De omnibus dubitandum
13 Aug 2013
Genetically modified organisms – GMO – are a hot topic at the moment, with loads of people weighing in on the debate. Especially the anti-GMO stance receives a lot of attention, fuelling scare stories about the hazards of GMO crops and food.
However, there seems to be precious little facts in these scare stories. Fortunately there have also been a few recent articles that provide a more balanced, fact-based perspective on GMO foods:
This thoroughly researched article on Slate debunks a GMO scare story published in Elle magazine – not quite a staple of fact-based reporting – and delves deeper in to the scientific evidence about GMO foods.
Turns out there’s no evidence whatsoever suggesting that GMO food is any more dangerous than regular food:
“Since GMOs were introduced into the food supply almost 20 years ago, there has not been one documented case of any health problem in humans—not even so much as a sniffle—linked to GMOs. The American Medical Association, whose physician members would have long ago picked up on a GMO-allergy connection, definitively rejects such speculation. “Bioengineered foods have been consumed for close to 20 years, and during that time, no overt consequences on human health have been reported and/or substantiated in the peer-reviewed literature,” it has stated. That scientific consensus has been endorsed by every major science oversight body in the world.”
But, say the GMO skeptics, what about the correlation between the growing consumption of GMO food in America and the rise in autoimmune disorders?
“The rise in such problems, including allergies, started long before GMOs were introduced. Incidences of these same conditions across U.K., Europe and in other countries where there is no consumption of GM foods match U.S. trends. To put this claim in perspective, the upward slope also tracks with the cumulative wins of the New England Patriots under Bill Belichick, the GDP of China, and indeed the increased consumption of organic foods over a similar period of time. In other words, the alarming connection that Shetterly alludes to in her piece is completely random.”
An article on Grist explores the issues of allergenic proteins originating from GMO foods. Turns out that in this respect GMO foods are actually safer than regular foods and are being tested much more thoroughly for new allergens:
“First, there just aren’t many new proteins in GE food (all allergens are proteins) — you are adding just a couple. It’s much riskier to introduce a new food from another country, each of which contains hundreds of new proteins, Taylor wrote, and yet we subject new foods to less safety testing. (When the first kiwis were shipped into the United States in 1962, they weren’t tested because they were an established food, but, as it turned out, they did cause allergic reactions in some people.)
Furthermore, Taylor said, the new genes in transgenic plants generally express very low amounts of protein (when a gene causes an organism to make a protein it’s called expression). Allergens generally account for more than 1 percent of the proteins in a food, while the proteins expressed by transgenic DNA are much more sparse.”
The New York Times published a balanced piece about the use of genetic modification to help oranges resist a specific type of bacteria:
“Oranges are not the only crop that might benefit from genetically engineered resistance to diseases for which standard treatments have proven elusive. And advocates of the technology say it could also help provide food for a fast-growing population on a warming planet by endowing crops with more nutrients, or the ability to thrive in drought, or to resist pests. Leading scientific organizations have concluded that shuttling DNA between species carries no intrinsic risk to human health or the environment, and that such alterations can be reliably tested.”
Many anti-GMO activists point to the evils of Monsanto and how scientific studies are funded by biotech companies and thus cannot be trusted. But there’s abundant independent research in to GMO foods (over a third of peer-reviewed studies on GMO are independently funded), and a great many independent health organisations have undertaken their own studies in to the health risks associated with GMO crops.
The results are unanimous and clear: GMO foods are perfectly safe, and probably necessary to maintain sustainable agriculture that sufficiently feeds our growing population.
While I consider myself a left-wing thinker, on this particular issue I vehemently disagree with the anti-GMO stance prevalent in the political left.
For me it’s a bit like climate change, vaccination, and evolution: there is an unassailable scientific consensus, with only a tiny minority of dissenting voices that lack any form of empirical evidence. Unfortunately in this case public opinion is eager to embrace the – very vocal – fringe lunatics.
8 Aug 2011
So Top Gear (a humorous entertainment show that some hapless morons confuse for a serious car programme) did a segment on electric cars, and a lot of people are very upset about it. (Exhibit A, exhibit B)
“Big, mean Top Gear,” they say, “they always pick on electric cars! The segment wasn’t fair! It made electric cars look bad!”
No, you whiney little twats, Top Gear didn’t make electric cars look bad. Electric cars do a spectacular job at sucking all on their own, they don’t need Top Gear’s infantile humour to make them look bad.
Because, right now, in the UK, electric cars only make sense if you live in a big city and have shitloads of money. Let me explain:
All these factors combined means that rich inner city toffs are the only sensible demographic for electric cars. And guess who’s doing the complaining about Top Gear’s ‘misleading’ electric car segment? Exactly.
The simple fact is that currently, as things stand, electric cars are not a valid alternative for cars with internal combustion engines. Electric cars only work in a limited amount of transport scenarios, and in nearly all of those public transport is probably a better option anyway (if only marginally cheaper).
