Beyond belief

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Beyond belief

Corn follies: a protest in front of the European Union headquarters in Brussels over genetically modified maize crops. Photo by Thierry Roge/Reuters

Unreason, like the poor, will always be with us. But why does quackery survive when science is making life better?

Michael Hanlon is a science journalist whose work has appeared in The Sunday Times and The Daily Telegraph, among others. His latest book is In the Interests of Safety (2014), co-written with Tracey Brown. He lives in London.

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We live, we like to think, in a reasoning age, if not always a reasonable one. Over the past century we have seen spectacular advances in our understanding of the universe. We now have a fairly coherent, if incomplete, picture of how our planet came into being, its age and place in the cosmos, and how the physical world works. We, clever monkeys that we are, understand the processes that lead to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and the factors that influence climate and weather. We have seen the rise of molecular biology and major improvements in public health and medicine, giving billions of people longer, healthier lives.

Indeed, life expectancy is on the rise nearly everywhere. Infant mortality continues to plummet. Humanity has actually managed to eradicate one of the greatest scourges of its existence — smallpox — and we are well on the way to destroying another — polio. It is astonishing, this triumph of reason. As a species, we should be proud.

But of course it is not that simple. As the ideals and technological spin-offs of the Enlightenment make our world ever more unified, unreason continues to flourish. This is something that many thinkers find to be as puzzling as it is distasteful.

In December 2011, the Academia Europaea (a European academy of humanities, letters and sciences) organised a conference at Cambridge University to examine the nature and causes, and possible cures, on ‘Reason and Unreason in 21st-century Science’. I took part in the talks and edited the subsequent transcript, which will be published later this spring. The experience gave me a fascinating insight into the exasperation that many scientists feel at the primitivism that is holding us back.

Let me give one example. The brilliant biotechnologist Ingo Potrykus, emeritus professor at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, and his colleague Peter Beyer, professor of cell biology at the University of Freiburg in Germany, have developed a modified form of rice in which Vitamin A is present in the kernel, or the bit you eat (it is normally present in the leaves, but of course we throw those away). Vitamin A deficiency is not a problem in the West. In the Third World, however, where people depend on rice as a staple and often eat little else, it affects something like 400 million people, irreversibly blinding around half a million children a year.

Isaac Newton believed in alchemy, which was pretty woo-woo even by the standards of the 17th-century

Their ‘Golden Rice’ would solve this problem at a stroke. This GM variety is no more expensive to grow or cultivate than normal strains, and it will require no special chemicals or tie-ins with big biotech firms to cultivate. In fact, Potrykus told the conference it would be free for poor and subsistence farmers. It tastes the same as normal rice. And it has been available since 2000. In a sane world, it would have earned Potrykus and Beyer a Nobel Prize. Yet not a single child in Bangladesh, India, the Philippines or Cambodia has benefitted from this new crop.

The reason is simple: relentless and well-funded campaigns against transgenic technology by (mostly European) NGOs and Green campaigners. Their efforts have led to bans on Golden Rice in the very countries where it could save millions of lives. These warriors against ‘Frankenfoods’ are, even if inadvertently, to blame for the blindness of maybe 3 million children. As Potrykus said at the conference: ‘If our society will not be able to “de-demonise” transgenic technology soon, history will hold it responsible for death and suffering of millions: people in the poor world, not in overfed and privileged Europe, the home of the anti-GMO hysteria.’

What lies at the root of this panic, and others like it? One factor that is often ignored by champions of reason is that science is hard, and getting harder. In the mid-19th century, the ideas of British naturalists such as Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace took hold in part because they were so simple and intuitive (and in part because Darwin was such a clear writer). In those days, it was just about possible for an educated layman to get a grip on the cutting edges of science, medicine and technology. The same feat would be laughably impossible today. The intellectual giants of the 19th century were probably the last humans alive able to know just about everything important that could be known. Today, it is a challenge to know everything about even a tiny subset of knowledge. There are professional scientists who know nothing more than laypeople (and often rather less) about the world outside their own narrow disciplines. It is hard to become a molecular biologist, or a doctor, or an engineer. Yet it is relatively easy to grasp the ‘precautionary principle’ — the belief that, in the absence of scientific proof that something is harmless, we must assume that it is harmful. But, as Lewis Wolpert, professor of cell and developmental biology at University College London, has pointed out, this addled creed would have led early humanity to ban both fire and the wheel.

So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at the proliferation of courses in alternative medicine that erupted like boils throughout Britain’s universities in the early 1990s. It might have less to do with human credulity than with the fact that squirting coffee up people’s bottoms or dangling crystals over their bosoms is easy, whereas acquiring the biochemistry and anatomy needed to be a proper doctor is very difficult.

That inestimable scourge of quackery, David Colquhoun, honorary fellow in pharmacology at University College London, has been waging a 10-year war against ‘magic medicine’ with some success. Most of the wackier courses, such as Spiritual Healing — which Colquhoun described in the Financial Times in 2009 as ‘tea and sympathy, accompanied by arm waving’ — and Angelic Reiki — which he said was ‘excellent for advanced fantasists’ — have now disappeared. Increasingly, it is only the more respectable backwaters of alternative medicine, such as acupuncture, that are still replenished by tuition fees and state funding. A collective embarrassment seems to have taken hold in the chancelleries of the new universities.

It might seem daft that a civilisation that has eradicated smallpox could still allocate public money to teach crystal therapy. But should the continuing existence of unreason still give us cause for despair? Even in the Golden Age of the Enlightenment, when we like to imagine learned men (and the occasional woman) meeting in the salons of Edinburgh, London and Paris to discuss Boyle's Law and the democratic ideals of Thomas Jefferson, there was plenty of silliness. To take just the most prominent example: Isaac Newton, probably the cleverest man ever to have made a living out of his cleverness, invented physics — but also believed in alchemy, which was pretty woo-woo even by the standards of the 17th-century.

In the same way, a great deal of intellectual sloppiness and downright lunacy accompanied the great rational flowering of the 19th century. Darwin himself was sensible on most matters, but you couldn’t say the same for his followers. His cousin Sir Francis Galton, a humane and brilliant man in many ways, believed that clever people should be paid to marry each other and have extra children ‘for the improvement of the race’. Many other eminent Victorian and early 20th-century thinkers cleaved to a crude ‘scientific’ racism. Parallel to the development of evolutionary biology, nuclear physics and relativity, we’ve seen the advent of phrenology, spiritualism (Alfred Russel Wallace was a fan), occultism and a plague of quackery and snake oil that could have occupied Professor Colquhoun’s forebears for the rest of their days.

Science is not a well-maintained Swiss watch so much as a ramshackle, creaking machine held together with shims and bodges

Are things any better today? In some respects, perhaps they are worse. Scientists are distrusted in a way they were not 100 years ago. The whole scientific enterprise looks to many like some sort of sinister conspiracy, created by the industrial establishment to make money at the expense of our health and our planet. ‘Science’ (rather than greed, incompetence, laziness or simple expediency) gets blamed for the degradation of our environment, pollution and threats to species. In the internet age, conspiracy theorists prosper. Comments such as ‘the Moon landings were faked’, ‘medicine kills far more people than it saves’, or ‘vaccines do more harm than good’ gain a spurious truth through repetition. We live in the era of the instant, self-proclaimed expert. Furthermore, the media loves conspiracies. The idea that, for example, the HIV-AIDS link was either a gigantic mistake or some sort of pharmaceutical fraud was too good a story to miss, despite the fact that it was obviously untrue.

It is not enough to dismiss this kind of scepticism as irrational, insane or evil. In many cases, unreason emerges as a result of a complex interplay of religious faith and dogma, well-meaning concern and an attachment to that dreaded precautionary principle. Add in intellectual inertia, some well-founded suspicion of certain scientific enterprises (the activities of some pharmaceutical companies, the historical secrecy of the nuclear industry, resistance to anti-pollution measures and so forth), not to forget simple misunderstanding and you have a heady mix.

