On citizenship

2017/07/20
File:Loz takei 2015 side.png

George Takei at Columbia University, image credit Alex Lozupone

I’ve just started listening to the audio version of George Takei’s autobiography, To the Stars. I got it out of the library on his Trek creds, but already it is more compelling than I had naively expected.

He has just finished talking about his early childhood in Japanese internment camps (yes, plural) during the Second World War. Now, George has asked his father why he was applying to become a naturalized American citizen – after all the government-mandated xenophobic crap they went through during and after the war. Here is his father’s response:

If people like me aren’t willing to take a chance and participate, America strays that much further from its ideals. My choice is to help America be what it claims to be.

Wow. Still processing that.

I feel like that should be my motto for dealing with politics here in Canada:

My choice is to help Canada be what it claims to be.

What a profoundly responsible and positive response to things like Truth and Reconciliation, like squabbling over carbon taxes, like the xenophobia that is creeping through western societies today.

(I encourage anyone who doesn’t already to follow George on Twitter – he is stellar!)

Clear thinking: vaccination

2017/06/18

I really hate discovering irrationality in my thinking.

I hate seeing a cherished belief go up in smoke, not because of new evidence, but because I had been committing the sort of error that I was long ago trained to avoid.

Rational thinking, scientific skepticism – these are among my core values as a human. As such, it is very hard to watch people I love and respect express ideas or engage in actions that seem to contradict those values.

So, when a Facebook friend recently commented favourably on an article titled “Harvard Study Proves Unvaccinated Children pose no risk“, I went through a familiar and disquieting sequence:

  1. I wanted to scream at this friend, to tell them that they were wrong, to warn them away from the irrational and harmful anti-vaccination path. But of course, screaming at people rarely changes their minds. Even worse, it sets me up as an enemy, rather than as a potential ally in the search for the right answer. More awful yet, if I happen to be wrong on this point, this reaction would make it harder for my friend to correct me.
  2. I wanted to dig up a mountain of references to hurl at my friend, to help them see the error of their ways. Links to good, scientifically-sound rebuttals of the original article. Sadly, research has shown that even this approach tends to backfire – making someone even more committed to the false belief.
  3. I felt like letting it lie – there is no way for me to change my friend’s belief, so why even wade into that morass? But … but that’s not going to help anybody. At least one of us is wrong, and I want us to be as correct as possible. On anything. But especially something like this that can affect our health and our children’s health.

So what am I left with?

I am left with this: No strategy. No clever potted response. Just a conversation. An invitation.

My friend might be wrong. I might be wrong. I cannot force my friend to open their mind and accept my position, nor would I want to. That’s not how true understanding comes. What I can do is openly, publicly acknowledge my current position. I am more persuaded by the science of vaccines, and by critiques such as this one, than by the article my friend commented on.

Now, if anyone wants to have the discussion, I’m here. (“Here” means in the comments section of my blog, as well as on the Facebook post that it will create. It also means by email, for those who have my email, and any other venue that a person legitimately has for pursuing a discussion with me.)

(Once upon a time, I fantasized that my blog would be a way to reach thousands of people, to persuade and influence en masse. Today, I am content for it to be a platform to open one-on-one conversations. It may not be much, but it is enough.)

 

My Christmas

2016/12/20

 

I grew up celebrating Christmas with my family. There were some religious aspects to it. There still are, in some branches of the family. I have had the great privilege of seeing people with very different religious beliefs simply getting together and doing their thing. You want to say grace? Cool, knock yourself out. You don’t want to bow your head? Hey, that’s totally up to you. Feel like giving out cards with manger scenes? Fine. Science books about an ancient and completely natural cosmos? Not a problem.

What’s the point of all this? I’m not here to say that everything is fine. Not every family is as saccharine and cheesy as mine. (And perhaps I’m glossing over some details to make a point.) There are jerks out there – people who really do seem bent on stirring things up, who miss the irony of trying to impose peace and brotherhood by shouting down everyone who believes or acts differently from them. And there is a great temptation to shout back. We all have that inner four-year-old who insists the only way to win an argument is to be the last one still shouting. This isn’t new with the Internet. It’s just the newest annoying means for people to act like jerks to each other.

But … well, although I reject much about the metaphysical, moral, and spiritual backdrop to the Christmas story, I am quite happy to hold on to one idea that many branches of the tradition agree on: the idea of coming together. Of kindling our common humanity. It doesn’t belong exclusively to Christianity. It doesn’t belong exclusively to anyone. It is there, ready and waiting, in every single one of us. Any time two or more people encounter each other, there is the chance to make a human connection. A chance to make the world a bit less lonely.

Strip away all the sectarian crap, and that’s what midwinter is to me. It’s the Christian story of new hope. It’s the pagan season of rebirth. It’s the middle of the Canadian winter, when we all get together and keep each other warm by the strength of our shared presence, when we defy winter by enjoying being out in the snow, and we defy the bleakness by sharing what food we have, and we defy the daily grind by finding delight in simple contact with people.