The ‘controversial’ Top Gear segment in question contains no lies and no falsehoods. A few self-righteous environmental campaigners have taken it upon themselves to create a huge fuss about the whole thing (makes you wonder exactly who has an agenda here, doesn’t it?), but the facts cannot be changed.
On top of that, has anyone ever wondered where all that electricity powering those electric cars actually comes from?
So – instead of trying to re-invent motoring, create a whole new transport infrastructure to facilitate those grossly inadequate electrical machines, and generally keep on ruining the environment whilst generating all this electricity – why don’t we just skip the electric car phase all together and instead focus our energy (pun intended) on the thing that will really take transport in to the next century, something that doesn’t require us to radically change the way we approach transport, something that will literally never run out and will power humankind for all eternity?
13 Apr 2011
Since a few weeks I’ve been helping the Belfast City Airport Watch organisation with their online stuff – updating their website, posting on Facebook, doing some tweets, and sending out the odd email now and again.
I signed up for this because I live very close to the Belfast City airport, and the noise pollution really is quite impressive.
It’s funny how when you don’t live near an airport, you are quick to judge people who complain about aircraft noise. “They shouldn’t have moved close to an airport then!” is an often heard rebuttal, as is the claim that these regional airports have enormous economic benefit and the comfort of a few residents in the area is a small price to pay.
I used to be one of those naysayers who dismissed people who complained about aircraft noise. But my perspective changed radically now that I’m personally submitted to noise pollution on a daily basis.
It’s hard for people who don’t live near airports to understand how incredibly overwhelming aircraft noise can be. For a few seconds when the plane passes over you have to stop your conversation, put down your drink, stop watching TV, and in the case of big jets even stop thinking for a wee while. The noise is more than just sound reaching your ears – you feel it in your bones and it scratches at your brain.
Unsurprisingly, noise pollution is actively harmful as a recent WHO study has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt.
In the case of the Belfast City airport, their rebuttals can easily be, well, rebutted. As if the dangers of noise pollution wasn’t sufficient reason to lobby against expansion of the airport (what price do you put on the health and well-being of tens of thousands of local residents?), the economic value of the airport is limited. It employs only a handful of local residents, and with a perfectly fine larger International airport just a few miles outside Belfast (in a rural area where noise pollution is not an issue) flights and jobs can easily be moved without having a negative impact on the local economy.
And the people affected by the noise didn’t choose to live near a busy airport. The City airport has seen enormous expansion in recent years. When people first moved in to their homes in east Belfast and Holywood it was perfectly quiet. Not so now.
The first thing that struck me when I started helping out the Airport Watch residents association – which is a purely not-for-profit organisation run by volunteers – is that this is a dirty fight. The City airport has powerful backers and deploys sneaky tactics.
For example, from the moment the BCAW twitter account was launched, it was being harassed by ‘egg’ accounts – Twitter accounts without a proper avatar and thus showing only the default egg icon – who were protesting about what the BCAW tweeted, casting (baseless) doubt on facts tweeted by the BCAW, even going as far as tweeting blatant lies about the BCAW.
Also in the comments of articles on news sites like the Belfast Telegraph, certain commenters always applaud the City airport and criticise the BCAW every chance they get – using the same lies and distortions. It’s nothing short of a social media smear campaign, intended to make the BCAW look bad and cast the City airport as a saviour of the Northern Irish economy.
It is also all done in quite an amateurish fashion. Egg accounts on Twitter have no credibility, as they have no history and are easily recognised as the spammers they are. The comments on news sites are always posted under the same usernames, and they only comment on airport-related stories and always with the same anti-BCAW pro-City Airport message. They’re transparently obvious PR spinners with zero credibility. I even managed to retrace one account back to an actual City airport employee.
But despite this ineffectiveness, it does demonstrate that the City airport and its backers – lobbyists and politicians with fingers in relevant pies, no doubt – will and do play dirty. Truth is the first victim of any conflict, and this is no exception. The City airport is deliberately polluting the debate (pun intended) and using dirty propaganda tactics to oppose valid criticism.
And that’s pretty sad. The quality of life for tens of thousands of people is at stake, and the greedy money-grabbing capitalists behind the scenes of the City airport care only for their own continued enrichment. The welfare of people doesn’t matter, and every dirty trick is allowed to ensure that the rich get richer and the poor stay poor and uninformed.
This is not a surprise, of course. This is what capitalism does, this is how it operates. It’s a zero-sum game, with winners and losers.
But sometimes I wish that I wasn’t being confronted with such blatant evidence of moral bankruptcy and unbridled greed quite so often. Sometimes I wish people would just be nice to one another and stop polluting and abusing the world for their own temporary and ultimately fleeting gains.
I’m afraid that’ll always be just wishful thinking.
21 May 2010
The hot news today is how a team of American scientists have managed to create a bacterial lifeform using nothing but synthetic genes. This is, essentially, artificial life.
