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PC's Opinion: GE - Why They Don’t Get It

This opinion piece is the sixth in a new series of "PC's Weekly Opinion" - a pithy, heavily-spiced editorial from Peter Cresswell that can be delivered to your in-box once a week. If you like what you read then feel free to forward it to everyone you've ever met, and to subscribe at . And if you don’t like what you read, then learn to get over it.

PC's Weekly Opinion
Genetic Engineering - Why They Don’t Get It
By Peter Cresswell

[A recycled column today, updated from an article originally appearing in The Free Radical of August 1999.]

A restive audience sits shivering in a school gymnasium on a cold Auckland evening. They hear a scientist painstakingly explaining the exciting new technology of gene modification, yet they are not listening. His words cannot reach them. "What about my children?" they sneer, their faces fixed in derision. "How do you know you aren't poisoning them?" The scientist knows he could not have communicated any clearer, yet he will leave the meeting knowing he has failed.

A businessman at a public debate tells a well-fed audience that this technology will be able to feed the world. He is mocked with sarcastic laughter when an opponent points out he is "only interested in profit!"

A grocery association produces a pamphlet for customers answering questions on GE foods. The pamphlet is rubbished by anti-GE activists as "biased, undisguised propaganda focussing on possible future benefits while ignoring the environmental and heath risks." "Many doctors," complain the activists, "warn these foods could cause new toxins, allergies, or even [gasp] super-viruses." [Emphasis added.]

A politician tells an audience that she wishes to ban this technology until it has been thoroughly tested, and in the same breath says she wishes to ban testing. Her audience enthusiastically applaud this brazen contradiction. Her party calls for a moratorium on the use of the technology until a Royal Commission has inquired into it - and then protests when the Commission finds that the technology should proceed.

Activists analyse the minutiae of rumour, gossip and innuendo surrounding GE plants, foods and crops, yet seem to be missing the big picture.

What is going on? While businesses produce more and more genetically modified products and scientists research exciting new applications, their technology-hating opponents still seem to be winning the debate. The reason – it will surprise many to learn – is not for any lack of science or any shortage of marketing muscle, and nor is it any reflection on the merits of the technology itself.

The reason is not lack of science. It is lack of philosophy.

Oh, come now, you will say – what’s that errant abstract nonsense got to do with this battle? And the answer is: everything. What the Luddites rely on is an audience with a taste for errant nonsense - with a disrespect for scientific certainty, a taste for the arbitrary, a disgust for profits, a willingness to ignore logical contradictions, and an overriding hatred for mankind and its achievements.

That recipe describes many New Zealanders – and most politicians – and the only way these philosophical ideas can be defeated is with better philosophy. At the moment, the scientific defenders are talking past the Luddites because they are both talking about different things. One is talking philosophy, and the other is not.

What technology's defenders must do is to defend the ideas at the level they are being attacked - the philosophical level. This means defending scientific certainty, rejecting arbitrary assertions, praising profits as moral, respecting logic, and honouring man’s achievements. There is only one philosophy that consistently defends all of these - Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism - and without it, the Luddites will win.


Scientists will assuredly lose the argument if they argue strictly on scientific grounds. Defenders of the technology must defend the certainty of their scientific inquiry - that it is based, not on wild speculation nor arbitrary assertions nor yet on the numbers of scientists who assert it - but on cold, hard, brute facts. Technology's attackers litter their statements with arbitrary attacks full of ‘might-be’, ‘could-be’, and ‘could-lead-to’ - and just observe how often you hear the speculative words 'may,' 'might, and 'perhaps' in the anti-GE literature. Technology's defenders must crusade against these arbitrary assertions, and argue for a renewed respect for certainty, and for the facts.

This is a philosophical battle, and one the arbitrarians are currently winning for lack of a philosophical rejoinder. Scientists must defend their scientific certainty against the claims of the arbitrarians; in other words they must vigorously assert the truth that what they know, they know with full certainty. If they don’t defend the notion of certainty philosophically (and ensure that they are certain when they need to be), then the pseudo-scientists and scientifically illiterate need only chant 'you don't know for sure, do you' for scientists to retreat to the lab and shut the doors.

