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Argumentum Ad Monsantum: Bill Maher and The Lure of a Liberal Logical Fallacy

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Let’s get real. It doesn’t matter if you think Monsanto is evil. Genetically modified  food is safe—no matter what logical fallacies will lead liberals like Bill Maher to believe.

AP Photo/HBO, Janet Van Ham

If Monsanto has anything to do with it, it must be evil. That seems to be the prevailing opinion on the monolithic biotech company. Following that logic, if they produce corn or soybeans or another crop that has been genetically modified (GM), those too must be evil. That’s Bill Maher’s reasoning at least—reasoning that lures liberals away from science and towards denial.

Making the leap from Monsanto’s business practices—whatever you may think of them—to the “dangers” of GM foods is a mistake in logical reasoning. It is akin to saying landscape paintings are potentially evil because the painter was a serial killer. The conclusion does not follow from the premise. And giving some product or process the attributes of its user is the logical fallacy that currently leads typically pro-science liberals like Maher astray on questions of nuclear power, vaccination, and especially GMOs. Whether genetically modified foods are safe is a scientific, not a political, question. To intertwine views of Monsanto with GM foods is therefore an argumentum ad monsantum, a disturbingly popular logical fallacy, and Bill Maher is the classic example.

I am a fan of Real Time with Bill Maher. It’s HBO’s version of The Daily Show, with a liberal host poking fun at the foibles of government and politicians. But every so often, satire can veer off course, lampooning scientific findings as if they were the latest sex scandal. This is the case with Bill Maher. Though you will hear him on Real Time staunchly defending the science of climate change and evolution against politically-charged deniers, you will also hear him railing against vaccines, nuclear power, and GMOs with the same polemic language he satirizes.

For example, in episode #294 of Real Time, Maher invites the director of “GMO OMG” for a conversation about the “dangers” of GM foods. (Note that fellow Scientific American writer Ferris Jabr has convincingly argued why “GMO OMG” is an emotionally manipulative film that skimps on the science.) Maher begins the conversation with a question: “I don’t want to start things off by asking why Monsanto is evil…but why is Monsanto evil?” The director goes on to explain why, with the rest of the panel chiming in. Then you see something very telling. CNN contributor David Frum, a Republican, interrupts to explain how humans have been genetically modifying food ever since we prioritized seeds from desirably growing crops at the dawn of agriculture. He was booed and hissed by the crowd. I mentioned Frum’s political affiliation because Real Time has an admitted slant towards liberalism, and Republicans encounter much resistance on each episode. This time was no different. Though Frum was exactly right on the science, he was treated as exactly wrong. The argumentum ad monsantum struck again.

Maher, who I think gets a lot of science right, gets the science of GM food so wrong because he is unable or unwilling to disentangle the politics from the science. Many liberals seem to have the same problem.

The first component to the liberal opposition to genetically modified food appears to be a genuine misunderstanding of how it works. The genetic modification of food is a much more exact science than many opponents realize. As this fantastic explainer outlines, genetic modification is typically about inserting a single gene—whose effects we test for toxicity and allergenic properties—into a crop. It is not a haphazard Frankenstein process of sowing and suturing animal and plant parts together. In fact, a Frankenstein-style process is exactly what was done before genetic modification.

In the early days of agriculture, farmers crossbred plants to take advantage of the genetic diversity thrown up by evolutionary processes. Whatever beneficial properties emerged were saved in the seeds and transplanted into the next generation. This is a Mary Shelly-style process, with more recent farmers exposing their plants to radiation in the hopes of increasing the genetic variations at their disposal. That’s a fact that is absent from many a Monsanto discussion. If anything exemplifies the messy, unknown nature of altering crops, it’s what farming looked like before genetic modification.

Even when we are taking genes from animals and inserting them into plants or vice-versa, the results are still safe, reduce pesticide use, and dramatically increase crop yields. In fact, this year, a review of over 1,700 papers [PDF] concerning the safety of GM food in the journal Critical Reviews in Biotechnology concluded, “The scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazards directly connected with the use of genetically engineered crops.”

Increasing the hardiness of our crops to better feed the world is also the main benefit of genetic modification, often omitted from the curious liberal opposition to GM food. As climate change picks up its pace, we will need crops that can feed more people while at the same time resisting parasites, infections, and drought. Scientifically established safety is bolstered by moral obligation.

While Bill Maher has a habit of outright denying the safety of GM food, he does sometimes taper his views by offering the alternative—growing food “organically” (GM food is still organic material, of course, but it may not fit the FDA’s designations of what “organic” food is). However, the supposed superiority of organically grown food has little scientific justification. Organically grown food still uses pesticides, those pesticides are largely untested, the pesticide reduction that organic food does offer is insignificant at best, and the food itself is no more nutritious or safe than its engineered alternative.

