What’s killing new music? Old music!

February 5, 2023 • 10:15 am

This article in a year-old issue of Atlantic was written by Ted Gioia, who, according to Wikipedia, has considerable music chops, as he’s

. . . an American jazz critic and music historian. He is author of eleven books, including Music: A Subversive HistoryThe Jazz Standards: A Guide to the RepertoireThe History of Jazz and Delta Blues. He is also a jazz musician and one of the founders of Stanford University’s jazz studies program

Part of Gioia’s thesis, which he substantiates with data, is that new music—and that includes rock, jazz, country, and classical music—is dying off, with people increasingly buying and listening to older stuff, and refusing to listen to the ton of good music supposedly being produced in these genres. As a result, the genres are moribund. What Gioia doesn’t document, not with a single example, is that there is a lot of fantastic new stuff being turned out in all four areas.  In the end, then, he supports his primary claim about the hegemony of old music, but fails to tell us why it’s taking over. I happen to disagree with him in the second point, but read on, clicking on the screenshot below:

Here’s Gioia’s documentation of the trend. Note that most of his article deals with popular music (the stuff that appears on Billboard), and the music-analytic firm he cites, MRC Data, is now called Luminate. Further, what’s considered “new” popular music is music issued in the last 18 months.  That said, below are the data showing the popularity of old versus new music. The total “catalog share” (sales of “old” music) is substantially higher than that of new music (“current share”), and even within one year (2020-2021), the consumption of old music substantially increased and that of new music substantially dropped.

As Gioia notes:

Old songs now represent 70 percent of the U.S. music market, according to the latest numbers from MRC Data, a music-analytics firm. Those who make a living from new music—especially that endangered species known as the working musician—should look at these figures with fear and trembling. But the news gets worse: The new-music market is actually shrinking. All the growth in the market is coming from old songs.

The 200 most popular new tracks now regularly account for less than 5 percent of total streams. That rate was twice as high just three years ago. The mix of songs actually purchased by consumers is even more tilted toward older music. The current list of most-downloaded tracks on iTunes is filled with the names of bands from the previous century, such as Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Police.

. . .Never before in history have new tracks attained hit status while generating so little cultural impact. In fact, the audience seems to be embracing the hits of decades past instead. Success was always short-lived in the music business, but now even new songs that become bona fide hits can pass unnoticed by much of the population.

Only songs released in the past 18 months get classified as “new” in the MRC database, so people could conceivably be listening to a lot of two-year-old songs, rather than 60-year-old ones. But I doubt these old playlists consist of songs from the year before last. Even if they did, that fact would still represent a repudiation of the pop-culture industry, which is almost entirely focused on what’s happening right now.

Remember, this article was written a year ago, but I suspect the trend continues, at least as judged by the continually shrinking audience for the Grammy Awards, which fell more than 75% over nine years (Grammy awards are given for the best music of all sorts—including jazz, country, and classical—that was issued in the year preceding the ceremony.  Clearly, people don’t much care about who gets awards for new music:

Here are a few of the other bullet points Gioia makes:

  • The leading area of investment in the music business is old songs. Investment firms are getting into bidding wars to buy publishing catalogs from aging rock and pop stars.
  • The song catalogs in most demand are by musicians who are in their 70s or 80s (Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen) or already dead (David Bowie, James Brown).
  • Even major record labels are participating in the rush to old music: Universal Music, Sony Music, Warner Music, and others are buying up publishing catalogs and investing huge sums in old tunes. In a previous time, that money would have been used to launch new artists.
  • The best-selling physical format in music is the vinyl LP, which is more than 70 years old. I’ve seen no signs that the record labels are investing in a newer, better alternative—because, here too, old is viewed as superior to new.
  • In fact, record labels—once a source of innovation in consumer products—don’t spend any money on research and development to revitalize their business, although every other industry looks to innovation for growth and consumer excitement.
  • Record stores are caught up in the same time warp. In an earlier era, they aggressively marketed new music, but now they make more money from vinyl reissues and used LPs.
  • Radio stations are contributing to the stagnation, putting fewer new songs into their rotation, or—judging by the offerings on my satellite-radio lineup—completely ignoring new music in favor of old hits.

I’m surprised about the growth of vinyl albums, as I always found CDs better, but to each their own. At any rate, Giao has a list of song rights sold since 2019: the purchasing of an entire catalogue of an artist’s music by a company. There are 24 of them on his list, and I recognize and love most of them, including Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys, Neil Young, Stevie Nicks, Paul Simon, Tina Turner, Ray Charles, James Brown, David Bowie, and (unfortunately) Taylor Swift.

Now my explanation for this would be that great new music simply isn’t appearing, and that’s true for pop, classical, and jazz. In fact—and remember that this is just my opinion—I think that new music in general is on the way out, and people will continue to revisit the good old stuff: the Beatles, Neil Young, Ellington, Coltrane, Brahms, and Beethoven. The stuff played on the radio will get older and older as time passes.

