It is no secret that many Americans are scientifically illiterate, and a new poll illustrates just how far the valley stretches between the views of the scientific community and the general public. From the AP:
Scientists are far less worried about genetically modified food, pesticide use, and nuclear power than is the general public, according to matching polls of both the general public and the country’s largest general science organization. Scientists were more certain that global warming is caused by man, evolution is real, overpopulation is a danger and mandatory vaccination against childhood diseases is needed.
In eight of 13 science-oriented issues, there was a 20 percentage point or higher gap separating the opinions of the public and members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, according to survey work by the Pew Research Center. The gaps didn’t correlate to any liberal-conservative split; the scientists at times take more traditionally conservative views and at times more liberal.
However, it is important to note one aspect that is usually missing from these polls: context.
For example, when a person says they do not believe in climate change or evolution, or says that the earth is only 5,000 years old, this must be viewed within the context of that person subscribing to a non-reality based worldview. Of course they don’t agree with scientists. They are anti-science.
Yet regarding issues like pesticides and GMOs, this contextual divergence becomes much murkier. When a scientist says they are not worried about pesticides or GMOs, they are likely referring to the fact that there is very little that is inherently dangerous about them, scientifically speaking. There are many safe pesticides and GMOs. Scientists know this.
Last year, when famed astrophysicist and science communicator Neil DeGrasse Tyson said that people should “chill out” about GMOs, he was immediately hit with a tidal wave of avid detractors. In a lengthy response on facebook, he clarified:
had I given a full talk on this subject, or if GMOs were the subject of a sit-down interview, then I would have raised many nuanced points, regarding labeling, patenting, agribusiness, monopolies, etc. I’ve noticed that almost all objections to my comments center on these other issues.
Tyson was clearly not saying people need to chill out about Big Agro companies like Monsanto and Syngenta, which fight GMO labeling at every turn, patent food we eat, and seek to create said monopolies.
Some might infer that since not all GMOs are as bad as people fear, then perhaps companies like Monsanto are not as bad as people say either. Rest assured, Monsanto has earned its terrible reputation. They have contaminated organic farms. They have sued states for democratically passing laws requiring GMO labeling. They bully farmers. They have patented “terminator seeds” that leave crops sterile. They knowingly used chemicals that cause birth defects. The list goes on. They suck.
Perhaps the most troubling tool in Monsanto’s repertoire, which just so happens to be one of these points where scientists and the public diverge, is pesticides.
The vast majority of people living on the planet today have eaten food safely grown with pesticides. Pesticides, an invention dating back over 4000 years to ancient Mesopotamia, are not inherently dangerous. Like GMOs, some are dangerous and some are not. It depends on the chemical makeup of the specific GMO or pesticide at hand. Yet it is not the safe pesticides that informed activists are concerned about. Informed activists are fighting the pesticides that actually do cause harm.
Throughout the mid-twentieth century environmental activists fought to ban the toxic Monsanto-manufactured pesticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT, a goal which was finally achieved in the early 70s. These activist efforts were not focused on all pesticides, but against DDT specifically, which had been proven to be toxic to both humans and the environment.
In recent years, a similar fight is taking place against neonicotinoids, or neonics, which a recent Harvard study shows is very likely what is killing off our planet’s honey bees. Since about a third of all food is dependent on pollinators like honeybees, the use of neonics by companies like Monsanto, Syngenta, and Bayer are threatening our global food supply.
If pollsters were to ask scientists more pointed questions, like how they feel about neonics or DDT as opposed to just pesticides in general, or how they feel about the corrupting influence of mega corporations on democracy, then perhaps we would see that their views are not as at odds with the public as they appear.