The Middle Ground

By Keith Kloor | August 13, 2013 5:05 pm

Staking out the middle ground in these polarized times is not an easy thing to do. I know this from experience. For example, I’m pretty comfortable with what science tells us about climate change. To me, there’s a cumulative body of evidence that rises to the level of concern. But I also realize there is legitimate debate over how worried we should be and more critically, over how to go about reducing our carbon emissions.

So I’m comfortable with the nuances of the climate discourse, even though that puts me on the wrong side of people who would rather keep the debate very simple and stark.

Another highly contested landscape is the one where science and religion coexist uneasily. I don’t have a problem with this co-mingling, even though I’m an atheist. But here again, I find myself on the wrong side of people who take a more purist stand on the matter.

If there is a middle ground in the GMO debate, I’m not sure where it is or how it could be navigated. It seems that Nathanael Johnson at Grist is determined to find it. (And I applaud him.) The same goes for Miles Traer at Generation Anthropocene. In a thoughtful essay, he writes:

The debate surrounding genetically modified organisms, often called GMOs, is an absolute mess.  A huge part of the argument stems from genetically modified foods.  Some people trumpet GM wheat and corn for its drought resistance and ability to feed more people in parts of the world that desperately need food.  Others point to unwanted side effects like the creation of super-weeds and the potential loss of biodiversity as reasons to be wary of this new technology. But what drove my desire to do a GMO story for Generation Anthropocene was something entirely different and was born from two intertwined questions: how did the GMO discussion become so polarized and why does it continue to feel like the topic of GMOs doesn’t allow for a middle ground?

The GMO story Miles refers to is an interview he and his Generation Anthropocene colleagues did with me earlier in the summer, which got posted this week. I don’t know if what I said in that interview helped answer his core questions, because I’m still trying to figure out where the middle ground in the GMO debate resides.


NOTE: Blogging will be light for remainder of August, owing to kids, work deadlines and an upcoming vacation.

  • Robert Ford

    I’m just interested in being correct – i don’t care about middle ground:) Besides, moderates have a lower avg. IQ than libs or cons so it’s not necessarily something to strive for.

    • John McIntire

      lower average IQ? and you think that’s related to being a political moderate versus an extremist? really? and what’s the effect size of that one anyway?

      • Robert Ford

        try looking it up first before you comment;)

        • John McIntire

          Try taking your own advice, Mr Ford. A recent review of this issue says there no clear relationship between political moderation and IQ: “Although Rinderman et al. found that more intelligent people tended to support more moderate views, an American study found the opposite effect [Kemmelmeier (2008)].” Basic conclusion: if there is a relationship, which is question, it is small and probably complex.
          See review here:

          • Robert Ford


            yeah because Psychology Today is a great source, right? from your comments so far I have to guess that you’re a moderate:)

          • John McIntire

            Nope, not a moderate, just sounded fishy like a fishy relationship to me and likely to be statistical noise, and when I checked, indeed it was fishy. That’s a nice informal study you cited there, so much more advanced than a review of actual peer-reviewed research.

          • Robert Ford

            it doesn’t need to be peer reviewed if you’re literally just using raw data. and guess what? MOST of PT articles cite “peer reviewed” work…as does the Nature News and Alter Net. “peer review” is worthless when you have morons reviewing your paper. tell you what – you can stick to PT and I’ll stick with Razib for the remainder of our lives and we’ll see who comes out on top!

            it’s laughable you think that “paper” is legit. it’s so poorly written I wouldn’t even know where to start critiquing it. it reads like a Daily mail article

          • John McIntire

            Wait, so you “actually skimmed” the article, does that count as reading? And now that you think that my citation supports your assertion, it’s OK to use Psychology Today? Try to be consistent.
            Like I was trying to emphasize, the relationship you are trying to suggest exists has two major studies about it with completely opposite results. What are we supposed to conclude from this? I certainly respect Razib’s work, but he is simply speculating on possible reasons for this *supposed” relationship that exists in some samples but not in others.
            No need to be insulting, I’m trying to point out that the relationship isn’t as slamdunk as you (or even Razib) are portraying it using one sample.

    • bobito

      Isn’t the middle ground normally the “correct” place to be? Certainly the positions of “implement GMO with no regulations” or “Ban all GMO” are the wrong places to be.

