Taking action: does it matter if you're right?

There's a simple lesson from taketheflourback's protest: no part of the political spectrum has a monopoly on scientific befuddlement. It seems almost a trivial point, but it's actually quite slippery. This thought first occurred to me because some people wondered, why so much climate skepticism on the right?

I argued: a lack of similar skepticism on the left didn't imply a greater grasp of climate science. It's just that climate change happens not to clash with most left-of-centre worldviews (except some very far left positions, though unfortunately I'm having trouble finding an example in the 'global warming = global marxist conspiracy' internet swamps). It can also mesh nicely into anti-corporate / capitalist / colonialist stories, as this rather jaunty take on resource wars from Age of Stupid nicely shows.

There's an anti-GM mirror-image of that too: pretty much all climate skeptics are also pro-plant-tech (quite often, even things like pro-DDT).

This is why all the recent US stuff about 'the Republican Brain' was so dismaying. Whatever evidence lay behind it, it's making the same basic error: ignoring scientific illiteracy where it happens to fit our already pre-conceived notions. The natural conclusion - that all right-wingers are scientific dunces - is just plain nonsense. It's also dangerously alienating.

Naomi Klein, for example, sees right-wing opposition as a completely rational response from capitalism's beneficiaries: dealing with climate change -

... is going to require shredding the free-market ideology that has dominated the global economy for more than three decades.

Is it? Others don't think so; as always, I'll point to Denning's brilliant talk to Heartland: "if free market advocates shirk their responsibility, others will dictate policy. Is that really what you want? When will you stand up and offer solutions?"

Me and Sue were saying much the same thing in our open letter. If anti-GM protestors want to make sure only Monsanto et al have control over this tech, they're doing exactly the right thing.

Democracy doesn't require people to pass any tests before they're handed a ballot paper. We're allowed to vote based on whatever weird reasoning we like. I'm sure we'll all carry on staring in disbelief at our political opponents, completely unable to grasp how the world looks through their eyes. In theory, democratic institutions exist to deal with exactly that gulf.

No other body of power should be able to impose its will. Democratic choice, however frail or misinformed, is King - again, in theory. Some of that is built-in: separation of powers and all that. Some less so: market and government institutions have become increasingly tangled, leading Monbiot to call for extending FoI further.

The role of science and 'evidence-based policy' more generally is equally confused, even as it's increasing in importance. Maybe only threat of alien invasion could trump planetary boundaries in scientific importance - but we're failing, spectacularly, to find a route to effective governance or steering.

These seem the important issues to me: how to make democracy and scientific knowledge work together? Or maybe that should be: can they? Maybe not.

Pielke Jr also picked up the parallel between climate and GM, which is what prompted me to write this now. I'm going to try and paraphrase some of what he says.

Taketheflourback and other anti-GM protestors are not anti-science, he says. "It is not science that they fear, but the implications of scientific advances for economic and political outcomes."

He goes on to quote taketheflourback listing familiar (and important) arguments about the global food system: talk of 'needing to feed 9 billion by 2050' is a convenient foil for global agribusiness to expand, when the real issue is distribution. Free trade policy is going the wrong way: global trade institutions are in hoc with agribusiness, co-writing IP laws that effectively legalise neo-colonialism. Rich countries dump subsidised crops, destroying local farming. Research shows we need a global shift to agro-ecological methods, and GM is irrelevant. Food sovereignty now! (Gosh, who typed all that up? Oh, it was me!)

Pielke Jr says: "This is not the statement of a group concerned primarily with the potential unanticipated risks of GM crops to the environment or people..." Hey, that's exactly what me and Sue were saying: they're making a horrible confusion between GM and the much more important issue of global food policy and contr... oh hang on:

... but rather, it is the manifesto of a group concerned that GM crops will perform exactly as advertised.

Not sure what he's getting at here. Er...

