TCS Daily


Beyond Jeremy Rifkin

By Henry I. Miller - July 6, 2006 12:00 AM

Mendacity and misrepresentation are nothing new from anti-meat, anti-technology, anti-capitalism activist Jeremy Rifkin. His statements about biotechnology's threatening "a form of annihilation every bit as deadly as nuclear holocaust" and civilization standing perilously "on the cusp of a frightening new era of cloning, genetic engineering, and eugenics" are absurd. No less so his speculations in the early 1980's that a small-scale field trial of a gene-spliced soil bacterium could change weather patterns and disrupt air-traffic control.

Mr. Rifkin has moved on in recent years to make predictions and speculations in other realms -- that Americans' consumption of beef causes domestic violence, and that Europe is becoming ascendant while America is languishing, for example -- none of which has been credible or correct. Or even interesting.

Like a dog digging up an old bone, he has returned to his bete noire: plant biotechnology. The new wrinkle is that he now touts, in a Washington Post article, a technique for plant breeding called "marker assisted selection" (MAS) as a replacement for the far more precise, predictable and powerful technique of gene-splicing, which enables plant scientists to move genes from one source to another. According to Mr. Rifkin, MAS offers all the advantages of genetic improvement without the supposedly significant risks to human health and the environment posed by gene-splicing applied to plants, a "primitive" technology.

But the risks are Mr. Rifkin's enduring fantasy. And MAS is a blunt instrument, incapable of transferring genes from one species to another, or of custom-tailoring genes in order to program a plant to synthesize a new vitamin or pharmaceutical, for example. MAS is a method of performing conventional plant breeding in which researchers locate DNA sequences in a plant's genome that are consistently associated with desired traits such as higher yield or disease resistance. Those sequences can then be used to screen for and predict the presence of those desired traits in the progeny of traditional crosses.

Characteristic of any Rifkin exposition, the proposal makes no sense to those with expertise in the field. "This tract is typical Rifkin material," according to Alan McHughen of the University of California, Riverside. "He still twists information to fit his agenda."

Mr. Rifkin's agenda is still opposition to biotechnology. His disparagement of gene-spliced crops and foods derived from them was unfounded twenty years ago, and it is delusional today. These crops have drastically reduced applications of chemical pesticides and encouraged agronomic practices that reduce soil erosion. They have enhanced yields and both increased revenues to farmers and offered them some insurance against catastrophic losses from pests and diseases.

Crops made with gene-splicing techniques are currently grown by 8.5 million farmers in 21 countries on more than 100 million acres annually. Americans have consumed more than a trillion servings of foods that contain gene-spliced ingredients. Throughout all this experience, there is not a single documented case of injury to a person or disruption of an ecosystem. Scientists are virtually unanimous that gene-splicing techniques are essentially a refinement of earlier ones, and that gene transfer or modification by molecular techniques does not, per se, confer risk. Like robotics, fiber optics and supercomputers, gene-splicing is no more than a widely applicable tool.

Yet, Rifkin continues his crusade against existing biotech foods and pharmaceuticals, and he lobbies to keep future products from being developed and tested. He has interfered with -- and even tried to roll back -- the research, development and marketing of products that feed the planet and prevent and cure fatal diseases. He has condemned crop plants that will require smaller amounts of agricultural chemicals and water for cultivation. And all the while, he has distorted facts extravagantly and often made them up. His suggestion that MAS could replace gene-splicing is tantamount to suggesting that drum brakes and conventional tires should now replace disk brakes and radials.

The late Harvard evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, by his own admission, tried to be sympathetic to Rifkin's views toward biotechnology but was overwhelmed by the "extremism" and "lack of integrity" in Rifkin's anti-biotechnology diatribe, Algeny. Finally, he concluded that Rifkin "shows no understanding of the norms and procedures of science."

Gould, a renowned scholar, was appalled at Rifkin's poor distortions: "Algeny is fall of ludicrous, simple errors -- I particularly enjoyed Rifkin's account of Darwin in the Galapagos. After describing the 'great masses' of vultures, condors, vampire bats, and jaguars that Darwin saw on these islands, Rifkin writes: 'It was a savage, primeval scene, menacing in every detail. Everywhere there was bloodletting, and the ferocious, unremittent [sic] battle for survival. The air was dank and foul, and the thick stench of volcanic ash veiled the islands with a kind of ghoulish drape.'" "Well,' said Gould dismissively, "I guess Rifkin has never been there."