      Or on AGW. The positions of “Nothing to see here” or “We are all going to fry if we don’t drown first” are incorrect places to be.

      Perhaps having a higher IQ just makes one more capable of cognitive dissonance.

  • Mike Mangan

    Middle ground? Not allowed, denier. That doesn’t help The Cause, as Mann puts it. 100% ideological purity or you’re a Kochhead. Got it? Now stick to the script.

  • jh

    Well, while I occasionally take issue with your POV, I appreciate your effort to get outside the standard scripts.

    • Buddy199

      Thought > Ideology. How welcome and refreshing.

  • Buddy199

    What happened in California with the failed Prop 37 GMO labeling initiative gives a lot of insight into the whole debate.

    “It was not enough for the “Yes” campaign to merely argue against the charge that consumers would pay more if 37 was enacted. The “Yes” campaign needed to go a step further and claim that not only did the public have a “right” to know about the genetically engineered ingredients in their food, but that it was necessary and important that they know.
    Yes on Prop 37 should have been the “You Need to Know” campaign. If something is imperative, you need to know it, even if it might cost you a bit more.

    But that is not the argument that was made. Indeed, the “Yes on 37” campaign deliberately undermined that case. They often noted that that Prop 37 was just a simple information label and not a warning label. A warning label is, by definition, an example of something people need to know – an information label, not so much. Perhaps the leaders of Yes on 37 should publicly explain why they did not make the case for Prop 37 as a warning label.

    Of course, the “Yes” campaign was happy to allow the public to make vague inferences that GMOs were bad and scary in some way, but the fact that they did not make the explicit claim that GMOs were dangerous undercut their message.”

    It’s hard for me to even get a handle on the number of ways, or how deeply, I find this disturbing.

    • Robert Lensch

      As is many times the case, the most clever liar wins. The truth remains in dispute.

  • kdk33

    Words mean stuff. You reveal bias when you juxtapose climate change with reducing carbon emissions. Climate always changes – CO2 or no. What CO2 may or may not be doing relative to the benefits is the core of the debate.

    You glide too easily over this chasm… errh, nuance.

  • mem_somerville

    Standing in the middle only means you take fire from all sides. It is a tough and lonely place.

    I listened to the interview and it covered a lot of ground that I was already aware of, so that wasn’t news to me. But I’m glad to know that others are starting to become aware of the warping of the coverage on these types of issues. Maybe that will help to make people question what they are being fed from their media and social media sources.

    But as always, I yearn for more answers about how to do it differently and effectively.

  • Da Txomin

    Like someone said, don’t explain yourself, your friends don’t need it and your enemies won’t believe you.

  • thrib

    “But I also realize there is legitimate debate over how worried we should be and more critically, over how to go about reducing our carbon emissions.”

    You say the question of how to reduce carbon emissions is a more critical question than whether we should be worried about carbon emissions in the first place. That gives us a pretty good idea as to how “legitimate” you consider the debate to be.

    You try to appear as the reasonable man in the middle. You’re not. For years you have been saying that the main problem with the global warming issue is communication. You will see that you are totally wrong in your own time.

    You know there are serious problems with the alarmist stance. Which is why this blog switched to droning on about GM crops. I think you feel much more secure that you are one of the good guys on that issue.

  • Cindy Trautmeyer

    I have yet to hear the first detailed offer of compromise from the GMO industry.

    Hey, maybe this is the answer to the question why radicalization and entrenchment are taking place.

  • Franken Stein

    All GMO crops must burn and die.

  • TomPhilpott

    Traer writes: “Some people trumpet GM wheat and corn for its drought resistance …” Um, what drought resistance? Monsanto has a drought-tolerant corn on the market; but it’s pretty weak. In its Final Environmental Assessment
    of the crop, the USDA acknowledged that the product’s “drought tolerance”
    extends only to “moderate” drought conditions, and it has the same
    “minimum water requirements” as conventional corn.
    And then it drops this bombshell, citing Monsanto’s own field tests:
    “It is prudent to acknowledge that the reduced yield-loss phenotype of
    MON 87360 does not exceed the natural variation observed in
    regionally-adapted varieties of conventional corn (representing
    different genetic backgrounds).” As for GM drought tolerant wheat, I’m not aware of any on the market, anywhere, but I could be wrong.


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About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an 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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