How Corporate Science and Alternative Facts Limit Our Reality

John Ikerd September 20, 2017

Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) pointed out that Earth (and the planets in our solar system) revolve around the Sun. On the right, an illustration of a farmer caught in violation of a seed patent.

A con­sen­sus among sci­en­tists is no longer accept­ed as proof of the exis­tence of fact or real­i­ty. Pub­lic accep­tance of alter­na­tive facts” is not lim­it­ed to the polit­i­cal are­na. Many sus­tain­able agri­cul­ture advo­cates are firm believ­ers in the sci­ence of human-caused cli­mate change but are ardent skep­tics of the sci­ence of human-con­trolled genet­ic engi­neer­ing. The sci­en­tif­ic con­sen­sus appears to be that human­i­ty should take action to mit­i­gate cli­mate change but should do noth­ing to impede the devel­op­ment and dif­fu­sion of genet­i­cal­ly mod­i­fied organ­isms (GMOs). Admit­ted­ly, some sci­en­tists reject both propo­si­tions. Regard­less, sci­en­tif­ic con­sen­sus is no longer accept­ed as the final deter­mi­nant or arbi­tra­tor of fact or reality.

Sev­er­al log­i­cal rea­sons account for the grow­ing pub­lic skep­ti­cism of science.

First, with dimin­ished gov­ern­ment fund­ing for objec­tive sci­en­tif­ic inquiry, pub­lic insti­tu­tions have turned to the pri­vate sec­tor for addi­tion­al fund­ing and polit­i­cal sup­port for their research. Mod­est con­tri­bu­tions to pub­lic insti­tu­tions by pri­vate cor­po­ra­tions can often lever­age much larg­er allo­ca­tions of pub­lic fund­ing to sup­port the cor­po­rate research agen­da. In addi­tion, large cor­po­ra­tions use their polit­i­cal pow­er to influ­ence pub­lic fund­ing of research agen­das of pub­lic insti­tu­tions. Allo­ca­tions of research funds are affect­ed also by the abil­i­ty of pub­lic insti­tu­tions to ben­e­fit eco­nom­i­cal­ly from research lead­ing to patents, copy­rights, or com­mer­cial appli­ca­tion. Pub­licly fund­ed research on projects sup­port­ing genet­ic engi­neer­ing pro­vides a prime exam­ple of eco­nom­ic influ­ence on what was once accept­ed as objec­tive, sci­en­tif­ic inquiry.

Regard­less of any con­scious intent, pub­lic research invari­ably is affect­ed by cur­rent and future prospects for future fund­ing for spe­cif­ic research­able ques­tions. For exam­ple, if no pub­lic fund­ing is avail­able for objec­tive research con­cern­ing the long-run effects of GMOs on human health, the research quite sim­ply is nev­er done. In addi­tion, most sci­en­tists, pub­lic and pri­vate, are fund­ed to answer spe­cif­ic, nar­row ques­tions. For exam­ple, few sci­en­tists are fund­ed to ques­tion the long run effects of genet­ic patent­ing on the struc­ture of agri­cul­ture or cor­po­rate con­trol of the glob­al food sys­tem. Pub­lic health sci­en­tists and agri­cul­tur­al econ­o­mists who might address such ques­tions face many of the same cor­po­rate influ­ence as geneti­cists. Research regard­ing the neg­a­tive impacts of GMOs are left large­ly to the rur­al soci­ol­o­gists and cul­tur­al anthro­pol­o­gists, who receive lit­tle fund­ing or respect from fel­low sci­en­tists for their work.

The cor­po­rate research agenda

I was a mem­ber of the aca­d­e­m­ic com­mu­ni­ty for 30-years. As a result, I am inclined to fol­low the mon­ey” in assign­ing cred­i­bil­i­ty or skep­ti­cism to sci­en­tif­ic con­sen­sus. I see genet­ic engi­neer­ing as sim­ply the lat­est tech­nol­o­gy designed to facil­i­tate the extrac­tion of eco­nom­ic wealth from the land and the peo­ple who farm it. I have lit­tle con­fi­dence in sci­en­tif­ic facts” that sup­port the cor­po­rate agen­da of relent­less eco­nom­ic exploita­tion of the earth’s nat­ur­al and human resources. I have far more con­fi­dence in the alter­na­tive facts” that point out the lack of research on pub­lic health risks or oth­er poten­tial neg­a­tive eco­nom­ic and social impacts of genet­ic engineering.

The alter­na­tive facts in this case are not real­ly in con­flict; they are sim­ply alter­na­tive per­spec­tives of sci­en­tif­ic real­i­ty. Sci­en­tists who ques­tion the sus­tain­abil­i­ty of genet­ic engi­neer­ing face sig­nif­i­cant pro­fes­sion­al and eco­nom­ic risks — so most don’t do it. Instead, they attempt to dis­cred­it the sci­en­tists who raise ques­tions about their advo­ca­cy. So, the appear­ance of alter­na­tive facts persists.

