2012: The year crazy and stupid went mainstream

I’ve always been of the mind that stupid should hurt, so 2012 was a hard one for the Contrarian. It was the year that crazy and stupid went mainstream, or at least when I first noticed it did. It was the year a manufactured issue, the safety of GMOs, came to the popular progressive imagination. Progressives embraced every crackpot and their theories.  And none of them felt any pain due to their stupidity.

Now, the fact they were being stupid had nothing to do with a lack of intelligence, although there were some people who seemed downright unhinged. These were people with whom I was in agreement with on most issues. It was very distressing.

After spending countless hours on this blog and comment boards trying to correct the errors, and set straight all the bogus information that was being peddled by the anti-GMO crowd, I discovered an alarming trend. The more I countered the nonsense with scientific peer-reviewed facts and evidence, the harder the anti-GMO crowd dug in their heels.  It was like confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance and identity politics joined forces to create a gigantic mental disturbance field.

I didn’t understand it, then I came across a book called,  Experiments With People: Revelations from Social Psychology, by psychologists Robert P. Abelson, Aiden Gregg,and Kurt P. Frey. It was a study on doomsday cults. There was this Eureka moment:

“..continuing to proselytize on behalf of a doomsday cult whose prophecies have been disconfirmed, although it makes little logical sense, makes plenty of psychological sense if people have already spent months proselytizing on the cult’s behalf. Persevering allows them to avoid the embarrassment of how wrong they were in the first place.”

That’s it. The anti-GMO crowd are like a doomsday cult.  Hyberole? Probably, but both cults have their similarities. Both are so heavily invested in their belief, they have no choice but to carry on in spite of evidence to the contrary. The  anti-GMO crowd does share a sort of doomsday mentality in the sense they believe GMOs will kill us all.

Another mental tool the anti-GMO crowd embraces is a version of Godwin’s Law or Reductio ad Hitlerum or Aargumentum ad Hitlerum (Reduce/argument to Hitler.) Just replace Hitler with Monsanto and there it is.  This is a common response. If you explain to someone why they are wrong using facts and evidence, you will eventually be accused of being a shill for Monsanto.

No one knows this better than Kevin Folta, a plant scientist at the University of Florida. In Six Degrees of Monsanto, a recent post at his blog, Illumination, he chronicles an online discussion he had with an anti-GMO person.

Rather than look for real evidence to support his point, he scoured the web for the words “Monsanto” and “Folta”.

They search for any connection, real or imagined; direct or tenuous to Monsanto because they don’t have the facts on their side.

And here comes the real bummer. Whereas progressives used to have a healthy mistrust of government and corporations, (for good reason) that mistrust has now become one ginormous conspiracy fueled by the insanity of people like Jeffrey Smith, Dr. Mercola, Mike Adams and Ronnie Cummins.

In order to bolster their belief system, they have bought into the crazy talk and lies promoted by these four horsemen of the Aquackalypse. These clowns have managed to tap into the corporate mistrust of progressives  and use it to advance their own crackpot agendas.

Now, I’m not a scientist.  I’m just a progressive who has managed, over the decades to overcome my confirmation biases and notice red flags.  I’ve becomes a real skeptic when someone is pushing an agenda, even when it comes from my side and people are screaming doom and gloom.  It’s one of the reasons I came late to the climate change party.  I’ll admit that.  But what I did was check out the actual science and my thinking changed. (Actually I did believe it, but I was wary of how much humans contributed to it.)

When the GMO issue hit my radar about a year and a half ago another one of those red flags went up. It was all doom and gloom.  So, I did what I did with climate change. I did some research. What I found was that every single piece of evidence citing safety and health issues regarding GMOs weren’t true or had been discredited.

What was worse is that it was actually difficult to find independent science.  I had to wade through all the activist sites which turned out to be a real echo chamber. The same information and the same articles kept popping up. Then I started seeing the same bylines and sources for the information. Off I went to find out who those guys were.  That’s when I found the crackpots, fraud and charlatans.

I became embarrassed as a progressive. These were my peeps.  At first it was easy to chalk it up to a bunch of cranks and then I noticed that friends were parroting this misinformation. People I knew weren’t dumb. That’s when I realized the nonsense had hit the progressive mainstream. And even more horrific is when I would explain why they were wrong on some science point… they said it… Monsanto. It was coming from inside the house!

That started a whole new conversation about separating the technology from the corporations that use it. Look, I’m an old, out shape smoker. My lungs don’t have the capacity they used to.

Side Note: I actually had one of my best friends accuse me of defending BigAgra simply because I didn’t believe community gardens could feed the world and that in many ways organic is a scam. She refused my challenge of bringing over a conventional apple and and organic one and she had to pick which was which by taste.

