What does Value Free Mean?
by Mark Plummer BSc / PGCE
Science is like any other human endeavour in that it is not a static process; it is an organic and dynamic mechanism by which we make sense of the world around us. For an enquiring mind, an observation becomes hypothesis which in turn becomes a theory. The theory holds until it is replaced by another. If new observations lead to a new hypothesis, then it is entirely possible that a new theory will present itself. Every time new evidence is presented the existing theory is re-assessed and if necessary it is replaced. Within this paradigm, there are countless examples of where science can and should be framed as a value-free process, a phrase which has different meanings in different contexts. In my view, any aspect of science which has no consequences in the real world as it is today is value free. To be genuinely and totally objective the application of science and /or technology in the real world must not have any impact (good or bad) what so ever. A personal opinion or perception of that application must equally have no consequence for other people, their community or the natural world. The only way that science as a discipline can operate in this manner is if it separates itself from the world it is part of. I do not believe that an agency operates in isolation from the others. No single structure can implement a given policy or move in a given direction without it having consequence or impact on the others. Clearly, as far as GMO’s are concerned the science and the technology which applies it will always have an impact on the world around us. Hence we as human beings are going to make a value judgement on whether we agree or not. My position is obvious and another reason for this series of eBooks is to ask you to make a similar call. According to those who support the release of GMO’s into the environment, this is not the case. We are supposed to accept without question GMO’s because the science is sound (which it isn’t) and the organisms themselves are equivalent (which they are not) to those which are already here. We are supposed to ignore all other considerations. We are supposed to agree solely on the basis of results presented in a given set of primary science papers. In one sentence the community of practising scientists who support and/or develop GMO’s actually want hundreds of millions of people to drop their opposition because of the results presented in the science that they have produced. We say that perhaps you ought to stop and engage with the reasons why there is so much opposition. This engagement does not mean grinding opposition down it means actually talking to the people you are supposed to serve.
Given that achieving objectives such as improved food security, reduced pesticide use and biodiversity are supposed to benefit all living organisms on the Earth, they must be constantly evaluated. The how, why, who and where and the mechanisms by which such goals are hit must always be critically assessed. Hence by definition, the development of GMO’s cannot be framed in any way as a value-free process. Such issues connect to questions on the “ethics of science” and that means there is no right or wrong answer. It really does depend on what kind of future you want and what kind of planet you want to live on. For example, I have been opposed to GMO’s from the outset. Over the last 20-25 years, I have seen nothing to make me change my mind. I consider the current situation in the Middle East and North Africa to be a crime against humanity, for which there will be some future reckoning. I do not support nuclear power in any sense and developments such as fracking represent a complete disregard for the coming climate (at least for our species) catastrophe. Others have the opposite view on these and other systemic global problems. It is up to the reader to decide where they stand on such issues and for most there is no middle ground. For instance, you either:
• Want to live in a nuclear-free world or you don’t.
• Want and end to poverty, inequality, conflict and global war or you don’t.
• Want fracking to go ahead here in the UK (or anywhere else) or you don’t.
• Want to push for as wide and comprehensive renewable energy portfolio as we can, or you don’t.
• Want fossil fuels to remain in the ground or you don’t.
• Support the Palestinian cause or you don’t.
• Want to eat food produced by means of genetic engineering of plants and animals or you don’t.
• Think that the techniques used in the laboratory produce food which is substantially equivalent to that which already exists or you don’t.
None of these subjects are value free and your viewpoint on them indicates exactly the values you hold. Perceptions and opinions vary, but one point is 100% cast iron guaranteed, once you have embarked on any of the above examples, there is no going back. Either way, you have to stand up and be counted warts and all. There will be consequences and that means your value system will come to the forefront of your thinking. In contrast, value-free means that the debate or discussion can be settled by the evidence alone and that is it, the subject is closed. And there is no consequence, the answer just is and that is it. The supporters and drivers of GMO’s want you to believe that the science and technology falls into this category. Hopefully, the following example will demonstrate, yet again, why I (and hundreds of millions like me) do not believe this to be the case.
Consider the hypothesis that the Tyrannosaurus Rex (T-rex) was not the majestic predator we like to think it was. Within the field of palaeontology there are those who assert based on evidence that the animal was a predator. Conversely there are those who impart that the picture is not so clear. This second school of thought suggests with equally robust science that T-rex was in fact a scavenger, living off carrion where ever it could find it. The question for us today is to ask “does it really matter?” Well, it does in the sense that we can use palaeontology to help us construct an ever more detailed picture of the prehistoric world. The more blanks we can fill in the more detailed picture we have of evolution and the processes which drive it. On the other hand does it really matter to you, me or anyone else outside of the disciplines of Earth science and palaeontology, whether T-rex was scavenger or not? Will the outcome of this debate influence any of the decisions you make during your lifetime? It might, but probably not. Did you even know that T-rex debate was even happening? You may have done, but the chances are you didn’t. Overall, the question appears to be settled, T-rex it appears on the balance of probabilities and continued good solid and objective science, was a predator, so what of it? Will the answer help you pay the mortgage? No of course not. The answer will satisfy our thirst for knowledge and need to construct a picture of the past and rightly so, but that’s it. In other words, the scavenger or predator discussion for T-rex is a value-free scientific debate. Does the scientific evidence either way make any difference to us, the biosphere today or the future direction of evolution? The answer is of course a succinct no. I mean to say do you really care whether T-rex was a predator or not? Without belittling the science in any way shape or form, I don’t. Even the chief protagonist for the scavenger theory is reported to have said words to the effect of “look I don’t care either way, let’s just do the science and find out”. Bang on and no argument with that.
