Open letter to taketheflourback.org: don't destroy research

Dear Taketheflourback,

We’ve decided Microsoft’s corporate control over the computer world has gone too far. So we’re coming to destroy your computers with a baseball bat. You’re using open source software, you say? No matter: you’re still using computers, and Microsoft make software for computers.

That’s your own logic for proposing to destroy the Rothamsted wheat trial on 27th May. You – and every single letter of support you have on your website – have woefully muddled GM technology with corporate control of the food system. They are not the same thing – any more than all computers are built by Microsoft.

GM has been turned into a symbol of corporate power. But this fails to distinguish between a technology (like programming code) and its use and control (like Microsoft versus Ubuntu). What should you do if you want to challenge Microsoft? What millions of others do: create and support open source code, and even open source manufacturing.

If you want ‘open source’, publicly owned plant science, you should support publicly funded projects like Rothamsted's – not destroy them. Rothamsted have said: the resulting crop “will not be patented and it will not be owned by any private companies”.

While you are organising this attack, global agribusiness is carrying on regardless, able to patent both GM and non-GM varieties alike. Control of our food system has indeed become dangerously centralised. Many scientists and researchers agree there is too much private control and that the nature of the global patent system stifles innovation. University departments are under pressure to seek patents - this is not something restricted to plant science. If you have an issue with this, fight against it. But this planned protest is going to achieve exactly the opposite of what you claim to want.

By attacking a publicly funded trial, all you will do is push the research further into private hands, making it less likely this vital work will lead to public benefit.

GM is one technology among many that build on our knowledge of genetics. These are used in plant labs around the world - and they all have the potential to benefit society. To take just two examples, people like Professor John Witcombe are pursuing new participatory breeding techniques in Asia. Marker-assisted selection is being used to create varieties that meet the needs of growers and their communities. A project at Leeds University is working to produce nematode-resistant strains of plant, which would be donated to African plant scientists. Over 50% of African banana yields are lost to nematodes. Their first crop was destroyed by anti-GM protestors.

Rothamsted are working on Aphid resistance. This is an issue of global importance: currently India, China and others use Endosulfan, a highly toxic chemical banned in the West, and hopefully heading towards a global ban. GM is one technology among many - including agro-ecological methods - that may help get us to a pesticide-free future.

Your website makes many claims about the uselessness of GM - but we can’t know what will succeed without trying. Predicting the failure of an experiment is clearly no basis for destroying it. This brand of selectivity and unwillingness to listen exists elsewhere – among so-called 'climate skeptics'. You are making it seem like the same level of ignorance exists in the environmental movement. Is that what you want?

You claim you are carrying out this action to prevent ‘contamination’. The likelihood of any genetic material from the experiment getting out into the wider ecosystem is vanishingly small. Wheat plants pollinate themselves. Their pollen is heavy and cannot carry far on the wind. Traditional varieties of wheat grown in the UK - over 40 of them - stay stable even without the kinds of stringent controls Rothamsted have put in place. The experiment has several buffer zones around it, one of conventional wheat to capture any stray pollen and a further buffer zone of 20 meters (nearly a swimming pool’s length) around the crop will also be kept free of any plants that could (theoretically) cross with wheat. Is this not enough?

Rothamsted have done everything in their power to meet you half way. You asked for debate – they organised and paid for a room, and George Monbiot agreed to chair. Yet – despite having time to appear on Newsnight, as well as organise the protest itself – you apparently don’t have the ‘capacity’ to attend.

It looks a lot like you’re unwilling to back down. Sadly, someone has already taken your website’s advice and carried out their own attack. But one last time: please reconsider. Do not destroy this experiment, and tell other people to stay away. Join in a debate about the future of our food system. Fight for public research: for open access to results, code and scientific discoveries. Help work out how plant scientists, UK growers and organisations like the Transition movement can work together to find new, innovative ways to develop and produce food.

The challenges we face staying within our planetary boundaries are colossal, and we should be working together to meet them. R. Buckminster Fuller said: 'you never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.'

Help build a new model – don’t destroy.

Dan Olner
Dr. Susannah Bird
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Thanks for all the suggestions, either in comments on the draft or via Twitter.

Game over for the climate

James Hansen: "Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history."

