The recent attack by anti-GMO activists on an experimental planting of biotech grapes in a government-funded site in Colmar, France raises some thought provoking discussion about public safety, burden of proof and the nature of the public commons.

An article by Davis grad and plant pathologist Steve Savage “A Sad Day for Wine, A Sad Day for Science” articulates one side of the debate, and there is lively and civil discussion in the comments, including some by yours truly. Recommended reading.

Systems thinking and prediction of consequences is not something contemporary science is very good at. Consider, for example, the consequences of USDA’s recent intentional introduction of the asian ladybug to the Central US, a disaster of epic proportions.

Steve’s assertion that he is in a position to assess the risks is chilling. A sad day for science indeed when we lord our education and experience over the lay public’s legitimate concerns for unpredictable consequences.

Scientists need to state their case — the risks and the rewards — and let the public in on the decision-making process, rather than to pre-empt such a conversation and ask us simply to trust the “professional” assessment.

Aside from the fact that scientific corricula generally include little in the way of ethics, philosophical training, writing skills, or political awareness, UC Davis is a brutally tough school (I found it much more disagreable to study there compared with MIT), and graduates tend to carry the false impression that such hard-won degrees must confer special wisdom. That gut feeling of superiority results in much mischief.