Election Day

Here’s an entertaining explanation of why winner-take-all voting procedures generally evolve into two-party systems, typically forcing most voters to support candidates they don’t always agree with.

But vote anyway! (If you are a US citizen, or a citizen of another municipality which happens to be voting today.) You never know when you might cast the deciding ballot.

I have to go figure out the jillion (okay, eleven) ballot initiatives we have to deal with in the barely-functional direct democracy called California. One of them — Prop 37, which requires labels on certain genetically modified foods — poses an interesting dilemma. On the one hand, the science seems to indicate that genetic modification doesn’t introduce any special health risks. (At least not to individuals; there may be deleterious effects on the diversity of food sources, but that’s a different issue.) On the other hand, giving consumers more true information is generally a good idea. Is it a weird kind of reverse-paternalism to not give people correct information because they might take the wrong message from it?

p.s. At the end of our Moving Naturalism Forward workshop, Jerry Coyne offered “I think the best someone can do to move naturalism forward is to vote for Obama.”

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52 Responses to Election Day

  1. MikeW says:

    Your final sentence reminds me of a interview I heard recently about the Italian seismologists currently under sentence for not communicating earthquake risks. Since a wild-card amateur had been broadcasting a series of messages at the time, it seems they reacted by modifying their communication strategy to minimise panic.

    As to the GM issue, what constitutes GM in the minds of scientists vs lay people? You can argue that the crossbreeding of wheat strains decades ago to produce radically different wheats and flours to what our grandparents ate has been a more potent form of GM than anything that came from explicit gene transplants of the current generation. That dwarf wheat may be one of the major elements in the obesity epidemic, yet few regulators would choose to label most of the bread we eat today as a GM product.

  2. Matt says:

    While I agree that more information is better (in general, I’m happy not seeing the President’s daily security report), watch this video by UCSD professor Steve Briggs. Although not the most exciting presentation in the world, it hits all the reasons why Prop 37 really doesn’t achieve what it’s proponents say it will:

  3. Woody Tanaka says:

    The video was kind of silly. Winner-take-all systems are problematic, but so are every other kind of system. In the US, we form coalitions prior to voting, in parties; in other systems, they for coaltiions after voting, in forming governments.

    Also, on the labeling issue, I think the other effects you mention, which these products have, should at least be as equally of concern as the question of whether these products are safe. Moroever, I think the bad acts of the manufacturers of these genetically modified food products should give everyone pause to give these unaccountable corporations more power over our food supply.

    Further, I assume that this isn’t “reverse paternalism” but is a bought-and-paid-for campaign of opposition by the genetic-modified-food-products industry and their fat cat owners who believe their bank accounts might be affected by people preferring non-genetically altered food to the products they produce. Why else would anyone in his or her right mind oppose it?

  4. Woody Tanaka says:


    That video is awful (and not just the horrible non-existant production values). Just as one should not hire a lawyer to do an analysis of a scientific subject, that garbage is what you get when you hire a scientist to analyze a legal matter. His analysis is so laughingly off on so many basic points, that no one should take it seriously. He has no idea what he’s talking about when it comes to the law.

  5. Alex T says:

    You say “giving consumers more true information is generally a good idea” but are they really getting more true information?

    There are several types of genetic modification, as I’m sure you know, yet they’re all lumped into two crude groups based on their origins not their effects. (Dare I say it, the genetic fallacy?). That means careful, artificial interventions which target specific pre-existing genes get a warning but dousing seeds in mutageneic chemicals or radiation do not. Introducing single genes from a different species artificially requires a warning and millions of dollars in tests; but if genes are “naturally” introduced from other species then they don’t require any warnings nor any tests.

    So what information is really being conveyed, and in what sense is it helpful?


    Gary Johnson for president!

  7. Wei says:

    Sean says, “On the other hand, giving consumers more true information is generally a good idea.”

    Is it a good idea to put stickers like “Evolution is a theory, not a fact” to textbooks?

  8. Woody Tanaka says:

    “Is it a good idea to put stickers like ‘Evolution is a theory, not a fact’ to textbooks?”

    He said “true information.” The sticker contains false information, because evolution is, in fact, a fact.

  9. Woody Tanaka says:

    @Alex T,

    “So what information is really being conveyed, and in what sense is it helpful?”

    The information being conveyed is whether or not the food product has been produced in whole or part by genetic engineering and it is helpful because without it, those people who wish to exclude such products from their diet have no way of doing so.