Like many issues where science and politics intersect, those opposed to the productivity gains made possible by agricultural innovation have sought to use science as a basis for realizing political ends.

So, taketheflourback are using GM as part of a political strategy? So they're not actually opposed to the technology itself?

A primary strategy in such efforts is typically to argue that the science compels a particular political outcome. // This situation is of course in many respects parallel to the climate debate. Efforts to compel emissions reductions through invocations that science compels certain political outcomes have borne little fruit, so some activists have taken it upon themselves to directly attack the technologies at the focus of their concern.

So: climate change 'activists' (I think he's including any scientist who in any way suggests action should be taken, direct or otherwise) are also 'seeking to use the science as a basis for realising political ends'.

There's quite a sleight-of-hand going on there. Well, several.

First: taketheflourback's political aims are separate from the technology they're attacking. They are wrong to conflate the two - indeed, they're doing their cause damage. The 'science' of GM does not 'compel a particular political outcome', any more than computer code compels us into a world where Microsoft and Apple rule. In both cases, you'd be better off protesting outside IP lawyer firms. Not very photogenic, mind.

They have also made a bunch of scientific mistakes and refused to enter into any discussion about that. Pielke Jr isn't interested in this point, it seems. If I thought taketheflourback were basing their direct action on a sound footing, I'd be supporting them. They're not. They're wrong. That's important. Not least because of the stupidity-by-association it casts on other direct action advocates.

Direct action is a dire (if sometimes essential) step to take. If you believe in a democratic society, it implicitly says: we have done everything in our power to engage democratically and failed. We believe this issue is important enough to go outside normal democratic channels. But taketheflourback have refused to enter into debate. They're sticking with their misunderstandings, when many, many plant scientists and other in the UK have offered to engage with them openly on neutral ground, by email, through twitter.

Pielke Jr. goes on to climate change direct action, of which James Hansen is now the poster boy:

One difference between the climate wars and the GM wars is that some prominent scientists are participating in the direct action against technology (such as James Hansen and IPCC contributor Marc Jaccard).// One argument invoked by scientists in support of GM technology is that the world needs more food. But the world needs more energy too. In condoning direct attacks on energy technologies, the scientific community may have opened the door to tactics that it does not much like when they are applied closer to home.

I don't know if I agree with direct action on climate: I think we either get there through democratic proceses or, fuck it, let's leave the planet to whatever scraps of civilisation and wildlife can get through the next 200 years. But to compare taketheflourback to James Hansen? I think it's fair to say, Hansen has thought his position through fairly carefully. He's, you know, right: on our present trajectory, we're going to cook civilisation. We're already starting to simmer nicely. That really matters. To imply it's just about 'seeking to use the science as a basis for realising political ends'... I'm speechless.

It's at root all the same issue, though: what role should science have in how we take political action, whether through legal channels or otherwise? The travesty I think Pielke Jr is inflicting here is in failing to ask: does it matter whether or not you know what you're talking about?

That may sound a bit freakish when thinking about direct action, but it isn't. Perhaps more than any other social action, you need to have people behind you. You've claimed a unique view of the truth for yourself: seen an aspect of society that you believe must change. You need to convince others of your cause. That means going to debates, for a start.



Something that really strikes me about the GM/Climate change parallel is the directionality of the science and action. Climate change is occurring because of actions that are *already* happening/ have happened. The science of climate change has sought to quantify these actions (CO2 emissions), model & predict their effects. Then you have a decision about what to do with that information. GM seems to be the other way around: a technology developed but little deployed because people object to it in principle. We don't *have* the scientific evidence to be able to say what effect it will or won't have because the work is destroyed before it's done. Climate change is all evidence and no action. GM is all action and no evidence.

Zacklee! It makes Pielke Jr's

Zacklee! It makes Pielke Jr's comparison seem a little unbalanced. Comparing an applied tech to a body of research work... one of which you're attacking (for the wrong reasons); the other of which is the reason you're acting at all...