So this season, my goal is to avoid arguments, but not to avoid people. I want to be with my friends, with my family. Not to promote a particular idea. Not to combat something or someone. Just to be together. To remind me of the point of it all. (Oh, I’ll get back to combatting bad ideas, promoting good ideas. But I need a couple of weeks of simple humanity, centering myself.)

Anyway, that’s my Christmas rant. I hope you all have a fine midwinter season, whatever you choose to call it, however you choose to celebrate or not celebrate. Be human; see the human in others; enjoy their company.

See you next year.

 

 

Does organic mean healthy?

2016/10/05

This is the fourth in a series of posts examining claims in a Facebook meme I shared. Go here for the setup.

Claim 4: Organic does not mean healthy.

Well, I mentioned in the previous post of the series that I prefer to avoid the “organic” label. Now you will get to find out why.

We’ve already dealt with genetically modified foods, and concluded that there’s no evidence-based reason to avoid them. Organic certification as I understand it includes anti-GMO rules, as well as specifications about herbicides and pesticides that are permitted and prohibited. (No, “organic” does not mean “no herbicides or pesticides can be used”; it just means “only those herbicides and pesticides that we deem ‘natural’ can be used”.) Organic meat products have other rules relating to what you can put in the animals.

Looking through Government of Canada websites about organic agriculture, I have encountered some interesting little nuggets.

For example, in a document titled “Organic production systems – General principles and management standards“, the government is careful to note:

Neither this standard nor organic products produced in accordance with this standard represent specific claims about the healthiness, safety and nutrition of such organic products.

I read that in the light of this FAQ on the CBC website (many of whose links are dead now, sadly), which says near the top that

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency adopted the Organic Products Regulations in June 2009, in large part to comply with stricter European requirements on exported produce.

Together, these two quotes suggest to me that the government’s motivation in producing organic labelling regulations was not to protect public health, but to protect Canadian agricultural trade. Both are, of course, noble goals. But if health was the issue, the organic standards would not, I think, be voluntary (as many of the pages I found were careful to note).

I put that up front just so people don’t ask whether the government’s involvement in organic certification is an implicit endorsement of the claims that organic agriculture produces food that is better for people’s health. The government explicitly refutes this claim, and they seem clearly to have had other legitimate motivations in promoting these regulations.

Okay, so much for the negative evidence: the government neither endorses nor (so far as I found) refutes the health claims of the organic industry.

Who does speak to these claims?

For fairness, I’ll offer the organic industry’s claim. This is from The Organic Center, an American non-profit research group whose goals seem to be to promote organic farming through research and advocacy. In their “Health benefits of organic” info sheet, they claim that:

  • Organic milk has 62% more omega-3 fatty acids than conventional milk.
  • Organic crops have higher cancer-fighting anti-oxidant levels.
  • Organic crops have 48% lower levels of cadmium than conventional crops.
  • Pesticides are found 4 times more frequently in conventional crops than organic crops.

That sounds pretty persuasive, doesn’t it? In the absence of context, that may seem to seal the case for organic being healthier. Here are some key questions you can ask, before you even read on:

  • Does the higher level of omega-3 in organic milk have a noticeable effect on human health?
  • Do the higher anti-oxidant levels in organic food actually reduce cancer in people who eat it, relative to those who eat conventionally-produced food?
  • Is the level of cadmium, or the levels of pesticides, found in conventional crops high enough to worry about?

But …

When I looked at sources that are neither industry-funded nor explicitly aimed at advocacy (as The Organic Center is), I found a resoundingly consistent message.

Dieticians.ca, a science-based nutrition resource run by health professionals independent of industry (organic or otherwise), offers various key nuggets of advice:

  • Scientific evidence is does not clearly suggest that there are any health benefits to eating organic foods.
  • Studies of specific nutrient content have variously shown organic foods to be:
    • higher in vitamin C, phosphorus, and phytochemicals.
    • lower in nitrogen and protein.
  • These differences, even if reliable, “have not been found to benefit nutrition or overall health.”
  • “In Canada, both organic and non-organic foods have to follow strict guidelines and are tested to make sure they are safe to eat.”
  • “While some organic products may be higher in a few nutrients and have lower amounts of some pesticide residues, what’s most important is that you eat a variety of healthy foods from Canada’s Food Guide.”

At Science-Based Medicine, medical doctor Steven Novella looks at recent (as of 2012) systematic reviews of studies. The takeaway is that

There is insufficient evidence to conclude that organic produce is healthier or more nutritious that conventional produce.

Novella also addresses the increased popularity of organic food.

