Sunday, April 20, 2014

Talking with my mom about GMOs

(I normally steer well clear of anything remotely political on the blog for obvious reasons. But this is not really about politics. Sort of. Whatever.)

I just had a huge argument with my mom about genetically modified organisms (GMOs). My mom is staunchly anti-GMO, and will not change her position no matter what I say. Despite the argument that the scientific consensus is that genetically modified organisms are not intrinsically a bad thing (indeed, essentially all scientists I have met who are even tangentially qualified to speak on the topic agree), my mom simply will not budge. My mom belongs in some region of a Venn diagram of people who in the most extreme intersection are simultaneously reasonably (often formidably) well-educated, believe in global warming, are anti-vaccination, and are anti-GMO. They are also probably very likely to eat gluten-free diets and kale chips. (Note that my mom is neither anti-vaccine nor gluten-free. I have not asked her about kale chips. For the record, my own personal political views are that I am neutral on kale chips.)

What's interesting here is that if you push these folks on climate change, they will probably tell you that the scientific consensus is in very strong agreement that anthropogenic climate change is real. Why would the same argument based on science not apply to genetically modified organisms or vaccines? I think that reveals a more fundamental truth: nominally, you may expect folks like this, who are well-educated and most likely politically labeled as liberal, to be intrinsically pro-science, and perhaps that is true on some level. But I think that a more accurate characterization would be "pro-nature" or "pro-environment" or maybe "anti-man-made". If this coincides with science, then science is right. But if not, well, science is wrong. The mentality is not much different than those on the other end of the political spectrum, just with a different set of beliefs.

(Again, for the record, I am both pro-Nature and pro-Science.  I would happily publish papers at either one.) (Haha, bad joke!) (You know you love it.)

I think we scientists had better keep this reality in mind. Just remember that virtually nobody outside of science really knows what the hell we are talking about. Some people may want to support us based on some alignment of their belief system and priorities with some aspects of our beliefs and priorities. Fine. But there are very few people out there who support us based on an actual, real understanding of what we do. I'm not saying this is good or bad, rather that it's a reality and we should brace ourselves accordingly for when those belief systems shift. Overall, perhaps we're lucky to be just a rounding error in the federal budget. I think this reflects the fact that we are a rounding error in most people's minds.

We can of course rightly argue that we provide society with incredible (and outsized) benefits in that scientific progress has led to an enormous gains in virtually every aspect of human life. So perhaps the fact that there are people out there whose interests align with ours, however imperfectly the motivations may match up, is good. But I think that we have to be very careful about relying on a system that is set up in such a way. Here's a Feynman quote that I serendipitously happened across just now that is particularly apropos:
I would like to add something that’s not essential to the science, but something I kind of believe, which is that you should not fool the layman when you’re talking as a scientist. I am not trying to tell you what to do about cheating on your wife, or fooling your girlfriend, or something like that, when you’re not trying to be a scientist, but just trying to be an ordinary human being. We’ll leave those problems up to you and your rabbi. I’m talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you are maybe wrong, that you ought to have when acting as a scientist. And this is our responsibility as scientists, certainly to other scientists, and I think to laymen.
For example, I was a little surprised when I was talking to a friend who was going to go on the radio. He does work on cosmology and astronomy, and he wondered how he would explain what the applications of this work were. “Well,” I said, “there aren’t any.” He said, “Yes, but then we won’t get support for more research of this kind.” I think that’s kind of dishonest. If you’re representing yourself as a scientist, then you should explain to the layman what you’re doing–and if they don’t want to support you under those circumstances, then that’s their decision.
(I actually came across this quote in this blog post about the recent, umm, "back and forth" between Lior Pachter and Manolis Kellis. Scientific celebrity death match: Fight!)

I guess I think that it's a sign of a highly civilized society that we can have people sit around and spend precious resources thinking about stuff that quite often just doesn't matter. Would that be enough justification for the rest of society? Should I be okay with my mom supporting science funding despite her views? Is it possible or even desirable to live a life that is completely free of hypocrisy? To the latter question, I think the answer is no. People would be so boring otherwise.

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