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This page updated: August 2014

News Overload / News Avoidance section
Newspapers section
Political Terms section
How to Detect Bogus Claims, Articles, Sites, Videos section
Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) section
Overpopulation section

My US Policy Choices page
My Religion page (and my Anti-Science page)
My Israel and the Palestinians page
My Climate Change page

News Overload / News Avoidance

A phenomenon I see more and more: people who actively do not want to hear anything about current affairs. If you try to talk about war or politics or something with them, they groan and say "I don't want to talk about it", and change the subject. I hear this from lots of people, including a lot of well-educated people. They really resent efforts to discuss these things; they seem to feel you're trying to make them unhappy.

I think many people have come to this kind of thinking:
  1. the situation is awful.
  2. the situation never changes.
  3. the situation can't be fixed (especially by the viewer, and maybe also by USA and UN and everyone else).
  4. so:
  5. I don't want to hear, think or talk about it any more.

For example, this applies to the Israel/Palestine conflict:
  1. situation is awful: war, innocents being killed, Arabs hating USA because of Israel, terrorism, etc.
  2. situation never changes: it's been like that since 1948 or 1967, and will be for another 50 years.
  3. situation can't be fixed: I's and P's each believe God tells them to occupy same land and kick the other guys out. Both sides armed to the teeth, supported by other countries.
  4. so:
  5. I don't want to hear, think or talk about it any more.

Or take USA politics:
  1. situation is awful: wrong party is in office, all politicians are corrupt, nothing but partisan bickering, country losing jobs, immigrants flooding us, no health insurance, abortion and gays taking over, huge national debt, etc. (List depends on your point of view.)
  2. situation never changes: it's been like that since 60's, or when I lost my job, or when Reagan left office, or whenever. (Date and cause of ruination depend on your point of view.)
  3. situation can't be fixed: my vote is worthless, big money and two parties and corporations run everything, they're all crooks, etc.
  4. so:
  5. I don't want to hear, think or talk about it any more.

So I think a news org could do the BEST story EVER on Israel/Palestinians or Democrats/Republicans or another of these "intractable" problems, and most people still would turn it off. A "new", "hot" issue such as immigration reform gets a better reception, but falls into the same mold after a while if no resolution is reached.

I think this explains some of the shift to blogs or partisan-news such as Fox News. In those places, you can avoid a lot of factor #1, "situation is awful", by choosing an outlet that simply does not report bad news, as you define it. Instead, they spin things to sound good, or to line up with your beliefs. And maybe Fox News softens factor #3, "situation can't be fixed", by telling you we're winning the wars in the Middle East, and we're getting rid of the Liberals, so the situations ARE getting fixed.

Some people say they don't want to hear the news any more because "it's always BAD news; why can't they report some GOOD news ?". That's a bit of factors #1 and #2 in my list, although my 1-2-3-4 framework really pertains to each news issue individually, not all news topics grouped together.

I'm not sure when this "don't want to hear about it any more" attitude kicked in or why. When did voter participation start plunging ? Was it in reaction to Vietnam, or Watergate, or the Kennedy-King-Kennedy assassinations ? Or maybe when the economy got tougher, people hunkered down to concentrate on job and family, and tuned out current affairs ? Or maybe it's just due to simple passage of time since the birth of global TV news: after N decades of tragic news about the same places on the TV news, the audience finally decided those disturbing situations are NEVER going to be fixed ?

Some of it is, I think, story-overload. It used to be that we only heard about a few tragedies around the world: Vietnam, Israel, say Biafra. And those we got new info about maybe once a week. Other places just weren't covered; didn't appear on our TV and most newspapers. Or maybe appeared once a year. Then came satellites and portable cameras and quick worldwide transmission, and now it's all-tragedy all-the-time. Another story about civilians killed in Israel/Palestine/Lebanon every day. It feeds right into points #1 (situation is awful) and #2 (situation never changes) in my framework. Even if they were journalistically GREAT stories every day about the latest Israel tragedy, people would still hate them.

I'm not sure how we can fix this. I guess my engineer's mentality would say: produce stories that propose solutions to the problems. Don't just report "10 more civilians killed in southern Lebanon today"; add "and to stop this, here's a proposal from respected group X who thinks Israel should create a 10-mile wide permanent DMZ on the border", or some other solution or set of alternative solutions. This is advocacy or editorial journalism, I guess, and you'd have to make a clear line between "here are the facts" and "here's our opinion/advocacy". But leaving people with just the (horrible) facts just reinforces their 1-2-3-4 thinking as I outlined above. I think we should attack point #3 (situation can't be fixed) to get people engaged again.

Tom Stafford's "Psychology: Why bad news dominates the headlines"


Two standard practices of the newspaper industry seem wrong to me:
  1. The headline is written by an editor, not the author of the article. This leads to misleading headlines that don't match the content of the article. This practice has been carried over to sites such as Slate, and podcasts. The headline has been sensationalized to draw you in, and doesn't match the content.

  2. My letter to the editor is edited by the newspaper before being printed over MY name, and I have no chance to see or approve the edits. I stopped submitting letters to newspapers because my letters were mangled so badly. Newspapers should not edit these letters. They should respond one of three ways:
    1. print the letter verbatim, or
    2. decline to print the letter, or
    3. respond saying "we like your letter but we need it X% shorter, please trim and re-submit".
    And there should be no editing for grammar or spelling; how well or badly someone writes or spells is part of the letter, and helps the reader determine how credible they are.

