Dec 11 2015

Resorting to Violence

GMO_tracking_activistsA Mexican pro-GMO group called Alianza Protransgénicos (the pro-transgenics alliance) was sent two package bombs in the mail. One went off on opening, injuring four people, including the vice-president of the group.

In completely unrelated news, a sister of one of the teachers who was killed in the Sandy Hook massacre, Carlee Soto, has been receiving threats on Instagram, which include publication of her home address.

I know I am not going out on a limb, here, stating the blazingly obvious – such violence is cowardly and abhorrent and should never be a substitute for a compelling argument. I do want to muse about the phenomenon, however.

The anti-GMO attack is particularly interesting, as it reveals the level of emotion and ideological fanaticism that can be present in such groups. Sending bombs to a pro-GMO group is similar to bombing abortion clinics. In the latter case, extreme religious beliefs are the motivating factor, and killing for one’s religion is nothing new. Killing over a debate about farming and food one might assume is quite different.

I think that is the point, however. Many non-religious ideologies are just as fanatical and faith-based as religion. I know that many of my non-believing colleagues focus on religion as the enemy of reason, but this can miss the underlying reality – it is ideology that is the enemy of reason, and ideology can take many forms and does not have to be explicitly about religion.

The anti-GMO movement has, in my opinion, completely lost the scientific debate about the safety of genetically modified organisms. I have written about this many times before and won’t rehash it again. They have resorted to two strategies, making up their own bad science, and conspiracy theories. The conspiracy theories usually surround their favorite villain, Monsanto.

They have articles of faith as well, most notably an appeal to nature. Natural = good, unnatural (however you define that) = bad.

The core problem is that with many activists in the anti-GMO movement their cause is not a scientific debate, it is a fight of good vs evil. Once you frame a conflict in such stark terms, you have become a fanatic (there are real good vs evil struggles in this world, but this isn’t one of them). The pattern is repeated frequently:

One side of a debate, huddled in their echochamber, convinces themselves that they are absolutely correct (even when they have the science completely wrong). They cannot understand how a scientist, politician, journalist, or whoever could possibly disagree with them. They cannot even consider the possibility that they may be wrong (they are just far too deep down the rabbit hole), so the only logical conclusion they can come to is that anyone who disagrees with them is corrupt and lying.

They weave this assumption of corruption into a fantasy narrative, including corporate malfeasance, government corruption, and the convenient labeling of anyone who disagrees with them (including scientists) as a “shill.” Now they are no longer engaged in a debate over published science, they are engaged in a war against an evil alliance. They see themselves as the army of light, and more and more extreme actions become justifiable.

This justifies (in their mind) harassment of public scientists. They successfully harassed Kevin Folta out of the public arena (don’t worry, he’ll be back). They go after your work, your family, and your reputation. It justifies vandalizing scientific experiments.

And now, apparently, it is used to justify attempted murder and terrorism.

I won’t go into detail about the Sandy Hook conspiracy theorists except to say that for them it is a far shorter trip. They begin with the conspiracy. They are already off the reservation, just looking for a target.

I bring up this example, however, to make another point. One of the unintended consequences of social media is that it created the perfect venue for psychopaths and unhinged possibly dangerous individuals. One can lurk anonymously on social media, and harass others with near impunity.

I point this out partly to make the point that I am not arguing that everyone who is anti-GMO is a dangerous terrorist. I do think they are misinformed and perhaps massively misguided, as are anti-vaxxers, anti-fluoridationists, psychiatry deniers, and a host of other subcultures. I do feel that these movements lend themselves to fanatical ideology, and that this process is facilitated by social media.

Further, such movements are going to attract people who are not psychological healthy to begin with, or who are psychopaths and just see an opportunity for exploitation.

BTW – I am not using the term psychopath lightly. A recent study found that people who like trolling online also score very highly on features of psychopathy. This is just one study, but the results are interesting.


The lesson to take from all of this is yet another call for self-awareness. Beware the self-reinforcing behavior of falling into a pit of conspiracy theories, echochambers, absolute thinking, and assuming that those who disagree with your are evil or corrupt.

It seems to me that the echochamber phenomenon is a low energy state, and it takes deliberate work to stay above it. Skeptics can fall into it too, assuming those who disagree with them are gullible. That is why I frequently emphasize, when talking about critical thinking, that cognitive pitfalls are not a phenomenon of other people, they are a phenomenon of people – all people, including skeptics.

Skeptics, however, consciously try to be aware of cognitive biases and work against them. Part of that awareness is the realization that being skeptical does not make us immune to biases (believing it does is, perhaps, the ultimate bias). It just means we work hard against our biases, against the prevailing narratives that we find compelling, and constantly question ourselves.

These are things the fanatics don’t do. They are drowning in their own narrative, which is why they can get to a place where they think it is a good idea to send bombs in the mail to people who are guilty of disagreeing with them.

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