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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Biq Questions, Small Answers
distributed 2/27/15 - ©2015

I'll admit it. I got emotionally hooked by the results of a recent survey about public views on scientific issues.

I like to think of myself as open-minded, rational, and pretty well-read on a wide range of issues. So it grates on me if some of my views get me lumped in with those that I consider poorly informed or unwilling to accept scientific findings. It just happened on one of the issues in this week's report -- and really only partly, at that -- but that was enough to stir up my thinking. I believe that those musings about science and ethical conversation have some broader implications for us all.

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A recent study from the Pew Research Center -- summarized nicely by National Geographic -- finds "a disconnect between the way the public perceives science and the way that scientists see science." There are some startling differences between the general public in the US, and "scientists connected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science."

87% of the scientists say that "climate change is mostly due to human activity", but only 50% of the citizens agree. 98% of the scientists say that "humans have evolved over time", but just 65% of US citizens say so. So far, I side with the scientists.

The question that got to me is one that had the largest gap between scientists and US adults -- is it "safe to eat genetically modified foods?" 88% of the scientists said yes, but only 37% of the ordinary folk said so, a gap of a whopping 51%. My response -- which would not be allowed by the poll-takers -- is: "That's the wrong question!"

I think we get into trouble with public policy issues and the related moral and ethical discussions when we provide small answers to big questions. When we narrow the issue too much, a carefully researched answer does not give us any meaningful information.

GMOs are just one of three places where I've encountered that problem recently.

The issue of fracking for oil and gas is a very big topic in Colorado these days. A high-profile task force appointed by the Governor just made some recommendations to the state legislature about how to balance local control and industry claims. All sorts of scientific, legal and economic arguments are being tossed around. (Disclosure about where we stand: Eco-Justice Ministries is part of two new coalitions working to ban fracking in Denver and in Colorado.)

In one of those debates this winter, I heard a pro-fracking speaker make the bold claim that (as I recall the phrasing) there was no documented case in this state of fracking fluid contaminating drinking water wells. I'm not sure if that's true or not, but I was struck by the statement because most of the debate that afternoon was about the very well-known impacts of air pollution and noise from fracking operations.

A small answer, presented with great authority, was a politically motivated way to influence a much larger question. A narrow response about water pollution tried to overshadow a much broader array of legitimate concerns.

Sometimes, small answers are intentionally used to distort information and manipulate public policy. It is not a question of whether the science is reputable. The misleading use of research is just plain dishonest. We need to name it and refute it whenever we see such behavior.

The other two issues where I recently encountered the problem of small answers to big questions are GMO crops and antibiotics. In both of these cases, the scientific research that is often reported simply does not deal with the primary questions.

Last week's Notes addressed the problem of antibiotic resistant bacteria, and pointed to the widespread use of antibiotics in concentrated livestock operations. One of my primary sources for that commentary, Maryn McKenna, wrote of the agricultural and pharmaceutical industries "alleging that agricultural antibiotics have no discernible effect on human health."

So there is a small question: if cattle and chickens are given ongoing, low-level doses of antibiotics, are you at risk if you eat that meat? The studies, apparently, say no. That food is not, in itself, dangerous. But that is not an adequate answer.

As I documented last week, the pervasive use of antibiotics in agriculture pose a great risk to human health when it fosters the spread of drug-resistant bacteria. "Are agricultural antibiotics a threat to public health" is the larger and more significant question. There is a growing consensus that the larger question of public health is the one that needs to shape laws.

And then there is the matter of genetically modified foods, where there is such a wide gap between scientists and citizens. In this case -- for a variety of reasons -- anxiety about GMOs is often framed as a rejection of science. This month's National Geographic cover story, "Why Do Many Reasonable People Doubt Science?", has this statement: "But to some people the very idea of transferring genes between species conjures up mad scientists running amok -- and so, two centuries after Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, they talk about Frankenfood."

It is that perception of GMO-concerned folk as anti-science that led me into this week's reflections. My strongest concerns (and the reason that Eco-Justice Ministries supported ballot initiatives last fall for the labeling of GMO foods) are tied to bigger questions. It is precisely the issue that arises with the far-reaching effects of antibiotic over-use. What happens to our broad community when this technology is used inappropriately?

The Pew study asked, if it "safe to eat genetically modified foods." The scientists are probably right that -- for most of us -- there are no direct health risks from eating corn or soybeans that have been genetically tweaked. That is the small answer. But the big question has to do with the safety and ethics of those genetically modified crops. As I discussed at some length in a Notes last fall, I am concerned not only about the health effects of GMO food on my family, but on the ecological world in which we live.

One scientifically robust -- and emotionally compelling -- report helps us see how that larger question is important. A recent study from Yale talked about the factors that have led to the sharp drop in the monarch butterfly population. "Among them ... is the increased planting of genetically modified corn in the U.S. Midwest, which has led to greater use of herbicides, which in turn kills the milkweed that is a prime food source for the butterflies."

Is it safe to eat genetically modified food? Probably. Is it good for the ecological balance of God's creation? Definitely not. Asking the bigger question gives us very different moral and political answers.

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I got grumpy this week when my "big question" perspectives on genetically modified foods seemed to put me in the same irrational camp as those who don't believe in evolution, or who deny the human role in climate change. That threat to my self-esteem led me to what I hope is a helpful distinction about the way in which science can guide us in discussions about ethical issues.

On fracking, GMOs, antibiotics and other issues, we need to be sure that the questions that are being asked, and the answers that are being given, are far-reaching enough to deal with the realities of this ecological world. We are not being "anti-science" when we point out that the answers to overly-narrow questions are inadequate.

As we seek to live faithfully and responsibly in a world that is both high-tech and profoundly relational, may we always demand answers to big questions that recognize our more and ecological connections.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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