I’m reading a book called The Believing Brain by American author, Michael Shermer.
The proposition on which it is based is that we form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, personal, emotional and psychological reasons in the context of environments created by family, friends, colleagues, culture and society at large. But having formed those beliefs, we then defend, justify and rationalise them. In other words, belief comes first and explanations follow.
Think about that for a moment and, if you’re being honest, I suspect you’ll be forced to agree. We develop prejudices for whatever reason and then seek evidence to confirm them – quite probably ignoring facts that point in another direction.
As a person who writes opinion columns in magazines, I may well be undermining my own credibility by admitting it. But as Shermer claims in his book, the phenomenon affects us all, from humble columnists to high-powered scientists, and the process of changing beliefs, once established – however strong the evidence – can be painful and slow. Nevertheless, beliefs can be changed if the weight of argument is strong enough and backed up by irrefutable science.
So it is with genetic modification. A few years ago, at the height of the media campaign predicting all manner of doom-watch outcomes from the technology, it’s fair to say that most people in this country and probably more across parts of Europe believed GM was “a bad thing”. The British Science Association suggests, in fact, that 10 years ago, only 17% of British people were unconcerned by GM foods. Today the association says the unconcerned proportion of the population has risen to 25% – which is too slow for some, but does indicate progress.
The strength of feeling by the anti-GM lobby calling itself Take the Flour Back also appeared to be weakening at the recent demonstrations against the wheat experiments at Rothamsted. The size of the crowd that turned up was smaller than at previous attempts to disrupt scientific work on GM and, although it made a few headlines and cost a lot to police, the whole affair was rather a damp squib.
And reports suggest even some of the most ardent past critics of GM are modifying their approach in the face of the increasing risk of world hunger. People like green campaigners George Monbiot, Mark Lynas and Friends of the Earth’s Mike Childs have all been quoted recently as being “almost” ready to espouse both nuclear power and GM as the only practical ways to tackle the problems facing the world.
Then a couple of weeks ago the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology published what it called a postnote on the threat posed by the increase in world population and the role GM crops could play in feeding the extra consumers. It concentrated on the need for the technology in developing countries and described how it was already being used in a number of them. And it pointed out the potential improvements in crops that were not possible through conventional breeding.
But although it claimed, as all government documents do, to put a balanced argument on the issues, it was the strongest hint yet from a government office that this country must prepare to adopt the technology.
At least, that was my interpretation of the document. Or could it be that I made up my mind what I believed some time ago and am looking for evidence from pressure groups, individuals and government to confirm that I am right?
David Richardson farms about 400ha (1,000 acres) of arable land near Norwich in Norfolk in partnership with his wife Lorna. His son Rob is farm manager.
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