We must also accept that reason doesn’t always live up to its own standards. The motto of the Royal Society is Nullius in verba — ‘Take nobody’s word for it’. In reality, though, science is dominated (like any field) by the great and the good, grandees whose word is taken as read. The world of reason is itself riddled with feuds, egotism and, occasionally, downright fraud. Scientists and doctors are people, not machines. They are driven by the same forces that motivate professionals of any kind — which include money, sex, the desire to be respected, liked and even feared alongside the more noble impulses of curiosity, determination, professionalism and perfectionism. And so we must accept that corners can be cut, publications can be biased, and the peer-review system can be corrupted. To paraphrase Winston Churchill’s dictum on democracy, peer review is the worst system there is for evaluating scientific claims, except for all the others. Plenty of things look like science but are not; the American physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman called this ‘cargo cult science’. Many of the psychological findings that make their way into the newspapers — together with ‘formulas’ for the perfect love-match, the perfect day, or the perfect sandwich — are no more scientific than angelic reiki. We must accept that science is not a well-maintained Swiss watch so much as a ramshackle, creaking machine held together with shims and bodges.

And so we come to religion, the oldest ‘unreason’ of all. The question of how to define the relationship between science and faith has occupied minds great and not-so-great for centuries. The answer, such as it is, is clearly a muddle. The late American evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of ‘Non-overlapping magisteria’ is currently rather unfashionable but it describes well the conflict, or lack of it, that exists between most forms of religious belief and science.

It is true that the kind of basic science that is taught in schools, for instance, does occasionally contradict widespread supernatural beliefs. In most cases, the severity of these conflicts has been overstated — as indeed it was in the past. The great shouting match between Bishop Samuel Wilberforce and the biologist Thomas Henry Huxley at a public debate in Oxford in 1860 was nothing of the sort, and the theologian and the man they called ‘Darwin’s bulldog’ remained friends afterwards. That seems a good model for how to handle such irreconcilable disagreements.

A separate question is the role of faith in science, and the scientific explanation (if there is one) for faith itself. Is some sort of mysticism, a predilection for unreason, hard-wired into the human brain? Very few cultures or societies have lacked religion. When supernatural belief systems are absent, secular religions such as Leninism-Marxism, Nazism or the peculiar personality cults of North Korea quickly emerge to take their place. And so it seems unlikely that unreason will ever disappear entirely.

However, it can be kept in check — and this is good news not only for the eradication of polio, Vitamin A deficiency and so forth, but for unexpected spin-offs as well. One of the peculiarities of history is the extraordinary decline in human violence — recently charted by the psychologist Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011) among others — that seems to have accompanied the explosion of health and wealth brought about by science. It is possible that reason and reasonableness go hand in hand.

Nevertheless, it seems likely that unreason, like the poor, will always be with us. We are not going to see a future of ‘brainy people sitting about in togas swapping theorems’, as the English science fiction writer Michael Moorcock put it in The Guardian in 2008. In amusement arcades you often find a game called ‘Whack-a-Mole’. It consists of a table with a dozen or so holes in it. When you put your money in, little plastic or wooden critters pop their heads out of the holes. The game is to thwack as many of them as possible, with a mallet, in the short interval before they go back underground. The more you hit, the more, it seems, they pop up.

The fight against unreason is something like this, too. Up pops witchcraft — thwack! — only to be replaced by alchemy. Here is institutionalised religious fundamentalism — but then, kerpow! — up pops Victorian mysticism. In the 20th century, ‘scientific’ racism, phrenology and eugenics were all given the mallet treatment, only to see homeopathy, reflexology, anti-vaccination and GM hysteria pop up to take their place. My guess is that the well of unreason will never run dry — indeed, I suppose it will always contain roughly the same amount of liquid. We just have to hope that this liquid becomes less toxic every time we pull up a new bucket.

Read more essays on biotechnology, knowledge, philosophy of science and progress & modernity


  • Lester

    Oh the hubris, oh the reductionism, oh what foolish bedfellows.

    The most dangerous ideology is the one that purports not to be so, the one that claims neutrality whilst erecting invisible and impenetrable barriers for it's disciples.

    It is interesting that whilst the triumphalist materialists begin to cherry pick their own scientific larder, refusing to accept sciences own proof of the falsehood of the rational model of humanity, they do so to the chant of "being realists".

    And it's fascinating that the cold reality of capitalism's true hold over scientific progress is also conveniently ignored, and arguments about the wishy-washy foolishness of "greenies" fail to understand the danger of not only mono-cultural biological environments but condensed power relationships - the ultimate reality of the Agro-business "Science"departments.

    And of course the greatest of all hubris: as the world collapses under the weight of pollution and enters a period of mass-extinction and environmental disaster, as the economics, social and opportunity inequality's reach a point that would shame the Egyptians the Romans and the Mega-rich of the Golden Age, we are supposed to celebrate the "rationality" of our depressed-ridden tottering industrialized societies that cyclically fail through precisely this same delirious hubristic rejoicing millennium after millennium .

    • Toby Smithe

      Quite right, if put with more than a little sensationalism..

      • Lester

        I would have said compared to the article's sensationalism my comment was dressed in grey and considered a egg-mayo sandwich on white bread as risque!

    • Granite Sentry

      Spoken like one determined to ignore the almost incalculable advances rationalism has brought to the modern world. Your evident belief that early humanity's hunting and gathering days were purer and therefore better than modernity might well be cured by one good bout sans antibiotics with a tooth abscess -- the kind of thing that killed people regularly in the good old days. You are echoing the Left's favorite foundation myth: That things were ever so much better before agriculture, civilization, and IBM ruined it all. Please feel free to don a loincloth and squat in the jungle, but don't require the rest of us to join you, or ask us to come and get you when that scratch on your leg turns septic.

      • Lester

        Actually Granite Sentry, if you read my post without your "Favourite Immediate Response Filter Specs"on, you'll find, possibly for the first time in the history of my posting ,that I am innocent of every single one of your accusations!

        That's quite a record GraniteS!

        So, that leaves me with nothing to actually respond to except to say that your post is a beautiful example of a poster reading between the lines to satisfy their own prejudice without actually taking in anything actually written.

        If it makes you feel better I nor anyone I know wants to live in a cave or move to North Korea ;)

  • rameshraghuvanshi

    Be remember we are irrational animal,though bit of our brain rational most part of brain irrational.Why this so?Simple answer is we are living in shadow of death it may occurred at any moment to save our life we are always behaved irrational way.

  • 3dBloke

    "Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of ‘Non-overlapping magisteria’ is currently rather unfashionable but it describes well the conflict, or lack of it, that exists between most forms of religious belief and science."

    Only a religious believer would suggest there is no conflict between faith and science. How does a Christian reconcile evolution of species with the biblical creation myth and "original sin", without which the whole Jesus Christ story is meaningless?

    • Gyrus

      "Faith vs. Science" seems to be, for the most part, "Relatively Recent Manifestations of Monotheism vs. Science". Even as the Church approached its condemnation of Copernicanism, there were many voices within the faith arguing that the Bible should not be taken literally. The decision to take it literally was a particular historical event, and no doubt led to the ongoing Evolution vs. Creation contest. As soon as you accept that the Bible isn't literal, there's plenty of room for faith and science to co-exist. The big mistake on the part of science advocates is to lump all religious and spiritual systems in with modern monotheism. I'm not quite sure if you're doing that here, but that's another issue - very often the terms of this debate are unclear, and the vast richness of ancient and non-monotheist belief suffers for the sins of the narrow-minded Christians.

