Reality has become a black swan

Posted July 1st, 2007 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Epistemological therapy


An article by Denise Caruso in today’s NYT discusses the policy implications of new scientific perspectives on how genes function, reported in findings of ENCODE – a human genetics research consortium that is part of NIH. From this perspective, “genes appear to operate in a complex network, and interact and overlap with one another and with other components in ways not yet fully understood” rather than as a “tidy collection of independent genes.” The policy problem is that intellectual property laws, and products of recombinant DNA, e.g., GloFish, and the entire $73.5 billion biotechnology industry, are all based on the “one gene, One protein” principle.

Among other things, according to Caruso, this “evidence of a networked genome shatters the scientific basis for virtually every official risk assessment of today’s commercial biotech products, from genetically engineered crops to pharmaceuticals.” But an assessment of risks that arise from network effects would require access to proprietary gene profile data for which there are no reporting requirements, so it is no surprise that challenges to the safety of these products are dismissed as “unscientific.”

As Caruso acknowledges, this network view is not entirely a new idea. What this case illustrates is a contrast between two different scientific frames that I refer to as deterministic and adaptive. The deterministic view has long been outdated but that has taken of a life of its own because it is reinforced by the economic interests invested in it, and by a way of life that seems increasingly delusional. The only way reality will ever fit into a world that values GloFish will be through social learning, as part of an adaptive approach… I wrote more about the contrast between these frames in a 1999 journal article, on Science in a Double-Bind, in which I revisited the work of Gregory Bateson. I have also raised similar issues regarding the development of “markets for ecosystem services,” as a way to make environmental costs part of the cost of doing business, and to create economic incentives for conservation management practices (last year in this post). Since ecosystem services are not yet a $73.5 billion industry, the rules of the game are still a work in progress – so there may be an opportunity to design a new business model that is consistent with a more complex reality, and supports human well-being.

Update: Denise Caruso adds a bit more detail and a correction on her blog,

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