Michael Specter, a New Yorker science writer, has written a new book accusing Americans of being stupid about science. It’s not that I don’t agree with him. I just have one quibble.
I have to caution: I haven’t actually read the book. But I have heard him on several radio shows promoting it. He is especially hard in these interviews on those who believe organic or “natural” diets is the only safe way to eat. I couldn’t agree more. While I do prefer organic foods myself, Americans are unhealthy because they don’t eat vegetables at all, pesticides or no. And believing the natural world is somehow better for you than the mechanical and technological world in which we’ve cocooned ourselves ignores most of human history. It’s a relatively new thing that we’re living past 30 or 40, and it’s not just because we were hunted by predators. The world is dangerous for us, and there’s really no concrete divide between the natural world and the manufactured one. Though we can never prove for certain that the chemical BPA doesn’t cause cancer, we already know about viruses and natural plants like tobacco that definitely do. You’ll do yourself a lot more harm by never getting a vaccine for, say, HPV than you will help yourself by drinking out of a Sigg.
In these interviews, Specter goes off on folks who protest genetically modified foods, but I think he mischaracterizes their objections and the benefits. First, he says those who object protest what these foods might do to harm humans. While there are some out there who fear that without evidence, there are bigger objections to those who are uncertain about what the introduction of new genetic material might do to ecological health. That’s a pretty rational fear when one considers what introducing chemical fertilizers and pesticides did to the environment; the truth is we usually don’t know how the food chain could react, and how pests could adjust.
Second, he argues that these genetically modified foods could benefit the many hungry people on our planet by making more food more available. He needs to go back and read Amartya Sen, who won the Nobel Prize for economics in 1998 for showing that most of the world’s famines have to do with distribution of wealth, not actual food shortages. That’s still true now; there’s probably plenty of food on the earth, there are just some of us who eat too much of it, which was part of what the organic and locavore food arguments try to address. Genetically modified foods are not going to be used to feed hungry people, they’re going to be used to increased profits.
Specter could address these things in his book, but in interviews he’s not mentioned them, and so he’s underselling his argument.