In terms of the potential future impact on what remains of the biosphere the presence (or not) of GMO’s are absolutely pivotal. I would love to live in a world where just a fraction of the obscene amounts of money and expertise tied up in crop and animal genetic engineering was diverted to worthwhile endeavours such as palaeontology or genuine solutions to climate change. Indeed, I would love to see the huge subsidies and massive bank balances enjoyed by big agriculture and the GM component of the biotechnology industry immediately diverted to organic and permaculture systems. And I would love to see it on a global scale. I would like to see a full global moratorium on every aspect of plant and /or animal genetic engineering. I would love to see the whole enterprise properly regulated and thoroughly investigated. Where appropriate I would love to see criminal charges brought against the agencies and individuals who support it and have brought us to the current position. The supporters of GMO’s have not (in my experience) even acknowledged this point of view as legitimate. In many ways they do not even know it even exists, of such realities are schisms made. In contrast, my value system says the above opinions represent part of the framework to achieving a genuinely sustainable future for ourselves and all the life on planet Earth. Sadly, for myself and millions more who have serious questions on the GMO issue, such a shift is not going to happen anytime soon and it will only happen if we demand it, campaign for it and make it happen.
Without a doubt on GMO’s and agriculture, on climate change and biogeochemical cycles, on biodiversity, on conflict and nuclear issues the proverbial clock is ticking. These are the biggest issues that I believe need to be resolved if we and the biosphere which supports us are to survive. On the current trajectory something is going to give and as our current global situation stands it is going to put what we have seen so far into the shade. From an evolutionary perspective the picture is absolutely terrifying. We all live in a world which is already in a catastrophic and disgraceful situation and I would argue heading toward a 6th mass extinction. Well since the Cambrian explosion at any rate. A pivotal event known as the Permian mass extinction occurred in the prehistoric past. Approximately 250 million years ago on a Tuesday at 10.00am an inter-related series of processes was set in motion by the geology of Planet Earth. About 100,000 years later the collective of processes had fully run their course. By which time anything up to 90% of all life on Earth had been eradicated. In everyday language is referred to by several phrases including “the great dying” or “the day the Earth nearly died” and words such as “wipe-out”. An alternative supposition is that the Permian event was caused by a meteor impact, but the evidence for this has always been lacking. Having said the reader can guess which body of research the fossil fuel and nuclear industries have funded in recent decades. Once again it is demonstrated that science is not a value-free process.
I believe with good reason and with an increasing sense of fear (if not unbridled terror) that we are heading Permian levels of environmental collapse. Unless “things” change or are compelled to, I believe that it will happen one way or the other in a timescale that is measured in decades. Some say that the process is already occurring. Given the current rate of species extinction and environmental destruction, it is difficult to argue against such a proposition. The prospect of artificial genetic engineering leading to the release of human-made novel organisms into the natural world absolutely fits into this paradigm. And it’s not pretty. Take a second and think about it. The world is unstable and becoming more so, the spoilt children who run things seem to be in a more manic mood than has hitherto passed. If you are a rational human being this is undeniable and as we all know instability breeds uncertainty. Given our current disgraceful and avoidable situation are we really to stand by and allow the release of a whole plethora of GMO’s (plant and animal) into a biosphere that is already in a critically endangered state? If you believe science to be value free then the answer is yes. If you do not believe science to be value free the answer is no. Once again there is no middle ground. I reiterate (again) that we have no idea of the long-term consequences of such releases; we truly are firing in the dark. The supporters of GMO’s are firing pellets of novel DNA into the fabric of evolution and they seriously expect us to believe that there will be no consequence. More bizarrely some have even suggested that if there are consequences our ingenuity will overcome them. I say it isn’t worth the risk especially when there are alternatives. I say that anyone who believes there will be no consequence needs psychiatric help and certainly should not be making decisions concerning GMO’s on our behalf.
By the time you read this we may well be in a world where Donald Trump is the president of the most powerful country in the world. The tragedy is that Hilary Clinton isn’t really much better, but she is not Donald Trump. Sadly, in terms of outlook and foreign policy there really isn’t much difference between the two contenders. In the name of humanity, a Donald Trump presidency cannot be allowed, but it could well happen. We also live in a world which looks set to leave the Holocene epoch behind and enter a completely new time frame called the Anthropocene. In either case all bets, statutes and mechanisms by which our affairs are organised are off and I do mean all bets. The prospect of living in a world with a Trump presidency, in the Anthropocene, where absolutely nothing is done about the above mentioned issues (and others) and we have unfettered GMO’s as the norm scares this writer to the core of his being. At the end of the day it is very simple, do you want that kind of future or not? As I make crystal clear here and in the second edition of the “Introducing GMO’s book” there is no middle ground, so what do you want? What we have and likely much worse, or do you believe as I do that “another world is possible”?
Release Date 2nd Edition October 10th 2016