As a way to end this up, since I don’t have a closing, I think this is the year when the progressive/liberal/left went off the rails regarding science. They went with their identity politics and gave credibility to the cranks. They not only gave credibility to the cranks, they joined forces with them.

End note: I would like to thank the  people who  helped this non-scientist guy along his way.  The first are Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak who took time out of their vacation to answer my questions when I was writing my first posts on the issue. They didn’t know me from Adam. The second is Anastasia Bodnar who allowed to me to use her succinct description of how transgenics work even though she probably thinks I’m a weirdo.  ( I am) Another is Monsanto shill, Kevin Folta. He has given me some positive reinforcement to make me think I’m not that way off base. And I want to thank the agricultural folks who I asked for assistance to understand things and who were more than happy to answer my questions.

Happy New Year.


28 thoughts on “2012: The year crazy and stupid went mainstream

  1. Welcome to the dark side.

  2. Thanks. Is there pie?

  3. The extra-special irony about progressives giving credence to Mike Adams is that Mike Adams isn’t even a leftie — surf around through his site, and you’ll find that he’s mostly right-wing, bordering on fascist. Yikes!

  4. Bernie,
    This is a very good and honest post. It is sad that anti-science crosses all political lines. I also know many smart, generally rational people who have fallen into the conspiracy thinking about GMOs. It is sad

  5. I work in northern Cameroon… I don’t think, based on 30 years of experience there, that either Monsanto or the monocultures that GMO plants will bring are going to do the folks I work with any good at all. Does that make me one of your GMO crazies? On a personal note, I don’t see why I shouldn’t be able to make a choice between a GMO or non-GMO food source, based on labeling. Again, am I crazy?

    And why should the taste of that organic apple be determinate, if what you’re interested in is either the inputs into growing it or the larger agricultural system it was grown in?

    • With respect to your labeling comment, feel free to establish a labeling system. Just stop trying to have governments force a labeling scheme. You can establish a GMO free label just like kosher or halal and encourage it’s use on a voluntary basis.

      It’s when the anti-GMO crowd requires forced labeling of all foods that you realize there is some other agenda at work.

      • Why? ‘Forced labelling’ in America (and I’m not posting from America) includes descriptions of food constituents that are not held to be deleterious in and of themselves – sodium, for example. But people could and I suppose do use such information to decide how much sodium they want in their diet. If you were working for the salt industry, you might claim that sodium is a necessary ingredient in the diet and you might not like that – too bad.

        I see absolutely no reason that foods shouldn’t be GMO-labelled if consumers don’t want them to be, and if consumers convince the government to require such labelling. But the situation here basically is that North American supporters of GMO foods would prefer that consumers not know how many GMO products are in their diet, and which those products are.

    • First, you have to separate the tech from the bad company that uses it. People should make their decisions based on the facts and evidence, not some worldview. The anti-GMO movement is a manufactured one by anti-science, anti-progress activists and through lies and deception have conned otherwise intelligent people. There have been no negative health effects ever reported in the almost 20 years they have been on the market.

      GMO is not a solution but another tool. Sometimes its warranted sometimes not. But you talk about choice. Yes, it is about choice and by trying to ban it you deny farmers a choice as to what they think is best for his/her needs. It has the possibility to be beneficial. Why would you throw out a tool that may be useful? If there is no harm and GMO is equivalent to conventional, why the need for a label? Is it that GMO sounds so scary?

      Finally, stupid and crazy was hyperbole and I said as much. That particular phrase was deliberately chosen to show my frustration.

      Thanks for your comment.

      • Which facts and evidence? Is there any particular reason to believe that studies establishing that GMO foods are safe for consumption are factual and evidentiary in ways that studies examining the actions of companies like Monsanto in Africa are not?

        In the area I work in, local farmers are increasingly caught up in exploitative relationships with Big Agri companies like Monsanto, where their access to fertiliser is dependent on their use of proprietary feedstocks. With GMO foods, that will, I promise you, only get worse, and local agricultural biodiversity – over 200 strains of Sorghum bicolor originally, for example, but falling fast – will only decrease.

        Here’s a question: how long do you think it will be until we see a GMO organism engineered to become infertile after only a growing season or two, or one that’s designed to require a particular fertiliser (the product of the same company that produced it, of course) for its use? That would solve all kinds of problems for Big Agri where I work, as they seek ways to force farmers not to use their products as seed stock. Or how confident can you be that all of this clever engineering isn’t inadvertently designing disease vulnerabilities into these emerging plant monocultures?

