Friday, January 04, 2013

Thinkers and Believers: In Action

Hat-tip to io9

There are, fundamentally, two kinds of people in the world: Thinkers and Believers.

When I say that, I expect it to get your attention. That's why it's presented in such blunt, quasi-absolutist terms. I know the first thing that jumps into anyone's head when they see the world belief presented as an opposing-force to thought is that the presenter (me) is "attacking" or otherwise denigrating religious belief, which is one of the all-time great attention-getters (just ask Ricky Gervais.)

Of course, those who bother to read past the slogan will typically discover that I didn't specifiy religious belief (or scientific thought, for that matter) because I'm talking about human behavior in a much more broad sense - it's wholly possible (and, in my mind, just as ill-advised) to apply religion-esque blind, uniformed fealty to any worldview. Case in point: The long-held, anti-science hysteria against Genetically Modified Organisms ("GMOs") particularly in agriculture. I've been on about this before.

One of the biggest anti-GMO activists - partially responsible from the mid-90s onward - for both spreading "Frankenfood" hysteria and coupling it (to cancerous effect) to the mainstream environmentalist movement was a fellow named Mark Lynas. Well, guess what? A few days ago, in a lecture to the Oxford Farming Conference, Lynas recanted and denounced more or less the entirety of the anti-GMO movement and his participation therein, effectively joining ranks with the Norm Borlaug wing of planet-management.


In the world of eco-science, this is pretty huge. But what I like more than the result is Lynas reasoning for it: In order to better argue his other great intellectual passion, climate change, he had to develop a greater understanding of science. In doing so, he realized that his stance on GMOs was simply not supported by real science, and that he'd been clinging to beliefs (his words) to justify it.

Confronted with hard scientific evidence that what he had assumed was, in fact, incorrect; Lynas' actions were that of a Thinker: He accepted the truth, and now looks to undo what damage he did by spreading a lie in the name of erroneous belief. He's now setting out to actively campaign for the EU and other organizations/governments to ease their crippling restrictions against GMO crops.

Money quotes, from the lecture:

"So I guess you’ll be wondering – what happened between 1995 and now that made me not only change my mind but come here and admit it? Well, the answer is fairly simple: I discovered science, and in the process I hope I became a better environmentalist."

"This was also explicitly an anti-science movement. We employed a lot of imagery about scientists in their labs cackling demonically as they tinkered with the very building blocks of life. Hence the Frankenstein food tag – this absolutely was about deep-seated fears of scientific powers being used secretly for unnatural ends. What we didn’t realise at the time was that the real Frankenstein’s monster was not GM technology, but our reaction against it."

"So I did some reading. And I discovered that one by one my cherished beliefs about GM turned out to be little more than green urban myths."

"It is not enough to sit back and hope that technological innovation will solve our problems. We have to be much more activist and strategic than that. We have to ensure that technological innovation moves much more rapidly, and in the right direction for those who most need it."

"If you look at the situation without prejudice, much of the debate, both in terms of anti-biotech and organic, is simply based on the naturalistic fallacy – the belief that natural is good, and artificial is bad. This is a fallacy because there are plenty of entirely natural poisons and ways to die, as the relatives of those who died from E.-coli poisoning would tell you."

"So my message to the anti-GM lobby, from the ranks of the British aristocrats and celebrity chefs to the US foodies to the peasant groups of India is this. You are entitled to your views. But you must know by now that they are not supported by science. We are coming to a crunch point, and for the sake of both people and the planet, now is the time for you to get out of the way and let the rest of us get on with feeding the world sustainably."

Wow.

"You are entitled to your views. But you must know by now that they are not supported by science. We are coming to a crunch point, and for the sake of both people and the planet, now is the time for you to get out of the way and let the rest of us get on with feeding the world sustainably." Remove the issue-specific "feeding the world sustainably" part and you've basically got a template for my entire day-to-day worldview.

Lynas, of course, has much more pennance to make than just a grand speech to atone for the harm he helped bring about, but this is a hell of a start and he sounds committed. I hope this speech goes viral (it's likely being passed around like Gangnam Style by the biotech community already) and gets out there. For good or ill, the environmentalist movement lives and dies by publicity. It's time it dropped this crap and got the side of science and (more importantly) reason and reality.