In fact, whether the subject is economics, politics, cosmology, ecology, science or technology, Mr. Rifkin has never "been there." Some of us try in our professional lives to build edifices of one sort or another, to make society richer and more equitable, to make life less "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short," in the words of Thomas Hobbes. But people like Mr. Rifkin devote themselves to retarding progress and to creating only uncertainty and anxiety.

Finally, the coup de grĂ¢ce from Professor Gould: "I regard Algeny as a cleverly constructed tract of anti-intellectual propaganda masquerading as scholarship. Among books promoted as serious intellectual statements by important thinkers, I don't think I have ever read a shoddier work." But then he did not live to see Mr. Rifkin's later writings.

Henry Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a fellow at the Hoover Institution. His most recent book, The Frankenfood Myth, was selected by Barron's as One of the 25 Best Books of 2004. He was an FDA official from 1979 to 1994.
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13 Comments

Who listens to this man anymore?
Back in the 80's we were debating agricultural policy and one of the concepts was bioengineered crops. As a Negative I had to provide both a pro and con depending on what the Affirmatives put forth as a argument. Well, Rifkin was a solid favorite so I got to know his work very well. The looks and sighs as you bring forth "evidence" and "research" with his name attached to it was priceless. The mere volume of crap this guy put out would bury any pro argument or at least grind it to a crawl.

I have often considered Gore to be the Rifkin of AGW but I didn't think anyone would remember this charlatan.

Rifkin
I think guys like this old line anti-capitalism, anti-americanism, anti-everything Luddite are just getting desperate. They notice that there's not eveidence that frankenstein foods are bad, and then they notice that other luddite opponents of it like the eurolanders are quietly getting into it(presumably beacause it would be too humiliating for them to be left so far behind), then they notice that third world countries like China are getting into it, then they notice that farmers in certain countries where gm seeds are banned, are actually SMUGGLING them into their own coutries. The odd thing though is how tenacious these doom sayers and luddites after being wrong for so many years. They're kind of like communists they just never give up, but sometimes just morph themselves like from red-turned-green in order to fight capitalism.

Oh, now what has he done?
I haven't seen the latest outrage, but am familiar with the guy's output. And I'm thinking what he has done is just to find a way to sell books.

Ever opened one up? Each page is jam packed with action. He's a great visualizing writer, and the scenes he describes come alive. Does he hype his points? Oh, shamelessly and without letup. It's part of the formula he's perfected.

And it works. Your eyes dance across the pages like five year olds across a playground. He's fun to read and highly informative. His pages are brimming over with facts and observations.

"Oh, but they're only half the facts." Well, maybe. You can't sell a book about how bad something is if you get it so "fair and balanced" that you take all the fun out of it. How many people would read Ann Coulter if she asked Al Gore to fact-check her next book?

Lots of those books out there on the mass market are blatantly biased, and many of the rest unconsciously biased. And that's all right. The wiser intellects will read Rifkin and then read someone else to gain perspective on the subject. I loved his book on beef, for example. Then reading things by people inside the industry, I saw where a lot of it was full of crap. If there's a killing floor in America today that's full of bleeding, staggering, bellowing dying animals it's an embarrassment to the profession and not the industry norm.

The majority of us, not being wiser intellects, will pick and choose until we find that bias that suits us best. If Rifkin rings out bells we'll be among the millions who buy him. If not we'll look for some dreary economist full of pallidly written rosy scenarios. And if that doesn't do it, we'll choose something rigid, unyielding and ideological to read. We have lots of choice.

Borders is a big place, and they encourage you to spend the day there with a stack of their books and a cappucino. Check out Jeremy Rifkin. You'll find all his antagonists on the shelf right next to his books. Check them all out and see who suits.

Check Facts at the Door
>Check out Jeremy Rifkin. You'll find all his antagonists on the shelf right next to his books. Check them all out and see who suits.

