Do voters know enough to make good decisions about scientific issues?

In November, California voters need to decide whether or not GM foods should be labeled as such. They are making this decision even though a recent study shows that 49% of the people surveyed think that GM foods have genes whereas regular foods do not. Is this any way to run a democracy?

Imagine that 49% of people thought that the heart and not the brain runs the body. Now imagine that voters get to decide whether a new brain surgery to treat a mental illness is used or not. How would you vote if you thought the heart was where mental illness came from?

Now this is probably too dramatic an example. After all, at least here in the U.S., GM foods aren’t a matter of life and death for anyone. They have pretty much been shown to be safe and they help farmers improve yield, but if they were eliminated, there’d be no immediate problem.

But this may not always be true. And in fact, it isn’t really true in other parts of the world either.

Between 250,000 and 500,000 kids go blind in the world each year because they don’t get enough vitamin A in their diet. I have seen statistics that suggest that half these kids die within a year.

These kids suffer because they eat mostly rice and rice has no vitamin A. So a kind hearted scientist (not an “evil” corporation) set out to create a rice that makes enough vitamin A to maybe help these kids from going blind and so keep them alive. Thus was golden rice born.

Unfortunately for kids in the developing world, roadblocks have been put up that prevent this crop from being planted. A few determined people have finally managed to push aside these barriers so that golden rice will be planted soon. It is too late for the millions of blind and dead kids, but at least many more might be saved in the future.

Could keep hundreds of thousands of kids from going blind each year.

A GM labeling law might hold back important advances like this. Again, so far we haven’t needed it here but imagine that global warming combined with irrigation creates saltier, drier valleys in California. A plant that has been modified to do well in such conditions may be just what the doctor ordered. Too bad people won’t eat it because of all those genes it has…

Like I keep saying, this law probably isn’t a big deal here in the U.S. Our food will cost more without them but we can afford it. What worries me more is some other future initiative based on questionable internet-based science.

I can imagine an initiative getting on the ballot that makes it easier for parents to opt out of vaccinating their kids. After all, depending on the survey, somewhere between 25% and 50% of parents believe or are unsure if vaccines contribute to autism.

A vote that made it easier to opt out might have devastating consequences (sort of like denying golden rice to kids in the developing world). Once too few people are vaccinated, previously dormant diseases may erupt back onto the scene killing thousands. These unfortunate souls would die to keep kids from getting autism from something that doesn’t cause autism.

I am not sure what we can do about this. A better-informed public might help but that is a long-term goal and we have short-term problems that need to be solved now.

Maybe something like a consumer protection agency for science might do the trick. It would need to be completely financially independent and the scientists on the board paid well enough that lobbying groups couldn’t bribe them into giving bad information. A tall and probably impossible order.

Maybe something equivalent to except it is It would have useful tutorials on how to tell good science from bad, put scientific jargon into terms everyone can understand, and maybe grade science down in key areas based on their quality and/or quantity.

Or maybe something even more grandiose. A “science Supreme Court” that hands down decisions on science based on facts and not ideologies. Of course, given how “successful” the real Supreme Court is at being non-ideological, I’m not sure this has much of a chance of working. And we couldn’t have Congress decide who goes on this court. Remember, Representative Akin (he of the “women’s bodies have ways of preventing pregnancy if they were legitimately raped”) is on the House Science Committee.

I’m fresh out of ideas. Any of these ideas any good? Any other suggestions?

Additional Stories:

Handy Guide to California’s Propositions

Debate Over Prop. 37′s GMO Labeling

More about golden rice

Who is Qualified to Decide Scientific Matters? 24 April,2013Dr. Barry Starr

  • Bob105

    Not sure if vaccines cause autism ( a psychiatric term) but these numbers sure concern me Dr. Barry. Are chemist qualified to decide scientific matters or only conflict ridden Doctors?

    0.5 parts per billion (ppb) mercury = Kills human
    neuroblastoma cells (Parran et al., Toxicol Sci 2005; 86: 132-140).

    2 ppb mercury = U.S. EPA limit for drinking water (http://www.epa. gov/safewater/
    contaminants/ index.html# mcls).

    20 ppb mercury = Neurite membrane structure destroyed (Leong
    et al., Neuroreport 2001; 12: 733-37). Think Alzheimer’s!

    200 ppb mercury = level in liquid the EPA classifies as
    hazardous waste based on toxicity characteristics.

    700 ppb mercury = level of mercury in large predator fish.

    25,000 ppb mercury = Concentration of mercury in multi-dose,
    Hepatitis B vaccine vials, administered at birth from 1991-2001 in the U.S.

    50,000 ppb mercury = Concentration of mercury in multi-dose
    DTaP and Haemophilus B vaccine vials, administered 8 times in the 1990’s to
    children at 2, 4, 6, 12 and 18 months of age and currently “preservative” level
    mercury in multi-dose flu, H1N1, meningococcal and tetanus vaccines. This can
    be confirmed by simply analyzing the multi-dose vials.

