I often encounter this type of argumentation in discussions about scientific discoveries with layman. For example when discussing GMO (genetically modified organisms) an argument that is often made is that GMO are only used to the disadvantage of poor people or are only used to consolidate existing power structures THEREFORE GMO's should not be further researched.

As I scientist i try to view GMO's and its societal applications separately. So basically while there do not seem many objections to GMO from a natural science viewpoint I can definitely see why many people view it critically in the light how it is used in society. However many people conflate the two things and conclude that GMO's are bad because how it is used in society. Is this conflation a fallacy?

  • "Something is actually X, therefore it it is necessarily X" is a type of modal scope fallacy (X → ◻X), and X can stand for "bad". But traditionally good or bad are not questions of natural science as such. Hurricanes are only "bad" insofar as how they affect people. So if the use is not what decides the goodness of GMO then what does? Natural science can not tell us that.
    – Conifold
    May 9, 2020 at 1:59
  • Everything can be used in a bad manner. For example I could argue that plant breeding is bad because it generally decreased nutrient quality. However historical evidence clearly demonstrates that plant breeding increase yield for corn to 7 fold and soybean to 2fold in terms of 1930 yield..If we use examples of bad use to inhibit research, well then we would have to stop research altogether because there is hardly anything which cannot be used in a bad manner.. May 9, 2020 at 7:06
  • My point was not that what is used for "bad" can not be used for "good", but that "good" and "bad" are relative to what we value in the first place. But the fallacy here has little to do with "good" and "bad" in particular. Concluding that smoke can not be had without fire, because it usually comes from fire, commits the same mistake in reasoning.
    – Conifold
    May 9, 2020 at 7:27
  • e.g. this article obviously inductive arguments are not deductively sound
    – user46524
    May 9, 2020 at 20:44
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    @vqlk I was asking because the article is 30 pages long..I will definitely read it but it obviously needs time. As a layperson in philosophy I started to go down the rabbithole pretty fast while reading, so this is not an easy read. May 10, 2020 at 12:59

4 Answers 4


Philosophically speaking, this is a manifestation of the is/ought distinction. It's not a logical fallacy, it's a (possibly problematic) invocation of a value system, which cannot be reduced to (or derived from) pure logic or empirical observations.

The question of how to create genetically modified organism (GMO) is a purely scientific one: practical investigation using technical knowledge derived from our current best understanding of the material principles of biology. It would be perfectly possible for scientists to work on the development of GMOs without any societal ramifications at all: intelligent, focused people scratching way late into the night merely to advance the boundaries of human knowledge. I doubt Newton envisioned all the uses physics would be put to when he invented the Calculus; if he was a typical scientist, he was far more interested in the puzzle itself than in the derivatives (pun intended) that come from solving the puzzle. Likewise, I suspect most GMO primary researchers are more interested in questions like:

  • Can we do this?
  • How can we do it?
  • What are the limits, and how can we expand them?

than in the subsequent question of what we should do with GMOs in the greater world. A scientist's job is to get us from 'impossible' to 'possible', and once a scientist has gotten to 'possible,' she is (more likely than not) going to wander off looking for some new impossibility.

However, once we have these 'possibilities' we have an entirely new question of value. These concern questions like:

  • What can these possibilities do for us?
  • What values can we attach to them?
  • What are the consequences, good and bad?

Science has absolutely nothing to say about that. Scientists might genetically engineer a tomato the size of a Prius and covered in pink and green polka dots, but scientists can't tell us whether a pink-&-green-polka-Prius tomato is a good thing or a bad thing. It's just a thing they can make. People have to decide whether they value such a thing for reasons of their own, and they are likely to squabble about it.

Just be cause we can do something, doesn't mean we should do it, or that we shouldn't do it.

The problem you're seeing is that GMOs (the scientific thing) are mostly attached to giant corporate interests, and the values that drive giant corporate interests are often at odds with the values that drive private individuals. Corporations value economic hegemony; private individuals value an assortment of personal concerns (e.g., health, safety, nutrition, choice, independence, etc). These values come into conflict. If in fact it is the case (and I'm not suggesting that it is, just playing the devil's advocate) that GMOs only serve the values of the corporate world and actively undercut the values of the poor and disadvantaged, well... that would be a good argument that GMOs should not be used that way, and possibly that GMOs should not be researched at all (if there is no way they can achieve a more balanced satisfaction of values). Why would we follow a line of research that will only hurt people? To give a hyperbolic example, it would be perfectly possible to research ways to increase the effects of anthropogenic global warming — scientists could certainly study how to maximize greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, if they wanted — but would we want to allow that line of research?

