Monday 9 February 2015

Scholarly outliers

A plucky group of scientific outsiders, presenting results outside of the mainstream consensus, hosts its own conference with presentations mostly from those in their heterodox club. They present themselves as providing the truth that is much opposed by big moneyed interests. They're celebrated in a reception hosted in Parliament by one of the political parties. The media is expected to highlight their alternative take on reality, with perhaps some offsetting commentary from those in the mainstream; the overall effect, though, is to stoke and legitimise popular misunderstandings.

Without any further detail, what are your priors? Is this something to welcome?

Now let's make it multichoice. Do you update if it's any of these?
  1. A holistic medicine conference talking up the merits of homeopathy, hosted by the Greens?
  2. An anti-vaccination conference with Wakefield-group presenters, hosted possibly by the Greens or Maori Party?
  3. A Lord Monckton shin-dig with his preferred researchers on global warming, hosted then either by ACT or maybe National?
  4. An anti-GMO conference on the evils of Big Corporate Agriculture, hosted by the Greens?
  5. A conference on how mainstream economics is all wrong, highlighting heterodox insights about how people do not respond to incentives, hosted by the Greens and Mana?
This weekend brings GMO-sceptics to Wellington. Presentations include "Pesticides: scilencing the ecosystem and silencing our children" and "Overweight, undernourished, sterile and dying of cancer. Our food is it sealing the fate of humanity?"

And the Greens are hosting them in Parliament:

A few further notes:
  • The keynote speaker, Gilles-Eric Seralini, found tumours in mice fed GM crops. But his paper was retracted due to concerns like these. It was later elsewhere republished in a friendlier outlet.
  • Vandana Shiva, also there speaking, earned this profile in the New Yorker, which concluded:
    When Shiva writes that “Golden Rice will make the malnutrition crisis worse” and that it will kill people, she reinforces the worst fears of her largely Western audience. Much of what she says resonates with the many people who feel that profit-seeking corporations hold too much power over the food they eat. Theirs is an argument well worth making. But her statements are rarely supported by data, and her positions often seem more like those of an end-of-days mystic than like those of a scientist.
  • On 29 January this year, the American Association for the Advancement of Science released a rather timely survey on scientific support for use of genetic modification techniques in food. Huffington has the summary
    In sharp contrast to public views about GMOs, 89% of scientists believe genetically modified foods are safe.

    That's the most eye-opening finding in a Pew Research Center study on science literacy, undertaken in cooperation with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and released on January 29.

    The overwhelming scientific consensus exceeds the percentage of scientists, 88%, who think humans are mostly responsible for climate change. However, the public appears far more suspicious of scientific claims about GMO safety than they do about the consensus on global warming.

    Some 57% of Americans say GM foods are unsafe and a startling 67% do not trust scientists, believing they don't understand the science behind GMOs. AAAS researchers blame poor reporting by mainstream scientists for the trust and literacy gaps.

    The survey also contrasts sharply with a statement published earlier this week in a pay-for-play European journal by a group of anti-GMO scientists and activists, including Michael Hansen of the Center for Food Safety, and philosopher Vandana Shiva, claiming, "no scientific consensus on GMO safety."
The scientific consensus on GMOs is as strong as the scientific consensus on climate change. Will Browning have to retract this like he had to pull back from endorsing homeopathy for Ebola?

The Greens could play at highlighting the heterodox views on GMOs a couple years ago. But when 89% of scientists say GMO food is safe?


  1. If the Greens really want to become the evidence-based party they talk about, they need to replace Steffan Browning with someone who actually bases their conclusions on evidence. Taking away his "natural health" portfolio was a good start, but he's still their GE spokesperson.

  2. I agree Mark & wrote something similar at the time ( )

    Readers here can find more on the speakers the Green Party are hosting (they are keynote speakers at a meeting that looks to be organised by GE Free NZ):

    I sincerely hope that these people’s "advice" is not used to form policy. Their views do not reflect the science on the subject.