    • David Whitlock

      It isn’t the concentration of mercury
      that matters, it is the dose. Chemists and MDs certainly know that
      even if anti-vaccine activists don’t.

      The dose of mercury that was received
      from vaccines was small (25,000 ppb times 0.5 cc = 12.5 micrograms).
      That is less than the amount of mercury from one ounce of tuna (700
      ppb times 28.3 grams = 20 micrograms).

      How can fish have 700 ppb when 0.5 ppb
      is toxic to neurons? They can’t. The “test” showing that result
      was spurious. Mercury is lipophilic and partitions into cells. What
      matters is the concentration inside cells, not the concentration
      outside cells. A few cells in a big vat of media can concentrate
      dilute mercury to toxic levels. That result has no relevance to human

      Mercury in vaccines was thimerosal,
      which is excreted faster and results in a lower peak concentration in
      blood and brain than does methyl mercury (the kind in fish) when

      In the first half of the 20th
      century, calomel (mercurous chloride) was used in teething powders, a
      grain per dose. A grain is 65 mg, or 65,000 micrograms. Many children
      received multiple doses. Tens of millions of doses were sold per
      year. Over a thousand children died from mercury poisoning, then
      known as “pink disease”, now known to be mercury poisoning from
      mercury containing teething powders. Many tens of millions of
      children have received many thousands of times more mercury from
      teething powders than have ever received from vaccines. If mercury
      causes autism, where was the epidemic of autism in the first half of
      the 20th century?

      In any case, mercury has been removed
      from all standard childhood vaccines. The only vaccines that children
      might get with mercury are flu vaccines. There has been no change in
      the incidence of autism since mercury was removed from vaccines.

      • Bob105

        You make a good argument with the fish (20 grams vs. 12.5 in a newborn’s vaccine). Now to make this fair, did you extract the mercury out of the fish and inject it into a one-day old baby? Now that would be a fair comparison. In baby primate studies, it has been shown that vaccine mercury deposits twice as much divalent mercury in the brain as compared to equal doses of ingested methylmercury.

  • Boy, I’d love to develop a site that takes common claims on the whack-a-mole arguments like GMOs, stem cells, vaccines, evolution, climate, and curate them–with ratings about the claims. It could range from pure conspiracy theory, to anecdote, to scientific panel consensus review…

    A lot of that is done now on individual science blogs, but collecting that would be terrific.

    If anyone wants to fund me to do that, I’m listening. Some plant scientist friends and I wanted to do a GMSnopes before, but we didn’t have the resources for it.

    • Karl Haro von Mogel

      That makes me wonder whether us doing it alone for one topic would be better than joining with other scientific groups to make it a multi-topic project would be better?

  • Eric Scott

    It’s not just a better-informed public that we need, but a better science educated/science literate. Hopefully if this measure passes, agribusiness will realize this and invest in science education. It’s a long term strategy, but if kids start learning what DNA is and what plasmids are and how recombinant DNA technology works earlier on, they will be less scared of GMO labels on their food, or at least understand what genes are!

    • Barry

      This is a great idea except that biases can still get in the way. For example, the new ENCODE data that suggests that a lot of junk DNA isn’t so junky after all might lead people to worry about the random nature of gene insertion. Before it was likely to land in some unimportant place, not it has a bigger shot of hitting something important (whatever that means). This is why lots of genetics knowledge may not be enough. We also need people to be able to evaluate science and see if it is any good to begin with.

      I guess the other issue is we can’t have agribusiness funding this sort of education. People will think it is propaganda and came with strings attached to say how great and safe GM foods are. It matters who funds what which is why we need some completely independent entity doing this. (Are you listening Bill and Melinda Gates?)

      • peter_rabbit_the_original

        I disagree. You can have a government agency/initiative, made independent by legal structure and processes, and have it funded by whomever.

        The issue is the arrogance of those who create and the fear/greed of those profit.

  • kevix

    “A GM labeling law might hold back important advances like this.” This is hogwash. If my food contains Red-dye-2, I want to know. If it contains meat from the UK, I want to know. If I order Sirloin, I want to make sure I get it and not ‘pink slime’. Labeling has nothing to do with stopping GM products. Please don’t use ‘for the sake of the children’ arguments. Its not ‘little old ladies’ that are behind this, its argo-business who wants to patent the food we eat, that sues farmers all over the world that get ‘contaminated’ by GMO crops, its farmers having to give back unused seed. If they would label this stuff, drop the patents and the lawsuits, fine by me. At this point, I’ll start with just labeling. The need for better science education is a separate and needed issue. I would love to have all elected officials have to pass a science exam before they take office.

    • Barry

      You want to know even if knowing has no health consequences? Like knowing which factory in New Jersey made the food additive in your frozen dinner? The problem is that labeling isn’t just to know, it will have consequences (otherwise people wouldn’t want the labeling). So the question becomes whether the benefits of knowing a food is GM outweigh the costs of people no longer buying GM foods.

      I suppose the labeling could also be more a protest move against Monsanto…kind of like not buying products from South Africa during apartheid. Is that more along the lines of the point of the labeling? Punitive?