Despite the scientific evidence, the alleged health benefits of organic produce is the number one reason given by consumers for buying organic. This likely represents the triumph of marketing over scientific reality.

The Mayo Clinic agrees that organic food is “probably not” more nutritious.

So far, the science seems to have soundly responded to the claims by The Organic Center. Those differences they cite, if real, don’t have a meaningful effect on human health.

But there’s more.

A 2012 article in the National Post points out that the voluntary nature of Canada’s organic regulations actually means that all the “organic” label means is that a producer has claimed to produce the food in a particular way: there is little to no testing to verify they are following the rules. Even more troubling is the finding in a 2014 study described on the Genetic Literacy Project, that “organic foods are four to eight times more likely to be recalled than conventional foods for safety issues like bacterial contamination.” In searching for the original research article (which I didn’t find – please let me know if you get hold of it), I came across this article on the CTV news site, which gave a list of products recalled earlier this year due to possible Listeria contamination. The word “organic” shows up a lot on that list.

As outlined in this article on CFACT, there is a heavy irony in the fact that an industry built on fear of unsafe substances in our food systematically allows an inordinate amount of proven-dangerous contaminants into the products it sells to consumers.

I want to offer two final considerations, that are not empirical evidence regarding the claim, but I think are material considerations for thinking about it. First, “organic” certification prohibits certain chemicals but allows others. In fact, whether it is natural or synthetic seems to be the only test regarding whether a chemical is permitted or not under the organic label. Actual safety isn’t a consideration. This report from Colorado points out that organic-approved pesticides and herbicides may be even more toxic than non-organic alternatives. (Hint: every substance is a chemical, whether it is “natural” or “synthetic”.)

And second, organic foods are more expensive. This has various causes. But one consequence is that (because organic and conventional food products turn out to be equally nutritious) you can buy less nutrition for the same money if you go organic. Not an issue for many middle-class people here and elsewhere, but what about poorer people? If a low-income family buys into the false propaganda that “organic is better”, they risk making choices that will materially damage their well-being: they will eat less well, or have less money.

My conclusion:

Nutritionally, there is no reason to expect organic foods to be better for your health than other foods. In fact, there is some reason to be more cautious about organic foods – recall rates suggest they are far more likely to be contaminated by pathogens.

I don’t consider myself low-income, but I really don’t like the idea of paying into an industry built on false health scares and poor regulation of actual safety. And I’m certainly not going to pay a premium for the privilege of getting bilked in this way.

I will add that, though I think the organic industry has a lot to answer for, I suspect that most individual organic farmers – especially organic family farms (see previous post on family farms) – are just trying to find a way to make a decent living. My ideal resolution to this issue would be that everyone would see through the hype and falsehoods, and go back to buying good food and ignoring the essentially meaningless and misleading label of “organic”.

Are there antibiotics in our meat?

2016/10/02

This is the third in a series of posts examining claims in a Facebook meme I shared. Go here for the setup.

Claim 3: There are no antibiotics in your meat.

As earlier claims, this can be read in at least two different ways – and in this case, one turns out to be probably true while the other is probably false.

The first is the suggestion that antibiotics administered to animals while they live remain in the product you buy at the supermarket or at the butcher. I learned from someone in the business (my dad, who used to raise cattle) that any antibiotics (and growth hormones) are metabolized by the time the animal is butchered. Indeed, it would seem to be a necessary fact if our food safety inspection system is at all justified in its existence.

But I don’t expect you to take “it stands to reason” or personal “I know someone in the industry who said” as evidence. Let’s look at what’s out there …

After sifting through various industry-advocacy sources, I came across this site from EatRight Ontario – a group of Dieticians funded in part by the province and apparently independent of industry. Here is their takeaway on antibiotics (and hormones) in meat products:

Health Canada sets maximum levels of hormones and antibiotics that can be left in food. These limits are set at levels far below the amount that could pose a health concern.

Test results from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency show that hormone and antibiotic levels are rarely found to be above the recommended levels.

A more detailed explanation of how this could be is given by Brian Dunning in the Skeptoid episode on antibiotics and hormones in beef. Note that Skeptoid is American-based, and so regulatory issues may differ from Canada. However, the biochemistry is the same. Here is what Dunning says:

Antibiotics are metabolized very rapidly by humans and animals. That’s why your doctor gives you a bottle and you have to take several pills a day; the pharmacokinetics are such that there’s not enough left in your system after only a few hours or days at the most. When cattle are treated with antibiotics, these pharmacokinetics are the same. But we don’t take any risks here. Cattle given antibiotics are subject to what’s called a withdrawal time, a waiting period where that cow cannot go into food production until we’re sure there are no antibiotics left in its system. Depending on what drug is given, this withdrawal time is anywhere from 0 to 60 days. By the time any cow goes into food production, there’s no antibiotic in its system.