Political Terms


From "Don't Think Of An Elephant !" by George Lakoff 2004 (on Amazon):
American conservatives and progressives both view the nation as a "family", but different styles of "family":


Three myths that end up hurting liberals and progressives:

  1. The truth will set us free. If we just tell people the facts, since people are basically rational beings, they'll all reach the right conclusions.

    No, people think in "frames", which force a certain logic. To be accepted, the truth must fit people's frames. If the facts do not fit a frame, the frame stays and the facts bounce off.

  2. It is irrational to go against your self-interest, and therefore a normal person, who is rational, reasons on the basis of self-interest. Modern economic theory and foreign policy are set up on the basis of that assumption.

    No, people do not really think that way. People do not necessarily vote in their self-interest. They vote their identity. They vote their values. They vote for who they can identify with.

  3. There is a metaphor that political campaigns are marketing campaigns where the candidate is the product and the candidate's positions on issues are the features and qualities of the product. This leads to the conclusion that polling should determine which issues a candidate should run on. ...

    [To capture the voters in the "middle", liberal and progressive candidates try to modify positions to "move to the center".] Instead, they should try to activate their model in the people in the middle. The people who are in the middle have both models, used regularly in different parts of their lives. What you want to do is to get them to use your model for politics - to activate your worldview and moral system in their political decisions. You do that by talking to people using frames based on your worldview.

From Wray Herbert's "Red science vs. blue science":
... Mooney is convinced - and convincing - that Republicans and Democrats are fundamentally different in the way they think about the world. Republicans have a different cognitive style than Democrats. They show lower tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty, which makes them defensive about their beliefs and highly resistant to persuasion. Conservative Republicans score low on a personality trait called "openness to experience", which encompasses curiosity and intellectual flexibility.


... This "politicized wrongness", as Mooney labels it, has very high stakes. Just a few of the right-wing "truths" with no scientific merit: that global warming is not related to human activity and is not a threat, that abortion causes breast cancer and mental disorders, that homosexuality is a choice that can be reversed. The list goes on, with huge logical and political ramifications for health, war, and peace. But the ultimate harm, Mooney asserts, is the "utter erosion of a shared sense of what's true".


The stakes are not quite as frightening in the liberal assault on science, as detailed in "Science Left Behind". Berezow and Campbell call the villains here progressives, by which they seem to mean environmentalists, health-food advocates, and other groups whose personal life choices the authors resent. These behaviors include such "feel-good fantasies" as using water-conserving toilets, shopping at health-food stores, running barefoot, and conserving fossil fuels by driving Priuses.


In any case, the vast majority of liberal behaviors that fall under Berezow and Campbell's withering gaze are, at worst, just silly and uninformed consumption patterns. Right-wing fallacies with further-reaching implications are given lighter treatment. ...

These splits seem related, forming a hierarchy: Republican/Democrat, Conservative/Liberal, Individualist/Social, Male/Female.

"Con men like Rush and Beck are one reason the Republicans are in such dire straits today. Because they don't care about winning elections. They care about separating rubes from their money. They've discovered there's a fortune to be made by keeping a small portion of America under the illusion that they are always under attack. From Mexicans, or ACORN, or Planned Parenthood, or gays, or takers, global warming hoaxers; it doesn't matter. They don't want a majority. They want a mailing list, a list of the kind of gullible Honey Boo Boos out there who think that there's a War on Christmas, and that the socialist policies of our Kenyan President have been so disastrous that the end of the world is coming."
-- Bill Maher

Economic philosophies at the heart of modern USA politics:
Two schools, which arose circa 1930:
Great podcast about this: NPR "Planet Money" 398, 28 Aug 2012.

There is a spectrum from most to least control:

Throwing labels around usually reduces the conversation to just insults.

How to Detect Bogus Claims, Articles, Sites, Videos

Characteristics:'s "The Red Flags of Quackery"
Skeptoid's "How to Spot Pseudoscience"
Stephen Barrett and Victor Herbert's "Twenty-Five Ways to Spot Quacks and Vitamin Pushers"
Robert L. Park's "Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science"
Avi Roy and Ander Sandberg's "The seven deadly sins of health and science reporting"
Emil Karlsson's "How to Spot a Pseudoscientific Paper"
Ross Pomeroy's "5 Easy Tips for Denying Scientific Consensus"
Science or not's "Trusting the experts"

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)

Elements of the debate:
  1. Safe for consumption ?

    1. Each GMO has to be evaluated separately; it is wrong to say "all GMOs are good" or "all GMOs are bad".

      Alison Edwards's "All GM Foods Are Not Created Equal"

    2. I've yet to see any clear evidence that any GMO is unsafe.

      From Wikipedia's "Genetically modified food":
      There is broad scientific consensus that food on the market derived from GM crops pose no greater risk than conventional food. No reports of ill effects from eating GM food have been documented in the human population.

      From Science's "Standing Up for GMOs":
      ... Introduced into commercial production over 17 years ago, GM crops have had an exemplary safety record. And precisely because they benefit farmers, the environment, and consumers, GM crops have been adopted faster than any other agricultural advance in the history of humanity.

      New technologies often evoke rumors of hazard. These generally fade with time when, as in this case, no real hazards emerge. But the anti-GMO fever still burns brightly, fanned by electronic gossip and well-organized fear-mongering that profits some individuals and organizations. ...

      From Mark Bittman's "Leave 'Organic' Out of It":
      By themselves and in their current primitive form, G.M.O.s are probably harmless; the technology itself is not even a little bit nervous making. (Neither we nor plants would be possible without "foreign DNA" in our cells.) ...