      • peter_rabbit_the_original

        “You want to know even if knowing has no health consequences?”

        There you go again assuming you know it all. Not a very scientific attitude.

        What if I know something you don’t about that particular factory? I want to know.

        For a lay person, adding Vitamin A as an expression seems very different from adding insect-genes for interaction with Roundup b.s. It may have no negative health consequences you know of, but it may have other consequences you are not sensitive to or aware of. If you stand on solid scientific ground, you can’t argue against the TRANSPARENCY required by individuals in a modern society. Individuals who have been shafted by other “scientists” before, e.g., the chemical and pharmaceutical industries whose artificial creations play havoc in our bodies and Earth.

    • John Fiorentino

      I agree, I also would at least like to know whether or not what I’m eating is GM.

      I believe the jury is still out on many of these foods.

      Perhaps some believe the scientific community has reached a consensus re: GM foods.

      Personally, I agree with Michael Crichton re: “scientific consensus.”

      The following are excerpts…………..

      “I regard consensus science as an extremely pernicious development that
      ought to be stopped cold in its tracks. Historically, the claim of
      consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid
      debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear
      the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for
      your wallet, because you’re being had.”

      “Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you’re being had.

      “Let’s be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus.”

      “Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus.”

      “Lastly, there is a clear attempt to establish truth not by scientific methods but by perpetual repetition.”

      “In essence, science is nothing more than a method of inquiry. The method says an assertion is valid—and merits universal acceptance—only if it can be independently verified. The impersonal rigor of the method means it is utterly apolitical. A truth in science is verifiable whether you are black or white, male or female, old or young. It’s verifiable whether you like the results of a study, or you don’t.”

      “Thus, when adhered to, the scientific method can transcend politics. And the converse may also be true: when politics takes precedent over content, it is often because the primacy of independent verification has been overwhelmed by competing interests”.

      Michael Crichton
      Testimony before the United States Senate
      Committee on Environment and Public Works – (excerpts)
      Washington, DC
      September 28, 2005

      • John Fiorentino

        Sorry, I had a repeat paragraph in my comments. You should allow editing here.

  • peter_rabbit_the_original

    Amazing fearmongering. You state: “A GM labeling law might hold back important advances like this.”

    Really? So suddenly consumer education is bad? How hypocritical, elitist and condescending can you be? You don’t state “why” this could be so, which could indicate a legitimate need for more information anyway, nor do you think of balancing the interests at bay in a democracy and a world where economic interests, and head-in-the-box people such as scientists and profiteers, have plagued the Earth with their negative externalities.

    Maybe only if scientists don’t know what they are doing, e.g., to the environment to the long-term consumers of such products, etc, and so can’t explain all aspects.

    You may be a good scientist, but you are clearly arrogant at that, and a miserable citizen for a democracy struggling to get information to its citizens.

    If you know what you are doing, you cannot argue against our right to know and the world need for transparency. Period.

  • John Fiorentino

    I would just like to add, that based on many of the comments here, it seems we have some very WELL educated people out there.

  • Barry

    Great discussion everyone. First off, I am not for or against GM labeling…I think the current proposal will throw the baby out with the bathwater but a better system of labeling might be more useful. (Modified so that crop sprayed with Roundup, modified to increase amount of vitamin A, etc.). My discussion was more around if 49% of people have such a fundamental misunderstanding about the biology of GM foods, is this really the best way to set important public policy. I would say no but have heard some good counterarguments.

    I like the idea of just having the labeling so if something does turn up, we can all know pretty quickly which foods to avoid (maybe RoundUp is worse than we thought or some such thing).

    I am not opposed to consumer education but this isn’t really education. It is information without the proper foundation to interpret that information. I am not sure how useful that is.

    I also don’t think an independent government funded regulatory agency would be that useful because of the mistrust of government that is out there. Remember, the government already feels that these foods shouldn’t be labeled (that is why this initiative was put on the ballot). No, I think it has to be completely independent to be useful.

    • John Fiorentino

      Barry says:

      “I am not opposed to consumer education but this isn’t really education.
      It is information without the proper foundation to interpret that
      information. I am not sure how useful that is.”

      While this may appear true on surface, I think it flirts dangerously close to areas we do not wish to go as a free society.

      The rather arrogant notion that only scientists, or scientists in a particular discipline are the ONLY ones capable of interpreting data within that discipline has been repeatedly proven wrong.

      It also unfortunately leads to poor science or corrupt science in far too many instances. And as we have seen on many occasions, even the peer-review process is ineffective at ferreting out the weasels.


Dr. Barry Starr

Dr. Barry Starr (@geneticsboy) is a Geneticist-in-Residence at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA and runs their Stanford at The Tech program. The program is part of an ongoing collaboration between the Stanford Department of Genetics and The Tech Museum of Innovation. Together these two partners created the Genetics: Technology with a Twist exhibition.

You can also see additional posts by Barry at KQED Science, and read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.

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