In other words, it doesn't matter who has facts on their side -- just cozy up to whichever one fits your sensitivities. 'Cause, you know, Rifkin's writing style is just so, like, prosaic and evocative and all that artsy-like stuff that, you know, he's totally bitchin'.

Please. This is the most brazen example of relativism in tortured defense of an obvious charlatan I've seen in a long time.

Why am I not surprised that roy approves of lying, so long as it for a good purpose?
...

That's roy's style in general
facts matter a lot less than how he feels about the subject.

Not at all artsy
Tell me you don't get a kick out of reading Ann Coulter. I read her to get my heart rate up. And she has zero facts on her side.

Rifkin has a formidable number of facts on his side. It's just not the whole story. I like his passion and I like his angle on things. Then I read someone with another set of kinks in his view to get another angle on the story. Do you believe, for instance, that most people inside the beef industry can be relied on to tell the straight story?

You have to listen to them, and you have to hear the other side too. Rifkin is the other side.

Brass Monkey alert in Hell!
I would have to agree with Roy this time. You have to look what the others are selling to be able to counter their insane ideas. I have read Chomsky, Zinn, Marx, and Franken as well as listening to Air America (one of the most anti-American, leftist instituttions out there) and surfing such sites as DailyKos, Hezbollah, and DemocraticUnderground.

You are better able to defend against their lies if you know that they are speaking them.

Now for you Roy:

>"Tell me you don't get a kick out of reading Ann Coulter. I read her to get my heart rate up. And she has zero facts on her side."

Zero facts? Coulter has excellent research abilities and uses them very well. Her delivery is harsh but her facts are spot-on. To say that Rifkin has "a formidable number of facts on his side" is an extreme overstatement. The man has misrepresented the dangers of biotech in a fashion that Al Gore would envy. Makes me think that perhaps you were once an avid fan of his movement.

So, please tell me a specific argument where Coulter presents zero facts. I have not had the chance to read her latest work so give me something from an earlier work.

you must remember
that to roy, facts are those things he agrees with, everything else is just someone else's opinion.

One man's opinion
Might I suggest that what you don't like about Rifkin is his conclusions. He is remarkably well sourced and documented, and maybe a quarter of a typical book consists just of the source material (refs, quotes, notes, bibliography). He does know a lot about the subjects he pursues.

On the other hand Coulter is a flat out, brazen liar who will say anything no matter how outrageous. She has no sources, nor does she offer any. They are wholly concocted fantasies designed to inflame emotions and sell lots of books. That you believe her so implicitly says volumes about you.

The problem...
The problem with Rifkin (and nearly every one else in the anti-GE crowd)is that these half truths he spews make better headlines and sound bites than good, rigorous science. This is the guy who pronounced GMO's dead and buried because of the Monarch butterfly fiasco. When that turned not to be true he moved on to the Starlink thing, where, as it turns out you CAN put the genie back in the bottle. Did the science involved with answering these questions get the coverage that Jeremy got with his Chicken Little tirades? Of course not. He doesn't need to be credible to receive attention, and that distraction slows down progress--unnecessarily. The result of 15 years of this nonsense is that public concern is treated as a scientific data point. While concerns need to be dealt with, they really have nothing to do with whether or not a GMO product is safe and effective. Only the dry, boring science can answer these questions.

Your claim is false
>"On the other hand Coulter is a flat out, brazen liar who will say anything no matter how outrageous. She has no sources, nor does she offer any. They are wholly concocted fantasies designed to inflame emotions and sell lots of books. That you believe her so implicitly says volumes about you."

The lady's record stands for itself. You offer no proof of her being a liar, or her having no sources, or of her not offering any. This shows that you have not really read or works and that you have not the slightest clue about the topics on which she speaks.

I do not believe her "so implicitly". I really don't trust much until I can verify it. The first book I read from her I checked out her footnotes (you know, those sources she doesn't offer?) and did some fact checking of my own. Her detractors, like you, can say she is a liar but they can't prove it.

Is she biased? Hell yes. Is she obnoxious to people who hold your pathetic views? Most certainly. Is she a liar without sources or facts? Absolutely not. Actually the only liar between me, you, and Ann is you. You for claiming you actually read her work and you for claiming she is a liar with absolutely no proof. Until you find it I would suggest not embarrassing yourself any further.

True
All so true.

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