On Nov. 6, San Diegans headed to the polls. In addition to the decisions between Barack Obama or Mitt Romney for president, Carl DeMaio or Bob Filner for mayor, and Scott Peters or Brian Bilbray for Congress, San Diegans were also faced with a Yes or No decision on 11 statewide ballot propositions.
Among these was Proposition 37, which called for labeling on food offered for sale to consumers if the food is made from plants or animals with genetic material changed in specified ways.
Those against Prop. 37 argued that hundreds of scientific studies have shown that genetically altered foods are safe and that “putting scary sounding labels on foods will mislead consumers.” On the other side, those in favor of Prop. 37 contended that genetically modified foods raise a potential danger and that consumers have the right to know what is in their food.
In the end, Prop. 37 was rejected with 52.1 percent of the voters deciding against it. Regardless of this outcome, the presence of Prop. 37 on the ballot and the debate surrounding genetically modified foods, both before and after the election, demonstrates real public concern about the safety of this technology and skepticism of any statements by the scientific community assuring consumers that the technology is safe.
Is today’s society’s skepticism of technology the result of a highly informed public living in an age with limitless access to information? Or is it that the public has become more wary having witnessed the harms of previously proclaimed “safe” products such as tobacco and thalidomide? What is clear is that such public mistrust of science and technology did not always exist.
When Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking book “Silent Spring” was published in 1962, scientists were afforded great deference by the public, believed to be all-knowing and tasked with the betterment of society. With the publication of “Silent Spring,” Carson became one of the first to not only to raise the alarm over the widespread use of pesticides, but to challenge the truth and reliability of representations by the scientific community.
Public skepticism of new technologies, such as pesticides or genetically modified food, can serve to protect society from health and environmental risks. However, if unfounded or misinformed, public skepticism also has the potential to unnecessarily impede innovative methods and products that can be of great benefit to society. Crops can be genetically modified to be resistant to harsh climates such as drought, thus enabling much needed food production in developing countries and a potential solution to the world food crisis. Genetic modification may also allow for cheaper food production, meaning lower prices at the grocery store.
In order to ensure that the many benefits of technology are not lost due to inaccurate and incomplete data or biased opinions, it is important that the public has access to trustworthy information. However, while Carson makes a persuasive case for why the word of scientists should not be blindly trusted, she raises the question: “When it comes to the safety of technology, who can we trust?”
Who knows more about science than scientists? Even as she challenges the chemists championing the safety of pesticides, Carson herself cites the works and words of scientists in support of her argument. Similarly, to argue the dangers of genetically modified foods, many Prop. 37 supporters cited a recent scientific study that found that mice served genetically modified corn were more likely to develop tumors and organ damage. Those against Prop. 37 cited the comments of scientists discrediting the study.
While there may be cases in which differences in opinion are due to biases, whether financial or otherwise, on the part of scientists, differences in scientific opinion are the natural result of the scientific process in which there are often periods of uncertainty or evolving truths while the complete story is being uncovered. However, when scientists disagree, how do we know which scientific opinion to believe?
To help in this decision, many of us may turn to the media in an attempt to find a non-biased, readily understandable account of technology and potential safety concerns. However in this day and age, finding a truly non-partisan media source can be challenging. Furthermore, with the 24-hours news cycle and the need to sensationalize news coverage in order to boost ratings, many may argue that the age of truly reliable media coverage is over.
Social activists and advocates may also serve as sources of information regarding the benefits and dangers of technology. However, such parties’ ethical beliefs or personal agendas may skew their presentation of the facts. In addition, certain beliefs about the benefits or dangers of technology gain credibility and acceptance in the public eye based solely on their popularity and celebrity promotion. How can we decipher what is true from what is trendy?
When it comes to new technological advances, be it pesticides, nuclear energy, new pharmaceuticals or genetically modified foods, with all the conflicting information and hidden agendas it is difficult to know what to believe or who to trust. One would hope that at the very least the government could be relied upon to protect the public through proper regulation of potentially dangerous technologies. However, given that new technologies often found billion-dollar industries, economic considerations and the political influence of large corporations may impact the extent to which the government is willing or able to impose regulations. It was only after “Silent Spring” publicized the dangers of pesticides that government legislation was put in place to stop the use of DDT and protect the public against the harmful effects of pesticides.
Perhaps the only way for us to learn the truth about the potential dangers and benefits of a new technology is to examine the information from all available sources and, after evaluating all of the arguments, come to our own conclusion. However, to do so requires a substantial amount of time and effort that many people are not able or willing to give.
Even if it is unclear who we can trust to ensure that new technologies are safe, what is certain is that the days of the public passively accepting the implementation of new technologies are long gone. A more educated and critical public can help to protect public safety and ensure that appropriate regulations are put in place before the widespread use of new technology.
However, in the search for the truth, public skepticism and uninformed interference may also unnecessarily impede important scientific progress and its potential benefits to society.
On Dec. 5, Dr. Mitchell Thomashow will speak at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center to discuss this dilemma and other issues raised by Rachel Carson in “Silent Spring.” This event is part of the Silent Spring Series organized by the Center for Ethics in Science and Technology in collaboration with several different San Diego educational institutes. Please RSVP for this free event and join in the conversation.
Margaret Ng Thow Hing is an intellectual property attorney and former scientist and writes as a member of the San Diego Center for Ethics in Science and Technology.
Want to contribute to discussion? Submit a suggestion to Fix San Diego.