In science, should all voices count?

cabbage
Cabbage damaged by diamondback moth caterpillars.

Though efforts are made to bring the general public into policy decisions around GMOs, I often wonder how much weight those lay views should carry.

That question came up again this week while I was writing a blog post about the ongoing comment period for a proposal to conduct open field trials of a genetically-engineered, self-limiting diamondback moth.

This project has tremendous potential to control — without the use of insecticides — an agricultural pest that inflicts an estimated $4 billion to $5 billion in global crop damage each year. It’s been carefully researched and planned, and the greenhouse and caged field trials have been promising. The next step toward commercialization is conducting open field trials in New York state.

The US Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) previously approved the tests, but had to withdraw the permit due to its own administrative errors.

So now the project is again up for review, with APHIS issuing a preliminarily favorable environmental assessment (EA) on the trials and opening a 30-day comment period that ends May 19.

Academic researchers like Bruce Chassy, Phillip Mulder, Charles Arntzen and Nina Federoff, among others, submitted thoughtful comments that indicated they had read the EA and understood both the science and the proposal.

Unfortunately, many of the supportive comments were buried in an avalance of reactionary, emotional, non-substantative comments submitted by anti-GMO activists. It was clear that most of them had no idea WTF they were talking about, despite an overuse of caps and punctuation marks. To wit:

Judith Maron-Friend: OMG!!!! WILL OUR MEDDLING WITH THE NATURAL ORDER NEVER CEASE?!?!?! THIS GE MOTH AND GE EUCALYPTUS TREE HAS DISASTER WRITTEN ALL OVER IT!!! HOW CAN WE POSSIBLE FORESEE THE REPERCUSSIONS OF SUCH INSANITY!!! THIS MUST NOT HAPPEN AND WE NEED TO TAKE OUR DIRECTION, WHEN IT COMES TO THE ENVIRONMENT, BACK TO A MORE NORMAL AND NATURAL APPROACH. ONE WHICH HONORS AND SUPPORTS NATURE AND NOT ONE WHICH BASTARDIZES OR MANIPULATES IT!!!

George Inashvili: STOP THE INSANITY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! DO NOT let them release GMO moths!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Georgia Braithwaite: NO NO NO NO NO.

Carol Neill: fake bees, fake trees – guess that goes with fake food? why can’t we have real food instead of the fake food that shortens lives or kills us? real food is healthier. real bees…

Amanda Meck: No! Stop messing with what is natural. First our food and now our bugs? Leave nature the way she intended to be!

Becky Noyb: If you guys could stop finding new stupid things to do that might kill the people you’re supposed to represent that’d be great.

Justin Holt: This something from a scientific horror movie. Please do not do this!!!

Patti Spinelli: This is a horrible idea….. except of course for the company that will profit off of it, while of mankind pays the price. Once they are released it cannot be undone. MUCH MORE studying needs to be done first. And then don’t do it.

In other words, no matter how much scientific evidence is presented, many of these commenters will not change their contrarian views. So what’s the point of letting them weigh in on a decision that is supposed to be scientifically-based?

ge
Diamondback moth caterpillars feasting on crops.

Some of the commenters amusingly failed to detect the irony in their views:

Emina Bozek: I do not support this Field Release of Genetically Engineered Diamondback Moths. I think that our government is too excitable and quick to jump to extremes that have not been adequately vetted.

But most were just tragically ignorant:

ANONYMOUS ANONYMOUS: We do NOT want GE MOTHS released into our world…..EVERYTHING should be NATURAL NOT FAKE…..

Kimberly Waddy: The release of genetically engineered Diamondback Moths can potentially contaminate the food chain via transports of crops produced using this method of GE pest control.

Iragayle Konig: This makes no sense. We’re killing bees and they add to the viability of life. Moths do what, some contamination. We have man made concoctions that have a much more destructive impact than Moths. Sounds like it’s all about money, again!!!

Stacey Vila: I am opposed to utilizing genetically modified moths or other animals and insects into the environment. Generic modified beings are unpredictable in the long term effects. Concerns of impacts of life in each environment can be seen in those that have been utilized in the past. Evasive species and unforseen effects have occurred. GM salmon and insects released have produced problems that we should not ignore. Suggestions that I see that would be better is letting natural moths do the job. Let nature take care of it. Not the uncertainty of genetic modified beings.Add more real moths; not genetically modified organisms.

I’m not a scientist, but I think it would be terribly depressing to see scientific illiterates weighing in on my life’s work — much less think they could derail it.

Sandy Cornell: STOP ALL THE GMO ANYTHING>>>>>>>> WE THE PUBLIC DO HAVE A VOICE> SHAME ON THE WHOLE LOT OF YOU> SCIENCE GONE BAD!!!!!!!!

