When Politics defeat Science

It is about time I resume blogging. And since this is not even a new years resolution, failure is not guaranteed. ;)

Todays post was inspired by a tweet by @svenrudloff (deep-)linking to a lecture held by Mark Lynas. (BTW I’ve registered the account @tp_1024 there, where you may want to follow me.) The gist of the lecture is that although he was (among others) responsible for starting the Anti-GMO movement (against genetically modified organisms), he joined the list environmentalists now denouncing it.

The reason for this shift in his world view is simple: he started looking up the facts, instead of repeating political slogans of the movement of his own making. This is one of those situations that are simultaneously fortunate and unfortunate. The unfortunate part is that it confirms my prejudices regarding environmental movements.

Scientific research is mostly seen as threatening per se and it is a primary goal of such movements to portray science as harmful for society – in spite of all the genuine advances in the past centuries. As with every popular movement, however, it is not completely baseless.

It is an obvious fact that the technologies that resulted from our improved understanding of nature in the last 300 years or so, have resulted in previously unknown dangers to people. The high speeds of automobiles are a kind of danger that was unknown to people, neither have we ever had to face the dangers associated with flying airplanes. It is also true that the possibilities of using and transforming our environment on a large scale increased much faster than our wisdom in their application – which was the original reason for the development of modern environmentalism.

Unfortunately, environmentalism, like most widespread ideologies, lacks any mechanism to ensure that its ideas are still compatible with the changing environment of reality. Just as orthodox economic liberalism is still stuck in the 18th century, when incomprehensibly vast restrictions of trade and economic activities were the norm, and keeps on touting the magical benefits of ever less regulation even in a situation when the most preposterous dreams of the liberals of yore have become reality.

Mr Lynas is an example of what occurs when adherents to ideologies or religions step out of the memetic framework they used to live in. Suppression of doubt, both one’s own doubt and that of other adherents to the ideology, is a universal feature of ideologic groups for a simple reason: We recognize ideologic groups by the fact that they share the same ideas. A group whose ideas are diverse, does not have a coherent ideology. In order to establish an ideology, the suppression of doubt is a necessary prerequisite.

But once the difference between reality and ideology become too great, chances rise that even within the ranks of adherents the suppression of doubt fails. Some of the best known examples are christian believers like Kepler, Galileo or Newton who, in trying to show the beauty of the universe described in the bible, ended up proving the bible wrong beyond all doubt.

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