Science in the storm 5: GMOs, agnotology, theory (Discussion)

5 October 2021

Science in the storm 5: GMOs, agnotology, theory (Discussion)

Approaching Thunder Storm, Martin Johnson Heade, 1859; Image Credit: Wikimedia https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Approaching_Thunder_Storm_MET_DP248013.jpg

This text is the final discussion of the science in the storm conference. First, what kind of bubble exists in sciences? Will they pop by themselves or will they go on despite discrepant facts? Last, how can we rethink the relation between science and the general public and the possible misunderstandings that are taking place?

Maël Montévil


Thank you. Maybe I can start the discussion. Angelika, you mentioned bubble science, and I think this bubble image is very interesting because it can lead to several meanings; and I think in our overall discussion, these meanings intertwine. There isa bubblein the sense of a market bubble, and I think this was your original meaning, but nowadays, there is also the notion of filter bubbles, especially in social media. What is a filter bubble? It's the idea that you interact on social media only with people who mostly agree with you. It's also what Giuseppe mentioned in the work of David Chavalarias in ISC.


And the idea is that an economic bubble is fragile, it can pop, and therefore it corresponds to some filter bubble too. That's a pathology of academia in general that disciplines can become filter bubbles. For example, molecular biologists claim to be physicalists but do not discuss physics (except at the beginning of the field). On the opposite, even when physicists are reductionists and are very compliant with the view of molecular biologists, they always look at systems, so there is only systems biology for physicists, in a sense. And my point is then that theorization is synthetic; that is to say, it tries to embrace many empirical facts and other theoretical frameworks. It cannot stick to the filter bubbles that discipline can lead to. So I think this double notion of a bubble, as a speculative bubble and a filter bubble, encompasses not all but a big part of what has been discussed. And it goes very well with the question of truth brought up by Ignacio. That is to say, the truth is, in a sense, coming from the sky, and it is perfect by itself. In a sense, it can be conceived of as isolated or perfect, so it doesn't need to be open to something else. Whereas science, as I think we all envision it, needs to be open. This is why conceiving science as truth goes very well as building a bubble, in this double sense of bubble.


Angelika Hilbeck


I clearly meant it as a filter bubble. It's a self-referential system that protects itself, allows only information as it suits the preconceived worldview or a condition, and shuts everything out that doesn't match that or fit that, you know. In the example of noise, what I was using or trying to convey, is that this is a fundamental principle of how planet Earth works. But this did never occur to them. It has been "yes it doesn't work, yes there is this variability, we hate it, it interferes with our work, it blocks, it hinders what we do, how can we manage it? And how can we make it go away?" But it was in no way allowed to enter that bubble by looking at it as a principle that might undermine the very essence of their field. So, that never happened. It never occurred to them. And I guarantee you, if you would discuss with them, they will look at you like "what are you talking about?", You can call it what you want, but it's a protected enclosure of a certain normative, like-minded, religious, whatever you want to call it, that protects itself from being challenged.


Ignacio Chapela


But I know that you also mean the other kind of bubble, Angelika.


Angelika Hilbeck


Why?


Ignacio Chapela


Because, what you and I, I think Giuseppe too and Maël know, and can establish very easily, is that the whole edifice of transgenesis and genetic engineering is built on a very shaky and actually wrong foundation. So it is much more the equivalent of a Ponzi scheme, which is this promising to somebody who is more ignorant than you, promising that they will win a lot of money if they invest in what you're proposing, and that is your source of money. So, I think, to a large extent, we see a bubble that just refuses to burst, in conceptual terms.


Angelika Hilbeck


Yeah, it's very stable. I had to jump over it because it didn't really match the flow, but I mean, if you want a little bit of an insight into the kind of... thinking if you want to call this, and what you can construct from this, this to me was one of the most striking, you know, quotes in revealing, or enlightening, if you wish, from Professor Doudna, the Nobel Laureate, because it clearly is creationism. And it wouldn't even occur to them that that's what they're preaching. And to associate to evolution the terms deaf, dumb and blind, and thinking that she could replace that by her conscious, her intentional system of her directed type of evolution --- it's just jawdropping in my view, you know. It's amazing. And if you then know that the very same person who says that is engaged in I don't know how many companies, making enormous amounts of money from this, here in this field... It's just how religious belief and capitalism converge to this beautiful perfect stone that works for them. So I don't live under the illusion that anybody's suffering on this; they're win-win, you know.


