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Feedback: Reply To Adrian Picot On GE

A Reply to Adrian Picots The BAD Science of Genetically Engineered Food – Part One

One need look no further than the second sentence in this article (link to Picot's Article ) for the inevitable error, so profound yet so subtle, a blunder that underpins the popular folk theory and total misconception about what science actually is. Picots claim essentially, to the practicing scientist, the philosopher, or the understanding, renders the rest of his piece at best scientifically impotent, for all intent, methodologically naive. This incorrect assumption about science is so embedded within our society that it is difficult to shake, additionally explaining why it is wrong isn’t so simple – nevertheless, a modest attempt follows.

The offending quote as follows;
[Regarding GE] "It is basically a "suck it and see" approach rather than analytical deduction."

Analytical deduction indeed! It was Emanuel Kant who first suggested a cleavage between analytic propositions, those where the strict identity of concepts with the proposition in question were tautological. And synthetic propositions, those where truth is not grounded in the identity of concepts. Any analytical judgement on this account, in fact any analytical judgement on modern sciences account is strictly tautological.

For example, (2+2)=4, or, 1 Newton = 1kg * m/s(squared).

Incidentally Quine, a contemporary Logician, tossed out this distinction as meaningless itself (Two Dogmas of Empiricism). Quine went for a kind of semantic holism, saying if we change one little bit of our theory the change ripples through the entire fabric of science itself thus affecting every other little bit of knowledge about the world we have. And of course Godel and Schrodinger also tossed the Kantian analytic idea aside. Godel, after discovering undecidable algorithms and Schrodinger, predicting that the position of a particle could only be given by a probability distribution (Schrodingers wave equation).

Getting back to deductive analysis, the problem is that this is all well and fine for (some of) the physical sciences. It simply doesn't work for virtually anything outside of basic arithmetic or Newtonian physics. Science stopped trying to be "analytically deductive" over 50 yrs ago. In fact, just short of 60 yrs ago Carl Hempel wrote “Studies In the Logic of Scientific Explanation”. The idea that science can actually explain anything is only recent a phenomena. Hempel tried (unsuccessfully) to argue that scientific explanation was "analytical deduction". However, and a great many trees have been sacrificed since - the fact is science (apart from a few rare and arguable cases) doesn't deductively explain anything at all! Of course this will come as a surprise to the simple man, it certainly would to the average "unscientific luddite" (Picots words), in fact most are blissfully unaware awaiting "scientifically proven" to appear on their toilet products before purchasing.

Deductive explanation or deductive argument is the tool of the logician. Deduction is the result of true premises and a true conclusion where the arguments form is logically valid (nothing more, nothing less).

No scientific theory is "analytically deductive". Infact (according to Karl Popper) quite the contrary, at best science is "inductively inferential". You can't prove anything true, you can only show it to be not true. Why, simply due to the fact that we can’t know the future with any certainty. Of course the corollary to this is if your waiting for proof that genetically modified organisms are "safe" you'll be waiting a long time (there will never be proof because proof is just logical tautology). Furthermore if you want some kind of study done on the long term effects of genetic modification, to get any real picture one would have to study each discrete and individual case in isolation, because all genes do is code for protein and since each genetic modification will code for a specific protein within the recipient organism one would have to study each individual case in order to understand any possible long term side effects. Of course this could provide basis for arguments both for and against GE.

But getting back to deductive analysis. For us to even contemplate any such certainty in science would necessarily require us to know all explanatory facts and appeal to at least one "law of nature". It would also require ;

"an intelligence which could comprehend all the forces by which nature is animated and the respective situation of the beings who compose it - an intelligence sufficiently vast to submit these data to analysis - it would embrace in the same formula the movements of the greatest bodies in the universe and those of the lightest atom; for it, nothing would be uncertain and the future, as the past would be present to it's eyes."

Ah to have such intelligence, to be able to see causal pre-cursors and outcomes as tautological conclusions to prior facts. Such intelligence is termed determinism and logical deduction of course basks in such an environment. First elucidated by Peirre-Simon Laplace in 1820, this supposes that the state of the universe at a particular temporal juncture combined with the laws of nature logically entails any future (or past) state of the universe.

So Mr Picot. B.Sc is correct, GE is largely a "suck it and see" science, but so is virtually every other science, and so is science generally, if by "suck it and see" Mr Picot means, as opposed to analytic deduction (that’s exactly what he says). Perhaps we should ban all science until it is proven. Good idea! If not, at what point does he suggest we give a particular theory the thumbs up, and what kind of methodology does he suggest we put in place to make those calls?

Science doesn't and can't prove anything. However, what science does do is the best measure of what there is, and the best measure of how we know what there is. Why, because science is the only methodology that admits as evidence corroborated empirical observation and testability to any bold proposition.

Advice to myself as a scientist is "proceed with caution", as it would have been if I was embarking upon the first space shuttle flight or taking my first ride in a Model T Ford.

It always amazes me the number of people that have swallowed trite post-modernist normative idiom without even realising, but appeal to a folk modernistic deterministic (inherently fatalistic) view of the universe to defend it. Society still tends to see science through the eyes of Kant, Hempel or Laplace, yet science itself is completely at ease with its own limitations. Let me say, genetic engineering will proceed, whether we like it or not. You know what they say, "you can't stop progress".

Mr Picots highly emotive and desperate article is precisely the reason why "greenys" are labeled "unscientific luddite[s]". It is not the issue itself, which with some rigour might carry some weight it is his actual understanding of what science purports to be (which he so badly gets wrong), his ability to engage in a scientific manner without reverting to "scare tactics" and the constant appeals to conspiracy theories that undermine virtually everything he has to say.

Kindest Regards

Steve McKinlay., BBs, BA(Hons)
Lecturer Computing
Wellington Institute of Technology,
Petone, Wellington.

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