Monday, November 16, 2015


Ground Rules

The Girl is preparing for her debate tournament next Saturday.  She gets the topics ahead of time, but she doesn't find out which side she's supposed to argue until 15 minutes before the match.  That means she has to prepare both sides of the argument, and be ready to argue either way.

One of the topics this week is whether GMO foods do more harm than good.  Last night, as she did her research, she got frustrated and asked me for help.  As she put it, "all of the anti-GMO stuff is really just anti-science.  I can't use that!"

That's my girl.

She's content to argue either side of something that's, well. arguable.  But to her, the legitimacy of science is not arguable; it's a ground rule.  If she can find a science-friendly argument against GMO's, she'll happily use it; depending on which side she gets, she may need it.  But she's not betraying science.

I've been thinking a lot about arguments and ground rules recently.  There's no shortage of topics.

The recent set of conflicts on campuses around racial climates strike me as rooted in different understandings of ground rules.  Some people believe that protests are inherently dangerous, scary, or objectionable, regardless of their content or motivation.  (In my observation, that understanding is usually buttressed by a really selective reading of history.)  The more serious conflicts occur between those who take unfettered speech as a ground rule, and those who take mutual respect as a ground rule.  The former camp is theoretically straightforward, even if frequently inconsistent in application.  (We have closed meetings on a public campus all the time, and nobody says boo about that...)  The latter camp argues that procedural equality often serves to entrench other kinds of inequality, and it asks for a focus on substantive equality before getting hung up on procedure.  That camp tends to be less theoretically straightforward, even as it makes sense on the ground.  As a political theorist, I see lineage to both arguments.  The first group is correct that arguments like Marcuse's "repressive tolerance" can quickly lead to terrible and scary places.  And the second group is correct that a focus on process outside of context can lead to absurd outcomes, as in Anatole France's line that the law, in its majestic equality, forbids both the rich and the poor from sleeping under bridges.  

More basically, the attacks on Paris by religious fundamentalists are rooted in an even deeper conflict over ground rules.  Do you base your sense of rules and ethics on the Enlightenment, or on a desire for a specific kind of caliphate?  As near as I can tell, the two are mutually exclusive.

In higher education, we've seen an increasing intensity to the conflict between two sets of ground rules.  One side assumes that the point of education is to perpetuate the society that exists.  The other side assumes that the point of education is to empower people to remake the world.  In practice, they aren't always in conflict; the former group doesn't mind technical innovation, and the latter tends to value certain ethical precepts with hundreds of years of lineage behind them.  But sometimes the two camps clash.  Custodians of traditions that they believe are under attack by modernity are quick to take umbrage to what they consider irreverence.  Partisans of critical thinking tend to assume that a certain level of irreverence is healthy, and that too much deference is a sign of intellectual laziness.  Each holds the other in mild disdain, and each is quick to take offense when the other shows that disdain.  

The tricky thing about ground rules is that most of the time, people don't have carefully argued reasons for holding them.  They take ground rules as given, and are often genuinely surprised when others don't see their validity.  That abrupt shock can lead to fear, and even to anger.  To me -- and to The Girl -- tested, empirical evidence is self-evidently a valid standard.  That's the point at which our skepticism stops.  To people who hold other beliefs, that may look "dogmatic."  In a sense, it is.  But everybody is dogmatic; they just hold different dogma.  

Dogmas are clashing a lot these days.  My optimism -- which may be naive -- is based on a hunch that at some level, enough of us share enough bedrock dogma that we can find ways to live and work together.  We just have to allow ourselves to be shocked, and then to get over that shock and engage intelligently and respectfully.  We can choose to get some distance on our own assumptions, and to self-consciously bring ethical reflection to the process of improving them.  We can make the choice to change some of our assumptions.  It's a challenge for an eleven year old; it's a challenge for a forty-seven year old.  But it's the right thing to do.  That's where my skepticism stops.

Ah, such fun. One reason to work on both sides is to figure out better ways to defend or advance BOTH positions. In the case of GMOs, this can mean learning something about sophistry and the use of logical fallacies to advance an argument, both for defense and offense.

For example, many attacks on GMOs are a variant of the "natural is good" fallacy that permeates advertising. (That may be what she means when she says they aren't based on science.) If so, one way to attack that argument is to build on the fact that the highly dangerous poison ricin is completely natural, coming from the castor oil plant. Tobacco would be another example.