Via Leo Hickman, here's a photo essay: "The Canadian Oil Sand Mines Refused Us Access, So We Rented A Plane To See What They Were Doing". Awe-inspiring, in much the same way as watching a crack addict in a wheelchair get high.

But it's OK, because scientists are all communists, or something.

What are costs, actually? (Another P3 comment...)

Another comment at P3, responding to MT.

Me: "Economics is the study of how people react to cost changes." Hmm, you're right - I need to be more careful with nomenclature myself. I'm sure some of the heterodox econs would say the term is 'essentially contested'. Thinking about it, though, I think my def still works: economics concerns itself with the costs and benefits involved in human choices. I don't see that Marshall's questions contradict that: everything from how we structure institutions, what sectors should be state-owned, the ethics of wealth distribution - is all covered.

"presuming you mean 'cost' in the colloquial sense of money". No, absolutely not. The magic washing machine is a pretty perfect example: what are the costs/benefits of how we use our time? How does technology and societal structure alter that? Rosling very cleverly illustrates precisely this point by pulling books out of the washing machine: it's a machine that produces women's education as well as clean clothes. I see no problem in thinking about time this way while also thinking about how time is socially constructed (see this classic E.P.Thompson article, PDF) and how economic definitions themselves may alter us.

The transition from a mostly agricultural society to what we have today can be thought of in the same way. Two things have happened simultaneously: agri technology has improved, meaning waaay less people can produce massively more (put aside for now 'but it's all just eating fossil fuels'...) The rest of the economy has grown in a feedback process: enabling both increased agri output and freeing up people's time to work elsewhere. As a result, we've also seen a massive morphology change as food processing has moved out of the household/community and into today's sophisticated global industrial networks. A key part of that is how people value their time: we could all be growing food in community gardens and cooking it at home. We have the time to do that. Mostly, we don't. Why not? We prefer to work in paid jobs and access relatively cheaper food, as well as a set of other things we like. Computers, electricity, transport, beer, time to sit and stare at the wall...

Again, there's a whig history danger here: it was meant to be thus, and is natural and good (while forgetting small matters like kicking people off their land when sheep became more profitable, much as we're doing now because car-food is more profitable than people-food [my blog] in many places). But there's also a lot of value in thinking about these changes through the prism of how we value the costs and benefits of our time.

I've found myself looking at my own 'revealed preference' and changing my views. I used to be a lot more fervent about local food growing, until I realised what my shopping habits were telling me: I actually prefer to earn a living in academia and spend time I'd be putting into agriculture on other things, like commenting at P3. If other people feel differently, fine. But I don't think the existence of supermarkets is necessarily a sign of collective moral failure. I also reserve the right to a) reflect on that and change in the future but b) not to have anyone else actually force me to change, unless I've taken part in a democratic process to enforce it ->

Cos maybe supermarket are evil, and individually we're too vulnerable. Marshall lists this in his questions: "what are the proper relations of individual and collective action in a stage of civilization such as ours? How far ought voluntary association in its various forms, old and new, to be left to supply collective action for those purposes for which such action has special advantages?" In the case of supermarkets - and some other market structures - perhaps we should not trust the emergent result of all our collective value-judgements. Instead, maybe we need to get together and decide a set of constraining rules: those we agree are needed, but that we recognise individual actions will tend to corrode over time. That would be democracy. It's also why people who claim that money represents the zenith of democracy [me again] are talking nonsense. If individually we are incapable of making the right carbon choices, collectively we can decide to restrict our choice set.

Spuds & Loops

Somehow forgot to repost this here: from CommonSense (2008, opens PDF), organised by Sheffield's Access Space and edited by Dougald Hine. Was looking for it again, thinking about takebacktheflour's protest.

Potatoes and sound loops: two of my favourite things, and cut from the same cloth. How so? Start with spuds. Raleigh didn’t discover them - Peruvian farmers have been growing potatoes for millennia. The homogenised chips, crisps and ‘product’ we eat are one tiny genetic fibre. They’ve developed thousands of varieties, all the time experimenting in chacritas - their gardens - talking, testing, exchanging, cross-breeding. They’ve woven a tapestry of genetic diversity over the Andes. It’s a living, breathing quilt a million miles from IP-protected superspuds owned by multinationals. In Monsanto-world, farmers are reduced to mindless labourers. And loops? A 21st century global colony of music-makers forage for sounds, recombining them endlessly. Coldcut call it an ‘elaborate megamix’ – a seething evolution that acknowledges its sources as it giggles at copyright. Loops leap from net to mix to dancefloor and back again: we’re the landscape where they thrive or die. So? For us, it’s about freedom to create; in Peru it has meant survival. Open source isn’t new, then. It’s always been about control. In the Andes, autonomy, creativity and survival are entwined threads. Our own cultural viability means heeding the spuds and loops, and binding our own threads together.

