The news has been filled the past few days with sparkling examples of scientific know-nothingism from the left and the right. The only question is, whose willful ignorance is more disheartening?
Liberal ignorance was captured in a wonderful New York Times article over the weekend about the successful campaign to legally bar genetically modified crops in Hawaii.
The willingness of the anti-GM crusaders to disregard empirical evidence was breathtaking. The usual ills ascribed to GM foods were on full display during the debate leading up to the ban -- cancer in laboratory rats, childhood autoimmune diseases, overuse of pesticides, genetic contamination, disappearance of butterflies and bees. Never mind that none of these claims are supported by research, and all the available evidence indicates that GM foods are indistinguishable from other foods. And then there are the Hawaiian papaya farmers whose livelihoods were saved by genetic engineering.
No one was more dismayed by the wild and unfounded assertions than the scientists who were called as expert witnesses during hearings on the bill: “'These are my people, they’re lefties, I’m with them on almost everything,' said Michael Shintaku, a plant pathologist at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, who testified several times against the bill. 'It hurts.'”
Meanwhile, conservatives' doubts about climate change were on full display amid the combination of this week's record-shattering cold spell in the U.S.'s Midwest and Northeast regions and a research vessel that got stuck in sea ice in the Antarctic. There was a special piquancy for conservatives concerning the stranded ship: It was carrying a team of scientists studying climate change. The subtext here is that the scientists, searching for signs of global warming, are oblivious to counterfactual events staring them in the face, threatening their own safety.
Writing in the New Republic, Isaac Chotiner asked whether there's equivalency between the GM-food foes and those who dispute the preponderance of evidence supporting climate change. Climate change is the bigger problem, he wrote, because it poses an existential threat to humanity, while GM crops don’t. This seems to give inordinate weight to the unknowable consequences of climate change, without giving equal weight to the challenge of feeding the world's growing population -- something GM foods might help to address.
What's more, he says, liberal activists haven't resorted to the types of "smear campaigns" against agricultural scientists that conservatives have used to discredit climate researchers. But haven't GM opponents done as much or worse by vandalizing crop experiments? In one well-reported episode, protesters in the Philippines destroyed a test crop of GM rice designed to combat vitamin A deficiency, a cause of blindness among children in poor countries.
And yet there is one crucial difference between the liberal and conservative brands of scientific illiteracy, and Chotiner nails it. Liberals opposed to GM foods may be passionate in their beliefs and as impervious to contrary evidence as conservatives who are certain climate change is an elitist hoax foisted on the public by Al Gore. But try to find an anti-GM food campaigner who revels in their rejection of science and wears it as a badge of honor. On that count, the climate-change deniers on the right seem to have a monopoly.
(James Greiff is a Bloomberg View editorial board member. Follow him on Twitter.)