Real health risk from GM crops / Scientists need philosophers (21/12/2005)

1.Real health risk from GM crops
2.Scientists need philosophers

1.Real health risk
From Jonathan Latham, EcoNexus
From the latest New Scientist

You are right to highlight the recent finding that a supposedly harmless bean protein could trigger allergic reactions in mice when the gene that produces it is transferred into a pea plant (26 November, p5). However, your editorial (p3) is in danger of misrepresenting the arguments of many of those who oppose genetically modified crops.

It is not "silly" but actually consistent and fully scientific to oppose the introduction of all GM crops if there is a concern that none of them has been produced or tested to standards adequate to protect public health.

Which standards are considered adequate depends upon judgements concerning the plausibility of various risk factors. The transgenic pea findings are surprising precisely because this particular risk factor – that a transgenic protein could have a medically relevant difference from the native version of the same protein – was considered highly implausible.

Thus the significance of the pea research is that it reveals the dangers of a source of risk that would typically be considered beneath regulatory consideration. In doing so, the researchers have exposed in a dramatic way how we are still very far from distinguishing correctly between plausible and implausible concerns when it comes to GM plants.

This is the real and disturbing lesson.

Brighton, Sussex, UK

2.From New Scientist, 8th of January 2005
We need philosophers
From Jonathan Latham

Simon Singh believes scientists do not need philosophers in the same way that birds do not need ornithologists (4 December 2004, p23). He could not be more wrong. Birds to need ornithologists, and it takes a particularly narrow view of birds' interest to imagine that they do not. They need them because, without expert protection, many birds are headed species are headed for extinction.

For a similar reason scientists need philosophers and sociologists. Scientists, like birds, like in a complex social and political world inhabited by other groups with wider agendas. These groups constantly seek to divert funding, influence committees and discredit individuals, organisations, research findings and ideas, both within science and outside it. These often powerful, well-financed, highly motivated and self-interested groups (think of the tobacco lobby, for example) operate in almost every field of science. Distressingly, they often succeed in aligning science and unwary scientists with a particular agenda or product. The long-term effect of this has been to bring science into disrepute.

Sociologists and philosophers of science can help researchers understand the realities of this complex environment and recognise the tactics used by lobbyists and others. They can show, for example, that scientists often have poorly defined notions of scientific objectivity, independence, balance and caution, yet are extremely sensitive to any transgression of the boundaries of proper scientific behaviour. As a consequence it can be relatively easy to sway scientific opinion against a troublesome critic by manipulating the use of such words.

Ultimately, we all need to know how social and financial power play out in the scientific realm and to understand how to ensure that the needs of different groups can contribute proportionately and democratically. But to do this scientists will need to collaborate constructively with philosophers and sociologists in an atmosphere of mutual respect rather than mutual distain.

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