Why you can believe in climate change and be anti-GMO

Liberals.

They will beat you over the head with The Facts that 97% of scientists agree that humans are causing climate change.

But you offer them one upgraded-by-Monsanto™ banana, reminding them of The Facts that nearly the same level of consensus exists within the scientific community that genetically modified foods are safe to eat, and they still say, “Yeah, but I have a right to know so I want a label.”

I’ve seen these two juxtaposed often enough as prima facie proof that liberals employ double-think when it comes to believing scientists. Even though I don’t have a strong opinion on GMOs, I’m going to wade in here a little bit. What I would like to do is lay out the argument that it is possible to both believe in climate change and be anti-GMO. More specifically it’s important to take a holistic look at the scientific questions, the implications and the proposed policy solutions. In any case science never boils down to “which of these assertions is 100% correct.” So what I’ll specifically argue here is not a purely academic argument of whether the two scientific beliefs are compatible, but I’ll argue that you can rationally look at the science behind both and be proponent of action to mitigate climate change AND action to limit or identify GMOs without contradicting yourself.

Much of my thinking here evolves from this paper on the Precautionary Principle by N. N. Taleb et al. This principle argues that you should evaluate not just the probability of a risk, as implied by scientific consensus on an issue, but the consequences of the consensus being right or wrong. In particular it argues that we should pay close attention when our probability-adjusted cost-benefit analysis includes any probability of ruin or total irreversible damage. If ruin is a possibility, we should exercise extreme caution with regards to policies that have a chance of leading to it, even if the probabilities are small.

The Precautionary Principle leaves no room for nut jobs, crazies or conspiracy theorists. It takes as a presupposition that you agree that people should use the scientific method and generally behave rationally and that we should give very very strong weight to the current scientific consensus on any given issue. But it also argues that you should look at the nature of the implications if the current scientific consensus is right and if it is wrong, and what are the cost/benefits of proposed policies in both cases.

In the case of climate change, the PP yields an obvious asymmetry. If the scientific consensus on climate change happens to be wildly and totally wrong and the climate would be totally fine and humans and their emissions have nothing to do with it; but we go ahead and enact reforms to accelerate emissions reductions, the cost is relatively small. We incur some incremental energy costs, but also catalyze innovation in a number of stale sectors of the economy. There are also side-benefits of reducing air pollution and so on. On the other hand, if the scientific consensus is correct and yet we do nothing, the damage is enormous. Economic damages that tend towards the incalculable coupled with potentially irreversible damage to the livability of our entire planet… Ruin.

The asymmetry of being wrong is obvious here and the Precautionary Principle leads us to believe that we really should act to mitigate climate change.

But with the GMO debate, I would argue that the asymmetry goes the other way, opening the door for a different conclusion.

First it’s important to note that there are, as I see it, two primary and independent objections to GMOs. The first is that eating them consistently may cause deleterious health effects to an individual, leading to an increased risk of cancer or some other disease where the root causes are not very well understood anyway. The second is that the genetic fiddling involved in creating GMOs goes so far beyond Mendel’s peas that there is a risk we create some sort of mutant monster crop that kills all the monarch butterflies, cascading us into an Interstellar-style dystopian future of widespread ecosystem collapse. The policy conclusions from these diverge a bit. GMO labeling laws, that have captured so much of the public debate, really only address the former, whereas an outright ban like in the European Union would target both concerns. At the risk of oversimplification, I’ll lump both together and just consider an opinion that GMOs are risky to individuals and ecosystems and should be more heavily regulated and their use pared back.

The scientific community rejects with strong agreement both of these scenarios. But let’s run the same analysis. If the scientific consensus on GMOs being safe to eat and benign to the environment is correct, but we label them and limit their use the cost is probably small. The cost of labeling seems very small indeed. People pay a bit more by only buying organic bananas. But the cost of materially limiting the use and distribution of GMOs is a bit more problematic. GMOs have improved crop yields dramatically and played a key part in the global reduction in poverty. But the cost of labeling plus being a bit more cautious is probably not that large. On the other hand, if some of the bigger concerns of the risks of GMOs turn out to be true, but we take no extra precaution because of the current scientific consensus, we could find ourselves in a future where Matthew Mcconaughey traveling though a time dilation field is the Earth’s only hope. Seriously though, It isn’t totally inconceivable to believe that there is some small risk that exponentially faster tinkering with the genes of crops could lead to some cascading ecosystem imploding disaster.

The important point here is not to start immediately comparing the probabilities associated with climate change versus GMOs but to see that the two are mirror images of each other in terms of the asymmetry of the consequences of the scientific consensus. That’s why, if one is very cautious, it can be completely rational to want to act to mitigate climate change AND to want to more tightly restrict GMOs, despite that fact that one is swimming against the scientific consensus on the one hand and relying completely on it in the other.

But, Tyler!?!?

Before you say it, the Precautionary Principle is not a cure all and it does not solve the question of needing to make a judgement call about the relative probabilities at some level.

For example, when the CERN laboratory in Switzerland was finalizing it’s tests for the Higgs-Boson particle, certain bloggers/crackpots and what have you, asserted that the experiments could potentially create a black hole that would swallow up the Earth and all of human civilization in an instant. A tiny probability but with an implied infinite risk. Should a rigorous application of the Precautionary Principle have shut down the CERN experiments based on any risk of total annihilation of humanity?

Additionally a cautious approach to GMOs could be extended to the anti-vaccination argument. If the costs of a small subset of the population abstaining from vaccination are small, and the risks, an increased rate of child autism, very large, shouldn’t a rigorous application of the Precautionary Principle endorse the anti-vaccination position as much as the anti-GMO position?

Well, first there’s a weak answer to this. The cost of abstaining from vaccinations are not small with herd-immunity playing a key role in the virtual elimination of certain very nasty diseases like measles. And the risk is very very small given that basically no scientists at all agrees with the proposition that vaccinations increase the risk of autism.

But that doesn’t give us the clear answer that we’re looking for does it? Should we trust science or not? Are certain people of a certain political spectrum anti-science nut jobs or unquestioning automatons. I don’t have the answers. But the believe/don’t believe science question is a vast over-simplification. We need to expand our thinking on these issues and looking at the asymmetry of consequences is an important part of the toolkit for doing so.

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