      • drokhole

        Yep, I hardly ever see Eastern wisdom traditions like Taoism, Hinduism, or Buddhism as part of the polemic (the one exception might be from Sam Harris). And it's always the literalist take on the Bible that is put forward and (easily) ridiculed/dismissed, with a cartoonish image of "God" as an old man with a white beard. There was a researcher from the University of Pennsylvania named Dr. Andrew Newberg who even asked a mix of believers, agnostics and atheists—young and old—to draw a picture of God. According to Steve Volk (a journalist who talked with Dr. Newberg and covered the study):

        "He found that atheists and children were the groups most likely to draw an old man on a cloud-type God. Believers, on the other hand, tended to draw an abstract God—a being, in only the loosest of terms, best understood as a force or idea."

        That's not to say all atheists take such a simplistic approach, or that it proves or disproves a metaphysical reality - only that most of the time people aren't even speaking on the same terms (even if they are using the same terms).

        On a somewhat related note, in this fantastic lecture Alan Watts explores how the Western image of the world has shifted over time - from the "ceramic" to the mechanistic/"fully-automatic" - and how they are both equally "myths" (in terms of "how we try to make sense of the world"). He also notes how they compare/differ to those Eastern conceptions of it and ourselves:

        Alan Watts - Our Image of the World

        • Gyrus

          Yes, Alan Watts is a fine guide to the view if you step back from the science vs. religion foreground. He fed on the cybernetic ideas of Wiener and Bateson, and together with non-western religious philosophies made some great arguments that get to the background behind science vs. religion. Taoism seems especially interesting, given its emphasis on spontaneity. Narrow Darwinians often forget that there are entire spiritual systems based on spontaneity, which leaves ample room for overlaps with science's anti-teleological frame. They're just conditioned by their reaction to specific ideas in Western religion. Two sides of one coin.

    • Michael Hanlon

      Most Christians - including the people who run the Roman Catholic Church - have no problem nowadays with the evolution of the species. It does not contradict religious dogma at all, unless you are a fundamentalist Young Earth Creationist, which few people are outside the United States. The Vatican buried whatever hatchet it had with Darwin 63 years ago, and today not only has no problem with evolution but is also relaxed about the concept of extraterrestrial life

      • 3dBloke

        It's pretty desperate, though, isn't it. Scrabbling to accommodate ever more undeniable evidence that so much that once was literally the word of God is no more than mythology and propaganda. Where does the "joyous message of Jesus" fit into the scheme of things, and his sacrifice for mankind's original sin?

        • Michael Hanlon

          That's for the Churches to sort out among themselves. I have no faith, but the reason for that has very little to do with my attachment to scientific rationalism.

  • natcase

    The problem with "unreason" is the same as that with "atheism." Neither are or pretend to be a coherent system in and of themselves. Instead they are the named non-territories held to be in opposition to the "real lands" of truth. Two thousands on, it is the heathens and barbarians all over again. "Them" is not the opposite of "us" and well developed systems of understanding like Islam, Chinese medicine, and astrology need to be approached each as their own island of the mind and soul, not just as a generic "other."

    The key to finding opposition to any system is to look for corruption: places where the ideological underpinnings have been corroded by self or small-group interest. Thus the opposition to GMO's is largely grounded in the aggressive campaigns by large agrobusinesses to own not just the products they buy and sell, but the basic rights of farmers to manage their farms. Farmers are being sued out of business because of cross-pollination from neighboring fields, and people feel rightly that this is an intrusion on the essential structure of a good, decentralized farming system.

    We can see the same sorts of corruption wrecking people's trust in representative democracy and the Christian church—one is closer to science in being grounded in a modern sense of diffuse and egalitarian competition, the other is based equally between people's contiuning experience of and desire for the numinous and a millennia-old (and therefore extraordinarily rich) set of stories and social structures.

    All living things grow old and decay. Some day Science will be old like the church. Already, as you say, it has ossified at the lay level into high-school "lab" experiments that merely re=prove over and over what has been proven millions of times already: ideas that were new hundreds of years ago. The novelty is not what makes living systems live and work, but the fact that only specialists can understand the cutting edge changes the nature of this beast, and we still rely on that freshness of ancient vision the same way religions rely on the wonder of millennia-old revelations.

    • Michael Hanlon

      I do not understand this argument. What are you saying? That 'science' is 'just another belief system'? Dear oh dear .... Astrology a 'well developed system of understanding'? Er ...

      • natcase

        What I'm saying is that grouping all non-rational (or-not-based-on-repeatable-evidence) systems of knowledge as "unreason" is like calling druids, shinto practitioners, Hindus and shamans all "heathens." It posits an ontological territory that is not really a territory but a "terra incognita." I'm not arguing that astrology is science, or like science, or equivalent to science. Actually, I think that sort of competing claim is one of our biggest problems as a society right now, especially when it's made by religious fundamentalists who want their point of view to carry the same sort of weight as science does. Far better to rigorously define the space you actually DO cover, as creators of fiction do, for example.

        Atheism as a concept is the same; it's why I hate calling myself that though I technically am one. It's like my going to Germany and introducing myself just as "not German." It says nothing about where I am from, just that there is no literal "theos" there.

        I don't see "unreason" on its own being the problem. I see corruption as the problem. We have all kinds of unreason running around in our heads, and the heads of our neighbors. Our reason can't control all of it. SOME of the non-reason-based tools we have developed over millennia may be useful as ways of living with this part of ourselves. Indeed, shouldn't the goal be to not just "live with" this part of ourselves, but to make it a whole part of ourselves? Find a way for unreason to not just be a second-class citizen, but also not cede total control? Surely it is not an either/or?

  • Socrates11

    Beautifully put Lester. It seems more foolish to trust those that repeatedly abuse the eco-systems we are all part of than to retain a healthy skeptism for proclamations of saviour science.

    Regular ethical deliberation in the public sphere about developing technologies would be a useful, inclusive way forward but generally the mass media seem incapable of meeting their public interest role with anything approaching robust factual evidence or balance.

  • Gyrus

    Evolutionary fitness is proved over much longer time periods than that which has elapsed since the Greeks kicked off Western science, let alone the blip since modern science came into being. Obviously religion - especially monotheism - has maladaptive and downright silly elements. But again, that's a blip compared to the hundreds of thousands of years through which myth and magic served us very well. Why does a few centuries of deeply ambivalent material power trump countless millennia of survival? The Darwinian jury's going to be out for a while on this one.

    For me the lesson of the "Whack-a-Mole" analogy is there's something fundamental here that's not being managed well. It's an apt image: people convinced of the pre-eminence of narrowly-conceived "reason" frantically and vainly trying to crush the cognitive functions that are ingrained in us from long periods of natural selection. The manifestations of these non-rational functions become ever-more bizarre and maladaptive as they're attacked and given paltry spaces in which to exist.

    The comparison between "unreason" and "the poor" is revealing, too. I assume the old tendency of power elites to demonize those they exploit is unintended? Still, the image fits together with the "Whack-a-Mole" image. "Unreason" is treated like the lower classes who are poorly fed and brutalized - and we react in shock and disgust when subsequently confronted with such shabby specimens.

    • drokhole

      Brilliant! It's as if we should ignore large swaths of human experience. Of course, the argument put forth then is man can't trust his own experience. But if experience is to be distrusted, how can we trust our distrust of ourselves?

      It was interesting that the author made mention of mysticism (only as fodder to 'Thwack' down, of course). I've found it to be a punching bag for science and Western religion alike (hey, common ground!). In Western religion, the words of true mystics are seldom orthodox. Orthodoxy seems to have decreed that God is God and Man is Man and never the twain shall meet. God is ‘other’ and always separate to us, but both eastern and western ‘mystics’ alike tend to assert that God can be experienced by man or that by the raising of our consciousness we can enter into the very mind of God. Thus the true mystics are according to orthodox views, somewhat heretical (there are, of course, exceptions - Quakers, for example). Similarly, according to science, these "direct experiences" are nothing more than regressions, psychotic episodes, and/or unwanted vestiges of the "primitive" workings of the brain (and, most of all, can't be trusted!).