  3. Interesting issue! I don’t think I can be against this type of thing in principle without consistency forcing me to condone the past 'shouting down' or silencing (not so much the persecution) of Darwin, Copernicus, Galileo etc. (Maybe I have to be ok with that shouting down though….)

    On hearing (1), (2), (3), (4), and (5) there’s a lot of cringing and internal outrage. For example, encouraging people to forgo traditional medical treatment for pseudo-scientific alternatives or to reject vaccinations leads to, in the extreme, people dying who didn’t need to die if they weren’t misinformed.

    I’d be interested to hear more of your thoughts on this generally Eric if you care to share. Who decides (and how) which “alternative” ideas are sufficiently valid and/or harmless for political parties/media/private groups to freely report on and publicly debate or even support, endorse, and advertise and which aren’t? Do we want to do anything about it? Or do we just rely on the evidence and those aware of it having a desire and ability to 'shout louder'? I have some fairly non-mainstream political and moral beliefs, as many people probably do, and I’d obviously not want to be restricted from expressing them.

    But I’d expect some outrage if during children’s programming we had advertisements along the lines of “7.30 tonight we interview Dr. so-and-so, gravity-denier, who thinks it’s all a conspiracy. He argues, ‘we should climb up on our roofs and jump off and fly’”. On the other hand, some scientific facts seems up for debate: society seems to be relatively unfazed in certain situations for the beliefs (about evolution) of a theologian or religious leader or politician to be presented as if on equal footing with those of an
    evolutionary biologist. There are conceivable variations of your five examples
    that I’d consider almost as absurd/harmful as the Dr Gravity-Denier publicity
    that are probably widely considered acceptable.

  4. I don't think anyone can be the decider on questions like that. Sometimes fringe views are right and it is very important that academia remain a welcoming place for those working in the fringes. They could turn out to be right. But at the same time we also have to make really clear that when fringe views are presented in popular fora, with endorsements from Council and political parties, that they are fringe views rather than the mainstream.

  5. Gakh, edit: "that everyone knows that they are fringe..."

  6. Remarkable article coming from a mainstream economist.

    Does that mean a conference of post Keynesians or MMTers would equally condemned as non science?

  7. First off, both of those approaches yield insights that are entirely appropriate and important in particular contexts. And I couldn't even consider MMT to be outside the mainstream any more.

    Suppose I hosted a conference here with Larry White, George Selgin, Joe Salerno as keynotes, and a bunch of other free-bankers on the agenda, along with a couple of gold-standard advocates (like the ones who say that fractional reserve banking is fraud) for balance and one mainstream person. And suppose I called it Monetary Policy for the 21st Century. And suppose further that I advertised it as a public forum rather than an economist thing, and that we stacked things so that it was never clear to the public that free banking was maybe supported by 2% of economists rather than by a proportion reflecting the makeup of the panel. You should probably smack me if I did that.

    But you could very well hold a conference or workshop on free-banking, advertise it as such, and have a useful conversation.

  8. Yes, I agree. That's the problem; no one can decide. There are no scientific authorities, just experts, evidence and general scientific consensuses. We obviously don't want to crush new or different ideas or create hostile academic environments. However, I'm somewhat more open to restricting the spread of pernicious generally-considered-to-be-false ideas.

    If for example, the Greens endorse an anti-GMO conference or if ACT endorsed a climate change-denier or if Maori Party members attended and supported an anti-vaccination campaign we can say we'd really like it to be reported that these are fringe views. But that's a pretty weak incentive. I was wondering if you would be in favour of/have any suggestions for stronger interventions. (Freedom to publicly express views (whether mainstream or not) vs. restricting that freedom in order to reduce the expected harm from the propagation of 'bad' views seems like a difficult trade-off to balance satisfactorily).

  9. Nope. I'm a free speech absolutist. But I think we ought condemn parties and agencies that promote quackery.