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Remember the Pueblo

October 5, 2017

What started as a pleasant conversation about the ingredients in mooncakes quickly turned into an uncomfortable argument about scientific advances like genetically modified organisms and nuclear energy. I thought I was staking out a moderate position, saying that the jury isn’t out yet, and that I wouldn’t condemn the skeptic. Sure, there are luddites who oppose science on crankish grounds, but there are also rational people who make a convincing argument that we should apply a precautionary principle to highly centralized systems.

At the risk of oversimplification, a nuclear plant failure results in catastrophe, whereas even the worst accidents relating to coal are limited to a few hundred casualties. But in terms of casualties per unit of power – and barring meltdown – nuclear is literally 1 million times safer than coal, which kills 170,000 people per Petawatt/hr in China. In GMOs, the debate hinges on whether super-crop monocultures are prone to mass failure due to some unforeseen variable. No one can question the billions of lives preserved by the Green Revolution, and to advocate a ban on industrial agriculture without proposing an alternative amounts to a death sentence for many of the world’s poorest people – even if there are health side effects.

The passion people feel about these subjects seems related to Scott Alexander’s idea of “murderism.” We’re too quick to assign murderous hatred or knavish ignorance as the motive for someone’s lack of regard for a group of victims. For opponents of GMOs, anyone at risk of the long-term consequences of a fragile system is a victim, and the victimizers are myopic technocrats and global elites. That’s why some natural-food-eating conspiracy theorists believe that there is a plot to slowly kill the majority of the population, even though something like the opposite is probably true. For supporters of GMOs, anyone who could be fed, or fed more cheaply, without any downside is a victim, and the victimizers are the skeptics of sound science.

As a non-scientist, I listen to people like Ronald Bailey (Reason’s science correspondent) on the relative harmlessness of GMOs, but I also hear my friend who goes into anaphylactic shock when he eats GMO peppers. There’s an element of radical ignorance that goes into anyone’s thought process. I’d like to throw up my hands, but widespread ignorance can be disastrous if one side is definitively correct.

I heard that apathy is on the rise, but no one seems to care. No one can grasp the whole body of scientific knowledge, so we defer to experts who understand the parts, and delegate authority to the institutions (academic, governmental, etc.) that aggregate the parts. There’s a sense that no one’s at the steering wheel. Who would want to responsible for the path of the massive and sclerotic juggernaut that is the modern mixed economy? The alternative to throwing up one’s hands, as best I can see, is to keep trying to grasp reality as best we can. We will get things wrong, and people will die as a result. Hopefully we won’t all die, but the best insurance seems to be a diverse ecosystem of institutions, each with explicit governing principles. One nation/city-state/community may apply knowledge to minimize casualties per watt hour, while another eschews the devil’s arithmetic altogether – opting for a simpler, less energy-intensive existence. Remember, there are happy people in New Mexico still living in pueblos.

A scientific consensus cannot replace good governance. Achieving the latter will take a mix of ancient wisdom and modern science, with ample experimentation. Let’s get grasping.

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