Okay, so much for the presence of antibiotics in the actual meat we consume. What about the wider issue? Many of the results my search turned up didn’t even bother with whether antibiotics remain in the meat. The more pressing issue is the effect of widespread, non-clinical use of antibiotics in our agricultural animals.

Here is an article on PBS about the scope of the issue in the US. CBC seems to agree that it is just as big a problem in Canada. The main issue: overuse of antibiotics in animals may contribute to antibiotic resistance in not only food-borne illnesses, but also other pathogens that humans suffer from. On the scientific front, we have a 2015 article on Healthy Debate (a Canadian health information group dedicated to presenting unbiased, science-based information to the public) arguing for greater restrictions on the use of antibiotics in food animals.

Health Canada takes a more tentative position, claiming that more evidence is needed before making a policy decision. The industry-advocacy organization, the Beef Cattle Research Council, claims that “Research and surveillance evidence suggests that eliminating antimicrobial use in beef production would have clear negative health consequences for cattle with no obvious benefit for human health.”

It sounds like much of the reporting from unbiased sources (those with no financial interest either way) takes a cautionary approach – from warning against current levels of antibiotic use (PBS, CBC, Healthy Debate) to wanting more evidence (Health Canada). The only “no problem here, move along” message seems to come from an industry source, which a reader can reasonably suspect in light of the other evidence, because the industry is likely to have a financial interest in encouraging consumers not to worry about their practices.

My overall conclusions on this claim are therefore mixed. Meat on the table almost certainly contains no antibiotics. However, antibiotic use in the raising of animals probably has other negative consequences, and there are moves from grassroots, industry, and regulators to curb the overuse of antibiotics in livestock. Personally, I am currently inclined to make purchasing choices that avoid animal products produced using sub-clinical doses of antibiotics. Because of the problems I have with the “organic” label (discussed in other posts in this series), I tend to avoid products labelled organic. Is there some way to pick meat that is neither “organic” nor produced with excess antibiotics?

Are most farms still family farms?

2016/09/08

This is the second in a series of posts examining claims in a Facebook meme I shared. Go here for the setup.

Claim 2: Most farms are still family farms.

This is a claim I should never have put forth in the first place, because I have no reason to believe it, and nowhere near the experience to be able to say how likely it is to be true or false.

I grew up on a family farm, surrounded by family farms, so it feels true. But I don’t know whether my experience is anomalous or not.

For this article, I’ll define the claim as meaning that more than half of farms by number are family farms, and that they represent more than half of the agricultural production of the country. (Yes, these are two separate claims, and will be dealt with separately where possible.)

When I tried to research this claim, I came across various barriers. For example, the 2011 Statistics Canada report on agricultural demographics contains lots of information but doesn’t anywhere seem to address the question of how many family farms there are, their proportion of farming (either by a count of farms or by acreage), or anything like that. A 2012 article in the Globe and Mail discussing the same StatsCan census information claims that the number of family farms has decreased by 10% and the average size has increased by 7%. This suggests to me that family farms don’t look like what we are used to thinking of. But it doesn’t define “family farm”, and doesn’t tell us what proportion of farms are family farms, by number or acreage.

Looking at our southern neighbours, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported in 2015 that 97% of farms are family-owned, and 88% are “small family farms” (annual gross cash income less than $350k. So the original meme, which came from the US, is almost certainly true, at least regarding number of farms. Again, I didn’t see data on proportion by acreage.

A 2016 article in the journal World Development looks globally. (This article is dated November 2016, which seems odd given that it is now only September 2016. I’m guessing the electronic version comes out early, and is dated to when the print version is due to come out.) They find that, worldwide, 98% of farmers are family farmers, and they hold 68% of farming land. So far so good. They don’t directly report on Canada’s numbers, but Figure 1 in the article seems to suggest that in Canada, between 40% and 60% of farms are family farms:

World map with countries covered and the percent of family farms in each ...

Figure 1. 

World map with countries covered and the percent of family farms in each country.

 

But one caveat for conclusions from this study is that the authors acknowledge a broad lack of consensus about what the term “family farm” means. Different countries define it differently. Does it mean a farm owned by a family? That would, conceivably, mean any farm that is not a publicly-traded corporation. (My own family’s farm is a privately-held corporation. Would it count?) Does it mean a farm that has been operated by members of the same family for more than one generation? And what does it really tell us about the economic structure of farming? Many farmers contract their production to food manufacturers. Consider a family farm producing potatoes for a potato-chip factory. If the farm’s business is dependent on that factory, would its effect on our society be closer to a family farm or to a comparable farm directly owned by a corporation?

Conclusion

I’m afraid the conclusion for this one is far less definite than I’d like. Worldwide, the lcaim seems definitely true. In North America, the claim seems definitely true. In Canada, the most specific information says we have between 40% and 60% family farms, which sounds like a toss-up to me.