I keep appealing to the readers to show me new groups that are as good as (or nearly as good as) the Beatles—in my view the apogee of rock music—and people proffer me songs. Some of them are indeed good, but they’re single songs, they’re rare, and there simply aren’t any groups as good as those who dominated the airwaves from 1960 to 1980.  Rock music is now simpler, more repetitive, and autotuned. Jazz, well, it’s now largely cacophony (believe me, I’ve listened).  I will leave it to the classical-music experts here to analyze why new classical music isn’t being promoted (that’s Gioia’s view, too), and when there are symphony concerts, modern classical music is thrown in as a filler among the greats just to get people to hear the new stuff. Rap music I can’t tolerate, even though I was a huge fan of its predecessor: soul music.

Now Gioia does give my explanation, but then rejects it entirely. Here’s how he characterizes the “geezer” reaction:

Some people—especially Baby Boomers—tell me that this decline in the popularity of new music is simply the result of lousy new songs. Music used to be better, or so they say. The old songs had better melodies, more interesting harmonies, and demonstrated genuine musicianship, not just software loops, Auto-Tuned vocals, and regurgitated samples.

There will never be another Sondheim, they tell me. Or Joni Mitchell. Or Bob Dylan. Or Cole Porter. Or Brian Wilson. I almost expect these doomsayers to break out in a stirring rendition of “Old Time Rock and Roll,” much like Tom Cruise in his underpants.

He mocks what happens to be true, especially in the second and third sentences!  But here’s his alternative:

I can understand the frustrations of music lovers who get no satisfaction from current mainstream songs, though they try and they try. I also lament the lack of imagination on many modern hits. But I disagree with my Boomer friends’ larger verdict. I listen to two to three hours of new music every day, and I know that plenty of exceptional young musicians are out there trying to make it. They exist. But the music industry has lost its ability to discover and nurture their talents.

Notice the gaping lacuna here: he does not name ONE example of great new music or exceptional musicians—not in popular music, not in jazz, not in classical music. Why no examples to help us judge the merit of his argument? Could it be that they exist, but only in a tiny fraction of the genre?

But let us proceed; why, exactly, did the music industry lose interest in discovering and nurturing new music?

It’s the copyrights, stupid!

Music-industry bigwigs have plenty of excuses for their inability to discover and adequately promote great new artists. The fear of copyright lawsuits has made many in the industry deathly afraid of listening to unsolicited demo recordings. If you hear a demo today, you might get sued for stealing its melody—or maybe just its rhythmic groove—five years from now. Try mailing a demo to a label or producer, and watch it return unopened.

The people whose livelihood depends on discovering new musical talent face legal risks if they take their job seriously. That’s only one of the deleterious results of the music industry’s overreliance on lawyers and litigation, a hard-ass approach they once hoped would cure all their problems, but now does more harm than good. Everybody suffers in this litigious environment except for the partners at the entertainment-law firms, who enjoy the abundant fruits of all these lawsuits and legal threats.

Okay, so why then did the environment become so litigious? At any rate, that explanation doesn’t ring true to me. But wait! There’s more! For some reason, which Gioia doesn’t describe, the industry has lost confidence in new music and won’t support it. Get a load of this:

The problem goes deeper than just copyright concerns. The people running the music industry have lost confidence in new music. They won’t admit it publicly—that would be like the priests of Jupiter and Apollo in ancient Rome admitting that their gods are dead. Even if they know it’s true, their job titles won’t allow such a humble and abject confession. Yet that is exactly what’s happening. The moguls have lost their faith in the redemptive and life-changing power of new music. How sad is that? Of course, the decision makers need to pretend that they still believe in the future of their business, and want to discover the next revolutionary talent. But that’s not what they really think. Their actions speak much louder than their empty words.

In fact, nothing is less interesting to music executives than a completely radical new kind of music. Who can blame them for feeling this way? The radio stations will play only songs that fit the dominant formulas, which haven’t changed much in decades. The algorithms curating so much of our new music are even worse. Music algorithms are designed to be feedback loops, ensuring that the promoted new songs are virtually identical to your favorite old songs. Anything that genuinely breaks the mold is excluded from consideration almost as a rule. That’s actually how the current system has been designed to work.

Okay, then, but why did this happen? After all, it happened before: rock started off from roots in gospel and black music, and then Elvis and Company shook up the world, and were promoted strongly, giving way to the great music of the Sixties and Seventies, psychedelic music and soul music (also interesting to music executives), then to disco, rap and hip hop (types of music that I’m lukewarm about).  A lot of these were radical changes in the genre, and yes, they were interesting to music executives. Everyone wanted to imitate what was popular: think of the erstwhile competition between the Beatles and Beach Boys, or Dylan and Donovan. Unless the loss in interest is due to the litigation mentioned above, I don’t see where it came from. (And Gioia argues above that the loss of interest was not due to litigation.)

Let’s not forget country music, jazz, and classical music. Gioai’s Theory (which is his) is similar:

This state of affairs is not inevitable. A lot of musicians around the world—especially in Los Angeles and London—are conducting a bold dialogue between jazz and other contemporary styles. They are even bringing jazz back as dance music. But the songs they release sound dangerously different from older jazz, and are thus excluded from many radio stations for that same reason. The very boldness with which they embrace the future becomes the reason they get rejected by the gatekeepers.

“Dangerously different”? I’d say “not as good as”! Yes, there is some good jazz-infused music around (I’ve noted this song, for instance), but by and large the days of great jazz are gone, killed off by the likes of Ornette Coleman, free jazz, and atonal jazz.  Dance music? Ellington, Basie, and Goodman used to pack the floors. Do we see that again?

As for country and classical, Gioai’s Theory (which is his) states this:

A country record needs to sound a certain way to get played on most country radio stations or playlists, and the sound those DJs and algorithms are looking for dates back to the prior century. And don’t even get me started on the classical-music industry, which works hard to avoid showcasing the creativity of the current generation. We are living in an amazing era of classical composition, with one tiny problem: The institutions controlling the genre don’t want you to hear it.

Actually, I have more hopes for country music than for the other genres, as there are some great young singers and players out there, including Billy Strings and Molly Tuttle.  But if Gioia is so high on the creativity of new classical music, why doesn’t he give us any examples? Where are all the “amazing classical compositions”? I know—not promoted by companies afraid of litigation. But one would think that the sweating writer could come up with at least a few examples to whet our appetites: classical music and jazz that we could go to, listen to, and judge for ourselves. He relies on airy and undocumented statements to make his case, which, in the end, I don’t find convincing.

Now I expect that most readers will disagree with me, and some will send me examples of great new music (I’m glad to listen to them, by the way, just don’t send a ton!). But in the end I think that Gioia is motivated by the desire to avoid pessimism about the End of Popular Music and to appear open minded, and so must leave us on an upbeat:

. . . I refuse to accept that we are in some grim endgame, witnessing the death throes of new music. And I say that because I know how much people crave something that sounds fresh and exciting and different. If they don’t find it from a major record label or algorithm-driven playlist, they will find it somewhere else. Songs can go viral nowadays without the entertainment industry even noticing until it has already happened. That will be how this story ends: not with the marginalization of new music, but with something radical emerging from an unexpected place.

My reaction to that is just nine words: “I surely hope so, but wouldn’t bet on it.”  Taylor Swift is not the salvation of popular music.

h/t: Andrea

A radio programme about gene editing

February 8, 2016 • 1:03 pm

by Matthew Cobb

I’ve recently made a BBC radio programme about gene editing, a new form of genetic manipulation that generally goes by the name of the acronym CRISPR. Over the last 3-4 years this technique has taken biological and medical research by storm. Clinical trials of therapies for patients suffering blood-born genetic diseases may be only a couple of years away. Although the prospect of ‘designer babies’ excite ethicists and the media, I think a bigger issue is posed by the prospect of CRISPR-based ‘gene drives’.

Gene drives are techniques for spreading genes through a sexually-reproducing population, which can very quickly affect every organism. These are the approaches that some people are suggesting would be a way of stopping diseases transmitted by certain species of mosquito, by rendering all the mosquitoes sterile (and thereby making them disappear) or by altering them so that they cannot host the malaria parasite, or they cannot detect their human prey).

Clearly, things could go wrong, and we could find ourselves doing serious damage to the ecosystem. For the moment, there are no international regulations to control this kind of work, even though many of the scientists involved are keen to see such a framework.

In the radio programme, which only lasts 30 minutes, I explain how CRISPR works, talk to some of the people who developed CRISPR, and to those who are seeking to apply it, both in humans – there is a moving interview with the mother of a young boy with Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy, who founded a charity to support research – and in insects. The theme is the scientific, ethical and ecological implications of this amazing new technology.

The programme, which is called “Editing Life”, will be on BBC Radio 4 at 11:00 am UK time, tomorrow morning, Tuesday 9 February. There will also be an article in The Guardian, which I’ll link to tomorrow. In March there will be an extended version, consisting of two programmes, which will go out on the BBC World Service.

You can listen to the programme live here, from anywhere in the world. If you miss the programme, you can catch up with it here, again from anywhere in the world.


Should GMOs be labeled?

December 2, 2015 • 12:45 pm

UPDATE: Today’s New York Times has a four-person essay debate on exactly this topic: “Are genetically engineered salmon too fishy?

Go have a look; the question at issue is this:

Is the F.D.A.’s approval a sign of scientific progress, or a danger to consumers and the environment?


I used to think that if a food was made from a genetically modified organism (“GMO”), that modification should not be required to be put on the food’s label. My reasoning was that such labeling would tend to scare off consumers, and. more important, there was no indication that any GMO was harmful. Indeed, when the first genetically modified animal recently hit the market, a salmon engineered with genes from other fish to grow quickly, the FDA had already ruled that mandatory labeling as a “GMO” was not required, though they did issue guidelines for voluntary labeling.

Now Vermont has passed a law requiring that salmon (and all genetically modified foods) must labeled as GMOs starting in July; and a U.S. district court has upheld that requirement as constitutional. The Vermont law is being fought by a consortium of food groups who think (probably correctly) that such labeling will scare away consumers.

Regardless, though, I am starting to think that all GMO foods should be labeled as such, regardless of the consequences. After all, all foods, even tomato sauce, have to be labeled with their ingredients, including coloring agents, even though we know the ingredients aren’t harmful. Why should foreign genes be an exception? Because the addition is a bit of DNA—one that makes a protein that is ingested—rather than Red Dye #4? Is there a good rationale for making a distinction?

Granted, I am prefectly convinced that GMO foods are safe. But why withhold the fact that some foods contain foreign genome? After all, foods are labeled as “organic” though in most cases there are no problems with the non-organic equivalent. But I’m starting to come around to the view that we should let the consumers make up their minds, and not make it up for them by omitting ingredients because they might scare people away.

I’m not firmly wedded to this view, and am open to arguments to the contrary. I also know that for years we’ve eaten genetically modified plant products without their having been labeled. But maybe Vermont is right, and it’s time to put the GMO label on all genetically modified foods.

News flash: genetic engineering may save the American chestnut tree

October 27, 2015 • 8:15 am

The American ChestnutCastanea dentata, was once a proud denizen of eastern U.S. deciduous forests, and prized for its wood. Then, in the early 1900s, the fungus “chestnut blight,” Cryphonectria parasitica, was introduced to the U.S. from Japanese nursery stock. Within a few decades, it wiped out around 4 billion chestnut trees.  Since the fungus is airborne, a few adult trees have survived in the East if they’re several kilometers from the nearest tree, and some trees survive outside the natural range; but the species isn’t coming back. When a tree dies or is cut down within the natural ranges, saplings will sprout from the roots, but before the tree can reproduce it’s invariably killed by the fungus.

Restoring the tree has been a tough problem, as the fungus persists. The American Chestnut Foundation (ACF), a pretty big organization, has done its best by spreading seeds from fungus resistant trees and so on, but now there’s additional hope—thanks to genetic engineering. (Reader Hempenstein is responsible for sending me this brand-new information.) The chestnut is in fact now a Genetically Modified Organism (GMO), with a gene injected into the DNA that makes the tree resistant to blight.

First, check out the photo below, which has just been made public. Left: American chestnuts showing effect of blight. Center: GMO (transgenically engineered) chestnuts infected with blight. Right: Chinese chestnut (Castanea mollissima), showing its susceptibility to blight.

The following caption and information were provided in an email by Bill Powell, a professor of Environmental Science and Forestry at the State University of New York at Syracuse, Director of the Council on Biotechnology in Forestry, and Co-Director of the American Chestnut Research & Restoration Project. His work is supported by the ACF.
The take-home message:  a single enzyme OxO, whose gene is engineered into the American chestnut genome, confers blight resistance.

This is a small stem blight resistance assay of Ellis 1 wild type American chestnut (left), Darling 54 transgenic American chestnut (center), and Qing Chinese chestnut (right). The Ellis 1 and Darling 54 lines are clonal except that the Darling 54 has the oxalate detoxifying enzyme gene protecting it.  All were infected with a highly virulent strain of the blight fungus, EP155.  After one month, all the Ellis1 were wilted, all the Darling 54 survived (and are still surviving today), and five of the six Qing eventually wilted.  This is demonstrates the high level of blight resistance in the Darling 54 line.

Interestingly, we can still isolate the blight fungus from the Darling 54, showing that the OxO doesn’t hurt the fungus. It just neutralizes its weapon, oxalate.  This is important because by not killing the fungus it greatly reduces the selective pressure to select fungal mutations that may overcome the resistance.  Therefore it should be a very sustainable resistance.

This resistance is heritable as a dominant trait and therefore when outcrossing with surviving wild type trees, half the offspring will be fully resistant.  We also have a easy leaf disk assay that can identify which offspring carry the resistance gene.  This will allow rescuing the genetic diversity of American chestnut that still survives in the forests.

You can see much more information (and a video of the blight-resistance assay) here. If the FDA, EPA, and USDA approves this (and I’m hopeful), the resistant seeds will be distributed for planting, and perhaps these giants will grace our forests again. I wonder if there will be a public outcry against the use of GMO chestnuts.

The fact that the resistance is dominant is a good thing, for any tree with the gene will survive, and those lacking it will not. That means that there’s no barrier to the spread of the resistant trees, even if the added gene gives them reduced fitness compared to the susceptible trees in the absence of the blight.

Here’s Powell talking about the significance of this tree,and describing the restoration project in a nice 15-minute TEDx lecture:

Ignorant celebrities lobby U.S. Congress against GMOs

August 5, 2015 • 11:30 am

One thing I despise: ignorant celebrities having undue influence on the conduct of American science and technology by virtue of their fame alone. Here’s a tw**t, with the meeting described below confirmed by the Washington Post (Blythe Danner is Paltrow’s mother):

Screen Shot 2015-08-05 at 9.28.53 AM

The movie stars will also lobby other legislators and then hold a press conference.

And, as the Post notes:

In an e-mail, [Claire] Parker offered a litany of Paltrow’s most famous quotes often trotted out as evidence of the “Iron Man” actress’s status as Not A Regular Human, including “I would rather die than let my kid eat Cup-a-Soup” and “I’d rather smoke crack than eat cheese from a tin.”

Seriously, she’d rather die than let her kids eat “Cup-a-Soup”? That’s one dumb woman, but of course Paltrow has been spouting woo, including “cleansing regimes” of the colon, for years.

Both Paltrow and actor/screenwriter Lena Dunham have made many statements in favor of putting warning labels on GMO foods, despite the lack of evidence that any GMO food poses a danger. Their statements have one aim: to get people to stop buying and eating genetically modified foodstuffs. Geneticist Layla Katairee of the Genetics Literacy Project addresses Dunham and Paltrow’s misapprehensions, making several good points:

To date, there is no solid research that has demonstrated that eating GMOs cause harm. I’ve read a few of the studies that are held up by anti-GMO activists as evidence of harm and the vast majority have been very poorly designed. Scientific organizations around the world have stated that GMOs pose no more of a risk than crops bred using other methods.

Many anti-GMO advocates fight for labeling based on the opinion that labeling is not about food safety: rather it is about their “right to know”. As I’ve followed this story, the editorial boards for major news publications across the country, including the Washington Post and the New York Times, have questioned the arguments behind “right to know” campaigns based on the fact that it simply does not offer any important information.

Labeling foods containing GMOs does not tell you if pesticides or herbicides were used. It does not tell you if fair-labor wages were paid. It does not tell you if the crop was produced by large agricultural companies. It does not tell you if the ingredients came from a large or small farm. Each one of these arguments applies to other forms of crop breeding: traditionally bred organic crops can be safely treated with pesticides, large farms that use seeds derived through mutagenesis can pay their workers poor wages, Monsanto produces seeds used by organic farmers, and GMOs can be grown in smaller family farms.

The diagram below shows that there are in fact at least six commonly used ways to genetically modify crops, but only one (“transgenesis”) bothers no-nothings like Dunham and Paltrow. Hybridization (“cross-breeding”) and polyploidy, for instance, are forms of genetic modification that has been pivotal in developing many of our foods, like wheat, as well as ornamental plants and animals. If you’re going to lobby for GMO labeling, then lobby for labeling based on wage fairness, farm size, or what pesticides were used.


Frankly, I’m tired of science being influenced by ignorant celebrities like Dunham and Paltrow, who have unwarranted influence on legislators only because they’re famous. I know at least as much about GMOs as either of these women, but I wouldn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of meeting with legislators about it, much less holding a press conference. Paltrow (and Dunham) deserve severe criticism and mockery for what they’re trying to do. GMOs hold great promise for human welfare, as in golden rice, and Organic Gwyneth, in her ignorance, is impeding that progress. Catiraee has a suggestion for these women:

So, here’s my request. The two of you have been blessed with being in a position where you can impact a lot of people. Your voices are heard and the ridiculous paparazzi write about your every move. At the beginning of this article, I wrote that I was crest-fallen that you’d taken up this cause, and it’s because I really wish you had dedicated your valuable time and effort to something that could really change things in our society, like reducing gun-violence or getting more girls involved in STEM. But since it would be incredibly impertinent of me to decide what you do with your time, this is my request: I’d like to ask that you chat with a few respected scientists about this. Not me. Hellz no. I’m a human geneticist writing about this stuff as a hobby. Go to whatever respected university is closest to where you live, and chat with a professor of agronomy or plant genetics. And not somebody who is recommended by GMO-Free USA or Food Democracy Now. Ask a normal everyday specialist in crop breeding. Ask her what she feeds her family. Ask him if he’s worried about GMO labeling.

Jane Goodall condemns GM food, says its proponents are “anti-science”

March 16, 2015 • 12:20 pm

Oh dear Lord. I don’t know if Jane Goodall is simply ignorant of the evidence for the safety of GM (genetically modified) food, or, like Lynn Margulis, has become so taken by her own fame that she thinks her pronouncements on subjects outside her field are decisive. Or it could be that the Daily Mail’s report is simply wrong, but I’d bet big money against that. And it’s even worse, for Goodall apparently called the advocates of GM food “anti-science,” which is in fact a characterization of her own attitude on the issue. As the Mail reports:

Dame Jane Goodall, the renowned primate expert, has condemned ‘deluded’ politicians for pushing ‘Frankenstein Food’.

The highly respected academic has endorsed a new book, which argues the companies responsible for developing genetically modified farming and food have twisted the evidence to minimise the dangers.

. . . Dame Jane argues that the advocates of GM food have ignored evidence of harm with the result it is they who are guilty of being ‘anti-science’.

Here are more of her claims, which I’ll reproduce in extenso (I haven’t read her foreword)

Dame Jane’s concerns have been raised in the foreword to a new book, ‘Altered Genes, Twisted Truth’, which is written by the American public interest lawyer, Steve Druker.

Its publication comes as the US is seeing a growing backlash against GM. Just last week it emerged that the country’s favourite chocolate manufacturer, Hershey, is to drop GM from its products.

Dame Jane said she has become appalled as what she calls a ‘shocking corruption of the life forms of the planet’.

She said the GM process, which involves adding foreign genes to plants to create toxins to fend off insects or give them immunity to being sprayed with chemical pesticides has fundamentally changed them. [JAC: Yes, but so has artificial selection, which in fact changes more genes in a species than does “the GM process.”]

However, she complains that supporters of the technology have committed a ‘fraud’ by trying to give the false impression that these new plants are essentially the same as those created by conventional plant breeding.

She said: ‘This very real difference between GM plants and their conventional counterparts is one of the basic truths that biotech proponents have endeavoured to obscure. As part of the process, they portrayed the various concerns as merely the ignorant opinions of misinformed individuals – and derided them as not only unscientific, but anti-science.

There’s a difference between the technology of gene transfer (used in making GMOs) and that of artificial selection, as the latter involves selecting on naturally-occurring (or induced) mutations in a species or breed; but that difference is irrelevant to the real question: whether GMOs are dangerous. And on that the science is decisive: the answer is, “so far, no.”

More from the Mail:

Importantly, she claims, the companies have spread disinformation to try and win public support.

‘Druker describes how amazingly successful the biotech lobby has been – and the extent to which the general public and government decision makers have been hoodwinked by the clever and methodical twisting of the facts and the propagation of many myths. Moreover, it appears that a number of respected scientific institutions, as well as many eminent scientists, were complicit in this relentless spreading of disinformation.’

Dame Jane is considered to be the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees.

And this is simply reprehensible;

. . . However, Dame Jane warns it would be an enormous risk to accept the technology and describes Mr Druker as a hero worthy of a Nobel prize for lifting the lid on the truth about GM.

Nobel Prize? Seriously? There’s more about Druker’s book in the article, and you can see its Amazon listing here (it comes out March 20).

We have, I think, seen Bill Nye recant his similar claims about GMOs, and let’s hope that Goodall does the same. But somehow I don’t think she will.  And I’d love to see her debate the same GMO proponent who offered to go up against Nye. (Nye refused.)

Given Goodall’s high profile and influence, she really should be more careful about this kind of stuff. What she says will influence far more people than what even a renowned plant biologist says.  And, if her words further inhibit the adoption of safe and life-saving foods like golden rice, she’s even behaving dangerously.

h/t: Kurt

Bill Nye revises his anti-GMO views

March 4, 2015 • 11:15 am

Since I’ve criticized Bill Nye for his scientifically unjustified warnings about GMOs (genetically modified organisms; see here and here for my earlier posts), I thought it only fair to add that he now seems to have modified those views. According to Dan Arel, Nye’s walked back his unwarranted fears, which of course could have been influential given his status as The Science Guy. Nye was challenged to debate GMOs by at least one pro-GMO horticultural scientist, but hasn’t agreed to participate.

Here’s a clip provided by Arel, showing Nye discussing his new book about evolution, Undeniable, backstage after his appearance on Bill Maher’s “Real Time.”

The relevant part starts at 3:38, where Nye notes that he’s going to revise the GMO chapter of his book to reflect new information he got (after visiting Monsanto!).  I dearly hope that revision will dial back the fearfulness about GMOs. Arel implies that this will be the case, but all you can tell from Nye’s words is that a revision is in the works.

If Nye does reverse his views, and presents the scientific consensus that GMOs do not pose any dangers, then I applaud his willingness to change his mind. But of course the data were always there for him to see, so this just reflects his not doing his homework in the first place.

I consider Nye’s discussion of human “races,” beginning at 1:30, as grossly uniformed, for he confuses “race” (genetically differentiated populations of humans) with “species” (groups of populations that are reproductively isolated from each other, i.e., unable to produce viable and fertile offspring). The issue of whether there are human races is of course controversial (I think the concept is still useful), but it doesn’t do any good to misrepresent the controversy in the first place, as Nye does. Nye argues that races don’t exist because a Caucasian and a Chinese could mate and produce a human! Seriously? That’s the concept of species, not races! And then he drags in “tribes,” which simply muddies the waters. Maybe Nye should talk to some evolutionary geneticists before he starts spouting off on this kind of stuff. Again, homework is neglected (maybe the dog ate it).

Of course I applaud Nye’s desire to “change the world” (as he says) by educating people about science, but I don’t think that right now he’s exactly a primo science communicator—not if he continually gets stuff wrong or has to correct himself. And, on a personal note, I don’t find him inspiring—not in the way I regard Neil deGrasse Tyson, Carolyn Porco, or Richard Dawkins when they talk about science. In contrast, Nye gives me the creeps. You may say that I shouldn’t feel that way, but that’s my lived experience.

Bill Nye challenged to debate GMOs

November 17, 2014 • 12:12 pm

Nine days ago I wrote about a discussion between a reddit questioner and Bill “The Science Guy” Nye about genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The questioner asked Nye if he still expressed his doubts about GMOs that he’d previously aired in an “Eyes on Nye” television episode. Here’s that episode if you want to see it:

The video’s not a debacle, but I don’t think Nye presents the issue fairly, and, in a few acted-out scenarios, he raises the issue of sneaky companies passing off environmentally dangerous products for their profit. He also raises fears that “modifying organisms is a way of modifying the world,” i.e., endangering ecosystems (in the last two minutes Nye paints one harrowing but overblown scenario).  Finally, Nye says “we have enough food.” But as we know with cases such as golden rice, that’s not the only question at issue.

I agree with Pam Ronald’s assessment in this video that the benefits of GMOs far outweigh the risks. Throwing around names like “Monsanto” and “Big Agro” to demonize GMOs, as was done by some people in my earlier post, only serves to muddy this issue.

Ramez Naam has put together a page summarizing scientific organizations’ views on GMO, all of which attest to its safety of the process to date. Yes, of course one needs to think about the perils of such interventions, but right now there’s nothing obvious to worry about, and certainly nothing to justify the environmental “activist’s” trashing of fields and overheated demonstrations.

Nye responded to the reddit questioner by expressing his continuing doubt about GMOs, as well as some goal-post moving about “malnourished fat people” who “don’t need more food”. Nye:

We clearly disagree.

I stand by my assertions that although you can know what happens to any individual species that you modify, you cannot be certain what will happen to the ecosystem.

Also, we have a strange situation where we have malnourished fat people. It’s not that we need more food. It’s that we need to manage our food system better.

So when corporations seek government funding for genetic modification of food sources, I stroke my chin.

But enough of that. Over at his Discover Magazine website Collide-A-Scape, Keith Kloor publishes an open letter to Nye by Kevin Folta, a professor of horticultural science and plant molecular biology at the University of Florida—a letter challenging Nye to a public debate about GMOs. (Folta is an advocate for GMO foods.) Part of Folta’s letter is below:

Last week you published a new book, Undeniable, again covering the harm of science denial with regard to evolution.  But then in the same text, and in later comments on Reddit, you expressed a belief-based criticism of agricultural biotechnology, or “GMO” technology.  No evidence, just “here’s what I think” coupled to arguments from ignorance, and positions that lay perpendicular to the scientific consensus.  Your logic and reasoning match the fallacies of climate and evolution deniers, the people you correctly criticize.

Over almost two decades agricultural biotechnology has shown to safely and effectively aid farmers, and offers future promise to deliver higher quality food, more sustainably.  Perhaps you were just speaking off the cuff from an uninformed opinion. We all can’t be experts in everything.

However, given your prominent status and huge media platform, you have a special responsibility to accurately communicate the science about this subject. GMO technology is backed by massive data and proof of concept, yet the topic is poorly understood and frequently misrepresented in the public discourse by anti-GMO activists. Agricultural biotechnology is not going away; the public would be well-served by a fact-based discussion, not one that is colored by emotion or ideology.

My hope is that you will consult with experts in the field and rescind your incorrect assertions.  But if you elect to stand by them, they should be challenged, and challenged publicly.

And here’s where Folta really has Nye on the spot, for since Nye has decided (vis-à-vis Ken Ham) that public debate is an appropriate way to air scientific disputes, how can he turn down this request?:

As a public scientist immersed in the biotech literature for 30 years, I am disheartened by your statements (so are many of my colleagues) as they do not reflect the current state of our scientific understanding. Let’s use public debate to articulate the science of this issue.  I am happy to arrange a forum at a major university for a civil, evidence-based debate on the benefits and risks of agricultural biotechnology. Consider this an invitation.  Three hours, same format as the Nye vs. Hamm [sic] debate.  Let’s talk about the science and make sure we get it straight.  Either I’m missing something you know, or you’re missing something I know, but it can’t work both ways.

Now I don’t think Nye will take him up on this, for I don’t think The Science Guy has done his homework, and Folta appears to know his stuff. There’s no gain in Nye looking like a fool by losing this debate. But if he really thinks that these kinds of issues should be debated verbally on stage (I don’t agree), he really should engage.

Ten to one he won’t. I’m not a fan of the new Science Guy, and see him as a self-aggrandizing person trying to capture his lost limelight more eagerly than he wants to promulgate science. But if he favors the debate route, and sees it as a way to educate the public, this is his chance.

h/t: Grania

The Science Guy goes after GMOs

November 8, 2014 • 10:01 am

Okay, all you Bill Nye fans who have dissed Bill Maher for his “anti-vaxer” views, be prepared to exercise some consistency vis-á-vis Nye. Over at Keith Kloor’s Discover Magazine website “Collide-a-Scape,” you can read how “Bill Nye explains why he is a GMO skeptic.” (GMOs are, of course, genetically modified organisms.

Kloor says this:

So now it’s nearly a a decade later and GMOs are still saddled with a fear factor that activists have worked hard to promote, much to the dismay of the plant science community. Where is Nye in this battle between scientists and those that frequently contest (and muddy) the science of agricultural biotechnology?

He’s MIA.

You don’t see him stepping into the fray to communicate the known facts about genetically modified crops, much less advising people to “chill out” about GMOs, as Neil deGrasse Tyson did earlier this year. This reluctance appears to stem from Nye’s discomfit with GMO technology, which he expresses in his new book. Appearing on reddit yesterday, Nye had a revealing exchange with one questioner, who poses this question:

Hi! I’ve been a long time fan, and I’d like to ask about something a bit old. I work in plant science, and we have this controversy that is every bit as unscientific, damaging, and irrational as the controversies surrounding evolution, vaccines, and climate change, so I was thrilled to see there was an Eyes of Nye episode on GMOs…right up until I watched it, and saw you talking about fantastical ecological disasters, advocating mandatory fear mongering labels, and spouting loaded platitudes with false implication. You can see my complete response here, if you are interested, and I hope you are, but it was a little disheartening.

When I look up GMOs in the news, I don’t see new innovations or exciting developments being brought to the world. I see hate, and fear, and ignorance, and I’m tired of seeing advances in agricultural science held back, sometimes at the cost of environmental or even human health, over this manufactured controversy. Scientists are called called corporate pawns, accused of poisoning people and the earth, research vandalized or banned, all over complete nonsense. This is science denialism, plain and simple. That Eyes of Nye episode aired 9 years ago, and a lot can change in nearly a decade, so I want to ask, in light of the wealth of evidence demonstrating the safety and utility of agricultural genetic engineering, could you clarify your current stance on the subject, and have you changed the views you expressed then? Because if so, while you work with public education, please don’t forget about us. We could use some help.

Nye’s response is curiously nonresponsive:

We clearly disagree.

I stand by my assertions that although you can know what happens to any individual species that you modify, you cannot be certain what will happen to the ecosystem.

Also, we have a strange situation where we have malnourished fat people. It’s not that we need more food. It’s that we need to manage our food system better.

So when corporations seek government funding for genetic modification of food sources, I stroke my chin.

Well, nothing’s happened to the ecosystem so far, so is Nye saying that we should never use GMOs because there’s always a nonzero chance that some catastrophe can occur? That’s a recipe for doing nothing.

GMOs, of course, aren’t just there to give us “more food”. They’re also there to give us better food and healthier food. One example of this is the case of “golden rice,” a strain of rice genetically engineered to produce the compound beta-carotene, which, in turn, is metabolized by the human body into vitamin A. It turns out that vitamin A deficiency is a serious cause of blindness and death in children; in fact, the Golden Rice Project estimates that 1.5 million children die yearly from vitamin A deficiency and a further 500,000 go blind. While not all of these individuals could be saved or cured by eating golden rice, many of them would. The product is safe, cheap, and the license to grow it is given free to “subsistence farmers” making less than $10,000 per year, so there aren’t many “big agro” issues involved. Farmers can replant seed, too, so (unlike hybrid corn), they don’t have to keep buying it from companies.

Nevertheless, because golden rice is a “GMO,” it’s been opposed by organizations like Greenpeace, field trials have been vandalized, and the grain has yet to be adopted on a widespread scale. Meanwhile, kids continue to go blind and die. Misguided opposition to GMOs is responsible for some of those deaths and illnesses.

The fear of GMOs is like creationism: an unfounded belief based not on facts, but on a form of faith: genetically unmodified food is better. Yes, GMOs vary in their efficacy and in the profits they make for Big Agro, but there’s no doubt that thousands of lives can be saved by adopting a GMO like golden rice. And, after all, breeders have been doing a form of genetic engineering for centuries, by outcrossing plants or animals to others to incorporate desired genes.

Message to Bill Nye: creationism doesn’t kill kids; dissing GMOs, as you have done, can.  If you really care about using science to improve human welfare on this planet, then for God’s sake look up the data on GMOs and use your influence in a positive way. Stroking your chin is not helping!