Magic vs. Modernity

In the European Enlightenment, the belief was that science and reason
would soon sweep myth and magic into oblivion. For some, myth included
religion while others operated in terms of some variant of Deism or even
Theism, believing that there was an unknown power beyond what was known and
knowable to humans. In fact, many scientists, then and now, could fully
exercise their religious convictions and interpret them in such a way as
not to allow them to interfere with scientific understanding. For those for
whom there was no conflict between science and religion, it was because
particular statements or religious beliefs about the way the things work
always gave way to emerging facts and theories of scientific inquiry.
Science and reason became the basis for advancing human understanding and

By the time that I was an undergraduate, the enlightenment ideal was well
established in my University. The opposition to evolution was thought to
have been laid to rest in the 1920s; the religious groups that continued
to oppose Darwin were small and marginal; their beliefs were expected to
fade away as their children studied biology and other sciences in
school. The various romantic reactions in literature and in such areas as
the various arts and crafts movements, organic agriculture or homeopathy
were likewise considered to be minor and relatively harmless. The
literature professors who railed against science and materialism had
ways of life not all that different from their colleagues in the sciences.

More violent reactions to science and reason such as the Nazis were
explained as reactions by those who had been harmed by the transition to
modernity and signaled a dying gasp and not an indicator of anything to
follow. In any case, this reaction had been permanently laid to rest in May
1945. In the emerging post-colonial world, students were flocking to Europe and North
America for education, and newly minted countries were establishing
Universities with science, technology and engineering programs modeled
on those of their former colonial masters. Contrary to post-modernist
and other critics, few of us believed that Western Culture was a universal
model for all to follow without question, but many of us believed
that science and techno-engineering understandings transcended cultural
boundaries and created a global discourse and mechanisms for advancing the
human endeavor.

Six decades after World War II, now into the 21st century, the area of
basic human understanding of the world around us has greatly expanded and
yet the enlightenment vision seems farther away than ever in my
lifetime. The extent and horizons of modern knowledge are beyond the
comprehension of earlier generations. And this knowledge and understanding
is far more than merely being “theories” in the pejorative misuse of the
term theory. Modern knowledge has pragmatically proved itself in helping us
to live much longer, healthier lives and enjoy amenities undreamed of by
our progenitors.

It has to be one of the great paradoxes of our time that as our knowledge has expanded in
recent decades, the opposition to it has become more assertive
and politically potent. One of the crowning ironies of the anti-science
brigades is that groups that are largely contemptuous of each other often
frame their anti-science rhetoric in essentially the same terms. My
colleagues in the Humanities cluck piously about those ignorant rednecks
who oppose Darwin and promote ‘‘intelligent design,’’ yet they in their own way
hold anti-science ideas no less absurd. One strains to find any difference, significant or minor,
between the argument of intelligent design that there is in life an
“irreducible complexity” and the post-modernist critique of modern science
as being “reductionist” and not “holistic.” To both in their particular
crusades, the species barrier is immutable, or at least should be.

Clearly there must be considerable frustration among scientists as
organized groups oppose various forms of science education or scientific
research. One recent article included in its title “why scientists are
angry” and spoke about the anger that grips scientists when demonstrably
false statements are paraded as facts and influence public policy.
As an economist with a layman’s knowledge of the natural sciences, I
understand these frustrations. I am a member of various newsgroups involved
in agricultural biotechnology, most of whose contributors are in the
sciences. This piece was inspired by a recent extended discussion on the
difficulty of combating absurd phobias about transgenic food crops that
anti-biotechnology activists have so carefully disseminated.
(Unfortunately, other writing commitments prevented me from being other
than a passive participant at the time.) Each time one scare is seemingly
laid to rest, another rises, as one scientist described it, like a hare
from nowhere. Even those fears that are massively refuted never die, but
seem to be in some Sargasso Sea of cyber space awaiting a new current to
set them afloat again as part of the litany of
horrors of genetic modification of plants.

There were discussions about being proactive, but the question becomes how
can one be proactive against opponents who may be ignorant of science but
who lack nothing in imagination and talent for fear-mongering? On a
typical day, a scientist awakens and is concerned with ongoing research . An activist wakes up thinking
about what the next campaign should be or whom they should
they contact in the local media and whose friendship they should cultivate. Some even have
focus groups to help them select the scare terms
that would be most effective. Like the multi-national corporations that
they attack, some of the activist groups begin promoting one cause,
then morph into all-purpose NGOs with a diverse
agenda of causes with which to garner publicity and raise money.
An anti-science agenda links the dangers of
biotechnology to the evils of multi-national corporations along with destruction
of the environment and cultural and biological diversity; all turn into
lucrative sources for fund raising and membership recruitment.

