As of the first day of this year, the culture wars that still linger from the 1960s are over. The beginning of legal marijuana sales caps off an amazing decade of victories for social liberals. In that period, gay marriage has been legalized in 16 states, and such marriages are now recognized by the federal government. The President is now a black man with a muslim name who is the son of an immigrant. In a partial victory old-school social conservatives, politicians have stopped talking about guns, but gun ownership is in steady decline.*
No formal treaty of surrender has been negotiated, but marijuana, gay marriage, intolerance toward muslims and gun rights are as good as finished as viable political issues. Conservative politicians will back away from them the same way that they have backed away from racism. The question is what we will argue about next?
A viable candidate, I think, is the advance of scientific research and the development of new technologies. Anti-scientism cuts across America’s current political divide, including such diverse issues as the conservative dogma of skepticism about climate change, teacher unions opposing all efforts to use evidence to improve education, and damned near everyone seeming to hate and fear wearable technology like Google Glass.
The biggest political debates, however, seem to be over the use over GMO foods. This NY Times piece on Greggor Ilagan, a councilman from Hawaii’s Big Island, highlights the combination of passion and disbelief in empirical evidence that characterizes the anti-GMO movement. Mr. Ilagan took the time to learn about the science on GMOs ahead of a vote on banning them on the island. He was rewarded for his careful thought with mockery and hatred by his constituents. The article is worth reading in its entirety; it provides a wonderful combination of laying out the science on GMO foods and casual anthropology on the most passionate GMO opponents. Particularly telling is a passage in which every single claim made by ban proponents collapses upon further investigation, which features this damning paragraph:
He heard many times that there were no independent studies of the safety of genetically modified organisms. But Biofortified, which received no funding from industry, listed more than a hundred such studies, including a 2010 comprehensive review sponsored by the European Union, that found “no scientific evidence associating G.M.O.s with higher risks for the environment or for food and feed safety than conventional plants and organisms.” It echoed similar statements by the World Health Organization, the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society of Medicine and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Margaret Wille, the main proponent of the ban, says things that sound like Republican talking points with the word “GMO” in place of “climate change”. All the scientists who oppose banning GMOs are characterized as being in the pocket of corporate interests. A lot of the quotes in the article sound like dialogue from Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a videogame whose plot was driven by the debate about enhancing humans via technology. We increasingly have the capacity to do exactly that. It is hard to know what kinds of political coalitions will form as technology becomes the key social issue of the day, but Hawaii may be a window on the future of debates on social values. Things don’t look promising for science: the ban passed 6-3, with overwhelming support from constituents, and most people I know from Hawaii are rabidly anti-GMO.
Full disclosure: I have never received a penny from firms who engage in genetic engineering (do people still call it that)? I have probably eaten a large number of GMO foods, especially if you consider that almost everything we eat was bred specifically to select for crazy mutations such as fruit not having seeds.