This title is inspired by the words of Dr. Susan McCouch. She refers to the willing of people to change mindsets in the face of greater evil, that often seem so far away that only in its proximity they re-consider beliefs. The topic treated in this discussion was mainly related to the consumption of Genetically Modified (GM) rice, known as Golden Rice. Golden Rice is an international initiative to address the devastating effects that Vitamin A deficiency causes principally in underdeveloped countries, mostly related to childhood blindness. Due to a great opposition to GM crops, the approval of Golden Rice has been slow and very limited to some Asian countries. This opposition is originated principally in first world organizations, based on the fear to the unknown effects of these products in the population, as well as the argument that GM crops are produced by transnational corporations with nothing but profit purposes. The case of Golden Rice is just an example of leveraging in influential decision-making spheres. Leverage, unfortunately, successful for organizations that decide that scientific facts don´t matter.
The debate about the unknown effects due to the manipulation often does not include the argument crops obtained by approaches with a compound of randomness higher than the transgenic one. An example of this is the Renan wheat, which is an organic variety of wheat, originally produced by inducing multiploidy by treatment with the chemical compound colchicine, but in reality is a well-accepted variety in Europe, especially in countries declared against GM crops.
About the corporative interest, several varieties produced by governmental research institutions have been successfully applied to surpass production deficit and also health issues related to pesticide usage in farmers´ communities who sometimes depend on a single crop. Iconic examples include the case of the insect resistant pesticide Brinjal Bt variety in Bangladesh, and the case of the transgenic Rainbow papaya generated by Cornell University researchers to avoid the collapse of the main agricultural product in Hawaii by ringspot virus.
These two examples show us in the first case how just a matter of definition by word usage can change the perception of a potentially risky technology entirely, even in the eyes of the hardest oppositions. The second one remarks the tangible benefit of communities indeed affected by problems that can highlight the ultimate goal of results obtained by a scientific approach.
But, what else?
The food issue is just one of the many faces in which decision making is critical for the outcome of societies and where scientists have more than a significant thing to say but have the duty to be agents that brings facts to the discussion more than opinions based on gut feelings.
Similar landscapes we can find on sensitive topics such as vaccination and global warming. A significant upset nowadays is going on by the recent designation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) leader by elected President Donald Trump. The person selected for such an important role in the most powerful country in the world is Scott Pruitt. In a short way he can be defined as a “climate science denier” but in a fairer definition is an active anti-environmentalist, since he has been a strong part of the lawsuit against President Obama´s clean power plan during 2015, arguing that climate change is a matter “far from settled.”
It is no news that scientifically uninformed and biased representatives who can argue in an elaborate and not necessarily fact-based way are often elected, putting anachronic principles before social priorities in the table at the time of taking action.
The roots of evil
In words of late comedian George Carlin “politicians don´t fall from the sky” they come from us, from citizens. They´re a reflection of our society. Here is where the way of analyzing reality and scientific literacy is determinant. Science is assumed counter-intuitive and time-consuming to understand, nonetheless is our best way to comprehend and adapt the natural world that rules us.
Because of this, what scientific community can do is to address the misinformation and non-fact decision making on two broad flanks: one is getting involved in influencing organizations in the way they actually are (political parties, NGOs, and outreach initiatives) but more importantly, influencing the basis of thinking in our most proximate environment, families, friends, neighborhoods, and most important of all: younglings. The message is that if you´re scientific literate, engage in conversation and enrich with facts the discussion.
There is no need to wait for hunger, disease or imminent extinction to re-consider our beliefs system.
An immediate environment is the internet; where the proliferation of pseudo-scientific opinions and false claims is a daily matter. In a recent column written by Phil Williamson in Nature, he describes an urgent need to switch to an evidence-based governance and get over populism. The hard deal is that the commitment to ideas (correct or wrong) is considered as a value and virtue, and critical thinking is often underappreciated or misunderstood as a hassle. This is the reason why engaging the population is a call that we have to answer, to appreciate scientific facts in advance and avoid the need to be face to face to the greater evils that could endanger our subsistence.
Having the society requirements in the center and as the ultimate goal is the key to making this approach, this way issues such as the benefits of the Brinjal Bt eggplant, HPV vaccination or the need for a clean energy matrix won´t be a matter of opinions debate but an honest argument of civilization survival based on evidence. What are we waiting for? There is no need to wait for hunger, disease or imminent extinction to re-consider our beliefs system.