My mother is fond of saying that I grew up with a Nintendo controller in my hand. Science and technology have enriched my life (and enabled my procrastination) for longer than my earliest memories can attest to, in that twilight space where others remember our lives better than we do. But it’s also no secret that, for every technology that transforms our lives and makes the human experience richer (whether by enabling more creative work by reducing the necessity for drudgery or allowing us to express ourselves more effectively), there’s are technologies that are put to the use of destroying, diminishing and debasing human lives.
Neil deGrasse Tyson had some comments about what he perceives as an anti-science trend amongst liberals recently. Tyson is an immensely original thinker, and it is emphatically admirable that he tweaked the nose of Bill Maher a little to say that there is a substantial amount of anti-science thought on the left. Maher brought up vaccines, but Tyson mentioned an array of issues including alternative medicine. What he didn’t bring up was GMOs, but that’s probably the most insightful place to consider a discussion of the convergence of science and social justice.
In high school, when introduced to the vagaries of postmodernist thought, I became frustrated by their unwillingness to accept truth, science and reason. Over time, though, it became clear that there’s a real place that animates these attitudes and philosophies. I began to realize, as I interacted with a lot of people whose emotional intelligence is minimal, that there are indeed a lot of people who need to be reminded that there is value at looking at the world as something more than just a spreadsheet. There are “ways of knowing”, ways of relating to the world, like art, dance, music, philosophy, formal mathematics, and my own preferred field of fiction writing and story-telling, that let us relate to the world in new ways. They slice up reality in a different way, one that is less concerned with being objectively truthful and more with being useful. Brutal truths and rigorous testing need to be a part of any field of inquiry, but so too must every field of inquiry care about the feelings and needs of real human beings.
Let’s be clear: The anti-vaccine movement is lunacy. Legitimate concerns about the profit motive of pharmaceutical companies have been allowed to trump the hard work of diligent and disciplined thinkers while enabling charlatans to themselves make money. Regrettably, a lot of people with liberal and progressive values need to be reminded that there’s a profit motive everywhere, and con artists have used appeals to emotion, spirituality and tradition as often as they’ve used fallacious appeals to science to dupe people.
But other movements on the left-wing that are skeptical of technology aren’t this lunatic. While sometimes these trends may be infused with a credulous New Age vibe as well, there are real, valid concerns about genetically modified organisms, the likely trajectory of artificial intelligence, and our interaction with the environment in a host of ways.
So while it’s true that humanity has been genetically modifying organisms and changing ecosystems since the beginning of recorded history, as many argue to point out that GMOs are just another step in the human conquest of the genome and not some qualitatively new phenomenon, isn’t it illustrative that even those simple efforts have led to invasive species and the devastation of ecosystems?
Similarly, it’s illustrative to look at groups who are famous for their skepticism of technology historically to see how their techno-skepticism has actually been often sensible and well-grounded. The Amish are willing to absorb certain technologies, but they test each new technology rigorously to see if it fits within their social system and promotes the values they care about. The Amish have been very restrictive of telephones, for example, because they found that telephones tend to promote gossip and backbiting behavior in their community. Similarly, the Luddites, who have become a shorthand for reflexively anti-technology individuals, didn’t just smash machines dogmatically: rather, they were protesting the way that machines were taking away the dignity of work and the skills of artisans.
Imagine if our societies globally had the Amish skepticism about taking hydrocarbons from the ground, burning them, and pouring ozone, soot, and carbon dioxide into the air. If we as a global culture had been more skeptical of the technologies involved in coal power and the internal combustion engine and allowed them to be adopted more slowly, we may not be facing a species-wide crisis right now.
These are where valid concerns about GMOs come from: Companies tampering with the basis of life and managing to sell products derived from those experiments based off of incredibly limited sample sizes, despite very real concerns ranging from GMOs being very different from the unaltered product as regards allergens to fears about spliced pesticides and fears of even more enhanced monoculture..
And none of this comes close to the fact that engineering-based solutions to social problems often don’t work or aren’t necessary. We don’t need increased production from GMOs to feed the planet: we already could feed the planet if we just got the food we make into the mouths of people. The problem isn’t the rate of food production; it’s the barriers to proper food distribution and consumption because of the profit motive.
Many of us reflexively wince at the association that we might have with the Amish or the Luddites or any other group skeptical of the offerings of science and technology. And I’m certainly not advocating that we be as skeptical as either of those groups. But the fact is that we as a society are rushed into making world-changing technological paradigm shifts without any real opportunity for public debate and regulation, even as government ostensibly is supposed to exert control through mechanisms like the patent regime, not because of idealists who want to change the world but overwhelmingly because of corporations that want to make a buck and militaries that want to destroy more effectively.
There’s nothing wrong with progressives, let alone society in general, adopting a skepticism about technology and an eagerness to use non-technological solutions from the arenas of culture, art, activism and social science to at least complement if not replace more technocratic, engineering-based solutions. We should practice good science and care about what’s real and what isn’t, but we should also care about what ends we are putting science to.
This article was written by Frederic Christie, a writer for dusk magazine.