      ... the technology itself has not been found to be harmful, and we should recognize the possibility that the underlying science could well be useful ...

      Skeptical Raptor's "Review of 10 years of GMO research–no significant dangers"
      GLP's "International science organizations on crop biotech safety"
      (Discussion of this in Skeptics' Guide to the Universe podcast 428.)
      Brooke Borel's "Core Truths: 10 Common GMO Claims Debunked"

      I'm not sure critics even say how they think GMOs could be unsafe. When you eat food, the food's DNA doesn't change the DNA in cells in your body. If you walk past a farm field, you can't somehow inhale DNA from the crop and have it get into your DNA. GMO foods contain the same molecules and amino acids and lipids and starches etc that other foods contain. Mostly they contain the same genes as other foods do, too, just maybe in slightly different combinations.

      By the way, conventional food is not risk-free. Various people have allergies to nuts, lactose, gluten, etc. Caffeine is addictive. Many common foods contain tiny amounts of carcinogens. Do we ban those things ?

      And consumers may be at far greater risk from contamination or residues in conventional food, than from properties of GMO food. Food-poisoning sickens 1 in every 6 people and kills thousands of people in USA each year (CDC's "Estimates of Foodborne Illness in the United States"). We have widespread evidence of effects of fecal and insect contamination, salmonella, improper storage or preparation, etc in "normal" food. Also evidence of residues of pesticides and antibiotics. BSE, "pink slime", etc. We in USA have very limited "traceability" in our food supply. DNA studies and incidents in China show that there may be outright fraud or poison in some food products (Joseph Stromberg's "How DNA Testing Can Tell You What Type of Fish You're Really Eating", The Week's "Made in China: Seven toxic imports"). I'm sure more resources would be useful in inspections of food-processing facilities, and inspection of food imports at the borders. Salt, sugar, fat and other nutrition issues are leading to obesity and diabetes. We don't properly test and regulate many chemicals (see James Hamblin's "The Toxins That Threaten Our Brains"). In many less-developed countries, clean drinking water is scarce. Maybe GMOs shouldn't be a high-priority concern.

    3. Animals and humans in USA have been consuming GMOs for decades, with no demonstrated harm.

      From Dan Charles's "Top Five Myths Of Genetically Modified Seeds, Busted":
      "... a lot of the organic corn that's fed to organically raised chickens or pigs, does contain some level of GMOs."

      My response to "Lack of evidence of harm doesn't prove them harmless. There are simply no independent long-term studies.":
      Probably nothing in our food supply (or non-food products) has been "proven harmless". I doubt there have been a lot of "independent long-term studies" of foods, either. Maybe studies of some food-ingredients or food-metabolytes, such as sugar or fats or lipids.

      And many common foods/drinks have suspect things in them. For example, from Tobacco Truth's "Carcinogens in Coffee and Smokeless Tobacco: Truths & Half-Truths":

      A leading expert in carcinogenesis, Bruce Ames, authored a scientific manuscript in 2000 reporting that 21 known carcinogens are found in coffee. Roasted coffee contains thousands of chemicals in addition to addictive caffeine. Some of these agents have been shown in laboratory experiments to cause cancer. Professor Ames also reported that humans consume carcinogens every day in foods and beverages that are considered "safe"; the carcinogens are present in such minuscule quantities that they play no significant role in the development of human cancer. He wrote:

      "Naturally occurring pesticides that are rodent carcinogens are ubiquitous in fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices. Cooking foods produces about 2000 milligrams per person per day of burnt material that contains many rodent carcinogens and many mutagens ... In a single cup of coffee, the natural chemicals that are known rodent carcinogens are about equal in weight to a year's worth of synthetic pesticide residues that are rodent carcinogens, even though only 3% of the natural chemicals in roasted coffee have been adequately tested for carcinogenicity."

      Here are some of the cancer-causing agents in coffee: Acetaldehyde, benzaldehyde, benzene, benzofuran, benzo(a)pyrene, caffeic acid, catechol, 1,2,5,6-dibenzanthracene, ethanol, ethylbenzene, formaldehyde, furan, furfural, hydrogen peroxide, hydroquinone, isoprene, limonene, 4-methylcatechol, styrene, toluene, xylene. And there are still about a thousand chemicals that haven't been tested.

      While this is a scary list, health officials are not calling for a ban on coffee. They know that epidemiologic studies show that coffee, while not absolutely harmless, is quite safe to consume.

      User comment and another user responding on Prof Kevin Folta's "Ask Me Anything about Transgenic (GMO) Crops!":
      What would you say to people who suggest that longer-term, harder-to-measure effects might be happening without us picking up on them simply because there is no easy way to test for them?

      This is the kind of negative health effect that resulted from things like asbestos back in the day that we only managed to address years later, so you could understand why it might be in focus for people who may be a bit skeptical about the long-term impacts of short-term successful technologies.


      Be specific: do you mean BT found in BT corn? BT is an organic substance used to control caterpillars and used by pretty much all organic farmers. We know the effect: zero.

      What about golden rice -- vitamin A added to keep children from going blind. Only health benefits from vitamin A.

      The real question: how many people in 3rd world countries who starve from crop failures or children going blind from vitamin A deficiency are you willing to sacrifice for multi-decade studies on BT and vitamin A? There are people in the real world that GMO crops can save right now and the anti-GMO groups are stopping that from happening.

