caudoviral

Discussions and reflections on science and life

You might just be disingenuous if…

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Okay, so I know several other bloggers have hit this before (I personally found out about it from erv), but given my interests I couldn’t help but toss in my two cents. And I am going to at least try to focus on a slightly different aspect of the issue.

This all begins in the (web)pages of Nature: Transgenic bacterium sparks row in French schools. It seems that the Committee for Research & Independent Information on Genetic Engineering, is all in a tizzy because French schools want to teach basic E. Coli transformation to 15 and 16 year olds. A great deal has been made over what motivates these people, and I am not going to go into that at any length. I think it is clear that their motives are anything but pure: they are an alarmist, anti-GMO political advocacy group. It will be more interesting to instead look at what they are saying and realise that, regardless of their motivation, it’s completely idiotic. Let’s say that you feel that genetically modified organisms are going to bring about the apocalypse, fine (I for one welcome our new cat-lizard overlords, and will argue that with you another day), you still need to see that these guys are nutjobs.

Gilles-Eric Séralini, president of the organization’s scientific committee, says that CRIIGEN is in favour of genetic engineering, as long as it is properly controlled. But the necessary restrictions are not currently in place, he says.

CRIIGEN “will urge the education ministry to impose a moratorium until a full debate on the question is organized”, says Séralini. “We believe such material should not be manipulated by students before they reach university.”

He warns against trivialization of a sensitive subject, contamination risks and possible violation of European directives on the manipulation of genetically modified organisms in confined spaces. “I am also concerned that practical classes erode the time spent imparting knowledge of biology,” he adds.

Let’s break that down:

(1) trivialization of a sensitive subject. This is a meaningless statement. I do not see a case that can be made that education trivialises anything (either that or European schools are much more different than I have been led to believe). And as for sensitive subjects…please. CRIIGEN claims to be a scientific organisation. We do not have sensitive subjects. It’s one of those weasely, soft words that is meaningless in discussions of facts.

(2) possible violation of European directives on the manipulation of genetically modified organisms in confined spaces. This is odd…I am pretty sure that European directives allow a process that has been going on for over half a century in labs across Europe. Doubly odd in that CRIIGEN themselves think that these directives should not inhibit university students. I am going to be very surprised if anyone can turn up a European directive setting an age limit on performing science experiments.

(3) “I am also concerned that practical classes erode the time spent imparting knowledge of biology.” And here is the big one. Science is an admixture of theory and practice. To teach one without the other is…not teaching science. It’s rather definitional. Séralini is both a university professor and researcher. He cannot be ignorant of this. This last statement is an outright lie. Or perhaps not, I have no doubt that he is concerned by this, but I do doubt his concern is for the students’ benefit.

So in short: non-sense, non-sense, and non-sense.

Look, if you have decided to say that your organisation is for “Research & Independent Information”, shouldn’t you be advocating…I dunno, maybe research and information? The message presented here is that ‘There is a terrible danger from the sensitive subject of GMO and we do not want people to learn about it.’ If you believe that GMO presents a threat, how are you protecting people by deliberately trying to keep them from understanding it? This is not the sign of an honest and well intentioned organisation. The ‘personal experience and independent verification of our claims is bad, you should really just listen to us’ camp is neither a reasonable nor proper position for any organisation that claims “To carry out research and provide information on genetic engineering and its impact in the fields of biology, the environment, agriculture, food, medicine and public health,” or “To make every effort towards the removal of the status of secrecy prevailing in genetic engineering experiments” (both of which appear in Article 3 of their Articles of Association). In fact, it seems to me to be the very antithesis of both of those claims and of the scientific attitude in general.

Regardless of what you believe about the GMO issue, does anyone really think that the proper course of action is to withhold education and information? If you want to convince anyone that GMOs are bad, then you need to use data and transparency. The only reason to fight against education and understanding is to protect the spread of falsehood, which is exactly what CRIIGEN is doing.

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Written by Caudoviral

02/04/2011 at 04:04

Posted in Education

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