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The Truth About GM Mosquitoes Is Not Enough

November 14, 2011 - 18:25 -- Mark Benedict

Can we be confident that if we get the facts out that genetic control of mosquitoes will be accepted for testing to prevent diseases? In the face of anti-GM activists, scientists have their hands tied by an intractable force – a professional demand to simply present the facts. Should scientists become more persuasive by becoming activists?


My son had a valuable insight about conservative politics in the US: “Conservatives are always making the mistake that truth wins.” It illustrates a fallacy that scientists fall into. If we can simply get the truth about what we are doing and know into the publics’ hands, they will be able to reach reasonable conclusions. If only the world worked that way.


(A scientist in climate change science, Judith Curry, made a presentation recently that represents the prevalence of the “truth wins” error. I encourage you to take time to view it here . She nicely lays out the difference between stating scientific fact and becoming a pseudo-scientist activist. Interesting talk, but I think her conclusion is incorrect: truth will win hearts in the arena of opinion and policy.)


It is difficult for a scientist to become an activist and to maintain the respect of scientists who are not dependent upon them for a funding/employment stream. Why? The activist usually has to go beyond what is known and claim as fact that which they only wish were firmly established. The activist aims to put into public belief only knowledge that results in action. Scientific uncertainty does not motivate action.


We must get the truth out about GM mosquitoes, but we cannot expect those who categorically oppose the use of GM mosquitoes to care or behave similarly. Distortion, disinformation and outright untruth are all fair game. Their objective is not the inexorable advance of truth (as a scientist’s should be): it is winning.


As an example, in response to an article about GM Aedes I wrote an essay for Scientific American recently. I made certain assertions about the need for, and safety of, sterile mosquitoes such as are being used as the first applications of GM mosquitoes. As a scientist, I cannot claim that there is no risk, I cannot claim they will be effective in the long-run. If I do, I go beyond being a scientist because this can only be determined as we proceed in small safe steps.


I was writing opposite the director of GeneWatch, Helen Wallace, who presented an opposing view. Not surprisingly, she did not acknowledge that her concerns could be addressed by the slow incremental assessment of GM mosquito safety: large-scale release without assessment of the consequences was assumed. I know for a fact that easily obtained facts about community engagement in Brazil and Mexico were denied. Wallace states that “…Only in Malaysia did the company openly consult the public…” This is a blatant falsehood. You can see evidence to the contrary here or here. There were also the standard scientifically vacuous assertions about devious corporate motivations and the reckless influence of private donors on the progress of trials. But, as I have said, activism is not about science.


She also paraded a catalog of risks that are of potential concernin the release of GM mosquitoes. What did she cite? A report on which I was an author. (Was that an intentional “Gotcha?”) She didn’t mention that most of the issues the report raised were irrelevant to the technology she was commenting on. These are boilerplate narratives one can easily trot out that many will accept. But is it the truth? Does it matter?


It matters. The advance of knowledge and benefits of technology are not inevitable. When science and activism mingle, science suffers and poor public policy results. Worse yet is when health suffers. Just ask a kid who is allergic to childhood vaccinations and who has become infected with an easily preventable disease because his schoolmate’s parents believe that vaccines mistakenly cause autism e.g. here and here. For activists, there is always a conspiracy of dark powerful forces working behind the scenes who are keeping the truth from coming out.


A scientist can become an activist, but when one crosses that line, knowledge can be shaded and misrepresented because the objective is no longer truth: it is winning. Can those developing transgenic mosquitoes stick to the truth and still win a fair assessment for the technology? That’s what they’re asking for.


Your thoughts?



William Jobin's picture
Submitted by William Jobin on

Hi Mark,

I appreciate your frustration at the inequality of the arguments. Just remember that when Semmelweis told the physicians in Austria that if they washed their hands before delivering babies, they could cut the death rate by 90%, he was laughed out of Vienna. But in the end, truth prevailed.

I hope you are connected with George Dimopoulus at Johns Hopkins. He recently summarized his work on genetic engineering at the Hopkins Malaria Bash in New York. He is looking at ways to develop a strain of mosquitoes which are highly resistant to infection by the plasmodia, and also to get the bacteria in the mosquito gut to eat up the plasmodia. I was impressed by the large group of scientists he has assembled.

However, perhaps you can explain something odd he said. Once he got a resistant strain of anophelines, he said he could overcome the Mendelian math which would normally dilute their recessive gene for resistance by the third generation, by a GENETIC FORCING mechanism which would make all progeny carry the recessive resistant gene. How does that work?

Bill the puzzled engineer

William Jobin Director of Blue Nile Associates

Mark Benedict's picture
Submitted by Mark Benedict on

Yes, I know George and indeed he has a great team. As for specifically how the mechanism he referred to would work - can't help. I CAN help on the one Austin Burt's group is working on. The latter uses a gene that is capable of replicating itself so that more than half of the gametes carry it. If the fitness costs are small enough and the hyper-Mendelian inheritance is high enough, it will spread. Wish I could claim that scientists are clever, but they way was paved by...alas: microbes. And we think we're smart!

Bart G.J. Knols's picture
Submitted by Bart G.J. Knols on

@ Bill: Patience and persistence is not what venture capitalists and other investors, that pumped millions into developing GM mosquito approaches, would like to hear. They want to release today, not tomorrow. And this pressure becomes visible in the companies developing the technology. Mistakes are being made, and these provide food for those against GM approaches.

@Mark: Talking about activist organisations like Greenpeace and GeneWatch UK is fine, and most of what you say I agree with. Let's not forget though, that amongst our peers - the scientists working in the field of malaria - huge skepticism reigns when it gets to GM mosquitoes. You may recall the survey I did at the MIM conference in Yaounde in 2005. The final question some 300 scientists in the audience answered was 'Will GM mosquitoes ever fly to control malaria?'. Only a third of them said 'Yes', the rest either 'No', or 'Not sure' (in equal proportions). Thus, even WITHIN our own community a lot of advocacy needs to be undertaken for GM approaches to move forward.

Look at it this way. Scientists working on malaria vaccines often USE GM mosquitoes as a means to defend what they're doing. Die-hard believers in bednet technology will claim that GM approaches will never work. We should at least expect that scientists working in those fields would have a balanced and objective view towards reaching our common goal: malaria eradication. Sadly, even that is not the case, leaving anti-GM groups aside.

I hold the firm belief that unless we demonstrate in a convincing (and I stress the word convincing) manner that GM approaches can really make a difference, that advocacy may be futile and faced with even more criticism and suspicion.

If Grand Cayman would not have any aegypti by now, we would be living in a new era. As of now, we're not.