Tuesday, 6 September 2005

Modern Enemies of Reason

A fabulous piece here from the unlikely source of Mike Moore, former prime minister of New Zealand and former director-general of the World Trade Organisation. [Hat tip Owen McShane]  

Modern enemies of reason - SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST,
September 2, 2005:
Proving that genetically modified foods are safe is a bit like proving the existence of the Loch Ness monster: it's hard to prove something is not there when fanatics want to believe.

It is embarrassing to see environmentalists being suckered into using dubious European slogans such as the "precautionary principle" - which the rest of the world realises is sophisticated protectionism for their privileged, subsidised farmers. This is just another example of Europe losing the plot.

What once gave Europe, and cultures of European extraction, the edge? What allowed their societies to flourish and expand, giving their economies the opportunity to explode with creativity and become the dominant global force for the past few centuries? The answers: the separation of church and state, freedom of religion and, more importantly, freedom from religion. Given freedom, enlightenment was sure to follow, philosophers argued. "Have the courage to use your own reason," was the motto of the Enlightenment. People began to refuse to outsource their consciences to clerics, or accept privileges conferred by a sovereign.

So who are the modern enemies of reason, tolerance and freedom? Fundamentalist religious fanatics rage against modernity: their most evil expression of powerlessness is terrorist attacks. But even in open societies, intolerant forces gather, march, and claim to know a truth that everyone else must live under.

These enemies of reason normally align themselves on the political right. There are, however, enemies of reason who pose as progressives and, like others, claim to be saving the world. The environment is their vehicle of power. Fundamentalists oppose stem-cell research, which offers ways to treat some of mankind's most devastating diseases and injuries. But pharmaceutical research is moving out of Britain due to rabid activists who last year were responsible for over 300 attacks on research facilities and staff.

The FBI, in a recent report to a US Senate committee, warned that eco -militants are the new terrorist threat: fire-bombing SUV dealers in opposition to gas-guzzlers; burning so-called insensitive housing developments, causing US$ 70 million in damage; and so forth. Yet, it is in the name of animal rights that the most violent exchanges have taken place in many countries. One animal-rights activist recently said that they were not bound by law, and their cause was like the anti-slavery campaign.

Where the fundamentalists and environmental militants join hands against science is in the arguments against GM foods and stem-cell research. Genetically modified foods offer us the opportunity to feed a hungry world. It is hard to see how we will provision the world and lower the use of dangerous insecticides and fertilisers without enlisting the new forces of science.

Of course we must be prudent, cautious and seek high standards, because science can move faster than our moral, ethical or legal capacity to cope. But those who wish to destroy science have as their forefathers those who burned so-called witches, not the heroes who freed the slaves. These small groups, which exaggerate the dangers to a gullible media, represent pre-Enlightenment thinking. It is, however, a good way to grab the headlines and raise funds.


  1. I think you smear by association some sensible Green positions by tossing them in with the "SUV burners and animal rights activists". There are complete fruitcakes on the fringe of the political spectrum in just about every direction: so? I don't accuse you of being a gun-nut anti-social survivalist Oklahoma-bombing militia type just because you're a libertarian, nor do I go on about the Oklahoma bombings when criticizing libertarians.

    In particular I think you're unfair about GE foods.

    Saying "are GE foods safe?" is like saying "are pesticides safe?" Well, obviously some GE is safe, when done properly, and we've good science to back that. And obviously some GE isn't, and we've good science to back that too. The scientific controversy is over where the middle ground is, and over what risks are worthwhile.

    The food-buying public's problem is that because GE is new the public lacks appropriate mechanisms and knowledge to identify the risks. And so, in Europe, they're being conservative.

    Taking a conservative approach to risk when you're not able to estimate the levels of risk is perfectly rational. (confession, I work with risk modelling systems)

    Oh, I also think they're being too conservative. But you're unfair to say that what European consumers are doing is irrational: that's just not true. A system like the US where there are no consistent labelling laws for GE foods so you've no idea what risks you are taking: now _that_ I find irrational.

  2. Hi Icehawk. I should remind you that these are not my words above, but those of Mike (not Michael) Moore, former NZ PM.

    That said, aggression against innocents is wrong whoever it is practised by, as you suggest. But I don't see Moore weighing in against "sensible" green positions: I see him weighing in against the violent fruitcakes, and warning that these fruitcakes are enemies of reason.

    As Ayn Rand once observed, faith and force are bedfellows: there are only two ways by which men can deal with one another, either by reason or by force. Once reason is rejected--as the fundamentalists of all stripes demand, green included--then force is the only way to make your 'argument', one written in blood.

    That said, I largely agree with what you say, except for a few wrinkles on the points you made.

    The precautionary principle is not primarily about risk, but about paralysis: if you can't do anything at all until you're certain, then you can never even test to become certain (or even get out of bed in the morning), and meanwhile bogus claims of 'could' this, and 'might' the other are allowed to run.

    Further, 'certainty' under the precautionary principle is an ever-receding thing--rather like the case of those who oppose evolution but who always dismiss new evidence as not being enough to prove the 'missing link.' One can never have too much evidence to refute this view of certainty, or even enough.

    As for labelling: if people truly want labelling, they will buy and demand products with labels. As long as there are laws against fraud and poison food, then consumers are protected.

    And as long as common law protects farmers property rights (I wish) then farmers crops, both GE and non-GE, have legal protection against contamination one from the other.

    But Moore's main point as I see it is the danger of denying or ignoring reason in the pursuit of one's goals, and the huge post-Enlightenment advances made when the west threw off the shackles of faith. Great to see a former Labour PM making that point. :-)


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