Still, even though the scientific community is in agreement over the safety of GM foods, there is a question of disclosure—the second component of the argumentum ad absurdum. To Maher, the “evil” nature of Monsanto is bound-up in the fact that GM foods are not currently labeled as such. We deserve to know what we are eating, and if Monsanto won’t tell us, GM food must be bad for us, or so the argument seems to go. But again, the science must be separated from the politics. No one will deny that Monsanto had a dog in the fight to prevent GM labeling in California, but Maher might be surprised to hear that labeling genetically modified foods is a bad idea, despite the benefits of transparency. There is no scientific reason to label from a safety standpoint, and doing so would likely only create more fear around the already beleaguered technology. And that fear would probably have damaging implications for all advances in food technology. Just look at what happens when people realize that fluoride—a safe and amazingly effective addition to our public water supply—is coming from their tap.

For questions that science, and not politics, has a bearing on, it really does not matter what you think of Monsanto. It does not matter what you think of the corporation’s business tactics or how it treats its customers or employees. Similarly, it does not matter if you think Al Gore a hypocrite or Charles Darwin a heathen–climate change and evolution are real and established. By calling GMOs “poison” and “evil”, Bill Maher poisons the well of reasoned scientific discussion with ideologically driven fear mongering.

It’s fashionable to think that the conservative parties in America are the science deniers. You certainly wouldn’t have trouble supporting that claim. But liberals are not exempt. Though the denial of evolution, climate change, and stem cell research tends to find a home on the right of the aisle, the denial of vaccine, nuclear power, and genetic modification safety have found a home on the left (though the extent to which each side denies the science is debatable). It makes one wonder: Why do liberals like Maher—psychologically considered open to new ideas—deny the science of GM food while accepting the science in other fields?

The answer to that giant question is an unsettled one, but themes do leap out of the literature. Simplifying greatly, cognitive bias and ideology play a large role. We tend to accept information that confirms our prior beliefs and ignore or discredit information that does not. This confirmation bias settles over our eyes like distorting spectacles for everything we look at. Could this be at the root of the argumentum ad monsantum? It isn’t inconsistent with the trend Maher has shown repeatedly on his show. A liberal opposition to corporate power, to capitalistic considerations of human welfare, could be incorrectly coloring the GM discussion. Perhaps GMOs are the latest casualty in a cognitive battle between confirmation bias and reality.

But just how much psychology plays into the opposition of GMOs is a question that can’t even be asked until the politics and the science are untangled.

To his credit, Bill Maher has a record of seeing the science forest for the political trees when it comes to topics like climate change and evolution. He spots the political manipulation of climate change when the Koch brothers fund disinformation. He picks out when arguments to “teach the controversy” are just semantic manipulations to get religious ideology into science classes. I hope that he, and the liberal bastion of science denial he sometimes represents, one day gets real and recognizes how much his political views are manipulating his stance on genetically modified foods.


Tip of the hat to Brian Dunning who came up with the phrase “argumentum ad monsantum” on Twitter.

Kyle Hill About the Author: Kyle Hill is a freelance science writer and communicator who specializes in finding the secret science in your favorite fandom. Follow on Twitter @Sci_Phile.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. sault 11:36 am 10/16/2013

    You have to admit that Monsato does a lot of things that make it hard to think they’re a wholly benevolent organization working to feed the world. They are a publicly-traded corporation, so they MUST maximize shareholder value, regardless of the impacts to the health and well being of current and future generations their actions might cause. The fact that they have successfully lobbyied to keep the laws pertaining to them so lax that they can LEGALLY get away with the practices that people despise them for shows that our current system does not properly value people’s health and long-term envirnomental concerns in relation to corporate profits.

    For example, their “roundup ready” gene allows for more and more of their herbicide “Roundup” to be used. This causes more toxic runoff from farms and also exposes all of us to more of this chemical. They have also sued farmers that unknowingly had some of Monsato’s GM seed fall off trucks and grow on their land. If you are big enough and can hire enough lawyers, you can get almost anything you want from the courts.

    “… pesticide reduction that organic food does offer is insignificant at best…”


    “We found crop yields to be 20% lower in the organic systems, although input of fertilizer and energy was reduced by 34 to 53% and pesticide input by 97%. Enhanced soil fertility and higher biodiversity found in organic plots may render these systems less dependent on external inputs.”

    While I’m all for looking at hard science and facts to make decisions, protraying Monsato as an innocent player in all this is missing half the picture.

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  2. 2. Kyle Hill in reply to Kyle Hill 12:19 pm 10/16/2013

    I wasn’t portraying Monsanto as innocent, I wasn’t portraying them at all. That was my point. As you stated, there are issues surrounding their business practices (some legitimate, many false). But because GM food is not tested simply based on the whims of Monsanto, we have to untangle the politics from the science if we are asking scientific questions.

    For the question of pesticide reduction, I will refer you to the link I provided in the text.

