Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Is Nicholas Taleb lying or deluded?

Nicky still appears to be trying to throw misinformation at the wall to see what sticks. It appears that he is in the process of writing a new paper about the precautionary principle being applied to biotech crops, and recently posted a summary sheet on his Facebook page. With a complete lack of citations it is fairly easy to debunk the lies and misinformation within the document.
Stephan Neidenbach - welovegv@gmail.com

Nicky fails to actually mention any of the major scientific organizations that all agree biotech crops currently on the market are safe. He uses the ad hominem fallacy to allude to some vast conspiracy of Monsanto paid scientists and journalists, relying completely on one New York Times piece announcing Monsanto gave a grant to a university to help cover travel expenses for an outreach program. He tries to prevent anyone from calling out the organic industry for giving money to scientists because of how much more biotechnology companies spend. Again, his whole argument relies on a logical fallacy, and he is just trying to attack the people rather than the facts. There really is a scientific consensus that biotech crops currently on the market are safe. 

He then backpedals and states that even if there is a consensus, any potential risk is enough to warrant not using biotech crops. This is the genetic fallacy. He is speaking of demonizing an entire technology, regardless of how it is used. He doesn't mention which traits he perceives as having the potential for risk, he just alludes to all biotech crops having the same risk. How could herbicide tolerant corn and disease resistant papaya possibly carry the same risk? He proceeds to call for large scale studies at "organismal and ecological scales". Why would this be performed for one type of breeding process but not another? Novel traits are created through many different methods, and artificial selection has actually proven dangerous with toxins being produced and the introduction of invasive species which have actually severely damaged entire ecosystems. 

Nicky continues to ramble on about how we don't "need" biotech crops to feed the world. This isn't even a claim that biotech companies or scientists make. The technology is one of many tools that can aid in the process and potentially help deal with "black swans" we haven't even considered yet. He is correct that there is currently enough food being produced to feed the world, and that distribution is a major problem. Unfortunately this urban elitist view is about giving a man a fish rather than teaching him to fish. The transportation costs to ship food into the developing world for this cause would be astronomical, and would also make the developing country dependent on the developed world. How very colonial of him. It almost makes me wonder how much Big Shipping is paying him to write this nonsense. Yields in developing countries have actually been proven to increase more so than developed ones with the introduction of biotech crops, allowing these countries to produce food on their own. Investing in agriculture to help reduce post harvest losses in the developing world would return $13 to those countries for every $1 spent.

Calling for the use of supplements or alternative crops to combat malnutrition is yet another first world view only someone so far removed from reality as Nicky could have. He complains about novel crops replacing local varieties, and then says they should replace local varieties with alternative crops and supplements. Crops like golden rice being investigated would allow cultures to maintain their staple diets while making money by growing their own nutrition rather than relying on expensive supplements.

Reading his claim that biotech crops are based on pseudo-science because of "snake-oil" lobbying, and that science is based on skepticism and dissent actually made me throw up in my mouth a little. This is the same coward that has told his "cult" to refuse to engage anyone pro-biotechnology, and to call them all "shills", refusing to listen to any skepticism or dissent in regards to his own faith based views. The whole passage reeks of cult brainwashing, even holding himself up as some divine authority on risk. I actually agree with him that being anti biotech-crop does not make someone anti-biotechnology in medicine. It is a shame that he can differentiate between traits in this regard, but not for individual crops. 

Nicky then proceeds to explain how in popular debate "GMOs" refer to transgenic crops specifically. This, and calling biotech crops a "top-down" intervention, are more examples of his cult like behavior. Loading the language is an example of thought reform where vocabulary and meanings are invented to make people conform to his way of thinking. Top-down and bottom-up design has simply never been used to describe the breeding of crops. He is just attempting to use a phrase in a new way that the outside world does not understand. He claims that biotech crops some how require a different risk assessment than mutagenesis or artificial selection, but fails to explain why. The truth is there is not a single risk that can be applied to biotech crops that cannot also be applied to other breeding methods. 