Utility is useful (and planets probably don't love each other)

It's interesting that blog-writing was meant to be a way to relax a bit, get ideas down. It's somehow got all tensed up, and I keep on finding myself accidentally writing in comments elsewhere. This one's a quick defence of the idea of utility. At some point I'll explain in more detail the several, tiered stages I went through before I ended up seeing how the standard micro-economics framework is in fact really useful. That's quite a shift, since before I'd completely bought the common sociological (and ABM) criticism of utility as clearly false, because unrealistic. But here's a start. Oh - and having tried many books, here's the best one I found for learning micro-economics basics if, like me, you've been attempting that outside of an economics course. It assumes only calculus basics and the writing is incredibly clear-minded. Anyway, from a comment on an ongoing P3 thread:

I started my PhD listening to a lot of agent modellers promising the moon on a stick. Realistic, reactive, built on plausible psychology blah. I’ve ended it completely seeing what the idea of utility is good for. It’s not meant to be a ‘realistic’ take on human psychology, it’s a neutral framework for thinking through how cost changes shift people’s responses. E.g. the fairly unremarkable fact that people will tend to cut back on other spending first as fuel costs increase can be described in terms of elasticities. It’s tautological, but then all theories are, by themselves. It doesn’t stop it being very useful: if you know that increasing fuel costs will actually reduce spending in the rest of the economy more than it affects fuel spending, that’s important – not least for working out tax revenues.

It doesn’t explain *why* those choices are being made, and for a lot of purposes it doesn’t need to. It depends on what level of explanation you’re after. Others might want to ask: well, is the inelasticity of fuel prices amenable to change in other ways, if we break it down? What role, for example, does the physical structure of cities have?

Compare to another of my favourite utility-based findings: “savings in walking and waiting times are valued at between two and three times savings in on-vehicle time – parameters that have proved to be remarkably robust over the years.” (Button, Transport Economics, p.104)

So: more people will be – for instance – willing to drive for an hour each way to work, when they would never consider walking for that amount of time. Of course, one can come up with many theories to explain the underlying facts: anything from the structure of towns/cities/transport design to people’s (relative) aversion to physical exercise (I commute about an hour each way, with some walking. I’m fairly fit, I run, but I’m not sure I’d want to walk to work for 2 hours a day…!) But *at a given level of explanation* it is very useful to know that people value transport time differently for different modes.

So taking that simple example: if it appears that people will only walk or cycle for much shorter time stretches than under power, what can you do with that info? Several possible things. Find out the impact of physical/urban structure. Try and pull out the underlying factors affecting people’s choices, separate from those structures. If you want to reduce carbon output, you could either berate people for being so weak and tell them they should drive less – or perhaps think about other ways behaviour might be amenable to change, given what we know about how people react to those changes.

I’m not saying utility is the only way to think about people’s choices, and certainly not that it’s a description of the way people “really are”. But it seems to be clearly a useful tool for thinking about cost change, either monetary, time or some other cost imposed by our environment.

And just going back to the ‘level of explanation’ thing: “I have not been able to discover the causes of those properties… and I frame no hypothesis”. That’s Newton on gravity. He came up with what’s probably the first exemplar of a scientifically robust, generalised theory, but understood that deeper levels of explanation awaited. We’re still working on that.

I think physicists actually have less of a problem with this difference between levels of explanation than economists, who tend to assume that whole collections of people act like a single person (the ‘representative agent’ idea). But we have to get comfortable with what level of explanation we’re talking about. People are not utility-maximisers. Utility is useful for thinking about, describing and even predicting what impact people’s reaction to cost changes will have. What’s the problem? Pinning utility onto rationality is not necessary – any more than the theory of gravity requires planets to love each other.

