Science Good, Nature Bad: The Biotech Dogma

Caesar had his soothsayer, King Tut had his high priest, and Napoleon had the Pope. But now we are enlightened. Now we have Science.

In this modern era, the role of trusted advisor has fallen to scientists. Science has finally triumphed over Nature through meticulous research, objectivity and ethics. If something has been "scientifically proven," it is gospel -- irrefutable in a court of law -- and if it can't be proven then it is little more than witchcraft and rumor.

We feel safe in the hands of experts, but our faith in Science can actually obfuscate the facts necessary to make informed policy decisions. Nowhere is this more readily apparent than in the current debate over biotechnology.

This week in San Diego, Science is facing off against Nature across a formidable barricade of concrete, barbed wire, and police in riot gear. Representing Science is the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), host of BIO 2001 -- a convention of the biotech industry's best and brightest. In the ring for Nature is the multi-organizational crew of Biodevastation 2001, a gathering of biotechnology opponents showcasing heavy-hitters like international activist Vandana Shiva and populist writer Jim Hightower.

This event is only the most recent in a long series of confrontations between those who purport that biotechnology and genomics are humanity's path to salvation, and those who believe that these new technologies are dangerous, unnecessary and will actually serve to increase human misery and environmental destruction. It is a very complicated debate, one mired in economic justice, food safety, ecology and genetics, issues of which politicians, the media, the general public and even some of the debaters themselves may have a fleeting grasp at best. Therefore, the whole stew has been boiled down to a simple standoff between logical, provable Science and the emotional, spiritual Nature.

Hugh Gusterson, an anthropologist at MIT who studies scientists, looks at the way the scientific community is polarized by biotech's Science vs. Nature divide. The pro-biotech movement accuses opponents of being against Science, while anti-biotech activists charge the industry of violating the laws of Nature, or playing God. The implications belie the truth: that both sides have their share of scientists as well as environmentalists and humanitarians. Respected scientists have spoken out about the dangers of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) while some environmentalists have lauded the new crops as a way to reduce pesticide use and malnutrition among the poor.

Gusterson says that, ultimately, the concepts of Science and Nature are destroyed and the real issues -- genetically modified plants and animals, cloning, stem cell research -- are lost in a sea of rhetoric. Our inability to move beyond this false dichotomy ensures that we will remain incapable of making informed and intelligent decisions regarding the proper dispatch of these new technologies.

This puts the biotechnology choir at a distinct advantage. The biotech business, with its $25 million public relations budget, has claimed sole dominion over Science. In fighting a modern day Crusade, that's equivalent to having God on your side. After all, since Science is the new Gospel, those who oppose it are members of the anachronistic, backwards Nature cult -- Luddites and Gaia-worshippers.

Carl B. Feldenbaum, BIO president, exalted in the industry's scientific achievements, comparing the work of geneticists to the Koran, the Torah or the Gospels. He repeatedly implied that protestors are a handful of religious zealots -- "Jehovah's Witnesses" and "devout Bhuddists" -- who protest out of a "fear of the unknown" and a "primal" relationship with their food and their bodies.

Biotech's ability to propagate the Science vs. Nature divide has made them extremely powerful. Says Gusterson, "Science is so powerful because we believe that scientists stand for the truth, and there can only be one truth. We think that good scientists must agree."

But scientists rarely agree, especially in regards to a newly discovered phenomenon or technology. Trevor Pinch of Cornell's Science and Technology Department has written about what he calls Experimenter's Regress. This is the tendency of scientists conducting experiments in a relatively new realm to get radically different results, even with repetition. This occurs because scientific experiments do not replicate the natural world, and are affected by the experimenter's biases. The Experimenter's Regress is often resolved over time, with many different experiments by a range of scientists, as is happening with the global warming debate.

Of course, the scientific methodology has been designed to safeguard against bias as much as possible, but it requires diligence. "It is a big responsibility to be a scientist; you have to follow a lot of rules," says Dr. Sharon Long, a biologist at Stanford and a member of the National Academy of Science. She says that a scientist must constantly fight to achieve objectivity in their experiments. "You have to bend over backward not to fool yourself, and you are always the easiest one to fool."

Because of the difficulties involved in maintaining a clean, objective experiment, scientists with contradictory findings tend to create a fervor of scrutiny. Dr. Long says that, rather than shy away from controversy, scientists work their whole lives to be in the spotlight with some new and groundbreaking discovery. "People who are afraid of making a splash don't go into science," says Long.

