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On a Facebook thread condemning President Obama for signing the Continuing Resolution with a rider protecting Monsanto from law suits, my defense of the President (pointing out that he really had to sign the CR and that all bills that come to his desk have unsavory riders in them) received some vitriolic responses from a couple of rabbidly anti-GMO activists. When I then mentioned that I am more agnostic on the issue of GMOs themselves, because I don’t think the evidence weighs so unambiguously against them as these particular activists maintained, their vitriol was ratcheted up even more.

As a result, I made the following post on my own Facebook page:

Here’s an interesting lesson in political advocacy: Don’t go out of your way to alienate people who share your general concerns but honestly differ on the particular analysis. On a thread about “Monsanto-gate,” when I mentioned that I’m agnostic about GMOs due to the many benefits on the plus side of the leger (reduced erosion, reduced pesticide and herbicide and fertilizer demands, thus reduced run-off and groundwater contamination, increased food production per acre, increased resilience, etc.) and the relatively few on the negative side, two anti-GMO zealots attacked with such venom that, despite myself, I’m a bit less agnostic now: I’m more pro-GMO than I was before!

It reminds me of a line from Robert Whitaker’s “Anatomy of an Epidemic,” about the harm done by overprescription of psychiatric drugs. He mentioned that the pharmaceutical industry could have paid the Scientologists (and Tom Cruise) to take the position against psychiatric drugs that they did, because it made a basically rational position look like one that only fanatical zealots support.

A long and productive discussion ensued, at the end of which, in response to various comments on both threads, I wrote the following:

Human beliefs and emotions are much like viruses, spreading through the population more or less robustly for a variety of reasons. The British biologist Richard Dawkins dubbed these cognitive-emotional viruses “memes,” because they mirror genes in how they reproduce and spread and evolve.

As a general rule, memes that are motivated by hope and love and compassion are good ones to spread, and memes that are motivated by fear and hatred and anger are bad ones to spread. This isn’t always true, because some fears are legitimate, but whenever a meme is or a set of memes are spreading due to fear or anger, it’s a good time for folks to step back and be very, very introspective and self-critical about what memes they are latching onto and spreading. The human tendency toward panics should always give us pause and make us question our own certainties and our own “hysterias” (despite the sexist etymology of that word, there’s no other that quite captures the same flavor of meaning).

As some of you know (and as I hope not to rehash here in relation to the specific issue I referred to), I think that we are overly certain even about some things for which there is considerable evidence, because though the world is extraordinarily complex and subtle, we tend to gravitate too quickly to certainty and dwell too briefly in uncertainty. We have to be careful not to let wise uncertainty become an unwise position against action based on the best available knowledge, but we should not feel the need to be certain in order to act, a psychological need which is exacerbated by the political demand to take strong positions. (A person who advocates for a political position while admitting to uncertainty undermines him-or-herself in public discourse.)

In a more rational world (or with more rational participants in a conversation or debate), the opposite is true: Too much certainty undermines one’s credibility. On the original thread, one commenter (not one of the two belligerent ones) suggested that we are breeding super-pests with GMOs, because of their genetically built-in pesticides. (As an aside, I’m not sure how GMOs do this more so than the traditional use of pesticides does it, and would think that GMOs might do it less so.) Then he made what I consider a rhetorical mistake: He insisted that it was a certainty, and clearly and indisputably a catastrophe in the making.

It’s a good point and a legitimate concern, but I am not convinced that it is quite as dispositive as he assumes. For instance, as he noted, the same argument can be made for the use of antibiotics, and, indeed, controlling the worldwide overuse of antibiotics has become particularly urgent for this very reason. But I would not consider it to have been a good thing to have nipped in the bud the use of antibiotics by a movement informed with such foresight a century or so ago.

I tend to look at the world a little differently, through a more inclusive and organic paradigm which sees even human foibles as catalysts in a much larger evolutionary process. Yes, it’s true, the more dramatic our manipulations of nature, the greater the risk of catastrophic cascades, but it’s also good to remember that people have been predicting the human-induced destruction of the world for millennia. The world has always been on the verge of catastrophic collapse, with every new innovation throughout human history. Every single time.

The reality of complex dynamical systems is that they’re very adaptive. They reorder themselves around even dramatic changes. That’s not to say we should be blithely indifferent to the potential consequences of our actions, but it does provide an often overlooked counterpoint to the ubiquitous predictions of inevitable catastrophe.

My point here is that we would benefit from more uncertainty, and more interest in exploring the complexities and subtleties of the world we live in. The two women who were extremely vitriolic and offensive with me were that way because I had challenged an article of faith, and when you challenge people’s articles of faith, they become very angry. We could use less anger in the world, and we could use fewer articles of faith. Then, from that foundation of wise uncertainty, we could have the most informed and informative of national debates on all topics of importance to our shared existence, and do a far better job of aligning our policies to those which are best recommended by reason in service to humanity.

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