Nicky appears to think that because the current most prevalent biotech crop traits relate to pesticides, that they are intrinsically linked. Again, using the genetic fallacy in this way completely ignores disease resistance (which solves a problem with mono-cropping that artificial selection created), and traits designed to reduce food waste (something that contradicts his idea about having enough food being a reason not to use biotech crops). The fact is mutagenesis and artificial selection have both brought us herbicide tolerant crops, and we even have glyphosate tolerant flax due out in 2019 that qualifies for the NONGMO verification seal.

While claiming that pesticide use has increased with the introduction of biotech crops, without providing evidence, this couldn't be further from the truth. An independent meta-analyis from Germany (where there is no biotech crop cultivation) shows how insecticide use has been drastically reduced due to biotech crops. While glyphosate use has gone up, chemical inputs over all have remained steady even while production has sky rocketed in the United States. There is an anti-biotech assumption that increased biotech crops have increased pesticide usage because glyphosate usage has gone up, but they choose to ignore that glyphosate simply replaced other herbicides. One almost wonders if BASF is paying him to post such things, as their imazamox herbicide has been seeing a resurgence since the primitive food movement went crazy over biotech crops a few years back. 

Nicky finishes his document with the "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" argument. Fine, then that would apply to all breeding methods equally. There is not one single risk that applies to biotech crops but not to other crops. It is pure hypocrisy to complain about a generalization that all biotech crops are dangerous, and then say all biotech crops are inherently risky. Saying all biotech crops are inherently risky because you don't like herbicide tolerance would be like saying all medicine is risky because you don't like Vioxx.

I challenge anyone to give me a risk that applies to biotech crops on the market now that does not apply to other breeding methods. Creative Commons License
This work by Stephan Neidenbach is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


  1. Very well done. Nicky doesn't do well with criticism. You should check out his debate with Christopher Hitchens, et al. Nicky way humiliated. His comeback: "you can't take away people's superstition until you can give them something to take its place". I kid you not, watch the YouTube for yourself. Nicky has gone from being a curmudgeon to being blatantly dishonest.

  2. I was banned/blocked from his social media for pointing out that he clearly hadn't studied biological sciences. The herbicide resistance claim is a great example of either his ignorance or perfidy. He is clearly unaware of triazine or imazamox tolerance crops, or is trying to pretend they don't exist.

  3. re: "I challenge anyone to give me a risk that applies to biotech crops on the market now that does not apply to other breeding methods."

    The risk of monotony. GMO crops are designed and marketed to eliminate competition. To be the only product that can be grown and marketed.

    Risk comes from a focus on single solutions, in a changing environment. Health comes from variety, not monotony. Health comes from freedom to choose, from a single product marketed in a variety of packages, a variety of formats. The 'other breeding method'? An open market, that is open to marketing seeds and products with variety, open to real competition. Any mono-product is more subject to risk than a variety of products. GMOs are mono-products.

    1. Name one company that doesn't want everyone to buy their product. The point of business is to make as much money as possible. That isn't always in the best interests of other people, but organic companies are no different.

  4. if GMOs are harmless why oppose labelling food made with/from them? nothing to hide? or something to hide? why not boldly label them? Why not waive limits on liability? suppression of information and limiting liabilities are tells of something to hide, which may include a risk or an unknown extent of a known risky. Calling someone by their diminutive "Nicky" so many times causes me to suspect this particular arguer of being a shill. and most shills are paid shills. cheers.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. There are plenty of reasons not to waste money on pointless labels, wasting money being one of them. Accusing someone of being a shill is just such a ridiculous argument, as if you can't imagine that anyone could possibly disagree with you of their own free will or even, heaven forbid, be right.

  5. The point of labeling a product is to warn against something dangerous; a possible allergy, toxicity, poisonous..none of which apply to GE tech. If you are afraid of GE tech, then avoid it. Avoid heavily processed food and buy Organic or Non-GMO Verified products. Referring to Taleb as "Nicky" is a poke at his childish behavior and is well deserved. When a grown man refers to people, asking genuine questions, as retards...he loses all credibility. I prefer to call him Nassim the Narcissist.