Monday, March 31, 2014

Indre, Chris, Steven, and Ed are acting like Keith

Delving into others' motives is tricky, especially when you're annoyed with them, but sometimes it's worth doing. For example, Keith Kloor pretty clearly is motivated to punch hippies, metaphorically. He used to do it over climate change. IRRC, he was a somewhat-late convert to mainstream climate science, and still took a lot of shots at climate activists. In the last year or two he's switched his hippie-punching mostly to GMO issues, and that's an improvement, because this time it can be occasionally accurate and it's a less important issue, anyway.

So what's up with Indre Viskontas, Chris Mooney, Steven Novella, and Ed Yong? The link between them and Kloor is glossing over the real environmental concerns about GMOs, particularly genetic contamination of wild and escaped relatives of GM plants, most recently for Indre, Chris and Steven here. They appropriately describe the lack of health impacts from GMOs but then jump to conclusions that GMOs aren't a problem.

I'm simplifying and being somewhat unfair. Ed's more of a straightforward journalist than the others, conveying news moreso than his opinion, and occasionally links to contrary views (including once to this blog). Steven acknowledges the complexity of some environmental issues (while making simplistic arguments himself regarding biodiversity impacts).

Still, the motivational link I see between all of them is a kind of progressive hipster science nerd vibe that I think wants to push away from the earlier environmental generation in some ways, the Earth Mother hippie types. They demonstrate their independent "skepticism" by showing their willingness to take potshots at something often described as a liberal myth. While it's nowhere nearly as bad as Kloor, it's still behavior that looks for a chance to take potshots at those ignorant hippies. For three of them it might also fit into a generational thing (Steven's around my age).

I assume all four of them would be unimpressed with my thoughts about their motivations, so I'd rather focus on Steven's muddying the waters in describing the naturalistic fallacy. I think it's better to think of the appeal to nature as a fallacious ethical argument, but moving from ethics to policy makes it not so innately fallacious. The big advantage that organic farming and conventional breeding techniques have is that they've been done for a long time, so we're more likely to know the consequences.

What the four of them might consider wrestling with is a non-insane application of the precautionary principle. Doing something that's a little more natural in the sense that its been done for a while is less likely to have unforeseen consequences.

The vast majority of what the four do is great, and I'm doing my usual thing of highlighting only the part I don't like, but they could all do better.