We have to invent a new relation to explicit political activism, like the young people for climate or ecosystem, or peasants working in different areas attacked by GMOs, and so on. This can be a way out.

Giuseppe Longo


Doudna's book was published in 2017 and won a Nobel award last year, just to remind everybody.


Angelika Hilbeck


Yeah, but it doesn't matter. I mean, Doudna has not changed her thinking for its life.


Giuseppe Longo


No, no, but it's very recent.


Ignacio Chapela


Maybe I should also remind people that she's another Berkeley concoction.


Angelika Hilbeck


So in terms of bubbles, what can I say? It's the perfect bubble; it's a church or a sect. I think bubble is a nice, polite way of saying that.


Maël Montévil


It also connects with Victor's introduction about social networks and dynamics that are taking place in other parts of society than just science. In my experience, it also goes with a simple institutional fact. For example, I've contradicted physicists who engage in biology a lot, but the thing is that my contradiction works well in debates. Still, it doesn't have an efficacy because, for example, to get fundings, they need to be validated by other physicists, so they do not have to engage theoretically in biology, and they can and have to stick with the same discourses. So the bubble applies also to the grant level, not just the exchange of ideas.


Carlos Sonnenschein


As a member of the audience, may I ask something to the panelists? I think that you effectively gave us the diagnosis. Could you suggest some treatment?


Angelika Hilbeck


That's a mean question.


Giuseppe Longo


I tried to hint at reinventing a relation to civil society, namely with the difficulties of the financial support and academic milieu, but you have to try to stay there, still, because we need to teach and so on. We have to invent a new relation to explicit political activism, like the young people for climate or ecosystem, or peasants working in different areas attacked by GMOs, and so on. This can be a way out.



Eastern Point Light, Winslow Homer, 1880; Image Credit: wikimedia. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Winslow_Homer_-_Eastern_Point_Light_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg


Carlos Sonnenschein


In other words, what you are suggesting, and probably most of the panelists will agree, is that there is no radical solution. In other words, that we have to wait for the whole building to collapse before we start again to build it up.


Angelika Hilbeck


I think it is collapsing already.


Carlos Sonnenschein


Yeah, but I mean, you see what Max Planck said. He said if you wait some years, you will see the dead bodies coming, and eventually, young people will take over. The problem is that this biological system we are suffering from states that the graduate students will continue doing exactly the same thing that their professors used to do. So, it is making itself impossible to destroy, even with time, because if the problem is money, everyone has to pay their rent or their mortgage or their cars and this will never end.


Angelika Hilbeck


It will end when it collapses, you know, but until then, it will be madness.


Ignacio Chapela


Angelika, I disagree. I think Ana wants to speak.


Ana Soto


I think that Bernard Stiegler used to say that you also work inside the system. And in that regard, some people are working inside of the system. For example, a lot of NGOs in France made possible legislation that protects people against bisphenol A and phthalates, in a way that didn't happen in most other places except Denmark that is much smaller. The endocrine society also protects all this, that lobbied a lot, together with endocrinologists, to get this view of regulation that now ECHA is putting into action in Europe, and we have to all fight because the industries are going to try to block this legislation. But something is happening, it's too slow, but even within that frame, it's happening. Even these people, the scientists who are still thinking of information and program, mean all these things that we know don't work, are still making strides. So I think that we have to have parallel ways. One is from the inside like these people are doing with more power than us, and the other is the most difficult task. Can we help to destroy that system? Can we really push forward for a different agenda and be strong enough to give a theoretical alternative?