  10. James Gallagher says:

    Yeah label GM food but they should also label organic foods with percentage of fecal contamination found from the particular supplier in the previous year, then let people make a risk assessment between shit infested produce or scientifically crafted superfood

    The problem is too many people aren’t rational when it comes to scientific understanding, they are easily swayed by minority viewpoints appealing to simple fears – vaccines cause autism, radiation is bad, microwave food is bad, mobile phones fry your brain, transmitters fry your brain/mutate your genes/cause cancer, nuclear is bad, the lhc is dangerous, men to Mars we can understand higgs boson, susy we can’t, flouride in toothpaste is bad, any new scientific technology is a potential killer etc etc

    Not the greatest choice betweeen Obama and the other guy, but I’m glad Obama’s gonna win (+300 electoral college votes I bet)

  11. Woody Tanaka says:

    “Yeah label GM food but they should also label organic foods with percentage of fecal contamination found from the particular supplier in the previous year…”

    If enough people are concerned about such things, then propose it. See what the poeple want.

    “The problem is too many people aren’t rational when it comes to scientific understanding…”

    Many aren’t, but that doesn’t mean that whatever the scientific concensus is at the moment is necessary rational, either. Afterall, the scientific concensus was once that nothing ingested by the mother could pass the placental barrier, so what could possibly be the harm in giving pregnant women Thalidomide. Oops.

  12. Alex T says:


    Consumers who, for whatever perverse reason, wish to exclude it from their diets can already do so. “Organic” foods are not allowed to use GMOs because that would be bad or something.

    The label is already available, the question is whether it should be mandatory. As I said, GMO crops have no health or nutritional differences and are tested far more extensively than other genetic modifications.

    You didn’t answer what information is conveyed. GMO-free says nothing about the healthiness, nutritive qualities, allergens or anything else. It doesn’t even tell you whether the food is free from genetic changes since dosing plants with radiation or mutagenic chemicals doesn’t require warnings and would still qualify as “Organic”. It’s a pure fear-mongering.

    Wei asked if it was appropriate to put Evolution scare stickers on textbooks. Absolutely right! (Woody’s reply totally misses the point.) Why should GMOs get scare stickers when all of the so-called “natural” genetic changes pass without comment?

  13. Alex T says:

    @James – good point re: fecal contamination.

    Number of deaths due to GMOs: zero.

    Number of deaths due to Organic fertilizer contamination: dozens to hundreds.

    Maybe we should have a sticker “Warning: organic produce has been linked to kidney failures and death.”

  14. James Gallagher says:

    @Woody #11

    So you would suggest people refrain from taking drugs/medicines because there have been a small number of cases in history where a rogue drug manufacture caused tragedy?

    I mean, should we label all drugs for pregnant women with a disclaimer that the scientific process isn’t perfect (like religious inspiration, or common-sense) and there’s a chance that some undesirable effect may cause the baby or the mother damage?

    Your philosophy would bring progress to a halt, but perhaps that’s what you’d like, quite a lot of people don’t like scientific progress.

  15. Woody Tanaka says:

    @Alex T

    Organic is an under inclusive label. There are no doubt foods which are not geneitically modified food products but which are not organic. This law would permit those people who care about this issue to know which products are and not merely identify some of them by proxy.

    And, yes, I did answer what information is conveyed. The information conveyed is whether or not the food product has been produced in whole or part by genetic engineering. You may think that that information is unimportant but other people don’t. They want to know this information.

    Further, the health issue is a non-starter. This is an issue of labeleing, not food content. Nothing in this law would prevent one food product from appearing on the shelf. Further, those who don’t care are free to ignore the label. Indeed, many people are against these food products for reasons other than potential health issues. I object to them because of the actions of the companies that produce these food products.

    And, no, my reply did not miss the point. The sticker presents absolutely false information. The genetic modification labeling would not. It would present true information, even if limited.

  16. Woody Tanaka says:

    The Thalidomide tragedy wasn’t about a rogue drug manufacturer, it was about the scientific community thinking that what it believed (that nothing could cross the placental barrier) was necessarily so.

    And, yes, we absolutely should probably make pregnant woman and all people aware of the limits of what we know and what we don’t know. I’m sure there were plenty of women back in the “better living through chemicals” days who would have suffered through morning sickness if they were told that the drug which was no doubt touted as safe as GM foods today are (“oh, it’s never shown to be harful…”) might not be so safe after all.

    But what the hell, James, I guess sometimes “scientific progress” feeds on the bodies of deformed babies, amirite?? I mean, it was a shame and all, but who the hell do they think they are, thinking they’re entitled to know whether or not something might be harmful or what they’re ingesting… Ingrates. They should be bowing in the direction of the scientific community, rather than requesting that things be labeled. Because obviously YOU can make a better decision for them about their own lives than they can for themselves, obviously.

  17. David_42 says:

    GMO labeling is being pushed by a very small group of people, who (if I may paraphrase Carl Sagan) fear anything they don’t understand and since they don’t understand anything … They demand absolute proof, which exists only in religions and only if you ignore most of the evidence.