What’s important about this claim? I think there are two aspects. One, more social or nostalgic, is an image of the rustic hayseed producing food because that’s what the family has done for generations. I think this side of farming is declining: the stats do say that acreage is increasing, meaning that all farms – family-run or otherwise – rely on technology to work more land. The other is the independence of farming from the sort of large-scale corporate interests that reduce consumer choice and affect our health and economy in ways we don’t always want. I cannot say where we are on this scale.

I’m sorry to leave you with such an open, unsatisfying conclusion. But better that than pretend to know something I don’t actually know.

If anyone has better data on this, please let me know. I’d love to have a clearer perspective on this issue.

If family farms – whatever that means – are important to you, the best way to express that is to support them as directly as possible. Farmers markets. On-farm stores.

Eagle Creek Farms

In fact, if you live in or would like to visit central Alberta, why don’t you check out Eagle Creek Farms? The farm I grew up on currently produces seed potatoes in a wide range of varieties, from plain white to blue to candy-cane and more, for gardeners across Canada. It also has community-supported agriculture (CSA) subscriptions for both summer and winter, as well as a flower and vegetable U-pick patch during the summer, and a wide variety of mazes – including several acres of corn and sunflower mazes. My great-grandad, Tope Mills, first moved out to the area, and my family has been farming there ever since. Right now, my dad, Stan, and my brother, John, are working hard to keep the farm running. Mail-order potatoes, U-pick flowers, and CSA are all ideas that would surprise Tope, I think. But the basic idea of feeding people and supporting a family in a beautiful rural setting hasn’t changed all that much.

 

Are GMOs safe?

2016/09/05

This is the first in a series of posts examining claims in a Facebook meme I shared. Go here for the setup.

Claim 1: GMOs are safe.

What does this mean? It could mean that they are safe for human consumption: that eating food products from genetically modified organisms is as safe as eating comparable products from non-genetically modified organisms. It could mean that they are safe for the environment: that the use of genetic modification introduces no more risk for the ecosystem than the use of other agricultural technologies. It could conceivably also mean they are economically and socially safe: that GMOs do not pose a risk of (say) corporate exploitation of farmers, or other social ills, compared to non-GMO agricultural methods.

I will address the first two: health ecological safety. The third will, I think, fall under a later claim (about Monsanto).

Health

The first source I have found here is from the WHO (World Health Organization), an international group that has no apparent influence either from corporate interests that might promote GMOs beyond the evidence for safety, nor from organic corporate interests that might demonize them beyond the evidence for danger. Their mission is “to build a better, healthier future for people all over the world.” They have an FAQ that claims that all the GMOs tested so far “are not likely to present risks for human health.”

The second source, WebMD, is an online medical news and information site. Their mission “is to bring you the most objective, trustworthy, and accurate health information.” They claim to maintain journalistic integrity and independence, and I am not aware of any reason to challenge this claim. Their feature about GMO safety is quite long and detailed. They point out where GM technology falls on the continuum of agricultural practices throughout human history and prehistory. It is useful to note that we have been modifying our food – through selective breeding, cross-breeding, and other means – for millennia. They cite the American Medical Association, the WHO, and scientific studies supporting the safety of GMOs. They also note that the alternatives to GM technology are generally treatment with herbicides and pesticides, and techniques that accelerate the production of genetic variation (mutation) to enable the development of new traits by chance. They also point out that, biologically, there is nothing magic about genetically-modified organisms. They use the same chemical and biological processes to grow and reproduce. The way our bodies process them is the same. The only difference is that certain of their traits have been more precisely and deliberately introduced. Their conclusion is that GMOs seem to be as safe as the alternatives, though of course there is always room for more study.

I also came across an accessible peer-reviewed article from 2003, in the journal Toxicological Sciences. It is titled “The safety of genetically modified foods produced through biotechnology“. Here is the key conclusion: “The available scientific evidence indicates that the potential adverse health effects arising from biotechnology-derived foods are not different in nature from those created by conventional breeding practices for plant, animal, or microbial enhancement, and are already familiar to toxicologists. It is therefore important to recognize that the food product itself, rather than the process through which it is made, should be the focus of attention in assessing safety.”

Finally, there is a campaign by a group of nobel laureates called Support Precision Agriculture. They are all highly-accomplished scientists, so I think their pronouncements – especially en masse – about scientific claims carry some weight. However, they are not all experts in the relevant fields, so their statement is only valid to the extent that it relies on and agrees with consensus science in the field. It looks like this is exactly their goal: to amplify the signal of true science against a backdrop of propaganda from special interests (both the billion-dollar corporate organic lobby and the corporate pro-GM lobby). The campaign is intended to show that the science supports genetic modification as a safe technology with lots of promise to meet the needs of 21st-century agriculture. Perhaps the most persuasive part of their website, for me, is this graphic, which carries the headline “Is GM food safe? If an overwhelming majority of experts say something is true, then any sensible non-expert should assume that they are probably right.” It follows this with statements from 22 organizations representing scientists in medical, agricultural, and other relevant research areas. All of the statements support the safety of GM techniques in agriculture.

