On Tuesday I pointed to research that the Green Revolution might be the greatest antidote to poverty and poor health in human history. The revolution continues, with more and better crops and techniques available every year. Today, however, the main hurdles aren’t technology and logistics, but rather regulation and politics. One follower, for instance, sent me to this tweet: A modern variety of Golden Rice, GR2E, is safe, high-yielding and rich in beta carotene. That hasn’t stopped anti-GMO activists from ruthlessly campaigning against poor countries’ approval of the crop.https://t.co/ESwBWSxhbd — HumanProgress.org (@HumanProgress) December 29, 2021 I personally can’t evaluate these claims, but it seems like there’s a reasonable case that Golden Rice would have a lot of death and child
Chris Blattman considers the following as important: agriculture, COVID-19, GMOs, misinformation, Research, science, trust, vaccines
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On Tuesday I pointed to research that the Green Revolution might be the greatest antidote to poverty and poor health in human history.
The revolution continues, with more and better crops and techniques available every year. Today, however, the main hurdles aren’t technology and logistics, but rather regulation and politics. One follower, for instance, sent me to this tweet:
A modern variety of Golden Rice, GR2E, is safe, high-yielding and rich in beta carotene.
That hasn’t stopped anti-GMO activists from ruthlessly campaigning against poor countries’ approval of the crop.https://t.co/ESwBWSxhbd
— HumanProgress.org (@HumanProgress) December 29, 2021
I personally can’t evaluate these claims, but it seems like there’s a reasonable case that Golden Rice would have a lot of death and child blindness in South and Southeast Asia (though, as some readers have pointed out, the claims that Golden Rice could would have saved millions is unsupported, in part because no one can test it).
Still, that’s just one new crop, and the general idea that more productive and healthy seeds would benefit millions or billions of poor seems correct to me. GMOs seem to be broadly safe. And there are signs that the longstanding opposition to GMOs—mostly left, mainly European—is waning in the face of evidence. And that’s good.
On the same day, I read Tyler Cowen in Bloomberg, commenting on Neil Young’s withdrawal from Spotify over Joe Rogan’s entertainment of false or misleading science on covid vaccines.
Some see the musician as an intellectual hero for taking a stand. Yet Young’s own record in this area is far from pristine. For years, he has spread scientific misinformation about GMO foods. While experts have consistently judged GMO foods to be both safe and useful, Young in one song referred to them as poison.
His point is that no one in these culture wars seems to have a coherent and consistent position on science and policy. In some ways that’s right. Another way to think about it, however, is that people hold coherently skeptical views towards science in that they consistently mistrust certain kind of power. Which power depends on your ideology and identity group.
For example, you could see anti-GMO sentiment on the left as rooted in a suspicion of private companies and unfettered research, a mistrust that is partly ideological but partly earned.
Likewise, I see some of the vaccine and mask opposition as rooted in mistrust in a different kind of authority: a suspicion of elite opinion, paternalistic prescriptions, and compulsory state action. This too is partly ideological but also partly earned.
For example, from the beginning of the pandemic I worried that health authorities and scientists didn’t think the general public could handle nuanced or complex messages. And so, from the outset, I saw a reluctance to qualify advice or condone debate. That scientific reaction got magnified and distorted by everything else going on in American politics, including a need for scientists to counter outright misinformation. But let’s be honest. “People only understand our arguments if we exaggerate and simplify them” is pretty much a mantra in academia, whatever the topic, and it leads to a lot of popular messaging of research that is misleading. (The claims about Golden Rice as panacea might be an example.)
I have a higher opinion of the average reader. (So, I have learned, does most of the book publishing industry.) But a lot of my colleagues do not. In the middle of a public health crisis, maybe oversimplification was the right move. Still, I worried it came at a cost—magnifying the mistrust of elite (especially public health) opinion.
So, when Rogan appeared on Instagram this week to say he would be more careful in future, I thought this part of his statement was interesting:
Many of the things we thought of as misinformation just a short while ago are now accepted as fact. For instance, 8 months ago, if you said, ‘If you get vaccinated you can still catch Covid, and you can still spread Covid,’ you would be removed from social media. They would ban you from certain platforms. Now that’s accepted as fact. If you said, ‘I don’t think cloth masks work,’ you would be banned from social media. Now that is openly and repeatedly stated on CNN. If you said, ‘I think it’s possible that Covid-19 came from a lab,’ you’d be banned from many social-media platforms. Now that’s on the cover of Newsweek. All of those theories that at one time were banned were openly discussed by those two men that I had on my podcast that have been accused of dangerous misinformation.
I do not know if they are right because I’m not a doctor and I’m not a scientist. I’m just a person who sits down and talks to people and has conversations … Do I get things wrong? Absolutely. But I try to correct them … I’m interested in finding out what the truth is. And I’m interested in having interesting conversations with people that have differing opinions. I’m not interested in only talking to people that have one perspective.
Whether or not you agree with him, to me it screamed mistrust, partly ideological, but also partly earned.
I see a lot of the same sentiments in an article titled Why I Stopped Defending GMOs. My reading of the essay is this: A left-wing activist realized that the evidence base for GMOs was enormous, and campaigned for their use. But he grew wary of her right-wing bedfellows after 2016, and began to put his faith back in the skeptics from his identity group. Once again: a latent mistrust in a certain kind of power trumped evidence that lives could be saved, or that GMOs might still be the best way to curb child blindness.
I don’t have a good solution, other than to say that the path to broader GMO and vaccine acceptance might start from thinking about what measures would increase trust in each brand of authority, in addition to trying to counter or silence misinformation.