George Boardman: People pick and choose when it comes to the science they want to believe
Observations from the center stripe: Surprise edition
PEOPLE WHO regularly drive Combie Road from Highway 49 to Magnolia might be surprised to learn that the county cracks down on illegal roadside vendors … YOU ARE about to get a big pay raise if you have a child graduating from college … AS MANY as 19 Republicans are expected to declare their candidacy for the party’s presidential nomination. After the first two party primaries, the field will be down to Jeb Bush and one or two others … STILL ROCKIN’: The Rolling Stones launched a 15-city tour recently with a packed house in San Diego. Ronnie Wood is the youngest member of the group at 67; the other three are over 70 … WARRIORS FANS who buy into the Sports Illustrated cover jinx can’t be happy with the fact that Steph Curry has been on SI’s cover the last two weeks … PR TIP: If you want extensive media coverage of your statement, come up with a zinger like this one from Richard Weber, the IRS’ head of criminal investigation: “This really is the World Cup of fraud, and today we are issuing FIFA a red card” …
Longtime employees and observers of Monsanto must have experienced déjà vu all over again recently as they watched and read about demonstrations around the world against the large chemical company.
In Northern California, demonstrators tried to block the company’s Woodland plant and held rallies in Sacramento and San Francisco. Similar protests were held in major cities throughout the U.S. during the Memorial Day weekend.
The company has experienced protests before. In the 1970s, people protested Monsanto’s manufacture of Agent Orange, a powerful herbicide that was used to deadly effect in Vietnam. Today, opponents are out to ban the company’s genetically modified seeds.
The way demonstrators portray it, you would think GMOs are a more subtle version of Agent Orange. Protesters in San Francisco carried signs proclaiming GMOs the “Evil Seed of Corporate Greed” and “GMOs Cause Autism and Cancer.”
There is no science to backup the latter claim, just as there is no science to show that GMO-based food is harmful to people. GMOs have been around for about 20 years, and every major scientific and health organization that has looked into GMO safety has concluded they are as nutritious as any other food.
That has prompted 88 percent of scientists to conclude that GMO foods are safe to eat, according to a recent Pew Research poll. That same poll showed that 57 percent of Americans believe GMOs are unsafe.
Scientists have a hard time understanding why people don’t believe the science. As Pamela Ronald, director of UC Davis’ Laboratory for Crop Genetics, Innovation and Scientific Literacy, told the Sacramento Bee:
“Every major scientific organization in the world has concluded that the GM crops that are currently on the market are safe to eat, and these are precisely the same organizations that most of us trust when it comes to the changing of the climate or the need for vaccines.”
As Ms. Ronald’s colleagues in other departments at UC Davis can tell her, people aren’t necessarily willing to accept the benefits of vaccines or the possibility of climate change. Thanks to the Internet, where nothing has to be substantiated and diligent seekers can find “facts” to support any position, people can confidently pick and choose what they want to believe.
Take vaccinations. Since they started coming into general use in the last years of the 18th century, small pox has been eradicated and there’s been a sharp reduction in polio, measles, tetanus and other diseases that have plagued people since the dawn of civilization.
But that hasn’t stopped people from being skeptical of this medical miracle. As the current debate over the vaccination of school children shows, people are quite willing to reject science because they think they know what’s best for their children. But they will be selective, embracing bad science when it rationalizes their fears and superstitions.
Exhibit A is English scientist Andrew Wakefield, who triggered widespread anxiety in 1996 by publishing a “study” that showed higher rates of autism among children who received the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine. Wakefield’s study, which first appeared in a prestigious medical journal, was in fact a fake — there was no credible scientific evidence. The report was eventually debunked and retracted by the journal that published it, and Wakefield lost his medical license.
But it took several years before Wakefield was exposed as a fraud, and there was a sharp reduction in the number of children being immunized against disease.
Wakefield’s downfall never really caught up with the initial panic among parents fanned by the media, and there are still plenty of people promoting the myth today.
The opposition to vaccinations is a good example of liberal skepticism toward science, a mistrust of anything that’s unnatural: organic vs. “engineered” food, pharmaceutical drugs and vaccinations vs. herbs, nuclear power and fossil fuels vs. hydro and wind power.
Then there’s conservatism’s current favorite whipping boy, human-caused climate change. They don’t care what the science says; they know in their hearts that it’s just an excuse to exert more control over our lives.
The Third Assessment Report of the International Panel on Climate Change laid out the case for human-caused climate change when it was published in 2001. No major scientific group has challenged its findings; even the American Association of Petroleum Geologists changed its position from opposed to noncommittal.
But much like the shills hired by the tobacco companies to challenge the Surgeon General’s report in the ’60s that smoking causes lung cancer and other diseases, the opponents of climate change keep issuing counter claims they can’t support with anything resembling real science.
They are aided in this effort by the Republican Party, where everybody who wants the party’s presidential nomination — and apparently everybody does — has to fall in line with the climate change skeptics.
Jeb Bush checked that one off his list last week, saying: “… for people to say the science is decided on, this is just really ignorant, to be honest with you. It’s this intellectual arrogance that now you can’t even have a conversation about it.”
At least Bush III didn’t lead off with the usual Republican line: “I’m not a scientist …”, but like a lot of other people, he only believes the science that makes him comfortable.
Economists are finally embracing the idea that people don’t make rational decisions when it comes to money. The same insight applies when the subject is science.
George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays by The Union.
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