Friday, October 12, 2012

The biotech preachers playing the "science card"

Many people today, especially in the Western world think that religion is rapidly becoming "a thing of the past". What was once believed on faith is eroding, replaced by models and theories gained through observing the actual world and drawing out its patterns and regularities. Scientific theories, so people think, are surely "true" because they are used to develop technologies that, well, ... work. How can someone watch TV, they would argue, a technology based purely on the predictability and regularity of certain physical properties of the universe, and at the same time believe in such arcane things like "divine intervention" or an "afterlife"? For this modern mindset, the supernatural is being shaved away from the world, which is left bare and exposed by the scientific method, the sole tool humans have for understanding the world.

Let's call someone who thinks along these sorts of lines a "scientific person", regardless of whether or not he or she is actually a scientist. Now, scientific people, like all people, are people. And as such they come to feel quite strongly about their beliefs and develop a bit of an identity around them. For a scientific person, there is no greater error than to believe in something that is "unscientific", and there is no greater insult than to be accused of such a belief. Once things get personal, it gets a little tricky, even for the scientific person, to see things clear-headedly a scientist should.

The problem is, many people know this. It is therefore a very effective tool for someone to rally troops to their side to draw the line between what is and is not scientific. And unsurprisingly, we find that this is a main strategy that proponents of genetic engineering use to convince people to subscribe to their technology. Predictably enough, upon hearing that concern about genetic engineering is "anti-science", many so-called "scientific people" flock into the pro-GMO camp. They do not consider whether or not the person drawing this line was using a scientific methodology in deciding what was and what was not science. They do not consider the values and motives behind the person making the statement. Their knee-jerk reaction against irrational, arcane, metaphysical and soft-headed "beliefs" leads them right into the lap of the biotech industry, that eagerly awaits, knowing that these arguments are sure to lure. And yet, this knee-jerk reaction may itself be irrational, especially if the "scientific person" does not actually look deeply into the science of genetics to understand what it is that the genetic engineers are really doing.

So the proponents frame the debate and wait as people who identify themselves as post-religious gravitate towards their allegedly cool and reasoned science. When we observe this phenomena, there are important questions to ask. Is it scientific, or is it ... religious (yikes!) to believe an authority figure just because they told you something in a language that they knew ahead of time could capture your allegiance? Should the "scientific person" actually examine the science first before deciding what is actually "scientific"? Is it scientific for the "scientific person" to make judgments in favor of genetic engineering without knowing anything about pleiotropy, chromatin marking, techniques of horizontal gene transfer, or about the concept of genetic regulatory networks?

The religion promoted by the biotech industry doesn't use the words "God", "heaven" or "the soul." These words will not work for the infidels they are seeking to prosthelytize. Using language to make people believe things requires cunning. They need to ensure that those believing them do not think that they are merely "believing" but rather are directly in contact with "truth".

To become a truly "scientific person" at least requires that we realize this. And a democratic appreciation of the actual scope and risks of genetic engineering will require such scientific people to be vigilant in their ongoing assessments.

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