Although I took a critical thinking course in college, it was really my friend and mentor, Donna from BAD RAP, who taught me how to unravel faulty arguments. She was so good at breaking them down to their faulty base assumption, and presenting a more logical, more sound option instead.
Recognizing faulty arguments can be a challenge, because many times faulty arguments are built upon logic that is emotionally compelling. And emotion can create blinders. That logic though, when examined, frequently falls apart. Most people are not very good at examining logic, so faulty arguments can take root and grow as more people are exposed to them, because they are so emotionally compelling.
Below, I’m going to list 6 of the faulty arguments about GMOs that the GMO debate is rife with, and explain how those arguments play upon your emotions rather than utilize facts.
1. The Bandwagon Fallacy – other countries do it so we should too!
This is the argument that we should ban GMOs because other countries have banned them. The problem with this is that just because someone else does something doesn’t mean we should too. It also doesn’t mean that that someone did it for reasons based on facts and evidence. Other countries prohibit women from driving, and stone people to death for adultery, and chop people’s hands off for theft. There are lots of countries with different laws than us, and it doesn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, mean we should have the same laws as they do. Plus, a lot of countries base their laws on religion, or on public opinion, not facts and evidence.
The Bandwagon Fallacy isn’t evidence. If we ban GMOs, it should be because the evidence says we should. Not because someone else does it.
I propose that we stop using the Bandwagon Fallacy as an argument in the GMO debate and instead base our arguments (and laws) on actual evidence.
2. The Shill Gambit Fallacy – you’re being paid to say that!
Maybe that person arguing in favor of GMO technology is being paid by the GMO industry. Upon first glance, this argument makes sense – we can’t trust your argument because you’re being paid to make it! You’re an industry shill!
There are a few logic problems with this argument though. First, vocal proponents of both sides of the debate are being backed by industry interests. Dr. Kevin Folta, a vocal GMO proponent, has received grants from Monsanto for his research and education initiatives. And Dr. Charles Benbrook, a vocal GMO opponent, is backed by organic corporations such as Whole Foods, Stonybrook Farms and Organic Valley. Virtually every organization on either side of the debate has industry funding at some level. If being ‘paid’ to take a side in the debate is a reason to dismiss someone’s argument, then we pretty much need to dismiss everyone.
Second, as someone just trying to gather information on the topic, I noticed that as soon as I began expressing ambivalence about the topic, I began being accused of being a shill. I have been accused of being a shill innumerable times in discussing this topic. Lets get this out of the way: the only entity I shill for is The Y, which is an amazing non-profit organization (and where I work, although I am currently donating my entire paycheck back to The Y, so I’m not receiving any personal financial gain for said ‘shilling’). And the Y has no stake in the GMO debate. I have never received any money from the Food Industry, biotech industry, Monsanto, the Organic industry or ANY OTHER entity for asking questions about GMO technology. Not a penny. Ever. From anyone. So even though I’m NOT a shill, I still get accused of being one, all the time. I’m willing to bet I’m not the only person out there questioning GMO ideology who isn’t a shill.
Finally, the Shill Gambit, while effective for swaying people’s emotions, doesn’t actually negate a person’s argument. Even if they were a shill, it doesn’t mean they are wrong. The shill accusation isn’t evidence that a person is wrong. Once I realized this, I began watching to see if people making shill accusations would follow up with any evidence that the person they were accusing was wrong. It rarely happened. This disappointed me.
If being paid is the only motivation a person would have to make an argument, wouldn’t we have to assume everyone taking a side in the debate is being paid to by one industry or another? Shouldn’t we apply the same Shill logic to both sides? Are all people in support of biotechnology being funded by Monsanto? Are all people arguing against GMOs receiving kick-backs from Whole Foods? That is where Shill logic must lead, if a person wants to use it. Either we evaluate arguments from both sides based on evidence, or we apply Shill logic to both sides. We can’t reasonably and logically (or fairly!) allow one side to use shill logic and require evidence from the other. We must evaluate both arguments based on the same set of rules.
I propose we stop using the Shill Gambit altogether, and evaluate both sides of the argument based on evidence.
3. Appeal to Emotion Fallacy – children aren’t science experiments!
An appeal to emotion is an argument that seeks to elicit an emotional reaction in a listener, rather than address the actual topic of debate. It’s a way of deflecting attention from the issue.
Have you seen the images of children holding signs saying “I am not a science experiment”? MAN does that pull at the heartstrings! The cute little kids! We gotta protect them, right? This imagery provokes an emotional reaction, but is not evidence of harm.
There’s also the one about farmers in India committing suicide. This one is even more emotionally compelling, but it turns out it’s not really based on the facts (read this article to get a better idea of what is really happening). Facts be damned though, because once you’ve created an emotional reaction in a person, their ability to be logical is undermined.
