When Science and Belief Collide, Emotion Trumps Facts



Andrew Campbell

The debate over whether or not it is a good idea to have your children vaccinated is one that every person in agriculture needs to pay attention to.

I use the word debate not because there is any argument — the value and safety of vaccines has been proven time and again. I would fall under a similar camp with Jimmy Kimmel as a strong supporter of vaccine technology.

But when you look past the seemingly simple question of “Should I vaccinate my child or not?” you’ll find arguments that sing a very similar song to modern agriculture technology like GMOs. Let’s look at a few verses.

“A study has linked vaccinations to autism” & “A study has linked GMOs to tumours in animals.”

It is an argument in which someone tried to bring a scientific element to the debate. It is a bit of an oxymoron when you actually look at the science, though. Both claims hold no water. Yes, two people with the title “doctor” did a study that found these. In both cases they were found to be so far off base that the journals that published them, retracted them. The overwhelming majority of scientists say there is no evidence suggesting vaccinations cause autism or that GMOs cause tumours.

Usually at this point of a discussion, the song takes a hard turn when there is a realization that a science-based argument isn’t going to work. This is a fascinating phenomenon where people work to base their beliefs on just that – their own beliefs.

At this point, facts stop being part of the equation. Scientific American has a great article on just this phenomenon (find it here), where, when faced with the specter of being proven wrong, people fall back on “because I want it to be that way.”

“Big Pharma/Big Ag”

Since scientific debate doesn’t work, let’s change the tune to a minor key. That key can create a darker tune focused squarely on something most people already have concern about — the role of the money hungry corporations in our society.

We support enormous companies when we buy our phones, cable, food and cars. But at the same time many don’t trust corporations we feel we know little about. In a lot of cases, big pharmaceutical and agri-business are usually at the top of a list when it comes to companies people are concerned about.

The assumption usually includes government collusion and bribery, enormously rich investors and senior management and boardroom plots to either take over the world or — at the very least – force their products onto us whether we need it or like it. It is too bad that conspiracy takes over from critical thinking when we get here. We start to believe the fiction, if only because it’s just so easy to do.

I just want to know what I put in my body”

So, science failed. Conspiracy theories area stretch. Onto a verse about personal choice.

And just to clarify, “I just want to know what I put in my body,” actually means, “No way in hell.”

Here we do have some variances between the anti-vaccine and GMO arguments. On the vaccine side, it usually goes something along the lines of not being sure of the side-effects. This is a strange argument seeing as the side-effects of not having the vaccine are getting a disease, and the risk of an adverse reaction to measles, for instance, is far higher than the risk of an adverse reaction to the vaccine. The problem is people haven’t seen what the measles can do to a child, so the fear of the unknown is a more likely outcome, than the chance of a child that gets sick and dies.

On the GMO side, the argument isn’t about the idea that I don’t want to eat a GMO product. Instead the argument is one about labeling. “I’d like GMOs labeled so that I know what I’m putting in my body.” This argument is one that confuses me the most. By definition of organic standards, there are no GMOs in any organic product. So why label for something when we have a label that says it isn’t there? Are we afraid of the organic price tag and assume that we can find ‘conventional’ products at a lower cost without GMOs?

The short answer is no. Much of the push behind GMO labeling is not about the “right to know” but more about having these products banned — the labeling debate is just a part of that process. (Read here about why many oppose GMO labeling).

Agriculture needs to pay attention to these two debates, and figure out how to make the non-fiction song of GMOs hold the same status as that of vaccines

On the positive side of the vaccinations debate we see the general public coming into the discussion talking about the importance of the science of vaccinations. Our Prime Minister in Canada spoke on the need for vaccinations. Governments in North American are working hard to come up with solutions to make sure it gets done.

The scientific consensus is the same when it comes to GMOs. Can we expect the same support? Will our government defend the technology  and work hard to ensure the viability of research and new GMO developments? It needs to come to that. We have orange crops that are being decimated by a disease that GMOs may be able to solve. We have over a million children in the world that die every year from vitamin A deficiency despite a product on the shelf, ready to be planted. Fear keeps it shelved. Politics and fear of backlash are preventing these technologies from reaching their full potential. And while a few sick kids at Disney have pushed the debate of vaccinations to the forefront, why doesn’t a million dead kids do it for GMOs?

Agriculture needs to pay attention to these two debates, and figure out how to make the non-fiction song of GMOs hold the same status as that of vaccines.

Debate around such important issues like these is at a crossroads. We stand deciding whether we want to put our safety in the hands of scientific analysis of incredibly complex issues, or whether we want the perception of safety — critical thinking vs. gut feelings, brain power or emotional power?

My personal hope is we choose critical thinking, which can be hard to listen to over simple emotions of fear of the unknown. How can we do a better job at thinking through complex issues beyond what we watched in a five minute YouTube video or read on a website?


Wake up with RealAgriculture

Subscribe to our daily newsletters to keep you up-to-date with our latest coverage every morning.

Wake up with RealAgriculture

Please register to read and comment.


Register for a RealAgriculture account to manage your Shortcut menu instead of the default.