  18. James Gallagher says:

    @Woody #16

    I hope you agree that medically trained experts can make a better decision for them (pregnant women) than they can.

    If you don’t agree, who do you suggest pregnant women listen to?

    (Your attitude to modern medicine sounds like the kind Steve Jobs had, it killed him)

  19. Woody Tanaka says:

    #17 David_42, and if that’s the case, then the “anti” side should have nothing to worry about from the vote. If it’s just a small group of people.

    #18 James: No, I don’t. Only they can decide what they want for themselves, because it’s their values that are at stake; only they know what risks are acceptable to them and which are not. Only hubris would say otherwise. Medical experts are useful to convey certain knowledge, but not to make decisions. Which is why it is crucial that those experts give those who are in charge the full information, including potential downsides, and let them know what is not known, unproved or all potential side effects, so that they can decide for themselves what it is that they want.

    And no, cancer killed Steve Jobs. He decided for himself what he wanted, what risks were acceptable and what path he could be at peace with. You can’t see otherwise because you have the hubris that says that you are somehow qualified to make other people’s decisions for them.

  20. James Gallagher says:

    @Woody #19

    Your arguments are so silly I feel it would be cruel to point out all the flaws in public.

    But just in case an ill person or a pregnant women is reading, please trust your doctor, unless you have studied medicine for years you can’t possibly assess the technical information in a sensible way.

    (Obviously, if you are lost to religion or some kind of new-age mysticism, and accept that your rejection of modern science may result in serious illness or your death, then carry on, as long as it harms no others)

  21. AG says:


    President Obama has a 99.8-percent chance of winning the election. No need for nail biting.

  22. Woody Tanaka says:

    James #19, if your brave face and boasting what you need to make yourself feel superior, by all means, feel free.

    And in case an ill person or pregnant woman is reading, please consider the input from your doctor, get a second opinion, and make a fully informed decision based on what is right for you.

    (Obviously, if you consider yourself to be nothing but a test subject to the hubris of “scientific progress” or desire to subject yourself to the whims of people who think they are more qualified to make decisions about what you want with your life than you are, then please, see James Gallagher. No doubt he will tell you how to dress and comb your hair, too.)

  23. James Gallagher says:

    @Woody #22

    Unless you have studied the relevant science for some years you can’t make a “fully informed” decision, you have to trust people who have devoted some years to studying the relevant science, otherwise you’re just guessing.

    That was my original point, you can’t have a rational opinion about subjects of which you know little. This hasn’t stopped the likes of Woody and countless other hack scientists promoting scaremongering and general irrational shit. Unfortunately only a small number of people have the dedication and talent to actually understand and contribute usefully to science. Whereas the Woody’s of the world are a dime a dozen.

    (btw, getting a second opinion is fine, as long as it’s from another doctor, and not some weird guru figure)

  24. Woody Tanaka says:

    James Gallagher, you need to get your head out of your ass because you keep repeating the same mistakes over and over and over again. (You’re also fighting a whole batallion of strawmen, giving your repeated fixation with new-age religions and gurus.)

    Someone who has devoted years to the relevant science can supply facts. No one said they can’t. But studying that science does not given them any basis to make a decision for someone else, let alone a “better” one, because that type of decision making requires things in addition to the scientific facts, like values and preferences and judgment of acceptability of risk. Only the person who is being affected can make those decisions, and they can only do that if the person studying the science understands the limitations of his role and the limitations of their knowledge. A woman with breast cancer might opt for something other than what you, as science master of decision making might wish to impose upon her, because the things she’s bringing to the equation are different from what you think she should think. Again, your hubris.

    How many children would have been saved if the pregnant woman didn’t blindly “trust” the doctors who devoted years to study and gave them Thalidomide anyway, without telling them, “well, we really don’t know for sure if it can have a bad affect on your baby, but we don’t think it can get past the placenta, but we really don’t know.” How many of those women would have opted to just put up with the morning sickness or find a different treatment if the experts had been honest about what they didn’t know and about what they hadn’t tested. But, no, the experts (akin to those you say we shoudl all trust) probably said, “Take the drug, trust me. Who’s the doctor here? I know what I’m doing. I can make a better decision for you than you can for yourself.”

    And to bring it back to the subject at hand, regarding GM foods, a person might say, “it’s not enough for me that there’s been no demonstration of harm. If they can’t positively demonstrate that it’s safe, I’d rather not eat them,” it’s not up to you to make the decision for them as to whether that level of risk-averseness is acceptable or not.

  25. max says:

    Wow, a political-ish blog post turns into a shouting match? What is the internet coming to?

    What I’d really like to see is a proposition demanding pesticide labeling for food. Packaging would tell you something like pounds of pesticide used per acre, and what the primary pesticide used is. This would allow us to get at the root of what lots of people dislike about Monsanto without the anti-science mentality of GMO labeling.