Wagging Their Fingers

For all the hoopla over Barack Obama’s optimistic campaign slogan, most people find the idea of change troubling. The familiar is, well, comfortable, and few are willing to intrepidly cast off into the unknown. One of the best examples of this skittishness is the history of technology. From the moment we humans decided to leave the trees, we’ve been tinkering and scheming like a bunch of mad monkey scientists, discovering new avenues through which to improve our lives.

These avenues, however, have met resistance from many, to say the least. I’m quite sure an embarrassing number of our ancestors remained in those trees, wagging their fingers disapprovingly and pontificating on the disastrous results that were sure to follow from living on the ground. Thankfully, nobody listened to them, and one suspects that even the most strident naysayers took their chances once it became clear  that one could fall asleep on the ground and not worry about falling off in the dead of night.

Unfortunately, naysayers are a persistent bunch, and one can easily find them, so many tens of thousands of years later, still raising a conniption over all sorts of beneficial technologies. Take, as a salient example, the controversy over Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). I will, of course, grant that the idea of fiddling with our food’s genetics sounds somewhat worrisome, but it’s really much ado about nothing; the evidence—the actual, peer-reviewed evidence—solidly suggests that the fuss over GMOs is quite without warrant. We’re afraid of this new technology because it’s new, different, and outside of our comfort zone.

Science writer Matt Ridley perceptively points out that

Generally, technologies are judged on their net benefits, not on the claim that they are harmless: The good effects of, say, the automobile and aspirin outweigh their dangers.

However, as he goes on to say, new technologies tend to get overwhelmingly bad press; the benefits are tossed overboard, while the downsides (true or not) are hoisted to the top of the mast. This, of course, only reaffirms the initial qualms people experience from the unknown. It’s a rather vicious cycle.

I bring all this up because I just came across an insightful post on the bad science behind the anti-GMO movement. It’s rather long and science-y, but well worth your time. The author’s frustration is palpable in the last few lines, which I will leave you with in a attempt to get you to read the whole article.

This is what is so annoying about anti-GMO paranoia. It makes environmentalists look like idiots, as it distracts from actual threats to the environment with invented threats and irrational fears of biotech.



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