.

    1. “The scientific details of the rice were first published in Science in 2000,[1] the product of an eight-year project by Ingo Potrykus of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and Peter Beyer of the University of Freiburg.”

    2. “The first field trials of these golden rice cultivars were conducted by Louisiana State University Agricultural Center in 2004.”

    3. “In 2005, a team of researchers at biotechnology company, Syngenta, produced a variety of golden rice called “Golden Rice 2″. They combined the phytoene synthase gene from maize with crt1 from the original golden rice. Golden rice 2 produces 23 times more carotenoids than golden rice (up to 37 µg/g), and preferentially accumulates beta-carotene (up to 31 µg/g of the 37 µg/g of carotenoids).”

    Note: We can assume that Golden Rice 2 was researched and developed for good reasons. A reasonable assumption, especially in light of the next numbered quote, is that the original would not deliver enough carotenoids in the poor diets being targeted.

    4. “Initial analyses of the potential nutritional benefits of golden rice suggested consumption of golden rice would not eliminate the problems of vitamin A deficiency, but should be seen as a complement to other methods of vitamin A supplementation.[22][23] Since then, improved strains of golden rice have been developed containing sufficient provitamin A to provide the entire dietary requirement of this nutrient to people who eat about 75g of golden rice per day.[4]”

    5. “In particular, since carotenes are hydrophobic, there needs to be a sufficient amount of fat present in the diet for golden rice (or most other vitamin A supplements) to be able to alleviate vitamin A deficiency. In that respect, it is significant that vitamin A deficiency is rarely an isolated phenomenon, but usually coupled to a general lack of a balanced diet (see also Vandana Shiva’s arguments below). The RDA levels accepted in developed countries are far in excess of the amounts needed to prevent blindness.[4] Moreover, this claim referred to an early cultivar of golden rice; one bowl of the latest version provides 60% of RDA for healthy children.[24]”

    6. “In 2009, research results of a clinical trial of Golden Rice with adult volunteers from the USA were published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. It concluded that “beta carotene derived from Golden Rice is effectively converted to vitamin A in humans”.[27] In a summary about the research the American Society for Nutrition suggests the implications of the research are that “Golden Rice could probably supply 50% of the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of vitamin A from a very modest amount — perhaps a cup — of rice, if consumed daily. This amount is well within the consumption habits of most young children and their mothers”.[28]

    In response to the research, a group of 20 scientists suggested in an open letter that there might be deficiencies in clinical trials: “There is now a large body of evidence that shows that GM crop/food production is highly prone to inadvertent and unpredictable pleiotropic effects, which can result in health damaging effects when GM food products are fed to animals. More specifically, our greatest concern is that this rice, which is engineered to overproduce beta carotene, has never been tested in animals, and there is an extensive medical literature showing that retinoids that can be derived from beta carotene are both toxic and cause birth defects.” [29] However, it is well known that beta carotene is found and consumed in many nutritious foods eaten around the world, including fruits and vegetables. Beta carotene in food is a safe source of vitamin A.[30]

    The Food Allergy Resource and Research Program of the University of Nebraska undertook research in 2006 that showed the proteins from the new genes in Golden Rice did not show any allergenic properties.[31]

    In August 2012, Tufts University and others published new research on Golden Rice in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showing that the beta carotene produced by Golden Rice is as good as beta carotene in oil at providing vitamin A to children.[32] The study states that “recruitment processes and protocol were approved”,[32] but questions have been raised about the use of Chinese children to test the effects of Golden Rice.[33]”

    7. “In 2008 WHO malnutrition expert Francesco Branca cited the lack of real-world studies and uncertainty about how many people will use golden rice, concluding “giving out supplements, fortifying existing foods with vitamin A, and teaching people to grow carrots or certain leafy vegetables are, for now, more promising ways to fight the problem”.[40]”

    It’s pretty much as I thought. No Green groups have significantly obstructed golden rice. The development process and necessary field trials took up to about a decade from 2000 to 2010. And an expert pointed out that people could, via aid, get supplements and be assisted to grow carrots. One wonders why these interim simple strategems could not or were not put in place.

    I am not against golden rice. I am for it being tested properly before implementation and I am for other strategems, interim or not, to be attempted too. I accept it has very probably been tested properly by now except for possible animal and environmental effects.

    The pro-golden-rice lobby here seem to be implying that golden rice was all systems go (known to be safe and effective) from 2000 or 2005, when 2012 would seem to be a more defensible date for that judgement. The pro-golden-rice lobby seem to be promoting that the solution is golden rice or nothing. This also is false. The pro-golden-rice lobby, like the pro-GMO lobby in general damage their case by exaggeration, all-or-nothing claims, pressure for haste before adequate proper trials are completed and by their extreme naivity about the motives of corporate capital.