Because, what you and I, I think Giuseppe too and Maël know, and can establish very easily, is that the whole edifice of transgenesis and genetic engineering is built on a very shaky and actually wrong foundation. So it is much more the equivalent of a Ponzi scheme, which is this promising to somebody who is more ignorant than you, promising that they will win a lot of money if they invest in what you're proposing, and that is your source of money.

Carlos Sonnenschein


Good luck.


Ana Soto


Yeah, but I'm saying some people within the system are fighting because they hate the consequences.


Carlos Sonnenschein


It's in the constitution; it's the pursuit of happiness.


Angelika Hilbeck


In the US.


Ana Soto


Yeah, and there is the problem because when I go to the endocrine society and say, "no, what we have to do, is tell people that if you sell a shampoo, it shouldn't have a green color, collagen and I don't know what the hell, because it's a detergent with preservatives, so bacteria don't proliferate." Then, when I talk capitalism, everyone looks in the other direction and tells me that I am crazy.


Carlos Sonnenschein


It's the pursuit of happiness.


Ana Soto


I say that the pursuit of happiness of these people is making us unable to reproduce.



Thunder Storm on Narragansett Bay, Martin Johnson Heade, 1868; Image Credit: wikimedia https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Martin_Johnson_Heade_-Thunder_Storm_on_Narragansett_Bay_ATC.jpg

Ignacio Chapela


But for the sake of disagreement, I want to say the question of destroying what's there is obviously a very harmful thing we have concocted. But if you just follow my presentation, the idea that you want to destroy and you bank on the destruction of that thing, I can assure you that the first thing that gets destroyed is the science that I won't, because the science that I don't want has the power. So it's a very difficult move, Carlos. Carlos proposes a very, very difficult question that I am used to talking about in genetic engineering because you often give a diagnosis, and then people say, "yeah, yeah, but then, what am I going to do? People are going hungry, and the environment is decaying, blablabla. What do you have to propose?" So I have become accustomed to saying why do I need to have a solution that I can give in three seconds for a very, very complex problem when I am able, I think, to articulate very clearly what the problem is, while not necessarily giving a solution that I can sell in the same terms that they are selling us to eat. And one extra thing to say is one of the reasons why that techno-scientific system that I don't like is that it has the same words as what I like but is the exact opposite of what I like. I don't think it is collapsing, Angelika; I think it reinforces itself because it becomes stable by one rhetorical semantic move again that is native to Silicon Valley where I live, right? And that is: risk is a business opportunity. So the risk is not something to avoid; it's something to look for. And I just want to give a quote from Larry Summers, who was the chief economist for Obama and the press editor of Harvard and so forth, who defined and talked publicly about under-polluted countries. He would say the problem is that we have too many under-polluted countries. And we are not allocating pollution rationally. We are exposing too many people to elevated pollution levels when we have so many countries to pollute; come on, let's talk about it. So, it is completely within the system's rationale to make itself incredibly stable; there has to be an honest trick. The last thing I will say is, I believe we can live without science, the science that I want. And that really scares me.


Angelika Hilbeck


Yes, I have nothing further to add to that. We need to change the teaching as well, the curriculum. They are teaching all the wrong roots to our students, you know. They keep hearing the central dogma, keep hearing all the mantras, and keep getting false ideologies and false narratives. But I'm trying hard, we do have some degrees of freedom at the university to do that, so we're countering some of those. But quantitatively, we're way too few people. But in primary or secondary school, you have no degrees of freedom, you have your program, you have to teach your students, and that's it. And if it says in biology, "teach them the central dogma," you teach them the central dogma.


Victor Chaix


Thank you, Ignacio, it was really interesting what you just said. At first, I was thinking like Angelika – that it is collapsing by itself – but what you point out is really interesting. It's quite related to the "shock doctrine." When Ana asks what you can do, as scientists, to help provide an alternative, I believe that we have – even if it stabilizes itself, and because it stabilizes itself – we have to deconstruct the whole thing, to rebuild out of it something viable.


We need to change the teaching as well, the curriculum. They are teaching all the wrong roots to our students, you know. They keep hearing the central dogma, keep hearing all the mantras, and keep getting false ideologies and false narratives.