I propose we stop using emotional manipulation to undermine people’s ability to evaluate an argument logically, and instead focus on the relevant facts and evidence.
4. Cherry Picking Fallacy – The Seralini Study.
Cherry picking is the act of selecting only the evidence that supports your argument, and ignoring any evidence that contradicts it.
A friend recently forwarded an article to me that claimed to detail new evidence of the harm caused by GMOs. I clicked through with an open mind. I am genuinely interested in this topic, and am willing to reevaluate my opinions if new evidence compels me to do so. I was really disappointed when the ‘new research’ turned out to be the same rat tumor study I’d seen a thousand times before. Just as the anti-sugar people routinely trot out the ONE rat study that hinted at an addiction-like response, this ONE (deeply flawed) rat study gets trotted out over and over and over in anti-GMO rhetoric.
I propose that rather than make decisions based on one or two single studies, we instead look at the entire body of scientific evidence on a topic before coming to a conclusion, or making laws on that topic.
5. The Naturalistic Fallacy – anything man-made is bad!
Empires are built upon the theme that ‘Natural is good! Artificial is bad!’ There seems to be a growing distrust of science, and anything that sounds like a chemical.
The Naturalistic Fallacy is an argument that something is bad because it’s not natural, or that something is good because it is natural. It stands that since GMOs are created by science, they must be bad, because they’re not natural. This isn’t evidence though. It’s an assumption based on wishful thinking. Plenty of things that are natural are dangerous (arsenic, diphtheria, snake venom) and plenty of man made things are AWESOME, like helmets, vaccines and smart phones. You can’t determine the safety of a thing based on whether it’s natural or man-made. You have to look at the evidence.
I propose we stop buying into the naturalistic fallacy (and I do mean buying $$), and instead focus on the evidence when determining if a thing is safe or dangerous.
6. The Burden of Proof fallacy – do your research!
“Do your research!” people bellow at me from the pages of Facebook. This is usually after I’ve asked them if they have any evidence to support their claim. They respond by telling me to do my own research.
This is a fallacy that shifts the burden of proof from the person making a claim and onto the listener. Except that things don’t work this way. If you want people to believe your claims, you have to provide supporting evidence. Every time a person tells me to ‘do your research!’ what they are really telling me is “I don’t actually have any evidence, I just heard this somewhere and it sounded good and/or made me feel good about myself, so I am choosing to believe it. Hey, you should believe it too!”
If GMOs are bad, there must be evidence out there to prove it (and sure there is, that one rat tumor study!). So, find the evidence and present it. Telling people to ‘do your research’ is laaaaaaazzzzzzzzyyyyyyy. And no one is obligated to believe something without evidence. So, find the evidence and have it handy.
I propose that rather than telling other people to ‘do your research!’, we all arm ourselves with the evidence that supports our claims. And be forthright with that evidence when asked for it. It’s the respectable, and respectful, way to communicate.
So, to wrap up…
Most of us don’t have the time (or, quite frankly, the critical thinking and scientific literacy skills) to hunt down all the research on a topic and evaluate it in context. So most of us need to rely on reputable science and public health organizations to do that for us. One such organization is the World Health Organization. They’ve put together an easy to read FAQ on GMO technology and it’s impact on health and the environment. They’ve covered pretty much all of the major issues that come up in these debates. The WHO is one of the most reputable health-related organizations in the world. You can read the WHO’s FAQ here: http://www.who.int/foodsafety/areas_work/food-technology/faq-genetically-modified-food/en/
My own opinion on the topic, today, leans more toward the ‘GMOs are probably safe, and offer a lot of promise for solving issues of food security around the world’. I have been on the other side of the issue in the past. I am open to new information if it should arise, and willing to change my opinion (again!) if I see evidence that leads me to believe I should.
It should be noted that it was ‘doing my research!’ that led me to go from Anti-GMO to cautiously Pro-GMO. Which is why it’s particularly amusing when people tell me to do my research – I’m like ‘how do you think I came to this conclusion!’.
It should ALSO be noted that these bad arguments, the six fallacies I’ve listed above, aren’t exclusive to the GMO debate! You will find them anywhere you find people arguing about anything. I hear them regularly in regard to diet, vaccines, health, politics, religion…and from all sides. Being able to recognize them will help you make sound, reasoned, evidence-based decisions about your health.
When a person must rely on these bad arguments to support their conclusion, you can be reasonably sure the evidence is NOT on their side. It’s not a guarantee, of course. Just because a person uses a fallacy doesn’t mean they’re wrong. But in general, the more fallacies a person must rely on, the higher the likelihood that they’re just plain wrong.
I propose that rather than make decisions and laws based on bad arguments, we examine all the evidence critically and make an informed decision. A girl can dream, can’t she?
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