      In the meantime, ignored are specific examples and reports from otherwise "rational" individuals (and a good deal of beautiful/lucid poetry - like that of Walt Whitman). For example, like this website "devoted to transcendent experiences that scientists have reported":

      The Archives of Scientists’ Transcendent Experiences

      One such example of "Cosmic Consciousness" came from a self-identified (at the time) "atheistic materialist" (as many of those submitting accounts were):

      My Experience of Cosmic Consciousness

      "The benign nature and ground of being, with which I was united, was God. However, there is little relation between my experience of God as ground of being and the anthropomorphic God of the Bible. That God is separate from the world and has many human characteristics. ‘He’ demonstrates love, anger and vengeance, makes demands, gives rewards, punishes, forgives, etc. God as experienced in Cosmic Consciousness is the very ground or ‘beingness’ of the universe and has no human characteristics in the usual sense of the word. The universe could no more be separate from God than my body could be separate from its cells. Moreover, the only emotion that I would associate with God is love, but it would be more accurate to say that God is love than God is loving. Again, even characterizing God as love and the ground of being is only a metaphor, but it is the best that I can do to describe an indescribable experience."

      Now, that might not be proof to others of what religion (at its best) points to (which has been called the source/"living fount" of religion...and what Huxley considered "The Perennial Philosophy"), but it certainly shouldn't be dismissed off-hand or as, when considering his full account, being void of "reason." Even if considered as nothing more than a state of consciousness, the fact that it's a human possibility deserves (you would think) further investigation. As William James put it:

      "No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves those other forms of consciousness quite disregarded."

      • Orlagh O’Brien

        Interesting account, thank you!

    • Michael Hanlon

      "But again, that's a blip compared to the hundreds of thousands of years through which myth and magic served us very well ..." - would those be the hundreds of thousands of years when humans killed, raped, butchered and even ate each other at rates two or three orders of magnitude than are seen today in most industrialised societies? The golden age is today I am afraid.

      • Gyrus

        There is no Golden Age. However, things were very different in the Palaeolithic from the image created by our neo-Victorian prejudices.

        I'm guessing your statement is based on Steven Pinker's work. I've not read 'Better Angels' yet, but from what I've seen it's merely an expansion of the section dealing with the same topics in 'Blank Slate'. While that was an excellent book, his grasp of the issue of violence among foragers and in prehistory is shallow and dubious. It's an extremely complex topic that cannot be dealt with in the soundbites like "things are more peaceful now". (Or, for that matter, "things were more peaceful then". Actual belief in a Rousseauian idyll is generally limited to a small and misinformed section of the public, and isn't found among serious researchers. As Ter Ellingson has shown in 'The Myth of the Noble Savage', that trope was originally set up as a straw man by a racist Victorian attempting a coup of the Ethnological Society.)

        To take one point as an example, many people draw on the high statistical murder rate among hunter-gatherers, sometimes as high as 40 per 100,000 per annum. This does indeed drastically overshadow New York’s 2008 rate of around 6.2 per 100,000 per annum, and rivals modern murder hotspots like Jamaica and South Africa (the urban areas, that is). One pictures endless aggression, ceaseless bloodbaths… In short, Hobbes’ “continual fear and danger of violent death”.

        However, lived reality is rather different. This seemingly sky-high murder rate in a population of around 150 (a typical !Kung band) pans out to, on average, one killing every fifteen to twenty years. Once a generation. Anthropologist Raymond C. Kelly remarks: "Thus [despite the statistically high murder rate] the general tenor of daily social relations observed by the ethnographer can readily be a strongly positive one of friendship, camaraderie, and communal sharing that is very rarely disrupted by argument or physical fighting."

        Scale matters when comparing. And the "objectivity" of statistics is deceptive. I find it disturbing when simple numbers like this are rallied to bolster a status quo that is ambivalent at best, and demonize cultures that have been consistently decimated.

        I wrote a slim book in response to Pinker's argument, and the general current debate about violence in early societies:

        BTW, you threw rape into the mix there. Where are you getting your stats for rape in prehistory from? Obviously it would have happened. But you know enough about it to glibly compare it to our own society? Or are you just pushing Victorian buttons?

        • Alex


          Actually, from what information we have today, our beginnings were a lot calmer than what we have today and the simple logic is that they actually needed each other to survive.

          Before getting to seasonal agriculture, the nomad tribes of hunters and gatherers would set their hunting paths so they could intersect with others to trade, share experiences and mate with the other females of the other tribes in order to keep blood fresh. As Will Durant said in his amazing work History of Civilizations, they instinctively knew they should not mate with the same bloodline. Who knows, maybe they got it right through unfortunate experiments.

          I think we give them far less credit than we should. Our ancestors managed to survive in world that was not meant for their survival.

          Humanity became full of douche-bags only after it migrated to seasonal agriculture and we suddenly developed the concept of ”land ownership”.

      • beachcomber

        You have good reason to be afraid that the "golden age " is today. In the last 100 years the hundreds of millions killed in the 1st, 2nd World Wars, the Soviet Communist and Maoist revolutions, the Middle East conflict, the intratribal slaughters in Africa would probably be several magnitudes of the earth's populations over the last 15,000 years of settled civilization. This is only the "golden age" for the well-heeled.

      • Granite Sentry

        I'd give it up, Mr. Hanlon. These folks use the form and appearance of rational debate to obfuscate rather than reveal the truth. Back them in a corner and most will refuse to admit there's even such thing as "truth," except of course as the term might be applied to their own knee-jerk anti-modernism. Loved your essay and I'll seek out your book.

    • AverageStarmer

      I agree with you, apart from the hint you gave that science may be unnatural though I may be misinterpreting. Science in a sense requires faith, that is when you try to find out why something happens you need to believe their is actually a reason, it takes discipline so it's similar to other faiths but allot more useful and humane, the entire argument about reason and unreason are based on a false premise built on arrogance.

      I think insurmountably worse than all creeds, cults and traditional religions are the most modern versions of state religion that exists in America, UK and other powerful nations which are used as justifications for war these blind people to clear brutality and poverty any arguments about unreason should highlight this before deviating to talk about faith and science.

      • Gyrus

        I wasn't aware of any hint that science is unnatural. It's a semantic game in the end, and I can equally shift my perspective and see modern civilization as a break from nature, as much as I can see cities as very peculiar flowers. For the most part it depends on the perspective of timescale.

        Anyway, my point really was that the cultural adaptions supported by modern science simply haven't been around long enough for any of the smug triumphalism that gets attached to them. Certainly not on the evolutionary timescale, and not even on the timescale of most civilizations. They obviously have a lot going for them, but their deep ambivalence is overlooked in the back-and-forth between knee-jerk anti-modernism and rationalist fundamentalism. I'm just arguing for a little humility, and a little respect for the long-term viability so clearly evidenced by cultures based on spiritual beliefs (i.e. every culture until the past few hundred years). Science without humility is no longer science.

  • drokhole

    Oh, light of reason and sole defender of science! Well, selective "science," anyway. Let's look at one of those modern miracles that serves as the foundation of your argument: "Golden" rice.

    To start, a child would need to consume 12 POUNDS of it per day to meet the sufficient nutritional requirements of Vitamin A. But, even more importantly, in order for the body to properly absorb it, fats and additional nutrients are needed, which the rice severely lacks:

    “Even if golden rice is successfully introduced, it will likely do little to ameliorate VAD because it produces so little beta-carotene – just 1.6 micrograms per gram rice (µg/g) at present, with a goal of 2.0 µg/g. Even if scientists reach this goal, a woman would need to eat 16 lbs. of cooked rice every day in order to get sufficient Vitamin A, if golden rice were her only source of the nutrient. A child would need 12 lbs. More realistically, three servings of 1/2lb. cooked golden rice per day would provide only 10% of her daily Vitamin A requirement, and less than 6% if she were breast-feeding. Yet even these modest contributions are uncertain. In order to absorb beta-carotene, the human body requires adequate amounts of zinc, protein and fats, elements often lacking in the diets of poor people. Those with diarrhea – common in developing countries – are also unable to obtain vitamin A from golden rice.”