    Why does corporate capital always promote big, expensive, heavily technical, heavily centralised, heavily industrialised and patentable solutions over simpler market garden (carrots) solutions? This is a valid question.

    There are some things in favour of golden rice and I will admit this. If safe (and it now finally looks like it probably is proven so), it delivers the required beta carotene more or less automatically in the diet, albeit the diet still needs other adequate nutrients, including fat, to make the beta carotene supplmentation effective.

  95. Ikonoclast
    February 12th, 2015 at 20:16 | #95

    In addition to my post above, the Golden Rice Project page on IP is illuminating.


    I could write a lot but will limit myself to quoting these points.

    Start Quote

    1. The inventors have assigned their exclusive rights to the Golden Rice technology to Syngenta.

    2. Syngenta added some further technologies, and arranged licences with other companies for some additional technologies to be included in the original Golden Rice.

    3. Syngenta, in turn, has given the inventors a humanitarian licence with the right to sublicense public research institutions and low-income farmers in developing countries, to the full set of necessary technologies.

    4. Syngenta retains commercial rights, although it has no plans to commercialize Golden Rice.

    End Quote.

    Syngenta judged there would not be enough market in developed countries (we got lots of beta carotene in our diet) and they were not interested in undeveloped markets (no profits).

    So, the main drag on getting golden rice into poor countries has been Syngenta’s disinterset (no profits!) and lack of public research dollars and aid dollars assigned by our develped world neoliberal governments. Greens had next to nothing to do with it! Same old culprits! Profiteering corporations and neoliberal governments. LOL! Why am I not surprised?

  96. Neil
    February 13th, 2015 at 02:55 | #96

    I think it interesting that Ikonoclast doesn’t mention the next bullet point on that site:

    “Humanitarian Use” means (and includes research leading to):
    1. Use in developing countries (low-income, food-deficit countries as defined by
    2. Resource-poor farmer use (earning less than US$10,000 per year from farming)
    3. The technology must be introduced into public germplasm ( = seed) only (see below).
    4. No surcharge may be charged for the technology (i.e. the seed may cost only as much as a seed without the trait)
    5. National sales are allowed by such farmers (in this way urban needs can also be covered)
    6. Reusing the harvested seed in the following planting season is allowed (the farmer is the owner of his seeds)

    Which pretty much invalidates his entire attempt to besmirch the technology by association with a (gasp) Corporation.

    The idea that environmental NGOs have not been scaring people and governments about the “dangers”/utility of Golden Rice is laughable. This has been going on for 20 years – I remember Greenpeace’s very first press release about Golden Rice and how it was dangerous because people (who were dying from VAD) might overdose on vitamin A. Then, when they realized the vitamin levels were low, they turned things around and started saying it wouldn’t work at all (as if VAD is a binary problem – lack of vitamin A is a distribution of concentration so any increase will help some people). These scare tactics have led to overregulation and people like Ikonoclast saying “we’re not against it, we just want one more study done”…which is getting obscene with the background of dying people. By contrast, we are putting experimental drugs – barely tested in animals – into ebola patients because there is a desperate need to save lives, but with this….no urgency. Plenty of time. It wouldn’t help. They’ll die anyway from not having enough fat. Have them grow carrots. And Vandana Shiva will tell you this at any conference you wish, so long as you pay her a USD$40,000 appearance fee and buy a business class ticket from India (how can I get in on that gig?? I’d only have to work 2-3 days a year).

    Bringing this (somewhat) back to the original topic. I’ve been off reviewing the vaccination information and recent electoral results from Oregon and Washington states. This is interesting because there have been a number of citizens-initiated measures in recent years in these two states – legalization of marijuana (passed), same-sex marriage (passed), labeling of GM food (failed). On a county-by-county basis for the two states there is a strong correlation between the % of people that voted for Obama (2012) and the desire to label GM food (p < 0.001, r2= 0.72) – so to me this suggests there is polarization by political orientation in the GM issue – but there is no substantial correlation between % of people that voted for Obama and % complete vaccination (p = 0.041, r2 = 0.2). In fact, very interestingly, in both states the lowest vaccination rates are occurring in the most polarized counties – strongest Republican and Democrat counties have the worst vaccination rates in both states.

  97. Jim Birch
    February 13th, 2015 at 12:35 | #97

    Are you really expecting me to believe that there has not been a campaign against Golden Rice by green groups or that if there was one it was ineffective so it doesn’t matter? Hello?

    Neither have you presented any serious argument that GM plant breeding presents any increased risk over conventional plant breeding which the is conclusion drawn by all credible scientific bodies that have looked at the issue.