Corporations often make the assumption that the mere fact that they can do something, and can make a profit off it, is sufficient to guarantee that this 'something' ought to be done. It's a restricted, exclusionary value system. While I wouldn't say that the argument pointed to in the question is well-formed, it's certainly valid to contest such a restricted value system. It's nice that scientists are capable of separating scientific research from sociological values, but you must recognize that the sociological values can't be ignored, because everything one does implies a value system. Ignoring arguments like the one pointed to effectively imposes the corporate value system on everyone, by default.

  • @Gonzo: With apologies, I'd appreciate it if you didn't argue through innuendo. Either you think it is trivial or you think it isn't; either you think I made a straw-man argument or you think it didn't. Either is fine, but stake your claim, and then defend it with explanations or justifications; don't just imply it and then leave it hanging in the air. That's what people do when they fart, and we shouldn't apply those methods to reasoning. May 13, 2020 at 19:29
  • BTW, your answer also serves to highlight the highly relevant distinction between theoretical science and applied science in the present context. In the prior case, it is no longer a squabble about an extant "thing" (a polka dot prius, for instance), but one about the acquisition of knowledge [research in a particular domain] itself. Vaguely reminiscent of squabbles over whether verboten apples should be picked from the tree of knowledge.
    – gonzo
    May 13, 2020 at 19:36
  • No innuendo intended. I made claims and I supported them with justifications. Though I make no claim that my interpretation of your positions are indubitable. Thus the "possibly" qualification. Feel freer to remove the qualifiers, and stick to "in that".
    – gonzo
    May 13, 2020 at 19:48
  • @Gonzo: I don't know whether you intended innuendo — I'm not in your head — but it's a self evident fact that you created innuendo. You said my post was possibly trivial; you said it was possibly a straw man. You gave no justification or explanation of either point, except by suggesting that the 'is/ought' distinction has somehow 'lost force' (???). I can read, so can everyone else, so there's no sense contradicting observable facts. May 13, 2020 at 20:00
  • @Gonzo: I mean, to be perfectly frank, You've left me with nothing to do here except shrug. My reasoning above speaks for itself, and you've done nothing to challenge it. I don't particularly care if you don't particularly believe it (that's your business), but you've expressed no points I need to counter: i.e., you've said nothing that is analytically sound enough to convince even a precocious but impressionable child that your position is right and mine is wrong. Come up with an argument, not an innuendo, and I'll have to take notice. May 13, 2020 at 20:04

Reification. Many other fallacies are committed to reach this point. Asserting something as true because you believe it to be true, not because you have empirical, demonstrable, peer reviewed evidence to prove your assertion. The content is irrelevant. The assertion that GMO'S are a tool or weapon used exclusively by one group against another is quite a large statement. The term GMO is a very broad term. In itself it does not describe what methods are used to produce this "new" organism. Grapefruit and Bing cherries, tulips and marijuana, and a multitude of other common organisms fit this description. These were produced by manual cross polinization while corn and soybeans have been modified on a molecular level in laboratories. This statement includes these non lab created organisms as this weapon against the poor. I commit the same fallacy by saying that proof to support that statement does not exist, simply because I do not believe it to exist. This does not exclude the probability that I am correct. It's just that the statement is equally fallacious in structure.

  • You can improve your answer by elaborating on what fallacy is being committed, maybe add a link...
    – christo183
    May 15, 2020 at 6:34

The argument you describe (re GMOs) is paradigmatic of the contemporary “post-truth” [“Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief." OED] ethos of our culture, where the political correctness of an argument trumps any honest consideration of its soundness and validity. Where social policy is intentionally conflated with the purported findings of the natural/empirical sciences.

In brief, certain research projects are by many considered to be inherently verboten, taboo, and certain findings of empirical science are to be buried or ignored, because, for instance, they will [necessarily: see Modal Creep] result in pernicious [public/social] policy (for instance, regarding the deployment of GMO technology).