So how to attack them if you don't want to use an appeal to nature? Study a half dozen other logical fallacies and put them to good use. The first one that comes to my mind is a false equivalency to Thalidomide, but there must be dozens of more recent examples where something thought to be good turned out to be really bad. (And it might not be a false equivalency. I've lost track of how many drug ads have been replaced by class-action lawyer ads looking for plaintiffs affected by the same drug that was massively advertised just a few years ago, usually minimizing the fact that one minor side effect was "death".) This is also a result of science: statistics on small samples that might not be representative of the entire population just can't find a side effect that is significant in a small part of the population.

Finally, there is the bottom line question about whether she would rather win or lose. You win a debate by being just as convincing on both sides of an issue, and the ability to make an argument with a totally straight face is a useful skill in adult life. (Like when buying a car.) It is perfectly OK to make a totally bogus argument in a debate. No one is under oath. It is up to your opponent to detect it and respond, so don't concede before you start.
@TG - I'm assuming that the GMOs in the debate refer to the changes brought about using modern tools of molecular biology. A farmer evolving a new crop over many years of experiments is slowly incorporating genetic modifications, but I don't think that is the topic.

One argument _with_ some science that I've heard against GMOs is the potential for allergies to a protein of species A to be transferred to GMO species B when some genes of A are transplanted. It seems like a reasonable scientific possibility to me, though I have not looked into the literature to see if it holds up.

@DD - Nice adaptation of the current situations to our corresponding on-campus discussions. Comparisons across fields certainly bring up a lot of ground rules discussions. (I've recently had the first of many science vs humanities discussions about what it really means when a student writes / co-writes their research for publication.)
There are some science-based arguments against GMOs:
the allergen one is good (there was a plan to transfer a protein from Brazil nuts, but it turned out to be the allergenic one).
Most GMOs are being created just to be herbicide resistant, increasing farmer dependence on herbicides, and enriching Monsanto, with little benefit to the farmers or to consumers.
The herbicide resistance genes are beginning to spread through weeds due to horizontal transfer.
Some of the insect-resistant crops are poisoning beneficial insects, not just pests.

Basically, most of the anti-GMO science-based arguments come down to unintended side-effects. We simply don't understand biology well enough to know all the effects of our interventions. The more powerful the intervention technique, the greater the risk of unintended consequences.

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I think that the most convincing science-based arguments against GMO foods are the environmental ones rather than the health ones. Herbicide resistant crops lead to wider application of herbicides, which ripple through the environment into our water and food supply. Unintentional gene transfer creates herbicide resistant weeds.
We did a video last summer (part of our Science Forward series, freely available to all!) on "The Challenge of Food," that has some pretty balanced (I like to think) coverage of GMOs.

Our goal in all these videos is to help develop what we call "Science Senses"--the ways that scientists in a wide range of disciplines approach problems and questions--the critical thinking skills that they all use.
RE GMOs - The argument against them could also be rooted in the predatory practices of large companies like Monsanto who stop farmers from being able to save seed and the economic consequences that come from being dependent on seed companies to plant your field. This is possible thanks to our Supreme Court decisions about the ownership and patentability of organisms and genes. GMOs create banana republics where small time land owners are supplanted by larger corporate farms through methodical legal attacks on producers too financially weak to defend themselves. There's also the problem with monoculture in general which Michael Pollan writes about quite well. Sue Hubble also wrote a good book about GMOs that's quite old now (2002) but it addresses most of the issues in a very accessible way.
I can't see a suburban kid raised on Hot Pockets and Lunchables understanding what the ongoing argument against GMOs is. It's not that it's anti-science, it's that it's pro-nutrition, and American eating has nothing to do with nutrition. So the argument will be incomprehensible from its beginnings.


"the attacks on Paris by religious fundamentalists "

After an exhaustive study, it has been conclusively shown that attackers were exclusively *muslim* fundamentalists. There were no Christian fundamentalists involved, no Hindu fundamentalists, and no Jewish fundamentalists. Only muslims. Out and proud muslims.

I knew that you'd appreciate the clarification, given that specificity is beginning of academic wisdom.
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