It is difficult to be proactive when you are dealing with carefully
calculated rational irrationality.
When one is confronting claims of transgenic bacteria that could destroy
all life on earth or similar unscientific nonsense, one is responding to a
kind of irrationality that is impossible to predict and therefore to be prepared to respond to in
advance, let alone educate the public on the subject. However irrational various anti-science proclamations may be,
their advocates are supremely rational in the sense of being very skilled
at crafting their propaganda so as to win public support and influence
policy. Some groups are so good at driving public opinion to support
their anti-science agenda, some of us wonder whether their leaders may
be dealing from the bottom of the deck to their own members as well as to
the public.

The media may often put an obvious pejorative like “Franken food” in quotation marks, but
too often the media routinely accept the terminology of the activists,
even though the habit introduces biases which violate professional journalistic
standards. Pollen drift from transgenic plants is almost always referred to, tendentiously,
as “contamination” even though there is no evidence of harm. Similarly,
“organic” agriculture is described as “sustainable” and “earth-friendly”
while their food crops are said to be better tasting, fresher and healthier,
without a shred of evidence for any such claims. In Houston, the food
writers for the main paper have become unwitting propagandists for
“organic” agriculture, as has happened in many other large and small
circulation newspapers.

The 24 hour news cycle has led to a reverse feeding frenzy, with activist
groups all too ready to conjure up a scandal, inflating a
statistically insignificant variation in a clinical study to a threat to
the human endeavor or even to the planet, and to label a defense as
part of a corporate cover-up. Scientists attempt to respond to these scare
stories on a case by case basis, trying to explain the nature of
the scientific inquiry involved and the way it is used to interpret
experimental results. That is how scientists work, and the only way to wear down the opposition to
scientific reasoning.

Countering falsehoods with facts is a necessary condition to promote better
understanding of issues involving science, but unfortunately, it is not a
sufficient condition. Scientists
present their evidence with appropriate qualifications, and with recognition that
there are no absolute truths. The anti-science ideologues have no problem
with absolutes and certainties. The scientists’ answer to the often asked rhetorical question
– can you guarantee that no harm will ever come from transgenic crops – is
obviously no. The activist now moves in for the kill, making
it difficult for a scientist to explain that one cannot give such a
guarantee for any phenomenon. There is a blatant but unstated falsehood in
the rhetorical question, in that it implies that there are alternative
actions that carry a zero risk on into the indefinite future. That
transgenic plant breeding may possibly be the most precise, predictable
form of plant breeding yet devised by humans is simply lost in the rhetoric of fear.

A further problem is that editors and other news professionals are rarely
educated in science and have little understanding of the scientific method.
My experience has been that newspapers hate to make substantive
corrections to a major story. One case involved a major story of two
columns with picture on the front page of the
Sunday edition and over one full page inside. In this case (in which I was
involved), a group of scientists wrote in and pointed out some of the
many errors in the story. Even though the writer had traveled to Mexico
to do a story on transgenic maize in the company of anti-biotechnology
activists, the newspaper’s ombudsman defended the objectivity of her
reporting. Not only were there errors in the story, but the institutions and
individuals that were not interviewed, as well as those that were, made it
clear that the activists were more than just good traveling companions. In
an extended exchange with the ombudsman, it was admitted that the author
did not even know of the existence of the world’s leading experts and the
research and development institutions on maize and on the issues raised in
the story that were available in Mexico and Texas
to be interviewed. I have compared it to going to Rome to do story on a
controversy in Roman Catholicism and not knowing about either the Pope or
the Vatican.

Had the writer traveled to Mexico in the company of employees of a
biotechnology firm, we would never have heard the end of it and anything
written would have been dismissed simply on this basis alone without the
necessity of any factual refutation. A widely shared characteristic of
anti-science groups across the political spectrum is a Manichaean view of
the complete corruption of those they oppose, and the purity of their own cause.

In many respects the problem is more complicated and therefore more
difficult for scientists to address. It is becoming increasingly obvious
that no matter how clear and meticulous in fact and scientific reason one
may be in presenting a scientific theory or refuting pseudo-scientific
falsehoods, a large portion of the public is simply not receptive.
The question is why and what can be done about it? The why is easier to
address than is what can be done about it.

The very human curiosity that leads to scientific inquiry makes us
creatures who wish to have answers and make use of these answers to
navigate the world around us. I have often quoted, from John Dewey’s The
Quest for Certainty (Dewey, 1929, p. 3):

Man who lives in a world of hazards is compelled to seek for
security. He has sought to attain it in two ways. One of them began with
an attempt to propitiate the powers which environ him and determine his
destiny. … The other course is to invent arts and by their means turn the
powers of nature to account; man constructs a fortress out of the very
conditions and forces which threaten him. … This is the method of
changing the world through action, as the other is the method of changing
the self in emotion and ideas.

