We have taken on the issue of science and politics a lot in this blog. As a culture saturated with science, one of the most pressing issues we face is how to evaluate research when its conclusions challenge our world-views. This is certainly the issue with climate change, where Al Gore's championing the case for climate action galvanized many against it. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) — i.e., genetic engineering of crops — presents its own version of the problem for the environmentally minded. For those with a "green" disposition, the reaction to GMOs tends to one of opposition: GMOs are not safe and should be banned.
But what happens if a careful analysis of the current state of the science points in the opposite direction?
I have the green inclination. But I've also spent a life dedicated to that one fundamental principle of science: "Thou shalt change thy mind based on evidence." It is in that spirit that I've followed Nathanael Johnson's series on GMO's with great interest. Johnson, a blogger for the very liberal site Grist, is not someone with a pro-GMO ax to grind. As Andrew Revkin points out, Johnson dug deep into the science producing "prize-worthy journalism by a trusted guide."
Recently Johnson published an overview of his research on the subject, with breakdowns across a series of subtopics like health, environment, money, etc. Each breakdown comes with its own take-away and its own caveats (and in a subject like this, where the science is still ongoing, knowing the caveats is important). To the all-important question, "What about studies suggesting GMOs are harmful?" Johnson answers:
A couple of those do exist. It's important to look at them carefully, with an open mind. It's also important to do the same with the hundreds of studies suggesting that GMOs aren't harmful. When you consider the evidence in sum, the products out there look pretty darn safe.
Other issues Johnson takes on are equally contentious: Do GMOs hurt poor farmers? (Maybe.) Are GMOs needed to feed the world? (No.) Are GMO patents a problem? (Yes.) But it's the safety issue that generates the most resistance and that is where his work is most illuminating.
Johnson's conclusions, and the reactions to them, are noteworthy in ways that go far beyond GMOs.
From drones to big data to climate, we face collective decisions about issues that ONLY exist because we live in a culture that deploys the fruits of science on globally pervasive scales. How, then, do we maintain democratic practices when informed consent often requires absorbing new information at odds with pre-existing values and world views? Andrew Revkin puts it bluntly when he asks: "How will Johnson's reporting matter to entrenched foes of this [GMO] technology?"
It is, of course, important to understand the difference between science and Science. The claims of a single study published last week cannot be the basis of head-spinning revisions of our commitments. But what happens as evidence mounts? Since all policy decisions are basically bets on the future, when does the evidence revealed through scientific practice become strong enough for us to put money on the table?
There is certainly more to say about GMOs. But Johnson's work raises a question we all have to ask ourselves. How do we balance our deeply held values and a deeply held commitment to the evidence? When do we reach a point where we see those values transform into bias?