Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Overselling genomics awards

Genomics is great. It really is. But is has also been absurdly oversold by many, starting with those who implied sequencing the human genome would cure all diseases. So I have decided to start a new line of this blog - the "Overselling genomics awards"

My first award goes to the Stuart Truelson for a Commentary for the California Farm Bureau Federation. The essay has some OK points about genomics but is a bit overzealous about the benefits that come from genomics. The essay ends with:

The genomics age is here, whether some like it or not. And, any effort to impede potential benefits that genomics offers humankind--from more and better food to breakthroughs in health and life-saving medicine--should raise moral and ethical questions that are even more serious than those surrounding the science itself.
Sounds a bit like those who say "Any discussion of the war makes you unpatriotic." And thus Mr. Truelson gets my first award, not just for overselling genomics, but for being so icky about it.


  1. Well, I totally agree that genomics isn't a panacea to everything (and has perhaps been oversold to the detriment of other scientific fields), but I don't see what is so "icky" about what Truelson is saying. I think he has an excellent point. For whatever value "moral and ethical questions" have, they have far too often been used as weapons by the enemies of scientific research to promote their political or religious agendas. The public needs to be reminded that not only clergymen and eco-activists have ethics and that a major motivation behind scientific research is a desire to help humanity.

  2. Well I guess we finally found something to completely disagree on. The statement

    "And, any effort to impede potential benefits that genomics offers humankind--from more and better food to breakthroughs in health and life-saving medicine--should raise moral and ethical questions that are even more serious than those surrounding the science itself."

    is icky because it suggests that the ONLY issue is the potential benefits from something. It therefore implies (1) there are no important risks and (2) that any critics are immoral and unethical. I think there is a wellspring of evidence that there are risks associated with genomics and genetic engineering. I for one do not think many of these risks outweigh the potential benefits. But others do think that. And I think they not only have a valid point of view, but that the risks in many cases are unknown. Simply saying "the genomics era is here whether you like it or not" and suggesting we plow ahead by implying that it is the critics that are immoral and unethical is wrongheaded at best in my mind.

  3. The issue of potential risks has nothing to do with what Truelson was talking about -- he was talking about people objecting to genomics and related fields because of "moral and ethical questions".

    Today George Bush vetoed a stem cell research bill simply because of the moral and ethical opinions that he held. No doubt he felt himself very self-righteous and moral for protecting the public from such "unnatural" research.

    The point isn't that "any critics [of science] are immoral and unethical" but rather that they don't have a monopoly on morals and ethics.

    One of my favorite posters from grad school showed photographs of various human pathogens that had animal models and had the caption "If we ban animal research, how will be stop the real killers?". That's the sort of thing that I mean; reminding the public that not only the anti-science but also the pro-science side is based on morals and ethics. With so many celebrities into trendy causes like PETA that message tends to get lost.

  4. I think your points are all fine and we can argue about it til the end of the world. But my impression is that Truelson was implying a lot more whether on purpose or not. To see if maybe he might have a bias in his writings I sniffed around. This is the same person, by the way who wrote an article saying "Baby Boomers Are Living Proof That Pesticides Are Safe" and that global warming is basically a myth and that Michael Crichton's widely panned anti-global warming novel is well backed up by facts. I think that he is a supporter of progress and development for the sake of progress and development. And he will throw out red herrings like - ethics and morality debates - or fake controversies over global warming research - to misdirect people. That was the tone of the original publications in my opinion.

  5. How about this quote from Richard A. Friedman's June 19 New York Times article on personalized depression drugs?

    "With a simple blood test, the doctor will be able to characterize a patient’s unique genetic profile, determining what biological type of depression the patient has and which antidepressant is likely to work best."

    I don't know if this was just poor language and editing, but it sounds like Dr. Friedman is suggesting that depression has entirely genetic causes. While pharmacogenomics will undeniably be useful (to the extent that mechanisms of different drugs are understood), this comment is on par with those used to "oversell" the Human Genome Project.

  6. Or how about in Amy Harmon's NY Times article on dog breeding .

    Still, some proponents of using the DNA palette are proposing to go even further. Dr. Neff, the University of California researcher, has proposed screening successive generations of dogs with DNA tests and breeding only those with genes for traits like stamina and scent detection to create a new breed of dogs to patrol subways and airports. , It could be done within a few years, he said, instead of the centuries it took shepherds to breed the sheepdogs that patrol their flocks.


    DNA tests, Ms. Pritchard said, “are the greatest tools that have been offered to dog breeders since the beginning of dogs. You need to use them to improve the breed.

  7. Truelson is overzealous? Indeed! I, too, love genomics, but, from where I stand, this lopsided oversell does us all great harm. Specifically, I am addressing his points re: benefits to our agriculture. Genomics will NOT solve the serious and deep issues undermining our current agricultural productivity. Pieces like this feed the comfortable popular myth that technology will cure all our agricultural (and environmental) ills without our having to change our current way of living on the Earth.

  8. I doubt that ethics and morality debates are "red herrings" -- they seem to be the primary objection to biotech among the public on both ends of the political spectrum -- after all, why is the slur against GMO crops "Frankenfood"? Presumably because to the users of the slur, modifying genes is reminiscent of digging up corpses and "playing God" with them as the fictional Dr. Frankenstein did.

    I fully agree that some uses of genetic engineering (such as Monsanto's Terminator technology) have been legitimately criticized as risky and having no benefits except to Monsanto's shareholders, but the fact that even humanitarian genetic engineering projects with no credible risks to the environment (such as the Golden Rice project) have been opposed by the same groups also suggests to me that risks aren't the real issue to these groups.

    And not that it is really relevant, but it isn't clear if Truelson's views can be so easily pegged as anti-environmental -- he's also written articles favorable to solar ("Summer Heat Wave") and to wind power ("Turbines Fit Well on Farm Land").

  9. I do not think he is anti environmental at all. I think he is pro farm bureau and with what seems to be a lobbyist's mentality. So sometimes he gets it right in my view (pro solar), and sometimes he is completely silly (that baby boomers having long life spans PROVES that pesticides are not bad for you).

    As for the risks and frankenfgood thing, I completely agree that the antiGMO movement has been misdirecting anger at big agritech companies towards GMOs. And I think one could imagine a green GMO movement that would use GMOs for pro-environment pro-poor pro-world things. So GMOs are not the bad player here per se.

    But back to the original point - what bothered me was the implication that all that mattered was the potential benefits from genomics towards humankind. And this is the mentality of some of the farm related lobbies - food production is good, therefore you cannot question the methods.


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