I wanted to go back to what you said, Angelika, at the end of your presentation, about young demonstrators saying, "we have to listen to science, to scientists." We really know Greta Thunberg for this: it's really this affirmation to political and economic leaders, which made her famous and recognized. In the beginning, Bernard Stiegler was arguing that we should support what Greta says, but we should add that science is not unified; it's not like if there is the science: it's always full of controversies that we have to do with. This critique for Stiegler should invite young generations to undertake a deepened work with science, or rather a work on science - because it is never fully fixed. While I really admire Greta Thunberg, like Stiegler and others, I think that sometimes there is a risk that young demonstrators can go towards what Ignacio you called scientism: science almost becomes a religion and represents the absolute truth, which it is not. Even in the case of the IPCC, which is an internationally recognized scientific institution concerning climate change, we can critique its work and conclusions. For example, in its reports, the IPCC does not take into account feedback loops, such as the melting of the permafrost. There are many critiques that we can make to scientific work, even to the IPCC.


Alberto Vianelli


Normally, I fully agree with what Angelika said about the teaching, and I will especially make a plea for history. History of sciences, I'm using the plural, not much in terms of the synchronic question that these are different sciences in the sense of different disciplines, physics, chemistry, and math, but diachronically because science as a word used as experience, an observation, has a history. So I think it would be beneficial for everybody to learn really what science we are talking about. It's the result of history and is a socially and culturally situated idea and concept. So, this is the part I'm coming back to school and studying Licence and Master in History of Sciences, just because I want to join the critical group with more awareness in what I think is very important. We need much more examples like what Angelika showed on the history of the idea of dogma and so and so. This was just my addition, and thank you again for the chance.


Carlos Sonnenschein


I just wanted to make a short comment. First of all, I think that all these people that you have been criticizing are bullies. In other words, you treat bullies as such, and bullies are cowards. So I believe that, as has happened with the women's movement, you can destroy that edifice by challenging the bullies, and unfortunately, there are very few people who have the means to challenge the bullies. But if we challenge the bullies, I believe that something will happen.


Ana Soto


That is a good idea, but still, you have to work on so many different fronts because we have been working on changing the theory. I think one thing that we are also doing but very slowly is trying to incorporate this critical way of thinking into secondary education; we have collaborators that are really doing that. And many things need to be done, so it looks so uphill, which is immense, yet we have to follow all these different leads.


Ignacio Chapela


I would like to comment on this meeting, mostly because I have to leave. I am in Philadelphia; I'm brought here by an artist group who are reconceptualizing many things about the environment, about social relationships, and so on, and we're here in Philadelphia as part of a very big and beautiful reforestation of the city, so recovery of the urban forest in the city. And it just reminds me that I should leave this zoom meeting to be real and to plant trees and to help people reconceptualize what a tree is and how it relates to others and so on. I don't think there is an easy answer, obviously, but I feel there is this balance that has to be achieved between what we're doing right now, which is incredibly beautiful and powerful and also becoming real and specific in place and in chemical reality rather than this other reality. And so, I just want to invite especially the younger people to continue to be engaged in reality, wherever it is that you are, with whatever you can do with your hands or with your body. Reproduce! Reproduction is very important and very good. And also, reproduce not only yourselves as human beings but also reproduce the way of being in the world that brought you to this meeting. Clearly, we have way more to talk and discuss, and I just hope that you will continue with this series of talks in the future. I, for one, would be very happy to continue talking about the so many different fronts that we just opened today. And I'm just very heartened that you are in the world. Thank you.



Winslow Homer, Gloucester Mackerel Fleet at Dawn / Prout's Neck, Mackerel Fleet at Dawn, 1884. Credit: wikimedia. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Winslow_Homer_-_Mackerel_Fleet_at_Dawn_1_(1884).jpg


Victor Chaix


Thank you, Ignacio. We will think about this with Maël to continue this series.


