Genetically Modified

An interesting article in the New York Times last week on one man’s quest to find out the truth on genetically modified crops. “Greggor Ilagan initially thought a ban on genetically modified organisms was a good idea.”

This article brought to mind the argument that Nassim Taleb makes.

In Antifragile he writes:

Evolution proceeds by undirected, convex bricolage or tinkering, inherently robust, i.e., with the achievement of potential stochastic gains thanks to continuous, repetitive, small, localized mistakes. What men have done with top-down, command-and-control science has been exactly the reverse: interventions with negative convexity effects, i.e., the achievement of small certain gains through exposure to massive potential mistakes. Our record of understanding risks in complex systems (biology, economics, climate) has been pitiful, marred with retrospective distortions (we only understand the risks after the damage takes place, yet we keep making the mistake), and there is nothing to convince me that we have gotten better at risk management.

If there is something in nature you don’t understand, odds are it makes sense in a deeper way that is beyond your understanding. So there is a logic to natural things that is much superior to our own. Just as there is a dichotomy in law: innocent until proven guilty as opposed to guilty until proven innocent, let me express my rule as follows: what Mother Nature does is rigorous until proven otherwise; what humans and science do is flawed until proven otherwise.

If you want to talk about the “statistically significant,” nothing on the planet can be as close to “statistically significant” as nature. This is in deference to her track record and the sheer statistical significance of her massively large experience—the way she has managed to survive Black Swan events. So overriding her requires some very convincing justification on our part, rather than the reverse, as is commonly done, and it is very hard to beat her on statistical grounds.

Let me repeat violations of logic in the name of “evidence” owing to their gravity. I am not joking: just as I face the shocking request “Do you have evidence?” when I question a given unnatural treatment, such as icing one’s swollen nose, in the past, many faced the question “Do you have evidence that trans fat is harmful?” and needed to produce proofs— which they were obviously unable to do because it took decades before the harm became apparent. These questions are offered more often than not by smart people, even doctors. So when the (present) inhabitants of Mother Earth want to do something counter to nature, they are the ones that need to produce the evidence, if they can.

Everything nonstable or breakable has had ample chance to break over time. Further, the interactions between components of Mother Nature had to modulate in such a way as to keep the overall system alive. What emerges over millions of years is a wonderful combination of solidity, antifragility, and local fragility, sacrifices in one area made in order for nature to function better. We sacrifice ourselves in favor of our genes, trading our fragility for their survival. We age, but they stay young and get fitter and fitter outside us. Things break on a small scale all the time, in order to avoid large-scale generalized catastrophes.

Basically, Taleb proposes that what nature does, it does for a reason, and what we do to mess with nature is flawed until proven otherwise. In terms of evidence, nothing comes close to the statistical significance of nature. Nature also fails locally while the system lives on. Thus to override her we need a compelling justification (iatrogenics).

Asking for evidence of harm caused by genetically modified crops is similar to the approach we take with the justice system — that is, innocent until proven guilty. This approach, however, fails for anything where harm is not immediately apparent. In the justice system, harm is largely in the past so we spend time proving what has happened. But if the harm hasn’t happened yet—it’s delayed or not visible at first—this system breaks.

The same arguments are being made now for genetically modified crops that were once made for trans fat. Looks like we were wrong about that one. But at the time, based on the ‘science,’ we saw no problems.

To be clear. I’m not knocking science. I’m simply acknowledging that one of the ways in which we fail is that we have only a partial understanding. Yet we think we have a better understanding than we actually do. This causes overconfidence and encourages us to take risks we shouldn’t.

So we end up with a combination of authority figures (scientists), confirmation bias, incentives, and while we think we’re looking at evidence that seems statistically significant it pales in comparison to nature’s statistical significance.

Our Apollonian desire for control and order increasingly butts up against the natural Dionysian wildness. This makes us unknowingly fragile.