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  3. 3. Jim Raff 12:53 pm 10/16/2013

    Wow, there are a lot of logical fallacies in this article. Talk about Confirmation Bias. Nuclear power is not safe, and will never be until safe mining and disposal practices are found and Fukushima anyone? To say good seed saving practice and cross pollination is more Frankensteinish than inserting genes from an animal into a plant is as twisted as you can get in this conversation. I would like to see any study that shows organic and sustainable farming uses more pesticides than less. That statement is a complete odds with the standards of organic and sustainable agricultural practices.
    Farmers using Monsanto seeds have been shown to use more pesticide and herbicides rather than less. Roundup ready seeds allow for more roundup use rather than less. The author seems to think that just because plant material fits the biological definition of “organic”, it should meet the governmental definition of “organically grown.” This is either intentionally dismissing the term or intentionally confusing the definitions. The author also totally ignores the environmental damage caused by increased pesticide and herbicide use. Weeds are showing signs of roundup resistance which will require more roundup, or more dangerous chemicals. Root worms are starting to show resistance to BT corn – This is evolution in the real world. According to The Union of Concerned Scientists farmers growing BT corn use more pesticides rather than less. While BT corn itself has been shown not to impact honey bees, the other insecticides used on it does. Monsanto seeds increase monoculture farming which in turn causes more environmental damage. Any discussion of food safety should take a systems view of food production and include environmental impacts, not just impacts on humans.
    The idea that genetically modified foods will “feed the world” again is a rhetorical gimmick. I note that whenever I read an article boosting GM foods it is always with a “could feed the world” not “IS ending world hunger.” When and only when Monsanto decides to donate seeds to third world countries, and stop suing farmers whose fields are contaminate with Monsanto GM organisms will the feed the world rhetoric become anywhere near believable.
    The biggest problem that both sides of this argument have is good operational definitions. Saying foods have been genetically modified since the beginning of agriculture and saying transgenetics are no different is a definitional problem. The work that Gregor Mendel did is very different than inserting a gene from an animal into a plant. Cross pollination is very different than transgenetics. Animals and plants do not cross breed successfully. Once good operational definitions are in place and agreed, then the conversation can begin.

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  4. 4. Gerard 1:33 pm 10/16/2013

    “The genetic modification of food is a much more exact science than many opponents realize. As this fantastic explainer outlines, genetic modification is typically about inserting a single gene—whose effects we test for toxicity and allergenic properties—into a crop.”

    That ‘single gene’ is, as far as I know, inserted in a random place in the genome. We don’t know (yet) how to put it in a precise place.

    As such, the change in the chromosome conformation may leads to variation in other genes expression.

    It’s not possible to test if everything outside the new gene works just ‘as before’, because genetic expression is different across time, seasons, plant parts etc…

    So even if, for practical purpose, the process is safe and produce the expected results, it’s not an ‘exact’ science, like anything in biology.

    GMO acceptance would have been difficult even without the business model Monsanto build upon it.

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  5. 5. Isid Borscht 3:08 pm 10/16/2013

    Great article. Until the author falls prey to some of the same conspiratorial thinking Maher does by mentioning the Koch Brothers.

    Establishing the Koch Brothers as a bogeyman is the new version of conspiracy theorists blaming the Rockefellers and Rothschilds for globalist/Illuminati cha cha cha.

    And it undermines what was a good argument against anti-Monsanto hysteria

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  6. 6. Voice of tReason 3:11 pm 10/16/2013

    Thank you.

    And thank you for giving this fallacy a name.

    I swear, I beat my head against the wall, arguing with anti-GMO types, trying to explain that Monsanto and Genetic modification are not synonymous. Monsanto has become a classic example of a straw man in the agri-tech debate.

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  7. 7. matthewkantar 3:19 pm 10/16/2013

    Science, yes. Paternalism, no no no. Denying consumers the right to know what is in their groceries is not ok. The argument that telling them will scare them is silly. No science writer should advocate for LESS information on packaging.

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  8. 8. jctyler 3:20 pm 10/16/2013

    ‘Genetically modified food is safe’

    Is that a mantra?

    And while on the subject of meditative chanting:

    Why do you think Indian farmers want Monsanto expulsed from the country? Bad voodoo?

    ‘If Monsanto has anything to do with it, it must be evil.’

    Hm, now that you mention it… cigarettes are not 100% bad either after all… from there to canonization suddenly does not seem such a large step after all.

    And right you are, why always assume evil anyway? (could be a quote by Michael Taylor, ex-top exec at Monsanto, now FDA Deputy Commissioner for Food; because “honi soit qui mal y pense” said one bee to the other.

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  9. 9. marknicholls 3:37 pm 10/16/2013

    Good stuff. We can’t have one standard for the dunderheads on the right and then make the same mistakes on the left.

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  10. 10. bmcglasson 3:50 pm 10/16/2013

    With expected global food demand increasing between 40% and 70% by the year 2050(depending on the organization doing the estimation), combined with possible pressure on agriculture from climatic change (or natural climatic variation if you’d rather), to turn our backs on GM food crops is to condemn many millions to starvation in the not so distant future. While some of the surviving population would no doubt enjoy knowing they ate no GM foods, the starving would argue whether the outcome was truly beneficial.

    Great article.

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  11. 11. Mark Pine 4:02 pm 10/16/2013

    Hill may be right about many things, but he still misses some very important points:

    Hill: “genetic modification is typically about inserting a single gene—whose effects we test for toxicity and allergenic properties—into a crop.”

    Testing for toxicity and allogenicity assesses known physiological effects in laboratory animals and humans who have volunteered for clinical trials. What this testing does not test for are effects on the environment of the planet.