      From Prof Kevin Folta's "Ask Me Anything about Transgenic (GMO) Crops!":
      > Are there really enough long-term
      > studies that prove GMO's are safe to
      > eat? Is it even possible to design
      > and perform such a study?

      First, "short term" studies are excellent predictors in the appropriate models. If you feed mice something funky for 90 days, they show the effects in the first week. You can see changes in blood chemistry, weight gain, so many metrics.

      On top of that, many "long term" studies (90 days to 2 years) have been done and show no effects of GM food on animals (good or bad). New work to be published soon shows that pigs, chickens and cows fed exclusively GM for years have no differences than before GM. It is a study from about 1986 to current times.

      You can never prove anything safe. However, there is no evidence of harm. That's the best science can do!

      From Prof Kevin Folta's "Ask Me Anything about Transgenic (GMO) Crops!":
      > Is there a real risk of horizontal gene
      > transfer from genetically modified foods
      > to the bacteria in our microbiome
      > or even our own cells and tissues?

      Certainly there always is a possibility, as many bacterial species use such mechanism for survival. However, it is extremely unlikely to happen and be of consequence. We eat billions of different genes every day, and if there's an EPSPS or BT gene in there from a transgenic plant --- it is a drop in the ocean.

      Plus these days microbiomes are a great area of research. If something showed up from any crop, GM or conventional, you'd hear about it!

    4. There's no reason to think cross-breeding is any better or safer than GM technology, for creating new foods.

      Cross-breeding is hit-or-miss experimentation, just mixing two large groups of genes together and seeing what comes out, again and again. GM technology is much more controlled and targeted.

      "Cross-species" movement of genes: there's nothing magical or weird about "crossing the species barrier". If two types of organism are different species, that just means they can't interbreed; they probably already share many or most genes. And lots of cross-species gene transfer takes place naturally (Wikipedia's "Horizontal gene transfer").

      From Marc Brazeau's "What the Haters Got Wrong About Neil deGrasse Tyson's Comments on GMOs":
      Re: "I don't want to eat a tomato that has fish DNA. Breeding in a laboratory is not the same as breeding that happens in nature over hundreds of years."

      ... tomatoes and fish share around 60% of their DNA already, so it's too late to avoid that mashup. Nature already put the chocolate in the peanut butter and the peanut butter in the chocolate. The question is, why would one more gene out of thousands be the deal breaker? Would you eat grapes with human DNA? Too late. Humans share around 25% of our DNA with grapes. We share 50% of our DNA with a banana. It doesn't matter where the DNA comes from, it's just the basic building blocks. It matters what it does.

      While sentiment also stems from a lack of understanding of genetics, there are also some naive assumptions about breeding not considered genetic engineering. I've written before about just how specific and technically sophisticated contemporary plant breeding has become. Traditional breeders are going after traits which are just as specific as the traits sought by breeders using genetic engineering. This is something that few people are aware of. Nor do they realize just how sophisticated current methods are. ["Marker-assisted breeding", "radiation mutagenesis breeding"] ... today almost no breeding happens that doesn't involve a laboratory and it's been a long time since it resembled anything that happens in nature. But that was Tyson's point. Even the breeding that we did 10,000 years ago wouldn't have happened in nature. The crops we've bred would not have happened in 'nature' and they wouldn't survive in 'nature' if we turned them loose. ...

      From Prof Kevin Folta's "Ask Me Anything about Transgenic (GMO) Crops!":
      > Do you see modern genome manipulation
      > techniques as inherently more risky
      > than traditional methods based on
      > mutations and natural selection?
      > Some people seem very concerned about
      > GMO crops, what are the biggest real
      > risks and how are they different from
      > those of traditionally developed crops?

      Quite to the opposite. ... check out my table. Traditional breeding, mutation breeding, generation of polyploids, whatever ... these are all ways to incorporate genetic variation into new plant lines. Until very recently this was a random and wild process. As breeding has matured, it has become more precise.

      GM gives us the opportunity to install a single gene (or genes) of known function. We can follow it, analyze its expression and protein products. We can analyze its effects on metabolites with great precision.

      In terms of risk, I'd be much more concerned about mobile DNA elements in the genome than I would be by a T-DNA insert. Nowadays every transgenic plant even remotely targeted for commercialization is completely sequenced and analyzed. None of the companies or institutions making them want any surprises and certainly don't want to make a dangerous product.

      They don't do this ever with traditional breeding.

      More from Prof Kevin Folta's "Ask Me Anything about Transgenic (GMO) Crops!":
      > It seems like many stories are written
      > that denounce GMOs as some stepping stone
      > to a cancerous plague. Can you elaborate
      > more on the testing that goes on with a
      > new plant ... configuration? Before it's
      > brought out of the lab and into the field
      > for large-scale testing?

      This sentiment comes from those who don't understand the biology. Addition of herbicide resistance is as benign as swapping out your Mopar oil filter for a Napa Gold one. It is simply a different component that does the same job. Basically, the additions are really minor, and study after study have shown that they have few collateral effects (I'm surprised how few).

      Testing is pretty amazing these days. It is all done early in the selection process, and I learned last week that at some point every plant is sequenced to identify the best one to take to commercialization. They know where the gene is inserted, what the neighborhood looks like, etc. On top of that our ability to measure gene expression, proteins and metabolites has never been more sensitive or cheap.

      This means that any product has been elaborately examined even before it goes into testing to satisfy FDA, EPA and USDA. Those tests are quite extensive and examine allergenicity, toxicity, invasiveness and other ag qualities. Takes millions of dollars and many years.

