By Ronald Bailey The front page of the Sunday New York Times featured a long article, “A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops,” details what happens when scientific issues are decided by votes. The article follows the political and intellectual travails of Hawaii County (a.k.a. Big Island) council member Greggor Ilagan as he tried to navigate through the massive amounts of disinformation being deployed in a campaign to ban modern biotech crop varieties from the island. (Back in October, I reported on the nonsensical anti-GMO crusade in Hawaii in my article, “In Search of Frankencorn in Hawaii.”)
Times reporter Amy Harmon does an superb job of telling the story of how council member Ilagan sorted through the claims of activists and the counterclaims of scientists in reaching his lonely decision to vote against the ban. Here are some excerpts:
But with the G.M.O. bill, [Ilagan] often despaired of assembling the information he needed to definitively decide. Every time he answered one question, it seemed, new ones arose. Popular opinion masqueraded convincingly as science, and the science itself was hard to grasp. People who spoke as experts lacked credentials, and G.M.O. critics discounted those with credentials as being pawns of biotechnology companies….
Scientists, who have come to rely on liberals in political battles over stem-cell research, climate change and the teaching of evolution, have been dismayed to find themselves at odds with their traditional allies on this issue. Some compare the hostility to G.M.O.s to the rejection of climate-change science, except with liberal opponents instead of conservative ones….
“Just as many on the political right discount the broad scientific consensus that human activities contribute to global warming, many progressive advocacy groups disregard, reject or ignore the decades of scientific studies demonstrating the safety and wide-reaching benefits” of genetically engineered crops, Pamela Ronald, a professor of plant pathology at the University of California, Davis, wrote on the blog of the nonprofit Biology Fortified….
Sensitive to the accusation that her bill [to ban GMOs] was antiscience, [council member] Ms. Wille had circulated material to support it. But in almost every case, Mr. Ilagan and his staff found evidence that seemed to undermine the claims.
A report, in an obscure Russian journal, about hamsters that lost the ability to reproduce after three generations as a result of a diet of genetically modified soybeans had been contradicted by many other studies and deemed bogus by mainstream scientists.
Mr. Ilagan discounted the correlations between the rise in childhood allergies and the consumption of G.M.O.s, cited by Ms. Wille and others, after reading of the common mistake of confusing correlation for causation. (One graph, illustrating the weakness of conclusions based on correlation, charted the lock-step rise in organic food sales and autism diagnoses.)
In October, the county council voted for the ban 6 to 3 and the bill was signed by the mayor on December 5. The whole Times article is well worth your attention. Read and it weep.
Ronald Bailey is a science correspondent at Reason magazine and author of Liberation Biology (Prometheus).