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GMOs, vaccinations, and nuclear power. All three are pretty much guaranteed to get a reaction out of a left-winger. Which reaction is debatable, but definitely a reaction. I’d like to make my position(s) clear: My problem with GMOs has more to do with the actions of companies like Monsanto and less to do with the ethics of altering organisms for food; vaccinate your damn kids because there’s real no evidence that vaccinations cause autism but there is pretty good evidence that varicella, tetanus and polio are very bad for little kids; and nuclear power isn’t actually as bad as all that if properly designed and maintained.

The greatest achievement of our time is the Internet. Period, end of list: Universal access to relatively cheap information is changing our world and will continue to do so in ways we can’t even imagine yet, indefinitely and forever. This is taking some adjusting: As the joke goes, I have a device in my pocket which allows me to access the sum total of human knowledge anywhere and anytime; I use it to look at pictures of cats and get in arguments with strangers. We have universally-available knowledge… and very little in the way of information filtering.

The numbers of anti-vaxxers have spread because it’s very difficult to get accurate information out of a web-search unless you know what you’re doing. When you do a Google Search on “dangers of vaccination”, as I just did, the first eight hits are all websites warning about the dreadful dangers of vaccinations with varying degrees of pseudoscientific justification. “Research”, these days, involves studying various websites of dubious provenance, and maybe wikipedia. If you’re going to make a decision with serious medical consequences, consult an actual doctor. In person.

GMOs? Humans have been modifying plants and animals to suit our needs ever since our species settled down in one place about 10,000 years ago. Genetically-modified organisms are just doing it at a faster pace. The problem I have is that corporations are creating — and patenting! — GMOs with almost no oversight or regulation… and even a casual search on the business practices of corporations like Monsanto are a pretty good example of why that’s a piss-poor idea. I support cautious development of GMOs under careful government oversight… not the free-market, unrestricted, use-my-patent-and-I-own-you situation that’s occurring right now.

And nuclear power? I actually don’t have that big a problem with it. A lot of people, especially on the left, are very poorly educated about what nuclear power is and how it works. Disasters like Chernobyl (a Soviet-era steam reactor built without any kind of proper containment chamber, then poked at just to see what would happen) or Fukushima Daiichi (GE Mark I boiling-water reactors with inadequate protections built for the known local threat of tsunamis) are pretty much due to human error. Proper, modern CANDU-type reactors are very safe, very stable, and can actually consume weapons-grade uranium and plutonium, thus helping the nuclear disarmament process. But make the slightest suggestion on the left that nuclear power is anything but a horrible, horrible evil… well, that’s heresy.

A couple of years back, when I was first starting to get connected to the internet (so more than a couple of years, but whatever…) I remember getting involved in a pretty heated chatroom discussion about the Cassini-Huygens probe. It was “nuclear-powered” in the sense that it had a 33kg plutonium thermal pile, and its course to Saturn required a close pass of the Earth in order to give it a gravity speed-boost. People were freaking out that NASA was “firing nuclear weapons at the Earth”, and I tried to explain that no, this wasn’t a nuclear weapon and it was being manoeuvred past Earth, and even in the event of a catastrophic mission failure it was very unlikely to pose even a remote threat to the planet. And then I got called everything in the book: logical, scientific arguments were not welcome. A mod eventually banned me because I was “stirring up trouble.”

I had a similar incident around the Chandrayaan-1 probe in 2008 — someone I knew went on a huge anti-space rant because it launched a Moon Impact Probe which designed to crash into the Moon: “But what if that disrupts the orbit of the Moon and it’s a threat to all life on Earth to say nothing of the environment of the Moon and how dare they endanger me and my children!” and so on and so on. No amount of discussion and explanation — it’s only a few kilos of metal, the moon takes bigger impacts that that all the time, there’s no “environment” on the moon to endanger, etc. — could sway them from their righteous indignation. It moved on from there to complaints about the cost of the space program (which is a complete rant on its own, and one I will subject my readership to eventually) and in exasperation I just dropped the discussion because I didn’t want to burn that particular bridge.

The basic problem is one of scientific ignorance. Not the kind of pig-headed, joyfully willing ignorance you see with the worst of the right-wing religious fringe (i.e. environmental conservation is unnecessary because when Jesus Christ™ comes back He’ll just re-plant all the trees) but a simple lack on understanding of certain core facts about the world. I once lived with a roommate who didn’t understand that the Sun was a star and that the stars are other Suns very far away. She just had no idea; I gathered during our discussion that she thought the stars were some kind of reflective concentrations of gas at the edge of the solar system. I had a hell of a time explaining it to her and I don’t think I fully succeeded: she certainly looked skeptical. In grade school I remember clearly a classmate challenging the teacher about whether the Earth is round or flat — she would not be budged in her certainty that the Earth was flat. I think I was about thirteen at the time and couldn’t believe someone thought that way in this day and age.

Now, I’m not an atheist, by any stretch. I’m a neopagan in the Reclaiming tradition: I hold that the biosphere we live in is a sacred manifestation of the Divine and that it requires our reverence and protection: alone (or nearly alone) of all the creatures of Life we have been endowed with self-awareness and an ability to make large-scale changes to the Earth… and we’re doing a pretty bad job of shouldering the responsibilities which come with that awareness. A lot of my friends are atheists, though, and a lot of them are atheists out of despair at the wilful ignorance of certain types of religious people. But most people, religious or otherwise, are ignorant of scientific principle (and I’ve even met atheists who fit that description) because for whatever reason kids aren’t being taught these things… or at least not properly. I was very fortunate that my parents made an effort to get me interested in science: My dad got me to watch Carl Sagan’s Cosmos pretty much as soon as I was old enough to understand it; I’m also lucky they encouraged me to look things up, especially if I had questions that they didn’t know the answers to.

I suppose that’s a habit that has stayed with me the whole of my life; certainly it’s the habit which led me away from the Catholic Church (somewhat ironically, when you think of it) and it’s been a persistent foundation for lifelong learning. Certainly it’s caused me a lot of trouble — personally, spiritually and politically, but I do have to say that its been one of the driving forces (if not the driving force) of my entire adult development. What shocks me a bit — especially on such easily-verifiable issues as genetically-modified organisms and the horrible corporations which make them; the benefits and alleged dangers of immunizations; and especially high-technology issues such as the use of nuclear power and the space program — is that so many people don’t do the same thing.

It’s easy to look into important issues. In fact it’s easier now than it ever has been in the history of mankind. It just requires a certain easily-obtained skill-set: Basic computer knowledge and an internet connection (or a library card for the determined Luddite), a healthy dose of skepticism and an understanding that unattributed claims on the internet need to be backed up by reputable sources, and a minimal understanding of the scientific principles of the way the world works.

I was able to pick those things up relatively easily at an early age; why are otherwise intelligent people, whether on the right or left of the political spectrum, apparently unable to do the same?

Update Jun 17 — Despite being published by Cracked.com and containing a fair bit of NSFW language, this is actually a really good article on taking internet stories with a grain of salt.