      Brad Plumer's "'Traditional crop breeding' isn't nearly as traditional as you think"
      Jack Kaskey's "Mutant Crops Drive BASF Sales Where Monsanto Denied: Commodities"
      Prof Kevin Folta's "More Frankenfood Paradox!"

    5. As of 8/2012, EU has authorized 48 GMOs for animal or human consumption, according to Wikipedia's "Regulation of genetically modified organisms in the European Union".

    From Martin Kaste's "So What Happens If The Movement To Label GMOs Succeeds?":
    ... Americans have been eating GMO foods since 1996, without strange side effects. Critics say GMOs haven't been tested enough, but the verdict of mainstream science is that they're safe to eat. ...

    Even Michael Pollan agrees on that front. "I haven't seen any evidence that's persuaded me that there's any danger to health," says the food journalist, who's become a kind of hero for the organic and local-food movements. He doesn't like GMOs, and he's quick to add that he thinks they need more testing. ...

    A Hippie's Defense of GMOs
    George Dvorksy's "What if natural products came with a list of ingredients?"
    Shot of Science's "We're all made of chemicals"
    Is GM food safe ?

  2. Should GMOs in food be labeled ?

    Label the food and let consumers decide for themselves whether they want to consume GMOs.

    But in Europe, labeling has not led to more choice, it has led to keeping GMOs out of the market: Scientific American's "Labels for GMO Foods Are a Bad Idea" (although that article contains some misinformation, such as "The U.S. FDA has tested all the GMOs on the market ...").

    From Wikipedia's "Genetically modified food controversies":
    "Experience with mandatory labeling in the European Union, Japan, and New Zealand has not resulted in consumer choice. Rather, retailers have eliminated GM products from their shelves due to perceived consumer aversion to GM products."

    From Martin Kaste's "So What Happens If The Movement To Label GMOs Succeeds?":
    In the U.S., something on the order of 70 percent of our food already contains at least some GMO ingredients, so the GMO label would suddenly become ubiquitous on most grocery shelves. How would consumers react?

    The foes of genetic engineering hope America's experience will mirror Europe's. GMO food is legal, there, but it has to be labeled, and marketers are wary of consumer backlash. So GMO foods are rare.

    But America isn't Europe. For one thing, Americans have been eating GMO foods since 1996, without strange side effects. Critics say GMOs haven't been tested enough, but the verdict of mainstream science is that they're safe to eat.


    And one other thing to keep in mind is that the U.S. already has a de facto "Non-GMO" label: organic. Organic foods may not contain any genetically modified organisms. It may turn out that the consumers who would avoid GMO labels have already taken their business to Whole Foods.


    Given the prevalence of GMO ingredients in American food, some manufacturers may skip the cost of keeping things segregated, and simply slap a GMO label on everything. That option may become especially attractive if it turns out consumers aren't put off by the label. ...

    ... think about all the other things that come with scary labels - things you end up buying anyway.

    From Mark Bittman's "Leave 'Organic' Out of It":
    I'm in favor of transparency — I want to know what's in my food — and labeling G.M.O.'s may well be the thin end of the wedge. But that G.M.O.'s are in the forefront of the battle for transparency is perhaps unfortunate, since they play on irrational fears and are far less worrisome than the intensive and virtually unregulated use of antibiotics and agricultural chemicals.

    See also: "Purchasing habits: probably not as expected" section of GMO Compass's "An overview of European consumer polls on attitudes to GMOs".

    I wonder about the practicality of anything but vague, blanket "may contain GMOs" or "GMO-free" labels. If we try to specify exactly which ingredients contain exactly what type of GMO, will the labels get huge ? Shouldn't we do the same kind of labeling for the processing steps in "normal" food ("exposed to pesticide X to kill insects", "processed with chemical Y to strip off the skin of fruit Z") ? Would we label each ingredient ("grown near a highway that exposed it to exhaust fumes", "harvested early after an early frost") ? We have a similar problem with "organic" in the USA: the label is too vague, govt has allowed loopholes, there are multiple types of organic practices. And manufacturers who need flexibility in their production line (using whichever ingredient is cheapest each week) often just lump every possibility into a label: "may contain any or all of A, B, C, D, E, F". Some advocates say we should label for whether deforestation was involved, were sustainable practices used, were workers and animals treated appropriately, how much water was used, how much fertilizer used and run-off in production of the food (or each ingredient ?). I guess at some point the label will be replaced by a bar-code or QR code that refers to a huge web-page about every ingredient and processing step involved in the food production.

    From various people on reddit:
    I'll stop being against GMO labeling when they start labeling every other possible thing that has no relevance to nutrition or safety of a product.

    How about mandatory labeling on any product that was handled by people of a certain ethnicity and/or sexual orientation? Not because it affects the product itself, but because people want to know! ... isn't that enough?


    I demand that my milk is labeled, clearly indicating the color of the cow it's coming from. Is it a white cow, or a brown cow? More information is always better!

    Nathanael Johnson's "GMO labeling: Trick or treat?"
    James E. McWilliams' "The Price of Your Right to Know"

  3. Are GMOs a net gain or loss for consumers ?

    Given world population trends and modern production methods, getting rid of GMOs may result in food shortages, higher food costs, use of more fossil-fuel-based pesticides and herbicides, loss of tools to fight some vitamin deficiencies (such as Golden rice).

    In fact, consumers probably should be more worried about the chemicals and antibiotics associated with non-GMO food, than the DNA in GMO foods. Pesticides have a proven history of getting into human bodies; DNA from food doesn't. Fertilizer and antibiotic runoff have a proven history of damaging the environment. Changing to GMOs might reduce all of those problems.