To say that this is a big deal would be a monumental understatement. We likely won’t be seeing any real world applications of this biotechnology any time soon, but the implications are mind-boggling: from cells that eat carbon dioxide and shit petroleum to customised cancer-eating bacteria, this technology has the potential to radically change our lives.
Of course the technology has its critics. As usual the loudest voices come from religious organisations who, without a hint of irony, shout down the progress of science from the comfort of their air-conditioned homes with HDTV and broadband internet connections.
And then there are the environmentalists denouncing everything even remotely reeking of biotechnology and genetic engineering. These are just as bad as the religious nutcases, because likewise their entire argument is based on disinformation and ignorance. If these eco-hippies were really serious about not using any artificial biotechnology, they’d all starve to death in a matter of weeks and die horribly of all kinds of diseases.
Because, you see, the moment humans started cultivating crops and breeding animals, we started to artificially engineer life. From mixing stronger types of crops for better harvest yields, to breeding sturdier and more milk-producing cows, biotechnology has been around for as long as agriculture has.
On top of that biotechnology has given us some monumentally important medicinal advances, from penicillin to aspirin, from vaccines to heart-transplants.
So denouncing biotech is a pretty fucking stupid thing to do. Instead we should embrace it and ensure that whatever we end up doing with this type of new technology, it doesn’t just end up as the playthings of the rich and powerful. We should strive to make it benefit those who need it the most: the invisible masses of poor and starving people across the world that with their low-wage slave labour enable the privileged west to live its decadent lifestyle.
22 Dec 2009
Let’s take stock:
We see it coming, we know the repercussions, and we’re not doing enough. Most of us aren’t doing anything at all.
The universe doesn’t care about disinformation. It doesn’t care about political rhetoric. It doesn’t care about who can shout the loudest on national TV and sell his point of view to the masses.
Our planet is an exceedingly rare gem, providing an exquisitely fragile environment precariously balanced to provide us with the conditions in which we can survive. The rest of this unimaginably vast universe is extremely hostile to human life. We can’t live anywhere else but here on this planet.
Let me repeat that so you really get it: There is nowhere else for us to live except right here, on this earth.
And we have tipped the balance. Our planet is changing from a world hospitable to human life to one that is increasingly unable to support human life.
We are failing the Great Filter.
7 Nov 2009
You’ve probably heard of the so-called ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch‘, a giant floating debris field in the Pacific ocean believed to be twice the size of Texas. Apparently vast oceanic currents circle this patch and cause all sort of plastic garbage to gather and float there, as a testament to excessive human waste.
Now I’m as eager as the next cynical bastard to denounce humanity’s treatment of the planet, but has anyone ever seen this great garbage patch? It should be pretty hard to miss, being twice the size of Texas and all. We sure don’t seem to have a problem spotting Texas on a map.
Yet there are no pictures or videos of any kind of the garbage patch anywhere to be found. No visual evidence at all.
Yes, say the environmental pundits, that’s because it’s all floating just beneath the surface! Clever, eh?
But hey, fish float beneath the surface too, but we’re not lacking any photographic evidence of their existence, are we? If this garbage patch really is so huge and so full of plastic debris, why aren’t there hundreds of Cousteau-type marine explorers coming back with rolls of underwater film shot full of pictures and images?
Because, *drum-roll*…. the garbage patch doesn’t actually exist. At least, not as we imagine it. Apparently the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ is an area with “elevated concentrations of microscopic plastic particles” too small to see with the naked eye. So this is really the Great Invisible Pacific Garbage Patch.
Not quite so dramatic, is it? Invisible microscopic pieces of plastic don’t make good Greenpeace protest banners or background shots for CNN headline news.
The moral of this story? Don’t believe everything you’re told. Whether it’s right-wing propaganda excremented by Faux News or left-wing treehugger nonsense, submit it to a healthy dose of skeptical enquiry before you start repeating it.
Everyone’s entitled to an opinion, but no one is entitled to an uninformed opinion.
15 Sep 2008
Since I drive a car that could be called a bit of a gas guzzler by European standards (1l/10km on average, which translates into roughly 23.5 mpg) I am very interested in current petrol prices here in the Netherlands. I’ve long harbored a suspicion that petrol companies are eager to raise prices when the cost of crude oil goes up, but are loathe to lower petrol prices when oil costs drop.
I’ve done some googling and soon discovered a graph that proves me wrong:
If anything petrol companies have been digging into their margins a little to keep petrol prices affordable.
That’s not to say Dutch petrol prices aren’t without their share of controversy. The price per litre the consumer pays at the pump is about 65% taxes, which our government is hesitant to lower as it’s such a neat little cash-cow for them.
Additionally the Dutch petrol prices, disregarding taxation, are about 8ct/l higher than in adjacent European countries, something which some politicians claim is due to price agreements among petrol companies that operate in the Netherlands. An official inquiry is still pending.