In an effort to explicitly seek out the other side, I searched for scientific evidence for dangers of GMO technology. I found several sources, most of which seemed to point to this 2014 article, titled “10 scientific studies proving GMOs can be harmful to human health”. The claim being made is clear from the title. However, in 2015, an molecular geneticist responded with an article on the Genetic Literacy Project website, titled “10 studies proving GMOs are harmful? Not if science matters”. Her article shows that these claims are overblown and unscientific. Several of the “studies” are not studies at all, but opinion pieces or other types of anti-GMO propaganda. One real study was retracted, and one was published in a journal that charges authors for publication (a practice that, in this case, calls its scientific validity into question). For the remainder, she cites controversy and a marked lack of consensus about the real implications of the studies.

I should note that the author of the rebuttal piece works for a biotechnology company (a fact that is openly disclosed at the foot of her article), so she is vulnerable to accusations of conflict of interest. However, to the extent that I understand and can independently reason about the arguments, her reasoning seems to be sound. For example, one of the claims against GMOs is that they can alter the DNA of the people consuming them. Remembering that a genetically-modified plant is still a plant, there is no reasonable mechanism by which they have more power to corrupt the DNA of animals that eat them than non-genetically-modified plants have. So the claim that GM plants are dangerous in this way is akin to someone worrying that flying in a plane (which defies the normal effect of gravity on our bodies) will affect your mass.

In summary, the best evidence I could find confirms the claim that GMOs are safe for human consumption. There may be some controversy in the scientific field, but I was not able to find a solid, empirically-supported contradicting the established evidence for their safety.

Ecology

 

So, what about their ecological safety? I found two applicable reports during my quick survey.

One, published in Advances in Biochemical Engineering/Biotechnology, is titled “Ecological impacts of genetically modified crops: ten years of field research and commercial cultivation“. It asserts that there is no evidence for ecological harm in the crops and modifications relevant to western and central Europe (maize, oilseed rape, and soybean).

The other is a report from the UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee. They “concluded that any risk that genetically modified crops have been shown to pose derives from the trait displayed rather than any inherent risk posed by the technology itself.” (p54) In other words, genetic engineering adds no special risk, above the risks already posed by various agricultural products and practices. There are risks to monoculture, intensive agriculture, and indiscriminate use of certain chemicals – but these risks have nothing to do with genetic modifications. In fact, some of them may be mitigated by judicious and targeted genetic modifications.

Conclusion

The evidence overall seems very clear. Genetically modified crops are safe. They are safe to eat. They are safe for the environment.

More specifically, we have no reason to expect them to be less safe than the alternatives. All foods carry risks. We could choke. We could have allergies. We could consume them in ways that compromise our overall nutrition. We could produce them in unsustainable ways, compromising the agricultural land or the surrounding ecosystems. But none of these risks – as far as they have been studied – seem to be any greater for foods produced with careful genetic editing than those produced through selective breeding, accelerated mutation, or any of the other ways that we change our food’s genetics.

This isn’t to say that there’s no chance of danger. As with any knowledge, this is tentative and subject to revision pending further data. But to say that we should reject genetic modification just in case it turns out to be dangerous is no more rational than to say we should reject selective breeding just in case it turns out to be dangerous.

Anyway, I’ll end here. I’m sure you don’t all agree with this conclusion. If you have an empirically-supported objection to anything I’ve said, please let me know.

Beware the meme

2016/08/31

I recently shared a meme on Facebook that made the following claims:

  • GMOs are safe.
  • Most farms are still family farms.
  • There are no antibiotics in your meat.
  • Organic does not mean healthy.
  • We don’t drench crops in toxic chemicals.
  • Farm animals are treated well.
  • Monsanto doesn’t control the food supply.
  • Farmers are not the bad guys.

(Original source: http://www.thefarmersdaughterusa.com/2016/08/list-of-truths.html)

I originally shared this as a “yah, I agree with most of this stuff” Facebook meme. I hadn’t thought carefully or critically about all of the claims. I know they aligned with my general feelings (biases? prejudices?), and I know they were popular beliefs among my social circle (online and in person).

But those are, of course, very bad reasons for propagating ideas. Fortunately, some of my Facebook friends very quickly called me out on the post. Different people objected to different of the claims, but the general takeaway was clear: I needed to research and back up the claims, or retract them.

So here I go, looking at each of the claims. I have a feeling that I won’t end up agreeing with all of them. But, if I am true to myself, I will end up with a more defensible and (more importanly) more accurate picture of things than what I started with.