    Melinda Wenner Moyer's "Conventional fruits and vegetables are perfectly healthy for kids" (pesticides)

    From MIT Technology Review's "Why We Will Need Genetically Modified Foods":
    With the global population expected to reach more than nine billion by 2050, however, the world might soon be hungry for [GMO] varieties. Although agricultural productivity has improved dramatically over the past 50 years, economists fear that these improvements have begun to wane at a time when food demand, driven by the larger number of people and the growing appetites of wealthier populations, is expected to rise between 70 and 100 percent by midcentury. In particular, the rapid increases in rice and wheat yields that helped feed the world for decades are showing signs of slowing down, and production of cereals will need to more than double by 2050 to keep up. If the trend continues, production might be insufficient to meet demand unless we start using significantly more land, fertilizer, and water.

    Climate change is likely to make the problem far worse, bringing higher temperatures and, in many regions, wetter conditions that spread infestations of disease and insects into new areas. Drought, damaging storms, and very hot days are already taking a toll on crop yields, and the frequency of these events is expected to increase sharply as the climate warms. For farmers, the effects of climate change can be simply put: the weather has become far more unpredictable, and extreme weather has become far more common.


    One advantage of using genetic engineering to help crops adapt to these sudden changes is that new varieties can be created quickly. Creating a potato variety through conventional breeding, for example, takes at least 15 years; producing a genetically modified one takes less than six months. Genetic modification also allows plant breeders to make more precise changes and draw from a far greater variety of genes, gleaned from the plants' wild relatives or from different types of organisms. Plant scientists are careful to note that no magical gene can be inserted into a crop to make it drought tolerant or to increase its yield - even resistance to a disease typically requires multiple genetic changes. But many of them say genetic engineering is a versatile and essential technique.


    ... In the United States, 76 percent of the [corn] crop is genetically modified to resist insects, and 85 percent can tolerate being sprayed with a weed killer. ...


    ... in the case of several important crops, the negative effect of global warming is more strongly tied to the number of extremely hot days than to the rise in average temperatures over a season. If that's true, earlier research might have severely underestimated the impact of climate change by looking only at average temperatures.

    From Marc Brazeau's "What the Haters Got Wrong About Neil deGrasse Tyson's Comments on GMOs":
    The adoption of the Bt trait in corn and cotton has meant a massive reduction in the amount of soil-applied insecticides applied by conventional farmers.


    By the way, lots of plant produce their own insecticides. The idea for Bt crops came from nature. In fact, 99.99% of pesticide 'residues' in your diet were produced by the plants themselves, naturally.

    Re: 'drenching crops in toxic herbicides':

    What we are talking about here is herbicide-resistant crops, most notably Monsanto's RoundUp Ready crops. These have been bred so that they don't die when the herbicide RoundUp (glyphosate) is applied to the fields to kill weeds. The reason that RoundUp was chosen is that it is much more effective than other herbicides while being relatively non-toxic and easy on the environment IN COMPARISON to other herbicides. In fact, for acute toxicity, RoundUp is less toxic to mammals than table salt or caffeine. Again, this has to do with 'mode of action'. The reason it is incredibly effective as an herbicide is also the reason it isn't a poison to mammals.

    Glyphosate works by inhibiting photosynthesis. For critters that don't rely on photosynthesis, it is just another salt with the normal toxicity of salt (less than sodium chloride). If you are a plant that relies on photosynthesis for energy, it's literally 'lights out'.

    So while use of glyphosate is up, use of other more problematic herbicides is down. It works so well that it allowed many farmers to adopt what is known as conservation tillage. Tillage is an important tool for controlling weeds. Prior to planting, the farmer tills the soil to interrupt weeds which would cause problems during the growing season. While this may seem like a good way of avoiding using herbicides, it releases lots of carbon into the atmosphere, uses plenty of tractor fuel and cause problems with erosion and soil structure. The judicious use of a low-environmental-impact herbicide like glyphosate is often the environmentally friendlier strategy.

    A series of comments on Prof Kevin Folta's "Ask Me Anything about Transgenic (GMO) Crops!":
    Herbicide overuse is a long-term problem; farmers were already using herbicides before GMOs. The idea with granting resistance to specific herbicides is just to get farmers to switch from the really environmentally destructive herbicides over to milder ones like glyphosate. It's true that this isn't a panacea, but it's a Band-Aid on a pre-existing problem. We're going to have to deal with herbicide resistance (and fertilizer runoff, and monocultures' pathogen susceptibility, ...) with or without GMOs.


    I think the trouble with using GMOs for glyphosate resistance is it gives a mentality of "now I can spray as much as I want with no consequences!"


    I hear what you're saying, but I would suggest to talk to a farmer; they would never do that (well, good ones won't anyway). Chemical input costs are HUGE on modern farms, and the whole point of the Roundup-Ready crops is to lower the use of herbicides by allowing a single burn-down at the beginning of the season, and not spraying throughout the rest of the year.

    Granted, some will go nuts with the stuff, but I highly recommend you visit a testing/training farm and hear what the actual best practices are. It works out to ~20 oz per acre [for GE corn]. That's about a pint-glass spread over 43560 square feet. It's really not that much.

    Gwen Pearson quoted in Annalee Newitz's "10 Scientific Ideas That Scientists Wish You Would Stop Misusing":
    Things can be "synthetic" and manufactured, but safe. And sometimes better choices. If you are taking insulin, odds are it's from GMO bacteria. And it's saving lives.