On the ques­tion of cli­mate change, I give more cred­i­bil­i­ty to the sci­en­tists who ques­tion the sus­tain­abil­i­ty of con­tin­ued reliance on fos­sil ener­gy. Most believ­ers are atmos­pher­ic sci­en­tists who have noth­ing to gain or lose eco­nom­i­cal­ly. Most deniers, or cli­mate change skep­tics, are asso­ci­at­ed finan­cial­ly with the fos­sil fuel indus­try, regard­less of whether they were skep­ti­cal before or became skep­tics after their affil­i­a­tion. In this case, the alter­na­tive facts are more a result of cher­ry pick­ing” stud­ies or data sets that con­flict with the sci­en­tif­ic con­sen­sus. Their goal is to cre­ate skep­ti­cism rather than advo­cate for more rel­e­vant research. It’s dif­fi­cult to deny satel­lite images of melt­ing polar ice caps, ris­ing ocean lev­els, and the con­cur­rent mas­sive release of fos­sil car­bon from the crust of the earth. Regard­less, fol­low­ing the mon­ey” is still a use­ful guide in decid­ing on sci­en­tif­ic credibility.

Wicked prob­lems,” the think­ing world” and real­i­ty as potential”

The exis­tence of these and oth­er alter­na­tive facts” is a reflec­tion of the nature of the impor­tant ques­tions cur­rent­ly con­fronting human­i­ty. The great­est advances in sci­ence thus far have been in astron­o­my, geol­o­gy, physics, and chem­istry — par­tic­u­lar­ly in engi­neer­ing, elec­tron­ics, and inor­gan­ic chem­istry. In these hard sci­ences,” it’s rel­a­tive­ly easy to iso­late caus­es and effects and to manip­u­late nature to cre­ate the desired effects.

Most of the sci­en­tif­ic achieve­ments appar­ent in our so-called mod­ern way of life are a con­se­quence of the dis­cov­er­ies in the non­liv­ing” world. Some sci­en­tists include biol­o­gy among the hard sci­ences, but liv­ing organ­isms are far more com­plex than non-liv­ing mech­a­nisms. It’s far more dif­fi­cult to iso­late caus­es and effects or to manip­u­late liv­ing sys­tems with­out cre­at­ing unin­tend­ed con­se­quences. Prob­lems in these areas are some­times called wicked prob­lems,” not because they are evil but because they are dif­fi­cult. This is a fun­da­men­tal prob­lem of genet­ic engi­neer­ing. Liv­ing organ­isms are being engi­neered as if they were inan­i­mate mech­a­nisms — with a vir­tu­al cer­tain­ty of unin­tend­ed consequences.

The most impor­tant ques­tions con­fronting human soci­ety today fall in the realm of the soft sci­ences” — human ecol­o­gy, soci­ol­o­gy, eco­nom­ics, anthro­pol­o­gy, psy­chol­o­gy, phi­los­o­phy and ethics. Humans are thought­ful, inten­tion­al, respon­sive beings. The think­ing world” is even more com­plex and unpre­dictable than the non-human liv­ing world. Today’s sci­en­tif­ic meth­ods are sim­ply inca­pable of deter­min­ing the facts” need­ed to answer the most crit­i­cal ques­tions con­fronting humanity.

Glob­al cli­mate change, eco­log­i­cal degra­da­tion, dying oceans, deser­ti­fi­ca­tion, per­sis­tent hunger, social injus­tice, eco­nom­ic inequity, resource wars, rad­i­cal fun­da­men­tal­ism and ter­ror­ism are all ques­tions beyond answer­ing using today’s accept­ed sci­en­tif­ic meth­ods. Far too many sci­en­tists are being dis­tract­ed from the real work of sci­ence to help devel­op the same kinds of tech­nolo­gies that cre­at­ed these prob­lems. Sci­en­tists instead need to be explor­ing new approach­es to sci­ence that are capa­ble of pro­vid­ing infor­ma­tion and knowl­edge that might be help­ful in solv­ing these problems.

Sci­en­tists need to use their think­ing abil­i­ty to rethink sci­ence to fit today’s prob­lems rather than try to fit today’s prob­lems into a sci­ence devel­oped for the non-liv­ing, non-think­ing world. In address­ing today’s prob­lems, I believe sci­en­tists need to think of real­i­ty as poten­tials to be explored rather than facts to be deter­mined. The more impor­tant ques­tions relate not only to what is” but also what could be.” An under­stand­ing of real­i­ty as poten­tial” also can help sep­a­rate alter­na­tive facts from out­right lies.

(“Reflec­tions on Sci­ence and Alter­na­tive Facts” was first pub­lished on JohnIkerd​.com and is part one of a three part series. It’s post­ed on Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times with per­mis­sion from the author, though we took some lib­er­ties with the head­line. For more infor­ma­tion about John Ikerd’s ideas, books, speak­ing engage­ments etc., click here.)

John Ikerd was raised on a small dairy farm in south­west Mis­souri. He received his BS, MS, and Ph.D. degrees in agri­cul­tur­al eco­nom­ics from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­souri. After work­ing in pri­vate indus­try, he spent 30 years in var­i­ous pro­fes­so­r­i­al posi­tions at North Car­oli­na State Uni­ver­si­ty, Okla­homa State Uni­ver­si­ty, Uni­ver­si­ty of Geor­gia and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­souri before retir­ing in ear­ly 2000. He now spends most of his time writ­ing and speak­ing on issues relat­ed to sus­tain­abil­i­ty with an empha­sis on eco­nom­ics and agri­cul­ture. He cur­rent­ly resides in Fair­field, Iowa and is the author of sev­er­al books includ­ing Essen­tials of Eco­nom­ic Sus­tain­abil­i­ty, Sus­tain­able Cap­i­tal­ism, A Return to Com­mon Sense and Cri­sis and Oppor­tu­ni­ty: Sus­tain­abil­i­ty in Amer­i­can Agri­cul­ture and A Rev­o­lu­tion of the Mid­dle.
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