Those of you familiar with Black Swan author Nassim Taleb know he has a formidable mind and an abrasive public persona. It is necessary to separate the two when analyzing his logic, which is what economist/writer Noah Smith does admirably in his Bloombergcolumn on Taleb's controversial GMO paper. (More on Smith's take in a minute.) To quickly review, Taleb and his coauthors argue that the ecological and public health risks of GMOs are not adequately known, and because of the unique nature of these concerns they cumulatively pose a "risk of global harm." Here is Taleb et al's definition of the precautionary principle, and why they think it should apply to GMOs:
We believe that the PP should be evoked only in extreme situations: when the potential harm is systemic (rather than localized) and the consequences can involve total irreversible ruin, such as the extinction of human beings or all life on the planet.”
Taleb and his coauthors argue that GMOs "fall squarely under the precautionary principle because of their systemic risk." Smith takes a hard look at the case laid out in the paper and identifies its fatal flaw:
The key question is whether GMOs, whatever their advantages, really have the potential to cause truly ruinous harm. This question has nothing to do with probability or decision theory, and everything to do with biology. Taleb et al. don’t spin a convincing story for how GMOs might destroy us.
If anything, as David Ropeik discussed recently in this analysis posted on Medium,
the whole case that GMOs could cause catastrophic ruin is based largely on speculation, mixed with a handful of mostly suspect studies from known GMO opponents. None of those studies, by the way, portends the “ruin” or “irreversible termination of life at some scale” that Taleb and colleagues establish as their criteria for warranting a strict PP for GMOs.
Don't expect Taleb to engage seriously with the Smith and Ropeik evaluations of his paper. But it is revealing how he responds to such critiques. For example, check out the recent thread that followed a tweet (directed at no one in particular) from Canadian journalist Dan Gardner:
“Genetically modified” is today’s “radioactive” — we may not know what it means but it sure is scary. — Dan Gardner (@dgardner) November 25, 2014
That prompted Taleb to pipe in:
To which Gardner responded: