The killing of police officers is not an act of ‘pure evil’, Mr Cameron.

Prime Minister David Cameron has described the murder of 2 policewomen today as an act of ‘pure evil’.

Clearly, he could do nothing other than seriously condemn the shootings. Yet whilst the use of the phrase ‘pure evil’ may solely be intended to demonstrate how seriously he takes the situation, it is also not particularly helpful.

Why? Because it encourages and promotes ‘good vs evil’, black-and-white thinking. It ignores any attempt at understanding why such crimes are committed, and how they can be prevented. After all, if someone is pure evil, then there is nothing that can be done to change their behaviour. Education and poverty reduction can’t combat pure evil. Only the mystical Forces of Good can.

But the reality is we know that crimes are committed for reasons. Lack of hope for the future, anger, depression, hatred. Even because of boredom and for personal pleasure. Committing murder because of boredom might sound like pure evil, but again, there will be deeper reasons as to why someone decides to relieve their boredom by killing, rather than seeking an alternative. Psychopathy/lack of empathy for others, for example. This in turn has genetic and environmental roots such as certain gene variants (e.g. the monoamine oxidase A gene) combined with serious neglect during childhood.

Dismissing even the worst perpetrators as ‘pure evil’ does not encourage people to think about the causes and reasons behind actions, and fails to acknowledge that behind every murderer there is a person, and behind every person, there is, in the right circumstances, a murderer.

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Riding a horse is as dangerous as taking heroin

What’s wrong with the following argument?

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P1. In the UK, heroin is a Class A drug.

P2. Ecstasy is also a Class A drug.

P3. The classification of a drug represents the level of harm it causes to individuals and society.

P4. Horse riding causes at least as much harm as ecstasy.

C. Therefore, horse riding is as harmful as heroin.

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Suddenly, I have a new-found respect for Britain’s successful Olympic horse-dancing team. Who knew they were taking such risks?

The problem with the above argument is at premise 3.  The classification of a drug is supposed to represent the level of harm it causes, but in practice it doesn’t. Why not? Primarily because politicians ignore scientific evidence on drugs. They prefer to appear tough on drugs, in order to please the tabloids. The tabloids in turn significantly under-report deaths from drugs such as paracetemol (reporting approx 1 in every 250 deaths) compared to ones like ecstasy (reporting almost every single death).

This means the classification of a drug loses any value as a signal as to how harmful it is. You might as well take a Class A drug, because being Class A says nothing about how harmful it is.

Some people argue that no matter how harmful something is, as long as people are aware of the risks, then we should be allowed do whatever we want to our own bodies. This is a view I am sympathetic towards. However, as long as governments take the view that they should tell us what we can or cannot put in our bodies because of the harm it causes, at the very least they have a duty to ensure the law is consistent with such harm.

GM Crops: ban them, but only if you also want to ban peanuts…

…and milk and eggs and seeds and soy, wheat, fish, shellfish, fruits, vegetables.

Actually, ban any food with any non-human protein in. It all has the potential to cause a serious allergy. Whether it is genetically modified or not.

The ‘health risks’ argument that is used to oppose each and every GM crop is, for the most part, absurd. Yes, there is a small possibility of them causing health problems. I would be surprised if no one ever develops a health problem in response to consuming a GM food. But the point is that we must see this in the context of the health problems and risks of non-GM foods that we already widely consume on a daily basis and that already cause problems to a small number of people

Now, this is not to say that other factors associated with certain GM technologies can’t contribute to health problems. A commonly suspected factor is the use of pesticides and herbicides. The most famous example is Monsanto’s ‘Roundup’ weedkiller. By modifying crops to be resistant to Roundup, farmers can apply it in greater doses, knowing that it won’t harm the crop. There are debates over whether this has actually increased or decreased overall herbicide use (use of more ecologically harmful herbicides than Roundup may have actually fallen as a consequence) and whether Roundup can have detrimental health effects.

There is also a genuine issue about consumers being able to avoid GM products for known allergies. Say, for example, a gene for a peanut protein that causes allergic reactions in some people could be inserted into wheat. If products were adequately labelled, one would think that consumers could easily avoid wheat products that contained such a protein. The concern is that crops would cross-pollinate, meaning that even the wheat that was not modified with the hypothetical peanut protein could acquire it.

But all too often anti-GM protestors take concern about one particular crop, such as Monsanto’s GM soy, and use it to accuse all GM products of having similar issues. Creating a herbicide/pesticide resistant crop is only one type of genetic modification. And risks of cross-pollination are dependent on the species involved and its method of dispersing pollen, so should be considered on a case-by-case basis rather than supporting a blanket ban on GM. This is particularly true given some of the potential benefits of GM crops. Here are a few upcoming GM products that involve traits other than increased herbicide and pesticide resistance:

1. Golden Rice.

~200 million people suffer from vitamin A deficiency around the world, and each year hundreds of thousands of children are estimated to die or become blind because of it.  This rice is genetically modified to produce beta-carotene, which is converted to vitamin A in the body. The rice can provide a significant proportion of the recommended daily intake, possibly 100%. The genes that have been introduced come from a soil bacteria and from maize/corn.

Interestingly, the intellectual property rights involved in creating Golden Rice have been waived for subsistence farmers, meaning they can earn up to $10,000 without paying royalties for growing the rice.

2. Wheat with a peppermint gene.

Globally, pests cause huge damage to crops; with estimates of 25-40% loss for many common crops. In the UK, aphids would cause a loss of ~£100m without the use of pesticides. Recent trials are looking at whether GM wheat, with a gene from the peppermint plant inserted, could deter aphids, possibly resulting in reduced pesticide use. The gene leads to production of a pheromone that plants already use in the wild to deter aphids. It also attracts a natural predator of aphids to further reduce their impact. It won’t, however, result in mint-flavoured bread.

3. Drought-tolerant corn.

This year’s droughts across America led to the loss of huge amounts of corn. This GM drought-tolerant corn could help reduce future impact of droughts; though probably not when they are as severe as this year’s. Future versions may have improved tolerance.

On a similar theme, a flood-resistant form of rice has been developed using non-GM methods by hybridisation of different strains of rice.  Although not GM per se, it did use some clever genetic technology in order to cross the strains. And one of the developers of this rice hybrid believes that GM technology will “give us a lot of tools for further improving rice, that we do not have now….[it]will give us a way to do that much quicker and much easier”.

What about corporate control of food?

Finally, many anti-GM protestors are concerned about the monopoly/private control of biotechnology and IP patents. There are some genuine issues about this, but what I say to them is this: support state-funded research.

This ensures relevant information remains in the public domain and is available for any entrepreneur to use. More research being publicly funded means less likelihood of a particular discovery or technology being patented. And the more biotechnology companies there are, the less likely anyone of them will have a monopoly on the market and be able to dictate the terms of use. Just don’t oppose the technology as a whole, and remember to consider the likely costs of not using it.