The Anguished Lament of a Science-Minded Liberal

By Keith Kloor | January 1, 2013 8:06 pm

On Twitter, some smart people I follow alerted me to a post titled, “2012: The year crazy and stupid went mainstream.” It’s by a writer named Bernie Mooney who defines himself as a “progressive contrarian.” Here’s how he begins his post:

I’ve always been of the mind that stupid should hurt, so 2012 was a hard one for the Contrarian. It was the year that crazy and stupid went mainstream, or at least when I first noticed it did. It was the year a manufactured issue, the safety of GMOs, came to the popular progressive imagination. Progressives embraced every crackpot and their theories.  And none of them felt any pain due to their stupidity.

I know whereof he speaks, as I wrote a few pieces for Slate in recent months (see here and here) that drove the anti-GMO crowd barking mad. In one of them, I chided influential liberals and greens for trafficking in junk science and alarmist fears with respect to biotechnology. And like Mooney, once I really started paying attention to this issue, it blew my mind how much misinformation on GMOs the left has been peddling, and how it mostly gets ignored by liberal watchdogs.

But here’s the thing: Calling the anti-GMO left “crazy and stupid” misdiagnoses the problem. Fortunately, Mooney seems to understand this, since in the next breath he acknowledges that the fact-free hysteria of GMO opponents in 2012 ” had nothing to do with a lack of intelligence, although there were some people who seemed downright unhinged.” He then comes to a correct realization here:

After spending countless hours on this blog and comment boards trying to correct the errors, and set straight all the bogus information that was being peddled by the anti-GMO crowd, I discovered an alarming trend. The more I countered the nonsense with scientific peer-reviewed facts and evidence, the harder the anti-GMO crowd dug in their heels.  It was like confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance and identity politics joined forces to create a gigantic mental disturbance field.

Bingo. For a handy primer on how and why these forces come together, read David Ropeik’s recent post on the big genetically engineered salmon news. He mentions the theory of cultural cognition, which

refers to the tendency of individuals to conform their beliefs about disputed matters of fact (e.g., whether global warming is a serious threat; whether the death penalty deters murder; whether gun control makes society more safe or less) to values that define their cultural identities.

So it’s not a matter of people being stupid, as Dan Kahan et al found with climate change, for example.

Again, Mooney gets this, as you’ll see if you read his entire post. I’d suggest doing so just to appreciate his disappointment and disillusionment with his own liberal tribe. After wading through mounds of bad science that “kept popping up,” and after discovering “the crackpots, fraud and charlatans,” Mooney says he

became embarrassed as a progressive. These were my peeps.  At first it was easy to chalk it up to a bunch of cranks and then I noticed that friends were parroting this misinformation. People I knew weren’t dumb. That’s when I realized the nonsense had hit the progressive mainstream.

Because of his newfound understanding of what he’s up against, it’s doubtful that Mooney would call any of his friends stupid or crazy. He likely knows that doing so would be a conversation stopper. Thus, I sense that he’s venting his frustration. His post gives voice to an anguished lament that, on issues like genetically modified foods, vaccines, and alternative medicine, many science-minded liberals share.

Denying access to knowledge and ripping crops out of the soil is not democratic: an anti-GM crop protest in Long Marsden, England

(Photo/The Telegraph)
  • spudhimself

    While I agree with your assessment of rising anti-science ignorance (and to that list I’d add the anti-nuke crowd vs liquid thorium fission development) I think there is a very healthy distrust of the corporate agenda that appears to be dictating the development and implementation policy for these technologies especially here in North America. And when genetic engineering proponents gloss over or simply ignore the entire ownership of organism debate it only servers to reinforce this distrust.

    This new branch of science has been racing ahead of reasonable data sampling analysis and sensible regulation for decades now and the introduction of new organisms into environment without regard for cross-contamination has continually gone ahead without regard for due diligence, public consultation or public safety.

    The fact is that as long as the bodies responsible for regulating market development or public health and safety or any other public interest are headed by those with obvious conflicts of interest (Monsanto/FDA; Goldman Sachs/SEC etc) then we can all reasonably expect more and more public risk for shorter term profit.

    One has only to look at drug policy for literally dozens, even hundreds of examples given that every single drug that the FDA has pulled from the shelves for whatever reason – and there are tons – was approved for release to the public by the FDA. The issues I have with GMOs are that we have literally zero scientific data on the effects of long term exposure both individually and environmentally as such data would need to be studied in isolation long term, and that should the science reveal that these products are in fact harmful – we have no mechanism for removing these organisms from the environment once they are introduced.

    No doubt this technology could be used to the betterment of all but the rush-to-market methodology that developers and regulators have long prioritized has mean’t that good science and prudent policy are consistently given the backseat and reasonable concern is painted as alarmist.

  • bhaack

    Force, forced to buy! Really? I thought Monsanto offered it to farmers at a price and the farmers decided to buy it.

    But apparently there are Monsanto employees out there holding guns to farmers heads forcing them to purchase their seed all under the watchful eye of government authorities.

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About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, a senior editor at Cosmos magazine, and adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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