The arbitrary should be seen for what it is: in the words of philosopher Leonard Peikoff as "a claim put forth in the absence of evidence of any sort…with no relation to reality or to human cognition." Arbitrary statements are in fact worse than false statements. False statements contradict the evidence, but at least the evidence is addressed. Arbitrary statements by contrast offer no evidence, have no tie to reality, no content, and therefore no significance. In any debate, the arbitrarians should be required to either put up their evidence, or to shut up.


"You don’t want to feed the world, you’re only interested in your profits" crow the Luddites, and in the face of this assault on their morality businessmen cower, unwilling to accept the truth that they should only be interested in their profits.

Businessmen evasively apologising for their profits suggests dishonesty where there is none. This technology can feed the world; it will vastly increase crop yields; it does reduce the need for herbicides and pesticides; it will allow growers to grow more on less land. It promises a vast range of exciting new products; it will – and should – earn enormous profits for the producers of the technology – AND THAT MUST NOT BE APOLOGISED FOR!

Further, the potential for humungous profits provide the best defence for food safety – no company will make huge profits by unwittingly killing its customers - and profits rightfully reward producers – why the hell else should they produce. Profits are moral – they have, after all, been earned.

In Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged, two businessmen hold a press conference; they are opening a new railway line that has been violently opposed by the politically correct. "The reporters who came to the press conference," goes the story, "had been trained to think that their job consisted of concealing from the world the nature of its events. It was their daily duty to serve as audience for some public figure who made utterances about the public good, in phrases carefully calculated to have no meaning." Pressured by the reporters to defend her reasons for opening the unpopular railway line, Dagny Taggart says: "Would you oblige me by taking this down verbatim? Miss Taggart says – quote – I expect to make a pile of money on the John Galt Line. I will have earned it. Close quote. Thank you so much."

What a contrast to the manner in which the technology of genetic modification is currently being defended. And what a breath of fresh air if we could hear that today from the producers of genetic technology.

Moral Treason, and the Sanction of the Victim

The New Zealand government has allowed the technology to proceed, but only with serious shackles and restrictions on its use. Scientists and producers have been pathetically grateful, tugging their forelocks as they meekly concede to the shackles. This is yet another example of what Ayn Rand called the "moral treason" of conservatives - their willingness to endlessly compromise only to find in the end that they have eventually sold out their own values. Faced with opposition conservatives will happily shackle themselves, and sanction their own destruction.

Businessmen and scientists must realise that if don't tell the truth about this epoch-making technology by crusading for it - rather than apologising for it as they are now, or 'spinning' unwelcome facts rather than fronting up with the unvarnished truth - then they will assuredly continue to suffer ‘death by a thousand cuts.'

There is an interesting parallel with the technology of nuclear power, which was unveiled in the fifties with the promise of almost infinite power for extremely low cost. Nuclear arguably offered cheaper, cleaner power more easily and safely produced than any other method of production. Its defenders however – conservative to a man – willingly accepted the compromises asked for by their opponents, and in doing so regulated their own industry into virtual bankruptcy. Costs to produce new atomic power plants were raised so high by regulatory control that it was transformed from the cheapest form of power known to man, to the most expensive.

By accepting the shackles, the defenders of nuclear power willingly sanctioned their own destruction. And in a final irony, when uneconomic plants were being mothballed, Luddites began arguing that the plants’ mothballing demonstrated that they were right about the evil technology all along!

Conservatives strangled this industry with their own compromises, strengthening their opponents in the process - we are about to witness a repeat performance with genetic technology. The regulatory compromises being accepted threaten to strangle the industry as effectively as they did with the nuclear industry. Again we will see the victims sanctioning their own destruction by their own moral treason.

I hope I’m wrong.

© 2001

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