    Genes, by their nature, multiply and spread. After an unusual gene is inserted into a crop — say, a gene from a species like a fish — we can anticipate that the gene will spread into forests, streams, and soil, where fish genes are not normally found. Will this human-induced introduction of genes into the terrestrial environment have unpredictable and negative effects? This is unknown and has not been tested. Moreover, it is not even possible to test for completely, because adverse effects may arise only after many years and may never be recognized.

    Hill: “It is not a haphazard Frankenstein process of sowing and suturing animal and plant parts together. In fact, a Frankenstein-style process is exactly what was done before genetic modification.”

    This is true, but it is also why Hill himself commits a logical fallacy. Because naturally hybridization is a complex process, it is a non-sequitur to compare it unfavorably to genetic modification. Genetic hybridization, as performed by farmers and crop specialists, involves many naturally occurring checks and balances that have evolved over millennia. Hybridization involves cross-breeding closely related species. Some genes do not hybridize at all, others produce varieties that quickly die out. Nature has proved over the long run that the process is safe. No such proof is available, at the present time, for hi-tech inter-species gene transfers.

    (The writer was for 10 years an employee of the FDA Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research.)

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  12. 12. sethdayal 4:18 pm 10/16/2013

    Actually Raffy. nuke power has a perfect record never having killed a soul in its 60 year history.

    There have actually only been only two large nuke accidents – not a soul injured or any long term damage in either including the worst case accident impossible in a modern nuke at FUKU. Safest form of power there is by orders of magnitude. Think of the tens of thousands of annual dead victims of the toxic fumes from the filthy fossil backup required by wind and solar.

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  13. 13. ssm1959 4:50 pm 10/16/2013

    For those who feel Monsanto should be punished for perceived misdoings, stop buying anything they make and do to patronize any business they partner with. While in that practice please keep quiet so the rest of us can enjoy dinner.

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  14. 14. Stuart Jackson 4:56 pm 10/16/2013

    Buying a painting from a known serial killer does not make the painting dangerous, but it does fund a killer. What is your point with this analogy?

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  15. 15. denke42 7:33 pm 10/16/2013

    Last I heard, Maher characterized himself as a libertarian – you know, like Ron Paul. That’s not what most Americans mean by “liberal.”

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  16. 16. longarche 9:15 pm 10/16/2013

    Stating that “humans have been genetically modifying food ever since we prioritized seeds from desirably growing crops at the dawn of agriculture” is a little simplistic, wouldn’t you agree, when compared to inserting genes from other phyla… Especially in light of the (stated) intended purpose – to make the organisms less susceptible to the effects of glyphosate herbicides. More herbicides, more profit… until Nature takes back her domain, either by destroying the means by which we cultivate food or creating a backlash, like super weeds that have started to evolve from the stimulus provided by the scenario. Time will prove this technology to be very crude. We should be considering ways to protect the as many species as possible from “genetic pollution” from these adventurer’s profit-driven experiment with the Earth.

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  17. 17. brian_lowe 10:09 pm 10/16/2013

    Kyle, I think you’ve been guilty of the same thing you’ve accused Bill Maher of and that’s missing the point. To say that this is a scientific issue and not a political one is extraordinarily naive. Putting aside the demonization of Monsanto, what most people have issue with in GM foods is not the ‘frankenstein food’ stigma, but the lack of controls over the processes by which GM foods are made, and the potentially unknown effects that result. The science is simply not as precise as you characterize, and the kind of arrogance in such an assertion is what led us to Thalydomide and other disasters. Genetic modification can do things that natural selection simply can’t, such as transgenic modification. The public have a right to be assured that appropriate safety controls are in place, and until they trust companies and government to ensure this, the debate will continue.

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  18. 18. jonathanseer 11:46 pm 10/16/2013

    China labels GMFood

    The EU labels GMFood.

    Yet Kyle Hill thinks Americans shouldn’t know, because we might react immaturely and refuse to buy food made with GM ingredients.

    What’s really worse however is Kyle Hill hasn’t watched the clips he’s speaking of.

    Maher is NOT down on GMFood

    He is down on the efforts of Monsanto to keep it off labels.

    He loathe’s Monsanto’s efforts to carve out exceptions for itself as riders in laws to support that secrecy.

    The level of secrecy is what he finds appalling.

    He thinks we should know what we eat.

    And he’s right to say that thinking we can feel secure that a major multinational will make decisions based on what good for the public is ludicrous.

    Yet Kyl Hill thinks we should trust Monsanto.

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  19. 19. bigpurpleguy 12:26 am 10/17/2013

    “Climate Change” is a political term.

    I think when you say “Climate Change” you really mean “anthropogenic global warming.”

    It is one thing to say people are anti-science for “denying” the former, entirely another for “denying” the latter. Disagreeing with the idea that the climate changes would make one incredibly stupid or insane.

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  20. 20. woolydub 1:13 am 10/17/2013

    I would like 1 thing:

    1.) GMO Food labeling including what pesticides were used on the food and the ingredients of the pesticides. I want to know what I am putting in my body. My body, my choice, right? I don’t care if food is genetically modified. I just want to know what chemicals are being used in or on my food. I want the same info for organic foods.

