Like climate change, the crazy politics of the GMO debate trump the science. Along those lines, I view the “right to know” campaign (which is part of a larger effort to label genetically modified foods) as a variation of the creationist “teach the controversy” strategy. Both the “right to know” (and “just label it”) and “teach the science” movements have something in common: They deny and muddy established, consensus science.
Via email, I received a thoughtful rebuttal from Jonathan Gilligan, an associate professor in the Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences, Vanderbilt University. He is also the associate director of Vanderbilt’s Climate Change Research Network. (Several years ago, Gilligan contributed a fascinating guest essay to Collide-a-Scape titled, “Why U.S. Climate Policy is Radioactive.”) Below is his response to my post:
I think you’re wrong in your CaS [Collide-a-Scape] piece on “right to know.”
I think the “right to know” is a lot like the “show me your data and your code” wing of the climate skeptic community, and that people on the side of good science on both GMO’s and climate change should listen to it.
Releasing computer codes and data on climate does a lot to allay the fears that we’re all trying to hide something or are making things up. If our code and data is open to the public, anyone who wants to can look at it and examine it for errors. Similarly, if GMOs are safe (as I believe they are) we shouldn’t be afraid to label them.
With the climate data and code, the vast majority of people have no interest in examining it, but knowing it’s there for anyone to examine makes them trust it more and defuses a whole line of attack. Similarly, if GM food is labeled as such, I really believe that most consumers will buy it anyway and it will defuse the “what are they trying to hide” line of attack.
Neither labeling GM food nor opening climate data and code will make the contrarians shut up. So what? The point is less to convince the partisan extremes than to build credibility with the less excitable middle. And saying, “I have nothing to hide. Here it is, all out in the open,” feels to me like the best way to do that.
I believe GMO’s have a lot of potential to do great things for feeding the world. I am particularly optimistic that some simple genetic engineering can solve the naturally occurring problem of high arsenic concentrations in rice in much of South and Southeast Asia. I am also bullish on the potential of GMOs to vastly reduce the amount of nasty toxic pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides that farmers currently use.
But I also think it’s totally reasonable to clearly label GM food and I believe (this is faith speaking, not empirical market research) that consumers will accept labeled GM products, and are likely to accept them more readily if they feel they can control their exposure.
Go look at research on risk perception from the 1970s and 80s (Chauncey Starr, Paul Slovic, Sarah Lichtenstein, Baruch Fischhoff, Howard Kunreuther, etc.) on the fact that people fear something much more if it’s invisible, unknown, and involuntary. If you make something very visible and give people the sense that they can see whether they’re eating GM foods and can control whether do so, I would guess that GM foods would then lose most of their scare factor, at least in the US.
I’m too lazy to look up whether people have done research on perceptions of GMOs relating to labeling, so I may be wrong here. If so, I’d be grateful to have my errors corrected.
P.S., on teaching the controversy in evolution, several years ago I was teaching a freshman seminar on science in democracy and I assigned them to read original papers by creationists and responses from evolutionary biologists (Robert Pennock edited a great collection of such papers, called “Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics”). Understand that although I’m teaching at an elite university, I’m teaching in the South, in a state where many of the public schools choose not to teach human evolution. The reaction of my students was, “Is that all the creationists have to say? With all the fuss, I always imagined that they would that they would have more substantial arguments.”
I think teaching the controversy can be useful if we do it right. Don’t be afraid to discuss the other side’s arguments. Instead show your audience that you’re not afraid of them, and show where they go wrong. This is a lot easier if we level the playing field and look at both the scientists’ and the contrarians’ positive theories, not just the contrarians’ negative pot-shots at the scientists’ theories. As long as the question is, “Who has the better, more empirically supported theory of what’s going on?” instead of “Who can shoot more holes in the other side?” we are able to avoid the Gish gallop and the exercise can be constructive.