        For me, GMO is a technology, not a Holy Grail, and the important question is how it’s to be used. And a reflexive defense of GMO agriculture is, like your reflexive sneering at organic agriculture, just as fundamentalist as is its opposite.

      • Again you miss my point. My frustration lies with the fact people view the tech of GM through the prism of companies such as Monsanto and their inability to see the beneficial aspect of GM in of itself. I agree, it’s not the Holy Grail. It’s a tool in the toolbox. Sometimes it’s appropriate, some times not.Your problem seems to be with Monsanto’s business practices. I can’t disagree with that.

        Ironically, it is the vehement fight against GM that has allowed it to be controlled by multi-nationals.like Monsanto and Syngenta. It is such an expensive process, regulatory and otherwise that they are the only ones who can afford it. Universities and small biotech companies literally have seeds sitting on the shelves. And governments should be more involved in research, which many are. That way they will be able to supply affordable seed in places like Africa w/o the onerous restrictions that come with the big companies. I know in Africa (correct me if I’m wrong) the activists are in charge of the debate and putting pressure on the govts.

        The fears you express would be assuaged if govts in places like Africa offered an alternative. And my “reflexive” sneering at organic is because I think organic is the biggest scam going. While it offers some positive things, I don’t see it as “the answer.” I see it as a backward step. With the advent of “modern” agriculture, yields increased, labor decreased etc. What is needed is a new modern Ag. One that is a combination of all methods of Ag taking the best of each one and employing new technology.

  6. As an addendum, that’s a pretty patronizing and self-satisfied blog post.

  7. “Here’s a question: how long do you think it will be until we see a GMO organism engineered to become infertile after only a growing season or two, or one that’s designed to require a particular fertiliser (the product of the same company that produced it, of course) for its use? That would solve all kinds of problems for Big Agri where I work, as they seek ways to force farmers not to use their products as seed stock.”

    That’s right, Scott. That’s all GMOs entail—exploitation.

    Forget about the GE insulin, the GE vaccines, the Golden Rice, the Rainbow Papaya that was given away to farmers.

    Just paint scary bad pictures.

    • (Shrug) As I said, I have 30 years of experience of watching small farmers in Central Africa try to deal with Big Agri companies like Monsanto. What’s your background in this, exactly, besides providing static?

  8. @Bernie Mooney: So, neither GMO or organic is ‘the answer’, from your final post. Fair enough, and I entirely agree – but I still have trouble understanding your contempt (not just frustration, at least as expressed) for people who buy organic foods.

    For me, I think agricultural systems are strongest when they’re diverse. I buy organic apples not because of some stupid taste-test challenge, but because organic farmers where I live raise older varieties that Big Agri isn’t interested in, and I like those. I buy organic milk because I don’t especially want to get my daily doses of antibiotics, hormones and their products that way… and because I don’t like the way Monsanto tried to bully Oakhurst Dairies.

    In Africa, and elsewhere, GMO foods are going to benefit people precisely to the extent that they are not agribusiness-as-usual. From that point of view, it has been as much European government research agreements and activist pressure that will (in theory, anyway) open up less-exploitative access to subsistence farmers for GMO foods. I’m not aware of GMO variants available for the foods that people in the area I work in actually eat: they may be there, but I think that it’s more likely we’d see demands for people to change their diets and farming practises. And if you’re interested in the causes of hunger in those areas today, look to a great extent to the Western structural adjustment programmes of the 1980s and 1990s in Central Africa, which resulted in the spread of exploitative commercial farming systems and cuts to social and health services.

    • I’ll answer two of your queries in one:

      I’m an apple grower and CSA farmer.

      I noticed you have completely ignored my list of GMOs that have provided benefits to humans without any inputs from Monsanto whatsoever.

      Organic farming is, quite succinctly, a scam. I worked for four years at an organic farm, and noticed that the practices are virtually identical to those of other small farmers (such as ourselves). The problem is that just about everything that issues from the mouths of organic advocates is either a falsehood, a misrepresentation, or an exaggeration. They fib about pesticides use, nutrient content, and a host of other issues. Organic livestock farmers operate under an absolute ban on antibiotics, even for therapeutic use, but it’s perfectly OK for them to use untested herbal remedies and debunked homeopathy as veterinary “medicine.”

      I happen to grow those heritage apples you admire. The problem with them is that they were developed before diseases and insects became the problems they are today. Therefore, they lack the resistance of newer varieties. If companies can develop new varieties through genetic engineering that are resistant, then more power to them.

      An eye-opening experience happened when I attended a new farmers workshop a few years ago:

      There was an apple grower there who talked about growing both “organic” and “conventional” apples (yes, it’s possible for one to do both).

