It doesn’t happen much, but on occasion I find myself on the opposite side of some very good people who mean well, and with whom I generally affiliate politically and socially. It’s especially hard when they feel so strongly about an issue. It’s even harder when I used to share their perspective and feel awkward in trying to thwart their efforts.
Recent studies show that when presented with facts which contradicts their world view, most people respond by digging in their heels to cling to their own beliefs. 911 truthers presented with engineering facts – they become more vehement than before. Same with birthers when presented with a birth certificate. Same with anti-vaxers when presented with the fact that mercury isn’t even used in most vaccinations and when one of their most famous spokesman upon which much of their world view is based is shown to be a fraud. Same with moon landing truthers. And chemtrail truthers. And one world government truthers. Climate change skeptics Anti-evolutionists. You can present facts. You can provide links to studies. Recommend books. If they read it, and that’s a big “if”, they will cherry pick whatever suits their world view.
But it isn’t limited to conspiracy theorists. Conservatives, liberals, libertarians – and even those who elude easy categorization – those with a framework of perception which is reinforced by years of activism around an issue, especially if the efforts involved sacrifice, are also very resistant to the influence of new information which might render some of that activism meaningless, or jeopardize the community which arises from solidarity over a particular issue. It is very hard to step outside of the tribe. To be open to new information. To look at the issue just a little bit differently. To face the possibility that you and much of your social network is simply wrong on an issue of crucial importance. It is difficult to face the possibility of leaving the comfort of the fold, even for just the one fight. It is difficult to risk the wrath of people who might feel betrayed. I’ve met and worked with many of the proponents of Measure P. Nearly all of them I consider friends.
It is really, really difficult to change a mind. It was difficult to change mine.
I supported Proposition 37. I believed and still believe that consumers have a right to knowledge about products they might purchase and I believe labeling should be mandatory when there is a large enough controversy such that it would be a significant factor in purchase choice for a large number of people. It is irrelevant that the information is of no practical health import. People want to know if the product is genetically modified with lateral DNA transfer, and they have that right.
But I don’t support bans lightly – bans which significantly reduce consumer choice. I would have a hard time with this measure even if I believed that there are health dangers inherent to the technology. I have been over the science, and while I don’t support some of the applications of biotechnology, there are numerous applications I can support. A blanket ban is irrational to me, even with the exceptions provided.
Mind you, there are a number of policies and practices associated with the technology I oppose. Unlike some of my fellow Measure P opponents, I’m not supportive of Round-up resistant crops which invite the drenching of farms with herbicides. I seriously dislike the whole business model of seed distribution which limits the use of the seed to one generation, and I would support regulations of trade which hold that once a farmer buys a seed he or she is entitled to the seeds the produce generates. If the technology cannot come up with a business model to allow for that, then perhaps they shouldn’t be in business. And although there has been considerable hype and misunderstanding of the court cases pertaining to crops from pollenization from neighboring GMO crops, I would gladly support legislation which holds that if pollen crosses over to your property then you are the owner of any resulting organisms. And I am troubled by the increasing monocultures, particularly of corn and soy, but also of russet potatoes which are not GMO at this point.
These are all bad or questionable applications of the technology, but they do not amount to an effective repudiation of the technology as a whole. I support the technology to generate insulin in place of extraction from animals. I support the biotech development of strains of bacteria which assist in detecting toxicities in water supplies addressing problems of arsenic and mercury. I support the biotech development of nutrient enhanced rice. Crops which are drought and flood resistant. Crops which are pest resistant. It may be that GMO technology can make organic models of farming more viable and actually lead to a reduction of the use of pesticides.
I was not in this place five years ago. But I was challenged by friends who are progressive and left wing who told me that the left is wrong on this issue, and much like the evolutionists and climate change deniers, the left is ignoring the science. I noticed that the science-oriented progressives do not tow the progressive line on this issue. We’ve seen some big names in recent months: Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, entire panels for progressive periodicals, etc. The Union of Concerned Scientists encourages caution, but does not oppose biotechnology. Even Michael Pollan has softened his opposition. When I interviewed Dr. Ray Seidler on KHSU some weeks ago, a speaker brought to Humboldt County by the Measure P proponents, even he indicated that he does not oppose the biotechnology in its entirety; his focus being on policies around corn and soy and the use of herbicides and overuse of Bt.
I noticed, by the way, that not only were so many of the progressive proponents of the technology science oriented/trained, but also young. I’ve noticed this in other issues of left/progressive orthodoxy, particularly when it comes to science. This doesn’t make them right necessarily, but it led me to question some of my own assumptions.
Look, even in retrospect, I agree that we shouldn’t have charged forward with the technology. There should have been more test studies, and in my lay view I support the application of the precautionary principle when we are talking about rewriting the basic codes of life. We should have eased into it more carefully. But GMOs in various forms have been on the market for nearly 40 years. The data is in, and despite hundreds of studies and testing from labs not funded by industrialists, no indication of inherent danger has been found. Nothing. It’s an uncomfortable thought that we are “playing God,” and our history is rife with recklessness of charging in recklessly. We did it with asbestos, and we’re still paying the price. There are plenty of other examples. But we did charge in and we have an enormous amount of data and extensive studies of it. Some would say, “Well, it can go well 999 times and that thousandth can be the killer.” True enough, but at a certain point we have to balance the risk with the utility, and the biotechnology offers plenty of potential benefits as outlined above. It may save lives. Lots of them.
So there has to come a time when we ask ourselves if our resistance is rational, or based on pure fear. Yes, maybe 3476 studies from now we’ll finally discover some inherent danger. But maybe also we’ve been conditioned too strongly by the distopian science fiction. Maybe GMOs won’t ever bring on the Zombie Apocalypse. Maybe there are means by which an effectively democratic society can manage the technology, and maybe it’s that effective democracy we need to fight for rather than absolute bans. These were my thoughts as I started to read and learn about the science – and no, I really don’t understand much of it. But what I do understand has dispelled some of the fear, and figures I trust who are much more versed in the science are also not fearful. Arrogance or ignorant bliss on their part? Maybe. But we certainly don’t question their knowledge or integrity when it suits us with other issues.
I’m going to make a challenge.
Measure P is probably going to pass in a couple of weeks, and I suspect by a significant margin. I could be wrong, but probably not. There is very little organized opposition to the measure, and most of it ironically is coming from science-oriented students and hippies from Arcata. The measure should pass, and then we should begin some serious discussion. Panel debates involving people trained and versed in the science.
And even before that, I hope some of you will prove the studies about rigid minds wrong. Visit these two sites and read some of the material with an open mind. The people behind them are not your enemy. They don’t want to poison your kids. They are not on corporate evil payroll. The information and argument may not change your mind, but maybe you’ll find something interesting.
The first is the Genetic Literacy Project. They are a non-profit organization which takes no corporate money. They are scientists who want you to think about the issue from another perspective.
The second is GENERA, a database of peer-reviewed studies providing information and search options based on everything from the specific technology, to the particular produce or organisms studied, to the countries and financial sources of origin. Unlike the GLP, this site doesn’t present arguments. It just provides access to the studies, even those which are not favorable to the industry.
I know that only a handful of you will take the time to explore these sites, and some of you will cherry pick for reasons to doubt the information. Others will find the materials interesting, but remain skeptical as to the safety of the technology. But the first part of my challenge is to visit the sites.
And the second part of my request is an exercise – maybe a little discipline required – see if you can make an argument in favor of the Measure and in opposition to my opinion which avoids the straw man debate approach and makes no mention of Monsanto. That may be the most difficult aspect of the challenge.