Cranks Sowing Seeds of Doubt

Thanks to Alex Palazzo for alerting me to the article The Paranoid Style in American Science by Daniel Engber of Slate.

This is a three-part series on radical skepticism and the rise of conspiratorial thinking about science. Unfortunately it is all too familiar. As Alex notes, the series discusses how certain people (i.e. climate skeptics, the ID movement, and the tobacco industry) have cultivated a notion of super-skepticism in an attempt to discredit current scientific consensus. Sadly, crop genetic engineering has also often been the target of such attacks.


The book I wrote with my husband Raoul, Tomorrow’s Table,was only out on the stands for 2 weeks when I was accused of being a “corporate shill” because I proposed in the book and on this blog that food labeling should be informative and dared suggest that this is not always so easy to do.

Why do some people avoid debating the scientific evidence and instead fall back on reactionary responses? Jim Holt, a writer for the New York Times Magazine, cites a survey indicating that less than 10% of adult Americans possess basic scientific literacy. For nonscientists, it may be the sheer difficulty of science, its remoteness from their daily activities, “that make it seem alien and dangerous” (Holt 2005). Yet, the societal values that science promotes–free inquiry, free thought, free speech, transparency, tolerance, and the willingness to arbitrate disputes on the basis of evidence–are exactly the qualities needed when debating the future use of GE in generating new plant varieties. In the words of Ismail Serageldin, Director of the Library of Alexandria and past Vice President for Environmentally and Socially Sustainable Development of the World Bank, an understanding of the scientific process is important “not just to promote the pursuit of science, but to yield a more tolerant society that adapts to change and embraces the new” (Serageldin 2002).

Misrepresentation of science for ideological or political purposes simply muddies the debate, and sadly, with respect to the GE foods, this often occurs.

Reposted from April 2008

Comments

  1. #1 Hinemoana
    June 25, 2010

    @ Rock Star #9
    Your statement is rather ambiguous.
    What exactly do you mean by biotechnology? Breeding is a basic biotechnology enhanced with things like genetic screening and mutagenesis. Would you prefer to only eat organisms selected by nature? Is human selection acceptable? Genetic screening? Do you cut it off at hybridisation? Mutagenesis? Syngenics? Or is it only transgenics? Are you against the animals you eat (if you eat meat) ‘consum[ing]biotechnology’?
    Is your position on biotechnology purely due to human health effects? Or are you against the methods or potential environmental effects? i.e. would you be against GE insulin, pine wood or crops engineered for bioremediation?

  2. #2 Rock Star
    June 23, 2010

    Even though I am literate in science and I understand what genetic engineering is. If from this informed position I still do not wish to consume biotechnology I sure hope that counts for something.

  3. #3 History Punk
    January 7, 2010

    I love the right-wing’s new found concern for FOIA. Before this FOIA was a tool of liberal American haters to make the US bad. Now that they found its harrassing potential, it’s all good and anyone other than the military and intelligence agencies that violate it or refuse to give them what they want to read are the devil.

  4. #4 James Sweet
    January 6, 2010

    I gotta agree with Greg, I’m not crazy about the term “super skeptic”. “Radical skepticism”, maybe, but even then, I think that “skepticism” that relies on a conspiracy theory cannot rightly be called skepticism.

    Re: Climategate — I agree with Hinemoana, the e-mails which the conservative press has focused on our 100% benign. In fact, at least one of them (the one about “the fact is we can’t explain the decline,” etc.) is pretty comforting, because it exposes a healthy level of debate and disagreement among climate scientists (contrary to misrepresentation by the media, the researcher in question expressed his concerns quite publicly in a conference paper, so this was not some hidden doubt concealed from the public).

    On the other hand, some of the e-mails the conservative press has mostly ignored are legitimately a little disturbing. It doesn’t invalidate the scientific consensus on AGW, of course, but it maybe suggests that researchers in controversial fields like this could use a little more training about FOIA and other aspects where their work intersects with the public and the law.

  5. #5 Skeptico
    January 6, 2010

    Smitty:

    Anyone who reads a few email messages and thinks this proves the entire field of climate science wrong, isn’t a skeptic. He is a denialist.

  6. #6 Hinemoana
    January 5, 2010

    @Smitty

    I have read some of the ‘climategate’ emails. The ones that the media and some bloggers have pointed out as examples of the climatologists’ evil intentions anyway. I did find some disturbing comments about not wanting to give out information which riled me up, though later I found out that they had handed over the information they had(after grumbling amongst each other, understandable since it was a ‘sceptic’ group requesting the info for, no doubt, their silly bad-science denial games). As for the raw data they deleted -it wasn’t theirs and they are not required to keep it if they don’t need it. They’d been given a copy by another organisation, whose responsibility it is to keep the raw data. As for ‘hiding the decline’, just check literature on tree-ring data. Tree ring proxy temps diverge from ACTUAL RECORDED TEMPURATURES in recent decades and this has to be compensated for. There is some argument on how to best do this (I apologise for not giving a good website, but I am at work -on break!- and don’t have my bookmarks). And why shouldn’t they collaborate with Greenpeace? Much as I don’t like Greenpeace, they ARE trying to motivate people to curb climate change. Should plant pathologists not collaborate with farmers collectives?

    Get real, Smitty. Anthropogenic climate change is happening.

  7. #7 Smitty
    January 5, 2010

    Climategate denialists are presently spinning their own conspiracy theories. So far the investigation has yet to provide evidence that theft occurred. However, the CRU boys expressed an unhealthy level of paranoia. Deleting raw data, emails discussing FOIA, refusing to comply, hiding the decline to present a tidy picture, using RealClimate blog to take pot shots at peer-reviewed literature that challenged the AGW hypothesis, collaborating with Green Peace,etc.
    Would the Catholic church, the Bush administration, the CIA, etc be given the benefit of the doubt?
    The Climategate deniers faithfully trust the “experts” on RealClimate.org and Nature, that the real “crime” is violating the privacy of very frustrated human beings constantly bothered by a conspiracy of detractors.If they were too distracted to perform what is legally required, hire someone. Maybe there is no one they didn’t suspect as part of the conspiracy?
    Anyone who read these messages and fails to see anything suspicious, isn’t a skeptic. He is in denial.

  8. #8 Mystyk
    January 5, 2010

    The indefatigable Mr. Laden wrote: “I don’t think we should ever call them ‘climate skeptics.’ They are ‘AGW denialists.’”

    I agree. All scientists are skeptics, no matter the discipline or topic. Some go further, and become pseudo-skeptics. Personally, I prefer that to “denialist” because, while denial is more technically accurate, pseudo-skepticism is just as easy for the public to grasp but harder for those pseudo-skeptics to attack back with “alarmist!”

  9. #9 Katharine
    January 5, 2010

    It’s something people don’t acknowledge often enough.

    Most humans are really bloody stupid.

  10. #10 Greg Laden
    January 5, 2010

    I don’t think we should ever call them “climate skeptics.” They are “AGW denialists.”

    Or, perhaps, super-denialists. But not skeptics.