Type “the war on science” into Google. Hit enter. You’ve just received 1,320,000,000 results in 0.28 seconds and, unsurprisingly, “The Republican War on Science” is the top result. It’s a clichéd narrative, not to imply that it’s undeserved. But scroll down to the fifth entry and you’ll find, “The Canadian War on Science”. Canadians? Canada is typically regarded as a left-leaning nation, when measured against the American political spectrum. And left leaning parties are often viewed as embracing scientific discovery and research-based policies, right?
For the sake of full disclosure, in addition to being a Harvard scientist, I’m an overly-apologetic, maple syrup swilling, citizen of America’s hat. Emulating our southern neighbors, Canada’s conservative government is shamefully guilty of waging their own war on science. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government is busy attempting to greenwash oil-covered wetlands, while simultaneously gutting funding for water quality monitoring , rendering impotent the national census, and prioritizing federal funding to favor research with direct industrial application. Shameful to be sure, but this is not the war with which we concern ourselves here. In Canada, as in much of the US and Europe, science is under a coordinated attack on a second and much ignored front. The aggressors? The far left.
For every young-earth creationist, climate-science denier, and opponent of stem-cell therapy, there is a GMO-protester, homeopathy enthusiast, and vaccine-a-phobe. The key difference being that on the right end of the political spectrum, the enemy is generally perceived to be big government; on the left, it’s big business.
While recent political trends in North America have bred legislation that reflects the irrational arguments of the right, there is an emerging and alarming trend of legally indulging the irrational left. Take for example the Green Party of Canada, whose mailing list I recently subscribed to. For a while, the incoming e-mail bulletins were mostly innocuous. That all changed a few weeks ago when the bulletins began urgently warning me of the dangers of genetically-modified foods, and not simply the dangers that GMOs could pose to the environment. Instead, these warnings urged me to take action against the “potentially serious threat” that GMOs pose to our personal health.
Just to be clear, there has never been a single reputable, peer-reviewed study that has found any link between the consumption of genetically modified foods and adverse health effects. Perhaps as importantly, there is no proposed mechanism that can explain why any such link could exist. The claim that GMOs are unsafe for human consumption is entirely unsupported and is a prime example of thinking informed by unscientific and purely emotional arguments. For a political party to blindly propagate these ideas is irresponsible at best and, at worst, ideologically-motivated alarmism.
Let me emphasize that the Green Party claims to inform its policies with the best possible science. This is the party that claims to have science on its side. This is a party that a disproportionate number of scientists likely voted for. This is the party that I voted for.
I was so taken aback that I was prompted to do something for the very first time: I sent a concerned letter to my politicians. I e-mailed the leader of the Party, Member of Parliament Elizabeth May, and her shadow cabinet member representing agriculture, Kate Storey. Earnestly thinking that there must be some kind of misunderstanding, I politely expressed my concern and asked them to consider the evidence and reconsider their policies towards GMOs. I offered my knowledge and resources to help clarify the finer points of the science and to answer any question they might have. The reply that I received was less than enthusiastic. Instead of considering their own policies, Mrs. Storey asked me to consider initiating “comprehensive, peer reviewed and independent studies of GMO foods”, stressing the importance of “independent studies, free from the conflict of interest which has compromised the validity of the GMO health research.”
In reply, I sent Mrs. Storey links to reviews featuring over 70 studies meeting her requested criteria. All independent. All peer-reviewed. I tried to emphasize that there exists much independent research on this topic and that as the evidence continues to mount, we are more and more certain that there is no link between adverse health effects and the consumption of GMOs.
Ignoring this, Mrs. Storey’s reply insisted that the seed companies had not allowed independent studies (as though companies have the power to limit independent research) and that we scientists “must free [ourselves] from [our] ties to corporate profit” and that if we cannot, then we “will obviously continue to have distrust from the public.”
At this, I attempted to lead Mrs. Storey through some of the literature to demonstrate that there were, in fact, no conflicts of interest present. I tried to describe the process by which reputable journals attempt to eliminate such conflicts of interest. My email went unanswered.
Back to Google. It’s somewhat comforting to know that I’m not the first person to observe the irrational attitude of the far-left towards science and the political framing of GMOs in particular. Others have recently made similar criticisms of Green parties in other nations. Although the British and Canadian “Green Parties” share no official connections, they seem to share the very same anti-scientific beliefs. This begs the question: Is Green the new color of scientific ignorance?
Aside from removing my name from their mailing list and vowing not to vote Green until they clean up their act, what can be done? Let’s consider the appeals: Logos clearly failed and ethos is likely hopeless, leaving pathos as the final option. And perhaps this is the very crux of the issue: Despite their claims, the far-left is championing legislation not because it’s supported by evidence, but instead because it feels right. Otherwise put, the legislation coincides with a worldview built upon emotionally-motivated misinformation. In this sense, the political spectrum appears to be more of a political donut. The far right and left meet on this donut, ironically sharing far more in common than either would like to admit. Both groups are attempting to coopt science to serve ideology. This is a difficult admission for many of us who identify so strongly with environmentalism, sustainability and other parts of the green manifesto.
Perhaps in today’s age of party politics, there can be no party with which a person can identify completely. At the very least, however, scientists and informed citizens should attempt to hold our politicians to a slightly higher standard, calling them out on their indiscretions when appropriate. I urge you to contact your representatives the next time they back legislation contrary to science. At the very least, their responses may expose a deeper truth about their motivations.
Aaron Larsen is a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard University.