Yet there are very few dissenting voices speaking out against biotechnology. In policy and in media, the scientific community continues to appear as a united front, with respected papers such as the New York Times and the Boston Globe printing that GMOs have been scientifically proven to be safe. The public is lulled into a false security, buying the idea that all responsible scientists are in agreement and the only objections come from a bunch of nuts on the streets dressed as tomatoes and ears of corn. Where are those scientists, involved in responsible research, who disagree?

Certainly, part of the problem is financial. Dr. Long, who has worked in genomics, admits that this field is highly susceptible to monetary influences because of the massive overhead in equipment and materials. "Genomics has a very high threshold," says Long, "Unless you have a large amount of money you can do nothing."

Gusterson concurrs: "For any scientist who wants a good job and a nice home with mortgage payments, he's not going to choose the Union of Concerned Scientists."

The biotechnology companies offer highly competitive salaries and state-of-the-art equipment, tempting to a promising geneticist. Once the scientist joins the company, Gusterson says, "corporations like Monsanto have ways of quashing desent," be it dismissal or lack of promotion. Financial concerns create a serious conflict of interest for many scientists who may find potential problems with genetic technologies.

However, there are a number of researchers with independent funding who have explored the darker side of genetic engineering. Reputable journals have published studies on the potential for genetic contamination, allergic reactions, and ecological disruption, and the National Academy of Science and the Union of Concerned Scientists have both been exploring these possibilities. But because the biotech industry has managed to monopolize Science, these scientists have not received the same attention and respect as their pro-biotech counterparts. Instead, many have experienced a significant backlash.

Gusterson has found that such backlashes are common throughout the scientific world; scientists who speak out against the common wisdom are often subjected to scrutiny. "If you dare to criticize the status quo you really have to know your stuff, but if you are in favor of the status quo you can do really shoddy work."

Dissenting scientists are attacked by the biotech industry and by other scientists who have bought into the new technology. The most dramatic and well-publicized example occurred at the Rowett Research Institute in Scotland in 1998, where a respected scientist, Dr. Arpad Pusztai, found that a diet of GM potatoes damaged the intestinal tract of rats. Dr. Pusztai lost his position at the Institute and was widely attacked and discredited, despite the fact that a notable British journal, the Lancet, published his study. Dr. Pusztai was subjected to a wide range of accusations, many of them completely groundless, and he is still struggling to regain his standing in the scientific community.

One year later, in Germany, Dr. Hans-Hinrich Kaatz found evidence that a gene inserted into oilseed rape crops had jumped species into the bacteria that live in the intestines of honey bees. The implications of the study are that new breeds of virulent bacteria could result from exposure to GMO crops, yet Dr. Kaatz has remained very reserved about his findings. In a May 2000 interview with The Guardian, Dr. Kaatz admitted that he did not want to speak too much about his research because of Dr. Pusztai's experiences.

Even more moderate researchers like John Losey, an entomologist at Cornell, have experienced pressure because of their research. Losey conducted experiments in 1998 and 1999 which found that pollen from genetically modified corn may harm monarch butterflies. Losey is not anti-GMO, believing that, for some GM crops, the benefits may outweigh the risks. He admitted that his study was only the first step and did not conclusively prove that the results would reoccur in the field. Yet Losey also experienced a backlash.

"There were some people who had a knee-jerk reaction -- don't rock the boat -- they didn't want anything that would point to even a potential problem," said Losey. Fortunately, Losey is not easily discouraged and has continued his work, but he can imagine that some scientists would veer away from such controversial research.

Gusterson claims that scientists are warned, directly or indirectly, not to step outside of the biotech doctrine. Those that have crossed the line pay a price -- they are excommunicated from the church of Science, accused of sloppy research and thrown into the rabble with all of the other Nature heathens.

Obviously there is a pressing need for more independently funded, peer-reviewed studies, but it is everybody's responsibility to ensure that these studies are received without a reactionary hysteria. "All scientific research deserves scrutiny," says Long, "But it deserves to be attacked based on whether or not it followed the rules, not on whether or not it is convenient to one's viewpoint."

Just as we wisely separated church and state, so must we ensure that Science, for all its wonders, does not become dogma.

"We won't make progress until we stop expecting scientists to agree on everything," says Gusterson. "That enables scientists to abuse the trust we naively give to science. All of us have to be more sophisticated: scientists and non-scientists, activists and non-activists."

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