Climate, biotech and biases

GMO-climate-changeCRISPR gets a mention in the latest IPCC report as a potentially useful tool to cope with climate change. However, some people believe that biotech crops are safe and that climate change is not real (let’s call them libertarian capitalists, for convenience). Many ecological activists conversely think that genetically modified plants are evil and global warming threatens life on the planet. These stances could not be more different, yet they have something in common: they are both half right and half wrong. They are both examples of “selective science denial.”

You may not like the word denial because of its historical burden. However, the real issue is not how to label the most polarized segments of society; it’s about recognizing that we all make mistakes. Ignoring scientific evidence when it conflicts with personal values is a common phenomenon.

Blame cognitive biases, such as the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms your preexisting beliefs. Blame also social media echo chambers, leading to “feedback loops” in the media you consume. You can be smart and literate and still fall into the trap.

Extraordinary claims, such as “genetic engineering is dangerous” or “humans are not changing the climate,” need extraordinary evidence that no one has ever uncovered. Those who choose the solitary expert siding with them, rejecting the other 99, are prisoners of their own prejudices.

Think of Mark Lynas, the former anti-GM activist turned GM-supporter. After studying the climate change issue, he realized that he could no longer oppose biotech crops. Science cannot be cherry-picked at will. Maybe some climate-denialist should walk the opposite path: if they trust international agencies, scientific societies and peer-reviewed journals on their pet subject, then they should not dismiss IPCC as a political body or ignore the alarming studies on global warming published in Science and Nature.

Neutralizing biases is not an easy task, but maybe we are not doomed after all, as Bobby Duffy argues in his book The Perils of Perception: Why We Are Wrong About Nearly Everything. We naturally look for confirming information to avoid a bad feeling called cognitive dissonance, but when the evidence reaches a tipping point and there is sufficient weight against our current view, we switch.

“The dissonance is emotionally unpleasant, and while we’re attached to our current opinion, it becomes less unpleasant to shift than to cling on to them. The message is that we can’t always solve misconceptions with more facts alone, but we definitely shouldn’t give up on them”.

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