Biotech is not a field I’ve immersed myself in, and I have been — like, perhaps, many of you — content to place a simple boundary on my worries about its impact, on the assumption that smart and dedicated people were already deeply engaged in assessing and managing the risks we are taking in that area.
Then I read Denise Caruso’s eye-opening new book, Intervention, and realized that such complacency is a very bad bet. Intervention is a passionately argued, carefully documented critique of our society’s narrow approach to defining, and dismissing, the potential risks of biotech products.
I worked with Caruso many years ago at the San Francisco Examiner, and since then have followed her career as a technology pundit and more recently a nonprofit think-tank founder with admiration, mostly from afar. When I heard that she’d self-published her book after a publishing-house deal fell through, I set up an interview with her. It’s now live on Salon. Here’s a brief excerpt:
You spent years writing about the technology industry. How did this book come about?
It was sheerly out of reaction to meeting [molecular biologist] Roger Brent. He laughs when I say this, and I say it with all the love in my heart, but he’s one of the most macho scientists I’ve ever met in my life. His lineage — in academics, that means who your Ph.D. advisor was — is a guy named Mark Ptashne, whose Ph.D. advisor was James Watson. When I met Roger, his attitude was: What’s a nice girl like you doing being afraid of eating genetically modified food? Don’t you know that you could eat 10 kilos of Bt potatoes [Bacillus thuringiensis is used to modify crops transgenically for insect resistance], and nothing would happen to you?
I didn’t know that much about biology. But when he said that, I said, “I don’t think you actually know that to be true. I don’t know how you could know that to be true.” And we went back and forth on it, and he finally conceded — which I was really surprised about. He said, “So how do we protect the public, but not stop science from progressing at the same time?”