Angelika Hilbeck


Okay, a last comment to come back after such beautiful words, you know, the almost final statement he gave to us. Regarding that, if one achievement, if I hear you say that within your Association of Friends of Greta Thunberg, you have been made aware that the slogan "follow the science" has its problems, then I think we have achieved a lot. I'm not sure how other groups around Greta Thunberg or other young people groups have permeated into yet. I think one reason when she said that, and I don't how why and how, this young woman how she would know this, you know. But in my view, that gave her the entry ticket to authorities, institutions and the UN, because she said that, also in a time, when a Trump person was ruling and just about to do his best to wreak havoc in the world even more. Had he not been in power and had she not said "follow the science" at that very moment, I'm not sure she would have been invited to the UN to give a talk, you know. So, you have to contextualize and understand that, and really be critical, of that slogan, in the March for Sciences here with all the bullies that Carlos talked about at the front line, okay? They were the ones shouting loud, and they were the ones who were holding up these kinds of signs "we have the solution, let us rule". So, that's why I did not go. Because I did not want to meet these people, and it was absolutely not clear to me which way it was going to take, and if it would take the other way, I wanna be as far away from that as possible. But you need to be aware that you can be easily be captured by this, and they will capture and swallow you head to tail. So, just as a warning and that, if it's possible to get a critical perspective into the young people's minds, then I think we've won a big part already.


Victor Chaix


Thank you, I totally agree.


Angelika Hilbeck


Among the young people who are there, do they want to say something? Let not only the grey hair talk, or the colored hairs.


Hana Chelly


Indeed I may have something to say about the idea of reconstructing science and all that you said, and in parallel with the fact that scientists themselves but also common people define "scientist" as the one who will find truth. What really disturbs me in these two things we are talking about is that, if just as a science student I come to friends and start saying that we are not sure about this or that, they might, for example, start thinking things like "this is not science, because you should be sure of what you're saying et cetera et cetera." And so, I find it really hard to face my wish to deconstruct people's minds about what science is and how can I answer quickly to these people who are just saying, "if you're not sure of what you're saying, then you're not a scientist." But this is science precisely; we're not sure about what we're doing and so forth. This is totally absent in university, for example, this kind of questioning. And yes, I think it's quite a pity from my side.


I don't think there is an easy answer, obviously, but I feel there is this balance that has to be achieved between what we're doing right now, which is incredibly beautiful and powerful and also becoming real and specific in place and in chemical reality rather than this other reality.

Giuseppe Longo


It would help if you answered there is something that is not a characterization but a component of scientific knowledge. It is, as I said before, making explicit your fundamental principles. Then, I can say, when you look at physics, conservation principles and symmetry are very robust. And in biology, the first principle by Darwin, variation, is also very robust. The second, selection, is more questionable and must be interpreted. But then, this is science; the consequence cannot be theorized formally. It's a matter of interpretation, and even in these robust areas, because there are explicit principles that can be criticized, can be modified, as I insist for selection, then you're doing science. A partial answer can be given, but the consequences are a matter of an ongoing interpretation. This is why one can see molecular biology; mainstream molecular biology is not science. Because if you ask, "tell me your principles," they mumble something about information, how do you find it, blabla. So it's not science. This could be a critique, and then you can really say about classical economics something like that; it's a partial critique, but it can help.


Angelika Hilbeck


Or just ask them and say, "can you name me a scientist who is sure?" And if they name them, then you know that's a rogue scientist.


Maël Montévil


Along this line, in France, for example, there is not really the creationism issue of the United States, but the general public view on evolution is more like a belief system than a theory, that is to say, a framework that has limitations. Actually, it has many sub-frameworks in competition, such as the modern synthesis, the extended synthesis, people who are discontent with both, and so on. So, it's a lively thing, and there is indeed an issue of education because science is taught mainly as a truth, to go back to Ignacio's presentation, and not as critical thinking. And it also goes with the role of school in society which is more a selection process than a process promoting critical thinking.


Angelika Hilbeck


Thank you all very much for having us and organizing this, and again, if you have more questions, not only questions, if you want to tell us something as well, I'd be happy to listen and debate anytime.


Carlos Sonnenschein


Thank you to the panelists.


All


Yes, thank you.


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