    So, Vitamin A deficiency is caused by a less diverse diet. Terrace farming used to involve complimenting rice paddies with a biodiverse array of fish like tilapia, ducks, duck eggs, and nutrient dense greens at the margins – all of which adding to a much more balanced and varied diet. Not so with GMO rice and growing practices. The fish can’t survive the fertilizers/pesticides, and ducks can’t wade through dense paddies. There may not have been as much rice per acre grown, but total output (fish, rice, ducks, duck eggs, etc…) was quite substantial. And even that (total output of rice alone) is being surpassed by innovative permaculture techniques (working with know, that "pseudo" stuff that your high science is superior to in every way):

    Miracle grow: Indian farmers smash crop yield records without GMOs

    The fact is that in many of the places where there is a deficiency, there are plenty of better sources of Vitamin A. Here are some that can be grown in India:

    Source Hindi name/ Content (microgram/100g)

    (Amaranth leaves) Chauli saag=266-1,166 -
    (Coriander leaves) – Dhania=1,166-1,333
    (Cabbage) Bandh gobi=217
    (Curry leaves)-Curry patta=1,333
    (Drumstick leaves)-Saijan patta1=283
    (Fenugreek leaves)-Methi-ka-saag=450
    (Radish leaves)-Mooli-ka-saag=750
    (Spinach)-Palak saag=600
    (Pumpkin (yellow))-Kaddu=100-120
    (Mango (ripe))-Aam=500
    (Tomato (ripe))-Tamatar=32
    (Milk (cow, buffalo))-Doodh=50-60

    So why aren’t people eating these? Because the world food markets demand they grow rice, so that’s all there is to eat. The ‘problem’ is caused by our economic system. The solution is *not* to use an unnecessary technology to *fix* it. Not to mention the fact that it makes the farmers indebted (more like indentured) to those oh so benevolent corporations.

    Oh, and then there's research that is turning the notion of tinkering with plant genetics on its head (the classic GMO focus), and instead coming to realize the role that beneficial microbes (and biodiversity) play:

    Plant viruses: Enemies no longer

    Which can be tied into the human organism, and how - yes, Virginia - stuff like antibiotics and vaccines (especially wanton use of) can have damaging effects on our microbiome (and, in turn, "our" health):

    Scientists Discover That Antimicrobial Wipes and Soaps May Be Making You (and Society) Sick

    Crucial Colonizers: Western Lifestyle Disturbing Key Bacterial Balance

    Back to agriculture (but still taking a "terrain theory" approach to things) - look, too, at Allan Savory's method of building soils (through planned grazing management of herds), which also bucks the trend of conventional "science":

    Allan Savory: How to green the world's deserts and reverse climate change

    "We just have to hope that this liquid becomes less toxic every time we pull up a new bucket."

    Then you probably want to steer clear of any well near a GMO field. In closing:

    Do GMO Crops Really Have Higher Yields?

    'Superweeds' Linked to Rising Herbicide Use in GM Crops, Study Finds


    • Michael Hanlon

      Those figures are simply incorrect. While the first strains of Golden Rice would not, on their own, have completely solved the Vitamin A problem subsequent refinements have produced varieties which provide adequate Vitamin A from just three OUNCES of rice a day.

      • drokhole

        Have there been any studies proving the efficacy of absorption rates from three ounces of Golden Rice-2 in malnourished children suffering from (among other things) VAD? The only studies to my knowledge were conducted by Tufts, both using healthy individuals (one with only 5 adults from the Boston area) with already well-balanced diets and no gastro-intestinal disorders. Again, if dietary fat and other nutrients are required for Vitamin A absorption, that would suggest that the diet will have to be supplemented with other foods. If that still requires a diversified diet, not only will they be able to attain Vitamin A from other more robust sources, but an array of other nutrients and phytonutrients that GR-2 lacks. Thus, wouldn't farming space better be utilized as a diverse landscape of crops/animals, which would provide access to more nutrients, rather than a monoculture crop of GR-2? Especially considering monoculture GR-2 is more prone to shocks (pests, drought, etc...) because of its lack of diversity.

        See, that's something that is convenient to ignore in these discussions but inseparable from the actual practice/context. Again, it is not a separate discussion. Soil management is the true key long-term investment for farmers and our food/nutrition, and monocultures using petrochemical-intensive inputs (the bedfellow of GMOs) have been proven to erode soil at an incredible rate, with large amounts of it (along with fertilizers/pesticides) washing off into lakes, rivers and oceans, polluting waters and damaging ecosystems along the way. Plus, weaker soils mean weaker plants more susceptible to disease. Not to mention an increase pesticide/herbicide resistant bugs and weeds (see my last post). Biodiverse practices, meanwhile, have been shown repeatedly to not only balance soil nutrition, but to actively feed nutrients back into the soil, leading to a larger mix of micro- and macro-organisms, more robust and resilient plants, a healthier array of forage choices for livestock, a wider variety of nutrition, a higher degree of water penetration and retention, and a more long-term, sustainable balance with local ecosystems. Two recently completed (and long-term) studies speak to this very fact:

        - A 9-year study conducted by researchers from the USDA, University of Minnesota and Iowa State University. When paired against the conventional corn/soy rotation, less fertilizer was used. This difference actually increased over the course of the study, indicating the quality of the soil was improving over time, instead of experiencing the depletion of common practices.

        Increasing Cropping System Diversity Balances Productivity, Profitability and Environmental Health

        - A study by the University of California, Berkeley. One section of the paper cited research pointing to the positive effects of biodiversity on the numbers of herbivore pests, finding that polycultural planting led to reduction of pest populations by up to 64% (among other benefits).

        Ecosystem Services in Biologically Diversified versus Conventional Farming Systems: Benefits, Externalities, and Trade-Offs

        As noted by Vandana Shiva:

        "The reason there is Vitamin A deficiency in India in spite of the rich biodiversity base and indigenous knowledge base in India is because the Green Revolution technologies wiped out biodiversity by converting mixed cropping systems to monocultures of wheat and rice and by spreading the use of herbicides which destroy field greens."

        So, then, why is it there are those who are so focused on a singular solution to the problem? Wouldn't it be more appropriate to take a systems-wide approach? Why is there a lack of effort on your part to champion these methods and techniques (like mass-scale composting, biochar, Holistic Planned Grazing, mixed stocking of plants/animals, diverse crops, etc...), which would not only supply a much more diverse diet, but build healthy soils/ecologies and put power and control back in the hands of the farmers and their communities? Why isn't this article SCREAMING for these methods and hailing them as a triumph of science and reason? Instead, the hyper-focus on Golden Rice.

        The other thing that gets left out (but mentioned by me and others) is the artificially induced economic pressures of the situation. As Jonathan Foley (Director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota) points out in his new article, this type of problem is found in the market/political power of agribusiness:

        "[a] behemoth largely created by lobbyists, trade associations, big businesses and the government."

        In that article, he echoes Vandana Shiva's call for a true, more sustainable solution:

        "This reimagined agricultural system would be a more diverse landscape, weaving corn together with many kinds of grains, oil crops, fruits, vegetables, grazing lands and prairies. Production practices would blend the best of conventional, conservation, biotech and organic farming. Subsidies would be aimed at rewarding farmers for producing more healthy, nutritious food while preserving rich soil, clean water and thriving landscapes for future generations. This system would feed more people, employ more farmers and be more sustainable and more resilient than anything we have today."

        He is talking of US policy and one of our own staple/commodity crops (corn), but the point remains.

        • beachcomber

          Thanks for a well researched and comprehensive reply to the "scientific" (in this case narrow and bigoted) viewpoint.