Murderers, Tyrants & Madmen

The Heartland Institute's new poster campaign. I'm sort of still wondering if it's going to turn out to be a joke, but... from their press release (via Leo Hickman):

The people who still believe in man-made global warming are mostly on the radical fringe of society. This is why the most prominent advocates of global warming aren’t scientists. They are murderers, tyrants, and madmen.

I think Heartland just became the new Monckton: if they didn't exist, we'd need to invent them.

An appeal from Rothamsted Research: don't destroy our crop research!

An appeal from scientists at the publicly funded Rothamsted Research and a petition.

These people are proposing to destroy a GM crop in the UK at the end of this month. As with Greenpeace's destruction of an Australian GM crop last year, this is a travesty, and damaging to the integrity of the UK's environmental movement. They're planning this action based on the flimsiest of unchecked facts - including the 'cow gene' theme of their website.

The scientists in question (see the video) have made clear they're happy to talk to them. The protestors have responded with: "We are really pleased they want to engage in a discussion. But we know that talking to them is not going to change their minds. They've declared their position because they have already put the plants in the ground." Uh huh.

Here's more on Rothamsted Research and their climate/sustainability aims.

This also supports a pet theory of mine: scientific ignorance is spread across the political spectrum. Climate denialism may be more right-wing, but that's got nothing to do with rightwingers being generally less scientifically literate, despite what various daft analyses have recently been (massively counterproductively) saying. (Hey! How best to alienate a whole chunk of the political compass!) Many instinctive free-market supporters will back GM the same way these GM-attackers instinctively buy in to climate change, without necessarily comprehending the science: their worldview provides shortcut heuristics.

My partner works on biofuels, and is about to start on a project looking at enzymes in composting and whether they can be isolated/put to use in speeding/increasing efficiency of the digestion process. There are so many fantastic scientists working hard to get us through the next 50/100 years - how can we get through to people like 'taketheflourback' that they're being counterproductive?

A one-para summary of my own view of GM: just another crop optimisation tool, no different to what potato farmers in the Andes were doing thousands of years ago. But like any tool, depends on who's using it for what. We need to support *public* funding of crop projects like this (and encourage effective private investment of benefit to all end-users) not confuse "GM" with "Monsanto".

More on economic modelling at P3

MT is provoking me into defending economics, which is a fact I'll have to reflect on at some point. Comments over there, but as I seem to be continuing to accidentally write down stuff from the PhD, I'll post some of it here too. Latest:
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It's good to read some provoking ideas, MT, but - again - it would be nice to see some evidence to back up your arguments. You're not wrong about a lot of things but I don't think you're right either. I'm not in any great position of expertise, mind, but the bullet points feel a little like watching a jazz band fall down the stairs.

"economics distinguishes itself by a massive and systematic aversion to data." Do you follow Krugman's blog? Have you seen his massive and systematic reference to data? Each time, repeatedly pointing out that it clearly supports well-established macro-economic principles, not actions currently being taken in Washington and Europe? I presume you're making a point about economic modelling methods and how they're used?

"There are simple arguments based on plausible assumptions within economics that purport to show that any regulation is a net cost. If these arguments were correct it would be possible to get places faster if the government didn’t intervene to tell you what side of the road to drive on. This conclusion is obviously false. Consequently the plausible assumptions cannot all be correct."

Who makes these arguments? Largely (though not exclusively) a small set of economists-for-hire, buyable from the same dealers who will provide you with some top-notch, well-oiled climate FUD. There's a small overlap with Krugman's Very Serious People, particularly the ones peddling 'nasty medicine' solutions to our current economic woes.

Whoops, economics

Just caught myself off-guard and spewed on economic modelling at P3. Accidental blog entry!
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"Does the absence of a workable model refute a hypothesis?" As usual, Krugman's my favourite on this. Particularly from section 'the evolution of ignorance' where he compares theory-making to early map-making. Early maps were more report-based but, as they slowly became filled in, that heuristic knowledge was lost.

"There was an extended period in which improved technique actually led to some loss in knowledge. Between the 1940s and the 1970s something similar happened to economics. A rise in the standards of rigor and logic led to a much improved level of understanding of some things, but also led for a time to an unwillingness to confront those areas the new technical rigor could not yet reach. Areas of inquiry that had been filled in, however imperfectly, became blanks. Only gradually, over an extended period, did these dark regions get re-explored."

