This is Your Brain on GMO’s

Last week British anti-GMO activist Mark Lynas took to the podium at a conference to apologize (or apologise) for having spent years “ripping up GMO’s.” Now he has decided that Genetically Modified Organisms are “an important technological option” and that critics have been anti-scientific.


Text and video are available here.

Actually Lynas had explained before that he had been reprogrammed; his 2011 book The God Species announced his new enthusiasm for GMOs.  But this mea culpa on vimeo made for an irresistible internet nugget and it lit up the blogosphere.  It was forwarded to me by several people who I’m sure had never heard of Mark Lynas before.

Much of the online reaction to this story goes along with the basic premise in Lynas’s own statement, which is that there are two ways to think about GM crops, and he has switched from one to the other.

I agree that there are two ways to think about GM crops, but Lynas hasn’t changed one bit.  Let me explain.

GMO’s are one of the most far-reaching developments of the last century.  They have major impacts on biological research, international trade, ecosystems, industry-university relations, patent law, agriculture, and on and on.  We all need to know something about these different facets, especially since we make decisions about them every time we go to the grocery store.

But what we are mostly bombarded with are dumbed-down, deceptive narratives of GMO bad bad bad or GMO good good good.  Most of what is written is explicitly designed to get to that part of your brain that picks a side in a fight.

There are reasons the GMO debate became so polarized.  There is a lot at stake here, including lots of money and political power; there are also clashes of different visions of how the world should work.   Most voices on GM issues are coming from people with vested interests, either direct or indirect.

And polarized debates build on themselves.  Now when someone tries to look into GM issues they mainly encounter invective and polemic.  With GM crops, farmers are killing themselves and losing control over their seeds.  Without GM crops kids will go blind and we will have to cut down the rainforests.  Most people are attracted by one side, or repulsed by one side, or both.  Whether it’s coming from Greenpeace or Monsanto, the message is the same: get emotionally involved, pick a side, then start believing all the claims from that side and scorning all the claims from the other.

footballIt’s as if genetic modification were like a football game, and you could sit in the stands basking in the psychic glow of pure affiliation, cheering your team and booing the other.  You can almost feel your brain shifting into partisan mode.

Actually your brain is shifting into a special mode, and you can even see it.  During the 2004 presidential campaign, Emory psychologist Drew Westen and colleagues recruited a group of students who were committed political partisans.  It didn’t matter if they favored Bush or Kerry, just that they were strongly committed, like football fans.  The students were asked to read statements from the candidates, in which they contradicted themselves and looked like liars.  Meanwhile the researchers used MRI machines to watch the students’ brains.  For a control, the students read contradictory statements by “neutral” people — Tom Hanks, Hank Aaron, and William Styron.

The students processed their candidates’ statements completely differently from the controls’ statements.  This image from their article shows areas that were more active when students were processing the lies from their candidates than from the controls.  So what you’re looking at is the part of the brain that swings into action when you already know your conclusion, and now you’re making the facts fit it.  That area that’s all lit up is called the posterior cingulate.

Brain on GMOs

Source: Westen, Drew, et al. 2006 Neural Bases of Motivated Reasoning: An fMRI Study of Emotional Constraints on Partisan Political Judgment in the 2004 U.S. Presidential Election. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 18(11):1947-1958.

This kind of thinking is called “motivated reasoning.”  This means that “partisan goals trump accuracy goals so that individuals act as biased information processors who will vigorously defend their prior values, identities, and attitudes at the expense of factual accuracy.”

So when the motivated partisans confronted information about their candidate that should lead them to an “emotionally aversive conclusion,” they got busy reworking the information to fit the conclusion they wanted.

Scientists still have a lot to learn about different forms of reasoning, and the role of emotion in rationality, and so on, but the basic idea of motivated reasoning is key in putting Mark Lynas in context.  Sometimes people let factual information shape their conclusions, and sometimes they start with a conclusion and shape their view of factual information to fit it.  Those are the two ways to think about GM crops, and that’s why I say Mark Lynas hasn’t changed one bit.  He used to have simplistic, inaccurate and emotional “cherished beliefs” about how GM crops were bad bad bad ; now he has switched to simplistic, inaccurate and emotional “cherished beliefs” about how GM crops are good good good.

Listen to two examples of his motivated reasoning:

1) I’d assumed that it would increase the use of chemicals. It turned out that pest-resistant cotton and maize needed less insecticide.