Yes, the public does have a voice.

But what should regulators do when that voice isn’t based in knowledge, science or even reason? Should it be given the same weight as credible voices that have taken the time to educate themselves on the topic at hand? When the public voice is talking bubbles, should it be heeded, or even listened to?

16 thoughts on “In science, should all voices count?”

  1. Regulators should pretend to listen and then base their decisions upon facts. Either that of simply transfer all incorrect comments on to a list of comments disregarded due to lack of factual basis. Then base their decisions upon facts. False equivalence should never be used.

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  2. Our educational system has failed the last two generations, resulting in grown individuals thinking BT is poisonous to humans and all GMO are bad because of BT corn. Also, chemicals are bad, especially Roundup. Now we have a natural predator that can control pest without the use of chemicals, and they’ll reject that too. Nice thing about the latest Federal Funding bill is 3 million dollars are earmarked to USDA for public school education on GMO. Hopefully we can save a new generation from becoming science illiterates.

    Love the new formate Joan….

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      1. And very few folks understand much about Ag. And yet want to be listened to even they are wrong.

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  3. What the hell Joan? The new blog allows us to communicate in the future? My god! You’ve mastered the space /time continuum! Also, if you clicked on the first cyberlink on your old blog, you get a page that does nothing! scary! But I agree, nice, clean, easily readable so we can understand the anti’s drivel comments more clearly. Not that I agree with them. You scared me for a few seconds when you said goodbye.

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  4. According to the Constitution, all voices have a legal right to be heard. An outsider perspective should be valued, not suffocated. We came to this country so we can have a right to speak. Has science become so closed-minded that another view is forbidden to weigh in? That’s not the America we love. Einstein would be sickened by this. Shutting down a voice is a missed opportunity for all to learn.

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    1. Go ahead weigh in. But don’t expect errors and ideology used lies to be used as a basis for regulatory decisions that need to be based on truth. Let ’em speak? Yep. learn from people not speaking with fact based opinions. Never.

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      1. The question posed was, should science illiterates be able to weigh in. A voice from another perspective should always be welcomed. By eliminating that voice you remove a chance to broaden science. By censoring who can and can not weigh in- you lose a great oportunity to communicate science.

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      2. The question posed was, should science illiterates be able to weigh in. You are already condemning people to be liars? That is an ineffective way to communicate. Isn’t the goal to help all learn more? A voice from another perspective should always be welcomed. By eliminating that voice you remove a chance to broaden science. By censoring who can and can not weigh in- you lose a great oportunity to communicate science.

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      3. I think it’s fine and good for laymen to express their concerns, but they should be akamai enough to understand that when they are unknowledgeable about the subject to keep to the feelings and not spout “facts” parroted from someone one else.

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  5. This reminds me of the time a truck driver overestimated the height of an overpass causing his 18 wheeler to get stuck. While the road engineers tried to figure out how to remove the truck, a child was watching from the sidelines and said, “just let the air out of the tires.”
    The public may not have the expertise to create policy, but their weighing in offers a broader view that can help the policy makers. The public deserves to have their voice heard so the policy makers can make the best decisions for the public. Thankfully we have the right to voice our opinion by law. “I may not agree with what you say but I damn well defend your right to say it”

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    1. No George, while you can welcome honest errors and correct them. The folks trying to influence science these days that are referred to as “illiterate” usually have an agenda and have no intention of learning. Plus nobody said censor. Just don’t let them have an influence.

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  6. As one who has been fighting diamondback moth since 1974 I welcome, with open arms, any advances that are non-chemical in nature for managing the insect pest. While this particular insect has been genetically transformed to mate with females of the species and fool her into thinking she will lay fertile eggs then what is the harm in that? It is achieved in other insect species such as sterile male screw worms as well as sterile male fruit flies that have been sterilized using radiation. That work has been going on for over 50 years. This new approach creates GE male diamondback moth that cannot father any progeny. No progeny = no baby caterpillars consuming cabbages and cabbage family members, while all the time increasing their ravenous population. This group of vegetables is some of the most nutritious that we can eat. If farmers’ losses are minimized by the release of the GE males then there is more available for everyone to eat! It just blows my mind that every single advance in genetics is met with disdain by the anti-GMO group, while those who support those advances are shills for the evil corporations. Ironically, in this case, cabbage and the cabbage family group are considered to be minor crops. There will be no one making fists full of money for this work. It has developed by public scientists who have a desire to create a management scheme where less pesticides are used and who have a keen interest in achieving agricultural sustainability. The scientists involved in this project know that diamondback moth is one of the top insect pests in the world for developing resistance to every single insecticide that has ever been used against it. This GE diamondback moth increases the tools of IPM that minimizes the amount of pesticides used against it. And isn’t this something we should all be celebrating?

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