In many ways myth and science are two sides of the same coin as attempts to
explain the world around us. It is thus understandable that some of us have
believed that, as the realm of what could be understood is expanded, the
realm of myth would give way and contract. What we failed to realize is
that we essentially inherit the myths: we grow up with
them as a part of our everyday culture, so it requires little effort in
subscribing to them. Much basic science
has become a part of this package, so people have no problem in believing in
many cause and effect relationships. What takes effort is to learn
of the larger dimensions of science that have been progressively displacing
myth or simply superseding a lack of knowledge in a number of areas. It is
far easier to cling to inherited ways of thought then it is to engage in a
process of learning new things.

Though many seek to cling to the old beliefs in a pure form, science and
technology have transformed our world in ways that are too obvious to be
totally ignored. There are a variety of pseudo-science beliefs that are an
extension of traditional mythology and purport to be compatible with
modern science, or better still, they purport to be science in a purer and less
corrupted form. On this view intelligent design is better science than what is
being offered by biologists, whose views are distorted by their secular
ideologies. On the other side of the spectrum, beliefs in a natural harmony
that is violated by biotechnology is superior science to that of scientists
who have been bought off by large corporations (whether or not they have ever
received any funding from them). Any argument that the conflict over the
teaching of evolution or genetic modification is one of science vs.
anti-science is vehemently rejected.

The ease of mastering the rhetoric of contemporary pseudo-science is part of its appeal. “Training sessions” in which the
pseudo-science vocabulary can be learned have become part of the activists’
agenda. The appeal of these beliefs, in addition to their flowing
seamlessly from what one has already learned, is that a few simple beliefs
seemingly can explain everything – which to a scientist means that they
in fact explain nothing.

The world of contemporary knowledge is so vast that it is beyond the
comprehension of any individual to master even the smallest part of it. It
is far easier to accept an all encompassing pseudo-scientific formula. This
worries those of us who wish to create a world where
questions of fact are explored and resolved, at least provisionally, by
science and reason. This does not preclude differing moral and ethical
considerations, but it does mean that morals and ethics can not be based on
factual claims that are demonstrably false. An anti-biotechnology
referendum that was passed in a California county, defined DNA as a complex
protein found in every cell of the body. This egregious error in basic
biology seriously undermines the credibility of its proponents – except in the eyes
of the believers.

The fact is that we can navigate the world intelligently without the need
for myths and pseudo-science. The immensity of knowledge may in some
respects be a problem for each of us, but in more important respects, the way
in which this knowledge was created provides us
with a roadmap. Just because I am in a newsgroup in
which scientists exchange ideas, explain issues and counter the errors of
the anti-scientists, does not mean that I as an economist, have anything
more than a superficial understanding of their explanations. What
reinforces my acceptance of what is said is my trust in the scientific
method, peer review, and the larger body of scientific practices. Part of my
trust is simply that these methods are an integral part of my own work as
an economist. It is what allows me to select between competing ideas and
navigate my way through the world. And it is the success of this method in
transforming our lives for the better that it gives it a moral and ethical

In my judgment, the scientific method and the democratic ideal are integral
to one another. Both scientific inquiry and democracy are self-correcting methods,
one is correction by ongoing inquiry in which prior beliefs no longer stand
the test of experimental inquiry and new more verifiable propositions
supersede them. Democracies can correct this election’s errors in the next
election or the one after that; both are a work-in-progress.

Being self-correcting is an implicit recognition of possibly being wrong.
Whatever the possibility of being wrong may be, the very self-correcting
aspect of the process is one more factor that makes the outcomes of science
or democracy more likely to be right today than any other way, and even
more likely to be right tomorrow than any other form of inquiry. To
paraphrase Winston Churchill, democracy is the worst form of government
except for all others. Given the possibility of error, both science and the
democratic ideal reject absolutism of all sorts, including those that
entitle one to trample on the rights of others such as destroying a field
of transgenic crops in the name of saving the planet. Tolerance is a key idea.

In science, there is or should be a continued re-examination of the
validity of the method as it is practiced. In recent days there have been articles in prestigious journals concerning the way in
which biases are creeping into scientific research such as clinical tests
for pharmaceuticals, and suggestions for ways of overcoming them. The
activists will point to these studies, not as a strength of scientific
inquiry, but as evidence of its corruption. However, when is the last time
that any of the groups pushing a pseudo-science agenda stopped to question
the validity of their beliefs or whether their actions were helping or
harming humankind? A thriving democracy should always be involved in
internal debate concerning its ideals and practices. Both science and
democracy require freedom of thought and freedom of exchange of ideas for
their effective functioning. Participating actively and intelligently in a
democracy provides the same barriers as being knowledgeable about science;
it takes concerted effort and is far more complicated than simply following
the dictates of a peerless leader or a totalizing ideology. The widespread
acceptance of the basic principles of democracy means that like science,
many more claim to be adhering to it than is the case in practice.

