The pitfalls of doing reactive science

Note:  A lot of the papers I’ve linked to are behind paywalls. Which is sad and sort of it’s own entire story. Nevertheless, you can read the abstracts and get an idea of what is going on.


One of the papers I’ve been wanting to talk about is this fellow from 2012. It’s a pretty boring, dry piece if you’re not intimately involved in the minutiae of crop research, detailing the results of a series of experiments (each the subject of it’s own paper) designed to see whether one particular form of BT-expressing corn (the MON 88017 line) is dangerous for non-target arthropods. This, it turns out, is done by feeding the stuff one way or another to an almost ludicrous number of creatures (caterpillars of various species, bugs, wasps, spiders, mites and on and on) and seeing if any of them suffer any sort of developmental damage or mortality. What the review found, in almost all cases, is that the risk to non-target organisms is minimal.

What this article represents – what makes it interesting beyond the dry recitation of tests and figures – is as a sort platonic ideal of the dangers of doing what I tend to think of as ‘reactive’ science (in that it’s a reaction to external events). This crop, which has been grown since 2005 (and had been in development and testing since something like 1995), has just been through 7 years of tests to determine if it has any effect on organisms which, from all that we know about the Cry toxin that Bt encodes, it should have no effect on. And the reason? This.


In may 1999, a paper was published in Nature which seemed to show that the larvae of monarch butterflies raised in an environment where they were exposed to the pollen from Bt-expressing maize plants were negatively affected by the experience (slower growing, less hungry and with higher mortality). Although issues were soon raised about the methods and applicability of the paper, it was seized upon by environmental groups as proof positive that Bt corn, and GMOs in general, were evil and dangerous. Following this, a flurry of papers were produced examining the the issue from every angle: how much Bt was in GM corn pollen, how likely it was to come into contact with the monarch larvae and how much would be needed to induce negative effects. A result of this can be seen in this 2001 review article on the whole affair.


And the result? Nothing. There isn’t much bt in the pollen, the amount of milkweed plants (which the monarch larvae feed on) hanging around close enough to get dusted is low, the amount of pollen that would actually land on one of these plants if it was in the right place is negligible and the timing of the pollination and the lifecycle of the butterfly is far enough off so that it would be very rare for this to happen anyway. Overall, the evidence overwhelmingly shows that bt pollen from GMO corn is not a threat to the monarch butterfly.

And yet, even today, you still have a good chance of this being brought up whenever GM crops are discussed in the public sphere.


This is the central problem of doing science when politics is involved – it takes exponentially more time to debunk something than it does to simply claim it. To rebuff a single, badly put-together study can take years of careful testing by scores of researchers and burn through massive amounts of money. And by the time you do so, public opinion has likely moved on. When doing science as a reaction to hysteria or panic, all you end up doing is wasting money and effort: the hysteria will have already solidified into common knowledge (which you then have to fight against) and the extra burden of research will have diverted effort away from more important things. Which is how you end up with dull, boring, meticulously-researched papers looking at the 1000-and-1 ways in which an existing product has no negative consequences.


This central asymmetry; between claiming a negative outcome and then proving the claim negative, is one of the central factors driving a lot of the stupid, anti-scientific debates that we as a society keep having. Scientists are prime targets for reactive science, we fall into this trap again and again. In the end, though, it isn’t scientists that pay the price (we still get to keep on doing our jobs, after all). It’s society at large, in the form of the lost opportunities that reactive science creates.


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