Monday, March 2, 2015

Real Science 1: What Science is Really Like.

I’m going to be writing a series of posts under the general heading: REAL Science.  So let’s kick off with some full personal disclosure.

There is a stereotyped list of reasons why people oppose genetic engineering of the food supply (GMOs is just shorthand for this).  They are supposed to oppose it because they are over-emotional, because they are ignorant of science, because they are actively opposed to science, because they are neophobic, because they are irrational etc. etc.  None of these apply in my case.  For a long time I didn’t find the issue of much interest.  Then I became interested, and only then did I start to take sides.

Two things moved me.  The first was the rhetoric of GMO supporters.  Frankly, this pissed me off bigtime.  If there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s arrogance.  When I see arrogance a red mist forms before my eyes and I want to make mayhem.  Everywhere I looked was an arrogant assumption of authority occasionally leavened with a sickening condescension.  GMO supporters were the only ones who were rational.  Everyone else was an idiot, to be talked down to like you’d address a retarded ten-year-old.  There was some sickly sniggering, like “doesn’t pass the Seneff test, ha ha.” (Got it?  That’s a JOKE.  Seneff test = sniff test. Brilliant.)

Oh ho, I thought.  Let’s see what science is really saying.  Is the stuff they call “junk science” REALLY junk?  Or could it just possibly be that THEIR science is the junk?

For openers let’s start with something a real scientist, a truly rational person, would never say.  They’d never say “A consensus of scientific opinion shows that GMOs are perfectly safe, so the opposition to GMOs is anti-science”.  Why not?  For at least three reasons.  One, science is not a democracy.  You don’t decide issues by vote.  Two, nothing is ever final in science.  Three, the last and most important reason: science lives by overthrowing consensus and dies if consensus smothers it.

I’ll explain exactly why that is so—why the very essence of science is rebellion, not conformity—in my next post.  This one is really just a teaser for the series, it’s a cautionary tale about why destroying consensus, not upholding it or enforcing it, is the very life-blood of science.  It’s a real life story of a true scientist, appropriately enough from the on-line edition of The Scientist for March 2015, and it’s about Leonard Hayflick’s discovery of the function of telomeres and the Hayflick Limit (for which he won a Nobel Prize, btw).

Hayflick’s study was published in Experimental Cell Research [impact factor 3.552, DB] in 1961, after first being rejected by another prominent journal—The Journal of Experimental Medicine [impact factor 13.912, DB]. The rejection letter came from Francis Peyton Rous who received the Nobel Prize a few years later for his discovery of chicken tumor viruses. “I can still quote from that letter: ‘Anyone who has worked with tissue culture knows that if the cells are provided with the proper milieu in vitro they will replicate indefinitely.’ He also called my suggestion that our observation suggests something about cellular senescence and aging ‘notably rash.’ ” The theory that all cells are generally immortal in culture was first postulated at the birth of cell culture in the early 1900s and was well publicized by Alexis Carrel of Rockefeller University in New York City who had developed a cell strain from chicken heart cells that he claimed had been growing for more than 40 years. [Carrel obviously flat-out lied, because that's flat-out impossible--shows you the gatekeepers of the conventional consensus wisdom will lie like the proverbial troopers to defend the status quo--even before filthy lucre reared its ugly head, DB].

After showing that normal cells are mortal, Hayflick also reported, for the first time, that cancer cells were uniquely immortal—a claim that could not be made without first establishing that normal cells are mortal. He also discovered that his normal human fetal cells had a memory. When fetal cells frozen at different population doublings were thawed, the cells remembered the doubling at which they had been frozen and only divided until they reached a total of 50 divisions.

Hayflick’s work was criticized and he was ridiculed. It took about 10 years for a more general acceptance that normal cells have a limited life span in vitro, a phenomenon now known as the Hayflick limit. The Nobel Prize–winning discovery of telomere shortening and the expression of telomerase explained Hayflick’s observations.”

Thats typical of how most of what we know as science came to be.  A lesson GMO supporters ought to take to heart, because that’s exactly how real science, not junk science, really works.


  1. You make some very valid points. I've also seen the rhetoric and arrogance that takes place on both sides of the discussion. I've seen the same things you mentioned from supporters. I've also seen it from opponents. One of the more common when asked to provide a source for verification is "Do your own research!" I've also seen offensive language and insults from both sides.

    I also get somewhat irritated (though I don't see any red mist, lol) when I see someone say GMO is "safe." Nothing can be proven safe, as I'm sure you are well aware. The best we can do is look for harmful events and go from there.

    I'm sorry, but there is yet again another issue that I must take exception to. You characterize science as very nearly a living thing, and one that might exhibit either rebellion or conformity. I don't believe that to be an accurate description of science at all, at least not the way I want to see it happen. I believe the best science happens when the investigator has no specific purpose in mind, when he works the hardest to remove any bias originating from himself or others involved, and is as impartial as possible. In other words, I don't want to see a researcher say, "I'm going to prove this hypothesis is true," nor do I want to see, "I'm going to prove this hypothesis is false." I want to see a researcher say, "This is an interesting hypothesis. I wonder what we will observe in the data."

    It's possible that I've been influenced by the researchers I work with, but I think the best science is that which seeks to prove nothing, but simply presents the data. Then, and only then, is it appropriate to attempt drawing any conclusions. Competent peer review is also essential.

  2. Derek

    If you're aware of this site:

    please give us the benefit of your knowledge of it, in particular articles like this one, from Kevin Folta:


    1. OK, David--I should be aware of the GLP site, because I'm banned from it!--you might like to ask Jon Entine why this is, since I have no idea, except maybe he couldn't answer my arguments.

      I've said it before and I'll say it again--I am not an ideologue. Many people on my side think all GMOs are equally bad. I think this is silly, as silly as thinking all GMOs are equally good and there's nothing bad to say about any of them. I don't know the details of the Florida citrus situation but it sounds like a good case could be made for GE here. You have to take every case on its merits. You will not see indiscriminate trashing of GMOs on this site, but you will see criticism of the kind of fallacious science that is sometimes used to defend even the worst GMO/pesticide combinations.