Krugman got his Nobel prize for his work on geographical economics (the 'new economic geography'). Here he is (pdf) reflecting on that. His express purpose in creating his 'simple' core-periphery model was to show economists that geography mattered (as well as that you didn't need comparative advantage to make it work, so some places could become the core through endogenous forces alone). But the bait he used to lure neoclassical economists out of their dimensionless 'wonderland' was a model able to preserve general equilibrium.

Wibble (massive navel-gaze alert)

"As a professor of rhetoric, I necessarily became a student of narcissism, which for simplicity’s sake I define as not knowing where your boundaries end and the rest of the world begins." (Guy McPherson via desdemonadespair)

Trying to blog at the minute feels very much like I'm in an imaginary room watching nameless faces wobble on a knife-edge between polite concern and genuine horror, as a needling worry tries to get my attention: am I naked from the waist down? Do I have my pants on my head? What am I saying? I hold off, waiting for some surety that I'll say something sensible... I end up writing nonsense like this. Why? Why here? What's the benefit of that imaginary audience and their wobbly faces? Is it just the virtual equivalent of hanging around in parks with your goolies hanging out, hoping someone's going to look over? As the quote above suggests, it's a peculiar sort of solipsism.

I've always thought it was simply that you have to adopt a different writing style to accommodate the possibility - however slim - that the Internets might come and read you. That forces a little more thought about structure and flow. But having taken an extended break from twitface, and now to be trying facebook again, I'm not so sure. Some peope know they have an audience, and that must help define what they're doing in their own mind. After all, the feedback is real, not merely a projected hallucination. But there must, of course, be something intrinsically narcissistic about the enterprise: each entry reaffirms a desire, however obscured by rationalisations, to be observed. Otherwise, why not just keep a journal?

It's obviously daft, though, to say any form of communication is narcissistic, any more than a schoolkid doing their homework makes them so. What I like about the above quote, though, is that it seems to capture something of the role of imagination in online communication. As I say, it's been weird returning to Facebook and moving again from being deeply suspicious to letting it back in the veins again. (Sociology alert: that's Bauman's synopticon right there. We demand to be watched, and our most private utterances only take on meaning with a viewing public, even if that public exists only in our own mind.) With facebook, that's not to say there's no genuine social element to it, but it's only in taking an extended break from it - and then relearning the weird urge to post - that I can sense the little high it provides, the (cod-psychology alert) micro-dose of oxytocin from rubbing up against the leg of virtual sociability. The number of people that actually take part, compared to the nominal quantity of facebook friends anyone has, is a hint of that.

So it's slightly the same when blogging; one's mental reactions are real enough, but it's unclear to me what's really going on. It's un-nerving. Spending five years working towards the endpoint of the PhD is obviously a factor in feeling so weird. What the bejeesus happens now? How come it still feels like now, it was six months ago! I have to actually finish it first. The viva is long done, but the corrections are still lurking about. The thing still feels too unfinished to mention; another narcissistic urge to destroy anything lacking some inestimable quality of good enough. Sloping off quietly and pretending nothing happened seems easier somehow. Thanks all the same, good taxpayers...

Being spat out at the end of PhDing can leave one devoid of all porpoise. A bad acid trip that takes a huge hunking bite out of your alloted years; a fairy land at right angles to the rest of time. Hang on - what the hell's going on again? Where am I? How old? What the hell was that all for anyway? So here I am, pants on my head, naked from the waist down and possibly even with pencils up my nose, deciding the way to deal with that is to blog about it. Who knows? Might help. Not a full online career and friendship destroying mental breakdown, but at least something capable of causing a slight sweat-prickle of embarrassment when read a year later. You might delete it but the internet never forgets.

At any rate, this all by way of a little push for myself to pull the plug out of my, um, nostrils and write some shit down, for better or worse. This sort of navel-gazing is even more narcissistic than blogging about something genuinely empirically interesting, of course, but some writing is (possibly) better than none. I don't really want to strangle that while I wait for a decent academic voice to assert itself; think I'll just carry on as normal and hope for the best.

That said, some preparation did go into a separate academic blog: domain registered and everything. I'm just not sure I have the heart to write that "dear coveredinbees" letter, so I reckon I'll hang on here a while longer, see if I can get those topics going. Thank you in advance, imaginary audience, for indulging my half-naked pants-on-head ramblings. Wibble.

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