    I guess that is multiple things, but whatever.

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  21. 21. DaniOcean 6:28 am 10/17/2013

    Queue up the myriad of absurd comments made by armchair scientists… now!

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  22. 22. tesla3090 10:36 am 10/17/2013


    Nature can and does mutate naturally into toxic by-products, that’s natures way of defending itself.
    Check out this link, here’s a perfect example where a naturally bred crop mutated and produced cyanide, killing the cows it was feeding. Not a GMO, a conventionally bred crop. With GMO’s you can better control the side effects via gene deletion, where as natural breeding is more like flipping all the switches at random and hoping you get what you want with nothing bad tacked on.

    It doesn’t make sense to accuse genetic engineering of not being precise when conventional breeding is even less so.

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  23. 23. mntmn3 11:29 am 10/17/2013

    “He spots the political manipulation of climate change when the Koch brothers fund disinformation.” Linking an article on science to a political blog blog turns the article into one that is supposedly about science. You’re using the Koch brothers the way liberals use Monsanto.

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  24. 24. janvones 1:09 pm 10/17/2013

    “Maher, who I think gets a lot of science right…”

    No, he doesn’t. Superficially holding various contradictory beliefs almost randomly isn’t understanding the science.

    It’s emotionalism and group think that begins with a conclusion and works backwards to imagine evidence.

    The fact he might occasionally be right is a product of chance, not reasoning.

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  25. 25. transgenesis 1:44 pm 10/17/2013

    GM crops do not reduce pesticide use, they increase it. Recently the EPA increased the allowable amount of glyphosate on crops. GM crops and herbicides like round-up go hand in hand, and if you’re too biased to see this, your opinion is just that, an opinion, and not representative of anything truthful. You are spewing nothing but propaganda; it has nothing to do with left or right, liberal or conservative. It has everything to do with corporate and government corruption.

    “While FDA did not perform independent tests on whether higher residue levels of glyphosate were dangerous to humans or the environment, it relied on tests and data provided by Monsanto.” Awesome. Nice job EPA.

    Studies on glyphosate, etc.:,f1000m,isrctn,f1000m,isrctn,f1000m,isrctn

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  26. 26. Jim Raff 3:12 pm 10/17/2013

    Hey Sethy. Really – no one has died from nuclear accidents including Fucushima so Nuclear power is perfectly safe. Do you even read your own posts? Melt down in progress – but it is perfectly safe. A 2013 WHO report predicts that for populations living around the Fukushima nuclear power plant there is a 70% higher risk of developing thyroid cancer for girls exposed as infants, a 7% higher risk of leukemia in males exposed as infants, a 6% higher risk of breast cancer in females exposed as infants and a 4% higher risk, overall, of developing solid cancers for females. But it is perfectly safe.

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  27. 27. sethdayal 6:54 pm 10/17/2013

    Actually Tom UNSCEAR using much more modern science told us a few months ago that there was no statistical probability of deaths from FUKU radiation releases.

    So Yup safe.

    Of course compared to the tens of thousands killed annually from fossil plant emissions in Japan and those fossil plants required to back up so far minor amounts wind and solar worldwide those zero nuke numbers seem even better.

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  28. 28. BioWonk 9:00 am 10/18/2013

    You give Maher far too much credit. Maher is neither anti-science nor pro-science. That he supports the science which conservatives oppose while dismissing, misrepresenting and flat-out lying about the scientific evidence for those applications that progressives oppose,shows he is merely playing up to his audience. Get him away from his writers and you will hear that he is not as smart as he tries to make himself out to be.

    On Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s show, “StarTalk”, Maher went on about how we should not have “wasted” money on the space program “until the technology was ready.” This showed his utter ignorance of the flow of science and technology development. He has regurgitated the lie about Pastuer recanting to Beauchammps.

    Even when sitting with actual scientists who have both education and experience, he will try to pass himself off as the smartest guy in the room.

    Maher’s hypocrisy knows no limit as he engages in precisely the tactics and conduct for which he attacks others: propagating misinformation and advocating a stance based on beliefs and against all verifiable evidence.The identical complaints he makes about religious fundamentalists in “Religulous” can be turned back on him.

    And his followers will defend him, even when they know he is wrong (just as we see with followers of Hannity, Limbaugh, O’Reilly, et al) by downplaying his more glaring stupidity because he’s “just a comedian.” Yet, they faithfully regurgitate his words verbally, on comment threads and memes as devoutly as can be seen on TEA party sites with words and images of Cruz and Bachmann. And for the exact same reason : he speaks out against and lampoons the political party whom they despise.

    It has nothing to do with being intellectual or enlightened. It is merely the identical tribalism on the left as we see on the right. And Maher is feeding that in order to maintain his image.

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  29. 29. Boyle247 4:05 pm 10/18/2013


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  30. 30. dburress 5:34 pm 10/18/2013

    Like every “scientific” (actually, technological) defense of GMOs I have seen, this articles leaves out important considerations from economics and public policy. Therefore the technologists are just as unscientific as Maher, though with a different set of biases.

