I started this blog because I strongly believe that when a technology is heading out of scientific laboratories and into the public marketplace, it is the job of scientists who use it to provide the public and its government with full and accurate information about how that technology works and what its potential pitfalls might be. Only with all of the information available about the technology, including any uncertainties or aspects about it that could be cause for concern, can societies make the best possible decisions about whether or how best to use and regulate that technology.
I am not the only scientist who feels this way.
Great scientists like Richard Feynman encouraged scientists to be abjectly honest in explaining their science to lay people (see quotes on the “About” page of this blog). More recently, participants in a workshop on “Scientific Uncertainty and Professional Ethics,” conducted by the Environmental Law Institute and sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF), concluded that scientists should aim to “provide all the information needed to help others judge the value of their work, rather than to steer that judgment in a particular direction.”
My aim has been “to provide all the information needed to help others judge” genetic engineering of crops and other organisms for human and animal food.
But I also started this blog because I felt other scientists were—by neglecting to mention the imprecise aspects of crop genetic engineering technology and/or evidence of problems associated with specific genetically engineered (GE, AKA genetically modified, or GM) products—steering judgment of GE crops/foods in a particular direction. I worried that scientists steering judgment in this way would some day undermine the public’s trust in scientists.
And now, according to a recent report from the Pew Research Center, that day has apparently arrived.
The authors of that report, based on a nationally representative survey of 1,480 adults conducted in May and June of this year and released on December 1st, concluded that “in general people’s views of scientists connected with genetically modified foods…are largely skeptical, or at best, tepid.” They also found that there is “considerable skepticism about scientific understanding, consensus and influences on research about genetically modified foods” with fully 80% of the Americans surveyed indicating that “scientists’ desire to help connected industries influences the research findings,” either most of the time (30%) or some of the time (50%).
I cannot say that I am surprised.
For more than 20 years now, scientists who promote the use of genetic engineering for producing food crops have largely neglected to mention the scientific uncertainties that accompany it, or even the fact that there have been commercialized GE crops that were found to be problematic and then pulled off the market. (See “Crop Genetic Engineering, Warts and All” for more information on these subjects.) Some have also neglected to mention, or have otherwise misled the public about, their ties—financial and otherwise—to the ag biotech industry, as reported in The New York Times.
Rather than providing all the information needed to help others judge this technology, a number of plant scientists have instead participated in efforts to suppress reports on specific GE products that suggest there could be cause for concern—the most egregious instance being the ruckus raised by plant scientists over a peer-reviewed animal-feeding study of NK603 GE corn and the herbicide glyphosate which led to the paper being retracted, more than a year after it was published, because it was deemed “inconclusive” by the journal’s editor-in-chief. And nearly all scientists (see my response to one here) who speak publicly in support of agricultural genetic engineering have made sweeping generalizations about the “safety” of all GE foods/crops.
To me, these actions seem meant to steer judgment in a particular direction.
Rather than the standards of abject honesty that Feynman encouraged scientists to meet, they bring to mind the advice of another Nobel laureate, André Gide, who said: “Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it.”
Based on the Pew Research Center report, the American public has taken Gide’s advice in regard to scientists connected with genetically engineered foods.
Hopefully, those scientists will take the report’s findings seriously, reevaluate and incorporate more abject honesty into their current “outreach” efforts, and start the long, hard process of (re)building trust with the public.