The politics of science and scaremongering

Catching up on some reading from last week I find two posts on the same topic getting a lot of attention, both from major left-wing sites in the American blogosphere – Daily Kos and Jezebel. The topic is genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and both authors are denouncing the anti-GMO positions often held on the left.

The pseudonymous Obamalover20122 at Daily Kos argues that “Being associated with GMO truthers and people of their ilk is making Progressives look bad,” and presents a detailed rebuttal of some commonly-made anti-GMO claims. Meagan Hatcher-Mays at Jezebel is more rhetorical, attacking “aged hippies and idiot twenty-somethings” while maintaining that “there is also a broad consensus in the scientific community that genetically modified food is safe to eat.”

Both articles – one explicitly, the other by implication – raise the comparison with climate change, which attracts anti-science attacks from the right in much the same way that GMOs do from the left.

Let me start with a disclaimer that applies to both issues. I’m not a scientist and I have no training or competence to directly address scientific claims, either about climate change or GMOs (so don’t bother making such claims in the comments). But I am trained in the study of arguments; I can tell the difference between people who are addressing issues in good faith and people who are spreading disingenuous bullshit.

In the case of climate change, I have no doubt about which group is which. Those who argue against the existence or the seriousness of human-induced global warming are, almost without exception, not making a serious scientific argument; they are parroting a confused mess of contradictions, half-truths and conspiracy theories. The scientists may be wrong (anybody may be wrong), but at least they are aiming at the truth. Their opponents are not.

I am less confident in venturing an opinion on GMOs – primarily because I have read a lot less on the subject, but also because the debate is clouded by side issues, such as the evils of Monsanto and plant patent laws, that have no real analogue in the climate change debate. Nonetheless the scientific consensus is impressive. While no doubt there are many well-meaning people in the anti-GMO camp, they seem misguided at best.

So my question is, where are the similarly prominent voices on the right making a similarly trenchant repudiation of climate change denialism? Where are the mainstream right-wing columnists arguing that the denialists are discrediting the cause as a whole and need to be excommunicated?

Maybe they’re out there somewhere, but I haven’t seen them.

The moral is one I’ve drawn before: that the problem with the right today is not that it has more or worse extremists than the left, but that its extremists have been brought within the tent in a way that just hasn’t happened on the left. There are those on the left (although not as many as there could be) willing to stare down their own crazy elements. But on the right the lunatics have taken over the asylum.

7 thoughts on “The politics of science and scaremongering

  1. YOU’RE NOT EVEN A SCIENTIST! WHAT RIGHT DO YOU HAVE TO DIRECTLY ADDRESS SCIENTIFIC CLAIMS, EITHER ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE OR GMOS?

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  2. But seriously, you say there is no analogue for Monsanto in the climate change debate… what about Big Solar and Big Wind? As soon as Helios and the Anemoi turn up, we are all in deep poop.

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  3. Hmm … well, no. The first comment if taken seriously would certainly count as partisan ranting and/or abuse, but in context it’s obviously satirical, so I think that’s OK. The second comment could perhaps be attacked as an unhelpful digression, but I don’t want to interpret that too strictly. So I think you’re OK so far.

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