    1. They are opposed to consumer sovereignty. Consumers have a right to be what technologists view as “irrational.” Majorities want GMOs to be labeled, so in a democracy they ought to be labeled, period. Claiming otherwise is a claim for the right of technologists to dominate consumers.
    2. Actually, it is not irrational to boycott GMOs, not even if you buy all of the technologists’ arguments. Boycotting GMOs is an effective way–and the only available effective way–of boycotting Monsanto and other large, destructive monopolies.
    3. The positive socio-economic claims made for GMOs are simply not true, for reasons pointed out long ago by Nobelist Amartya Sen. E.g.: in an ultimate sense, starvation is always caused by poverty and lack of democracy, not by agricultural failure. At the macro level there has never been time of insufficent food supply. Local crop failures do lead to local poverty, but democracies normally step in avert famine.
    4. GMOs are not a solution to local poverty. They represent a shift from labor-intensive agriculture to capital-intensive agriculture, making poor farmers more dependent on loans and more susceptible to financial risk.
    5. GMOs so far have not been a solution to pollution. Thus Roundup-Ready crops are designed to encourage use of chemicals, not discourage it. Moreover a chemical company like Monsanto has no incentive to produce GMOs that reduce chemical use.
    6. Calling your opponents “liberals” betrays a certain bias all by itself. Political affiliations are inadequate and irrelevant indicators of beliefs and scientific accuracy.
    David Burress
    Kansas Progress Institute

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  31. 31. kforinas 5:34 pm 10/18/2013

    Not all scientists are strongly committed to GM agricultural products. For a balanced view and recommendations of what needs to happen to make sure GM food is safe take a look at the Union of Concerned Scientists position:

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  32. 32. Kyle Hill in reply to Kyle Hill 5:39 pm 10/18/2013

    Citing the UCS position is misleading. Yes, you can find scientists that do not think GM foods are safe, but they are a very small minority. It’s the same argument when creationists find a few hundred scientists that deny evoltuion.

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  33. 33. ahinely 5:40 pm 10/18/2013

    This article and the subsequent comments are depressing. My problem with GMO is not in the science and study, but in the deployment. Monoculture in general seems to create massive ecological and sociological problems, and my problem with GM is it has thus far tended to promote monoculture.

    Bt modification does reduce some pesticide applications. But that must be considered against glyphosate resistant genes meant to increases substitution of one kind of herbicide instead of other types more harmful types. Resistance to glyphosate is already leading to more herbicide application and others being reintroduced to the rotation. And how is Bt resistance coming along?

    New science about the microbiome may lead to further discoveries about agriculture, both at the growing level and at the consumption level. The science may suggest, at one level of analysis, that GM food is safe to eat, but what about to grow? And what will we think later? What about people acting using a precautionary principle? What about preserving seed integrity and diversity? These issues are all related. It is not just a matter of whether GM foods are safe to eat. I’d go so far as to say that is only about 5% of the issue for opponents. So any “scientific” argument against the pro-labeling agenda needs to address all those aspects or else you’re just preaching to the choir.

    I grow organic food and use no pesticides or herbicides whatsoever, but I recognize that is largely a blessing of location. Not an option for everyone. There are many more problems in ag than just GM foods, but labeling is a minor inconvenience for food producers and retailers.

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  34. 34. Shmick 8:18 pm 10/18/2013

    Another good piece Kyle.

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  35. 35. rgacgtu 2:12 am 10/19/2013

    Excellent post.
    I was once so frustrated with Mr. Maher for cloaking himself in the veneer of science on of climate change and then hypocritically ignoring the science on GMOs that I drafted an e-mail to Real Time. Sadly I could not find any contact information for the show or Mr. Maher.
    I too am a fan of Real Time with Bill Maher (sadly I’m not an HBO subscriber so I don’t see it that often), and I’m glad to see I’m not alone in being vexed on how he can embrace scientific consensus on some topics but completely ignore it on others.
    Granted you don’t really look to comedians for scientific information but he is very persuasive on the issues where he has the facts straight, it is really unfortunate that his audience might also find him persuasive on the issues where he is dead wrong.

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  36. 36. thlej 12:03 pm 10/19/2013

    I don’t believe GMOs are harmful just because they are GMOs. Determining that should be done by independent thoroughly scientific experiments. The distinction is this: human-bred crops and animals of the past have been “experimentally tested” by tens or hundreds of generations of unsuspecting human test subjects. These “experiments” were not well-structured, well-documented scientific studies, but we’ve had plenty of time to see effects. These past “experiments” had to do with the interbreeding of existing members of species humans already used. Modern genetic modifications can be of a different sort, perhaps creating genetic codes that did not previously exist in members of species already used by humans. Also, it’s possible selection of GMOs for herbicide-resistance may be more likely to result in unhealthy crops than breeding for taste or crop yield. For that reason, I believe there is more reason to verify the safety with scientific experiments one might not need for interbreeding of members of a species already used by people. It’s similar with medicine, I don’t assume a chemical is harmful just because it’s “a chemical” – but I do want them scientifically texted before being sold as drugs.