And this project/perspective is justified/justifiable in a world in which post positivism’s legitimate critiques of [naïve] positivistic science have been so inflated by folk post-modernist critics who contend not only that the boundary between a normative and a positive (or descriptive, or constantive) propositions can be fuzzy, but that objectivity is chimera and that knowledge and rationality are simply functions of power. As I said elsewhere:

After Quine’s historicization and naturalization of epistemology, it was not long before sociologists, historians and some philosophers of science began to claim BOTH that all beliefs/knowledge claims have social causes, and that to produce a social explanation for having a belief ipso facto discredits it, and prevents it from constituting positive knowledge. Finally concluding that knowledge is socially constructed all the way down. And with, for instance Harry Collins, that "the natural world in no way constrains what is believed to be...and must be treated as though it did not affect our perception of it," and that "what is needed is radical uncertainty about how things about nature are known." (See John Zammito's A Nice Derangement of Epistemes, p. 152.) This [radical and unwarranted] blending of ontology and epistemology is needed because, as Bruno Latour tells us, science is in fact politics by other means. (from: https://philosophy.stackexchange.com/users/18093/gonzo?tab=answers)

If knowledge and rationality are merely functions of power [i.e. the powerful's will], and science is but politics by other means, then, in these types of cases, the conflation fallacy --the treatment of two different concepts as one; i.e. "Comparing apples to oranges"-- of which you speak ceases to be a fallacy: because oranges are [really] apples. And "bad arguments," such as the one described in your post, are justified because they lead to "good" conclusions.

  • Absolutely amazing answer..I will definitely look into all the links you provided..I often get lost in these fruitless discussions, mainly because I'm a scientist and not a philosopher and for me objective truth exists which I often forget is a contested assumption.. May 9, 2020 at 18:56
  • Thank you. I have been doggedly interrogating these issues on this site for years now. Have a look at some of my other posts, which you will no doubt appreciate. And note that I appreciate informed accolade as much informed criticism. Also, please let me know what you think about the arguments in the videos -- particularly the Klein/Harris debate. One of my favorite caveats there is "you don't want to be ambushed by the data."
    – gonzo
    May 9, 2020 at 19:10
  • @CuriousIndeed. See comment above. And read science historian John Zammito’s A Nice Derangement of Epistemes: Post-Positivism in the Study of Science from Quine to Latour. (amazon.com/Nice-Derangement-Epistemes-Post-positivism-Science/…),
    – gonzo
    May 9, 2020 at 19:23
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    The political mudslinging is unnecessary and does not contribute to the argument. You are pushing an agenda instead of answering the question. Which is kind of exactly what you purport to be complaining about. May 9, 2020 at 19:59
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    @vqlk. While there is no post truth in philosophy, there are "sectors" of of philosophy known as postmodernism, post positivism post structuralism, post empiricism, and others. All of which, to a greater or lesser extent argue that there is no such thing as [objective] Truth (with a capital T). Which, to some extent is true. The cultural equivalent to these schools of thought is post truth. As defined above, by the Oxford English Dictionary. And which is a notion that in my opinion explains the "conflation" referenced by the OP in this post.
    – gonzo
    May 10, 2020 at 12:36

Part of the problem here is, as Conifold points out, modal creep. What is actual, is not necessary.

GMO's that embarked in a wholly new direction, would not necessarily belong to the companies that have used them to eliminate competition unfairly. So this is actually a good reason for certain kinds of GMO research -- to be able to play Monsanto and some other companies at their own game, hoping they might eventually lose.

Even if the patent ultimately goes to another corporation, if you put a new patent GMO out in the wild, in the same species, creating a 'natural market' in naturally growing plants, the idea that wind-blown genes belong to someone would become impossible to enforce. The law would have to be rendered sane.

Different motives can apply to the same thing.

Part of it is a false analogy to war: all struggles are wars and the right way to stop losing is to eliminate enemies. (But avoiding failures of Capitalism to be humane is not a war.)

Farmers have lost out to corporations overall in this entire industry. At some point, most of them were actually part of that system voluntarily, they just did not foresee it would turn its guns on their whole class and set out to eliminate them and force mass consolidation. If we empathize with the losers, when everyone played the game, we need to blame something other than the system per se.

Technology and its expense are an easy target. Technologies that were not available to all players, especially ones that were patented and used abusively, get labeled as causal. You are on the side of the enemy, and you should be eliminated, or at least your job should.

Avoiding advancing GMO's is in largely the same category with never making better tractors. But the latter is too obviously laughable.

  • "GMO's that embarked in a wholly new direction, would not necessarily belong to the companies that have used them to eliminate competition unfairly. So this is actually a good reason for certain kinds of GMO research -- to be able to play Monsanto and some other companies at their own game, hoping they might eventually lose." A very good argument May 9, 2020 at 18:58

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