      His “organic” orchard of 100 acres is surrounded completely by his “conventional” orchard of 300 acres, with a buffer zone between them.

      He sprays his “conventional” apple trees with “synthetic” pesticides 12 times a season.

      He sprays his “organic” apple trees with “organic” pesticides 22 times a season!

      His “organic” trees produce only 25% of what his “conventional” trees produce.

      So that’s why I’ve adopted an Integrated Pest Management strategy in my little orchard. We have 18 varieties of “heirloom” apples that are supremely vulnerable to fungi and pests.

      IPM means I rake every leaf out of the orchard and burn them in the spring. It means there are zero drops left on the ground. It means I scout before I spray. And, yes, I spray with “synthetic” pesticides. I’m a trained pesticides applicator and I know how to follow label instructions. I’m not about to waste my time walking from tree to tree with a spray wand if I’m not sure the materials I’m using are going to work. So I spray the fungicide Captan less often instead of spraying “organic” sulfur more often. When the insects arrive, I spray with insecticides as well as with fungicides, because I love my trees and I want to make sure they are healthy and produce a good crop of high quality apples. We are very small and can’t afford to dick around with organic methods that barely work in New England’s climate.

      That’s not enough for “organics” advocates, however. At the farmers market, I’ve had customers ask, “Are your apples sprayed?” and when I tell them “yes,” they’ll say, “Well, I’m not giving them to my children.” They won’t bother to ask the organic orchardist whether he sprays: they assume he doesn’t.

      The “Big Ag” versus “organic” dichotomy is false as hell.

      • “The “Big Ag” versus “organic” dichotomy is false as hell.”

        It is indeed. Yet for you, people who grow or eat organic foods are either fools or knaves…. You’re as much of a fundamentalist as the most fanatic of the anti-GMO people.

        The reason I didn’t respond to all of your happy examples is that they have nothing to do with what I was talking about, which is what I’ve seen in northern Cameroon. Watch a Big Agri subsidiary send in the cops to seize 20kg of seed that farmers have set aside for seed stock sometime, or watch them struggle to pay for the RoundUp that they increasingly have to use to control increasingly herbicide-resistant weeds. If you’ve done that and have something to say, you’ll be contributing more than static. As it is, the nice examples you give exist because of (a) European government restrictions on the commercial exploitation of government-funded science and (b) pressure from activists, not because agricultural multinationals like Monsanto are wonderfully big-hearted.

        Extraordinary about those apples as well: so heritage breeds were developed before insects and disease became problems? That’s why they’re not marketed commercially? Amazing that they managed to last for so many centuries, if they’re that delicate, isn’t it? And what about the present day has led to this extraordinary proliferation of plant insects and diseases?

    • I have problems with organic because of the misconceptions surrounding it; that somehow it is healthier. The biggest one is they don’t use pesticides and the natural is better fallacy. Also, I find it a regressive form of agriculture that takes more land to achieve the same yields as conventional. It is also more labor intensive.

      Let’s see what else? People have this fuzzy feel-good feeling that organic is all mom and pop hoeing the rows on their tiny farms when in actuality organic is big business. Then we have worker treatment which is no better than Big Ag. I wrote this, Organic farm animals are treated better than organic farm workers.

      We agree about Monsanto, so I don’t even know why you’re still beating that dead horse. You have to separate the tech from the company that uses it. Monsanto: Profits, pirates and private dicks

      You write: activist pressure that will (in theory, anyway) open up less-exploitative access to subsistence farmers for GMO foods.

      That’s rich. Activists are the main reason why these big companies control it. They don’t want what you say. They want it banned completely.

      Finally, I just thought of another absurd organic thing. Organic pineapples. The shell is so thick there is no chance of any pesticides getting inside. Paying more for an organic pineapple is stupid.

      In any case, thanks for reading and responding.

      • As an interested bystander, I would judge that the comments here by Scott MacEachern pretty conclusively demonstrate that a healthy skepticism of GMO technology, as actually practiced, is neither crazy, stupid, or “anti-science”. Regardless of political affiliation.
        Anybody prepared to consign Mr. MacEachern to the ranks of the crazy? The stupid? I haven’t even detected any rejection of science in his views….

      • I don’t see Scott as crazy nor do I see his views as a healthy skepticism. It appears to me that he is basing his rejection of GMOs as a result of his anti-corporate views and his seeming advocacy of organic. I have no problem with the anti-corporate stance or his support of organic*, but I do have a problem with him throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

        *Well I actually do have a problem with organic since I think it’s a scam

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