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  37. 37. godfodder 1:53 pm 10/20/2013

    Guys like Bill Maher have a set of “approved” ideas, but what unifying principles hold them together is beyond me. Abortion must, must, must be legal and free, but the death penalty is bad, bad, bad. Government is good and business is bad (even though any businessman who behaved like those clowns in Congress would have gotten fired ages ago). In fact, businessmen are “greedy,” but politicians — who are “power greedy”– are not. Religious people are stupid and hateful, despite the fact that they actually spend far more of their free time helping others than non-believers do. Guns are bad, but drugs (that destroy 10x as many lives) are not. Government is good, but individuals are suspicious (even though government is composed of individuals, NOT angels). The list is endless, really. GMO’s are bad, but far more people starve to death every year than have ever been harmed by a GMO.

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  38. 38. Docyadilloh 5:28 pm 10/20/2013

    Not sure why Bill Maher is your stereotypical “Liberal”. Although he’d be the first to admit he’s not a scientist, he gets the science right more often than not. I can’t say that for the conservatives I’ve seen who don’t even try to understand facts. Overall, I suppose, it would be better to not paint groups with such a broad brush & look at the individual. I find that difficult as well, when a conservative stands up & says climate change is a hoax or works to stop stem cell research. Some of the divide may be religious belief in “magic” powers that may lead one down one political road or the other. If a deity made everything perfect, we can’t, and shouldn’t, try to change things. Unless, of course, it comes to executions… that’s ok.

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  39. 39. DryRun 7:01 pm 10/22/2013


    I’m disappointed, confused, and slightly offended by your characterization of this anti-scientific mindset as a liberal issue. As a first point, I would point out that most of the active players in the development of genetic modification – researchers at universities – are “liberals,”" insofar as “liberal” is synonymous with “democrat.” The over- and misuse of the label “liberal” cheapens and cliches the word, and mischaracterizes the players in the debate over GMOs. If one wants to maintain any fidelity to etymology, supporting GMOs is inherently a liberal standpoint, and the resistance to changing our agricultural methods a conservative one. In addressing the GMO debate, I’d urge you to refrain from demonizing the entire half of the US population that didn’t vote for the same president as you, and address the real issue at hand: the anti-scientific ignorance is prevalent on both sides of the Congressional aisle.

    I’m a “liberal,” and I support the use of genetic modification. The two have almost nothing to do with each other.

    David Yu
    Graduate Student, Department of Physics, UC Berkeley

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  40. 40. Kyle Hill in reply to Kyle Hill 7:13 pm 10/22/2013

    And I am confused about the point of your comment, I’m afraid. I was pointing out in the article that GM food is safe, despite what a certain contingent of political liberals believe. I did not say all liberals deny science, nor did I deride anyone who did not vote for the same president I did. I also did not demonize liberals as a whole.

    You say: “Address the real issue at hand: the anti-scientific ignorance is prevalent on both sides of the Congressional aisle.”

    Exactly, which is why the point of the article was to show that even traditionally pro-science positions can be marred by ideology.

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  41. 41. DryRun 8:41 pm 10/22/2013


    I do agree with the clarifications you make in your reply, and indeed most of your essay. Confirmation bias, the apparent intended focus of your essay, is a key fallacy in transporting scientific results to the public domain. I’d also concede that more opponents of genetic modification seem to be “liberals,” although I’d be keen to see real statistics. However, your essay contains considerably less nuance. You begin by calling the moral association of Monsanto with genetic modification “reasoning that lures liberals away from science and towards denial.” This sweeping introductory statement frames your essay in the context of the fractious liberal versus conservative battle, which distracts from your intended thesis, that scientific veracity is lost in the translation to political debate. When you refer to the “liberal opposition to genetically modified food,” you appear as a conservative attempting to characterize the views of the opposing party; the adjective “liberal” is really an irrelevant detail unless you are explicitly making a partisan statement. Perhaps this was not your intent, but your classification of anti-scientific viewpoints into liberal and conservative comes off as finger pointing from the right side of the aisle to the left, as if saying “you guys are anti-science, too.”
    To me as a scientist, left or right has little to do with the issue of misusing, misinterpreting, or outright ignoring scientific results. Climate change deniers (and perhaps some more ardent supporters), vaccination scaremongers, creationists, and invokers of argumentum ad monsantum are all guilty of similar incorrect reasoning. The distinction of being a “traditionally pro-science position” is meaningless: one either uses science correctly or incorrectly.
    In your reply, you propose a caveat to the subject of your essay, a “certain contingent of political liberals.” This is exactly my point: you address a “certain contingent” which has little to do with being liberal or conservative. The liberal side of this contingent does indeed deserved to be called out along with the conservative side, but this is a petty aspect of the larger issue of pervasive scientific illiteracy.

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  42. 42. Kyle Hill in reply to Kyle Hill 1:28 am 10/23/2013

    I agree with your points. Perhaps my language was a bit sweeping, but I will say that by using Bill Maher and his brand of liberalism wrapped up in occasional science denial, I thought I was making it clear exactly what kind of situation I was talking about.

    Also, I did note the denial of science on both sides of the aisle. If you consider me a conservative trying to point a finger back at those liberal science-types, then my prose has had exactly the opposite effect than intended.

