Sunday, August 3, 2014

Neil deGrasse Tyson's bad argument for GMOs

This video featuring Neil deGrasse Tyson's response to a GMO critic is making the rounds and it seems to be hailed as a death blow to the critics of the GMO technology. However, this is a bad argument for at least two reasons.

First, the GMOs question cannot be solved by natural sciences because natural sciences can't answer the "should" question. We need social sciences for that. Should GMOs be used? Regardless of the scientific claims about GMOs, the answer to this question depends on the theory of ethics or political philosophy we adopt. Tyson's view of social sciences is disappointing, so I wouldn't hang my hat on his arguments for GMOs.

Second, a red flag that his argument immediately raises is that he intentionally avoids to explain why the distinction between artificial selection and transgenics is irrelevant. Those who believe that this distinction is important will see this as a sign of dishonesty.

I work with geneticists. They are always quite explicit in their public relations and state that their technology includes only selection, and not transgenics. This indicates that they are aware of the differences in the public perception of the two, and that it is dangerous for their public image to even try to argue that the distinction is not important.

But Tyson approached this argument as if those who think that the distinction between transgenics and artificial selection is important will automatically agree with his implicit equating of the two. They probably won't and will probably leave this discussion angry.
Ultimately, Tyson's "argument" does a huge disservice to the GMO debate. It simplifies the terms of the debate to the point of arrogance, and it treats the critics with dishonesty.  

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