  4. Safe in other ways?

    How do GMOs affect:
    • Non-GMO crops ? ("Gene flow")
    • The environment ? (Including gene flow to wild plants)
    • Insects ?

    User comment on Prof Kevin Folta's "Ask Me Anything about Transgenic (GMO) Crops!":
    I want to quickly address the farmer suicide myth. There is no evidence towards a causal relationship between the use of GM crops and suicide among Indian farmers. Activists who claim this, such as Vandana Shiva, are using emotional appeals to incite fear among the public - it's despicable.

    Research consistently show that suicide rates among Indian farmers are impacted primarily by erratic rainful and other crop failures, as well as debt. The rate of suicide among Indian farmers has not increased since 2002, despite the use of GM crops increasing to adoption rates of over 90%. Other research shows that suicide rates among farmers in India are lower than many other demographics. Suicide is a huge issue in India, and it should be addressed - but using a common societal problem to slow the progress of technologies that could potentially lower suicide rates by increasing income and food access to at-risk people is shameful.
    Keith Floor's "The GMO-Suicide Myth" (PDF)
    Ian Plewis's "Hard Evidence: does GM cotton lead to farmer suicide in India?"
    IFPRI's "Bt Cotton and Farmer Suicides in India" (PDF)
    Rubab Abid's "The myth of India's 'GM genocide'"

  5. Types of regulation:

    Various countries or unions regulate GMOs in various ways:
    1. Cultivation: allowed or banned.
    2. Import or sale of food containing GMOs: allowed or banned.
    3. Labeling of food containing GMOs: label "contains GMOs", "GMO-free", or specify each GMO it contains.

    Some people try to exaggerate claims, saying things such as "country X banned GMOs". Often when you check that claim, you find something like "country X has banned GMOs Y and Z, but not other GMOs". Or "country X in the EU has invoked a temporary, emergency ban of GMO Y while the overall EU approval of GMO Y is being appealed".

    There are varying regulations inside some countries: Some states or counties in USA have bans, some states in Australia had bans but lifted them, some countries in EU have tried to ban certain GMOs, etc.

    Some situations in specific countries: Examiner's "What countries have banned GMO crops?" 6/2011
    Wikipedia's "Regulation of the release of genetically modified organisms"
    Zhang Tao and Zhou Shudong's "The Economic and Social Impact of GMOs in China" (2003 ?)

  6. Farm economics:

    Is it fair for farmers to have to buy new GMO seeds each year ? Is it fair to penalize them for GMO contamination into their fields ? Should they be entitled to damages if GMOs encroach into their non-GMO fields ?

    These are legal, licensing and economic issues. They're not inherent in the technology of GMOs.

    From author's comment on Prof Kevin Folta's "What is 'Genetically Modified'? and the Frankenfood Paradox":
    > my main issue about GMO is the
    > non-beneficial changes being made to
    > DNA to make it more profitable. For
    > example: deliberately sterile plants,
    > plants that won't grow without enablers.

    Deliberately sterile plants (and animals) have been traditionally bred for centuries with no complaint. There are no transgenic plants that are, or ever have been, grown to be sterile. That technology was from Delta Pine and was never deployed.

    Non-beneficial changes? I think you'd find quite a number of farmers that would argue with that. They still can buy non-GM hybrids. Many choose transgenic because it works for them. Saves money, fuel, time, labor. More profitable, sure, but farmers deserve to profit now and then too.

  7. Agricultural corporations and politics:

    Is Monsanto an evil corporation, bribing government officials to let Monsanto poison us ? Are US farm subsidies a bad policy ?

    I have lots of problems with the agricultural policies in USA. But not all problems come from Monsanto, "banning" Monsanto probably would be illegal and wouldn't fix the problems, probably not everything Monsanto does is wrong or questionable (for example, they make plenty of non-agricultural products, too).

    Apparently lots of the "Monsanto sued farmers for X" cases are misrepresented by the anti-GMO people. They haven't sued farmers for GMO seed "blowing into their fields"; they sued for people deliberately planting GMO seed in violation of license agreements.
    (Discussion of this in Skeptics' Guide to the Universe podcast 429. Also a short summary in Marc Brazeau's "What the Haters Got Wrong About Neil deGrasse Tyson's Comments on GMOs".)

    Some anti-GMO people think seeds or genes shouldn't be patentable, and so Monsanto is evil to defend their patents. Well, the govt and legal system say those things are patentable, so people who develop them can get rewarded for their work, because developing those technologies are good for society. If you disagree, try to get the law changed, don't claim Monsanto is doing something illegal or unethical by defending their patents.

    From mem_somerville on reddit:
    There are plenty of people ahead of Monsanto on the gene patent list, including the US government and the University of California system. Why aren't we hating them for this ? (and PS: Dupont/Pioneer is way ahead on just plant patents too: link)

    This farmer patents his "pluots" and other products: link. He and his family work hard on improved fruits that have a lot of benefit for growers. I think they deserve reward for that.

    From Scuderia on reddit:
    Many non-GM crops have similar legal protections that prevent farmers from saving seeds. This usually is not a real problem for most farmers because the practice of saving seeds has died for many crops due to the rise of hybrid varieties.

    From Neil deGrasse Tyson on Facebook:
    In a free market capitalist society, which we have all "bought" into here in America, if somebody invents something that has market value, they ought to be able to make as much money as they can selling it, provided they do not infringe the rights of others. I see no reason why food should not be included in this concept.