          • Granite Sentry

            Truth, especially of the scientific variety, is almost by definition rather narrow, wouldn't you say, bc? Would you want the engineers who design the jets you fly on to be open-minded about the physics they use to keep you alive?

          • beachcomber

            Actually, I would say that truth is a relative concept, which even in scientific research is not accepted as absolute, as has been evidenced by the current understanding of quantum mechanics as opposed to Newtonian physics and that most of science is theoretical. So far from being narrow, it's vast. In the case of this article he uses a specific(unsubstantiated) viewpoint to claim a proof for the whole, which in a peer review community would be thrown out. I would like to point out that the author is a journalist, promoting his latest book, not an employed research scientist.

            And regarding jets and physics, I certainly would like them to be open-minded about physics, aerodynamics, materials, electronics and computer science, otherwise we would still be flying canvas winged biplanes.

  • Walter

    This article leaves me cold. I do not know much about GMOs
    so I am willing to give the author the benefit of the doubt. But I do know
    enough to understand that much of the world’s hunger problems have to do with
    our economic system, which the author does nothing to address. It is really a
    tragedy when people lack the willingness to question their economic system,
    which is the main cause of poverty and hunger, but eagerly jump all over other’s
    peoples fetishes. That someone writing about irrationality could be so
    irrational about his faith for his economic religion is almost comical.

    • Gyula Gubacsi

      Pretty much this. I am all for teaching logical reasoning in place of reinforcement of old, certainly disproved myths, but I have a serious issue with those who preach reason, and scepticism, while using the narrative of the protestant churches against any disagreement.

      For first, the GMO issue is an interesting problem. Many, including me, don't object to the modification of the genetic material, indeed I say that this is the business of agriculture historically. However, there is the other side of the coin that is the economical means of living, there's the repeated practice of well funded corporations that leaves people unwilling to hand such a huge responsibility to only a few private company, whose dealings are nowhere near are spotless. Scepticism goes both ways, and that should be the standard.

      The article describes the major issue at hand, but only deals with it half-heartedly. The understanding of nature and exploiting our knowledge grew enormously in the last few hundred years, just as much the number of people, the number of active human brains on this planet. If belief supposed to be the thing that fills up the gaps in our knowledge, a single person's beliefs must grew larger and larger, that aren't founded in understanding, but more or less faith. Your doctor, your pharmacist are for example basically the shepherds of your faith in medical science, just like the preacher in the church is for your afterlife. The role of faith used to be to fill the gaps in our fears from what we didn't know, and there was so many of those things that we were content with summary truths, that were provided as spiritual. Now, we the known grew too big, and we must create faith based transmission of knowledge, through our trusted experts. However, this faith is hardly justifiable as long as our society is still firm in secrecy, imposing intellectual property, that is, exclusion, and profit motive is the only recognized incentive. I'm glad that the author mentioned the marxist-leninists, and the nazis, but today we're dealing with an even bigger movement, the market fundamentalism, where capitalism described as the part of the human condition. It is widely preached by all major political ideologies, and any scepticism is swept from the table, either by force, or just with blatant catchphrases, just like that of Churchill's in the article.

      Scepticism is yet to produce political systems. So far it only reached a narrow layer of society, the rest still encouraged and incentivised to continue on blind faith.

    • KeithCollyer

      in other words "you are right about the things that you write about, but you don't mention loads of other stuff, so I will disregard you"

  • James Lomax

    So this character thinks it's "rational" to change genetic material and offer it as widespread foodstuff with no idea - absolutely none at all - what the consequences of that will be; and hides behind a vacuous notion that if we don't know it will do harm we should try it. That is precisely what happened when people were exposed to radiation in the early days of fusion and fission before anyone understood it. At the very least - using his own model of empirical proof, trials, tests, etc - this idea is not "scientific" and is based on an arrogant unexamined assumption that if "science" can't see any harm we should try it - using emotive appeal to social and humanitarian benefit. Here's another idea - the whole world could probably be adequately fed if there weren't such a disparity of wealth between between the West and other parts in which I would emphasise the uber rich of the West, not average struggling people who are not the architects of the worldwide situation, and also mention the great wealth of places like Saudi and what they do with it - side by side with mass poverty.

    I think there's a desperate need for intuitive holism, stuff which the church of science doesn't recognise, to counter the blindness and aggressions of "science" before its too late - before poisonous agro-chemicals reach a critical damage point which can't be reversed, before the ecological balance of the planet is damaged beyond repair the signs of which are already evident and where - mass toxic landfill and sea dump being two examples - the problem is growing while we have no solution for it. Absolutely none at all!

    There certainly is a place for rationality and Sam Harris does a fine job targeting theological nonsense - but he also invites people to investigate consciousness with simple methods of attention and awareness which I think can be extraploated into a greater awarness of nature and warning signs which, actually, are not difficult to see: the problem is rather that they can't be plotted in any empirical or theoretical model which "science" recognises.

    • Michael Hanlon

      No, James, that s not the idea at all. No one is going to feed Bangladeshi children transgenic rice 'with no idea' whether or not it will be safe for them to eat. It will be tested, a lot. It will be analysed, a lot. It will be fed to animals, a lot. It will be tried on adult volunteers, a lot. Then, and only then, will it be released into the big wide world.

      • James Lomax

        Sure it will. And people will make money - a lot - from all the research grants, tests, patenting etc. That's the first point, and the dangers therein. The second point concern the blindess of those do the testing and why they can't be trusted - the people I identify who think something doesn't exist if it can't be seen on a "scientific" gauge whether that's intellectual, laboratory, chemical, whatever.

        Can you quantify "a lot"? - because for me that would mean a time span of at least 50 years, probably a hundred, and testing not only the recipients of GM crops but how it enters the food chain and spreads through insects, birds, etc. and what it does to them too - and then there's the repercussions re. reproduction and what gets passed on to children, animals etc. in genetic code.

        The fact that "science" can't possibly test or monitor all of this (and identify the damage) does not mean it's a reason to do it. And fortunately, for the time being, this stuff is not being released because some people, at least, can understand the dangers. Do you really not understand how there is an "intelligence" in nature, one which is not amenable to to chemistry and physics and biology? How the most simple matters are not actually understood, because they can NOT be mapped? And you probably don't - because you think "science" is some kind of master understanding. I refer you to Thomas Kuhn, as a starting point re. the fallibility of "science". It is not "rational" to think "science" has all the answers or can find all the answers.

        At the very least - you need to acknowledge how GM crops would enter the food chain, ecosystem etc on which basis it could be catastrophic. It is not "rational" to suggest this is an acceptable risk while acknowledging the wider implications simply cannot be "tested" - which they cannot - it is, actually, blind faith.

  • Brian

    I'm disappointed that the writer of an article about science and reason incorrectly identifies us as "clever monkeys". We are clever apes, not clever monkeys. I know it's a small thing to mention.

    • Michael Hanlon

      So, Brian, when your dog catches his ball and you say 'who's a clever boy then!' you really should correct yourself, as of course the word 'boy' should only be used to refer to the male young of the species Homo sapiens ... you are a pedantic lagomorph aren't you!

    • the biophysicist

      Humans are Apes are Monkeys are Primates are Mammals are Vertebrates are Animals are Eukaryotes but not necessarily the other way around.

  • Vasco da Gama

    very good Michael Hanlon (even if I do not agree with one or two points, I have to salute you)

  • silqworm

    Global warming is a Malthusian eugenics scam. Vaccines are a Malthusian eugenics scam. GMO is Malthusian eugenics scam. The problem with the banksters and their pseudo-scientific scams is that they wind up being more dis-eugenic than pro-eugenic. Read Kissinger's 1973 NSM-200 ZPG blueprint. It was top secret for 25 years but now is available for all to see on the Web. In it he explains that US policy should be geared toward cutting the African population in half, so that the US can exploit its resources. Mostly the affect of ZPG is to bankrupt the US and Europe, as their birthrates fall to 1.4 for Caucasians. China also has a demographic time bomb as a result, but it is waking up, they just disestablished their population control agency last week. The banksters seem to really want to destroy the more intelligent races first, so they can mop up the less developed populations with robot warfare later. Most academicians are in the psuedo-elite class, and secretly or not so secretly wish to see most people wiped out as useless eaters or useless breathers, due to having been indoctrinated by the eugenicist control freak banksters for so long, and being by nature toadying cowards. Then here comes a "journalist" who trusts these control freaks rather than being an independent thinker himself. Stan Lippmann Ph.D., J.D.