2) I’d assumed that Terminator Technology was robbing farmers of the right to save seed. It turned out that hybrids did that long ago, and that Terminator never happened.

Are you kidding?  On 1) and 2), consider:

1) It s widely known that changes in chemical use have been mixed.  Insecticide use has indeed gone down (I have documented this myself among some of the world’s heaviest insecticide users) but herbicide use has risen sharply.

Then again, the main herbicide being used more heavily is Roundup, which is much more benign than many herbicides. But then again, the next generation of GM crops will be resistant to less benign sprays like 2,4-D.  Herbicide-resistant weeds are a terrible and growing problem due to GM crops.  But then again cotton pests have been slower than we expected to develop resistance.

It takes a lot of reworking by the posterior cingulate to boil this down to a simple, emotionally satisfying, conclusion that we shouldn’t be concerned about GMO impacts on chemical use.

2) Whoa, this lad was a player in international debates on seed saving without knowing about hybrid crops?  The role of hybrids in allowing corporations to capture value from public research and seize control over farmers’ seeds had been well known and widely discussed for decades.  But if Mark Lynas reads up on the topic, he will find that corporations can gain control over seeds not just through biological means (like hybrids) but through legal means (like patents)… and GM technologies, based largely on publicly-funded research, have allowed corporations to do just that.  (And Terminator Technology was never anything more than a side show.)

As to why Mark would swap one motivated reasoning package for another, I’m not sure.  Motivated reasoning is emotionally addictive, and addicts do sometimes switch drugs.  It has brought him more attention on this side of the pond than he ever had before. As the head of the Nature Conservancy blogged, Lynas may now become a household name.

And the road ahead for him is clear: cherry-pick facts favorable to GM crops, and distort unfavorable facts until they fit.  Expect long hours for the posterior cingulate.

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8 Responses to This is Your Brain on GMO’s

  1. Dane says:

    I love it.

  2. Rachel Schurman says:

    Very thoughtful comment, Glenn, as usual.

  3. Bart Doorneweert says:

    Good points! One of my frustrations in the debate is indeed that we don’t seem to have facts available that are so strong, that they can convince either side on what’s what. And the layman is left with choosing between 2 marketing campaigns of activistic gibberish. Nuance is lost. If this goes on for much longer I wonder what it would do to science’s role in society to support progress and good decision with factual statements. It stands to lose its position of trustworthiness.

    We need a nuanced debate on how to feed the world, and that needs more than strategic piling of peer-reviewed factual statements. There is host of solutions we can choose to adopt, and I’m pretty sure it’s more than a bifurcated categorization. Without nuance, I’m afraid we’re left with learning more from analysis of the discourse and they way in which facts are represented, than from the facts themselves. We need to rid ourselves of the argument constructs which have been “bought”.

  4. Erik says:

    Ach. How do we go about changing the dialogue to “beneficial agricultural practices vs. harmful agricultural practices” and moving past the assumption that all GMO use lies on one or another side of that dichotomy (more of a spectrum, of course)? Plenty of well-educated people haven’t figured it out yet (or there would be no debate), I hope I’ll be lucky enough to have a truly good sense of it by the time I have the funds to buy my own land.

  5. AgroEcoProf says:

    Reblogged this on AgroEcoPeople and commented:
    My favorite take on Mark Lynas so far. For a more detailed critique, see my friend and colleague Doug Gurian-Sherman’s blog entry on Union of Concerned Scientists.

  6. I’ve been following Monsanto and the GMO debate for a decade now and I still haven’t seen the issues addressed that I’m most concerned with. That Monsanto is buddying up with the US Government to apply for oversea patents on GMO products is bothering me, and the fact that the US government made the decision not to inform us of GMO products at the purchase point without polling us to get our viewpoint has me steamed. That GMO is or is not harmful has never been part of my issues but it seems to be the smoke screen used to hide them.

    • Glenn says:

      The US government doesn’t apply for overseas patents, but Monsanto did influence the US to push developing countries into strengthening their patent protections on biotech products (mainly through the TRIPS part of the WTO). So you might say that Monsanto buddied up with the US Government to promote oversea patents on GMO products. I agree with you that GM products should be labeled, and so do the vast majority of Americans. You even have to label it when you add water to ham!

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