    To my mind, if you want to claim to be pro-science, you keep it up even if it requires revision of your favourite ideas or alliances. That is, even if it hurts a little.

    BTW I’ve worked on several of landcare projects. We have significant problems with invading species but none of them are feral food crops, GM or otherwise. There are good biological reasons for this. OTOH If anyone want to improve the sturdiness of boxthorn by GM or conventional methods, I’ll oppose it.

  98. February 13th, 2015 at 21:40 | #98

    Paul Keating, 1.4 million life years lost (YLLs) over a decade in India.

    Over that time, total YLLs to all nutritional deficiencies have dropped from 11m to 7m. Since 1990 YLLs due to nutritional deficiencies have declined from 18m to 7m – that is half a million YLLs per year. How is it that YLLs dropped by two-thirds without any help from Golden Rice? And if you divert funds from existing effective programs to Golden Rice, which is estimated to be 5 times more expensive than existing interventions that are known to be effective, will you simply be taking YLLs from one column (protein-energy deficiency) and putting them in another, more expensive one?

    I guess it’s a plaintive cry in the wilderness of anti-science around here but again I ask: how do you know golden rice will work, how will it be effective in areas where rice is not a staple, how will it overcome the inequalities in food distribution that are the primary drivers of YLLs, how will it overcome the diarrhoea issue, and what will its benefits be in children too young to eat rice who are inadequately breastfed? And finally, what evidence do you have that VAD should be the main focus of nutritional interventions in India, why should money be diverted from existing interventions known to be effective, and is it the best use of resources?

    No one on this thread is going to answer those questions, I know, because that would mean diverting from the magic bullet script and engaging with the actual politics and economics of development for health. But please give it a crack if you can.

  99. February 14th, 2015 at 11:37 | #99

    Faustnotes, we know golden rice works because it contains vitamin A (techically its precursor) and people who are suffering from a lack of vitamin A recover when they eat food containing vitamin A. It probably won’t work in areas where rice is not a staple unless they are in a habit of importing rice because if they don’t grow rice and they don’t import it it becomes exceedingly difficult for them to eat rice. Golden rice is just rice. It doesn’t do anything normal rice doesn’t do except contain beta-carotine, so unless normal rice overcomes inequalities in food distribution one should not expect golden rice to. It does nothing to overcome diarrhoea that normal rice does not. The beta-carotine or resulting vitamin A has to enter a baby’s body either directly or indirectly to alleviate vitamin A deficiency. Merely being in close proximity to it is not enough. Vitamin A from it will not magically jump into their bodies and it is strange that you feel the need to ask a question about this. Developing Golden Rice is a sunk cost. Also, it is a plant. A plant that is capable of reproducing itself. It does not require much in the way of resources to make it available to people.

  100. Ikonoclast
    February 14th, 2015 at 12:30 | #100

    In answer to Neil and Jim Birch.

    I did mention point 3 as follows;

    3. Syngenta, in turn, has given the inventors a humanitarian licence with the right to sublicense public research institutions and low-income farmers in developing countries, to the full set of necessary technologies.

    The detail Neil adds is fine. I was trying to keep my post to a reasonable length. It is clear the field is now open to humanitarian implementation. You want to assign the primary cause of its non-implementation to Green “propaganda”. I am suggesting one could just as easily cite the lack of public research dollars and aid dollars for Golden Rice humanitarian applications assigned by our develped world governments. They seem more keen to fund billion dollar, nay trillion dollar, wars in the M.E. and elsewhere than to fund food and agricultural aid. I suppose the Greens are to blame for those wars too… oh no, wait the Greens opposed them.

    I do NOT hold a position on GMO identical to the Australian Greens for example. Their precautonary position is stronger than the precautionary position I take. However, I do hold along with the Greens and other thinkers that caution is still required and that GMO has to be considered also in its political economy context. What happens with GMO as applied science is about power, ownership and manipulation as well as about science.

    Your position(s) seem simplistic to me. One, you seem to argue the pro case for GMO is only about science and only about GMOs as the one magic bullet method to help malnourished people. Two, you seem to assume that genetic science and GM is simple, narrowly deterministic, we already know everything important about it and that we could not in principle ever be blind-sided by unforeseen side effects at individual, species, ecological or environmental levels. And further you seem to assume attendant dangers to do with other issues like pesticides (both gene produced and sprayed on) don’t exist either.

    In other words, in dealing with complex inter-related genetic and ecological systems you seem to think everything is simple and straight-forward. Almost no view could be less scientific. Surely, we have or ought to have progressed beyond simplistic, deterministic and hubristic science by now? Surely, we have learned by now that the power of modern science needs to applied very carefully because of its power to change our entire environment?

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