GMO Food

Nassim Taleb Calls Me an 'Idiot'—You Decide Who Wins GMO Debate

Taleb's anti-GMO precautionary nonsense is unethical and harms poor people



Statistician and black swanning anti-GMO alarmist Nassim Taleb withdrew from the debate with me over GMO crops in which he had earlier agreed to participate. The debate was arranged by the Journal of Markets and Morality and Taleb backed out after he received and read my initial essay on the subject. Since that essay had been largely written in response to his red-herring-filled working paper, "The Precautionary Principle (with Application to the Genetic Modification of Organisms," I decided to go ahead and publish my debate essay anyway at Reason.

With his characteristic intellectual generosity Taleb responded with a tweet linking to a letter that he has apparently now emailed to the editor of the journal. Tweet: The reason we decided not to respond to this idiot

This idiot is, of course, me. Anyway the tweet and letter is below.


Just a few observations about Taleb's letter. To the extent that elementary points were "rehashed" in my essay that was necessary because Taleb and his colleagues in their poorly done "working paper" had made such an elementary hash out of both the science and relevant policy arguments with respect to the safety of modern biotech crops. I mean, really, check it out for yourself.

It's also amusing that Taleb claims that he withdrew from the debate because he does not want to give my arguments the credence and authority of being published in a peer-reviewed journal. That's particularly hilarious coming from Taleb. Why? Well, I cannot forego pointing out that Taleb's anti-GMO "working paper," located on the e-print site arXiv and his own proprietary website, has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

While arXiv content is moderated, the site states: Disclaimer: Papers will be entered in the listings in order of receipt on an impartial basis and appearance of a paper is not intended in any way to convey tacit approval of its assumptions, methods, or conclusions by any agent (electronic, mechanical, or other). We reserve the right to reject any inappropriate submissions.

Taleb and his colleagues prefer to leave their "working paper" on arXiv rather than publish it in "questionable journals." Well, so far no journal, questionable or otherwise, has yet seen fit to publish Taleb's alarmist nonsense.

Taleb also throws in the red-herring of iatrogenics in policymaking. The concept of iatrogenesis stems from medicine in which undesirable or unwanted effects are caused by therapeutic intervention, i.e. problems induced by treatment. As examples of how modern medical technologies can inadvertantly cause more harm than benefits, Taleb lists a number of pharmaceuticals that have been withdrawn from the market. Perhaps he thinks that the application of his so-called non-naive version of the precautionary principle would prevented these medicines from making into the marketplace.

In any case, Taleb's assertion that I "miss the long tradition of iatrogenics embedded in policy making" is simply false. Among other things, I point out in my essay that econometric research has found that excessive Food and Drug Administration precaution that slows down the introduction of new drugs has killed many more people than it has saved. Precaution can and does kill. See my scientific and moral arguments with respect to golden rice. Again, check it out.

Cutting through the conceptual fog engulfing Taleb's invocation of iatrogenics, he and his colleagues are asserting, without evidence, that biotech crop varieties might turn out to be the moral equivalent of drugs whose risks are greater than their benefits. Which brings me to Taleb's biggest red-herring, the notion of that modern biotech crops represent a "ruin problem."

Let's be blunt. Taleb and his colleagues provide no evidence whatsoever in their working paper that current versions of biotech crops might cause global ecocide or human extinction. They assume ruin and then crank through some equations that they evidently believe proves the truth of what is ultimately just a tautology. As I explained in my essay:

It is a trivially true statement that if some activity will eventually lead to total ruin, then total ruin, even if it takes a long time, will eventually follow that activity. Taleb and his colleagues just assume that producing and growing modern biotech crops is such an activity, then trivially predict a GMO apocalypse. There is a lot of hand-waving about the dangers of global connectivity and dose response relationships that may be relevant to the workings of financial markets, but they provide no justification for their assumption of biotech disaster. Unwarranted dire assumptions in; unjustified devastating consequences out.

Yes, as Taleb's letter says, the "advancement of thought" is certainly a worthy goal of debate and discourse. As it stands, Taleb's "working paper" comprehensively fails to further that goal.

I conclude again: Fallacious arguments against developing and growing modern biotech crops are cause for great moral concern.