Climate science is to geo-engineering as genetics is to GM food

This article was first published in Respublica.

Now, I have of course nothing against engineering per se. But whether a form of engineering/technology should be adopted or not ought always to be prima facie an open question. A question to be settled through public debate and wide-ranging interdisciplinary and political discussion, not through mere appeal to the alleged epistemic authority of geneticists.

There is nothing remotely anti-scientific about questioning GM technology. Nor does such questioning in any way spill over into questioning genuine sciences. For example, I do not for a moment question climate-science’s scientific status. Sciences are sciences, and forms of engineering are forms of engineering / technologies. The effort of some genetic engineers to inherit the mantle of authority restricted to science is a rhetorical trick that needs exposing at every turn.

Genetic engineering is to genetics as climate-engineering is to climate-science. That is the requisite parallel. Now;do GM-apologists think it ‘anti-scientific’ to question climate-engineering / geo-engineering?! That would be a crazy stance to take up.They ought to draw the requisite conclusion: that it would be crazy to think that only genetic engineers are legitimately allowed to raise questions about and arguments against GMOs.The conclusion is clear: there is absolutely nothing ‘anti-scientific’ in the raising of such questions about GM food.

Tacitly, some GM-apologists think that actually there ought to be a default assumption not just in favour of (genuine) science but also in favour of the adoption of any new technology: however, this is a presumption that I find hubristic and dangerous. This default assumption has been exposed by Heidegger, e.g. in his ‘The question concerning technology’. Our society operates on the basis of a problematic default assumption in favour of (technological) ‘progress’.

Overcoming this myth of progress involves overcoming the extreme Prometheanism and the lack of precaution, endemic to our current technocracy. We are held captive by a myth of progress, so long as we do not step outside the assumption that there ought to be a default assumption in favour of the adoption of new forms of engineering.

In terms of the content of genetic engineering (and thus of whether it actually ought to be adopted or not); I have a concern that this engineering operates in a manner very different from how nature operates, and different in consequential ways even from how selective breeding etc operates. Selective breeding is ‘artificial selection’: the contrast-class against which Darwin defined ‘natural selection’. Genetic engineering by contrast involves neither natural selection nor a human tweaking thereof; it involves a top-down imposed manipulation of genetic material that is then imparted/imported on a large scale into the environment.

Finally, it is crucial not to be misled by popular images of science into thinking that even genetics considered as a science is a fully stable body of knowledge. On the contrary; as Thomas Kuhn explains, a science that stabilises into a fully stable body of knowledge becomes engineering, rather than science. That is, it becomes something which no longer has a research frontier, but ‘merely’ involves questions of applicability (i.e. the manifold difficult practical questions that engineers confront – and the ethical and political questions, as indexed above, about whether the knowledge in question should be applied, whether such and such should be engineered or not). Any genuine science has a research frontier, and that means, by definition, that no scientist can know where their discipline is going next.

Moreover, no scientist can be 100% confident that their discipline will not soon experience a ‘scientific revolution’ which will overturn the received wisdom. This means that, in any actual science, there cannot ever be full confidence in even fundamental/paradigmatic results. So, even if genetic engineering were a science, this would hardly help in establishing its alleged certainty against external doubters. For, at its research frontiers, there is by definition no such certainty. And again, the research frontier might at any moment circle back to include fundamental exemplary assumptions in the discipline: what we don’t know is always liable to trump what we know. , Thus we see that, even if the GM-apologists could succeed in redefining genetic engineering as itself a genuine science, this would not help them in achieving their aim: an allegedly-justified complacency in their own knowledge concerning their subject-matter, immune to potential criticism.