    From /r/Ashmedai's comment on Prof Kevin Folta's "Ask Me Anything about Transgenic (GMO) Crops!":
    You should keep in mind that patents expire. 17 years from the day it's approved ... give or take due to blah blah blah ... every patented GMO Monsanto has becomes global community property. If you don't like their patented monopoly on their GMOs, be patient.

    Lessley Anderson's "Why Does Everyone Hate Monsanto?"
    Keith Kloor's "Speak of the Devil: How did biotech giant Monsanto come to personify evil ?"

    Some anti-GMO people think all big corporations are evil, or all industrial agriculture is evil, or globalization is evil, and try to use GMO fear or uncertainty to flog those agendas. But they are separate issues.

    Perhaps other agricultural issues are important, too: monoculture, dependence on a few crop strains, depleted aquifers, fertilizer run-off, pesticide run-off, distortions from subsidies, fossil fuel consumption, animal welfare, worker welfare, contamination with e. coli or salmonella, etc. Maybe GMOs shouldn't be a high-priority concern.

The Straight Dope's "What's the latest on genetically modified foods?"
Wikipedia's "Genetically modified food"
Wikipedia's "Genetically modified food controversies"
Brad Plumer's "Genetically Modified Foods"
Nathanael Johnson's "The genetically modified food debate: Where do we begin?"
Skeptical Raptor's "The bad science checklist of GMO opponents"
The Soap Box's "10 reasons why the Anti-GMO and the Anti-vaccination movement are a lot alike"
Amy Harmon's "A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops"
Dan Charles's "Top Five Myths Of Genetically Modified Seeds, Busted"
IFHP's "Three Arguments the Anti-GMO Crowd Should Stop Using"
The Daily Beast's "Whole Foods: America's Temple of Pseudoscience"
Madeline Ostrander's "Can GMOs Help Feed a Hot and Hungry World?"

Dihydrogen Monoxide FAQ


The numbers:
World population projected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050 - UN report 6/2013. But from Floyd Norris's "Population Growth Forecast From the U.N. May Be Too High" 9/2013:
"... in UN's 2008 forecasts, global population was set to peak around 2070 and then begin to fall. In the latest forecast, there is no peak in sight."

From Kiran Moodley's "World population to peak by 2055: report" 9/2013:
"The world population will peak at 8.7 billion people in 2055 and then decline to 8 billion by 2100, according to new research by Deutsche Bank."

From NYTimes "Off the Charts: World Population Could Peak by 2055" 9/2013:

From Henry Grabar's "Could Earth's Population Peak in 2050?" 4/2013:
"[Study in Spain] shows global population peaking in 2050 slightly above eight billion, and then falling back to 6.2 billion by the end of the century, the same as the total world population back in 2000."

From Jeff Wise's "About That Overpopulation Problem" 1/2013:
"... researchers at Austria's International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis foresee the global population maxing out at 9 billion some time around 2070."

All of these projections involve lots of guessing about fertility rates in various countries.

Wikipedia's "Projections of population growth"
Carl Haub's "What If Experts Are Wrong On World Population Growth?"

What affects the numbers:
I think increasing wealth and education act to slow or reverse population growth. Past predictions of a "population bomb" have failed to come true.

Some countries have negative population growth.

Behavior is key:
Technology often acts to mitigate the effects of population increases.

People seem to assume that per-capita consumption and efficiency will remain the same as the population grows. In fact, some things promise to reduce per-capita consumption and increase efficiency.

For example, maybe in the future, a lot of travel will be replaced by better communication. I know, videophones and telecommuting haven't really happened as predicted since the 60's or whenever. But if they DO really happen, that would greatly reduce the per-capita consumption.

Same with renewable energy and electric cars. Suppose car-owning population goes up 10x, but those cars are no longer burning fossil fuels ?

We in USA waste something like 40% of the food we produce. Suppose we got that number down to 10% ?

Suppose artificial meat becomes a real thing ? Could support a lot more population, reduce impacts of our animal-food industry.

Suppose renewable energy gets cheap enough that we can use it to purify seawater to make drinking water, and generate hydrogen from rainwater or seawater ?

Suppose we created algae or bacteria that processed sewage and landfills and garbage dumps and toxic waste sites to extract valuable resources and produce fuel ?

3D printing has the potential to eliminate a lot of transportation of parts and finished goods; just transmit the design electronically to where the consumer is.

Anyway, just focusing on the total population number is not enough.

"Too many" depends on combination of "numbers" and "behavior":
What metrics would be used to decide "There are too many humans on The Earth" ? Too many for what ? Too many because density or air quality aren't like they were 200 years ago ?

How do you pick a number and say "that's too many humans" ? Doesn't it depend on how they behave, and what your choices are about humans vs other species and environment ? Suppose we had 100 billion humans living on Earth. Suppose they used renewable energy, preserved other species, didn't pollute the water and air. No problem, right ?

Overpopulation really isn't much of a problem today. The problem is people crowding into megacities because there are no jobs out in the countryside. Or people living under governments that steal all of the oil or diamond money and leave the people impoverished. Or countries in civil wars, where food distribution is broken or denied. Or people destroying habitats or overfishing or polluting, because regulation is weak.

From UN's "World Population Monitoring 2001" (PDF):
The estimates of Earth's carrying capacity range from under 1 billion to more than 1000 billion persons. Not only is there an enormous range of values, but there is no tendency of the values to converge over time; indeed, the estimates made since 1950 exhibit greater variability than those made earlier.

Wikipedia's "Human overpopulation"

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