  • Nick Hart

    Silqworm: Rant and rave all you like, but Malthus was essentially right. In species that are genetically driven to survive and multiply, the only things that keep populations in check are predation, starvation, and disease. And in our case, war. It is not rational to believe that populations can increase unchecked. If deaths are reduced (less starvation and disease) and lifespans increased (better nutrition and healthcare), what's left. Answers on a postcard, please.

    • Dave Rockwell

      Thanks for your brief ray of sunlight. As usual most commentators are speaking with emotion and morality taking precedence over dispassionate thought. I see it as the universal desperation we feel when confronted with existential danger too complex for us to cope with. Our minds flail about at random; no progress is made.

  • Tomi

    we talk a spite of some things and a humorous of other things. That is who we are. I think no one can judge or claim something as true or false ( existent or nonexistent).

    we are wanderers not knowing what we create today would take us to.

    I have a question
    If science was about to be expanded all over, do you or can you tell what is going to happen?

  • Tom Massey

    Communism and Islam are the most dangerous religions because they all promote violence and lies to "help" the world. Conspiracies exist, formed by unreasonable people. Is it unreasonable to confess the possibility of a silent conspiracy?

  • Tom Massey

    Scientists can be corrupted by greed, pride, or their own "religion".

  • Michael Button

    So questioning the science of GMO's is the same as beleving in alchemy huh? It's wrong to question a science that has no idea what it is really doing, or how these new organisms will interact with the natural world? The fact that pesticide producing corn, kills off Monarch butterflies, and crops can be cross pollinated in unexpected ways in the wild, so these genetic modifications and get into other unrelated species, and the food chain, with totally unknown consequences? The fact that they modified soybeans with genes from nuts, and because no one knew, people with nut allergies actually died? It is a science that is basically randomly adding and subtracting genes from species that have no business being added together, and the effects might not be known for DECADES. But questioning it is tantamount to believing in fairies huh? Just cause we can do it, we should, and just hope that there are no pesky side effects, mutations, allergies or contamination of the food chain.
    Cause SCIENCE never steers us wrong even by accident. Better to throw caution to the wind, and use the starving people of the world as lab rats.

  • David P. Barash

    Although I applaud this manuscript's celebration of reason (especially science), I am appalled by its misrepresentation of the Precautionary Principle, the application of which is precisely an appropriate and much needed antidote to unreason. Thus, the Precautionary Principle - insufficiently known in the US, incidentally - provides a thoroughly reasonable yardstick by which to measure new developments and decide whether or not to adopt them. Wikipedia provides a suitable definition and explanation:

    "The precautionary principle ... states if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking an act. This principle allows policy makers to make discretionary decisions in situations where there is the possibility of harm from taking a particular course or making a certain decision when extensive scientific knowledge on the matter is lacking. The principle implies that there is a social responsibility to protect the public from exposure to harm, when scientific investigation has found a plausible risk. These protections can be relaxed only if further scientific findings emerge that provide sound evidence that no harm will result." I cannot imagine a more reasonable or necessary approach. Applying the Precautionary Principle, for example, governments would be obligated to take global warming seriously as a huge environmental risk factor; similarly, they would look askance - and then some - at nuclear power, and - yes - at certain genetically modified foods, although not necessarily all. It states that it is incumbent upon "innovators" to demonstrate that their innovations are more beneficial than not, and that the burden of proof should be biased toward safety rather than risk-taking. It is intensely reasonable, and not at all "addled," to insist that potentially risky events or innovations first be proved safe before they are adopted (e.g., nuclear power) or ignored (e.g., global climate change).

    • AverageStarmer

      I really like the definition that you've given of the precautionary principle but, I was thinking, surely it should take into account the risk of not innovating for our species.

      • David P. Barash

        Precisely! The Precautionary Principle is basic common sense, applied to innovation, with a substantial dose of utilitarianism, a la Bentham: Before embarking on something (or, for that matter, refraining from the aforesaid), determine whether it is likely to be on balance beneficial or hurtful. Deep respect for science - which I definitely feel - does NOT mandate naive embrace of everything it offers, just as it does not preclude accepting its many benefits. By contrast, it is indeed irrational to promote something just because it is new, or to reject something just because it is old.

        • AverageStarmer

          I study mathematics and it's true in science complex systems like human society are poorly understood, only the most native scientist does not worry about the applications their innovations might have.

          I entirely agree to the principle, and I'm glad I came across it. It would illegitimize dangerous policy's like Keystone XL pipeline or the Iraq war.

          The principle reminds me of Noam Chomsky's version of Anarchism, that is, "that the burden of proof is on those who argue that authority and domination are necessary. They have to demonstrate, with powerful argument, that that conclusion is correct. If they cannot, then the institutions they defend should be considered illegitimate. How one should react to illegitimate authority depends on circumstances and conditions: there are no formulas". Which is equivalent but from an individuals perspective.

      • Elisa Trimble

        Extraordinary lack of rationality here; you really believe that the failed 40-year-old technology of GM is "innovation" whereas, for example, the agroecological methods put forward by the 2008 IAASTD report on the future of agriculture are anti-innovation?

  • AverageStarmer

    To do science you need faith that what you want to
    understand can be understood this works well and I don't think their's an
    alternative but it's still faith.

    Similarly if you try to
    derive parts of mathematics from first principles you create paradoxes
    like Russell's paradox, so you need to come up with axioms which are
    statements you assume are true to avoid paradoxes so you can gain
    meaning from logic.

    "Nevertheless, it seems likely that
    unreason, like the poor, will always be with us." I hope that's meant to
    be a clever way of saying the idea we might have an equal society
    someday is reasonable but unlikely and not an attempt to dismiss the
    problems of poverty in our unrepresentative societies as the fault of the public for being stupid.

  • dratman

    You write that this "addled creed [of no-ism] would have led early humanity to ban both fire and the wheel."

    Both fire and the wheel must have been banned many times! After enough people have learned about a powerful idea, nothing can make it un-be.

    • Michael Hanlon

      I am not sure that anyone has tried to ban either to be honest.

  • Serge

    Interesting if unnecessarily condescending take. The author never does deal with the briefly mentioned and conveniently brushed aside question of the role of faith in science, related to the problems of skepticism, non-convergence of theories, underdetermination of theories, the Humean problem of induction, the mysterious applicability of mathematics to the world, etc.

    Also, on what basis the dismissal of eugenics? There is a scientific basis to at least some versions of eugenics (consider the calculated breeding of animals to be rendered more useful to our human purposes). One may object on ethical grounds to eugenics, but it cannot be dismissed outright as pseudo-science or magical thinking.

  • James Lomax

    Let me summarise: it is blind belief that Michael Hanlon thinks GM crops (by implication) are a solution for world hunger. Blind belief, insofar as his views fail to acknowledge the fallibility of science and the potentially catastrophic repercussions of his "science" ideas.

  • Mel

    My general impression is that you couldn't quite figure out what you wanted to say, or why you wanted to say it. You begin by giving credit to science for improving our lives. Then tell us it's not that simple, that "unreason" continues to flourish. You give what is supposed to be an example of "unreason" in the "panic" and "hysteria" surrounding the resistance to GM rice. Pretend to offer a partial explanation for this panic in the fact that science is now hard, and getting harder. Then take a couple of shots at Britain's universities, after which, presumably to let us know that yours is an open-minded and equitable perspective, you remind us that many of history's great scientists indulged in one form or another of quackery. You give some examples intended to suggest that things are even worse today, then segue into religion where you stumble around briefly, very briefly, in questions of faith in science, hard-wired worries, the ubiquities of religion, and so on, before crash-landing in our "extraordinary decline in human violence." Then limp back to where you started.

