A slavish devotion to narrow ideology has led many people to reject overwhelming scientific consensus as nothing but a plot by malevolent forces to control ordinary people’s lives.
If you think that sentence describes conservative skeptics of global warming, congratulations — you’re right.
If you think it describes liberal opponents of genetically modified crops, congratulations — you’re right again.
Conservatives get tagged as anti-science, and for good reason. A Pew Research Center survey last month found only 43 percent of Republicans — and 25 percent of tea partyers — accept the theory of evolution. The reason is obvious: Evolution contradicts a literal reading of the Bible. Only 27 percent of white evangelical Protestants, who make up nearly half of the conservative wing of the GOP, think evolution is true. This is a clear case of motivated reasoning — of letting your feelings determine the facts you accept.
Likewise, two-thirds of Americans think the planet has been getting warmer. But only half of Republicans, and only one in four tea partyers, think that. As to what is causing global warming, two-thirds of Democrats — but only one-quarter of Republicans — think human activity has something to do with it.
There is much confirmation bias going on here, too: The science of climate change is not so settled as the science of evolution, but it is solid. This doesn’t mean no questions remain — the current pause in global warming has the potential to falsify the anthropogenic thesis. But just because we don’t know everything doesn’t mean we know nothing.
Progressives have gotten a lot of mileage mocking conservatives’ truculent refusal to accept scientific conclusions. But the left has exhibited similar truculence on another subject: genetically modified organisms — “Frankenfoods,” as they’re sometimes called.
Last month, Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi signed a measure banning GMOs (except genetically modified papaya). The measure enjoyed passionate support from supporters who made many of the standard arguments against GM foods: They cause cancer. And allergies. And liver and immunodeficiency problems. They spread uncontrollably, causing “genetic pollution” and “contaminating” the natural ecosystem. And they probably do lots of other horrible things, too, but we don’t know what because they haven’t been studied enough.
All of which is thoroughly false.
GM foods have been studied, extensively and assiduously. And the overwhelming scientific consensus is that they present no danger. “The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are no more risky than conventional plant breeding technologies.” That is the conclusion of the European Commission.
It is seconded by the American Medical Association, which agrees “there is no scientific justification for special labeling of genetically modified foods.”
And by the National Academy of Sciences, which says “no evidence of human health problems associated with the ingestion of (GM) crops or resulting food products have been identified.”
And by the French Academy of Science, which says, “All criticisms against GMOs can be largely rejected on strictly scientific criteria.”
And by the Union of German Academies of Sciences and Humanities, which says the risk from GM foods “is in no way higher than in the consumption of food from conventionally grown plants. On the contrary, in some cases, food from GM plants appears to be superior in respect to health.”
Regarding that last point, consider golden rice — which has been engineered to produce a precursor of vitamin A. It has the potential to prevent more than a million childhood deaths a year in the impoverished world. But GMO opponents continue to attack it, both rhetorically and physically.