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.
In August, saboteurs wrecked a golden rice field trial in the Philippines. In response, Science magazine printed an editorial by a chairman emeritus of the National Academies of Science — along with two Nobel laureates, a National Medal of Science laureate and several other eminent scientists.
"If ever there was a clear-cut case for outrage," they wrote, "it is the concerted campaign by Greenpeace and other non-governmental organizations … against golden rice. … Introduced into commercial production over 17 years ago, GM crops have an exemplary safety record. And precisely because they benefit farmers, the environment, and consumers, GM crops have been adopted faster than any other agricultural advance in the history of humanity. … We, and the thousands of other scientists who have signed (a) statement of protest, stand together in staunch opposition to the violent destruction of required tests on valuable advances such as golden rice that have the potential to save millions of impoverished fellow humans from needless suffering and death."
If the overwhelming scientific consensus on GM foods is so clear, then why do so many environmentalists and other activists resist it? Simple — they do so for the same reason right-wingers resist the scientific consensus on climate change: fear of Them. To GMO critics, "they" are not big, bad government but big, bad corporations.
A presumption of corporate malevolence drives much of the hostility toward GM foods. Opponents view them as a diabolical plot by companies like Monsanto to diminish consumer choice, entrench "corporate control of agriculture," "monopolize seed markets," put "profits above human health," and so on. It may be lost on some GMO opponents that "organic" food companies have much to gain from fueling unfounded fears about genetic engineering. That's why they have backed efforts to require the labeling of foods with GM ingredients.
The belief that ostensibly evil corporations are out to control the food supply is not subject to empirical testing, so it cannot be falsified. And it evidently is strong enough to negate whole libraries of factual evidence: Anyone who says GM foods are safe must be a stooge and a shill for our corporate overlords. And therefore not to be listened to. (This apparently applies even to the EC and the National Academies.)
Besides — The Truth Is Out There. In September, a piece about GM foods on The Huffington Post included this ominous-sounding tale: "A few months ago, I read an article by best-selling writer and filmmaker Jeffrey Smith. … Smith writes that an ex-Monsanto scientist revealed to him that, due to the results of tests on milk from cows injected with genetically engineered bovine growth hormone (rbGH), three of his colleagues refused to drink milk again unless it was organic. … According to Smith, the scientists also disclosed that Monsanto employees discovered adverse reactions in rodents that were fed genetically modified corn. It was further revealed that instead of withdrawing the dangerous crops, the study was written to omit the problem."
Well, there you go: a cover-up. Like climate-change skeptics who believe only what they want to and therefore trust talk-radio hosts over peer-reviewed studies, GM skeptics tend to put more credence in third-party hearsay from anonymous sources than the assertions of Nobel laureates in prestigious journals.
It might seem contradictory to accept settled science in one case and reject it in another — if you think the common denominator is science. But it's perfectly consistent if the common denominator is corporate malevolence. If you're emotionally invested in believing corporations are the principal source of all the world's troubles, then the consensus about man-made global warming comes in pretty handy. And the consensus about GM foods? Clearly, that's nothing but an evil corporate plot.
This column originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.