Monday, January 17, 2011

The Importance of Explaining Science

By Sara Hessenflow Harper

I am still getting angry responses on my Linked-In discussion on GMOs as potentially being a part of a sustainability strategy for Africa (click here to see my earlier post). Some of the "arguments" are that comparing genetic engineering to the cross breeding of plants that humans have been doing for years is an inaccurate description of the science.

This brought to mind countless discussions I've had with environmentalists and foes of climate change science alike about science and the role it plays (or should) in helping to inform policymaking. Everyone says they are for "sound science" -- until there is some scientific study that tells them or their industry what they don't want to hear. Maybe this is human nature, but science is supposed to help us get past our personal biases -- to help us find objective truth.

The trouble, it seems, is that so often the truth is very complex and varied depending upon which elements you are testing, which assumptions you are making, etc. What is very worrisome to me about environmental policy these days is that so often, people on both sides will throw out opinion or even just something they heard somewhere -- but treat it as if it had the weight of a National Academy of Sciences review.

Take the case of GMOs and the argument that plant breeding is so different from genetic modification or engineering. Well, if you don't know much about the science of plant breeding, that might be an easy thing to just rattle off -- but that doesn't make you right, and it certainly doesn't make your opinion into "science." There is a dangerous level of scientific illiteracy out in the world today -- made worse by the pseudo-science that is often merely a step away from political science that people wrap themselves up in as part of being able to be right vs being open to exploration.

Leaving aside the fact that agrarians have been “Genetically modifying” organisms for thousands of year through selective cross-breeding, there is nothing in itself alarming about inserting DNA from one species into another when the goal is to produce something positive.

The first thing to understand is simply this: As far as the components go, DNA is DNA; all DNA, from whatever source, resembles DNA, which resembles all other DNA.

DNA is a marvelously simple molecule, given that it can contain infinitely varied information. To illustrate, imagine that you have an alphabet, but this alphabet is merely four gumdrops, one yellow, one blue, one red and one green. That’s it! Think of any characteristic of ANY organism from a bacterium to a orca --- you can code for it using only these four “letters” which are known as the “Base Pairs” of DNA.

So, when we are talking genetic material, we are very much talking “software” as opposed to hardware. When your operating system wants you to update it by downloading new software, or you want to add some, say Microsoft Word of Mac, it is not at all like adding a component from a different computer, just more or different software that then allows your computer to act slightly differently, sometimes.

The entire reason splicing a gene from one species into another works in the first place is because the two species’ DNA is identical, apart from the ordering of the “gumdrops.”

In the case of DNA removed from one organism and put into another, that DNA is merely coding for a protein, not an ear, or anything recognizable from the host organism. Provided that the protein is not poisonous, it won’t be detrimental if it is in the newly modified organism, or the original one. On the contrary, it will often be beneficial to end-user. Even if the gene is taken from a species that is in some way poisonous to humans, like a toxic mushroom, as long as that gene does not code for the proteins that make the mushroom toxic, it can be put into an edible organism without worrying about the mushroom’s dangerous characteristics.

Could GMO have negative effects? Certainly, if the intension is to have negative effects, just like any other technology!

Perhaps if more people with concerns about GMOs could hear the basic science underpinning it in a way that they can easily understand, there could be more understanding on the topic?

Overall, the point that has stuck with me about these discussions is how important it is to engage in explaining science as clearly and concisely as possible. This is particularly true of agricultural sciences because such a small percentage of the population is exposed to this type of academic pursuit in high school or college these days.

When you are in a heated argument with someone about technology, organics, GMOs or some other ag-sustainable related issue, a good tactic to consider might be to take a step back from the anger and bring out your basic biology book.

People fear what they don’t understand. Grounding our thoughts about agriculture and sustainability in the science we know is not enough, we also have to communicate what that science is in a way that does not condescend, but tries to live up to the best definition of education.

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