Now, I am an expert in exactly one of the claims, and it is the least important from a scientific standpoint. (Spoiler: it’s the last one.) So, when it comes to evaluating them, I will have to rely on other experts. And, because I do not fact-check Facebook memes as a full-time job, I will necessarily be doing this mostly over the Internet. So how will I know that the conclusions I reach aren’t just as biased as my initial pass was? How will I decide which search results to follow and trust, and which to disregard?

Well, I’ll set up some criteria that (to the best of my knowledge) are not biased toward a particular conclusion.

Science is the key. If a claim is supported by scientific evidence, and not refuted by better scientific evidence, then it is a claim worth believing. If it has no scientific support, poor scientific support, or scientific support that is overridden by other evidence, then it is not worth believing. So, the gold standard of evidence will be scientific studies.

But I am not able to comb through the scientific literature of all of the relevant fields. So I will also rely on summary articles, including news articles from sources I believe are relatively unbiased and blog posts from sites whose goal is clearly scientific accuracy. Yes, I know that this introduces the potential for bias on my part. Who do I judge to be scientific and who is being ideological? Well, all I can say is that I’ll do my best, and post this publicly (and on Facebook) so that any errors can be pointed out.

So my last line of defense is the same as that which prompted this deep dive: you folks, my friends and readers. If you see me making a claim that is not backed up by a good source, or citing a source that you think is more biased than I am treating it, call me out. Ultimately, the only way I can get past the biases I don’t even know I have is if people point them out. I will take your feedback as constructively as I can. (Any scientific references you can offer will be appreciated.)

I know I can be long-winded, so I’m going to parse this out as one claim per post. When I’m done, I’ll put an index on this post linking to each of the separate claims.

For those of you on Facebook, you are welcome to comment there as each post comes out. However, the blog is more public, so I’d love as much of the discussion as possible to happen there.

Here goes …

Illnesses in metaphor

2016/03/11

I just read a line in a news article that made me wonder about the connotations of different types of disease in our language.

The article is about a sex video which was made against the wishes of at least one of the participants, and shared on a popular website. It ends with this quote from a lawyer:

I know some like to call it viral, but in this case, it was cancer.

His meaning is clear in the context: we talk about things going “viral” on the Internet in a value-neutral or even value-positive way: it just means lots of people are watching, reading, sharing. It is exciting for something you make to “go viral”.

But the popularity of this video, which the participants had requested be taken down, was not value-neutral or positive. It was damaging.

Which brings us to the language used by the lawyer. What’s particularly interesting is that, at a gut level, I get it – it makes sense – but intellectually I’m trying to work out why.

I mean, nobody likes to get sick. But viruses have just as much potential as cancers to make our lives miserable, and to kill us or those we love. So why the hating on cancer in this social-media metaphor, while viruses get off easy?

I think it comes down to personal experience. (As always.)

We all have experience of getting a bit of a cold, and getting over it. Sure, viruses in the news are alarming and scary – like Zika or Ebola a bad flu pandemic, but our personal experience of viruses is normally of a mild inconvenience. It’s the infectiousness – the ease and speed of the spread – that is prominent. So that’s what gets translated into the metaphor.

But cancer? You would be hard-pressed to find someone who has an indifferent experience of cancer. Some people beat it – more and more every year, thanks to medical science. But the cancer, and especially its spread, is invariably the bad-guy, the boogeyman, the awful thing that you feel powerless to stop.

Curious.

Footnote:

* This blog post is about the language in that last line, so I’m not going to get into the case itself. If you really want to learn more, here is the article I’m referring to.

Stoic feminism?

2016/02/17

One topic that is very much on my mind these days is feminism. I continue to notice ways that the world is stacked against women in favour of men.

That I haven’t noticed these things before – things like rape culture, gender-based pay inequality, and the very sexist tendencies in health care – is largely due to the privileged position I hold as a man. It is so collossally easy not to notice injustice, or not to see it as unjust, when you benefit from it.

And now that I notice these things, and see them as wrong, I find myself amazed that not everyone accepts the profound evidence for them. There are people who think accused men are the real victims in sexual assault cases. There are people who think there is no real inequality in income between men and women. There are even people who think anti-abortion laws are pro-feminist. (Wrongwrong, and wrong!)

Another thing on my mind is Stoicism. Yes, I mean that ancient philosophy that is popularly (but wrongly) associated with emotional constipation and indifference.

I’ve talked about it a little bit already on this site. Today, I’m not really out to give a primer on Stoicism. There are plenty of places where you can begin to learn a little about it – you can read introductions on Reddit’s Stoicism FAQ, or at the Stoicism Today site, or listen to the Good Fortune or Painted Porch podcasts about applying Stoicism to life today, or watch a video about it. (Or, as I did, just do a web search to find dozens of introductions and other resources.)