Evidence-based knowledge derived from experimental scientific inquiry
allows policy formation on every level from the personal to the public, to
be dynamic and respond to changing circumstances. Ideologically driven
policy is almost by definition binding and static, capable of
obstruction but not progress. John Dewey spoke about a “warranted
assertion.” However ignorant each of us may be about other areas of
science, technology, and engineering, we can each accept their findings as
being both provisional as all knowledge is, and at the same time to be
warranted assertions as a basis for action until better ideas come along.
In other words, instead of the blind faith of believers, we can
simultaneously have trust and still retain a measure of reservation and
skepticism. This requires that all inquiry be kept open and that vigorous
dissent be encouraged.

It has often been noted that the critics of genetically modified food crops,
who frame their opposition both as pseudo-science and as opposition to
corporate dominance of agriculture, have had a perverse impact on the
industry exactly opposite to what they claim to be their intent. By
attacking the science of transgenic modification, they make it difficult to
get the kind of public research funding for it that would give farmers public and private sources for the kinds of crop improvement that biotechnology makes possible. Not only do the protests reduce public research funding for agricultural biotechnology, but the
cumbersome, expensive regulations that frightened politicians are
imposing make it virtually impossible for small firms to afford them, which
then leads to the kind of industry concentration that the critics claim to
be fighting.

The “precautionary principle” and other alleged safety concerns that have
been driving up the cost of getting new crops marketed, have also had other
perverse impacts. As I argued above, our trust in the scientific inquiry
that provides us with the evidence for the most warranted actions,
including considerations of safety, is predicated upon an open process,
including dissenting views. In a kind of Gresham’s law of public attention
span, bad criticism drives out good. Scientists are rightfully hesitant to
voice criticism when it might identify them with anti-science activists.
Further, there have been too many instances where research that
raises a legitimate safety or environmental concern is seized and grossly
distorted or publicized before a final analysis can be made. Scientists who
seek to withold their findings until the research is completed, or who
offer a more benign interpretation of their results than those of
sensationalized media coverage, will have their integrity questioned and be
charged with a cover-up.

Technology Review had a recent set of postings where Stewart Brand suggested that critics not oppose nuclear power but embrace it and be involved as critics who want to see it done right rather than simply opposing it. Needless to say, his wise suggestion was less than
enthusiastically accepted by those ideologically opposed to nuclear power.
The major criticism against activist groups is that they are obstructing
the introduction of new technology and new improved ways of doing things
for human betterment and opposing the science that can continue this
process. In my judgment, equally as deleterious, is their stifling of the
critical component of the dynamics of scientific inquiry that appropriately
restrains technophiles such as this author and makes the use of it safer,
fairer and more intelligent and beneficial to the human endeavor.

What has been happening is that scientists have been winning the battles
but still managing to lose the war. The message here is that
scientists have to operate at two levels, continually countering the
pseudo-science of false fears and ideological driven beliefs, but at the
same time working to bring about a fundamental
transformation in the public’s understanding of the nature of scientific
inquiry, and allowing scientists
to operate within it.

Scientists have to recognize that when they are countering a demonstrably
false idea, they may well be entering a conflict with the total
worldview of those who hold them. To the family in Kansas that rejects
evolution, the biology teacher at the local school is doing far more than
merely teaching science. The science teacher is in effect entering their
home and family and undercutting beliefs upon which their family and sense
of community is based. Is it any wonder that they feel like
victims? To many activists, the plant bio-technologist is contaminating and
polluting the planet as part of a corporate plot to dominate the global
economy. Is it any wonder that they also feel like victims?
To the absolutist mindset, breeching a principle is the same as abandoning
it, and therefore any concession to differing views amounts to total
surrender. This helps to explain why many disillusioned ex-communists became radical conservatives, why activists’ opposition
to transgenic food crops is total, and why the scientific
research use of embryonic stem cells is defined as taking a human life.

As the new millennium was approaching, there were many candidates for the greatest achievement of the past 1,000 years; one
such candidate was the development of the scientific
method. That candidate has my vote. If we work
at it, one of the greatest achievements of this new millennium
could be the continued refinement of the scientific method, its
integration into the beliefs and practices of everyday life for the greater
part of humankind, and the continuous improvement in the quality of life of
earth’s inhabitants that could be realized as a result.


Dewey, John. 1929. The Quest for Certainty: A Study of the Relation of
Knowledge and Action.
1980 reprint, New York: Capricorn Books, G.P. Putnam
& Sons.

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