    A couple specifics:

    You present the work of Potrykus and Beyer as if it were a very simple solution to a very complex problem, and then blame "the relentless and well-funded campaigns against transgenic technology by (mostly European) NGOs and Green campaigners" for causing 3 million children to go blind. (I'm wondering, is this kind of rhetorical ploy an application of reason or unreason?)

    drokhole's comments offer some discussion of the complexities of the agricultural and nutritional issues. I would also point out that being "relentless" and "well-funded" are not, in themselves, evil. Agribusiness and GMO research are also "relentless" and very "well-funded."

    When you characterize resistance to GMO foods as "panic" and "hysteria" you open yourself to the suspicion that you have either lost your own balance, or someone has paid you to spin for them.

    Nor is your credibility enhanced by your crude misrepresentation of the precautionary principle. (See comments by David Barash.)

    There are very sound scientific reasons to exercise caution with regard to GM foods. Allow me to quote the Noble Prize winning physicist, Robert Laughlin: "The engineering value in biotech is not in understanding life but rather in designing drugs, inventing new health therapies, and creating new artificial organisms for agriculture. For these purposes, correct theories of regulatory processes are less important than rough, simple ideas that can motivate chemical manipulation. It has turned out that one can design protease inhibitors for control of AIDS, trick stem cells into growing into replacement body parts, and insert an alpha-carotene gene into rice without understanding the regulatory machinery of cells at all. It is even possible to invent effective cancer therapies, despite the fact that cancer is fundamentally a malfunction of cell regulation, because the objective is to kill the cancer, not understand it. But beneath these stunning technical successes is the scientific loose end that the manipulators do not, in fact, know what they are doing."

  • gregorylent

    scientists are too often corrupt, taking money to tailor evidence to support corporate donors (tobacco, drugs, agribiz)

    the hubris of scientists belittling anything their method is not capable of understanding

    the slavery to tenure, publication, research funding

    the fake separation of self from world

    i could go on .. and on .. i am anti-science not because i am barbaric, but because science is

  • dratman

    I don't see how ordinary people, lacking any education in either science or critical thinking, can be expected to judge which are the most plausible explanations of the puzzles we encounter in the everyday world. For example, without some awareness of historical epidemics and the concept of inoculation, how are individuals supposed to figure out whether vaccination is a wicked plot or a good investment in public health?

    Should we start burning people who refuse to believe... in science?

    No. The only remedy for this kind of confusion is better education. But most people prefer being entertained to being educated. As a result, it is not at all clear how to disseminate the kind of basic knowledge everyone now requires.

  • guojixinwen2012

    I am a Chinese student. Recently the Golden Crop has raised huge doubt in China. Why the GM food is facing so much criticism here? Maybe there are some more hidden stories to it, I guess. Even in a debate competition, such topics would emerge, showing it had some controversial to it, at least. Science is not that accurate and still depends on more finding, right?

  • C. Reed

    Ah, the hubris of the technologist. You think all the important questions have been answered, leaving only a few details to be filled in. I'd dismiss it out of hand, but the trouble is, this type of highly fallacious argument is plenty good enough for the corporate technologists who want to believe it and the politicians who give them the green light. You're going to put your future in the hands of those lunatics at Monsanto and Bayer? Their intention is not to give the rest of us the option NOT to do so - and that is one giant problem.

    How ridiculous to blame the opponents of GMO for the world hunger problem. I mean, seriously.

  • David

    Good article, clearly stating not everyone can know everything about everything. Badly researched to use anti-GMO peeps as an example of those that are uneducated and irrational.

    David Suzuki says that anyone that says GMO foods aren't dangerous is either uninformed or are liars. I have read a lot about the subject and am dead against them. Those eating the mutated rice to get vitamin A, could also get vitamin A from adding carrots cut up into that rice. If they are malnourished, it isn't anti-GMOers fault. It is the fault of the world that refuses to help them get a balanced diet, instead of genetically putting everything into their one frankenfood. Foods designed to make and contain their own poison can not be eaten by humans without consequence. A mutated genetic code activates and shut downs genes in humans in a way that doesn't occur in nature.

  • TravellerThruKalpas

    A profoundly superficial article, in the best scientific tradition. The hubris is only a small portion of it...

  • rameshraghuvanshi

    First we must understand that 95 p.c.unconscious mind governed on our conscious mind.Unconscious mind is always irrational,it is fix up in childhood and we are unable change it ,we have no we take most decision irrationally.Most horrible fact which prevent us to take rational decision is fear of death.Death preeminently looming in our unconscious mind and which is giving meaning to our life.To overcome the fear of death man behave irrational way

  • Archies_Boy

    As long as human nature remains the same — and apparently it will — unreason will always have that whackamole nature, or, like James Randi once said of the tendency to believe in the paranormal, keep bobbing up like an "unsinkable rubber duck."

  • Mike

    Disappointing article. I am a scientist and no Luddite, but the issue here isn't the science. The issue is that agrobusiness tyrannises the "third world" by its use of technology. Try re-sowing one of these strains of grain next year and see what happens. Either abject failure of a fat lawsuit.

    • Siggy

      I felt similarly let down after reading so many (other) stunning articles in this newsletter. This piece and its binary debate didn't do much to further my education about GMO crops. It would have helped if the author defined 'reason'. I finished the article not quite understanding how he lumped an idea into one category or the other. And what a silly thing to attempt to make a factual/definitive statement about the future. My disagreements are largely NOT with the points made, but, rather, with the manner in which the writing attemps to sweep huge aspects of the human experience (societal revolution, various religions, modern agriculture, etc.) behind its thesis. And -yes!- how convenient and totally reasonable to leave political corruption, corporate greed and cultural misunderstandings on the sidelines of the world hunger debate. The 100% guilty party has to be those Euro, anti-GMO crazies... I have a vision of the embarrassment I would feel if I ever submitted a paper like this to any of my past professors. I may be hatin' unnecessarily, but this is one moment of negativety I felt the need to express.

  • Robert Landbeck

    " the well of unreason will never run dry" but it can be capped permanently by simply raising the bar that reason uses as it's measure!

  • nathanjfealko

    Good read. What are your thoughts on self-aware religions that promote science but still follow rites for personal, psychological comfort? (I'm a humanistic pagan myself.)

  • Otheus

    Overall, well-said. Bravo.

  • Pit Boss

    "Their ‘Golden Rice’ would solve this problem at a stroke. This GM variety is no more expensive to grow or cultivate than normal strains, and it will require no special chemicals or tie-ins with big biotech firms to cultivate. In fact, Potrykus told the conference it would be free for poor and subsistence farmers. It tastes the same as normal rice. And it has been available since 2000. In a sane world, it would have earned Potrykus and Beyer a Nobel Prize. Yet not a single child in Bangladesh, India, the Philippines or Cambodia has benefitted from this new crop.

    The reason is simple: relentless and well-funded campaigns against transgenic technology by (mostly European) NGOs and Green campaigners. Their efforts have led to bans on Golden Rice in the very countries where it could save millions of lives. These warriors against ‘Frankenfoods’ are, even if inadvertently, to blame for the blindness of maybe 3 million children. As Potrykus said at the conference: ‘If our society will not be able to “de-demonise” transgenic technology soon, history will hold it responsible for death and suffering of millions: people in the poor world, not in overfed and privileged Europe, the home of the anti-GMO hysteria.’"

    To the author of this spun piece: This is a blatant lie. Golden Rice is still in development and campaigns against GMOs have nothing to do with it:

    But great job contributing to the already confusing landscape of what's science and what's not. Idiot.