No, today I have something a little more specific to mull over. You see, when I think about all the ancient Stoics – Epictetus, Marucus Aurelius, Seneca, etc – they’re all men. Well, that’s not too surprising: the ancients, for all their occasional wisdom, had remarkably retrograde attitudes about gender roles and abilities. And when I review all the modern voices of Stoicism that I’ve come across (for example, in the links from the previous paragraph), there are again no women. Massimo Pigliucci, Matt Van Natta, Mark Johnston, Greg Millner, and others.

Now, none of this is to say that those particular men are oppressing women, or in any other way misogynist or anti-feminist. The ancient Stoics have been called proto-feminists (I’ll get to that in a minute). The Painted Porch podcast often mentions women and has female guests, and certainly doesn’t promote anti-feminist ideas in any way I have noticed.

But it does make me wonder: what is behind this? Is Stoicism covertly anti-feminist, and my often privilege-blind detectors just don’t sense it? Is it just that men happened to be early adopters, and women feel unwelcome because they don’t see role models or a place for themselves in Stoicism? Is it because I’m not looking carefully enough for female Stoics?

Now, offline, I have known two people besides myself who have identified themselves as Stoics – one man (the friend who first gave me a copy of Marcus Aurelius’s book, Meditations – hi, Derren!) and one woman (my wife – a partner in every important adventure both physical and intellectual that I have embarked on for the past fifteen years). So that is closer to gender balance than the above survey. But it’s not a broad or representative sample.

What else is out there? Well, there is an academic paper from 2014, “Stoicism, Feminism and Autonomy” by Scott Aikin and Emily McGill-Rutherford. They look specifically at the ancient Stoics and find that, although by modern standards they fall well short of the mark, they were very progressive in their attitudes about women. In general, the ancient Stoics felt that women had the same inherent abilities as men, but that it was often prudent for them to retain their traditional house-bound roles. The paper also outlines how Stoicism can be adapted to be even more in line with modern liberal feminism.

That’s reassuring, especially after I made the mistake of following a Google search result to this article from the Daily Mail. In the middle of a disturbingly sexist diatribe where it touches, at moments, on colouring abusive sex as a positive force in relationships, the author says,

Such strong and stoic men are exactly what women need to anchor themselves amid the chaos of their emotions.

Amazingly, the author is using the word in almost the right way (from the perspective of philosophical Stoicism). Yes, being able to weather misfortune without being swept away by the emotional consequences is one feature of living Stoically. Unfortunately, the sentence it occurs in is awash with dismissive sexism. Women can’t deal with their emotions unless they have a man to provide a stoical anchor?

So, on the one hand we have Stoicism used as a token for how men are inherently different from (and better than) women. And on the other we have Stoicism as a worldview that is consistent with the equality and empowerment fundamental to modern feminism.

I came across more. A Google search for “stoicism feminism” will disgorge a remarkable variety of perspectives. Enough to overwhelm a determined blogger/researcher.

Fortunately, I have a way to deal with this deluge of conflicting ideas and emotional appeals.

I have Stoicism.

I remind myself that my first duty is to deal with the stuff I have power over: my own behaviours, my own actions, and (to a certain extent) my own emotions.

This means that I don’t need to become defensive if someone says I’m doing Stoicism wrong – perhaps because I’m too interested in emotions, or I’m not masculine enough, or I am too eager to compromise. And I don’t need to get angry when I see people working against gender equality.

To a Stoic, the core good is the development of personal virtue. Becoming a better person. If something happens that doesn’t damage that, then it is not something to get upset about.

What does it mean to become a better person? Well, that all depends on where you start from. I start from being an academic white male, blind to certain privileges but fortunate enough to recognize at least some areas of my blindness. My character development involves attending to those remaining blind spots, and learning to listen to different viewpoints without immediately becoming defensive about my privilege.

Someone else – woman, man, or other – may have different areas to work on. Maybe they need to work on not catastrophizing events out of proportion. Missing a plane flight doesn’t make you into a bad person, so it’s not worth getting worked up over. Having a colleague say something nasty about you doesn’t make you a bad person, so don’t let it throw you into a rage.

Of course, people sometimes think that’s where Stoicism ends: if you can make yourself comfortable with anything that happens, you’re done.

But that’s ridiculous. When I can get to the meeting on time, deciding to hang out on Facebook and miss my bus does erode my character. When I see injustice and have the means to get up and do something about it, sitting on my ass does tarnish my virtue.

Stoicism isn’t about placid inaction. It’s about placid action. I can be an effective, useful member of society without getting enraged or dejected or head-over-heels excited about every last thing.

And when I look at the feminist battlegrounds facing us today, I can’t help but think that Stoicism is exactly the toolset I need to bring to that table. Will other people feel the same way? Maybe, maybe not. But as a Stoic, I don’t need to worry about that. Other people’s choices are theirs, not mine.