    I disagree that it isn’t important to look at the clusters within groups who have certain views. Indeed, that is much of political science in general and psychology in particular. By using Maher, I was meaning to say that while liberal, pro-science individuals often take the side of science in political discourse, some don’t, and on big issues where people like Maher have a lot of sway (like it or not). I think it’s important to look at these outliers, especially in order to understand where science literacy can do better.

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  43. 43. voltairine68 5:21 pm 10/24/2013

    There is NO agreement that engineered crops/foods are safe. See below, but especially because no one has been tracking people who eat foods that have GMOs in them and studying any changes in health. But what we do know is that more than 85% of all engineered crops were made for one purpose: to resist herbicides sprayed on them. The increase in the use of those chemicals is undeniable and weed resistance is making it worse. So from that view, gmo crops are extremely bad for human and animal health and the environment generally.

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  44. 44. Kyle Hill in reply to Kyle Hill 5:39 pm 10/24/2013


    I refer you back to the article:

    A review of over 1,700 papers [PDF] concerning the safety of GM food in the journal Critical Reviews in Biotechnology concluded, “The scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazards directly connected with the use of genetically engineered crops.”

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  45. 45. voltairine68 5:56 pm 10/24/2013

    Sorry – have to also add after looking over the article again… You’ve hit every talking point that biotech PR reps are taught to, and they are all untrue. Plenty of evidence on that if you go to Center for Food Safety site and other sober analysis of GMOs so I won’t take up room here.

    I’m interested in the psychology of those who adamantly favor things that “liberals” and others argue against (unless they are actually biotech PR reps). The reason Maher and others probably refer to Monsanto as “evil” isn’t only because they genetically engineer food but because they sue and destroy the livelihoods of farmers, work to monopolize the seed supply, produce dangerous chemicals that they know are poisonous, etc.

    In the case of GMOS, they have to keep pushing this phony campaign of their supposed benefits because investors know that this technology is dying off. They simply can’t create the amazing traits they promised, which is why traits on the market have been mostly limited to simple herbicide tolerance.

    Bt is a bust now with pests becoming resistant as well to what was a valuable naturally occurring chemical for organic farmers. Claims about drought resistance are phony. Monsanto just bought up seeds with the best genetics in them and then allowed people to think any proven benefits were a result of the engineering.

    And my favorite… feeding the world. They are feeding livestock and cars and that will not change.

    The idea that we have to argue over the “benefits” of organically grown food is ridiculous. Hopefully everyone can start talking about how the high-input version of industrial ag is dying out, and how we can make a faster transition to a system that is sane and can actually feed the world.

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  46. 46. marina8621 9:53 am 10/25/2013

    “It is akin to saying landscape paintings are potentially evil because the painter was a serial killer.” What if the painter used the paintings to kill? That would be a better comparison.

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  47. 47. frandeig 3:07 am 11/10/2013

    Not so fast…
    If GMO Products are so safe, why doesn’t any European country allow them to be sold there?
    I guess it’s that nasty “Liberal bias” choking the entire continent’s political system, fouling up the good works of honest businessmen, and wholly objective Scientific investigation done by employees of Monsanto and its subsidaries.

    No long term studies. Oh and 5, 10, or even 15 years is not long, considering the possible hereditery ramifications. Come back after say 50 and talk to us then.

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  48. 48. jeoten 4:43 pm 01/5/2014

    Maher is simply wrong.

    And so is the comment from “sault” … “so they MUST maximize shareholder value, regardless of the impacts to the health and well being of current and future generations their actions might cause”.

    That is a ridiculous statement because it assumes Monsanto makes their decisions in a vacuum … also incorrect, and paints using a brush that does not distinguish fact from fiction, or wishful thinking.

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  49. 49. MJones0002 12:12 pm 01/6/2014

    In other words: “Just take your genetically modified food and STFU!”

    This author is almost as smug as Maher himself. Americans are apparently on a need-to-know basis and according to Kyle here, we don’t need to know…even when it concerns food that WE will be buying and eating.

    He calls people “biased” because they don’t yet trust this unprecedentedly powerful technology – that has only been around for a few decades – and that is being peddled by corporations that absolutely do not have the public’s welfare as a primary consideration. I have nothing against genetics; I come from a family of geneticists. But wasn’t DDT the big ag science miracle just a few decades before GMOs came around?

    A few years is simply not enough time to determine the long-term effects of GMOs – not just for consuming, but on the ecosystem as a whole.

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  50. 50. SteveGalliford 3:16 pm 01/6/2014

    Good article except for the logical fallacy of lumping anti-GMO, anti-vaccine & anti-nuke folks. Ironically, this is the same generalization/accusation being used against Maher. Based on the evidence, for example, nuclear is problematic not only for obvious reasons of safety but for dubious economics (cost of uranium mining through spent fuel & radioactive waste management). With the best of intentions confirmation bias seems to work every which way.

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  51. 51. BPatterson 8:08 am 01/8/2014

    Interesting article. I have often wondered why, generally speaking, liberals accept the science of climate change, but not of GMOs.

    Just a note, FDA, as far as I am aware, does not have a definition for organic. USDA maintains the organic label.

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