Why I don’t have strong opinions about a lot of science/politics issues anymore

I wrote this in response to a thread on Facebook comments about GMOs. I guess the meta-story here is that I don’t like getting politically worked up any more; I just like intellectually pontificating.

I have given up having strong opinions about these issues anymore because I spent a lot of time thinking about them and came up with so many good arguments either way that I realized I was never going to settle on anything. But what I can offer is, a few reasonable, prudent, scientifically valid ways of thinking about things. This collection of ways of thinking doesn’t come down conclusively on the side of GMO or anti-GMO or climate change or climate denial; I’m just presenting it as some ways of thinking.

1. Large-scale, long-term complex dynamic systems are very complex, it’s very hard to make predictions (it’s going to rain next Tuesday) or meta-predictions (we are 90% certain about what the weather will be next Tuesday.) The kinds of behavior they present can include both a surprising resilience to perturbation, and threshold effects where perturbations beyond some threshold (which might be a magnitude-of-change threshold, or a rate-of-change threshold) suddenly become very important. Examples: a) Resilience example: Deepwater Horizon and Fukushima, both at the time seeming earth-shakingly catastrophic, actually the earth ended up keeping its shit together pretty well after all. b) Threshold example: Climate change. Humans have been putting carbon into the atmosphere for as long as our species, and our ancestor species, have been engaging in oxygen-based metabolism, which is several billion years if I remember correctly. However, post-industrial-era, the rate of atmospheric carbon emission has, or may be about to, pass some thresholds (we think?) that will lead to massive attractor-basin shifts. c) Currently under debate: GMOs versus thousands of years of genetic manipulation. Rate of genetic change with GM can (although may not in a specific case) be higher than with selective breeding, even though slow, steady changes through breeding have led to greater *total* change than GM. Is this destined to be a “resilience” scenario or a “threshold” scenario? I have not the slightest clue. I believe that there are valid, scientific facts available suggesting that the magnitude of genetic changes that have so far been released into the wild are “small” by various plausible standards, which is reassuring. But this does not mean someone is unscientific or foolish for pointing out that the technology offers the potential for much larger changes, and that ecosystems are potentially capable of experiencing threshold effects based on the magnitude and rate of these changes.

2. It is not adequate to consider only these kinds of scientific questions when making regulatory decisions. If you bona fide believe that a new technological something-or-other will help lift a billion people out of poverty, it is absolutely worth very seriously considering the value of that thing even if there is some abstract potential for harm. You never know everything for sure. Probably even if you don’t try very hard, 9 times out of 10 those things will work out neutrally or better than neutrally. It’s that 1 out of 10 that we’re wondering what to do with. (or whatever ratio, I mean those numbers metaphorically, not literally.) Should we never do anything new because something bad *might* happen? We’ve done pretty well for ourselves so far by doing new things, also there have been some problems, but in general the vast majority of normal people all over the world think it’s mostly been good, which is why if you actually bother to get to know personally people who are very poor in developing nations, they mostly want to move to America. As Hugh Howey points out, there is a real existing strain of elitism that runs through a lot of these politicial/scientific debates. We have to let ourselves (i.e. the global 1%, which everyone on this thread is almost certainly in) have all the Lasik and tooth whitening lasers and cell phone towers we want, but when it comes to technology that might provide diffuse benefits for all the less fortunate, you do often see much more awareness of all the risks among many people. I’m not saying anyone here is actually this kind of elitist, but it would be disingenuous to pretend that good old fashioned middle-class NIMBYism isn’t a powerful force.

3. Personally I think a lot of what *really* matters comes down to “don’t be a dick”. Enron may or may not have had some good points about efficiencies in energy markets that were being suppressed by government regulations, but the reality is that they were the worst of the worst of greedy shitbags and were totally consciously choosing to ruin millions of random people’s lives for their own profits. And now all reasonable people who have human brains that work the way human brains do, who are aware of the actual objective facts, reasonably are suspicious (to say the least) of anyone trying to make those points about energy technology and deregulation. Likewise, Dick Cheney is (as I understand it) personally responsible for legislation in Texas basically subverting everyone’s *fundamental* property rights for the benefit of fracking companies. I’m about to say some blasphemy here, but: modern fossil fuel extraction technologies are not actually as evil as everyone makes them out to be, if they are done by companies that are actually trying to not be dicks about it. Yes, what is actually happening now involves a lot of clueless, greedy, and/or irresponsible work and there is a lot of harm being done, but this isn’t actually an indictment of the technology per se. So reflecting this back to the topic at hand, even if an idealized scientific analysis of GMO agricultural technology shows that it’s “definitely OK”, are the companies implementing it actually intrinsically motivated to act definitely in the public welfare? Or are they dicks? And even if they are dicks, what then? Regulation is an extremely blunt and clumsy instrument when it comes to new technologies, especially ones that involve a lot of money. This is true if we’re talking about regulations on carbon emissions to stop climate change, and it’s true if we’re talking about regulations on GMO agriculture to stop the GMOcalypse or whatever. The technologies and the markets are moving and changing much faster, and with more power, than anyone can keep control over. Honestly I have no idea what the answer is; since I have no idea what the answer is I’m certainly not going to *personally* take any strong stands on the issue. I’m willing to go on record saying that my personal opinion is that the evidence, as well as the mechanistic understanding, regarding atmospheric carbon and climate change is clear enough that I think it’s justifiable to wade into those murky, blunt waters of regulation and at least try to do something constructive, although I have only about 10% confidence that that effort will be successful. On the other hand, when it comes to GMO agriculture, if we limit our consideration to the small genetic changes involved in current actual products, the evidence is that it’s probably not seriously ecologically harmful. However, our understanding of the mechanisms of how specific genetic changes relate to large-scale ecosystem effects is essentially zero. This zero understanding doesn’t really give us much to go on *either* for asserting safety, *or* for wading into those nasty regulatory waters. I hate to say it, but the status quo looks not-entirely-unreasonable in that respect: careful scientific review, doing the best we can, approving a few products after rigorous testing and review, hoping for the best. I’m not really a fan of just doing nothing, maybe that’s just a personality preference and not really rational, but I am vaguely satisfied with the current balance of progress and caution on that front.

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